Baffin: 1615, 1616

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Purchas, Samuel, 1577?-1626.
Purchas His Pilgrimes: In Five Books . . . . London, 1625. [Rare Books Division: Kane Collection]

William Baffin's early years are a mystery (indeed, baffling!), for nothing is known about him till he appears on the scene as an accomplished seaman in the prime of life: as pilot of the Patience, fitted out by James Hall for a voyage of discovery to Greenland in 1612. It is assumed that he had acquired a reputation for being an extraordinarily good navigator. After his voyage to Greenland, Baffin made two whaling voyages to Spitsbergen for the Muscovy Company, which employed him subsequently in the search for a Northwest Passage. The same group of adventurers and Company officers that had sponsored Henry Hudson—Sir Thomas Smith, Sir Dudley Digges, and Sir John Wolstenholme—outfitted this expedition. Discovery, Hudson's ship and the veteran of subsequent Hudson Bay expeditions, was utilized once again; Robert Bylot, Hudson's pilot, was appointed master, Baffin as pilot. They left in mid-March 1615, entered Hudson Strait by June, and carefully explored along the southern coast of Baffin Island, eventually crossing into what is today's Foxe Channel. Their search for the Northwest Passage ended just north of the headland they named Cape Comfort:

This was the farthest of our Voyage, being in the latitude of 65 degrees 26 minutes, and longitude West from London 86 degrees 10 minutes: for seeing the land North-east by East, from us about nine or ten leagues off, and the Ice so thicke: our Master was fully persuaded, that this was nought else but a Bay, and so tracked and turned the Shippes head homewards, without any farther search. [Purchas, from his edited and abridged version of Baffin's account, p. 841.]

Without the loss of one man, they returned to England in early September. (Baffin's original account of this 1615 journey and his map are in the British Museum.) Baffin's experience led him to believe no passage existed in Hudson Bay—rather, it probably would be found up Davis Strait.

To that end, Discovery (quite aptly named as it turned out) was prepared the following spring, with Bylot as master and Baffin as pilot, sponsored by Sir Thomas Smith, Sir Francis Jones, Sir Dudley Digges, and Sir John Wolstenholme, who now expected the men would reach Japan. Their instructions were relatively simple: sail up Davis Strait to 80° N and then head west and south. The expedition departed Gravesend on 26 March 1616. By June 1 they had reached Cape Sanderson, on Greenland's western coast, the farthest point north attained by John Davis. During the next three months, Bylot and Baffin virtually circumscribed counterclockwise the whole of Baffin Bay, registering some of the most remarkable Arctic discoveries of the seventeenth century. Pestered with pack ice offshore, they continued up the coast almost to 78° N, naming Sir Dudley Digges Cape, Wolstenholme Sound, and Smith Sound, noting a great number of whales; then they were able to cross to the westward in an open sea, finding and naming Jones Sound and, a few days later on July 12, Lancaster Sound. Thus, they immortalized the names of their patrons.

. . . here our hope of passage began to be lesse every day then other, for from this Sound to the southward, wee had a ledge of Ice betweene the shoare and us, but cleare to the Sea ward . . . then wee having so much ice around us, were forced to stand more eastward . . . Then we left off seeking to the West shoare, because wee were in the indraft of Cumberlands Iles, and should know no certaintie, and hope of passage could be none. Now seeing that wee had made an end of our discovery . . . wee determined to goe for the Coast of Groineland, to see if we could get some refreshing for our men. [Purchas, p. 847.]

They found and collected in abundance a herb called scurvy grass, which at that time, lacking a good and reliable source of Vitamin C, was a common and practical treatment for scurvy; in eight or nine days all the men had regained their health. And by the end of August they were back in Dover, England.

Afterwards, in his report to Sir John Wolstenholme, Baffin summarized his thinking about the Northwest Passage:

. . . there is no passage, nor hope of passage in the North of Davis Streights, wee having coasted all or neere all the Circumference thereof, and finde it to be no other then a great Bay, as the Map heere placed doth truely shew: wherefore I cannot but much admire the worke of the Almightie, when I consider how vaine the best and chiefest hopes of man are in thinges uncertaine. And to speake of no other matter, then of the hopefull passage to the North-West; How many of the best sort of men have set their whole indevours to proove a passage that wayes . . . [Purchas, p. 843.]

Of this watershed Northwest Passage voyage, only a partial narrative was ever published—by Samuel Purchas—and without Baffin's map and navigational tables. In a marginal note in his publication Purchas explained: “This map of the author, with the tables of his journal and sayling, were somewhat troublesome and too costly to insert”. Unfortunately, as a result, Baffin's accomplishments and discoveries, particularly pertaining to possible passages to the west from Baffin Bay, would not be confirmed for two hundred years!—not till Sir John Ross's voyage of 1818. Maps published in the intervening years distorted or ignored Baffin's discoveries, and Sir John Barrow's map of 1818, published in his chronological summary of Arctic expeditions to date, omitted Baffin Bay completely, leaving Davis Strait open at the top. Bylot, who probably deserves some of the credit Baffin has received in posterity, disappeared from history after this voyage.

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