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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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HENRY HUDSON'S DARING EXPLOITS

Henry Hudson (? - c. 1611)

We know neither Henry Hudson's birthdate nor his birthplace, but we do know that the navigator was already well travelled when he decided to pursue those explorations already undertaken by Martin Frobisher, John Davis, George Waymouth (1602) and John Knight (1606) to the bay that would later bear his name. First he tried to find the famous Northwest Passage to Asia between Greenland and the Spitzbergen Archipelago. Then, hired by the Netherlands, he explored the Hudson River to the rapids at present-day Albany. Hudson returned to the service of England when the founders of the East India and Northwest Passage companies, wealthy traders much interested in exploration, asked him to explore Davis Strait further.

Portrait: A young Henry Hudson

In April 1610, Henry Hudson embarked on the Discovery with 21 crewmen, including the future pilot, Robert Bylot. Hudson was a determined man but lacked judgement in his choice of sailors. Shortly after leaving, and throughout the voyage, he was mired in conflicts between members of his crew. With constant concerns about how to calm his men, he reached Hudson Strait in June. His mandate was to explore the area west of Davis Strait. The reports by Davis and others, based on the tides and the ice at the mouth of Hudson Strait led him to believe that there was a passage there. After a zig-zag voyage through the ice floes of the strait, he entered the bay that bears his name today. This was a very important step in the explorations of North America as, even by the standards of the great navigators of the 19th century, this would have been a very dangerous and impressive passage.

Hudson then steered his ship south, skirting the eastern shore to James Bay, which he saw as an interminable labyrinth. That winter came early and the ice prevented any movement before the following spring. This being the first time that a European expedition had had to winter that far north, the men were not prepared and had neither the clothing nor the stores necessary to winter in the North. Moreover, Hudson waited too long to allow the carpenter to build, and their shelter was quite rudimentary as a result. Several of the men developed scurvy. Hope was rekindled when a Native man came to exchange some skins and furs for a spy-glass, a knife and several other small items that Hudson offered him. The man wanted more for his furs but Hudson refused, and finding this a poor exchange, the man left, saying that he would return. As he did not return, Hudson decided to search for the Native camp to procure food, but a forest fire was set, which Hudson thought was to prevent the English from approaching.

The winter was harsh and hunger constantly gnawed at the crew. On June 12, 1611, Hudson prepared to return to England. He warned his companions that there were few provisions available, and that he would have to ration what there was. On the evening of June 23rd, thinking that Hudson had hidden a reserve of food, part of the crew mutinied and threw the explorer, his young son and seven other members of the crew into a boat, abandoning them near Charlton Island.

Piloted by Bylot, the ship turned home, stopping on Digges Island along the way. Seeing some Inuit, several sailors went to meet them in an attempt to get food, but the Inuit were wary and attacked them. They killed four sailors and one more died on the way home. The rest of the crew managed to hunt geese and birds, and barely reached the southern coast of Ireland, where they got help to return to London. In spite of their crimes and misdeeds, the crew was acquitted. English traders were perhaps more interested in the areas they had seen than in Hudson's fate. In A Larger Discourse [...], Abacuk Pricket, one of the surviving sailors, cast blame on Henry Hudson's attitude and lack of judgement, rather than on the crew. The others gave similar testimony.

Image: Title page of Purchas's account of Hudson's voyage   Image: Page from Purchas's account of Hudson's voyage
 

"But finding at length by Shole water that was embayed, he was much distracted therewith, and committed many errours especially, in resolving to winter in that desolate place, in such want of necessary provision. The third of November[put "November" in italics please], he moored his Barke in a small cove, where they had all undoubtedly perished, but that it pleased God to send them severall kinds of Fowle;"

(Purchas 1617, 925)

(Fate of the mutineers)
"A few dayes after, their victuals being spent, the shippe came aground at Digges Island [] The next morning, Greene would needs goe on shore with some of his chiefe companions, and that unarmed, notwithstanding, some advised and intreated him the contrary. The Savages entertayned him with a cunning ambush, and at the first onset shot this mutinous Ringleader into the heart, (where first, those Monsters of treachery and bloudy cruelty, now payed with the like, had beene conceived) and Wilson his brother in evill, had the like bloudy inheritance, dying swearing, and cursing: Perse, Thomas, and Moter, dyed a few dayes after of their wounds. Every where can Divine Justice find Executioners."

(Purchas 1617, 925)

What happened to Hudson and his companions? The only indication we have comes from the narrative of Nicolas Vignau, whom Champlain sent to live among the Algonquin in 1610. He said that he went as far as the North Sea with the Algonquin, where he saw a shipwrecked English ship. The Native people of the area had apparently killed some men who wanted to take their food by force.

Portrait: Thomas Button

Hudson's voyage rekindled interest in searching for a passage to Asia through Hudson Bay, and led to Bylot's explorations with Thomas Button (1612-1613), William Gibbons (1615) and William Baffin (1616). After the voyages of Luke Foxe (1631) and Thomas James (1631-32), it was finally understood that there was no opening to Cathay through Hudson Bay. In 1619-1620, a Dane, Jens Munk, made another attempt to find a passage through Hudson Bay in the name of King Christian IV but, except for three men, his entire crew of 62 men died of dysentery and scurvy during the winter. Hudson Bay was inhospitable to European navigators until they learned how to prevent scurvy, but the attraction of the fur trade promoted by Radisson and Des Groseilliers in 1669 would bring them back to the same shores to sail and explore, primarily for the Hudson's Bay Company.




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