Francis Drake was a magnificent sailor elevated to the status of a legend in England for circumnavigating the globe (fifty-nine years after Spanish Juan Sebastian Elcano did it) and for his encounters with the Spaniards, some successful and others not so much. But he was not the only one. That 16th-century England opened up to the sea since Henry VIII first and his daughter Elizabeth I later understood the necessity of it in an insular country and promoted an efficient naval construction policy, until then almost nonexistent, giving rise to a generation of great navigators. One of the most prominent was named Martin Frobisher.

His life had quite a parallel with that of Drake, as we will see, although it is not strange because the same could be said of Walter Raleigh, John Hawkins, and others. Born in Wakefield around 1535, he was the youngest of five siblings belonging to the local minor nobility, of Scottish descent. As he was orphaned at a very young age, he was sent to London in the care of his uncle, Sir John York, who was a merchant and Master of the Mint, and who directed him towards a seafaring life, embarking him for the first time in 1544.

However, his first significant voyage would not come until 1553, on what was the first English expedition to Africa: three ships under the command of Thomas Wyndham, which arrived on the Guinea coast in search of spices. They were received by the oba (king) of Benin, who gave them eighty tons of pepper, but things ended badly: diseases claimed two-thirds of the men, including Wyndham himself.

Eighteenth-century map of the region of Guinea visited by the English expedition/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Frobisher not only survived but returned the following year on a journey organized by the Lok brothers, merchant sailors (and ancestors of the philosopher John Locke). This time too, there were problems, and when they were negotiating with the natives, they held him hostage, leaving his companions stranded. The expedition returned to England loaded with riches, but young Frobisher stayed there until the natives handed him over to the Portuguese, who imprisoned him for nine months before sending him to Lisbon. Frobisher would not set foot in his homeland again until 1558.

The following year, 1559, he married Isobel Richard, a wealthy widow whose money would prove essential to finance her husband’s plans. These plans involved chartering some ships to search for the Northwest Passage, one of the great obsessions of the time for British sailors because if found, it would be a gateway to Asia, providing an alternative route to the ones monopolized by the Portuguese by doubling the Cape of Good Hope and the Spaniards doing the same through the Strait of Magellan or the route from Acapulco.

He didn’t have it easy, and before that, he had to gain experience in command, sailing as a privateer in the English Channel under the command of John Hawkins and other captains. By the way, this cost him some time in the shadows, as punishment for assaulting the ship Catherine, which carried a shipment of rich tapestries to Philip II; he officially protested to the English court, and Queen Elizabeth I addressed it by sending the sailor to jail.

Anonymous portrait of John Hawkins/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In 1565, having acquired the rank of captain, he bought a ship to sail on his own account, the Mary Flower, and continued his exploits along the Irish coast under a letter of marque. As was common, he did not always respect the terms of the contract and was accused of piracy several times, although he never had to appear in court again.

By then, in the mid-1570s, he had already separated from his wife, leaving her ruined with the two children she had from the previous marriage; he wouldn’t even learn of her death, which occurred in 1588 in a shelter for the poor. He had more than amortized the marriage because by 1574, he already had what he wanted: a ship, experience, and sufficient information to undertake his long-awaited intercontinental project.

After a couple of years of negotiations, he gained the support of the Muscovy Company (the first joint-stock company to operate in England, through a commercial monopoly with the Grand Duchy of Moscow) to charter three ships and search for the Northwest Passage: they were named Gabriel and Michael (the third was a small ten-ton pinnace, unnamed) with only thirty-five men. The queen herself came to bid them farewell as they set sail and headed towards Greenland. A storm sank the pinnace and forced Michael to return, but Gabriel continued on and reached what they thought was the Labrador Peninsula; it was actually Baffin Island.

Kalicho, one of the Eskimos taken to England (John White)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Frobisher discovered the strait – actually an elongated bay – which he named after himself, mistakenly thinking it was the mythical passage, while continuing to explore. Several of his sailors fell into the hands of the Inuit and could never be rescued; in exchange, the English returned to their country with a captive who died shortly after arriving, due to a cold.

The journey had not been particularly profitable, but it aroused enthusiasm in the Crown, to which they lied, saying that a large black stone they had brought contained traces of gold. The magical word had enough echo to encourage Elizabeth I to authorize a second expedition and even contribute a thousand pounds in funding.

He set sail in 1577, after the establishment of the foolishly named Company of Cathay, consisting of a hundred and twenty men distributed among three ships (one of them, the Ayde, a two-hundred-ton, eighteen-cannon vessel, loaned by the Royal Navy). In the capitulations, Frobisher requested to be appointed admiral of the Northwest Seas and governor of the lands he discovered, in addition to receiving five percent of the profits from the trade; simultaneously, the owners of the company requested the exclusive exploitation of the resources to be found and that Frobisher be assigned a much lower percentage. As there was no documented response to either party, the legal vacuum worked in favor of the Crown.

Departure of the third Frobisher expedition (Gordon Miller)/Image: Canadian Museum of History

The fleet had good weather, crossed the Atlantic, and arrived at Frobisher Strait two months later, landing on Hall Island to officially take possession of that land. The men engaged in collecting minerals and had some skirmishes with the Inuit, taking three hostages with them when they returned at the end of August. The Eskimos died within a few weeks, while Frobisher was received at Windsor Palace, and those interested in the business argued about whether the brought mineral compensated for the expenses, given that the Northwest Passage had not been found.

But the queen was excited about that new Meta Incognita that she had incorporated into her realm, so her opinion was decisive in preparing a third expedition, much more ambitious than the previous ones: fifteen ships and four hundred men who had, among other missions, to establish a colony.

The fleet set sail on June 3, 1578, reached Greenland on the 20th, and arrived at Frobisher Bay on July 2. But this time the weather did not cooperate: a snowstorm prevented them from landing, pushing them through a channel that was none other than the current Hudson Strait, but which they named Mistaken Straid, thinking it had no chance of being the coveted passage, which is why they turned around.

Sir Martin Frobisher portrayed by Cornelis Ketel/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

As on previous occasions, they collected a considerable amount of mineral. However, internal dissensions prevented them from founding a stable settlement, and they ended up weighing anchor to sight England in October. There, the merchandise was taken to a foundry to extract the gold; it did not appear anywhere, and the material ended up being used to asphalt roads. It would take years to determine that it was not the desired precious metal but pyrite, very similar in appearance but devoid of value. Consequently, the trip had been disastrous from an economic point of view, and the Company of Cathay went bankrupt, dragging Frobisher’s dream of finding the Northwest Passage with it.

After his exploratory phase, he resumed his military career by serving Sir William Wynter in the squadron that led to suppressing the Desmond Irish rebellion in 1579. That campaign lasted for several years, and later, in 1585, he joined Francis Drake to harass the Spanish Caribbean possessions, from which they obtained a rich booty. He also participated in the famous attack on Cadiz in 1587, which resulted in the theft of thousands of casks of sherry, a drink that became very popular in England thereafter. But Frobisher’s most famous action took place in 1588 when he was appointed to command the Triumph galleon, the largest in the Royal Navy, from which he led one of the four sections into which the British fleet was divided to counter the invasion threat planned by Philip II.

The Triumph fought against the San Juan from Portugal, Juan Martínez de Recalde’s ship, forcing the galleasses to come to its rescue. He was also one of those who shared the credit for the surrender of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, commanded by Pedro de Valdés. His group harassed the San Martín, where the Duke of Medina Sidonia was traveling, until other ships came to the aid of his flagship. Due to the momentum and the headwind, the Triumph was surrounded by thirty ships and was about to be lost, but Frobisher’s skill managed to save the situation, escaping the encirclement.

Routes of Frobisher’s three voyages/Image: Social Studies

In the midst of the campaign, the intrepid English captain was knighted by Lord Howard aboard the Ark Royal. Then, the fire ships launched against the Armada in Gravelines caused chaos and led Medina Sidonia to put an end to the so-called Enterprise of England since the Tercios he was supposed to escort through the English Channel could not appear either. Thus, Frobisher returned to his country as a hero, which favored his second marriage in 1590 to the daughter of Lord Wentworth. He settled with his wife in Yorkshire, now as an affluent figure in the aristocracy.

That did not prevent him from embarking again in 1592, taking command of a fleet that Sir Walter Raleigh sent to the Spanish coast to try to intercept the Treasure Fleet, capturing his subordinates the Portuguese galleon Madre de Deus, which was loaded with riches (gold and silver coins, jewels, ambergris, ebony, cochineal, fabrics, more than half a thousand tons of spices…). Two years later, he also participated in the naval siege of Morlaix, achieving the surrender of the fortress, which was in the hands of a Spanish garrison and its allies from the Catholic League. The following month, he tried to repeat success in Fort Crozon when a Spanish musket shot hit him in the thigh, and the infection from the treatment ended his life.

The desire to discover the Northwest Passage did not die with him, but the resolution was long in coming since, along with the sources of the Nile, it would be the great goal of geographers and explorers until 1906 when the Norwegian Roald Amundsen found and crossed it.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 18, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Martin Frobisher, el marino que durante años envió cargamentos de pirita a Inglaterra pensando que era oro


The three voyages of Martin Frobisher (George Best y Sir Richard Collinson)/Martin Frobisher (ca. 1540- 1594) (L.H. Neatby)/ Martin Frobisher. Elizabethan privateer (James McDermott)/The three voyages of Martin Frobisher (Vilhjalmur Stefansson)/Wikipedia

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