Thomas James and Luke Foxe: 1631-1632

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The voyages of Thomas James and Luke Foxe present an interesting study in contrasts and similarities, for both sought a Northwest Passage through Hudson Bay in 1631. James, financed by Bristol merchants, was an educated man and a scientific seaman, who had done a lot of research on the topic, collecting print and manuscript materials and any available chart he could get his hands on; Foxe was sponsored by London merchants and portrayed himself as a practical seaman. Both men left England in May 1631 aboard 70-ton ships, each of which was supplied for eighteen months and crewed by twenty men (including the captain) and two boys.

James, Thomas, 1593?-1635?
The Strange and Dangerous Voyage of Captaine Thomas Iames, in His Intended Discouery of the Northwest Passage into the South Sea: Wherein the Miseries Indured both Going, Wintering, Returning, and the Rarities Obserued, both Philosophicall and Mathematicall, are Related in this Iournall of It . . . . London, 1633. [Rare Books Division: Kane Collection]

[map of James's voyage, from his book]

One might call his voyage “strange and dangerous” for two unusual actions James took: 1) he would not hire anyone who previously had been on an Arctic expedition or had similar experience; 2) before winter had set in he sunk his boat at anchorage in Hudson Bay, assuming he would be able to re-float it, patch it, and sail it back home to England. However, the first decision solidified his position as the expedition leader since everyone was dependent upon his knowledge; hence, there would be no mutiny as Henry Hudson had experienced. The second was only a last resort arrived at by unanimous agreement with the crew.

James set sail from Bristol in May 1631 aboard the vessel Henrietta Maria, named after the queen. But bad weather, ice, and fog, soon became the order of the day. After managing to reach the western coast of Hudson Bay, north of Churchill, in mid-August, James sailed south-southeast along the coast, actually meeting Foxe who had been undergoing repairs in Port Nelson, and spent much of the early fall seeking a safe place to winter. Ultimately, he stopped at Charlton Island in James Bay, which was later named for the explorer. His men built several houses on the shore, off-loaded supplies from the ship, and then sank her to prevent total loss from the crush of ice against the shore, figuring, at worst, they could build a pinnace from her wreckage in the spring. Four men died on the island, including the carpenter. By July the next year, they were able to plug the ship's holes, pump out the water, and float her again; miraculously, she was fairly ship-shape, though she became more leaky as sailing resumed. Once more bad weather (storms, ice, frozen rigging) was a major factor in preventing the further northern exploration into Foxe Basin, and by the end of August the crew wanted to go home, having reached an estimated latitude of 65° 30' N; the ship arrived back in Bristol on October 22, almost exactly a year after Foxe.

Sample passages from his account:

February, 1632. The cold was as extreme this month, as at any time we had felt it this yeere : and many of our men complained of infirmities. Some, of sore mouthes; all the teeth in their heads being loose, their gums swolne, with blacke rotten flesh; which must every day be cutaway. . . .Since now I have spoken so much of the cold, I hope it will not be too coldly taken, if I in a few words make it someway to appeare unto our Readers. Wee made three differences of the cold : all according to the places. In our house, In the woods : and in the open Ayer, upon the Ice, in our going to the Ship. For the last, it would be sometimes so extreme, that it was not indurable : no Cloathes were proofe against it; no motion could resist it. It would, moreover, so freeze the haire on our eye-lids, that we could not see : and I verily beleeve, that it would have stifled a man, in a very few houres : we did daily find by experience, that the cold in the Woods would freeze our faces, or any part of our flesh that was bare; but it was yet not so mortifying as the other. Our house on the out-side, was covered two thirdparts with Snow, and on the inside frozen, & hang with Icesickles. The Cloathes on our beds would be covered with hoarefrost : which in this little habitacle, was not farre from the fire. [James, pp. 63-65.]

Regarding the existence of a Northwest Passage, James was rather doubtful in his final assessment:

. . . I here most submissively offer unto the judicious Readers : and mine owne private opinion withall, concerning the raiseableness of the Action intended; which was to finde a passage to the South Sea. . . . [After discounting tales handed down of Portuguese explorers who supposedly came through the North from the South Seas, James continues.] Most certaine it is, that by the onely industry of our owne Nation, those Northerne parts of America have beene discovered, to the Latitude of 80 degrees, and upwards. And it has beene so curiously done, (the labours of several men being joyned together) that the maine land hath beene both seene and searcht; and they have brought this supposed passage to this passe; that it must be to the North, of sixty sixe degrees of Latitude. A cold Clyme, pestered with Ice, and other discommodities . . . Now most probable it is, that there is no passage. [James, pp. 107-108]

Foxe, Luke, 1586-1635.
North-West Fox, or, Fox from the North-West Passage. Beginning with King Arthur, Malga, Octhur, the Two Zeni's of Iseland, Estotiland, and Dorgia; Following with Briefe Abstracts of the Voyages of Cabot, Frobisher, Davis, Waymouth, Knight, Hudson, Button, Gibbons, Bylot, Baffin, Hawkridge . . . Demonstrated in a Polar Card, Wherein Are All the Maines, Seas, and Ilands, Herein Mentioned. With the Author His Owne Voyage, Being the XVIth . . . . London, 1635. [Rare Books Division: Kane Collection]

[map of Foxe's voyage, from his book]

Though he received less recognition than James—probably because James's account of his voyage was better written—the achievements of Foxe are, nonetheless, remarkable: he was the first to circumnavigate Hudson Bay, to investigate the area of Foxe Channel, and to return home without the loss of a single man.

Foxe, aboard the Charles, left Deptford several days after James's departure from Bristol. After surviving his own ordeal with ice in Hudson Strait, he followed a counterclockwise route around Hudson Bay, following along the south coast of Southampton Island, then down the western coast of Hudson Bay to Port Nelson. Further south he ran into Thomas James, after which Foxe sailed east and north, James east and south into James Bay. Foxe continued his exploration north, ultimately entering Foxe Basin (which was later named for him) and sailing along the western coast of Baffin Island till he was forced back by ice at 66° 47' N, and sailed home. Sir Thomas Roe's Welcome, the name Foxe gave to an island after a friend and sponsor, shortened to Roes Welcome, is now given to the channel separating Southampton Island from the mainland.

This passage from Foxe's narrative describes his meeting and dining with Thomas James at the end of August 1631 at the point James named Cape Henrietta Maria:

I was well entertained and feasted by Captaine James, with varieties of such cheere as his Sea provisions could aford . . .The Gentleman could discourse of Arte, as observations, calculations, and the like, and shewed me many Instruments, so that I did perceive him to bee a practitioner in the Mathematicks, but when I found that hee was no Sea-man, I did blame those very much, who had councelled him to make choyce of that shippe, for a voyage of such importance . . . I did not thinke much for his keeping out his flagg . . . to this was replide, that he was going to the Emperour of Japon, with letters from his Majestie, and that if it were a ship of his Majesties of 40 Peeces of Ordnance, hee could not strike his flag (keepe it up then quoth I) but you are out of the way to Japon, for this is not it : hee would have perswaded mee to take harbour to winter in, telling me that Sir Thomas Button tooke harbour the 14 of this instant; Quoth I, hee is no precedent for mee, I must parallel my poverty with poore Hudsons, who took no harbour before the first of November; and that then I durst not take harbour until the midst of the same, besides I was not come to do so much as another man, but more than any, as I had already done . . . [Foxe, pp. 222-223.]

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