William Baffin

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William Baffin


English Navigator, Ship Pilot, and Explorer

While searching for the elusive Northwest Passage, William Baffin made important discoveries about the geography of the northern reaches of the New World. During two of his most noteworthy expeditions—both with explorer Robert Bylot as commander—Baffin searched the waters now known as Hudson Bay or Baffin Bay for entrances to the Northwest Passage, which would connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. One of his expeditions with Bylot led the men and their crew to within 800 miles (1,287 km) of the North Pole—the northernmost point ever reached in the Canadian Arctic. The record stood for more than two centuries. Baffin's exploits in the Canadian Arctic are now immortalized in the names of Baffin Bay and Baffin Island.

Baffin was born around 1584 in or near London, but little else is known of him until he took the position of chief pilot for a Greenland-bound ship in 1612. He continued his adventures by taking positions in 1613 and 1614 aboard ships funded by the whaling outfit named the Muscovy Company. During these voyages, the English pilot was able to learn about the coasts of the Spitsbergen Islands in the icy waters about 500 miles (805 km) east of Greenland.

Baffin's experience in the Arctic helped him attain the title of chief pilot for an expedition commanded by Robert Bylot. The men set sail on March 15, 1615, aboard the Discovery, a ship made famous by explorer Henry Hudson (c. 1565-1611) when he discovered what is now known as Hudson Bay in 1610-1611. Baffin and Bylot planned to lead the Discovery back to Hudson Bay with the express purpose of determining whether a Northwest Passage originated from its waters. They got as far as the Hudson Strait, but were forced back by thick ice before they could enter Hudson Bay. Nonetheless, Baffin's observations during the trip allowed him to conclude that the Northwest Passage did not connect with Hudson Bay. He was right.

Baffin and Bylot returned to England for a short time before leaving on the Discovery for the Canadian Arctic on March 26, 1616. During this expedition, they ventured into a large expanse of water west of Greenland to a point farther north than any other North American explorers had gone. Baffin charted the serpentine coastline of the bay and the large adjacent island, both of which now carry his name. He also charted and named the Lancaster Sound, which connects to the bay on the west. The sound was later shown to be an entry point for the Northwest Passage, Baffin never identified it as such.

Although unsuccessful in the discovery of a Northwest Passage, Baffin's charts of the Hudson Strait and Baffin Bay provided important new information. He is also credited with making a significant navigational finding during the voyage by determining longitude at sea. His method involved calculating the distance of the moon from another more fixed celestial object. In addition, he maintained careful records on his observations of the Moon and stars, the tides and even the variations in his compass readings as they neared the Earth's magnetic pole. The latter helped future scientists to learn more about the pole's variations from year to year.

After he returned to England, Baffin continued his quest to find a Northwest Passage. He began a two-year voyage on February 4, 1617, in hopes of finding the passage from the Pacific side of the continent. The ship, commissioned by the East India Company, never traveled as far as the Pacific, however. Undeterred, he set out on another East India Company expedition in 1620. Almost two years into the voyage, the fleet engaged in a battle with Portuguese adversaries in the Persian Gulf. Baffin died in combat there on January 20, 1622.


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William Baffin

The English navigator and explorer William Baffin (ca. 1584-1622) discovered Baffin Bay and was active in the early exploration of the Arctic.

William Baffin's background and his activities prior to 1612 are either unknown or based on conjecture. He was probably born in London and appears to have been of humble birth. Self-educated but remarkably skilled in his profession, he wrote several accounts of voyages which demonstrate some exposure to classical literature. Little is known of his personal life, though Baffin's elderly widow appears in official documents as a somewhat quarrelsome petitioner of the East India Company. There is no evidence of any children surviving Baffin's death.

Baffin first appears in history in 1612, when he served as chief pilot aboard a vessel off the western coast of Greenland. In 1613 and 1614 he was with the Muscovy Company's whaling fleets off Svalbard (Spitsbergen), and in 1615 he explored the Hudson Strait. In 1616 the Northwest Passage Company employed Baffin as pilot aboard the ship Discovery under the command of Robert Bylot. This company, which had previously dispatched several other expeditions under such men as Henry Hudson and Sir Thomas Button, sought to discover a westward route to Asia.

The Discovery left England in March 1616. It passed beyond the farthest point reached by earlier expeditions, and Baffin explored the coast and inlets of the large bay subsequently named in his honor. Though Baffin failed to realize that Lancaster Sound, which he named in honor of one of the sponsors of the expedition, constituted an opening into the strait for which he was searching, he did chart and name the main features of Baffin Bay. The Discovery returned safely to England in August 1616.

Baffin, apparently convinced that the Northwest Passage could not be discovered from the western approaches, sought employment with the East India Company. His last two voyages (1617-1619 and 1620-1622) were to the East. In 1622 the fleet with which his ship sailed engaged in hostilities with a rival Portuguese fleet and besieged a Portuguese fortress in the Strait of Ormuz. During this siege Baffin "received a shot from the castle into his belly, wherewith he gave three leaps, and died immediately."

While chiefly known as the discoverer of Baffin Bay, Baffin made a significant contribution to early geography as a scientific navigator as well. He may have been the first seaman to determine longitude by use of the angular distance of the moon from some other celestial body. He was required to keep accurate logs, and in addition to astronomical observations he also recorded tidal movements and other phenomena. Some of the most important data collected by Baffin concerned magnetic variation in the Far North. His records of compass variations are permanently important in tracing the changes in the magnetic pole. Baffin was also an accomplished map maker.

Further Reading

An old but complete and interesting study of Baffin is Sir Clements R. Markham, The Voyages of William Baffin, 1612-1622 (1881). This work includes an excellent historical introduction and numerous accounts of Baffin's voyages written either by himself or by others who accompanied him. Augustine Courtauld, From the Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of Polar Writings (1958), also includes excerpts from Baffin's writings. A brief account is in Jeanette Mirsky, To the North! The Story of the Arctic Exploration from Earliest Times to the Present (1934; rev. ed. entitled To the Arctic! The Story of Northern Exploration from Earliest Times to the Present, 1948). Other books of interest are Sir Clements R. Markham, The Lands of Silence: A History of Arctic and Antarctic Exploration (1921); Nellis M. Crouse, The Search for the Northwest Passage (1934); and Paul Emile Victor, Man and the Conquest of the Poles (trans. 1963). □

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Baffin, William (1584–1622) English navigator and explorer. Baffin took part in several expeditions (1612–16) in search of the Northwest Passage. He discovered the Canadian Arctic seaways, the island now named after him, and Lancaster Sound. An outstanding navigator, he published a method of determining longitude by the stars, using nautical tables, and was possibly the first to make lunar observations at sea.

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Baffin, William (d. 1622). Explorer. Baffin, believed to be a Londoner, made a number of voyages in the 1610s looking for the North-West Passage. His measurements and observations were remarkably accurate. He was killed in India in a skirmish with the Portuguese. In 1821 the large island he had discovered to the north of Hudson Bay was named after him.

J. A. Cannon

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Baffin, William (c.1584–1622), English navigator and explorer, the pilot of several expeditions in search of the North-West Passage 1612–16. He discovered the largest island of the Canadian Arctic in 1616; this and the strait between it and Greenland are named after him.