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John Davis, the Hero of the Arctic and Pacific.


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John Davis was born near the Gilberts' home about 1550, on the left bank of the Dart, not far from Dartmouth. His father was a yeoman owning a small farm in Sandridge, being part of the parish of Stoke Gabriel. The little inlet or harbour is called Stoke Creek, at the head of which stands the old church; in this are kept the records of the marriage of John Davis. The lordly manor-house of the Pomeroys seemed to look down from its height upon winding river and grove of oaks - the playing-ground of so many heroes - the three Gilberts, Davis, and Walter Raleigh. The boys had only to run down over two pastures and they were at the Cove, overhung with drooping boughs and trailing with dog-roses and honeysuckle. The village of Dittisham, with its plum and apple orchards, its drying nets and rocking-boats, meets the gaze as you look across the lake-like reach of the river.... Greenaway Court, the Gilberts' home, stood up among the woods to the south, and no doubt Adrian Gilbert and the Carew boys and Raleigh must often have raced in their skiffs, or listened to seamen's stories of the doings of John Hawkins in the West Indies. There was another house not far from Dittisham, where Davis as a boy may well have visited, the home of Sir John Fulford, who had two sons of the same age as the younger Gilberts, and four daughters, of whom Faith in after years became the wife of John Davis. John was of course not socially the equal of the others, but his exploits and fame levelled all distinctions as he grew older; and when he was a boy, no doubt he was a brave, modest fellow, good enough to play with his superiors.

Whether John Davis went to the new grammar-school at Totnes we do not know, but it is clear that he was sent to sea at an early age, and studied deeply the science of his profession; for by the time he was twenty-eight he was known to merchants as a captain of great skill and experience.

John returned home in 1579, passing six years at Sand-ridge, and no doubt enjoying many a sail up the river with Miss Faith Fulford and her sisters.

We can see by the Parish Register that John married Faith on September 29, 1582; they had a pleasant neighbour in Adrian Gilbert, who had married the widow of Andrew Fulford, and was living in the Pomeroy manor-house. Adrian was now a doctor of medicine and an able mathematician, deeply interested in geographical discovery and the science of minerals.

There was a learned geographer, Dr. Dee, living at Mort-lake, to whom Adrian one day introduced John Davis; after that they often met and discussed the North-west Passage and other problems of the day. One day in 1585 Secretary Wal-singham called in and heard their arguments: a route to the Indies which should be clear of all claims on the part of the Spanish and Portuguese interested the minister.

Having won Walsingham's interest, the two Devon scientists next tried to persuade the merchants of London to join them; then they rode all the way to Exeter and Dartmouth to induce wealthy merchants there to subscribe. Raleigh was at this time high in Court favour; he had been knighted the year before, and was growing rich upon the Queen's gifts. He induced her Majesty to grant a charter to himself, Adrian Gilbert, and John Davis, "for the search and discovery of the North-west Passage to China." Raleigh was at this time very busy with his Virginia colony, but he found time to help his old school-friends.

The expedition, preparing in 1585, consisted of two small ships, the Sunshine of London of 50 tons, and the Moonshine of Dartmouth of 35 tons. Davis commanded the Sunshine, with a crew of eleven seamen, four musicians, a carpenter and a boy, and four officers; they sailed out of Dartmouth harbour on the 7th of June 1585. Davis was now in his thirty-sixth year, and one of the best seamen of his day. Though only the son of a yeoman farmer, he had made many valuable friends, such as Dr. Dee, the Gilberts, Raleigh, Walsingham, the Earl of Warwick, and Mr. Sanderson, a rich city merchant; the Earl of Cumberland and Lord Lumley had sought his acquaintance. What is more, Davis was beloved by the men under his command, for he was ever thoughtful of their welfare both before he sailed and after he returned home; for his kindness proceeded from the heart.

In these scientific days of Arctic discovery we have learnt what sort of food and clothing is best for our explorers; in those days all was in the experimental stage. Their provisions consisted of cod and salt-meat, bread and grease, butter and cheese and beer.

