University Affairs
vol.38, no.9 (November 1997).
© Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.
Reproduced with permission.


By Peggy Berkowitz

If they remember him at all from high school history class, many Canadians will know Martin Frobisher as an early English explorer, one of the first of many who sought a Northwest Passage to Asia through the frozen Arctic. But thanks to new historical and archeological research from opposite sides of the Atlantic, Frobisher may soon become more widely known for other audacious exploits in the Arctic.

He may become famous as the man who inspired the first Bre-X-type scandal on Canadian soil, with a piece of worthless black rock brought back from his first trip to the Arctic. Through incompetence, fraud or more likely both, the rock tested falsely as gold-bearing ore, and launched the first "Canadian" gold rush - and gold bust.

Or he may be admired as the leader of the biggest peacetime sea voyage to the Canadian Arctic. His third trip in 1578, with a fleet of 15 ships and more than 400 seamen, tradesmen and miners, remains the largest Arctic sea expedition ever in the Canadian Arctic, with the exception of naval operations during World War II.

Finally, Martin Frobisher may become better known as the explorer who, under orders from Queen Elizabeth I, intended to establish an English colony of 100 men near Frobisher Bay four centuries ago. Although the loss of a supply ship put an end to that ill-conceived plan, he and his mining expedition left the oldest English archeological remains in North America - pre-dating England's Jamestown settlement in Virginia by a generation.

These exploits are coming to the fore these days because of an ambitious research project that took place over the past six years. The effort brought together experts in a range of fields, including Elizabethan shipbuilding, 16th century medicine, archeobiology, Inuit oral history, blacksmithing, espionage, nutrition, metallurgy and cartography, to try and answer certain enigmas about Frobisher's great voyages of 1576, 1577 and 1578. Graduate students and professors from several Canadian universities were involved.

The project was chaired by Thomas Symons, founding president and professor emeritus of Trent University and a fervent supporter of Canadian studies. It was named Meta Incognita, meaning the unknown shore, the term used by Queen Elizabeth I to identify the point that Frobisher had reached as the bounds of human (that is, European) knowledge.

Recently, some 50 researchers and project funders from Britain, Canada and the United States got together at Trent University to share what they had learned. Thanks to their research, we now have a small trove of archeological finds, many historical details, a few answers and several more questions.

We know for certain that Frobisher never found gold - but he may have overlooked diamonds. We know what his men ate (a high fibre diet, alternating meat and non-meat days) and from the remains of stores that were buried in a trench on Kodlunarn Island in Frobisher Bay, we know what 400-year-old peas look like; we may soon know about the peas' DNA composition. We know there was a Spanish spy on board Frobisher's ship, who said the gold assays were salted before they reached England. We think Queen Elizabeth, the biggest investor, was interested in the voyages not only for gold, but also because the very act of exploring America for riches would challenge the power of the King of Spain.

Besides adding a fascinating page to British and Canadian history, the project involved Inuit elders and Inuit young people, both to learn from them and offer them a way of unlocking their own history.

"It seems curious to me that these Frobisher voyages have been until recently forgotten," said Dr Symons in his opening remarks to participants at the Meta Incognita conference.

In typical Canadian fashion, it was the Americans who piqued our interest. In 1981 and 1990, William Fitzhugh of the Washington, D.C.-based Smithsonian Institute led archeological field trips (with Canadians participating) to the site of Frobisher's expedition to Kodlunarn Island and other Inuit sites near Frobisher Bay.

A number of Canadian government agencies were concerned about a U.S.-led team literally digging up a National Historic site. (The designation had been given by Parks Canada in 1964, though little was ever done with the site, which was seriously eroding when the Smithsonian got there.) Thus in 1990, the Meta Incognita Project was formed under Dr Symons, with participation and funding by the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Parks Canada and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife. Canadian funding over seven years totalled some $300,000, plus in-kind support from the museum and other sources. The Smithsonian contribution to the archeology of the Frobisher voyages (including fieldwork in 1981 and 1990 and support to graduate students) amounted to about $250,000 US, plus in-kind support for Smithsonian staff involved in the project.

