Deadly Quest For The Northern Passage

Artist John Collier's painting of Hudson cast adrift with his son
Artist John Collier's painting of Hudson cast adrift with his son

by Ray Setterfield


Event Date: June 22, 1611
Location: Hudson Bay, Canada

English explorer Henry Hudson was set adrift in a small boat off the North American coast by mutineers on this day in history. He was never seen again. When the mutiny took place Hudson, who was searching for the fabled Northern Passage, had reached a large sea that was later named after him – Hudson Bay.

In the 17th century European capitals and trading companies were anxious to establish a new route to Asia, and especially India with its coveted and valuable spices.

Shipping goods to and from this part of the world was an expensive and dangerous enterprise. It meant sailing all the way around Africa where pirate ships lay in wait and many merchant vessels were captured or sunk.

So the call went out for a new route to be found. Among those answering the call was explorer Henry Hudson. Little is known about him. He is thought to have been born in or near London around 1570 probably to a wealthy family. In 1607, while in his thirties, Hudson became the commander of a ship, demonstrating a talent for navigation.

He reasoned that since the sun shone most of the summer on the North Pole, the ice there would melt at that time of the year, possibly allowing him to sail right over the top of the world to India.

Starting in 1607, he set out from England on the first of four expeditions searching for the elusive Northern Passage. The first trip was a failure, though he did discover numerous whales off Greenland, opening up new hunting territory. On the second voyage his progress was blocked by thick ice in the Arctic Ocean and he had to return home.

Ice again thwarted his third mission, but instead of heading home Hudson sailed west and came ashore at what is now Nova Scotia.

In 1610 he set out on his final, fatal voyage aboard the ship Discovery.

After crossing the Atlantic and skirting the southern tip of Greenland, he entered what was later named as the Hudson Strait. The next body of water that he reached was also to bear his name – Hudson Bay. Pressing south, the explorer soon found he had come to a dead end at what is now known as James Bay.

Trapped in ice and low on supplies, tensions developed between Hudson and his crew and grew worse when they were forced to spend the winter in the bay.

Conditions gradually improved and the ship was able to set sail again in June 1611 but hostility between Hudson and the crew had reached the point of mutiny and with his young son and other sailors he was set adrift in a small boat, never to be seen again. It is thought that they starved or froze to death.

Though unsuccessful in his quest to find the Northern Passage, Hudson's discoveries and maps enabled both the English and the Dutch to establish trading posts and settlements and he thus opened the door to further exploration and settlement of North America.

It was to be another 300 years before the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean was discovered. The man who finally solved the centuries-old riddle in 1906 was Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who, in 1911, famously beat Englishman Robert Falcon Scott in the race to become the first person to reach the South Pole.

Published: May 29, 2018

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