As they were obliged to anchor for twelve days off the Scilly Isles, Davis took the opportunity of making a survey of all the islands, the rocks and havens. When they got out into the Atlantic they had some sport trying to harpoon porpoises, the flesh of which they thought as good as mutton. Whales too were seen in much larger numbers than are found now; for like many other interesting and valuable species, whales have been recklessly destroyed through the greed of man.

On the 19th of July, in a dense mist, they heard "a mighty great roaring"; Captain Davis had a boat lowered and rowed to find out the cause thereof. He found that the ships were close to some pack-ice, the large fragments of which were grinding together. Next day was clear, and they saw the snow-clad mountains of Greenland, but could not land for the ice; here they saw many seals and white birds. They rounded the southern point of Greenland, and were in the channel that lies between Greenland and Labrador. Finding a fiord some miles up the coast he named it Gilbert Sound, after his friend and his first-born child. It was near this spot that they heard the Eskimos shouting, so Davis took a boat and four musicians, as it was known the natives loved music. In a short time perfect confidence was established and they began to barter, kayaks or boats and native clothing being in some demand. Later they managed to kill a Polar bear, which came in useful, as the men were clamouring for better food.

They next sailed west, and explored Cumberland Gulf. On landing they heard dogs barking, and when they came up very gently, "we thought they came to prey upon us and therefore we shot two; but about the neck of one of them we found a leathern collar, whereupon we thought them to be tame dogs." After this a strong north-west wind blew, and as it was near the end of August they resolved to return to England, and arrived at Dartmouth on the 30th of September.

Adrian Gilbert gave his friend Davis a warm welcome home, and of course wife and child made home more homelike. But not many days after his arrival the explorer wrote to Walsingham, "The North-west Passage is a matter nothing doubtful, but at any tyme almost to be passed, the sea navigable, voyd of yse, the ayre tolerable, and the waters very depe."

We notice that the spelling of all words of Latin origin is good; it is the English word that varies most from our spelling. Anyway, he is far superior in education to the Earl of Cumberland.

Davis also pointed out in his letter how good an opening there was in the lands he had discovered for trade in oil and furs.

A hasty visit to London resulted in many merchants subscribing for a second voyage, and the Mermaid, the Sunshine, Moonshine, and North Star, a small pinnace, were chartered for it. They sailed from Dartmouth on the 7th of May 1586, and coasted along the south shore of Ireland; then Captain Pope in the Sunshine, with the North Star as a tender, was despatched to search for a passage northward between Greenland and Iceland, while Davis went as far as the southern end of Greenland. But the pack-ice made it impossible to land, so naming the cape "Farewell" he again entered Davis Straits. On reaching Gilbert Sound he met so violent a gale that he was obliged to take shelter among the islands which fringe the shore.

Davis writes: "We sent our boats to search for shoal water, where we might anchor, and as the boat went sounding and searching, the natives having espied them, came in their canoes towards them with shouts and cries; but after they had espied in the boat some of our company that were the year before here with us, they presently rowed to the boat, took hold on the oar, and hung about the boat with such comfortable joy as would require a long discourse to be uttered."

Davis, seeing their confidence, went ashore and distributed twenty knives: "They offered skins to me for reward, but I made signs that they were not sold, but given them of courtesie." The next day, as the crew were setting up a new pinnace, more than a hundred canoes came round, bringing seal-skins and other furs for barter.

Davis and a party went inland, finding a plateau of grass and moss, and many ravens and small birds. In July, after more exploring, in which the natives kept him company, Davis organised athletic games, leaping and wrestling - "In this we found them strong and nimble, for they cast some of our men that were good wrestlers."

The people were of good stature, with small hands and feet, broad faces, small deep-set eyes, wide mouths, and beardless; they wore images and believed in enchantments. But other failings soon appeared, for they were "marvellous thievish," began to cut the cables, cut away the Moonshine's boat from her stern, stole oars, a caliver, a boar-spear and swords. Davis was for forbearance, but his men were angry, and complained heavily, "said that my lenitie and friendly using of them gave them stomacke to mischiefe." Still Davis went on giving presents, but at sundown the Eskimos began throwing stones into the Moonshine, which caused a pursuit and some shots. At last they captured one of the thieves, and another followed with lamentation as far as the ship. "At length the fellow aboard us spake four or five words unto the other and clapped his two hands upon his face, whereupon the other doing the like, departed as we supposed with heavy cheer. We judged the covering of the face with his hands and bowing of his body down, signified his death." But it was not quite so bad as that, for they gave the captive a new suit of frieze, of which he was very joyful; he became sociable, trimmed up his darts and fishing tools, and would set his hand to a rope's end upon occasion.