The archeological side of the project was directed at first by Robert McGhee, a senior Canadian Museums archeologist, and then by Réginald Auger, a Canadian from Université Laval who had worked on the Smithsonian team. In the United Kingdom, a group of Elizabethan history specialists was brought together by Sir Ian Gourlay, former commanding officer of the Royal Marines and a former director general of the United World Colleges. Working on an expenses-only budget, the historians volunteered their time to the project. Sir Ian's "happy band of scholars" would meet every month or two in the historic rooms of the Royal Geographic Society to discuss what they had uncovered.

"The thing that attracted the researchers, by and large, was their intrinsic interest in the story itself," said Sir Ian.

In June of 1576, Martin Frobisher left England with three small ships in a quest for the Northwest Passage. By the end of July he sighted land, now known as Resolution Island. Confronted with bad storms and "monstrous high islands and mountains of ice," he and his men spent two weeks passing up and down the coast, unable to land. By the end of August, they'd met some Natives whom they feared as hostile, in keeping with the xenophobic attitudes of Elizabethan England. Frobisher lost five men and kidnapped one Inuit who, along with his kayak, was taken back to England as a "token of possession" of the new land. The only other token his men gathered was a piece of heavy black rock.

Back in London, the voyage was considered a failure and Frobisher was deep in debt. The Inuit captive caused a stir until he died soon after. Pieces of the rock found their way to three assayers. Two of them declared it worthless, but a third said it would yield up to 25 ounces of gold to the ton. (Asked how he came to find gold when the others hadn't, the assayer explained that "nature had to be coaxed.")

Although fraud in assaying was common in Elizabethan England, the single report of high-grade gold ore kindled enough hope to raise 4,000 - equivalent to perhaps $2 million today, according to a Meta Incognita scholar. One of Frobisher's first backers, the well-connected merchant Michael Lok, was made governor of a common stock company formed to finance the trip, with Queen Elizabeth I contributing a quarter of the total. This time the quest was for gold, rather than a route to China.

In May of 1577, Frobisher set off again, and landed on a tiny rocky island on the east side of Frobisher Bay. The rock he and his men mined on and around Kodlunarn Island was given readings by Frobisher's chief assayer of an astounding 40 ounces per ton. They sailed for England in August, now loaded with more than 150 tons of ore and three abducted Inuit on board - a man, a woman and her baby (all of whom soon died in England).

With news of the initial assays from the Arctic, gold fever in England grew. Small investors wanted in on the action. But a new study for the Meta Incognita project of the financial accounts of the three voyages by James McDermott, a British historian, shows that many of the early investors were growing wary, choosing to buy warrants rather than boost their outright stock purchases. It took a curiously long time for London-based assayers to offer their readings of the ore, yet plans were made for the third voyage before any more results were released to the public. Because of the Queen's involvement, investors were barred from withdrawing.

So in the spring of 1578, Frobisher led a third fleet of ships to the Canadian Arctic.

The 15 sailing vessels were laden with supplies, including lumber to build housing for 100 men who were supposed to winter over. Thirty-two per cent of the fleet's carrying capacity was beer. The ships' records are so detailed that they reveal the names of the doctors as well as the food and drugs taken on board.

Although the odd European ship had visited the Arctic over the years, this fleet was more than unusual. "Imagine 15 boats with 538 people on those boats"coming up the sound, said Susan Rowley, an archeologist and oral historian of Canadian Inuit. "It would have been astounding to the people who saw it."

After another summer of prospecting and mining, Frobisher left behind a house of wood and stone and a cache of provisions and lumber, making room on board for 1,300 tons of precious ore. (They had lost most of the ale due to leaks, which caused grief for the return voyage.) This time when they set out, they were met with a huge storm and slabs of drifting ice, which scattered the smaller boats, pushing them onto rocks. Some men were washed overboard and several of the small boats sank, in a pandemonium that one conference participant compared to "the evacuation of Saigon without the helicopters." All the big ships reached London, where another storm was brewing.

The assays from the second voyage, by this time complete, had shown the ore was worthless. (The third voyage's assayers had coincidentally lost every assay record on their return trip.) As the enterprise began to fail, Frobisher and his main backer, Lok, became public enemies. Both went to jail, but Frobisher fared much better than Lok (who was ruined for life), being reinstated to fight the Spanish Armada as second-in-command under Sir Francis Drake.

(A colorful portrait of the two men by Mr McDermott, the historian, reveals Lok as the true visionary, who risked and lost his reputation and great personal wealth to his lifelong dream of finding a Northwest Passage. Frobisher comes across as a self-serving and dishonest adventurer and pirate, who cared little about his men and whose "claimed skills in seamanship exceeded his talents.")

