Frobisher’s Voyages Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

England’s failed attempt to discover the fabled Northwest Passage to the Indies led to contact with the Inuit and launched a gold rush in northeastern Canada that was also a failure.

Summary of Event

On June 7, 1576, Martin Frobisher set off from Deptford, England, in search of a Northwest Passage to India and the Far East. This former privateer headed a flotilla consisting of a pinnace and two small ships, the Gabriel and the Michael. The pinnace sank off the coast of Greenland, and the Michael turned back toward England after losing sight of the Gabriel in stormy seas The captain of the Michael incorrectly reported that Frobisher was lost at sea. On August 11, 1576, however, the Gabriel, with its party of nineteen, sailed into a large bay along southeastern Baffin Island. They sailed 150 miles (241 kilometers) along the coast, finding neither an outlet nor a dead end. Thinking that he had found a northern sea route to the Indies, Frobisher named the waterway Frobisher Straits. This body of water is now known as Frobisher Bay. Exploration and colonization;England of North America Frobisher, Sir Martin Lok, Michael Arnaq Kalicho Best, George White, John Hall, Charles Francis

The group had its first encounter with Inuit natives eight days later, when Frobisher, his sailing master Christopher Hall, and several others landed on a small island near the mouth of the bay. While they were scanning the area from a small hill, a party of Inuit in kayaks landed on the beach and attempted to prevent the intruders from returning to their boat. The sailors rushed back to the boat landing, barely reaching the Gabriel ahead of the Inuit. This and several other incidents suggest that the Inuit had had prior experience with European sailors, probably Portuguese fishermen.

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The next day, Frobisher led a small party ashore and engaged in some friendly trade. This was followed by a visit to the ship by a group of Inuit. A day later, on August 21, 1576, five sailors took the ship’s boat ashore to continue the contacts. It remains uncertain what transpired, but the sailors were apparently taken captive. Frobisher attempted various strategies to recover his men, but without the ship’s boat, the crew of the Gabriel was unable to go ashore to rescue them. The crew attempted to sink one of the Inuit’s umiaks (large skin boats) and take hostages to exchange for the sailors, but the Inuit remained wary and out of range of the ship’s ordnance. Frobisher then lured a lone kayaker to the ship by holding out a bell. When the Inuit came alongside the Gabriel, he was, according to George Best, official chronicler of the expedition, “plucked . . . boat and al[l] . . . out of the sea.” The unfortunate man was reported to be so upset by his capture that “he bit his tong[ue] in twayne [in half] within his mouth.”

Unable to rescue the missing sailors, Frobisher set sail for England with his Inuit captive and an unusual black rock as tokens. The captive died soon after his arrival in London, but the black rock set in motion a series of events which, in retrospect, can only be considered a comic disaster.

The rock, which seemed unusually heavy and appeared to sparkle, was presented to Michael Lok, the merchant who had financed the voyage. Lok came to believe it contained gold. At least two assayers assured Lok that the rock was ordinary, but he refused to be dissuaded. He continued to consult assayers until one finally assured him that the rock contained considerable quantities of gold. The Cathay Company, quickly formed by Lok and Frobisher to mine the gold, succeeded in attracting numerous investors, including Queen Elizabeth I.

Frobisher sailed from Blackwell on May 25, 1577, with three ships, the Michael, the Gabriel, and his flagship, the Ayde, which had been loaned by the queen. They entered Frobisher Bay on July 19, 1577, and remained there for five weeks. There were two goals of this second expedition: to mine as much gold as possible and to recover the five men lost the previous year.

The 30 miners included among the ships’ 120 passengers and crew succeeded in loading approximately 180 tons of ore in the allotted time. The second goal proved more troublesome. After a fruitless search of the southern margin of the bay, Frobisher and his sailing master went ashore and attempted to capture two natives. The Inuit escaped and managed to wound Frobisher with an arrow to his buttocks. A small skirmish, in which three Inuit were captured, ensued. This event is the subject of a highly detailed painting by Elizabethan artist John White, who may have witnessed the incident. The trio, a man named Kalicho, a woman, Arnaq, and her infant son, Nutaaq, were transported back to England, where they caused a sensation. The three, who died within months of their capture, are the subjects of several drawings by White. Their Asiatic features reinforced the belief that Frobisher had found a northern water route to the Far East.

