Martin Frobisher, the sailor who for years sent shipments of pyrite to England thinking it was gold

Francis Drake was a magnificent sailor elevated to the category of myth in England for having circumnavigated the globe (fifty-nine years after Elcano) and for his confrontations with the Spanish, some successful and others not so much. But he wasn’t the only one. That England of the 16th century opened up to the sea since Henry VIII first and his daughter Elizabeth I later understood the need for it in an island country and promoted an efficient shipbuilding policy, until then almost non-existent, thus giving birth to a generation of great navigators. One of the most prominent was named Martin Frobisher.

His life had many parallels with that of Drake, as we will see, although it is not strange because the same could be said of Walter Raleigh, John Hawkins and others. Born in Wakefield around 1535, he was the youngest of five brothers who belonged to the local gentry, of Scottish descent. As he was left fatherless at a very young age, he was sent to London in the care of his uncle, Sir John York, who was a merchant and Master of the Mint, who oriented him towards a seafaring life by embarking him for the first time in 1544 .

However, his first important voyage would not come until 1553, in what was the first English expedition to Africa: three ships under the command of Thomas Wyndham, which arrived at the coast of Guinea in search of spices. They were received by oba (king) of Benin, who gave them eighty tons of pepper; but the thing ended badly: the diseases ended with two thirds of the men, including Wyndham himself.

18th century map of the Guinea region visited by the English expedition/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Frobisher not only survived but returned the following year on a voyage organized by the Lok brothers, merchant seamen (and ancestors of the philosopher John Locke). That time there were also problems and when they were negotiating with the natives they held him hostage, leaving his companions abandoned. The expedition returned to England laden with riches, but young Frobisher stayed there until the natives handed him over to the Portuguese, who locked him up in prison for nine months before sending him to Lisbon. Frobisher would not set foot on his homeland again until 1558.

The following year, 1559, he married Isobel Richard, a wealthy widow whose money would prove essential in financing her husband’s plans. These consisted of chartering some ships to search for the Northwest Passage, one of the great obsessions of the time for British sailors because if found it would be a gateway to Asia, constituting an alternative itinerary to those monopolized by the Portuguese by rounding the Cape of Good Hope. and the Spaniards doing the same through the Strait of Magellan or the route from Acapulco.

It was not easy for him and before that he had to gain experience in command, sailing as a corsair through the English Channel under the command of John Hawkins and other captains. That, by the way, cost him some time in the shade, as punishment for storming the ship katherine, which was carrying a shipment of rich tapestries to Felipe II; he presented an official protest to the English court and Queen Elizabeth I responded by sending the sailor to jail.

In 1565, having acquired the rank of captain, he bought a ship to sail on his own, the mary flower, and continued his raids along the Irish coast under patent of marque. As was often the case, he did not always respect the terms of the contract and was accused of piracy several times, although he never had to appear in court again.

By then, in the mid-1970s, he had already separated from his wife, whom he left bankrupt with the two children she had had from her previous marriage; he would not even know of his death, which would take place in 1588 in a poorhouse. He had more than amortized the marriage because in 1574 he already had what he wanted: a ship, experience and enough information to undertake his long-awaited intercontinental project.

After a couple of years of negotiations, he obtained the support of the Muscovy Company (the first joint-stock company to work in England, through a commercial monopoly with the Grand Duchy of Moscow) to charter three ships and search for the Northwest Passage: they were called Gabriel Y Michael (the third was a small, unnamed ten-ton pinnace) with only thirty-five men. The queen herself came to see them off as they headed out to the open sea and headed for Greenland. A storm sank the pinnace and forced the Michael to return, but Gabriel went ahead and reached what they believed to be the Labrador Peninsula; it was Baffin Island.

Frobisher discovered the strait – actually a long bay – which he named after himself, mistakenly thinking it was the mythical pass, as he continued to explore. Several of his sailors fell prisoner to the Inuit and could never be rescued; in exchange, the English undertook the return to their country with a captive who died shortly after arrival, due to a cold.

The trip had not been particularly profitable, but it aroused enthusiasm in the Crown, who was lied to by saying that a large black stone they had brought contained traces of gold. The magic word was echoed enough to encourage Elizabeth I to authorize a second expedition and even provide a thousand pounds of funding.

It set sail in 1577, after constituting the fatuously named Company of Cathayconsisting of one hundred and twenty men spread over three boats (one of them, the Ayde, of two hundred tons and eighteen guns, ceded by the Royal Navy). In the capitulations, Frobisher requested to be appointed admiral of the Northwest Seas and governor of the lands that he discovered, in addition to receiving five percent of the profits obtained from the trade; At the same time, the owners of the company requested the exclusivity of exploitation of the resources to be found and that Frobisher be assigned a much smaller percentage. As neither one nor the other was answered in documents, the legal vacuum was to the benefit of the Crown.

