The Golden Age of Antarctic exploration (1897-1922) produced a multitude of heroes, of whom we report regularly in this column. But already three centuries before the “Heroic Age”, daring men ventured into unknown, icy Arctic regions in search of adventure, fame and trade routes.
One of the heroes of this “Dark Age” is the Englishman William Baffin (1584-1622). Long after his death, Baffin Bay, the marginal sea of the Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, was named after him. Baffin Island, the fifth largest in the world, also bears his name.
When exactly and where Baffin was born is lost in the darkness of history. He appeared as a seafarer in the year 1615. To illustrate his world and the spirit of the times, a few key points of this year: In Europe, a small ice age causes misery and wretchedness. In 1615, the Catholic Church forces Galileo to recant his blasphemous claim that the earth is round and revolves around the sun – otherwise he would face death by fire. Cervantes finishes his “Don Quixote,” Rubens immortalizes the plump “Venus before the Mirror,” Kepler finds a formula for calculating the volume of a barrel. The Inca Empire is in its decline, Cape Horn is sailed around for the first time, and Japan closes ranks with the rest of the world. Trading companies such as the British East India Company, founded in 1600, lay the foundation for globalization and make their shareholders fabulously rich.
And our hero is on his way west of Greenland, aboard the “Discovery”, under the command of Robert Bylot. The search is on for a Northwest Passage that would considerably shorten the route from Europe to East Asia. The venture is financed by the Moscow Company, the Russian equivalent of the British East India Company. Before that, Baffin had already earned his spurs, first in 1612 as a helmsman on the
James Hall expedition to the west coast of Greenland, and in 1613 and 1614 on two expeditions to Spitsbergen, where they scouted out worthwhile whaling grounds for the Moscow Company.
On the Discovery in 1615, Baffin achieved his first pioneering feat: he determined longitude from a ship, unfortunately using the rather inaccurate lunar distance method. The final, precise solution to the longitude problem will not be found until 1775, on James Cook’s second circumnavigation of the globe, thanks to a precise clock. The crew of the “Discovery” explores and maps the Hudson Strait and Southampton Island, but turns back without having discovered the Northwest Passage. In his report, Baffin argues that this should be looked for further north.
This is exactly what the second “Discovery” expedition, with a crew of 17, sets sail from Gravesend, England, on March 26, 1616, and heads for Davis Strait west of Greenland. Baffin’s plan is to advance northward from here. On May 20, the «Discovery» anchors at the northern tip of Disko Island, and ten days later passes Sandersons Hope mountain. John Davis had already come this far 50 years earlier. The “Discovery” sails undaunted further north and reaches the northernmost point of the voyage at Smith Sound on June 20 at 77 degrees 45 minutes, and on July 12 the actual destination of the expedition, Lancaster Sound, the entrance to the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately, neither Baffin nor anyone aboard the “Discovery” realizes this. He notes in his report that there is “no passage and no hope of finding it.” It is not until over 200 years later, in 1818 and 1819, that John Ross and Edward Parry will prove that Baffin was correct and that he had found the entrance to the Northwest Passage.
In the summer of 1616, the «Discovery» sets course for home as scurvy spreads among the crew. After a stopover in Mannitsoq, Greenland, where they fight the ravages of the deficiency disease with herbs boiled in beer, the “Discovery” lands in Dover, home, on August 30. Baffin will continue to search for the Northwest Passage, but in an easterly direction. In September 1617 he lands in India on behalf of the East India Company, in 1620 in Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman, two years later he is shot during the siege of a Portuguese fortress in the Persian Gulf.
Most of Baffin’s records have been lost. We know nothing about his private life. Except that he was married. His wife, whose name is unknown, sued the East India Company and, after three years of litigation, received 500 pounds in compensation for her husband’s death.
Author: Christian Hug