In elementary school, we learn about the great explorers. Columbus. Magellan. Cortez. Lewis and Clark. They appear in history textbooks because they possessed certain qualities that made them the stuff of history and thus worthy of biographies by the likes of Stephen Ambrose or David McCullough. They were successful, resourceful, brave, notorious, or even just plain lucky.
In Unknown Shore: The Lost History of England’s Arctic Colony, Robert Ruby adds two other categories that qualify an explorer for placement in the annals of history: lunacy and failure.
The book weaves together the stories of two Arctic explorers. The first concerns the adventures of Martin Frobisher, a 16th-century English pirate who made his name raiding French and Spanish ships. In 1576, with Queen Elizabeth’s blessing, Frobisher departed England in search of a northwest passage to the riches of Asia, then known as Cathay. One of his three small ships eventually reached what is now Canada’s Baffin Island, an Arctic land mass north of Hudson Bay. Frobisher believed that he had found a sea route to Cathay, and he dubbed it Frobisher Strait. But, more important, he and his men discovered a stone that was “as black as coal,” which they carried back home.
Upon Frobisher’s return, the men who had organized the expedition took this strange rock to three different assayers who found it to be nothing special. But a fourth said it yielded significant amounts of gold. A gold rush was on. Investors commissioned Frobisher to travel two more times to this landwhich the queen called “Meta Incognita,” or “Unknown Shore.” The northwest passage to Cathay was no longer the goal: “The sailors,” Ruby writes, “were expecting to harvest gold.”
In the two trips back to Meta Incognita, Frobisher and his men mined thousands of tons of this dark rock, and they also interacted with the native Inuit. In his last voyage, in 1578, Frobisher commanded a fleet of 15 ships and nearly 400 men, the largest Arctic expedition in history. And he began to build the first English colony in the New World. It would be years until the English settled Roanoke (in 1587) and Jamestown (in 1607).
England was already celebrating Frobisher and his discovery. “If that which you say of your Frobisher is true,” remarked an observer, “he will doubtless eclipse the reputation not only of Magellan but even of Christopher Columbus himself.” But Frobisher wasn’t your ordinary hero; he was practically pyscho. Paranoid and short-tempered, he trusted no one but himself. Sensing danger when there was none, he drew his dagger on some Inuit and kidnapped them. He also drew his knife on English assayers whose opinions on the black rock’s value didn’t meet his own. And when one high-ranking sailor addressed Frobisher without removing his cap, Frobisher cursed at him, “threatened to hang him, and moved to strike him.”
In the end, Frobisher’s expeditions were a total loss. The strait that he claimed led to Cathay was just a bay. Worse, the mysterious black rock turned out to be worthless hornblende. His backers lost their money, and England lost interest in Meta Incognita. But Ruby manages to find a silver lining to all this misfortune: “That the black stone was nearly worthless proved less important than how it helped motivate English courtiers and the London merchants to take greater interest in North America and to see the possible benefits of colonies.”
The second tale in Unknown Shore involves Charles Francis Hall, a mid-19th-century newspaper publisher from Cincinnati who was every bit as odd and unsuccessful as Frobisher. In 1845, the English explorer John Franklin and his men disappeared in the Arctic. Like many others of the day, Hall became addicted to the story, believing the men could have survived, but he took his addiction a little farther than most: He took it upon himself to rescue Franklin. Despite several failed earlier attempts and published reports of the expedition’s fate, Hallwho had never before traveled on an oceangoing ship, nor ventured north of New Englandsaid goodbye to his wife and headed toward the Arctic in 1860. Ruby writes: “Hall considered himself to be undertaking an especially noble mission, and he would attempt to part the waters himself if that might help save John Franklin’s men.”
Once he reached the Arctic, Hall sought out the Inuit to discover the Franklin expedition’s whereabouts. And they began telling him about strange white men who had visited their very land a very, very long time ago. Having read about Frobisher’s travels, Hall determined that he had stumbled upon the same territory Frobisher had discovered nearly 300 years earlier. And he figured that if the Inuit had preserved an account of Frobisher’s activities, they would certainly know what had happened to Franklin.
Hall did indeed find the remnants of Frobisher’s lost colony: glass, pottery, coal, an abandoned gold mine. Meanwhile, he eagerly adopted the Inuit’s clothing and diet, befriending a couple he called Hannah and Joe, who served as his faithful guides.
But like Frobisher, Hall was an unstable man. Besides leaving his wife and home in a vainglorious attempt to save men who had disappeared 15 years earlier, Hall was annoying to the whalers who transported him to the Arctic; he fancied himself the boss, despite never having sailed before. In addition, he acted capriciously toward the Inuitone moment he appreciated their friendship and help; the next he treated them like savages. (In fact, he later essentially rented out Joe and Hannah to various museums and shows to raise money.)
Hall returned the United States in 1862, eagerly trumpeting his findings. Two years later, he again departed to Baffin Island, and he finally discovered Franklin’s menin the form of remains. He returned home, crushed. “All these years, his energy had come from believing that Franklin’s men remained alive somewhere in the north through the kindness of the natives, a faith that burned in him like fire.”
Despite Hall’s failure, Ruby places him on a pedestal, describing him as an unselfish explorer who wanted only to do good. “He had cared more about giving comfort than in gaining rewards for himself, and he had wanted to be a savior.”
Unknown Shore is a well-written, thoroughly researched, and very informative book. Furthermore, Ruby, who is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, has done a skillful job of knitting together the duel stories of Frobisher and Hall. (However, from time to time, the author inserts a first-person account of his own travels to Baffin Island and England, and those awkward transitions disrupt his narrative.) But after reading his book, you have to wonder: Was it worth devoting 300 pagesand such a reverent toneto these unstable explorers?
Frobisher and Hall aren’t unworthy of scholarly attention. Frobisher did help to establish Britain’s foothold on North America, and he played a significant role in England’s defeat over the Spanish Armada in 1588. And in 1870, the U.S. government commissioned Hall to explore the North Pole. (Hall died on this voyage; Ruby speculates that his shipmates poisoned him after they grew tired of his behavior.) But Ruby’s praise rises almost to the level of hagiography.
Of course, history shouldn’t always be about the great and the triumphant. Some of the best accounts focus not on the famous but on the daily lives and customs of ordinary people. And no narrative would be complete without chronicling the losers; after all, to paraphrase Santayana, those who ignore the losers of the past are doomed to repeat their mistakes.
But Ruby and his publisher try to present Frobisher and Hall as great explorers. For example, the book jacket calls Unknown Shore “the remarkable story of the founding and later rediscovery of England’s first colony in the New World.” And these men simply were not great explorers. On his Arctic expedition, Frobisher discovered only fool’s gold and a dead-end waterway; the egomaniacal Hall desperately searched for men who had certainly died more than a decade before. Ruby’s ice pirates are hardly the noblemen he suggests. CP