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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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WILLIAM BAFFIN IN THE FAR NORTH

William Baffin (1584? - 1622)

Map: Illustrations of early whaling industry

According to 17th century author Samuel Purchas, William Baffin was "that learned-unlearned Mariner and Mathematician who, wanting art of words, so really employed himself to those industries, whereof here you see so evident fruits." Born in or near London, Baffin went to work, in 1612, for the Muscovy Company, whalers in the Spitzbergen Archipelago, near Greenland. There he made several important astronomical observations. In the same year, following Henry Hudson's voyage of 1610-1611, a new company was formed to explore the Arctic, calling itself The Company of Merchants of London, Discoverers of the North West Passage. After voyages by Thomas Button to Hudson's Bay and a voyage by William Gibbons on the shores of Labrador in 1615, the Company sent Baffin, as pilot, to follow in the footsteps of these explorers and try to find the famous Northwest Passage.

During his voyage on the Discovery, commanded by Robert Bylot, Baffin deduced the first longitude calculated at sea by observing the occultation of a star by the moon. He made an intensive study of the south shore of Baffin Island in Hudson Strait and of the western end of Southampton Island, paying special attention to the tides. This search for the Northwest Passage ended when he entered the ice-choked Foxe Basin. Two centuries later, the explorer W. E. Parry would name Baffin Island "out of respect to the memory of that able and enterprising navigator." After this expedition, Baffin rightly concluded that there was no navigable passage leading northwest through Hudson's Strait. In a detailed journal of this expedition, Baffin drew a map of his travels, the only map of his still in existence.

The following year, still with Captain Bylot, Baffin followed in John Davis's tracks. He got to approximately 300 miles (about 480 kilometers) beyond Davis Strait to latitude 77º45'. This latitude was only crossed again 236 years later, the difficulty in reaching Davis Strait stemming from ice barriers that block the passage. When one does manage to skirt the barrier along the west coast of Greenland, however, one finds oneself, like Baffin, in northern waters, able to sail in the bay that now bears his name. Baffin's crew landed on islands that Baffin called "Women's Islands" in memory of some Inuit women "[whom the sailors treated with much kindness and courtesy,]" as Markham wrote in 1881. According to this author, Baffin was stopped by ice at 74º15' latitude. He explored the mouths of straits, including that of Lancaster Sound, which he could not see was the passage leading west due to the ice that blocked the entrance.

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

"The Master [Robert Bylot] was confident in this and other places, that the floud came from the West, which Baffin sayth, by the floting of the ice, hee observed on Land, to be contrary: only the Islands cause by their divers points, differing Sects and Eddie. On the two and twentieth of June, He observed the Longitude, having faire sight of the Sunne and Moone, and found himself by Astronomical account, 74 degrees, 5'. West from the Meridian of L O N D O N: which if some studious Mariners would practice in their remote Voyages, we should soone have a farre more perfect Geographie []"

(Purchas 1617, 927)


Baffin wanted to find a Northwest Passage by coming from the west but he was not able to. Subsequently, his voyages led him to the Arabian Peninsula where he drew maps of Persia (Iran) and of the Red Sea, which brought him praise. On January 23, 1622, he was killed by a bullet in the Strait of Hormuz (between Iran and Oman) where he was measuring the length of the shooting range near a castle in which the English had laid siege to the Portuguese.

Baffin's arctic findings received so little recognition that, after they had been included on the maps of the day, they disappeared again until being confirmed by John Ross during his first expedition, two centuries later. Samuel Purchas, who chronicled English exploration, did not believe Baffin had reached that far north. Still, Baffin was highly regarded by contemporaries such as Foxe and James, both of whom perpetuated Baffin's findings on their own maps -- findings which were further improved later by Ross.




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