Frobisher: 1576, 1577, 1588
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Gilbert, Humphrey, Sir, 1539?-1583.
A Discourse of a Discouerie for a New Passage to Cataia. London, 1576. [Rare Books Division: Kane Collection]

Stepbrother of the great English military and naval commander Sir Walter Raleigh, Gilbert was an explorer and navigator in his own right. He established the first British colony in North America in St. John, Newfoundland, in August 1583, but was lost in a storm off the Azores on his return a month later. Gilbert wrote this work, prepared later for the press by his poet friend George Gascoigne, as a pamphlet to accompany a letter to his brother John in 1566. In that letter (which is now part of the book), he writes:

And knowing you to be one that may easily be induced to hearken, and yeelde to reason, I will briefly open unto you, some fewe of the grounds of mine opinion, to the ende you may the better understand, that my hope of this discoverie and passage, was not so rashe, or foolishe, as you heretofore have deemed . . . And have herewithall sent you, for your better understanding, a rough draught, of a universall Map in the end of the boke, sufficient to explane the matter, with those names only in effect which are mentioned in this discourse: to the ende that by resorting to this general Mappe [shown in facsimile], &c. finding without difficultie, everie particular place mentioned herein, you may better gather my meaning, and conceive my reasons, alledged for the proofe of this passage, nowe in question . . .

His argument is subsequently presented in short chapters: proof by authority (i.e., by quoting other writers, ancient and modern), proof by reason (by noting the circular motions of the sea and its currents), proof by experience (by reference to other men's travels), proof by circumstance (i.e., by using the circumstantial evidence of the senses). The next chapters expand on a report by Othon (presumably Otto, the Holy Roman emperor) in his story of the Goths that Indians reached the coast of Germany: how they could not have come by the southeast or southwest or northeast—hence, he deduces, they must have come from the northwest. The last chapters dismiss the idea of a northeast passage and, even if it did exist, promote the advantages of a Northwest Passage.

Gilbert and his work are credited with giving a new impulse to British explorations: “While yet in manuscript it [Gilbert's pamphlet] appears to have been the chief incentive to a letter addressed by the queen [Queen Elizabeth I] to the Muscovy Company, near to the close of 1574, calling upon them to despatch another expedition in this direction, or to transfer their privileges to other adventurers” [Dictionary of National Biography (1889) entry for Frobisher]. The bearer of the letter was Martin Frobisher.

Settle, Dionyse.
De Martini Forbisseri Angli nauigatione in regiones occidentis et septentrionis narratio historica . . . . Noribergae [Nuremberg], 1580. [Rare Books Division: Kane Collection]

Historic records suggest that this account of Frobisher's second voyage in 1577 was a best-seller. It contains one of the earliest illustrations of a native kayak, that indispensable Arctic “canoe” that is popular worldwide today.

The brashly heroic, but practically illiterate, Frobisher (ca. 1535-1594) led three expeditions to the Baffin Island area that is today known as Frobisher Bay. (Queen Elizabeth I gave the name “Meta Incognita” to the limits of the unknown shore reached by Frobisher; the name appeared on subsequent maps.) His search for a Northwest Passage quickly detoured into a prospecting and mining extravaganza when black ore discovered by his men seemed to contain glittering flecks of gold. His third and final expedition (1578) of fifteen ships and about 400 men was—and remains to this day—the largest Arctic flotilla ever assembled. Over twelve hundred tons of the ore were excavated from the hard ground and hacked out of rock and brought back to England: it was totally worthless. Bankrupted, the main investor, Michael Lok [see Cabot], went to debtors' prison; Frobisher avoided jail by serving England in its defense against the Spanish Armada.

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