Northwestern Exploration Before Frobisher


The search for a northwest passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific began early in the sixteenth century and continued into the nineteenth. In 1507 or 1508, Sebastian Cabot became the first explorer to attempt to travel through such a passage, later claiming to have had the support of Henry VII of England in this mission. How far into Arctic waters he penetrated is uncertain, for he was a tale-spinner. Though the northwest route remained an obsession for Cabot, he was not given another opportunity to return and explore further.

The reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) was marked by limited activity in the northwest Atlantic. In 1527, perhaps influenced by seeing Johannes Schöner's globe, he sent two ships to survey the North American coast. Only one made it back to England, having accomplished its mission. In 1541 London merchant Roger Barlow presented an argument to the King for another northwest expedition, on the grounds that it was the only route left open, given Spanish domination of the southern Atlantic. Though seriously considered by the Privy Council, the proposal was eventually dropped. The following year, cartographer John Ross presented to King Henry VIII an atlas (which the French king had refused) that included the first representations to reach England of the discoveries made by Jacques Cartier on his first and second voyages.

In 1547, the same year of Henry VIII's death, Sebastian Cabot returned to England after spending many years in Spain. He was still very much committed to the concept of a northwest passage. That same year, after completing his education in France, John Dee returned to England filled with the latest geographical and cartographic information and ready to support the idea of a northwest route to Asia.

Though for a time Henry VIII seemed interested in further exploratory voyages, his interest gradually diminished. It was not until the reign of Edward VI and his Protectors, the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland, that overseas ventures were promoted. Discussion of possible ventures, taking place over several years, involved among others Dee, the Duke of Northumberland, and the Merchant Adventurers of London. Only in 1550, however, when the Adventurers were in need of an alternate market for their cloth, did discussion become serious. They decided to attempt a northeast crossing to Asia. The expedition of 1551-1553 failed to reach Cathay, but did open a new market in Russia and resulted in the formation of the Muscovy Company.

During the reign of Queen Mary, who had strong ties to Spain, there were no attempts at voyage to the northwest. However, when Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, she was open to new ideas and new ventures. Her advisers included, among others, John Dee, Lord Burghley and Thomas Gresham.

In 1566 Humphrey Gilbert sought the Queen's support for a search a northwest passage, but the Muscovy Company blocked the initiative. Interest was revived in the 1570s, when a search was conceived by a contingent within the Company, led by Michael Lok, with Gilbert and Dee as advisors, backing from Lord Burghley, and an experienced and bold seaman, Martin Frobisher, ready to lead the mission. Even now financial support was not easy to obtain, but by 1576 was sufficient to mount a modest effort.