Sir Martin Frobisher, the Explorer of the Northern Seas.
It has been conjectured that Martin Frobisher was the son of Francis Frobisher, who in the year 1535 was Mayor of Doncaster, and lived at Finningley, some seven miles south-east of Doncaster. One historian claims Frobisher as a Devon man, but Fuller in his "Worthies" writes: "Why should Devonshire, which hath a flock of worthies of her own, take a lamb from another county?" Another tells us that Frobisher was born at Normanton in Yorkshire, and was about as old as Humphrey Gilbert.
Lock, an adventurer and merchant of London, says in his Memoir that Martin "was born of honest parentage, a gentleman of a good house and antiquity, who in his youth, for lack of schools thereabout, sent him to London, where he was put to Sir John York, knight, being his kinsman; he, perceiving Martin to be of great spirit and bold courage and natural hardness of body, sent him in a ship to the Gold Country of Guinea, in company of other ships sent out by divers merchants of London." This was in the autumn of 1554: it was one of the first expeditions sent out from England to explore the western coast of Africa, and was commanded by John Lock. They landed on the Gold Coast and began a prosperous trade in gold and elephants' teeth, returning to London in 1555. For eleven years after this little is known of Frobisher's doings, except that he made more voyages to West Africa and to the Levant in the Mediterranean.
In 1566 he had risen to the rank of captain, and was apparently noted for his daring voyages, as in May of that year he was examined by order of the Queen's Council on suspicion of having fitted out a ship for piracy.
In 1572, when he was lodging at Lambeth after one of his voyages, one Ralph Whalley called upon him at his lodging and introduced himself as a follower of the Earl of Desmond, an Anglo-Irish nobleman, at that time imprisoned in the Tower for treason. He was the head of the great house of the southern Fitzgeralds, who were all-powerful in Minister, but Sir Henry Sidney, by Queen Elizabeth's orders, had sent him on arrest to England. He surrendered his property into the Queen's hands, but was committed for security to the Tower.
Whalley explained all this to Frobisher, and suggested how profitable it would be to help this deserving gentleman to escape out of England. Why should he be kept in the Tower? he had done no ill to any one. Frobisher was appealed to as a daring sailor, well known by repute in all the ale-houses where the sign of the bush was hung out, and as generous as he was brave.
Well, the idea was that the Earl, having got free out of the Tower, should be carried in an oyster-boat as far as Gravesend, and there should embark on board a ship to be provided by Erobisher.
The reward which Whalley held out, to counterbalance the risk incurred in helping a prisoner to escape, was a share in the vessel of the value of 500 pounds, and a free gift from Earl Desmond of his island of Valentia, on the coast of Derry. We do not know whether Frobisher entertained the idea of helping Desmond; probably he thought it too risky, for the attempt was not made. Possibly on thinking it over Frobisher believed it to be his duty to inform the Government, for he signed a declaration four months later in which he describes the Lambeth incident. Desmond did get away later on and broke out in rebellion in Ireland, only to be killed at last in an Irish cabin. Frobisher had latterly been employed by the Government in sailing along the Irish coast to intimidate rebels and prevent the landing of foreign sympathisers. This he continued to do for three or four years after the Lambeth incident, and so he came under the notice of Burghley and the Queen, and won the friendship of Sir Henry Sidney and Sidney's favourite, Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Now Sir Humphrey was the chief promoter of attempts to find a north-west passage to the Indies; he and Frobisher must have had many a long talk together over the Arctic map; and at last the Queen heard of the idea and granted a licence in 1575 to Master Martin Frobisher, and divers gentlemen associated with him, for finding a north-west passage to Cathay.
The chief argument in Frobisher's mind which proved the existence of such a passage was that Nature did all things in harmony. Now, as she had made a fair communication between the Southern Atlantic and the Pacific, so she would be found to have established the same water-way between the Northern Atlantic and the Pacific. It was of the same order of reasoning as the old theory that "Nature abhors a vacuum."
