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A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge




[259] BUT even while Drake was sailing round the world, and Frobisher's search for a north-west passage had been diverted into a quest for gold, men's minds were still bent on the achievement of reaching Cathay by some northern route. A discourse by Sir Humphrey Gilbert to prove the existence of a passage by the north-west to Cathay and the East Indies, in ten chapters, was much discussed, and the Elizabethan seamen were still bent on its discovery.

"When I gave myself to the study of geography," said Sir Humphrey, "and came to the fourth part of the world, commonly called America, which by all descriptions I found to be an island environed round by sea, having on the south side of it the Strait of Magellan, on the west side the Sea of the South, which sea runneth toward the north, separating it from the east parts of Asia, and on the north side the sea that severeth it from Greenland, through which Northern Seas the Passage lieth which I take now in hand to discover."

The arguments of Sir Humphrey seemed conclusive, and in 1585 they chose John Davis, "a man well grounded in the principles of the art of navigation," to search for the North-West Passage to China. They gave him two little ships, the Sunshine  of fifty tons, with a crew of seventeen seamen, four musicians, and a boy, and the Moonshine  of thirty-five tons. It was a daring venture, but the expedition was ill-equipped to battle with the icebound [260] seas of the frozen north. The ships left Dartmouth on 7th June, and by July they were well out on the Atlantic with porpoises and whales playing round them. Then came a time of fog and mist, "with a mighty great roaring of the sea." On 20th July they sailed out of the fog and beheld the snow-covered mountains of Greenland, beyond a wide stream of pack-ice—so gloomy, so "waste, and void of any creatures," so bleak and inhospitable that the Englishmen named it the Land of Desolation and passed on to the north. Rounding the point, afterwards named by Davis Cape Farewell, and sailing by the western coast of Greenland, they hoped to find the passage to Cathay. Landing amid the fiords and the "green and pleasant isles" about the coast, they anchored a while to refresh, and named their bay Gilbert Sound, after Sir Humphrey and Davis' own little boy, Gilbert, left at home.

"The people of the country," says Davis, "having espied our ships, came down unto us in their canoes, holding up their right hand toward the sun. We doing the like, the people came aboard our ships, men of good stature, unbearded, small-eyed, and of tractable conditions. We bought the clothes from their backs, which were all made of seals' skins and birds' skins, their buskins, their hose, their gloves, all being commonly sewed and well dressed."

These simple Greenlanders who worshipped the sun gave Davis to understand that there was a great and open sea to the north-west, and full of hope he sailed on. But he soon abandoned the search, for the season was advancing, and, crossing the open sea, he entered the broad channel named after him Davis Strait, crossed the Arctic Circle, and anchored under a promontory, "the cliffs whereof were orient as gold," naming it Mount Raleigh. Here they found four white bears of "a monstrous bigness," which they took to be goats or wolves, till on nearer [261] acquaintance they were discovered to be great Polar bears. There were no signs of human life, no wood, no grass, no earth, nothing but rock, so they coasted southwards, and to their joy they found an open strait to the west free from ice. Eagerly they sailed the little Moonshine  and Sunshine  up the opening, which they called Cumberland Sound, till thick fogs, and adverse winds drove them back. Winter was now advancing, the six months' provisions were ended, and, satisfied with having found an open passage westward, Davis sailed home in triumph to fit out another expedition as soon as spring came round. His news was received with delight. "The North-West Passage is a matter nothing doubtful," he affirmed, "but at any time almost to be passed, the sea navigable, void of ice, the air tolerable, and the waters very deep."



With this certainty of success the merchants readily fitted out another expedition, and Davis sailed early in May 1586 with four ships.

