On this Day:
On May 31, 1578 Martin Frobisher sailed from Harwich, England to Frobisher Bay, Canada. Eventually he mined fools gold, famously used to pave the streets of London.
English explorer Martin Frobisher is best known for his attempts to discover a Northwest Passage and his voyages to Labrador and Frobisher Bay in Canada.
Who Was Martin Frobisher?
Martin Frobisher was an English explorer who became a licensed pirate and plundered French ships off the coast of Africa. In the 1570s, he made three voyages to discover a Northwest Passage. Instead, he discovered Labrador and what is now Frobisher Bay. Later, he was knighted for fighting against the Spanish Armada.
Martin Frobisher was born in 1535 (some say 1539) in Yorkshire, England. His merchant father, Bernard Frobisher, sent him to stay with a relative, Sir John York, in London, where Frobisher attended school. In his early years, Frobisher came into contact with London seamen and developed an interest in navigation and exploration. His goal, like that of many explorers of the time, was to discover the fabled Northwest Passage—a sea route above North America that linked the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Frobisher’s travels began in the 1550s, when he explored Africa’s northwest coast, particularly Guinea, in 1553 and 1554. The following year, Frobisher became an Elizabethan privateer, or lawful pirate, who was authorized by the English crown to plunder enemy nations’ treasure ships. In the 1560s, Frobisher gained a reputation for preying on French trading vessels in the waters off Guinea; he was arrested several times on piracy charges, but never tried.
New World Voyages
It was for his three voyages to what was then called the New World that Frobisher became a famed explorer. He was among the first English explorers to sail the northeast coast of North America.
Determined to find a Northwest Passage, Frobisher worked for five years to obtain funding for his expedition. He convinced the Muscovy Company, an English merchant consortium, and its director, Michael Lok, to license him and then raised enough money for three ships. He set sail on June 7, 1576, and sighted the coast of what is now Labrador, Canada, on July 28. Several days later, he sailed through the bay that bore his name for many years, Frobisher Bay. Due to the windy and icy conditions, Frobisher could not continue to sail north, so he sailed west instead and reached Baffin Island on August 18.
On Baffin Island, a group of natives captured several members of Frobisher’s crew, and despite several attempts to get them back, Frobisher was unable to retrieve them. He set sail back to England and took with him a piece of black stone that he believed to contain gold. Frobisher’s reports of possible gold mines convinced investors to fund a second voyage.
On May 27, 1577, Frobisher set out to sea again, this time with additional funding, ships and men. He reached Frobisher Bay on July 17 and spent several weeks collecting ore. He was directed by his commission to defer discovery of the passage to another time and focus on gathering precious metals. Frobisher and his crew brought 200 tons of what they believed to be gold ore back to England.
England’s queen, Elizabeth I, had strong faith in the fertility of the new territory. She sent Frobisher back for a third voyage, this time on a much larger expedition, with 15 vessels and the necessities for establishing a 100-man colony.
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.
He and his men failed to establish a settlement as a result of dissension and discontent, as well as a major catastrophe:
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.
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.
They all returned to England with 1,350 tons of ore where it was discovered that the ore was actually iron pyrite and therefore worthless, although it was eventually used for road metalling. Thus, the streets of London were once paved in gold: fools gold.
Since the ores proved valueless, Frobisher’s financing collapsed and he was forced to seek other employment.
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.
Battles and Death
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.
Today, 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.”
Frobisher Bay in Nunavut is named after him. This was also the former name of Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, from 1942 until 1987. The city’s airport was Frobisher Bay Air Base from 1942 to 1963, and Frobisher Bay Airport from 1963 to 1987, before being renamed Iqaluit Airport.
A historical museum in Dartford, about twenty miles down the Thames River from London’s centre, displays some of the black stones from the Frobisher voyages. In the end they served another useful purpose; many of the Baffin Island stones were used in a stone wall near the museum.
….And More Intrigue
It is interesting to question why the Queen of England would help finance the these voyages when there was still no certainty of gold.
The answer probably lies in English efforts to counter Spanish influence in the New World, without trying to create a direct challenge and possible war. Thus the voyages may well have been to mask attempts to create an English colony and a foothold in the New World through the guise of a mining expedition in order to eventually challenge the then much stronger Spain in its claim to own and control all the New World.
First, a Joke:
Where the Streets are Gold
There once was a very wealthy man who was near death. He was very upset because he had worked so hard for his riches that he wanted to be able to take them with him… to Heaven. So he began to pray.
God heard his plea and spoke to him. “Sorry My Son, but you can’t take your wealth with you.” “Please God, I have worked so long, and so hard, for so many years. I have lost my wife, my kids, my dog, my health, and my happiness because of it… It is all I have left.”
God understood and said. “If it means that much to you, I will allow you one suitcase.” Overjoyed, the man gathered his largest suitcase and filled it to the brim with pure gold bars. He then placed it beside his bed and died in peace.
Soon afterward the man showed up at the Pearly Gates of Heaven and was greeted by St.Peter. St. Peter was happy to see the man but was puzzled by the suitcase.
The Man said, “I realize this is not your normal policy but I was given the authority by God that I may bring one suitcase with me.” “I see.” said St. Peter. “Let us open it then.”
St. Peter opened the suitcase, curious to see what worldly goods the man found too precious to leave behind and exclaimed, “YOU BROUGHT PAVEMENT?!!!”
Second, a Song:
Thought for the Day:
“The endearingly hopeless Martin Frobisher explored the Arctic region of Canada, found what he thought was gold, and carried fifteen hundred tons of it home on a dangerously overloaded boat only to be informed that it was worthless iron pyrites. Undaunted, Frobisher returned to Canada, found another source of gold, carted thirteen hundred tons of it back, and was informed, with presumed weariness on the part of the royal assayer, that it was the same stuff. After that, we hear no more of Martin Frobisher.” – Bill Bryson
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Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2022 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky