Saturday, June 23, 2012

It Didn’t Turn Out Well for Henry Hudson, If You Get My Drift

A fanciful depiction of the fate of Henry Hudson.

Being an explorer in the age of sail could be a risky business.  Christopher Columbus nearly killed himself and did loose most of his crew on his desperate last voyage to find gold and prove that he had really found the Orient.  He survived, but the Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy in the New World soon found himself hauled back to Spain in chains.

But he was lucky.  Famed Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan never completed his circumnavigation of the globe, but was hacked to death in the surf by Philippine natives.  More than two centuries later British Captain James Cook suffered a similar fate at the hands of pissed off Hawaiians.  Others perished in storms at sea or succumbed to illness.

But Henry Hudson suffered the coldest fate of all.  On June 23, 1611 most of his crew mutinied in the large bay which would be named for him.  They cast their captain, his teenage son and seven others—loyal crew members and men to sick to work—adrift in a boat then sailed away.  Hudson was never seen again and his exact fate has become one of the mysteries of exploration.

There is no doubt that Hudson was a master mariner.  He had proved that on earlier voyages.  But remarkably little is known personally about him.

His birth somewhere in England, likely in a seaport town, has been put as early as 1655 to as late at 1670 with most historians splitting the difference and guessing sometime in the 1660s.  He likely did not come from a propertied family or his birth would have been registered.  Some think that he may have been an illegitimate son of a successful man who may have helped him in his career.

More likely he signed on board as ship as a cabin boy at about the age of 10 and by dint of hard work and aptitude worked his way up to ship’s master.

At any rate by 1607 he had a good enough reputation to be hired by the Muscovy Company, a stock company which had monopoly on trade with Russia.  They were seeking a new, open water route north across the Poll to “China, Japan and the Spice Islands.” The theory was that long summer daylight in the far north would melt the sea ice and open a passage.  That they hired Hudson and his small ship the 80-ton Hopewell is an indication that he was probably already known for sailing northerly waters.

Hudson set sail on May 1, 1607 from London on what would become known as his first voyage. He drove pretty north, veering north west after clearing the Shetland Islands reaching the coast of Greenland on June 13.  He explored northward along the uncharted coast—although Greenland was known and settled by the Vikings, their settlements were far to the south of Hudson’s landfall.  The weather was harsh with snow and ice and the sea treacherous.  None the less he pushed north along the coast for several days before turning north east.  He spied Spitsbergen, recently discovered by the Dutch.  Pushing along the north shore of the island, un-charted by the Dutch, he found the shore teaming with seal and Walrus whose fur and ivory would become a sought after trading commodity.  He also found seas teaming with whales and some historians credit his log entries with helping to launch the British whaling industry.

After reaching nearly 80º north, further than any other recorded European, Hudson had to turn back on account of packed sea ice and bad weather on July 31.  He arrived back in London on September 15.  

Although his voyage had not succeeded, Hudson still believed a northern passage might yet be discovered.  As accounts of his voyage set off a scramble by others to the north to hunt seals and whales, Hudson planned yet another voyage.

In 1608 the Muscovy Company dispatched him on a second voyage, this time directing him to sail northeast and attempt to reach the orient across the northern shores of Russia.  This time he managed to get away earlier, in April.  He sailed along the western and northern shores of Norway then hit open water.  But north of the Russian island of  Novaya Zemlya he encountered impenetrable pack ice.  He attempt to turn west and try in the opposite direction, but was forced to return to England after a near mutiny by his half-frozen crew.

After two unsuccessful voyages the Muscovy Company lost interest in further exploration. Finding a northern passage to the east was becoming an obsession but Hudson was unable to find any other backers in England.

Stymied in his homeland, Hudson turned to England’s greatest commercial rival for support.  The fabulously wealthy Dutch East India Company had enough cash to bankroll another voyage.  They commissioned him to try again to find a northeast passage.  Hudson had serious doubts that such a voyage was possible, but was more than willing to take the company’s money and the new vlieboot (flyboat), a light three masted ship that could be fit out as a merchantman or an armed naval vessel.  

Hudson set sail on April 1 or 6 1609—accounts differ—from Amsterdam on the  Halve Maen (Half Moon).  A second ship, likely the Good Hope sailed with him but turned back after Hudson abandoned his order and turned his ship west instead of east.  He wanted to explore the possibility of a passage through North America hinted at in published accounts of John Smith’s Virginia explorations and settlement and French accounts of Samuel de Champlain.

He encountered pack ice even further south than the year before, but may have always intended to head west.  Once again, Hudson was faced with a near mutiny and acrimony between English and Dutch crewmen.  But he convinced them to continue, altering his course slightly to the west south west which brought his ship into more hospitable waters.

After stopping in the Faeroe Islands  to take on water and trade for food, he pressed westward and was soon bucking what Benjamin Franklin would discover and describe a century and a half later—the Gulf Stream.  Despite hard sailing, including a storm that took down one mast, Hudson entered the Grand Banks off of Newfoundland where they encounter a small fleet of French fishermen.  Taking a hint, the crew replenished their food supplies by landing a couple of hundred Cod before sailing on the coast.

They spot the mainland in what is today Nova Scotia and the damaged ship limped south by southwest making first landfall around Penobscot Bay.  They spend several days in the area trading with the friendly natives, fishing and lobstering, laying in spare masts from the bountiful timber, and repairing the ship.  Despite good relations with the natives some members of the crew are convinced they are treacherous and “would do us harm if they could.”  On July 25 a party of men, possibly against Hudson’s wishes, went ashore and raided the village, killing some men and driving the rest away.  They stole everything they could lay their hands on then burned the dwellings.  Hudson, fearing reprisals, sails south along the coast the next day.

