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Sir Martin Frobisher

English mariner, privateer, and explorer

Sir Martin Frobisher

Martin Frobisher was born near Wakefield, England. sometime between 1535 and 1539. Following the death of his mother in 1549, he was raised and educated in the household of his maternal uncle, Sir John York, who was a merchant in the City of London and also the Master of the Mint.

Early Sea Career

In 1553, Sir John sent Martin to Guinea with the Wyndham expedition, in which Sir John had invested. Frobisher was among the quarter of the expedition who survived. In 1554, Frobisher took part in another trading expedition to Guinea, during which he is said to have volunteered as a hostage to ease trade negotiations with an African king. The English fled when Portuguese ships arrived, and Frobisher entered Portuguese captivity.

Following his release in 1556 or 1557, Frobisher established a reputation as a fierce privateer, sometimes with a license, sometimes without. Although he was arrested on charges of piracy at least three times, he never faced trial, probably because he made sure to send at least some of his booty to the Royal Treasury. During this time he was also employed by Louis, Prince of Condé, William the Silent, and others to fight for the Protestants in the Revolt of the Spanish Netherlands, and by Queen Elizabeth in her campaign to subjugate Ireland.

First Voyage to America

Exactly when Frobisher first thought about sailing in search of a Northwest Passage is unknown, but he began actively seeking financial support for such a voyage sometime around 1570. His search ended in 1576, when the Muscovy Company agreed to license his expedition. With the help of company director Michael Lok, Frobisher was able to raise enough capital to build the Gabriell, a ship of about 20 tons, and to buy the 25-ton Michaell and a pinnacle of about 10 tens; the three ships had a total crew of 35. After receiving a good word from the Queen herself at Greenwich , Frobisher and his fleet set sail on June 7, 1576, reached the Shetland Islands on June 26, and sighted the east coast of Greenland on July 1.

A major storm off Greenland sank the pinnacle and nearly swamped the Gabriell. The expedition was further hampered when the captain of the Michaell became frightened of the ice around Greenland and decided to take the ship back to England. Despite the loss of the two ships, Frobisher continued his weatward voyage, and on July 28 he sighted a coast that he named Queen Elizabeth's Foreland (probably what is now called Resolution Island, off Labrador). What is now known as Frobisher Strait was entered a few days later, and Baffin Island was reached on August 18.

At Baffin Island, the Gabriell was met by natives who wanted to trade meat and furs for trinkets and clothing. Having made arrangements with one of the natives to guide them through the region, Frobisher sent five of his men in a ship's boat to return him to shore so he could prepare himself for the journey. The men failed to return, however. After a fruitless search along the coast for his missing men, Frobisher captured a native who had come to the ship in his kayak to trade and set sail for home.

The Gabriell's arrival in London, on October 9, was greeted with joy and admiration. Most of the joy was because the captain of the Michaell had reported the ship lost in the same storm that sank the pinnacle,while much of the admiration was due to the native and his kayak, both of which appeared quite strange to the English. The captured native, who had caught a cold at sea, died soon after the Gabriell's return.

Second Voyage to America

Although Frobisher did not return from America with any gold, he and Lok were able to convince investors to finance a second voyage. In March 1577 they formed the Cathay Company, under royal charter, with Lok as Governor and Frobisher as "High Admiral." Queen Elizabeth subscribed £1,000 of her own money, and lent a ship of 200 tons, the Ayde.

Frobisher set out from Harwich with the Ayde, the Gabrielle, the Michaell, and a total crew of about 120 men, on May 31, 1577. Greenland was passed on July 4, and the site of Frobisher's previous encounter with the natives was reached on July 17. Finding no significant gold ore at this site, Frobisher moved to another island in the strait. While miners and crewmen loaded the Ayde with about 200 tons of ore, Frobisher searched for his lost men, without success. Before leaving the mine and setting sail for home, on August 23, Frobisher took prisoner a native man and a woman with a child, all of whom died about a month after they reached England, on September 23.

Third Voyage to America

The gold ore Frobisher brought back to England proved to be low quality, but the Muscovy Company decided to finance another voyage anyway. On May 31, 1578, Frobisher, in the Ayde, led a fleet of 15 vessels from Harwich with the double object of establishing a settlement in Frobisher Strait and of bringing back 2,000 tons of ore.

On June 20, Frobisher took possession of Greenland in the name of Queen Elizabeth and renamed it West England. The entrance into Frobisher Strait was sighted on July 2, but ice and unfavorable winds kept the fleet from reaching its final destination until the end of July. During the delay, one ship was crushed by ice (its crew was saved), another deserted and returned to England, and a new strait (Hudson) was found (although Frobisher at first believed it to be "his" strait). In the short season remaining, the sailors carried out ship repairs and miners dug out and tested ore. ). Because most of the building timber had been lost with the sunken ship, the establishment of a wintering colony, one of the objects of the expedition, was given up.

On August 31, the remaining 13 ships, all of them loaded with ore, set sail for England, which was reached in very early October; one ship was wrecked en route. In England, attempts to refine gold from the ore continued at least until 1583, but the ore turned out to be worthless iron pyrite.

Later Life

In the autumn of 1578, Frobisher participated in a campaign to put down a rebellion in Ireland. From September 1585 to July 1586, he served as a Vice-Admiral in Sir Francis Drake's privateering expedition to the West Indies that did great damage to Spanish settlements and returned to England with a booty of £60,000. In 1588 Frobisher held one of the chief commands in the naval defense of England against the Spanish Armada; for this service he was knighted. Between 1589 and 1592, Frobisher made three expeditions to the Azores and captured a number of valuable Spanish ships.

In October 1594, Frobisher commanded a force sent to aid the Huguenots at Brest, France. In November, Frobisher was wounded during an attack at nearby Crozon. He died of his wounds at Plymouth, England, on November 15, and was buried at St. Plymouth's Church, Plymouth, on November 22..

Dictionary of Canadian Biography
History Learning Site

Queen Elizabeth
Northwest Passage
Sir Francis Drake

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This page was last updated on 11/14/2017.