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Sir Martin Frobisher

Sir Martin Frobisher

Sir Martin Frobisher (ca. 1538-1594), English explorer, naval commander, and soldier, initiated Europe's search for a Northwest Passage to the Orient and discovered the Hudson Strait.

Martin Frobisher, born in Yorkshire, went to London as a boy to be educated by a relative. He showed no aptitude for book learning, so his kinsman sent him to sea. Before reaching manhood Frobisher had been on two voyages to the Guinea Coast. On the second he was captured and handed over to the Portuguese garrisoning São Jorge da Mina, who allowed him to return to England. For a time he engaged in piracy, though he never attacked English ships.

By the 1570s England had largely abandoned hope of finding a Northeast Passage to Asia, and thoughts turned to the Northwest. Frobisher formed a partnership with Michael Lok, a man of some means and learning. Frobisher's first voyage, in 1576, took him to Frobisher Bay in Baffin Island, which he at first claimed as the strait; he also captured an Eskimo whom Lok supposed was a Tatar from north of China.

English investors, including Queen Elizabeth, overlooked Frobisher's former piracy to pour money into Lok's Company of Cathay. Frobisher sailed again in 1577, this time to ship home what he mistakenly thought was gold-bearing ore. Lok still felt hopeful and sent Frobisher back in 1578. This time the mariner discovered the Hudson Strait, which he followed for nearly 200 miles and acknowledged to be a more promising Northwest Passage than Frobisher Bay. He brought home more dirt and rocks, but English confidence had evaporated; Lok went to a debtors' prison and Frobisher sought other employment.

Frobisher accompanied Sir Francis Drake to the West Indies in 1585-1586. When Philip II's Spanish Armada entered the English Channel in 1588, Frobisher's part in the fighting was distinguished, and he received knighthood. He died of a bullet wound, received near Brest, where he had been sent to relieve the Spanish siege. He lived just long enough to be taken back to Plymouth.

Further Reading

William McFee, Life of Sir Martin Frobisher (1928), is an adequate biography. Highly recommended is George Best's 16th-century work, The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher in Search of a Passage to Cathay and India, edited by Vilhjalmur Stefansson (2 vols., 1938). James A. Williamson, Age of Drake (1938; 5th ed. 1965), covers Frobisher's entire career, although this information is scattered throughout the work. Frobisher is also discussed in Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (1971). □

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Frobisher, Sir Martin

Sir Martin Frobisher (frō´bĬshər), 1535?–1594, English mariner. He went to sea as a boy, and spent much of his youth in the African trade. He later gained the friendship of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, through whom he became interested in the Northwest Passage. Licensed by Queen Elizabeth I and backed by a group of merchant adventurers, Frobisher made three voyages (1576, 1577, and 1578) to the Arctic in search of the passage. On his first voyage he sailed into Frobisher Bay to S Baffin Island, and from its shores brought back some black ore thought to contain gold and an Eskimo to prove his belief that he had actually reached fabled Cathay. Returning to Baffin Island on his next two journeys, he explored Frobisher Bay to its head and penetrated a short distance up Hudson Strait. Since his geographical discovery was slight and no gold was revealed in his cargoes of ore, Frobisher's name was discredited for a time. In 1585, however, he won glory as commander of a ship in Sir Francis Drake's expedition to the West Indies and was knighted for his services with Drake and Sir John Hawkins in the defeat of the Spanish Armada (see Armada, Spanish) in 1588. He died as the result of wounds received at Brest during an English campaign against the Spanish. The narratives of his voyages, first published in 1578, have passed through several editions. The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher by George Best was edited from the original 1578 text by Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1937).

See biography by J. McDermott (2001); study by R. Ruby (2001).

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Frobisher, Sir Martin

Frobisher, Sir Martin (c.1535–94). Although notable as an early English sea trader in west Africa and the eastern Mediterranean in the 1550s and later associated with Drake in the West Indies expedition of 1585–6 and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Frobisher is best remembered as an explorer who made three attempts in the period 1576–8 to find the North-West Passage. The first to penetrate so far, Frobisher discovered Baffin Island and sailed some way into the Hudson Strait, opening the way for later explorers. Frobisher was distracted by thinking he had found gold in the bay which bears his name in Baffin Land, but it was iron pyrites. After more encounters with the Spanish in the 1590s, Frobisher was killed at Brest.

Roy C. Bridges

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Sir Martin Frobisher

Sir Martin Frobisher

1539-1594

English Explorer

Sir Martin Frobisher was one of the first Englishmen to search for the Northwest Passage, and he personally led three expeditions to the Canadian Arctic. He is known as one of Queen Elizabeth I's most aggressive and enterprising seamen, feared by Europeans for his privateering and for his role in the battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Martin Frobisher was born into an influential family in England in 1539—his father was the director of the English mint. In his teen years, instead of pursuing higher education, he joined two trading voyages to West Africa. After his adventures in Africa, Frobisher fought in the English army in Ireland and then became a privateer—a pirate commissioned by the Queen to attack enemy ships and then keep part of the proceeds. During his privateer days, he became very interested in the tales of the Northwest Passage, a supposed route far to the north of Canada that would link Europe to Asia.

He discussed this idea with many leading scientists in England at the time. Well known was Sir Humphrey Gilbert's (c. 1539-1583) book, Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Passage to Cataia, a speculative geography suggesting the probability of a passage above North America, mirroring the passage around South America at the Cape of Good Hope. This work intrigued him and he decided to raise an expedition and investigate the hypothesis.

In 1575 Frobisher convinced the shareholders of a Russian company to invest in a voyage to search for the Northwest Passage. Funding procured, the expedition embarked with three ships and 35 crew members. Sailing northwestward, they sighted the coast of Greenland. However, they were caught in a storm off the coast of Greenland, and the ships were separated. One returned to England and another with Frobisher on board was reported missing. He, however, continued to sail westward, sighted Resolution Island, discovered the great inlet on Baffin Bay, and encountered a group of native Inuit people. After collecting ore samples and an Inuit Indian, he returned to England. Most of the samples were considered pyrite or "fool's gold," however, some individuals believed that they indicated deposits of real gold, and he was able to get funding for another expedition. Queen Elizabeth I herself invested money in this company and furnished a ship in hopes of Frobisher finding gold.

In 1577 Frobisher, under his new company name, Cathay, set out with three ships and 120 crew members to travel back to Baffin Bay (now called Frobisher Bay) and look for gold. He loaded approximately 200 tons of ore onto his ships and captured an Inuit man, woman, and child to take back to England. On his return, the ore assay showed the mineral deposits to be worthless, but Frobisher decided to send out an even larger expedition to bring back more extensive samples.

In 1578 Frobisher left England as the head of 15 ships with the mission to mine for ore and look for a Northwest Passage that might lead to the Orient. While sailing south of Baffin Island, they entered what is now known as Hudson Strait. He was convinced this was the passage they had been looking for. However, the massive ice, freezing wind, and erratic currents would not allow the ships to proceed. He returned to Frobisher Bay and built a stone house whose remains were found nearly 300 years later.

After the expedition's return to England, metal workers were unable to refine the ore into gold. Abandoning this venture, Frobisher continued on in the British navy and as a privateer. In 1588 he served as a commander in the battle against the Spanish Armada, during which he was wounded; he eventually died of complications in 1594. Although he did not find the Northwest Passage, he is credited with adding vital information to the geographical understanding of the northern latitudes.

LESLIE HUTCHINSON

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