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Privateers > English Sea Dogs > Martin Frobisher

Martin Frobisher


Martin Frobisher (1535/1539 - 15 November 1594) was a famous privateer and English Sea Dog during the Privateering Era. He made three successful trips to Newfoundland in the New World searching for the Northwest Passage that would land around northeastern Canada precisely near Resolution Island and Frobisher Bay presently. He would also help defend England from the Spanish Armada in 1588 and earn a knighthood for his deeds.

Early Life

Martin Frobisher was born in Altofts, Yorkshire circa 1538 to the merchant Bernard Frobisher however, other records suggest he was born to Gregory Frobisher and his wife Ann. He would be raised in London by his relative named Sir John York. Martin would begin his career at sea in 1544 as a cabin boy. In 1554 he was captured by the Portuguese and spent some time in their captivity. He would later become a merchant in Morocco. Later he would become a pirate and operate out of southern Ireland.

First Voyage

In 1560 or 1561 Frobisher began to plan to find the Northwest Passage which was a proposed trade route from the Atlantic to China and India. It would be five years before Frobisher gained the support required for his expedition. In 1576 he got the Muscovy Company which was an English merchant consortium to license his voyage to the New World in search of the Northwest Passage. Using the funds of the Muscovy Company along with the aid of Michael Lok who was the director Frobisher was able to get three barks for the passage.

The first two ships were named Gabriel and Michael and weighed about twenty to twenty-five tons each and another unnamed boat of ten tons and a crew of fifty-five. Frobisher weighed anchor near Blackwall and awaited the official word from Elizabeth I. Eventually he set sail on 7 June 1576 towards the Shetland Islands. In a storm crossing the Atlantic the Michael and the pinnace were shipwrecked but eventually on 28 of July he was able to sight the coast of Labrador in Canada.

After a few days he reached the mouth of Frobisher Bay where ice and wind prevented him from traveling further north. Believing this to be a strait he attempted to sail westward up the passage. He eventually reached Baffin Islands on 18 August 1576 where he met local Inuit. Following this he made a deal with the Inuit to help navigate him through the unknown waters. He sent five of his men in a boat to return him to shore but .

A few days later, the mouth of Frobisher Bay was reached, and because ice and wind prevented further travel north, Frobisher determined to sail westward up this passage (which he conceived to be a strait) to see "whether he might carry himself through the same into some open sea on the back side."Baffin Island was reached on 18 August 1576, where the expedition met some local Inuit. Having made arrangements with one of the Inuit to guide them through the region, Frobisher sent five of his men in a ship's boat to return him to shore, but instructing them to avoid getting too close to any of the others. The boat's crew disobeyed, however, and five of Frobisher's men were taken captive. After days of searching Frobisher could not recover them, and eventually took hostage the man who had agreed to guide them to see if an exchange for the missing boat's crew could be arranged.The effort was fruitless, and the men were never seen again, but Inuit legend tells that the men lived among them for a few years until they died attempting to leave Baffin Island in a self-made boat. Frobisher turned homewards, and reached London on 9 October. Among the things which had been hastily brought away by the men was a black stone 'as great as a half-penny loaf' which had been collected loose on the surface of Hall's Island off Baffin Island by Robert Garrard, who took it to be sea coal, of which they had need.[8][9]Assayers in London were unimpressed with the ore. Only one out of four experts consulted (Burchard Kranich[10]) believed the ore to be gold-bearing. Nevertheless, Frobisher's backers, led by Michael Lok and the Muscovy Company, used this assessment to lobby for investment for another voyage.[11]

Second Voyage

The following year Frobisher would attempt a much bigger expedition with much more available resources. The Queen sold the Company of Cathay a ship from the Royal Navy named Ayde as well as provided £1000 towards expenses. The Company of Cathay was granted a charter that gave the company the right to sail in any direction but east and Frobisher was given the title of high admiral of all lands and waters that were discovered by him for the British Crown.

On 27 May 1577, the expedition, consisting, besides Ayde, of the ships Gabriel and Michael, with an aggregate complement of 150 men, including miners, refiners, gentlemen, and soldiers, left Blackwall, and sailing by the north of Scotland reached Hall's Island at the mouth of Frobisher Bay on 17 July. A few days after, the country and the south side of the bay was solemnly taken possession of in the Queen's name.

After Frobisher and his expedition arrived in the New World, several weeks were spent mining and harvesting ore and very little was actually done in the way of discovery and cartography. The colonists would come into conflict with the Inuit Amerindians but there would be little information about the whereabouts of the five captured sailors.