However, it seemed so very reasonable that many moneyed men in the city of London were willing and anxious to spend money on the search. Lock subscribed £100, Sir Thomas Gresham £100, Lord Burghley £50, the Earls of Sussex, Leicester, Warwick £50 each, and others smaller sums, until a fund of £875 was secured; in modern currency this was equivalent to some £6000, but was not sufficient for carrying out the project.
Frobisher went about London, Lock tells us, a sad man and thoughtful; Lock lent him books and maps, and got him friends and subscriptions, but still the fund remained insufficient. "I made my house his home, my purse his purse, and my credit his credit, when he was utterly destitute both of money and credit and of friends."
The ships were, however, being furnished in the docks, and after all the many conferences in Fleet Street and Mark Lane, and even at Greenwich Court, still the money came slowly in. At last, by May 1576, two strongly built barques, the Gabriel and the Michael, each of 25 tons burden, together with a small pinnace of 10 tons, lay ready in the Thames, hard by old London Bridge. Frobisher received his commission as admiral, Hall and Griffin were masters, and Chancellor purser of the voyage. They numbered about forty officers and men, and started on the 7th of June.
As they sailed off Deptford the pinnace was run down by a vessel coming up stream; her bowsprit and foremast were broken, and twenty-four hours were spent in doing repairs.
At midday on Friday the vessels sailed past Greenwich, firing guns as a salute in honour of the Court. The Queen sat at a window watching them, and waved her hand in token of farewell.
Anon she sent a messenger in a rowing-boat to tell her brave seamen that she liked well their doings and thanked them for it, and also willed that Master Frobisher should come the next day to the Court to take his leave of her. This he did with a beating heart; for was not his ambition of fifteen years being now satisfied!
They sailed round the western coast of England and Scotland, and halted in the Shetlands to calk the Gabriel, for she was leaking, and to take in water. Sailing west from the Faroe Islands they caught sight of "some high and ragged land rising like pinnacles of steeples" - perhaps the south of Greenland. They could not land for "the great store of ice that lay along the coast, and the great mists that troubled them not a little."
As they sailed north and west a great storm arose and swept away the pinnace, so that they saw her no more. Next day they lost the Michael, but her crew, after waiting about on the ice-bound coast of Labrador, concluded that Frobisher and the rest in the Gabriel we're drowned, and so they returned home and came to Bristol on the 1st of September.
And now Frobisher in the Gabriel, with eighteen mariners and gentlemen, pushed boldly on, undaunted by the strange perils that surrounded them, and they reached the group of islands lying westward of what is now called Davis's Straits. Neither could they land for the ice, snow, and fog, but at last found a resting-place on an island which Frobisher called "Hall's Island," for that Hall, master of the Gabriel, there first landed. Thence he sailed into a bay and called it "Frobisher's Straits," thinking it would lead them to India.
Once, on landing, they saw some things floating in the sea afar off, which they thought to be porpoises, but on coming nearer they found they were men in small leathern boats. These brought salmon for barter, laying it down on the rocks and signing to the English to do the same with their goods. If not satisfied the natives took up their fish and went away.
They were disposed to be friendly, and liked to climb the rigging of our ships, and "tried many masteries upon the ropes after our mariners' fashion."
Others reported less favourably of them, saying that their manner of life and food was "very beastly." "They be like to Tartars, with long black hair, broad faces and flat noses, tawny in colour, wearing sealskins... the women are marked in the face with blue streaks down the cheeks and round about the eyes."
On the 20th of August one of the Eskimos was brought on board the Gabriel, to whom Frobisher gave a bell and a knife, sending him ashore in the ship's boat with five of the crew to manage it. They were ordered not to go out of sight, but curiosity led them to land, and they never returned.
Five days were spent in coasting along the shore, in blowing of trumpets and firing guns to attract his men's attention, but all in vain; they were believed to have been murdered. Now Frobisher had only thirteen men left and no ship's boat; he felt he could do no more that year.