Numerous delays in obtaining assays of the ore meant that Frobisher sailed a third time before any results were known or profits could be realized. In fact, the subscribers were forced to increase their investments to outfit the fifteen ships that sailed from England on May 31, 1578. Frobisher planned to leave one hundred men to mine gold throughout the winter, but the sinking of the ship that carried most of the building materials caused him to abandon that idea. Thick ice and bad weather forced Frobisher into what is now known as the Hudson Strait, and he concluded that this, and not Frobisher Bay (or “Strait,” as he still believed it to be), was the true Northwest Passage. It was not until the end of July that the party reached its mining site at the mouth of Frobisher Bay. Although the group had no further encounters with North American Indians, they built a small house that they left stocked with small trade items and freshly baked bread. The bread was intended as a means to educate the Inuit in the ways of civilization. The expedition returned to England with 1,225 tons of worthless ore.

Significance

In the wake of the discovery of the ore’s true worth, the Cathay Company was declared insolvent, and Lok spent part of 1581 in debtors’ prison. Frobisher, though somewhat disgraced, went on to distinguish himself in naval battle and was knighted in 1588 for heroism against the Spanish Armada. The search for an Arctic route to Asia continued for another few years but then was largely abandoned until the early years of the nineteenth century. The Inuit were spared further attempts at colonization until those later years.

In 1861, U.S. journalist and explorer Charles Francis Hall visited southeastern Baffin Island and made the first systematic ethnographic observations of the Inuit living there. He collected detailed oral histories and was astonished to discover that these included extremely accurate references to the Frobisher expeditions nearly three hundred years earlier. According to his informants, many years earlier two ships had come to the area. The following year, three ships arrived; the next year, there were many ships. The five men that Frobisher lost on the first voyage were said to have built a ship with a mast and attempted to sail away. They were blown back to shore and later, all died. With the aid of his Inuit informants, Hall visited the site of Frobisher’s mines and collected a number of artifacts. Thus, Frobisher’s expeditions shaped in some small but lasting way the culture and history of the Inuit people, and they certainly affected their dealings with later explorers such as Hall.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitzhugh, William W., and Jacqueline S. Olin, eds. Archeology of the Frobisher Voyages. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. Combines historical documents, oral histories, and archeological evidence to provide a full account of the Frobisher expeditions. Numerous black-and-white photographs and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Francis, Daniel. Discovery of the North: The Exploration of Canada’s Arctic. Edmonton, Alta.: Hurtig, 1985. Chapter 1 contains a thorough description of the Frobisher voyages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Charles Francis. Life with the Esquimaux. 1865. Reprint. Rutland, Vt.: C. E. Tuttle, 1970. Hall’s observations and oral histories of the Baffin Island Inuit.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halton, P. H. “John White’s Drawings of Eskimos.” The Beaver 41 (Summer, 1961): 16-20. Reproduction and discussion of several of White’s lesser-known works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDermott, James. Martin Frobisher: Elizabethan Privateer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Extremely thorough biography, the product of thirty years of research, provides virtually all known details of Frobisher’s life and attempts imaginatively to fill in the undocumented gaps. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGhee, Robert. The Arctic Voyages of Martin Frobisher: An Elizabethan Adventure. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. Study utilizes archaeological evidence and Inuit oral history as well as the written records left behind by Frobisher and his men to develop a complete picture of his three voyages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oswalt, Wendell H. Eskimos and Explorers. Novato, Calif.: Chandler and Sharp, 1979. Chapter 2 presents a thoughtful discussion of contacts between Inuit and the Elizabethan-era British.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Payne, Edward John. Voyages of the Elizabethan Seamen: Selected Narratives from the “Principal Navagations” of Hakluyt. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1907. Contains George Best’s sixteenth century accounts of the three Frobisher voyages, with the spellings modernized.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Symons, Thomas H. B., ed. Meta Incognita, a Discourse of Discovery: Martin Frobisher’s Arctic Expeditions, 1576-1578. 2 vols. Hull, Que.: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1999. In-depth report of the findings of the Meta Incognita Project, which excavated, studied, and preserved archaeological sites related to Frobisher’s expeditions. Includes illustrations, maps, and bibliographic references.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

June 24, 1497-May, 1498: Cabot’s Voyages

Early 16th cent.: Rise of the Fur Trade

Apr. 20, 1534-July, 1543: Cartier and Roberval Search for a Northwest Passage

1545-1548: Silver Is Discovered in Spanish America

June 17, 1579: Drake Lands in Northern California

July 4, 1584-1590: Lost Colony of Roanoke

July 31-Aug. 8, 1588: Defeat of the Spanish Armada

Dec. 31, 1600: Elizabeth I Charters the East India Company

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