1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Martin Frobisher

Sir Martin Frobisher
English navigator and explorer
(c. 1535 - 1594)




SIR MARTIN FROBISHER (c. 1535-1594), English navigator and explorer, was the fourth child of Bernard Frobisher, and was born, it is usually stated, at Doncaster, but more probably at Altofts in the parish of Normanton, Yorkshire, some time between 1530 and 1540. The family came originally from North Wales. Martin was sent to London to his mother's brother, Sir John York, and in 1554 went with a small fleet of merchant ships to Guinea under Admiral John Lock. We next hear of him in 1565 as Captain Martin Frobisher, and again in 1571 as superintending at Plymouth the building of a ship to be employed against the Irish. As early as 1560 or 1561 Frobisher had conceived the idea of discovering a north-west passage to Cathay, a short route to which was the motive of most of the Arctic voyages undertaken at that period and for long after. For years he schemed and plotted, and solicited in all quarters, from the court downwards, to obtain means to carry his favourite project into execution; and it was only in 1576 that, mainly by help of the earl of Warwick, he was put in command of two tiny barks, the "Gabriel" and " Michael," mere cockle shells of about 20 tons each, and a pinnace of 10 tons, with an aggregate crew of 35. On June 7 Frobisher left Blackwall, and having received a good word from Queen Elizabeth at Greenwich, the expedition, if we may apply to it so considerable a term, sailed north-wards to the Shetland Islands. Stormy weather had been met with, in which the pinnace was lost, and sometime after the " Michael" deserted. After passing Greenland and being nearly wrecked, the " Gabriel" reached the coast of Labrador on July 28. Some days later Hall's Island, at the mouth of Frobisher Bay, was reached, and a landing effected. Among the things hastily brought away by the men was some "black earth," which played an important part in connexion with Frobisher's further career. Sailing up Frobisher Bay, then thought to be a strait, they reached Butcher's Island on August 18. Here some natives were met with, and intercourse carried on with them for some days, the result being that five of Frobisher's men were decoyed and captured, and never more seen. After vainly trying to get back his men, Frobisher turned homewards, and reached London on October 9. It seemed as if nothing more was to come of this expedition, when it was noised abroad that the apparently valueless " black earth" was really a lump of gold ore. It is difficult to say how this rumour arose, and whether there was any truth in it, or whether Frobisher was a party to a deception, in order to obtain means to carry out the great idea of his life. The story, at any rate, was so far successful; the greatest enthusiasm was manifested by the court and the commercial and speculating world of the time; and next year a much more important expedition than the former was fitted out, the queen lending Frobisher from the royal navy a ship of 200 tons. A Cathay company was established, with a charter from the crown, giving the company the sole right of sailing in every direction but the east; Frobisher was appointed high admiral of all lands and waters that might be discovered by him. The queen herself subscribed XI000, and the rest required was soon forthcoming. On May 26, 1577, the expedition, which, besides the royal ship, the " Aid" of 200 tons, consisted of the " Gabriel" and " Michael" of the previous year, with boats and pinnaces and an aggregate complement of 120 men, including miners, refiners, &c, left Blackwall, and sailing by the north of Scotland, arrived at Greenland early in July. Hall's Island was reached on the 18th, and though no more "black earth" was found there, abundance of it was found on other islands, and the ships well loaded with it. The country around, under the name of Meta Incognita, was solemnly taken possession of in the queen's name. Several weeks were spent in Frobisher Bay collecting ore, but very little was done in the way of discovery. There was much parleying and some skirmishing with the natives, and earnest but futile attempts made on the part of Frobisher to recover the men captured the previous year. The return was begun on August 22, and the " Aid" reached Milford Haven on September 20; the " Gabriel" and " Michael," having separated, arrived later at Bristol and Yarmouth. Frobisher was received and thanked by the queen at Windsor. Great preparations were made and considerable expense incurred for the assaying of the great quantity of " ore " brought home, in the testing of which the queen manifested a strong personal interest. This took up much time, and led to considerable dispute among the various parties interested. Meantime the faith of the queen and others remained strong in the productiveness of Meta Incognita, and it was resolved to send out a larger expedition than ever, with all necessaries for the establishment of a colony of 100 men. The queen herself contributed two ships of 400 and 200 tons, manned with 150 men, and carrying 120 pioneers. Besides these the fleet contained other 13 vessels of various sizes, carrying other 250 men, and the most elaborate and minute instructions were drawn up for the conduct of the i expedition. Frobisher was again received by the queen at Greenwich, and her Majesty threw a fine chain of gold around his neck. On May 31 the expedition left Harwich, and sailing by the English Channel, reached Greenland on June 19. This time Frobisher and some of his men managed to land, " being the first known Christians that we have true notice of that ever set foot upon that ground." | In the first days of July Frobisher Bay was reached, but stormy weather and dangerous ice drove the fleet south-wards, and unwittingly Frobisher entered what was afterwards known as Hudson Strait, up which he sailed about 60 miles. When he found that he was sailing away from his destination, he, with apparent reluctance, turned back, and after many bufferings part of the fleet managed to come to anchor in Frobisher Bay. Some attempt was made at founding a settlement, and immense quantities of ore were shipped. But, as might be expected, there was much dissension and not a little discontent among so heterogeneous a company, and on the last day of August the fleet set out on its return to England, which was reached in the beginning of October. Thus ended what was little better than a fiasco, though Frobisher himself cannot be held to blame for the result; the scheme was altogether chimerical, and the " ore" seems to have been not worth smelting. Between 1578 and 1585 we hear little of Frobisher, though he seems to have been doing service at various places, and steadily advancing in the good opinion of those in power. In 1580 he obtained the reversion of the clerkship of the royal navy, of no immediate value, In 1585 he commanded in the " Primrose " in Sir F. Drake's expedition to the West Indies, in the large booty brought home from which he no doubt had a good share. For the next year or two he was employed in various responsible services against the designs of Spain, and in 1588 he did such excellent work in the "Triumph" against the Spanish Armada that he was rewarded with the honour of knighthood. He continued to cruise about in the Channel until 1589, when he was sent in command of a small fleet to the coast of Spain. In 1591 he visited his native Altofts, and there married a daughter of Lord Wentworth. He had prospered during recent years and was able to become a landed proprieter in Yorkshire and Notts. But he found little leisure for a country life, and was soon on the seas again watching and cutting off the richly laden ships of Spain. In November 1594 he took part in the siege of Crozan, near Brest, and received a wound from which he died at Plymouth on November 22. His body was taken to London and buried at St Giles's, Cripplegate. Frobisher was brave and skilful as a naval leader, and had the enthusiasm of the true explorer, but was characterized by much of the coarseness, and probably some of the unscrupulousness, of his time, and appears to have been somewhat rough in his bearing, and too strict a disciplinarian to be much loved. He justly takes rank among England's great naval heroes.

See Hakluyt's Voyages; the Hakluyt Society's Three Voyages, of Frobisher; C. F. Hall's Life with the Esquimaux; Campbell's Lives of the Admirals; Rev. F. Jones's Life of Frobisher, and authorities mentioned therein. (J. g. K.)







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