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Frobisher’s Missing Five February 7, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

frobisher's bay according to hall

There is a fascinating episode in Frobisher’s 1567 first trip to the North West Atlantic. Five of his men vanished in the most extraordinary circumstances while on Baffin Island (Arctic Canada).

But these foolish men, being five of them in all in the bote, having set on land this stranger at the place appointed: the capitayn being in the ship saw them quietly put of their bote, and immediately contrary to his commandment and charge geven they rowed furder beyond that poynt of the land owt of his sight, and there landed iii of them, and the other twayn rested in the bote a little from the land so as he saw them agayn, to whom owt of the ship they made signes and noyse as well as they could to call them to the ship. And immediately these two men with the bote rowed into the land agayn to their fellowes owt of his sight, and after that hower he never saw them, nor could hear anything of them. And thus the capitayn having lost his bote and five of his best men, to his great discomfort he still remayned with the ship there at anker all that day and next night hoping to here of them agayn. But he could not here or know anything of them: and thereby he judged they were taken and kept by force.

Frobisher was convinced, perhaps mindful of experiences of explorers further south in the Americas and in the Indian Ocean and presumed that his men had been taken by the ‘natives’, in this case the Inuit. He, therefore, took an Inuit hostage. However, grabbing and killing European visitors doesn’t seem typical Inuit behavior.

There is a very slight chance that the fate of these men is described in a nineteenth-century book by  arctic explorer Francis Charles Hall. In 1861 Hall visited Baffin Island and began to run across what he believed were sixteenth-century traces.

The heavens were cloudless, there was a fine breeze from the northwest, and the boat bounded along rapidly toward the island. Around us was high land, white with its winter dress, and beneath, an immense forest of sea vegetation, over which we sailed. We soon reached the shore, and I immediately landed to examine the place as well as the short time at my disposal would permit. I soon came across an excavation, which was probably the commencement of a mine dug by Frobisher, though the Innuits, judging only from what they saw, called it a reservoir for fresh water, a quantity of which collected in it at certain seasons. This excavation was at some distance from the ruins of the stone houses, and was eight by eight feet long and six feet deep. On the shore of the north side of the island I found also an excavation which I called a ship’s trench, for the Innuits said that was where a ship had been built by the white men. [The trench] had been dug out of stone, which was of such a nature as to yield to the persevering use of pickaxe, sledge-hammer, and the crowbar. The bottom of the trench, which was one hundred and ten feet in length, was an inclined plane, running from the surface of the ground to a depth of twenty-five feet at the water’s edge. On the top of the island I found the ruins of a house, which had been built of stone, cemented together with lime and sand. The foundation still remained, and was of ‘lyme and stone’. It was about twelve feet in diameter, and every portion of it was covered with aged moss. From appearances, some of the stones had been turned over, as if done by Innuits seeking treasure. A few feet east of this house was a sort of stone breastwork such as the natives erect for shelter when hunting, and also a pile of stones, which might have been made, as I thought, by Frobisher’s [5] men, to cover some memorial left by them when trying to escape in their ship. Much of the island was covered with shingle, and this, on the north side, was so compact, and of such even surface, that it reminded me of the small cobble-stone pavements in cities. I collected as many relics from these ruins as we could possibly carry, and, with Koojesse, returned to the boat.

It is very possible that Hall had run into the remains of some European visit Baffin Island, though goodness know which one. But what about the sequel?

On our way [Koojesse] said to me, ‘The men who built the ship, and started with it, all died — died with the cold.’ I asked him how he knew this; and he replied that ‘all the old Innuits said so.’ This agreed precisely with what old Ookijoxy Ninoo told me the previous winter in the oral history she then communicated to me, and I felt convinced that all the evidences before me could refer to no other than Frobisher’s expedition, and the [5] men left behind by that explorer. She said that the five men built a ship, and found so much ice that they could not proceed, and finally all froze to death. This island is generally called ‘Kod-lu-narn’ because white men lived on it, and built stone houses, and also a ship. The ship was built for the object of escaping from this region. In the previous winter, while passing on our way from the ship to Oopungnewing – an island three miles southwest from Kodlunarn – Koojesse had pointed out this latter island, and said that white men once built a ship there. I gave little heed to his statement at the time, because I knew that to build a ship such materials were required as the regions thereabout were quite destitute of. But when I heard the history of Ookijoxy Ninoo, I saw at once the probability there was that Koojesse was right. From what I saw that day, I was fully convinced that many, very many years ago, men of civilization did live upon the island called by the Innuits Kodlunarn, and that they did build a vessel – probably a schooner – there. The evidence was contained in the following objects which I saw around me, viz.: Coal; flint-stone; fragments of tile, glass, and pottery; an excavation which I have called an abandoned mine; a trench by the shore on an inclined plane, such as is used in building a ship on the stocks; the ruins of three stone houses, one of which was twelve feet in diameter, with palpable evidence of its having been erected on a foundation of stone cemented together with lime and sand; and some chips of wood which I found on digging at the base of the ship’s trench. Upon this evidence, then — coupled with Esquimaux tradition, as given to me by several persons apart from each other, and at different times — I founded my opinions respecting Frobisher’s expedition, as I have already stated them.

From 1567 to 1861 there are practically three hundred years. It is really possible that oral transmission had kept the story alive that long: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com? Just possibly if there was the stimulus of memory in the barren stones and the ‘civilised’ traces left behind there. Beach is still not clear what the five made the ship of, nor, for that matter, why the five would have abandoned the ship in this way in the first place and not returned in a sensible time. Did Frobisher kick them off his vessel and then scramble to cover up afterwards?


9 Feb 2013: Stephen D brings up a question here that confused me but that I was too worried about bringing up because, well, to be frank I thought that it might be obvious to everyone else. One question: if people were trying to build a ship on desolate treeless Baffin Island, where were they going to find timber? Only explanation I can think of: they weren’t trying to build a new ship. They had a ship that was so damaged as to be unseaworthy, and they were trying to create a seaworthy vessel from its timbers, reducing its size so as to have material to spare. But if that’s what they were doing, they can’t have been Frobisher’s men with their small boat.’ Thanks Stephen!

16 Feb 2013: Stephen D adds a little more: ‘Even more plausible explanation: they had two vessels. One was in  a poor state but could be mended, the other was past repair. The therefore dug a slipway long enough to get both of them completely out of the water (which they had to do to get at the keel and lower timbers of the one, and repair the parts below the waterline in the other), hauled them both out, demolished the worse one at the top of the slipway, rebuilt the better and (if they had any sense) loaded it with any leftover timber for fuel. That would explain why they dug a hundred-foor slipway, which is far longer than anyone would need for a reasonable sized ship (even Victory is only 185 feet long). What then became of the ship? If the Inuit are right, and the sailors died of cold, then what Inuit could resist plundering such a treasure-store of wood, cordage and metal?’ The slight problem with this was that, to the best of our knowledge, there was only the one boat. Perhaps they really did patch up using some driftwood? Thanks Stephen!