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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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John Davis (1550 - 1605)

Portrait: Sir Walter Raleigh

John Davis had the good luck to have very special childhood neighbours in his home and birthplace of Sandridge, Devonshire: Humphrey and Adrien Gilbert, as well as their half-brother, Walter Raleigh. All three would be famous for their explorations, their sea adventures and their relationship with Queen Elizabeth I. The first two were older than Davis, but Walter was his age. In addition, one of Davis's personal friends was John Dee, the great astronomer and mathematician. Thus, very early on, Davis was in touch with the explorers, cartographers and scientists of his time. We don't know where he studied but he was not yet 30 when his knowledge of navigation and scientific cartography was recognized. Like many of his contemporaries, he was convinced of the existence of a northwest passage that led to Asia, and his great ambition was to discover it. Through his friends, he met the Queen's secretary, who convinced the sponsors of Martin Frobisher's exploration a few years earlier, to finance his expedition. The motivation for the sponsors was that the Northwest Passage would allow the English to trade in Asia without crossing Portuguese and Spanish territories.

Davis left Dartmouth on June 7, 1585 with two ships, and followed the same route as Frobisher, passing south of Greenland, where he met some of the Inuit of that country. Heading up the west coast of Greenland, he then crossed to Exeter Bay, on the coast of Baffin Island. The observations he made during this first voyage led him to believe that the passage to Asia was either west through Cumberland Sound or north of Davis Strait.

Drawing: Inuk hunting from his kayak, 17th century

The following year, Davis undertook another voyage in the same area. Two of the four ships of the expedition were sent to explore the east coast of Greenland. Davis sailed the other two into Davis Strait up the west coast of Greenland to 67º north latitude. A barrier of ice forced them to head southwest to Baffin Island and then south as far as the estuary of Hamilton Inlet, where Native people attacked the crew. Two men were killed and others wounded. Despite this incident, the English sailors took the time to fill their holds with cod before returning to England in October after a five-month voyage.

Not satisfied with his results so far, the persevering explorer took to sea again on May 19, 1587. This time, Davis reached 72º12' N on the west coast of Greenland before being pushed back by violent winds. He headed southwest  --  following the margins of the ice drifting from the Arctic to the coast of Baffin Island and sailing south to Cumberland Sound and Frobisher Bay anew. Passing by Hudson Strait, he was struck by strong water currents at that location. This phenomenon would be described as a "furious overfall" on the Hakluyt map and the Molyneux globe. The current and the ice prevented his going further with his light ship, so he headed south along the Labrador coast to a cape, which he named "Chidley," and entered the Labrador fjord which bears his name today (Davis Inlet). Before returning to England in mid-September, he passed by Hamilton Inlet again to cover at least part of the expedition's costs with a catch of cod.

Image: Title page of Hakluyt's account of Davis's voyages   Image: Page from Hakluyt's account of Davis's voyages

(Davis' 2nd voyage)
"The seventh of July, being very desirious to search the habitation of this countrey, I went my selfe with our new pinnesse into the body of the land, thinking it to be firme continent, and passing by a very large river, a great flaw of winde tooke me, whereby we were constrained to seeke succor for that night, which being had, I landed with the most part of my company, and went to the toppe of a high mountaine, hoping from thence to see into the county: but the mountaines were so many and so mighty as that my purpose prevailed not: [...] my selfe having esyyed a very strange sight, especially to me that never before saw the like, which was a mighty whirlwinde taking by the water in very great quantity, furiously mounting it into ayze, which whirlewinde was not for a puffe or blast, but continually for the space of three houres, with very little intermission, which fith it was in the course that it should passe, we were constrained that night to take by our lodging under the rocks."

(Hakluyt 1589, 783)

Davis primarily described the Inuit of Greenland, where he had stopped, but we can perhaps infer something about the Baffin Island Inuit from his observations. Davis's friendly approach towards the Inuit changed when he discovered that they had stolen his anchor. They had become displeased with their visitor earlier, when Davis interrupted their religious ceremonies. Davis's accounts tell of the many difficulties involved in the meeting between Europeans and Inuit.

Even though he did not progress further west in the continent than Frobisher did, Davis greatly contributed to Europe's knowledge of the Arctic and to the conducting of subsequent explorations. He drew maps of long stretches of the coast of Greenland, Baffin Island and Labrador, and recorded observations of the ice, relief, rock formations, temperature, vegetation and animal life of these areas. The log of his third voyage still served as a model for ships' logs three centuries later. Though the original maps of his voyages are lost, the results of his discoveries are found on the maps of his time, including the Hakluyt-Wright (1598-1600) map of the world and the Molyneux globe. The accounts of Davis's voyages were published by Hakluyt, beginning in 1598.

After his 1597 expedition Davis no longer returned to the Arctic, but he did reach Asia. He got there for the first time in 1598 as a pilot with one of the expeditions conducted for large commercial companies. In 1600, he became chief pilot for the first expedition of the East India Company. On his three voyages to the Indies, he drew geographical maps and records information that was important for navigating in the Orient. On 27 December 1605, off the coast of Malaysia, Davis was assassinated by one of the Japanese pirates whose ship he had just captured.

Image: Title page of "Seaman's Secrets," by John Davis

John Davis stands out as one of the excellent early English navigators, attested to in part by his invention of the "Davis quadrant" and his book, "The Seaman's Secrets." His findings played an important role in the continuing exploration of the Canadian Arctic.

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