This Week in History


In Search of the Northwest Passage

For the week of Monday May 19, 2008

On May 19, 1587, John Davis set out from England on his third Arctic voyage. A navigator, explorer and cartographer, Davis travelled further north into the Canadian Arctic than any explorer before him.

Davis' routes through the Arctic
© Historica Foundation of Canada
An avid believer in the existence of a Northwest Passage, a channel which would allow easier trading between Britain and the Far East, Davis made three Arctic voyages attempting to locate it. He first departed from Britain on June 7, 1585, and followed the same route as his predecessor Martin Frobisher. Davis sailed south of Greenland then headed up its west coast before crossing to Exeter Bay on the coast of Baffin Island. Davis returned to Britain on September 30, 1585, believing that a major inlet he discovered and named Cumberland Sound, was the Northwest Passage.

On May 7, 1586, Davis again set out from England in search of the Northwest Passage and continued to explore the southwestern coast of Greenland and the coasts of Labrador.

For Davis’ final voyage he explored Baffin Bay and conducted a more thorough exploration of the Cumberland Gulf where he discovered what would later be called Hudson Strait. He pushed far north into Baffin Bay before turning back due to ice and wind.  He was the first to report the dangerous riptides around Resolution Island while crossing the Hudson Strait. He then sailed to Labrador, turning back to England when the fresh water and wood ran low.

The Seaman's Secrets by John Davis
© Public Domain
Davis made great contributions to the advancement of Arctic exploration. He invented the Davis Quadrant, also known as the backstaff, which was a device used to measure latitude. This was the first tool that allowed the user to face away from the sun when determining latitude rather than facing directly into the sun. His writings were also important and were used extensively by explorers after him. His book Seaman’s Secrets (1599) became the mariner’s handbook and The Worldes Hydrographical Description (1595) provided a thorough summary of the geographical knowledge known at the time.

He has been credited with the discovery of the Falkland Islands and he later began exploring the East Indies. It was during one of these trips on December 27, 1605, while piloting the Tiger, Davis was killed by Japanese pirates.

Although John Davis failed to find the Northwest Passage, he has been designated a National Historic Person due to his contributions to the exploration and cartography of the area surrounding Baffin Island, Greenland and Newfoundland.

Date Modified: