This Week in History


Dreams of Arctic Riches

For the week of Monday August 21, 2000

On August 19, 1577, Martin Frobisher left Frobisher Bay, his ships carrying about 200 tons of ore and three kidnapped Inuit. This was part of one of the strangest gold rushes in world history.

Kodlunarn Island, Countess of Warwick Sound

Kodlunarn Island, Countess of Warwick Sound
© Bruce Rigby

An English sailor, Frobisher wanted to discover a sea passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific — the fabulous Northwest Passage to China. In 1576, he sailed into what are now called Hudson Strait and Frobisher Bay, and landed on southern Baffin Island — quite an achievement with only a small vessel and no maps. Some of the rocks he took home seemed to contain gold and exploration suddenly seemed less important! Investors were easily found for a second trip — Queen Elizabeth I herself provided £1000 — and a lot of "black ore" was brought home. Although refiners could not extract gold from it, optimism, or maybe fraud, kept the scheme afloat for a third year.

Frobisher's 15 ships and 400 men in 1578 made up the largest expedition ever to sail to the Canadian Arctic. Frobisher planned to leave 100 men to winter on Kodlunarn Island. Unfortunately, heavy ice beset the fleet in Hudson Strait, and a ship carrying half the winter house was wrecked. The remaining ships loaded as much of the ore as they could and returned to England. However, this rock proved to be worthless. Some of it can still be found in stone walls in England and on beaches in Ireland.

View of the Countess of Warwick

View of the Countess of Warwick Sound
© Bruce Rigby

To the Inuit of Baffin Island, Frobisher was a difficult neighbour. Communication and trade were attempted, but fighting broke out, with injuries and deaths on both sides. English knowledge of the Inuit and their life in the Arctic began when Frobisher kidnapped one Inuit in 1576 and three more in 1577. Unfortunately all died shortly after arrival in England.

On Kodlunarn Island in 1578, the Inuit found a bonanza of English tools and materials which they used for a while. Since that time, they have continued to use the real wealth of the region — caribou and marine mammals. For 300 years, the Inuit told and retold stories about strange things that happened long ago. These stories, which they have shared with southerners since the 1860s, now provide the only details we possess about some incidents of Frobisher's adventure.

Kodlunarn Island is a national historic site, and Sir Martin Frobisher is a person of national historic significance plaqued in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut.

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