The flotilla had good weather, crossed the Atlantic and reached Frobisher Strait two months later, landing on Hall Island to take official possession of that land. The men engaged in ore-gathering and had some skirmishes with the Inuit, taking three hostages with them on their way back in late August. The Eskimos died in a few weeks, while Frobisher was received at Windsor Palace and the parties interested in the business scrambled to determine if the ore brought was worth the expenses, given that the Northwest Passage had not been found.

Departure of Frobisher’s third expedition (Gordon Miller)/Image: Canadian Museum of History

But the queen was excited about this new target unknown that he had incorporated into his kingdom, so his opinion was decisive in preparing a third expedition, much more ambitious than the previous ones: fifteen ships and four hundred men who had, among other missions, to establish a colony.

The fleet set sail on June 3, 1578, reached Greenland on the 20th, and reached Frobisher Bay on July 2. But this time the weather was not on their side: a snow storm prevented them from disembarking, pushing them through a channel that was none other than the current Hudson Strait, but which they named Mistaken Straid (Wrong Strait) thinking that it had no chance of being the long-awaited step, reason why they turned around.

As on previous occasions, they collected quite a bit of ore. However, internal dissension prevented them from founding a stable settlement and they ended up weighing anchor to sight England in October. There the merchandise was taken to a foundry to extract the gold; This did not appear anywhere and the material ended up being used to pave roads. It would take years to determine that this was not the desired precious metal but pyrite, very similar in appearance but worthless. Consequently, the trip had been disastrous from the financial point of view and the Company of Cathay it went bankrupt, taking with it Frobisher’s dream of finding the Northwest Passage.

Sir Martin Frobisher portrayed by Cornelis Ketel/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

After his time as an explorer, he returned to the military, putting himself at the service of Sir William Wynter in the squadron he led to suppress Desmond’s Irish rebellion in 1579. That campaign lasted several years and later, in 1585, he joined Francis Drake to harass the Spanish Caribbean possessions, from which they obtained a rich booty. He also participated in the famous attack on Cádiz in 1587 that led to the theft of thousands of sherry skins, a drink that has since become very popular in England. But Frobisher’s most famous action took place in 1588, when he was placed in command of the galleon Triumphthe largest in the Royal Navy, from which he led one of the four sections into which the British navy was divided, which was to stop the threat of invasion planned by Philip II.

The Triumph fought against him Saint John of Portugal, the ship of Juan Martínez de Recalde, forcing the galleasses to come to his rescue. He was also one of those who shared the credit for the surrender of the Our Lady of the Rosary commanded by Pedro de Valdés. His group harassed the San Martin, where the Duke of Medina Sidonia was travelling, until other ships came to the aid of his admiral ship. As a result of the impetus and the headwind, the Triumph it was surrounded by about thirty ships and was about to be lost, but Frobisher’s trade managed to save the situation, escaping from the encirclement.

In the midst of the campaign, the intrepid English captain was knighted by Lord Howard aboard the Ark Royal. Later, the fireships launched against the Navy in Gravelines caused chaos and decided Medina Sidonia to put an end to the so-called Company of England, since the Tercios that it had to escort through the English Channel could not appear either. Thus, Frobisher returned to his country converted into a hero, which favored that in 1590 he contracted a second marriage with the daughter of Lord Wentworth. He settled down with his wife in Yorkshire, already a well-to-do figure of the aristocracy.

That did not prevent him from embarking again in 1592, taking command of a fleet that Sir Walter Raleigh sent to the Spanish coast to try to intercept the Treasure Fleet, capturing his subordinates the Portuguese galleon mother of deus, which came loaded with riches (gold and silver coins, jewels, ambergris, ebony, cochineal, cloth, more than half a thousand tons of spices…). Two years later he too took part in the naval siege of Morlaix, securing the surrender of the fortress, which was held by a Spanish garrison and their Catholic League allies. The following month he was trying to repeat his success at Fort Crozon when a Spanish arquebus hit him in the thigh and the infection resulting from the cure ended his life.

Routes of the three trips of Frobisher/Image: Social Studies

The desire to discover the Northwest Passage would not die with him, but the resolution was long in coming, since, together with the sources of the Nile, it would be the great goal of geographers and explorers until 1906, when the Norwegian Roald Amundsen found it and went through


The three voyages of Martin Frobisher (George Best and Sir Richard Collinson)/Martin Frobisher (ca. 1540- 1594) (LH Neatby)/ Martin Frobysher. elizabethan privateer (James McDermott)/The three voyages of Martin Frobisher (Vilhjalmur Stefansson)/Wikipedia

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