The Discovery of Baffin Bay

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The Discovery of Baffin Bay


William Baffin (c. 1584-1622) was one of many explorers who searched the waters of northern North America for a cross-continental Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Baffin is noted as a highly skilled navigator and ship pilot who discovered Baffin Bay, traveled to the northernmost reaches of the continent, and became the first to determine longitude at sea. Although he never found the passage, he came close by charting the Lancaster Sound. More than two centuries later, explorers identified the sound as an entrance to the Northwest Passage.


By the time of Baffin's voyages in the early 1600s, the Spanish and Portuguese had already found paths to the treasured lands of China and southeast Asia by routes around South America and Africa. Their control of these southern passages left other European nations, including France and England, to place their focus on finding a passage through the northern reaches of either North America or Asia. With the great riches of eastern Asia at stake, the desire to find Northeast or Northwest passages was intense.

The search began in earnest in the late 1500s and early 1600s with the voyages of Englishman Martin Frobisher (c. 1535-1594) in 1576, John Davis (c. 1550-1605) in 1585-1587, and Henry Hudson (1565?-1611) in 1610. Through these expeditions, the explorers collectively discovered straits, sounds, and bays, some of which retain their names today. Baffin joined the quest to find the Northwest passage in 1615 as the chief pilot on the Discovery, the ship made famous by Hudson's historic voyage of 1610.

Baffin joined the Discovery under the command of explorer Robert Bylot, and the men set sail from England on March 15, 1615. They had hoped to scour the coast of Hudson Bay for entry to the Northwest Passage, but when they neared Hudson Bay in the autumn, they found it packed in by ice. Instead, Baffin made numerous observations, kept meticulous notes and charted as far as possible along the Hudson Strait. He also collected enough information to conclude that the passage wasn't accessible via the Hudson Bay. He was later found to have been correct.

After returning to England long enough to put together another expedition, Baffin and Bylot returned to North America in 1616 to search farther north for a passage. They sailed to the west of Greenland into what is now known as Baffin Bay. Exploring its entire coastline, Baffin again made detailed geographical descriptions of the surrounding area. The navigator noted and charted the presence of the large Lancaster Sound on the west coast of the bay, but failed to identify it as an entry point for the Northwest Passage. While exploring the coast of the bay, he also kept precise records of his astronomical observations, tidal changes and compass readings. Before it was over, the voyage took the expedition to within 800 miles (1,287 km) of the North Pole, a latitude farther north than any other European explorer had ventured or would venture for more than 200 years. The five-month expedition returned to England in August.

In 1617, Baffin signed on with an expedition run by the East India Company. He left with hopes of finding the Northwest Passage from the Pacific side rather than the Atlantic, but was disappointed. The expedition headed eastward as far as India, but never even entered the Pacific Ocean before its return in 1619. Undaunted, he set sail on a company ship again in 1620. This expedition had a fatal ending for Baffin, who was killed during a battle with a Portuguese stronghold in the Persian Gulf on January 20, 1622.


With each expedition into northern North America, European explorers provided a glimpse into the unknown reaches of Canada and the Canadian Arctic. The stories of their adventures, along with ship logs, navigational notes and geographical descriptions continued to build upon one another. Each expedition paved the way for the next, allowing explorers to follow previous men's paths into Canada's northern waters and along her inland straits, and then press farther.

Baffin's first recorded voyage in 1612 took him to the west coast of Greenland. During the next two years, he took part in two whaling trips to islands east of Greenland. With a familiarity for the area, this inquisitive navigator was prepared to serve as chief pilot of the 1615 and 1616 voyages with Bylot. The 1615 trip up the Hudson Strait helped verify Hudson's important discovery of the bay named in his honor, and provided critical detail of the Hudson Strait. Perhaps most important, it also discounted the Hudson Bay as a potential entrance to the Northwest Passage, and encouraged further exploration of the Canadian Arctic.

While his trip to Hudson Bay was noteworthy, his 1616 voyage to Baffin Bay brought him fame. Although explorers and fishermen had rounded the massive expanse of Greenland and viewed its adjacent southwestern waters, the expedition of Baffin and Bylot penetrated much farther north into the remote Baffin Bay. Baffin was careful in his descriptions of the geography of the coast. The results of the circumnavigation of the bay were extremely accurate maps of its coastline, including explicit notations of Lancaster Sound. Despite Baffin's reputation as a skilled recorder of geographical features, however, Baffin Bay was eventually removed from some maps because future generations of mapmakers doubted its existence. The next major explorer to tour the northwestern waters off Greenland verified the bay's presence, but not until 1818.

Baffin discounted Baffin Bay as an entry point to the Northwest Passage. Incorrect in this conclusion, his report still had an impact on future exploration by turning attention away from the isolated bay and to other northern areas of both North America and Asia. In the meantime, the Portuguese and Spanish were able to maintain their hold on trade with the nations of eastern Asia.

On the scientific front, Baffin's keen observational and proficient record-keeping skills provided important insights into navigation. Until the 1616 voyage, ship captains and navigators had to rely on imprecise estimates and educated guesses to determine their exact east-west location. Baffin solved the problem by watching how the Moon tracked across the night sky. Specifically, he measured the distance of the Moon in degrees from some other celestial body that remained more fixed in the sky, such as a star. Taking into account the Moon's sweeping arc across the sky each night, and the distance between the Moon and the fixed object, he was able to calculate the near-exact location of the ship. This calculation made by Baffin is often heralded as the first time that longitude was determined at sea.

His records of deviations in his compass readings also proved to be significant as scientists began to study Earth's magnetic field and particularly variations in its magnetic north. Studies now indicate that magnetic north and true north can vary by several degrees, and the amount of that variation can change from year to year. The information Baffin collected made future Arctic explorers aware that their compasses might not always point to true north, instead fading off by a few degrees. Such a variation could potentially veer a ship off-course by many miles.

Overall, Baffin made many contributions to navigation and exploration. His mastery in observation, navigation and record-keeping opened up the Canadian Arctic to exploration, generated exceptional detail for future maps, solved the puzzle of longitude determination at sea, and provided information that helped scientists understand more about the Earth's magnetic field.


Further Reading

Baker, Daniel B., ed. Explorers and Discovers of the World, first edition. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.

Byers, Paula K. Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

Crouse, N. The Search for the Northwest Passage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1934.

Edmonds, J., commissioning ed. Oxford Atlas of Exploration. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Markham, C., ed. The Voyages of William Baffin, 1612-1622. London: Hakluyt Society, 1881.

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The Discovery of Baffin Bay

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The Discovery of Baffin Bay