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One of Queen Elizabeth’s leading mariners, Martin Frobisher (1535-1594), began life at sea at age ten when he became orphaned and was taken in by a wealthy uncle, Sir John Yorke. The uncle was a successful merchant who invested in trading voyages, but had little interest in educating young Martin or bringing him into the business. He arranged for the boy to be trained at sea. Martin learned quickly soon becoming skilled in most aspects of seafaring, and by the age of twenty-one he was in command of ships. Before beginning his voyages of exploration, Frobisher, like Drake, became a privateer sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth to raid Spanish and Portuguese ships. He wanted, however, to seek fame and fortune searching for the passage through North America that everyone agreed must exist. He began by contacting an acquaintance named Michael Lok, who was engaged in foreign trade, and persuaded him to arrange funding for a voyage of discovery to the North American Arctic.
Lok and Frobisher offered a proposal to the Queen’s Privy Council for a voyage to find a northwest route to Cathay (China). The Council gave its approval, and Lok and Frobisher created the Cathay Company. Lok found some additional investors, and the voyage was planned with great secrecy lest foreign powers beat them to their expected discovery. The objective of the first voyage was to expand trade by discovering a new route to the Orient as seen in this quote from George Best's account.
“First: The great hope to fynde our English seas open into the seas of East India by that way [northwest] ... whereby we might have passage by sea to those rich cuntries for traffik of merchandize, which was the thing I chiefly desyred. Secondly: I was assured by manifolde good proofs of dyvers travailers and histories that the cuntries of Baccaleaw,* Canada, and the new fownd lands thereto adjoining, were full of people and full of such commodities and merchandize, as are found in the cuntries of Lappia [Lapland], Russia, and Muscovia [Grand Duchy of Muscovia, including the city of Moscow],... which are furres, hydes, wax, tallow, oyle, and other. Whereby yf yt should happen those new lands to stretch to the north pole so that we could not have passage by sea that way,... yet in those same new lands to the northwestward might be established the like trade of merchandise...”
The first voyage, 1576.
Frobisher’s three ships began the voyage to America in mid-June, with a farewell wave from Queen Elizabeth I as they sailed down the Thames past her palace in Greenwich.
One ship was lost in storm, and another had to turn back, leaving only the Gabriel. In mid-voyage they were hit by a second storm that turned the Gabriel flat on its side. Being open at the waist, the ship quickly began to fill with water, and was clearly going to sink. According to Lok’s account, Frobisher courageously saved the day by ordering the men to cut the mizzenmast (the aft mast) to lighten the weight, and the ballast in the bilge slowly righted the ship. They were saved by this quick action, but the ship was full of water, and many supplies had washed overboard. The crew proceeded to pump the Gabriel dry and rig a new mizzenmast. Frobisher was still determined to continue westward rather than face the humiliation of returning to London in failure.
At the end of July they reached the southeast coast of Baffin Island and sailed into a long narrow waterway—about 35 miles wide at the mouth—presumed to be the strait that would lead to Asia. Frobisher convinced himself that the land on the north side of “Frobishers Streytes” was Asia, and that the highlands on the south were North America. Today we know they were in a 150 mile-long bay, called Frobisher Bay, at the south end of Baffin Island. Not until the mid-nineteenth century did a ship, headed by Charles Hall, finally sail Frobisher’s waterway far enough to determine that it was actually a bay rather than a strait.
From the beginning, their contacts with the Inuit people went poorly because Frobisher’s main objective was to take some captives back to England. He managed to capture one man.
By late August they saw ice forming and decided they should sail home. Before leaving Frobisher claimed the land as a possession of Queen Elizabeth, named it Meta Incognita, and gathered some stones as tokens of possession. One black stone that was about the size of a loaf of bread, he gave to Michael Lok.
