Awakening of Europe - M. B. Synge

Among the Icebergs

"And now there came both mist and snow,

And it grew wondrous cold."


Besides Howard, Drake, and Hawkins, no one had been of more use in pursuing the Spanish Armada than Martin Frobisher.

Born in 1535, he had been at sea all his life; for he was one of the first among early explorers to sail amid the ice of the far north in search of a passage to China by North America. For years past it had been the dream of every voyager to find a short way to the East by which English wares could be exchanged for the pearls and spice of India without the long voyage by the Cape of Good Hope.

It had been the dream of Cabot, and the dream of Sir Hugh Willoughby, who had perished in the attempt. It was now the dream of Martin Frobisher. The discovery of the north-west passage, he said, was "the only thing of the world that was yet left undone by which a notable mind might be made famous and fortunate." He did not care for plundering Spanish ships laden with treasure. Rather did he look for honour for his country, fame for himself, knowledge of new lands for the whole world. The idea did not appeal to his countrymen, and, like Columbus before him, he asked for ships and money in vain.

For thirteen long years he toiled, until at last a patron arose to supply the necessary funds, and in the year 1576 two little ships, the Gabriel and Michael, left England for the ice-bound regions of the north. Wondrous, indeed, was the courage of the man who set forth on such an expedition of danger, with two small ships and a crew of only thirty-five men.

Queen Elizabeth stood at an open window of her palace at Greenwich waving farewell to the captain of this little fleet bound for unknown seas of ice. She recognised the greatness of his spirit and the daring of his adventure, but she had not stirred a finger to get him new ships for his perilous undertaking.

So Frobisher sailed away to the north by the eastern coast of England and the north of Scotland. Here a furious storm broke over the little ships, and before ever Frobisher had reached the icy coast of Greenland the Gabriel was alone. The Michael had deserted and gone home with the story that Frobisher himself had perished in a storm. Meanwhile the captain was sailing bravely onwards with his storm-shattered ship and his diminished crew of eighteen.

"I will sacrifice my life to God rather than return home without discovering a north-west passage to Cathay," he said to his men with that enthusiasm which alone can carry a man through great enterprises. And the men, catching his spirit of courage, sailed their battered ship across to the shores of Labrador. Amid a group of American islands he entered what seemed to be a strait that might lead to the East. Bearing in mind Magellan's Straits, leading from the Atlantic to the Pacific by South America, he named these Frobisher's Straits, hoping they might lead from ocean to ocean by North America. Further than all former mariners he sailed into this unknown sea. Yet for all his courage, the expedition failed: man after man died, the weather grew very cold, snow fell heavily, and reluctantly he sailed home.

A curious thing now happened. A stone which he had brought from the frozen regions to England was said to contain gold. Martin Frobisher sprang into fame. A new fleet was at once fitted out, not for the discovery of the north-west passage, but for the discovery of more gold. The queen sent a large ship of her own this time; men offered their services by the score; Frobisher was made High Admiral of all seas and waters, countries, lands, and isles, of the icy north, and in 1577 he sailed off on his second expedition. The fleet did not go far, but it returned laden with supposed gold. Kneeling on the frozen snow, the little party of Englishmen had taken possession of the country in the name of the queen, leaving a cross of stones and the English flag flying.

While Drake was sailing round the world, Martin Frobisher was being given command of a yet more famous fleet of fifteen ships, so that he should sail to the frozen land of gold, and leave there a little colony of Englishmen to protect English interests from strangers. Away sailed the magnificent fleet, away once more to the northern coast of America, towards Frobisher's Straits. Amid snow and ice, fogs and gales, the ships made their way. One vessel was crushed between mighty icebergs. In a thick fog the ships lost their course, but Frobisher now made the greatest discovery of his life. He had found out that Frobisher's Straits were no straits, but a bay.

Now, to the north of Frobisher's Bay he was sailing west, through another channel, which might lead on into the open sea beyond. In reality he was sailing up the straits known later as Hudson's Straits, and he was close on the entrance to the great inland sea of North America, when he turned back to fulfill his orders and search for gold. The ships returned home with their freight of stones, but by this time England was raging with disappointment, for little enough gold had been produced from the black stones of the frozen north, and no more ships were sent in search of it. The plan of a colony was given up. It was three hundred years before the north-west passage into the Pacific Ocean was found, after many a ship had been lost and many a life laid down. Intricate enough was the channel that led from sea to sea, and far to the north of anything that Martin Frobisher, with all his courage and with all his enthusiasm, could ever have found with the imperfect ships at his command.