The return was begun on 23 August 1577, and Ayde reached Milford Haven on 23 September. Gabriel and Michael later arrived separately at Bristol and Yarmouth.With him, Frobisher brought three Inuit from Baffin Island, a man called Calichoughe, a woman, Egnock, and her child, Nutioc, who had been forcibly taken from the island. All three soon died after their arrival in England.[12] Calichoughe died from an unintended broken rib from his capture that eventually punctured his lung.Frobisher was received and thanked by the queen at Windsor. Great preparations were made and considerable expense incurred for the assaying of the great quantity of "ore" (about 200 tons) brought home. This took up much time, and led to considerable dispute among the various parties interested.On his second voyage, Frobisher found what he thought was gold ore and carried 200 tons of it home on three ships, where initial assaying determined it to be worth a profit of £5.2 per ton. Encouraged, Frobisher returned to Canada with an even larger fleet and dug several mines around Frobisher Bay. He carted 1,350 tons of the ore back where, after years of smelting, it was realised that both that batch of ore and the earlier one he had taken were worthless iron pyrite. As an English privateer/pirate, he collected riches from French ships. He was later knighted for his service in repelling the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Third Voyage

Following this the Queen believed strongly in the idea of the new colony and thus a larger expedition was sent to the New World with enough people and supplies to form a colony of one hundred. The new territory was named Meta Incognita and was believed at this time to be the site of vast untapped riches in the New World. The Queen was so impressed by Frobisher that she gave him a necklace chain of fine gold as a reward for his efforts.

The third voyage that Frobisher would undertake involved fifteen ships. These included the Ayde, Michael, and Gabriel from the previous voyage, as well as Judith, Dennis or Dionyse, Anne Francis, Francis of Foy and Moon of Foy, Bear of Leycester, Thomas of Ipswich, Thomas Allen, Armenall, Soloman of Weymouth, Hopewell, and Emanuel of Bridgwater. The expedition crew left on 3 June 1578 from the city of Plymouth and sailed through the English Channel. By 20 June the fleet had reached the south of Greenland where Frobisher and some of the crew landed.

On 2 July, the foreland of Frobisher Bay was sighted. Stormy weather and dangerous ice prevented the rendezvous from being gained, and, besides causing the wreck of the barque Dennis of 100 tons, drove the fleet unwittingly up a new strait (Hudson). After proceeding about sixty miles up this "mistaken strait," Frobisher with apparent reluctance turned back, and after many buffetings and separations, the fleet at last came to anchor in Frobisher Bay, which was named after him.During this voyage, the vessel Emanuel claimed to have found the phantom Buss Island.Some attempt was made at founding a settlement, and a large quantity of ore was shipped. Too much dissension and discontent prevented a successful settlement. On the last day of August, the fleet set out on its return to England, which was reached in the beginning of October; although the vessel Emanuel was wrecked en route at Ard na Caithne, on the west coast of Ireland.[15] The ore was taken to a specially constructed smelting plant at Powder Mill Lane in Dartford. However, it proved to be valueless iron pyrite[16] and was eventually salvaged for road metalling.

Later Life

In 1585 Frobisher would join Francis Drake as the captain of his vice-admiral ship as they sacked Spanish ports in the West Indies. A few years later in 1588 Frobisher would command one of the four squadrons in the British fleet under the command of Lord Howard in their engagement with the Spanish Armada. In 1591 he would visit Altofts where he could become a land proprietor in Yorkshire and Notts. He would also marry his second wife named Dorothy Wentworth (1543 – 3 January 1601) who was the daughter of Thomas 1st Baron Wentworth and she would join him on his sailing voyages.

After a year Frobisher had enough of the leisure life of retirement and he joined the fleet outfitted by Walter Raleigh as they ventured to the Azores Islands and captured the Madre de Deus. Following this he led a fleet of ships that led to the surrender of Morlaix in September of 1594. In October he was engage in the Siege of Brest where he received a gunshot wound during the Siege of Fort Crozon. He would die several days later on 15 November due to complications from his injury. Following his death his organs were buried in St. Andrews Church on Plymouth on 22 November and his body would be buried in London at St. Giles without Cripplegate on Fore Street.


Frobisher's stone house was discovered in 1862 by the American explorer Charles Francis Hall. Frobisher is said to have held the first Canadian Thanksgiving feast in what is now known as Newfoundland.Frobisher was one of the first people to explore this area of Canada, although he failed to find either a Northwest Passage or gold. In 1585, Frobisher was a vice admiral on Sir Francis Drake's expedition to the West Indies. Frobisher died on November 22, 1594, from wounds he got fighting the Spanish.


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