Passage to India? No Way
The loss of John Cabot was hardly the end of English exploration. His son Sebastian (ca. 1482-1557) was commissioned by Henry VII to make a voyage in 1508 and probably reached what would later be called Hudson Bay. Appointed Henry’s official cartographer, Sebastian Cabot nevertheless later transferred his allegiance to England’s great rival, Spain, for which he became pilot-major and official examiner of pilots in 1518. After failing, in 1526, to complete a mission intended to follow the route of Ferdinand Magellan, he was prosecuted by his Spanish paymasters in 1530 and found his way back to England in 1548. There King Edward VI granted him a pension, and he became governor for life of the English Muscovy Company. In that capacity, he worked with Sir Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor in search of a “Northeast Passage” connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along the northern shores of Eurasia. Under Cabot’s direction, Willoughby and Chancellor looked for the passage. Willoughby and his crew were lost, but Chancellor, though he failed to find the passage, did reach Moscow and trade was opened up between English merchants and those of Russia. Later voyages in search of the Northeast Passage undertaken by Henry Hudson during 1607-1609 were blocked by polar ice.
In the meantime, an even greater interest developed in the prospect of a Northwest Passage. Despite the claims of Columbus and John Cabot that they had reached Asia, it began to dawn on explorers and cartographers alike that the New World really was a new world—a continental land mass separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and, therefore, separating Europe from Asia, at least as far as any western shortcut was concerned. However, the early explorations had also revealed the presence of many bays and rivers along the northern coast of the new continent, and this suggested the possibility of a water passage clear through the land mass, maybe all the way to the Pacific Ocean and spice-rich Asia. As it became increasingly clear that the Americas would yield no great treasures of gold—no Seven Cities of Cibola—the New World was perceived by some as less of an objective than an obstacle.
The search for the Northwest Passage may be traced to the 1534 voyage of the French navigator Jacques Cartier, who explored the St. Lawrence River with the express purpose of finding a passage to China. The English weighed in when 29-year-old Sir Humphrey Gilbert (c. 1539-83) published A Discourse to Prove a Passage by the Northwest to Cathia (“Cathia” = Cathay = China) in 1566 which, 11 years later, indirectly led Sir Francis Drake to sail his famed vessel, the Golden Hind, down the Atlantic coast of South America, round Tierra del Fuego, and northward, just beyond San Francisco, California. But Martin Frobisher (ca. 1539-94)—a typically colorful Elizabethan sea dog, who had sailed twice to Africa, had been captured by the Portuguese, and had even gotten his living through high seas piracy—was the first Englishman who deliberately searched for a Northwest Passage. He took three swings. The first, in 1576, yielded the discovery of an inlet in Baffin Island, now known as Frobisher Bay, which Frobisher believed was the opening of the Northwest Passage. He also became excited by the presence of an ore that looked a lot like gold. (Hey, maybe America was not such a bad place after all!) And Frobisher was not the only one who thought he had struck gold. The ore attracted a substantial cartel of investors who created the Company of Cathay, which backed a second voyage in 1577, and a third in 1578.
Neither subsequent expedition found gold, but in July 15 78, Frobisher sailed up what was later named Hudson Strait, which was an interesting discovery in itself, but hardly the Northwest Passage. Frobisher named it “Mistaken Strait,” gave up the search for the passage, and became vice-admiral in Sir Francis Drake’s 1585-1586 expedition to the West Indies and later (1588) served ably in the defense against the Spanish Armada. In the meantime, another Englishman, John Davis (ca. 1550-1605), made three voyages between 1585 and 1587, exploring the western shores of Greenland, Davis Strait, and Cumberland Sound. Failing to find the Northwest Passage, he became one of the first explorers of the Arctic, then, in the opposite hemisphere, discovered the Falkland Islands, 480 miles northeast of Cape Horn, which would become the object of a brief and violent 1982 war of possession between Argentina and Great Britain.
Davis met his end in 1605 at the hands of Japanese in Sumatra. Henry Hudson, the next seeker after the “passage to India,” became the victim of his own crew. In 16 10-11, after fruitlessly exploring Hudson Bay—an inland body of water so vast that it seemed certain to be the fabled passage—his crew mutinied, casting adrift and to their deaths Hudson and a few loyal men.
Still, the search continued. Between 1612 and 1615, Thomas Button, Robert Bylot, and William Baffin, Englishmen all, made additional voyages to Hudson Bay—looking not only for the Northwest Passage, but for any sign of the missing Henry Hudson. While these expeditions failed to achieve either of their objectives, they did create interest in the region and led, in 1670, to the creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which became one of the most powerful forces for trade and settlement in North America.