Until now, historians had viewed Frobisher's third voyage as illogical: without solid proof of gold, why would Queen Elizabeth I finance a third voyage to Baffin Island at a cost of the equivalent of millions of dollars? But Meta Incognita scholars showed that the Queen's true purpose in backing the third trip may have been to challenge the power of the King of Spain without having to start a war. "The real motive of the third voyage was to establish a colony in the New World," asserted British historian Robert Baldwin.

Relations were already poor between Spain, a great naval power, and England, an upstart but still a minor player in marine adventures. Spain, the world leader in precious metals and self-proclaimed possessor of the New World, worried that Frobisher's northwest route might be a guise to cloud his real intentions to plunder the West Indies.

Because of tensions between England and Spain, it was normal for sensitive material to be sent in code from the Spanish embassy in London to the home government in Spain. Bernard Allaire, a young Quebec historian now working in France, was able to crack two codes in a ciphered letter sent to King Phillip II of Spain by the Spanish ambassador to England, a letter which proved there was a Spanish spy on board Frobisher's ship. The spy revealed that metallurgists had salted ore samples from earlier voyages. "Though fearful of discovery, they augmented assay results of the previous years in order to encourage interested parties who maintain it is the will and power of the Queen to make a return voyage," wrote Ambassador Don Bernardino de Mendoza to the Spanish King.

At the same time that scholars working on the Meta Incognita project in Britain and France were revealing delectable details about the Frobisher voyages, archeologists and other specialists were unearthing more information at the site. Accompanied by two Inuit elders, they found three of Frobisher's seven mines on the island and the mainland, and have a good hunch about three more. The team excavated the remains of a house used by Frobisher's men, and the so-called Ship's Trench, the first mine that Frobisher excavated and the site where he and his men buried supplies against a possible return voyage.

"The past is so close there you can touch it,"said Robert McGhee, the Canadian Museum archeologist. "You can see the hand spikes where Frobisher and his men gripped the wall."

Although much of the useful materials had been removed from the trench by local Inuit over the centuries, the trench still held remains of 400-year-old bread, thousands of shrivelled peas, wood chips, tile fragments and a basket used by miners. Dr Auger's excavations suggest more of the buried cache may have survived than anticipated, but only extensive and damaging digging could determine this.

Inookie Adamie, who attended the Trent conference, contributed a unique viewpoint to the project. Born on Baffin Island in 1929, he grew up in the area where Frobisher had mined. Mr Adamie is one of the main sources of information for the oral history that is still being collected.

Among the researchers taking part in the on-site work was Don Hogarth, a University of Ottawa geologist whose specialty is the rock formations around Ottawa but who has nurtured a sideline fascination with Frobisher's gold search ever since he was an undergraduate 40 years ago. (He combs used bookshops for anything to do with the Frobisher voyages, and he is the one who instigated the search for the coded letter that revealed the Spanish spy.)

Dr Hogarth's analysis of six samples of the same ore showed 80 parts per million of a gold-silver alloy "or one 1/26,000th of the amount the Elizabethans found." Further metallurgical investigations of the Frobisher mine sites turned up some rare ignis rock which, in Australia, is the kind of material that contains some of the richest diamond troves in the world. "We didn't find any diamonds," said Dr Hogarth, "but then we didn't look." Had they known about it, the potentially diamond-bearing rock "would have tantalized Frobisher's men, but they could never have got diamonds out of the solid rock," he added.

With the Trent conference, the six-year project has come to an end, and the next step will be publishing reports by scholars involved with Meta Incognita, most likely in two volumes. The project's steering committee will make recommendations about what should be done to manage the site and, if possible, protect it from wind and sea erosion. Although there are still some unanswered questions, Arctic exploration is very expensive. "And the knowledge we've acquired for this site is so much larger than what we have for most other historic sites," noted Peter Lamb, acting superintendent for Nunavut with Parks Canada.

Nonetheless, it wouldn't be surprising to see scholars continue their research, particularly on the archival side. Once bitten, it's hard to give up on the mystery of this long-ago adventure or the fascination with this remote place which the late Canadian archeologist Walter Kenyon called "a small piece of Elizabethan landscape adrift among the iceflows of Arctic Canada."

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