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William Baffin’s Explorations

For the week of Monday January 21, 2013

On January 23, 1622, the explorer William Baffin was killed during a confrontation between British and Portuguese forces in the Strait of Hormuz at the eastern edge of the Persian Gulf. However, it was his exploration of the Arctic that makes him notable. The surveys and maps that Baffin made of the Arctic allowed other explorers to discover the Northwest Passage.

Map of Baffin and Bylot’s second expedition in 1616
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
As is the case with many explorers, little is known of William Baffin’s life until his northern voyages and the later years of his life. Born in England circa 1584, Baffin used his talents for navigation and mathematics to build his career as an explorer. From 1612 to 1622, with the financial support of trading companies, he led several expeditions to Greenland, the Spitzbergen region in what is now Norway and the northeast Arctic territory now occupied by Canada. During these expeditions, Baffin kept log books that were later published. He was one of the first to keep records for these areas.

Baffin returned to London in October 1614 after completing whaling expeditions for the Muscovy Company. After entering the service of the Company of Merchants of London Discoverers of the Northwest Passage in spring 1615, he set sail for America. There, he discovered and charted the Hudson Strait, which was then unknown by Europeans. Aboard the Discovery under the command of Robert Bylot, Baffin continued the explorations undertaken by Henry Hudson in 1610-11. For the first time in the history of navigation, Baffin successfully calculated longitude at sea, which allowed him to make detailed maps of the area. At the end of this voyage, he correctly concluded that there was no navigable passage to the west out of Hudson Bay.

Captain William Edward Parry
© Library and Archives Canada / No R9266-3040
The crew returned to London in fall 1615, but came back to the Hudson Strait the following spring. Aboard the same vessel, still with Bylot as captain, Baffin criss-crossed the body of water now known as Baffin Bay. During this voyage, the expedition reached a latitude of 77°45′, which was the furthest north ever reached. It would take another 236 years before this exploit was repeated!

Later, in 1617 and 1620, Baffin took service with the British East India Company and charted the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. During his last voyage in 1621, he piloted the London to the East Indies. In December, a battle broke out in the Gulf of Oman between British forces and the Portuguese and Dutch fleet. On January 20, 1622, the British fleet arrived off Hormuz. Three days later, Baffin came ashore to calculate the firing range from the ship for the British fleet and was shot by the Portuguese.

It was only 200 years later that Baffin’s calculations were confirmed by the explorer William Edward Parry, who was designated a person of national historic significance in 1971. It was Parry who named Baffin Island in 1820 to honour the memory of his predecessor. William Baffin was designated a person of national significance in 1972 in recognition of his exploration voyages in Canada’s Arctic and the maps and surveys he made of this region.

To find out more about the Northwest Passage, consult the This Week in History archives: In Search of the Northwest PassageJohn Ross Explores the ArcticLost in the ArcticDreams of Arctic Riches, Generosity in Early Canada: a Key to Franklin's SuccessHappy Birthday Henry!! and Death of Constable A.J. Chartrand. To learn more about Parks Canada’s 2012 search for the wrecks of Franklin’s HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, visit The Underwater Archaeology Search for Franklin's Lost Vessel: HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site.

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