View associated images
The search for a Northwest Passage may be said to have begun in
the late 15th century with the voyages of John and Sebastian Cabot,
who made the first recorded landfalls on the North American continent
since the Norse voyages of the 11th century. The Cabots established
that a passage through or round America would be necessary if the
dream of a short route to the wealth of the Orient were to be realised.
It was believed that there was a commercial route to the East by
means of a strait (named Anian in the sixteenth century) through
North American waters. Early Spanish and French efforts to find
it failed, although the latter travelled deep into the continent
along the St Lawrence River. In the sixteenth century British seamen
sailed further north in search of the Passage and many features
of the Arctic region were named after the explorers: among them
Martin Frobisher, John Davis, William Baffin, Henry Hudson, Luke
Foxe and Thomas James.
The Elizabethan adventurer Martin Frobisher made three voyages
to the Arctic in 1576, 1577, and 1578. On the first he reached Frobisher
Bay on Baffin Island, and brought back ore thought to contain gold,
a discovery that led to the two successive expeditions. The 1578
expedition consisted of a fleet of 15 ships and was sent to mine
gold in Frobisher Bay. The ore was found to be worthless after this
John Davis on his three expeditions in 1585, 1586, and 1587 coasted
Greenland, Baffin Island, and Labrador, explored Davis Strait and
discovered the entrance to Hudson Strait. Davis was prevented from
a fourth voyage by the war with Spain, and his later voyages were
in the warmer waters of the Far East.
Henry Hudson, whose life apart from his last four years is a mystery,
made voyages to Spitzbergen, to the northeast and to the river in
America that bears his name, before embarking on a search in 1610
for the Northwest Passage. On this expedition he reached Hudson Bay
and wintered in James Bay. The following June provisions ran short
and his crew mutinied, leaving Hudson and eight others adrift in
a boat. No trace was ever found of Hudson and his companions.
Robert Bylot was one of the mutineers who abandoned Hudson but was
not one of those to be tried on return to England. In fact he accompanied
Thomas Button on a Northwest Passage expedition in 1612-13, but apparently
did not search for Hudson who may have still been alive in James
Bay. Bylot then went on further voyages in search of a passage in
1615 and 1616 with William Baffin. In 1615 they correctly concluded
that there was no possibility of a passage through Hudson Bay, and
in 1616 they charted the coasts of Baffin Bay. These discoveries
were later thought to be fantastic until John Ross rediscovered Baffin
Bay in 1818.
Luke Foxe and Thomas James went on two separate voyages in 1631.
Foxe explored the western shore of Hudson Bay and the western coast
of the Baffin Island shore of Foxe Basin until scurvy broke out
and he returned to England. James's rival expedition explored the
southern shores of Hudson Bay and spent an unhappy winter on Charlton
Island in James Bay. After the harrowing experiences of James and
Foxe in Hudson Bay no more attempts to seek a passage were made
for nearly 100 years.