London, December 1611. A leading explorer and his teenage son almost certainly died in an open rowing boat in the Arctic after being set adrift. The story was told by exhausted survivors of a disastrous expedition, led by Henry Hudson to find a north west passage; they have recently returned to England and are now in prison for mutiny.
Hudson sailed from London in the ‘Discovery’ in April 1610 and found a great bay which he mapped for 3 months, but then the ice set in, and the expedition had to winter on land. Hudson could not control the tensions created by bitter cold, little food and no work, until in June, amid allegations of favouritism, the men mutinied.
Following the pronouncements of Sir Humphrey Gilbert in a book on the subject of a north-west passage, the baton was taken up by a rather unsavoury master-mariner and ex pirate by the name of Martin Frobisher who, with three small ships weighing only 60 tons in all, were fitted out to test the hunch of Sir Humphrey, that a link between the Atlantic and the Pacific existed somewhere north of latitude 60 degrees. On June 5th 1576, the three ships, the Gabriel, the Michael and a 10 ton pinnacle headed for north Greenland. The pinnacle promptly sank with all hands, the Michael ran for home, and it was assumed that Frobisher had also perished in the Gabriel. But the wily old pirate was not so easily defeated, and sailed on to discover the Frobisher Straits, later changed to Frobisher Bay as it led to the interior of Baffin Island. He brought back an Eskimo native to prove he had indeed come close to China and at least he found a land where there would be ample call for English woolens
Three generations earlier Englishmen had been novices in navigation, even as late as 1576, Frobisher had been sailing more by instinct and good fortune than by triangulation and compass bearings. But by 1580 Elizabethans were among the best sailors in the world, thanks to one man - John Davis, who invented a quadrant which enabled mariners to locate their latitude with precision.
Upon the urging of the Queen’s principal secretary - Sir Francis Walsingham, Davis was asked to attempt, in the name of spreading the word, of Protestantism, to seek the ‘north-west passage’. On three occasions 1585 - 1587, he reached as far as latitude 73 degrees but was always thwarted. We now know that there is indeed a north-west passage north of Baffin Island and via the Arctic Ocean and out via the Baring Straits but it takes a 21st century nuclear submarine to make the trip.
Drake had a cruel side. His unfortunate Chaplain, Francis Fletcher, had spoken disrespectfully and ill advisedly of his captain and suggested the misfortunes of the Golden Hind were some kind of retribution on Drake for the previous execution of Thomas Doughty for ‘witchery and disobedience’.
In judging Drake’s sadistic satisfaction, it is well to remember that cruelty gave spice to life. Men wore a tough hide of inhumanity and callousness that inured them to the cruel sights they would behold in their peripatetic life. This callousness was often reflected in the behaviour of the Elizabethan hero adventurers. The picture of Sir Francis Drake, sitting cross-legged on a sea-chest, enjoying himself hugely whilst lecturing his delinquent chaplain, who was chained and collared to the deck in front of him, is an example of the ruthlessness of the times.
SAN FRANCISCO BAY 1579. Having sailed around Cape Horn in the South Atlantic, Francis Drake had made his way up the Pacific coast of both south and north America, raiding Spanish settlements on the way, and landing here to repair his ship, the Golden Hind. The natives were friendly, the climate temperate and the soil rich with deposits of gold and silver. Drake decided to call the land new Albion, because of its white cliffs and morning fogs. He will not be returning to England the way he came however, for fear of Spanish ambushes. Instead he has a bolder plan- to circumnavigate the globe.
While the Muscovy company’s sailors fought their way to a standstill in the Arctic wastes, others tackled different routes to the East with more success; overland through the middle east, south-east round the Cape of Good Hope and south-west round Cape Horn.
Of all the voyages which at this time jolted England out its insularity, Sir Francis Drake’s epic and piratical circumnavigation of the globe via Cape Horn was the most awe-inspiring. Drake’s achievement even more than the victory over the armada, produced the marvellous confidence that led Raleigh to exclaim ‘ What shall we be? Travellers or tinkers? Conquerors or novices?
The sea-route to China still fascinated and eluded these Elizabethan buccaneers, as had the north-west passage. Only one other sea-link existed, and that was almost as dangerous as the Straits of Magellan. The passage round the Cape of Good Hope meant a three month journey before the first landfall, after which, most available watering-points were controlled by the Portuguese. But following the triumph over the Armada, Elizabethans were keen to try. The Dutch were already setting the pace plundering Portuguese merchant men as they sailed from Goa and Malacca for Lisbon.
The first English expedition (April 1591) was a disaster, and only Capt. James Lancaster and 12 men made it home without ships or profit. The second, in 1595 was even worse as the three ships were lost and none survived. Avarice and adventure proved too strong nevertheless. And on 31st December 1599 the Honourable East India Company was founded. 18 months later 4 tall vessels set sail from Torbay with Captain James
Combining trade and piracy, the fleet co-operated with the Dutch against the Portuguese, established a small trading post in Bantam, Java, and by September 1603, Lancaster was home again with all his ships, half his crew, and a handsome profit for the subscribers to the company.
Still with China a distant dream, the next hero to grace the Elizabethan stage was that worthy Devon man, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who in 1583 sailed for Newfoundland with 5 ships and 260 colonists to establish a bridgehead on the other side of the Atlantic. The entire venture was a study in contrast; detailed long-range practical planning versus petty selfishness. On board were shipwrights and carpenters blacksmiths and miners. Two days out the trouble began. The best ship of the flotilla deserted and beat back home.
“Just look at Drake!”, cried Pope Sixtus V after the old sea-dog’s raid on Cadiz in 1587. “Who is He? What forces has he?” Many Spaniards would have replied that ‘El Draque’ ‘the Dragon’ was a devil with power over the winds. His exploits justified his reputation as a dauntless adventurer: his three year trip round the world netted Spanish spoils amounting to an astronomical £1.5 million
No wonder that on his return in 1580, Queen Elizabeth knighted her “master-thief” on the deck of his ship the Golden Hind. And no wonder that the Pope, after hearing about the fleet that Philip was assembling, muttered dubiously “We are sorry to say it , but we have a poor opinion of this Spanish Armada and fear some disaster”.
The Queen of Scots took the news of her sentence calmly last night and put her hand on the New Testament swearing that she was innocent of any crime. She asked when she was to die and the Earl of Shrewsbury, in a broken voice told her that the execution would take place that day at Fotheringhay Castle.
Mary lay fully clothed on her bed as one of her maids read to her from the bible. She rose at six and prayed before walking in procession to the Great Hall led by her groom holding a large crucifix. The Queen was wearing a black dress over a red petticoat and a transparent veil hanging from her shoulders. No one noticed one of her little dogs trotting along underneath her skirts.
Three hundred people watched as Mary entered the Great Hall and climbed the scaffold. She endured a lengthy theological harangue from the Dean of Peterborough demanding she would fore swear her Catholic faith. Mary kissed the crucifix before her maids began to help her remove her outer garments. She smiled when two executioners helped the distraught servants, who were weeping copiously. Mary knelt on a cushion and recited a final psalm before she groped for the block and leaned forward her hands held by the second executioner. It took three strokes of the axe to remove her head.
Then the crew of the Swallow, locked their captain in his cabin and indulged in a weeks pirating. After 7 weeks the fleet reached St. Johns. Sir Humphrey immediately declared himself Governor and took possession of the island.