They soon came upon a mountain of ice and could not get on; the men grew sick and feeble and begged Davis to return, so he sailed south-east and found land free from snow. When they came to lat. 67, they found numbers of gulls and mews, and caught a hundred cod in half-an-hour. Landing, they found a black bear, pheasants, partridges, wild ducks, and geese, and killed some with bow and arrow.

On the 6th of September Davis sent some young sailors ashore to fetch fish, but they were suddenly assailed in a wood, two being slain by arrows. Immediately after, a tremendous storm almost drove them on the rocks among these "cannibals." "But when hope was past, the mighty mercy of God gave us succour and sent us a fair lee, so as we recovered our anchor again and now moored our ship, where we saw that God manifestly delivered us; for the strains of one of our cables were broken, and we only rode by an old junk."

They reached home in October, bringing five hundred sealskins and other furs. The Sunshine and North Star made the east coast of Greenland by July 7th, but found pack-ice, so they sailed round and north to Gilbert Sound, where the crews played football with the Eskimos. The North Star was lost in a gale, and the Sunshine came home alone on the 6th of October.

So they had explored a vast extent of unknown coast, and entered many fiords. They had not found the Northwest Passage, but had found Hudson Strait, and concluded correctly that the "north parts of America are all islands."

Had they taken plenty of salt and fishing-tackle they might have brought home a large cargo of fish, but they brought home the knowledge that a great trade was possible in the far North. Though Davis, on going west to his own county, tried to persuade the merchants that another voyage might be more successful, he did not succeed in rousing their sympathies so far as to give more subscriptions.

But on going home he found another little son, Arthur, and with his wife and old friend, Adrian Gilbert, enjoyed a pleasant autumn.

In the winter the restless adventurer rode up to London with Gilbert, and they visited the merchant-prince, William Sanderson, who gained for Davis enough help to fit out a third voyage to the Arctic. In our days rich men have so much scientific spirit that they - some of them - will consent to subscribe for Arctic and Antarctic voyages for purely scientific purposes. In the great Queen's days they looked for some return in hard cash, or furs, or stones and metal of value. But Davis's old shipmates loved him and were eager to volunteer again, and some were natives of the villages round Stoke Gabriel.

On the 19th of May 1587, the Sunshine, Elizabeth, and Ellen started from Dartmouth, the former to fish and make profit. But when they reached Gilbert Sound Davis resolved to send the two other ships to the fishery, while he in the Ellen, a pinnace of 20 tons, went north. In estimating the exploits of these men, we must remember how ill they were fitted out compared with modern explorers. At the very first the pilot of the Ellen came to report a leak, and it was debated whether they should risk their lives in exploring.

But when Davis addressed his little crew and said, "My boys, it will be far better that we should end our lives with credit than return in disgrace," they one and all agreed to go on with their captain.

They went along the west coast of Greenland, calling it the London Coast, and by the 80th of June had reached lat. 72.12, the most northerly point Davis ever reached. Here an island with a cliff 850 feet high was named "Sanderson his hope"; along the narrow, dark ledges of this giant rock nestled myriads of white guillemots, screaming and circling as busily they fed their young.

The sea was clear of ice, save that the Dreadnoughts of the North, towering icebergs, reflected the sunshine in strange fantastic ways, and floated proudly down to warmer waters. Beyond them lay "a great sea, free, large, very salt and blue, and of an unsearchable depth."

But on the 2nd of July they met "the Middle Pack," a hundred miles long or more, and eight feet thick. The Ellen tried to find a passage through in vain, so they drifted west till they sighted the western coast of Davis Strait. Davis took many observations which were useful to succeeding explorers; he says in his log: "We fell into a mighty race, where an island of ice was carried by the force of the current as fast as our bark could sail. We saw the sea falling down into the gulf with a mighty overfall, roaring, with divers circular motions like whirlpools."

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