But before he left the land "he wrought a pretty policy; for, knowing how they greatly delighted in our toys, and especially in bells, he rang a pretty, low bell, making signs that he would give him the same that would fetch it." At first they feared to come, but at last one of them came near the ship's side to receive the bell. But as he stretched out his hand to take the bell, Frobisher let the bell fall and caught the man fast, plucking him with main force, boat and all, out of the sea on to the Gabriel's deck.
This was not the only time that Martin Frobisher thus proved his strength. But the Eskimo, when he found he was caught, bit his tongue in twain within his mouth, for very anger and vexation.
On the voyage home, as they passed Iceland, one of the crew was blown overboard by a violent gust of wind, but he chanced to lay hold of the foresail sheet and hung on till Frobisher, leaning down, picked him up and hauled him dripping aboard again.
On the 2nd of October the Gabriel entered the river at Harwich, having been rather less than four months absent from England, after exploring much northern territory, but without finding the desired passage to Cathay.
Why! we thought you were all lost! The Michael came home and they said you were nowhere to be found!" was the first greeting they received.
But in London they were joyfully welcomed on October 9th, bringing with them the strange infidel and his boat, whose like was never seen, read, nor heard of before, and whose language was neither known nor understood of any.
But the poor stranger, who could resist the inclemency of an Arctic winter, could not withstand our damp autumn gales; he caught a cold at sea, and lingered only a few weeks, after being the brief wonder of the town. But a more extraordinary discovery, and one which afterwards spoiled all Frobisher's attempts at scientific research, was this.
Philip Sidney, writing in 1577, says to his tutor: "I wrote to you about a certain Frobisher, who, in rivalry of Magellan, has explored the sea which, as he thinks, washes the north part of America. It is a marvellous history. He touched at a certain island in order to rest his crew; there by chance a young man picked up a piece of earth which he saw glittering on the ground and showed it to Frobisher; but he, being busy with other matters, and not believing that precious metals were produced so far north, considered it of no value. But the young man kept the earth by him till his return to London. And there, when one of his friends saw it shining in an extraordinary manner, he tested it and found it was the purest gold."
Another account says that this "earth" was a black stone, much like to sea-coal in colour; "and it fortuned a gentlewoman, one of the adventurers' wives, to have a piece thereof, which by chance she threw and burnt in the fire so long that at length, being taken forth and quenched in a little vinegar, it glittered with a bright glistening of gold." So the stuff was taken with some show of excitement to certain gold-refiners in the City to make an assay thereof; and their verdict was that it held gold and that in very rich measure.
Immediately this news got bruited about, there was no small stir among the merchants and courtiers - all, seamen and men of learning alike, clamoured for another expedition; for they argued that it was of small importance to find a passage to Cathay, if treasures equally valuable lay so near at hand.
Queen Elizabeth and Burghley were both ready to throw economy to the winds, if good gold could be gotten by "Master Frobisher."
So a charter was granted to the "Company of Cathay," and Frobisher was to have 1 per cent, of all he found, together with a fixed yearly stipend. He was to take his own ships Gabriel and Michael, each of 25 tons burden, and a Queen's ship, the Aid, of 200 tons, and furnished with sixty-five sailors and twenty-five soldiers.
Among the crews were ten convicts - highway robbers - taken out of prison and lent to Frobisher as "likely men of their hands."
Frobisher had no relish for such gentry, as being men who might lead mutinies and do lawless deeds; he therefore dropped them on the English coast and carefully forgot to take them with him.
When Frobisher opened his "instructions" he found to his disgust that the finding of a North-West Passage was a very subordinate part of his duty. He was to go to Hall's Island, leave his large ship in safe harbour, and search for gold with the two smaller vessels. He was to plant a colony and capture eight or ten people of the country, "whom we mind shall not return again thither, and therefore you shall have great care how you do take them, for avoiding of offence towards them and the country."
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