Michael Lok


Part of the impetus for the first expedition came from Michael Lok's personal enthusiasm for extending England's commercial interests overseas.

The Loks were a long-established London family of merchants. Michael's father had achieved such success that he was one of England's leading merchants, Henry VIII's personal mercer, and a knighted member of London's ruling class. From grammar school, Michael Lok's education progressed to commercial apprenticeship in the Low Countries. After his father's death (1550), Michael and his older brothers sought out new markets to compensate for the decline of those in the Low Countries. His career now took him to Spain and Portugal, where he observed the value of the trade with the Americas, and then to Venice from where he conducted trade with the Levant. After his return to England (1559) he traded in silk and other luxury goods, even going so far as to draft a radical proposal for silk manufacture in England, submitted to but rejected by the Privy Council. In 1571 he obtained the prestigious position of London agent of the Muscovy Company, supervising trade with Russia.

Lok had a good understanding of issues related to international trade, but his desire to equal the achievements and status of his father led to an obsession with opening up routes to distant markets. He had become an avid collector of (expensive) maps, charts, and accounts of travels; his study of geography brought him the friendship and respect of scholars John Dee and Richard Hakluyt. It also led him into his alliance with Frobisher and - when other sources of funding for what was certainly a speculative venture proved slow to materialize (postponing the expedition from an intended launch in 1575) - an investment of his own money into the first voyage. His uncompromising belief in the potential of the Arctic venture led him to additional injudiciously large investments.

Once the ore was proven worthless, the failure to have obtained incorporation for the Company of Cathay left Lok, as treasurer of the "company", personally exposed to legal actions for the debts incurred by the enterprise. Lok's difficult position was weakened by many of the courtiers not having paid up their promised investments, and by his efforts to defend his actions in the debacle and shift blame for its failure onto the shoulders of Frobisher and the assayers. His own investment of about 2200 left him almost destitute, legal battles with creditors led to several bouts in prison over the next few years, and his damaged reputation made it difficult for him to engage in commerce in any significant way.

Yet even now he did not abandon the dream of new trade routes. He assisted Hakluyt prepare some of his books on voyages of exploration. After a brief period as an agent of the Levant Company, which too ended in legal disputes, he worked to develop closer trading relations between England and Venice. Then in 1602 (when 70 years old) he championed Juan de Fuca's claims to have travelled a high latitude passage between Atlantic and Pacific, but failed to win support in England for a voyage to rediscover this passage. In his final years he continued to contribute to English cosmographical studies.

James McDermott sums up Lok thus:

"having made some mark and fortune in his early career, he allowed both to dissipate thereafter in the pursuit of ultimately unattainable goals.... A complex figure...he was a man who, with justice, might be described simultaneously as a visionary, intellectual, adventurer, dreamer and self-serving apologist."
Meta Incognita: A Discourse of Discovery, pp.140-41