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Northwest passage: Early approaches

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Portrait of Sebastian Cabot   Map of Frobisher's third voyage
1. The remarkable life, adventures, and discoveries of Sebastian Cabot J. F. Nicholls. London: Sampson, Low and Marston, 1869. BL: 10817.bbb. Copyright © The British Library Board   2. A true discourse of the late voyages of discouerie, for the finding of a passage to Cathaya, by the Northweast, under the conduct of Martin Frobisher Generall, etc. George Beste. 3v. London: Henry Bynnyman, 1578. BL: G.6527. Copyright © The British Library Board
     
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Drawing of a ship and a Latin poem from book on Hudson   Globe and title page of Foxe's book
3. Descriptio ac delineatio Geographica Detectionis Freti, sive transitus ad occasum ... recens investigati ab M. Henrico Hudsono, etc [edited by Hessel Gerritszoon]. Amsterodami: Hesselij Gerardi, 1612. BL: G.7165 (3). Copyright © The British Library Board   4. North-west Fox; or, Fox from the North-West Passage, etc. Luke Foxe. London: B. Alsop and Tho. Fawcet, 1635.
BL: G.7167. Copyright © The British Library Board

1. Sebastian Cabot

In 1497 John Cabot and possibly his son Sebastian, sponsored by Henry VII, set out across the Atlantic from Bristol hoping to find a way to the East. Little is known about the voyage although they probably landed at Maine, Newfoundland or Nova Scotia. In 1498 John Cabot again travelled westwards in search of a route to Japan but never returned to England. Ten years later Sebastian went on a disputed expedition in two ships with 300 men in search of a Northwest Passage. Recent evidence suggests that he sailed through Hudson Strait and into Hudson Bay. Cabot also believed that he had reached the Pacific Ocean.

This portrait of Cabot is from an engraving of a painting that was thought to have been by Hans Holbein. The original portrait was destroyed in a fire in 1840, but there is a copy in the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.

2. Frobisher and the useless ore

On his first Northwest Passage expedition in 1576 Frobisher discovered Frobisher Bay and thought he had found gold, thus prompting further expeditions in 1577 and 1578 that were partly sponsored by Elizabeth I. On the third voyage Frobisher entered Hudson Strait, which he named Mistaken Straightes (as on the map). He would have liked to search for the Northwest Passage but his orders were for mining only. Having built a small house on an island in Frobisher Bay, his ships returned to England with over 1000 tons of useless ore.

This copy of the first account of Frobisher's three voyages by George Beste, who sailed with him, is extremely rare in that it contains the two maps.

3. Hudson's last voyage

In 1610-11, sponsored by the Northwest Company, Henry Hudson in the Discovery explored the shores of Hudson Strait and sailed along the east coast of Hudson Bay, wintering in James Bay. The crew mutinied when provisions ran short leaving Hudson and eight others adrift in a boat. Some of the mutineers returned to England, although Inuit killed four and one died of starvation, but no trace was ever found of Hudson and his companions.

This copy of the first publication issued concerning Hudson's most famous voyage is of "extreme rarity" according to Thomas Grenville, from whose collection, bequeathed to the British Museum Library in 1847, it comes.

4. From King Arthur to Luke Foxe

Luke Foxe (or Fox), sponsored by London merchants, sailed for the Arctic in May 1631. He explored the western shore of Hudson Bay and met by chance Thomas James, who was on a rival expedition. He turned north and sailed beyond Foxe Channel (named after him by Parry in the nineteenth century), into Foxe Basin and along Foxe Peninsula. He returned home when scurvy broke out at latitude 60º 47' N. Foxe's account of his voyage is contained in this book, which also describes earlier explorations.

This particular copy has the globe illustrated here and the map, which "are scarce ever to be found" (Grenville).

How to order Reproductions

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Discover more:
The Northwest passage The Northwest passage
Early approaches
Voyages of delusion Voyages of delusion
The Admiralty takes over The Admiralty takes over
The search for Franklin and the discovery of the Passage The search for Franklin and the discovery of the passage
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