Lok, being an enterprising man, decided to see if the rock had any commercial value. He broke off pieces which he took to three different assayers for evaluation. All three concluded the rock contained marcasite, a sulfide of iron very similar to pyrite (fool’s gold), and had no value. Lok, wanting to hear a different answer, took another piece of the rock to a fourth person, Giovanni Agnello, a Venetian living in London, who claimed to find some gold in the rock. Lok gave this man two more pieces from which Agnello again found gold. As you might guess, Lok was convinced that this fourth assayer was correct. When he asked Agnello how he could find gold when the other three could not, Agnello said, “Nature needs to be flattered,” suggesting that he had special methods unknown to other assayers. Agnello apparently felt that customers should be told whatever they want to hear.
This cryptic remark was enough to convince Lok that Agnello had some special skills and that his hopes for gold had come true. He hastily wrote to the Queen whom he knew would be interested in funding another voyage if there were a possibility of gold. “Moste humbly I crave pardon in troublinge your majesty with the readynge of this wrytynge,” he began. Lok explained in detail all the results of assays by four men, one of whom found gold in the rock on repeated assays. We must give Lok credit for being forthcoming and honest; deceiving the Queen could be his ruin. Lok’s letter even quoted Agnello’s remark about flattering nature. He made clear that Agnello had sworn he was being honest in his assessment, and that the assay was entirely true. Michael Lok’s letter informed the Queen that her own state secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, disbelieved Agnello and had ordered additional assays. These new assays showed some tin but no gold.
Here was England’s opportunity to get some gold at the source. The prospect of gold from the Americas was a powerful incentive to the Queen and her Council, and she decided to invest £1,000 in a second voyage. If she supported the venture, then how could Wallsingham and others decide differently? Even the skeptic Walsingham invested £200 of the £5,150 from thirty-eight Cathay Company investors, many of them from the Privy Council. This was an enormous amount of money compared with the total investment of £875 for the first voyage. The irresistible smell of gold had cast its spell.
The second voyage, 1577
The return voyage to Meta Incognita began on May 25th, 1577 with three ships. The instructions from the Queen and other investors for the second voyage put ore mining at top priority. Exploration had given way to gold mining, and the investors expected to have three shiploads of ore by the end of summer.
On the twentieth of August their mining work was done. They had gathered 200 tons of supposed gold ore in twenty days with only five miners and the help of some of the “gentlemen” and soldiers. The men were tired, some were badly injured, their shoes and clothes were worn out, and their ore baskets and mining tools were broken, but the ships were full. Also they noticed that ice was forming around their ship at night, indicating the lateness of the season. That night six inches of snow fell on the deck of their ship.
After the ships returned to England, assayers produced a wide range of estimates on the amount of gold in the ore. Several assayers found no sign of gold, and some promised they could deliver ten ounces of gold per hundred pounds of ore, which would have been very profitable. This wide discrepancy led to the assayers criticizing one another’s methods and equipment. Michael Lok wrote a letter to investors in which he explained that the assayers could not agree, but he felt that the ore was very rich. Lok estimated that they would earn a profit of £40 per ton of ore. This piece of tantalizing news convinced the Queen to support a third voyage to the site of the mines with enough ships to collect a generous amount of ore. The investor’s unreasoned response to the variable assays was that a larger volume of ore was needed, and therefore additional ships should be sent on the expedition. The investors of the Cathay Company were suddenly committed to investment in another voyage despite very shaky evidence of gold in the rocks. Costs for the second voyage had exceeded the invested cash, so the Cathay Company was now operating in a deficit and everyone desperately wanted the rocks to be gold ore. The third expedition of 1578 began without anyone having refined a single ounce of ore from the second voyage. (To be continued soon.)
* Baccaleaw is an anglicized form of Bacalhau (codfish), the Portuguese fishermen’s name for the coastal areas of Canada. The name exists today as Baccalieu Island off the coast of Newfoundland.
Best, George. The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher: In Search of a Passage to Cathaia and India by the North-West, A. D. 1576-8. With Introduction by Sir Richard Collinson. New York: Burt Franklin, Publisher, 1963. (Reprinted from the 1867 edition of Hakluyt’s Voyages.)
Note: George Best accompanied Frobisher on his voyages.
McCoy, Roger M. On the edge: Mapping North America’s coasts. New York: Oxford University Press. 2012.
Morison, Samuel E. The European Discovery of America: The northern voyages. New York: Oxford University Press. 1971.