The little Moonshine  and Sunshine  were included in the new fleet, but Davis himself commanded the Mermaid  of one hundred and twenty tons. The middle of June found him on the west coast of Greenland, battling his way with great blocks of ice to his old quarters at Gilbert Sound. What a warm welcome they received [262] from their old Eskimo friends; "they rowed to the boat and took hold on the oars and hung about with such comfortable joy as would require a long discourse to be uttered." Followed by a wondering crowd of natives eager to help him up and down the rocks, Davis made his way inland to find an inviting country, "with earth and grass such as our moory and waste grounds of England are"; he found, too, mosses and wild flowers in the sheltered places. But his business lay in the icy waters, and he boldly pushed forward. But ice and snow and fog made further progress impossible; shrouds, ropes, and sails were turned into a frozen mass, and the crew was filled with despair. "Our men began to grow sick and feeble and hopeless of good success, and they advised me that in conscience I ought to regard the safety of mine own life with the preservation of theirs, and that I should not through my over-boldness leave their widows and fatherless children to give me bitter curses."

So Davis rearranged his crews and provisions, and with the Moonshine  and a selection of his best men he determined to voyage on "as God should direct him," while the Mermaid  should carry the sick and feeble and faint-hearted home. Davis then crossed over the strait called by his name and explored the coast about Cumberland Sound. Again he tried here to discover the long-sought passage, but the brief summer season was almost past and he had to content himself with exploring the shores of Labrador, unconsciously following the track made by John Cabot eighty-nine years before.

But on his return home the merchants of London were disappointed. Davis had indeed explored an immense extent of coast-line, and he had brought back a cargo of cod-fish and five hundred seal skins, but Cathay seemed as far off as ever. One merchant prince, Sanderson by name, was still very keen, and he helped Davis to fit out yet [263] another expedition. With three ships, the Sunshine, the Elizabeth, and the Helen, the undaunted Arctic explorer now found himself for the third summer in succession at his old halting-place, Gilbert's Sound, on the west coast of Greenland.

Leaving his somewhat discontented crews to go fishing off the coast of Labrador, he took the little twenty-ton pinnace, with a small party of brave spirits like his own, and made his way northwards in a free and open sea. The weather was hot, land was visible on both sides, and the English mariners were under the impression that they were sailing up a gulf. But the passage grew wider and wider, till Davis found himself with the sea all open to west and north. He had crossed the Arctic Circle and reached the most northerly point ever yet reached by an explorer. Seeing on his right a lofty cliff, he named it "Sanderson his Hope," for it seemed to give hope of the long-sought passage to Cathay.

It was a memorable day in the annals of discovery, 30th June 1587, when Davis reached this famous point on the coast of Greenland. "A bright blue sea extended to the horizon on the north and west, obstructed by no ice, but here and there a few majestic icebergs with peaks snowy shooting up into the sky. To the eastward were the granite mountains of Greenland, and beyond them the white line of the mightiest glacier in the world. Rising immediately above the tiny vessel was the beetling wall of Hope Sanderson, with its summit eight hundred and fifty feet above sea-level. At its base the sea was a sheet of foam and spray. It must have been a scene like fairyland, for, as Davis remarked, there was "no ice towards the north, but a great sea, free, large, very salt and blue, and of an unsearchable depth."

But again disappointment awaited him. That night a wind from the north barred further advance as a mighty [264] bank of ice some eight feet thick came drifting down toward the Atlantic. Again and again he attempted to get on, but it was impossible, and reluctantly enough he turned the little ship southwards.

"This Davis hath been three times employed; why hath he not found the passage?" said the folk at home when he returned and reported his doings. How little they realised the difficulties of the way. The commander of the twenty-ton Ellen  had done more than any man had done before him in the way of Arctic exploration. He had discovered seven hundred and thirty-two miles of coast from Cape Farewell to Sanderson's Hope; he had examined the whole coast of Labrador; he had "converted the Arctic regions from a confused myth into a defined area." "He lighted Baffin into his bay. He lighted Hudson into his strait. He lighted Hans Egede to the scene of his Greenland labour." And more than this, says his enthusiastic biographer: "His true-hearted devotion to the cause of Arctic discovery, his patient scientific research, his loyalty to his employers, his dauntless gallantry and enthusiasm form an example which will be a beacon-light to maritime explorers for all time to come."

"And Davis three times forth for the north-west made,

Still striving by that course t'enrich the English trade;

And as he well deserved, to his eternal fame,

There, by a mighty sea, immortalised his name."

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