You may recall that Martin Frobisher's exploration voyage became a hunt for gold. He delivered three shiploads of “gold ore” totaling 200 tons, and started a third voyage before any ore had been refined.
The Third Voyage, 1578.
The new plan was to send four or five ships and collect 800 tons of ore—four times the amount taken on the previous trip. Thinking that more ore would make bigger profits, the plan soon expanded to fifteen ships capable of carrying 2,000 tons of ore. The expedition would leave one hundred miners in Meta Incognita with enough supplies for the winter and following summer. Three ships would stay for the miners’ safety in case they should need to leave before the supply ships returned the next year. Then the arriving ships would either retrieve the men or leave them supplies for another year. The planners were unaware that the sea in the Meta Incognita area was frozen from late November until July, and the miners would not be able to leave during that time, even in an emergency.
Before they left, the fifteen captains went to the Queen’s court in Greenwich to receive her best wishes. She gave Frobisher a gold chain and presented other gifts to all the captains. Before embarking Frobisher gave instructions to all captains on the course they should sail and on keeping order in the ships. Rule number one was no swearing, dice playing, card playing, or filthy talk. Religious services and prayers were to be held twice daily. Sailors took religion much more seriously while at sea and made a special effort not to offend God. They all set sail for Meta Incognita on the thirty-first of May, 1578.
George Best wrote of one incident in which a ship was crushed by ice floes. “And one of our fleete named the barke Dennys, being of an hundreth tunne burden, seeking a way amongst these ise, received such a blowe with a rocke of ise, that she sunke downe therewith, in the sight of the whole fleete. Howbeit, having signified hir daunger by shooting of a peece of great ordinaunce, newe succour of other shippes came so readily unto them, that the men were all saved with boates.” Unfortunately, the Dennys contained the materials for a house to be used by the men staying the winter in Meta Incognita.
When they reached the south end of Baffin Island in mid-July, the entire fleet became surrounded by ice. This year had a colder summer than those of the two previous voyages, and it gave the ships more problems with ice. A great storm arose, putting them in even greater danger by closing openings in the sea ice behind them as they moved forward. Some of the ships hung cables, beds, masts, and planks over the sides to protect the ship from the ice. Some ships anchored to the lee side of a floe and hoped for the best. A few ships were lifted in the water by ice pressing on both sides. Despite all precautions to protect the ships, some had their hull timbers crushed.
Frobisher discovered that they had arrived south of the location where they had mined the black rocks, and were now in the strait that Frobisher simply referred to it as the “Mistaken Strait.” As it happens, they were at the entry to Hudson Bay. In the Mistaken Strait they could see signs of a fruitful land with much more grass and game than in their intended Frobisher Strait farther north. Also they saw and traded with some Eskimos in this new area.
Why did they not take more interest in this strait? They obviously knew this was a different strait, and believed there were continental lands on both sides. If the expedition’s objective had still been discovery of a northwest passage, they probably would have explored it further and would have become the discoverers of what is now Hudson Bay. The urgency of bringing home the ore convinced them that they had spent enough time away from their task and true destination, Most of the ships eventually made it through the ice and headed for Frobisher Strait.
On July thirty-first they reached their previous location in Frobisher Bay where one of the mines would be. They also established mines on other islands where ore had been found. They quickly started operations as open pit excavations and established a temporary settlement for miners, including a stone house. Because most building materials had been lost when the Dennys sank, miners could not stay over the winter as planned. Other issues influenced the decision against anyone staying for the winter—primarily the miners feared that snows in summer must portend an unsurvivable winter. The deciding factor came when Frobisher saw a particularly brilliant display of the aurora borealis, which he took as a warning that they should leave.
Within a month after their arrival the ships were fully loaded and ready for the voyage home. The transfer of bags of ore from beach to ship was made during heavy storms, and several ships were blown away from shore, inflicting some damage to every ship. They all departed, or more appropriately escaped, on the thirty-first of August 1578.
Furnaces were built in Dartford and efforts to extract gold began in earnest but ended in absolute failure. There was no longer any room for denial; they had to admit the ore was worthless. The investors quickly turned bitter, and needing a scapegoat they focused their anger on poor Michael Lok. In gross unfairness the gullible investors accused Lok of dishonesty, with Frobisher himself among the accusers. Michael Lok furiously accused Frobisher of bringing back valuable ore on the first voyage, but worthless ore on other trips. Expenses of building furnaces and further assays forced Lok to assess the stockholders an additional £9,270 for the heavy expenses. At the end of five years the total investment finally reached £20,160 with no return.
Lok himself had invested £2,200 of his own money, the loss of which ruined him. Unfortunately his signature was on all the transactions and documents in support of the voyages, assays, and furnaces, making him the legally responsible person. He went to debtors prison on at least eight different occasions. His fellow investors abandoned him to the mercy of creditors. Investors even refused to pay pledged amounts to cover expenses already incurred, including pay for sailors and miners. Lok became the focus of creditor’s efforts to collect, and he was bankrupted, sued, and imprisoned. Lok later claimed to have seen the inside of every jail in London. He was released for the last time in 1581, three years after the last voyage, and spent the next years trying to put his life, his finances, and reputation back together. On top of it all, Lok had a total of fifteen children and stepchildren resulting from two marriages. As late as 1615—thirty-seven years after the last voyage—Lok was sued for a debt of £200 resulting from the gold fiasco.
Frobisher’s role in causing the Queen to lose £4,000 in the venture prevented his having any significant commands for the next few years. His reputation was badly damaged, but not permanently. He remained inactive and essentially unemployed with no obvious source of income until eventually regaining his good standing and command of a ship. In 1585 he was given a vice-admiralty under Francis Drake for a raid to the West Indies. His main glory came with his success commanding a ship in the battle against the Spanish Armada. He was made captain of the largest ship in the operation and achieved a major victory in the engagement. For this he was knighted on board the fleet’s flagship, Ark Royal. After this he continued to receive naval commands. He died in 1594 at the age of fifty-five from a gunshot wound received during an attack on a Spanish fort.
Remnants of excavations and stone buildings can be seen in Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island. The Inuit name for the location is Kodlunarn meaning “white men’s land.”
A historical museum in Dartford, about twenty miles down the Thames River from London’s center, displays some of the black stones from the Frobisher voyages. In the end they served a useful purpose; many of the Baffin Island stones were used in a stone wall near the museum.
Frobisher’s misadventures led to discoveries and maps that proved to be mistaken, but the transformation of a quest for the Passage into a frenzy for gold makes his story worthwhile.
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.