After passing Cape Cod the ship continued south hugging the shore.  Hudson discovered Delaware Bay and traded more with the natives.  Pushing south he came near Jamestown, but refrained from putting in despite his personal friendship with John Smith for fear the English would attack him as a “poacher.”  By mid August the weather was becoming hot and the suspicious crew kept finding omens of doom and clamored to return.  Hudson turned back north, attempted unsuccessfully to sail up shallow Delaware Bay, then resumed his northward tack.

Early in August Hudson rounded Sandy Hook and found the bay with the outlet of a great river—the one soon to be named for him.  It was not the first discovery.  Giovanni da Verranzano had found it in 1524 and a Portuguese navigator arrived a few months later.  Neither, however, ventured up the river.  Hudson officially lay claim to the bay for the Dutch and spent some days successfully trading.  A small party under the leadership of Hudson closest associate, John Coleman was sent to explore in a small boat and was attacked by two large war canoes and Coleman was killed.  These warriors were likely not related to those peacefully trading with Hudson.

But Hudson’s crew took some of the peaceful natives captive as security. 

Hudson and his crew entered the river itself and started sailing up.  This looked to him like the “river highway” which would connect to a northwest passage that had been reported by Smith and the French.  The ship continued north for 10 days reaching what is now Albany where the river became unavailable.  After sending small boats further in hope of finding open water, Hudson realized there was no outlet.  But once again he traded with the natives and found an abundance of furs of every sort available.  On August 23 the turned to sail back down the river and from there on to Europe.

On November 7, Hudson put in at Dartmouth, England and was detained by authorities who demanded his logs and the valuable intelligence and navigation charts they contained.  Hudson managed to smuggle them to the Dutch Ambassador.  Hudson was held a virtual prisoner for months and forbidden to return to Holland or even communicate with his employers.  Eventually the ship and its Dutch crewmen were released and allowed to return with Hudson chests containing his charts and notes.

The Dutch sent follow-up expeditions and established a lucrative fur trading post near Albany in 1615 and a sea port capital for a colony of New Netherlands on Manhattan, New Amsterdam, on the strength of Hudson’s claims and discoveries.

Word of the voyage, however, was enough to interest English investors—the Virginia Company and British East India Company—in a fourth voyage.  He also had the influential patronage of Henry, Prince of Wales.  A new ship, Discovery was outfitted for Hudson and several members of his earlier crews, including some known trouble makers, were signed on.  This time, Hudson’s instructions were to find the Northwest Passage to the orient.

Hudson set sail north in the spring of 1610 reach Iceland in May then heading west south west to Greenland, well south of his first voyage.  In fact he rounded the southern end of the giant island and broke into the open water.  Reaching the northern shore of Labrador, Hudson hugged the shore until he found what is now the Hudson Straight between the continent and Baffin Island.

The narrow passage was open, but treacherous with floating ice and strong currents in opposite directions—running east along the north shore and west along the south of Baffin.  To Hudson’s eyes, however, it looked like the elusive passage.

On August 7, Hudson entered the Bay, which looked to him at first like open ocean.  He began to explore south along the shore but was nearly icebound once and facing an increasingly restive and fearful crew.

When they found James Bay, at the southern tip of Hudson’s Bay, the captain realized he was in a deep bay and not in open ocean.  This was in November, however, the ice trapped the ship.  Hudson and his men built a camp on the shore to ride out the winter.

When the ice broke the next spring, Hudson wanted to continue and follow the shore on the western side of the bay to the north still in hopes of finding an outlet.  After days of tension, open mutiny finally broke out.

That’s when Henry, his son and their companions were set adrift.  The small boat was well provisioned and the Captain and his men were left tools, fishing gear, and weapons for self-defense and hunting.  The mutineers may have convinced themselves that Hudson could establish a shore camp and survive until some future expedition could find them.

Hudson probably realized that this was a forlorn hope, which is why he tried to pursue the Discovery in hopes that the mutineer would change their minds and take him aboard.  Instead the mutineers piled on more sail and pulled away.

No trace of Hudson and his small party has ever been found.  He may indeed have tried to establish a camp and succumbed in the next winter or at the hands of the natives.  Or they may have tried to sail back through the treacherous strait.  Certainly other captains set adrift by mutineers made epic journeys in small boats, most famously William Bligh of HMS Bounty.  But that was in the South Pacific, not the frigid north.

Several of the mutineers died on the return to England.  The survivors were clapped in irons upon arrival in England in  September 1611.  Mutiny, after all was a serious business and usually ended at the end of a noose for the rebels.  The only account of the mutiny and return voyage came from a journal by the ship’s navigator, Abacuk Pricket who identified first mate Robert Juet, who had been behind near mutinies on earlier voyages, and Robert Greene, a mysterious personage listed as a “passenger” and who was picked up after the Discovery set sail from England and after a representative of the investors was unceremoniously put off of  the ship as the leaders.  However both Juet and Greene died on the way home and Picket could have been covering for his own role or the parts of others.

Despite a recommendation that the survivors be tried as mutineers in Admiralty Court, no trial was held until 1618, by which time some the eight survivors of the voyage had died.  The rest were charged with murder, however, not mutiny, and the charges could not be proved because it was unknown whether Hudson and his party had indeed died.

The suspicion has been that the investors wanted the knowledge and expertise of the survivors to make further exploration. That view seems borne out by the fact that Pricket and lead seaman Robert Bylot returned to the north aboard Discovery on later voyages.

Washington Irving put the ghost of Henry Hudson and the crew of the Half Moon haunting the river valley he explored and playing loud games of nine pin.  But if there is a ghost, he surly haunts the ice far, far to the north.

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