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The Sordid and Swashbuckling Journeys of Martin Frobisher, Pirate of the Arctic

Each time Aaron Spitzer sails through Frobisher Bay, he tries to imagine it as it must have appeared to the crewmen of Martin Frobisher, the first Englishmen to come this way—as a place of magic, menace, potential treasure, high adventure, and yet, terrible cultural mistrust and conflict.
Martin Frobisher circa 1577 painting by Cornelis Ketel Bodleian Library

© Bodleian Library

A portion of a painting of Martin Frobisher by Cornelis Ketel, circa 1577

Nearly 450 years ago, English mariner Martin Frobisher vowed to discover the Northwest Passage, proclaiming it “still the only thing left undone whereby a notable mind might be made famous and remarkable.”

Soon after, he pointed his bow north. He would indeed become famous—but also infamous. As the first European to explore in Canada’s Arctic, Frobisher left behind a legacy of daring achievements, but also of killings and kidnappings, vanished crewmen, the first-ever polar gold mine, entanglement in a notorious stock scam, and a failed attempt to establish the first English settlement in the New World.

This is the tale of the pirate of the Arctic.

Frobisher’s First Expedition

Frobisher didn’t intend to become the pirate of the Arctic. He was trying to go straight. After a lifetime spent as a privateer, seizing French and Spanish ships and being repeatedly imprisoned, he finally had honourable work. Bankrolled by a consortium of merchants, including his principal backer Michael Lok, he was commissioned to reach the riches of Asia by sailing over the top of North America.

In 1576, he set out with three tiny ships and thirty-four men. Other explorers had sought a passage via the St. Lawrence and along the coast of Labrador. Frobisher would try farther north. One of his ships sank, the second turned back, but the third endured. In late summer, Frobisher spied a “greate gutte, bay, or passage,” which he claimed was the gateway to the Orient. He sailed into it, naming it for himself— “Frobisher’s Streytes.” It is now, of course, Frobisher Bay on southern Baffin Island, though the city which once shared this moniker was renamed Iqaluit (“place of many fish”) in 1987.

Iqaluit from the air

© Dennis Minty

Iqaluit, Nunavut from above

He poked around, seeking a way through the maze of islands that choke the bay. Mementos were collected “in token of Christian possession,” including a black stone “as great as a half-penny loaf.” In late August, Inuit visited the ship. They were offered English food and wine, which they detested, but eagerly traded sealskin garments for bells and mirrors. A few days later, five crewmen took the ship’s only landing craft to visit these Inuit on shore. The crewmen were never seen again. Frobisher presumed they’d been captured; according to Inuit oral history, the crewmen defected.

Frobisher waited for two days, unable to land, frantically blowing trumpets and firing cannons. When an Inuk kayaked to the ship, he was taken hostage. On August 25 Frobisher headed back to England. There, the Inuk—whose name Frobisher never recorded—quickly sickened, died, and was buried at St. Olave’s Church in London. The black rock was assayed and alleged to contain gold. Frobisher’s key promoter, Lok, raised funds for a return journey—this time for mining; the Orient be damned.

The Second Expedition

Frobisher’s 1577 expedition numbered 120 men in three larger ships. By mid-July, he was back in his eponymous bay. He collected 200 tonnes of ore at a place he called Countess of Warwick’s Island. (Ever since, Inuit have called the island Kodlunarn, meaning “white people.”) He also searched for the missing crewmen from the year before. There was no sign of them, but Frobisher did find a dead narwhal, which, after testing its magical properties by inserting spiders in the horn, he proclaimed a “sea unicorne.”

Frobisher also engaged in confusing interactions with the locals. With some Inuit, he traded. To another group, he entrusted a letter to be delivered to his missing crewmen. With others still, he clashed.

In one skirmish, five or six Inuit were apparently shot dead and Frobisher was wounded in the buttocks by an arrow. When crewmen encountered an old woman, they suspected her to be a witch, so removed her boots to check for cloven hooves. Three Inuit hostages were taken: a man, whose name they recorded as Calichough; an unrelated woman, Egnock (probably Arnaq, a name that also means “woman” in Inuktitut); and her child, Nutioc (presumably nutaraq, meaning "baby" or "infant"). Then Frobisher sailed home.

Arnaq and Kalicho drawings by John White Trustees of the British Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Drawings of the people who Frobisher called Egnock, Nutioc (in the hood of the amauti), and Calichough, created by John White, circa 1585-1593

These imprisoned Inuit were the talk of England. Calichough displayed his kayaking and hunting skills, spearing ducks in Bristol Harbour. But unsurprisingly, he and Egnock were despondent, the latter often singing mournful dirges. Then, as with the anonymous Inuk the previous year, they sickened and died.

Meanwhile, the ore was deemed worthless. Lok convinced investors that Frobisher had simply mined in the wrong place. A third Arctic journey was organized.

The Third and Final Expedition

Frobisher’s expedition of 1578 was the biggest yet: fifteen vessels carrying 400 men, nearly 150 of whom were miners. He also carried prefabricated buildings, with the intention of leaving men in the Arctic to continue mining through the winter. He set sail on May 31. Landing briefly in Greenland, Frobisher claimed it for the Queen, naming it West England.

Then, along the south coast of Baffin, the flotilla spent weeks battling the ice. One ship was crushed and sank—the one carrying the prefabricated buildings. Mining did not commence until August. A great amount of ore was mined—1,100 tonnes, from several sites not far from Countess of Warwick Island. Frobisher sought to capture more Inuit, but by then the locals were understandably wary. To guard against them, Frobisher had a watchtower constructed—the first English building in the new world. When it was discovered that the expedition’s beer had gone bad, Frobisher decided to return to England, setting off on the first of September.

Frobisher Bay from the air

© Dennis Minty

Frobisher Bay from above

It would be Frobisher’s last Arctic journey. When he reached England, the ore was offloaded at a specially constructed smelter. Only the tiniest flecks of gold were extracted, a result deemed “verye evill.” The stone was worthless hornblende. Michael Lok blamed Frobisher, publishing an account of the captain’s “sclanderous clamors.” Frobisher hit back and came out on top. Lok spent time in debtor’s prison. Frobisher went on to further nautical work, including for Sir Francis Drake. In 1588, following Frobisher’s role in repelling the Spanish Armada, the pirate of the Arctic was knighted. He died in 1594.

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.