Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Frobisher, Martin
FROBISHER, Sir MARTIN (1535?–1594), navigator, belonged to a family of Welsh origin, which removed from Chirk in Denbighshire, and settled at Altofts in the parish of Normanton, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in the middle of the fourteenth century. His father, Bernard Frobisher, of Altofts, died during his infancy, and he was sent to London, and placed under the care of Sir John York, a kinsman, who perceiving the boy to be of great spirit, courage, and hardiness of body, sent him on his first voyage to Guinea in the autumn of 1554. During the following ten years he doubtless acquired his knowledge of seamanship in the yearly expeditions which were despatched by Sir John Lock and his brother, Thomas Lock, either to the northern shores of Africa or the Levant. The earliest direct notice of Frobisher appears to be an account of two examinations before Dr. Lewis on 30 May and 11 June 1566, ‘on suspicion of his having fitted out a vessel as a pirate’ (State Papers, Dom. series, xl. 7). On 21 Aug. 1571 Captain E. Horsey writes to Lord Burghley from Portsmouth that he ‘has expedited the fitting out of a hulk for M. Frobisher’ (ib. lxxx. 31). This gives the earliest indication of Frobisher's public employment, which shortly afterwards took the form of service at sea off the coast of Ireland. 4 Dec. 1572 is the date of a ‘declaration of Martin Frobisher to the commissioners concerning the Earl of Desmond having employed him to provide a boat to convey the earl away’ (ib. Irish series, xxxviii. 48). This happened at Lambeth in the previous August, while Desmond was a hostage in England. This and other services brought him under the notice of the queen, and also that of her favourite, Sir Humphrey Gilbert [q. v.] In 1566 Sir Humphrey penned his famous ‘Discourse to prove a Passage to the North West,’ afterwards published in 1576. While yet in manuscript it appears to have been the chief incentive to a letter being addressed by the queen to the Muscovy Company, near the close of 1574, calling upon them either to despatch another expedition in this direction, or to transfer their privileges to other adventurers. The bearer of the letter was Frobisher, to whom a license was granted by the company 3 Feb. 1575, with divers gentlemen associated with him. Out of this grew Frobisher's three voyages in search of a North-West passage. The chief promoter of Frobisher's first voyage was Ambrose Dudley, earl of Warwick [q. v.], who, with other adventurers, enabled Frobisher to fit out the Gabriel and the Michael, two small barques of twenty-five tons, and a pinnace of ten tons. Frobisher sailed from the Thames on 7 June 1576, sailing up the North Sea, past the Shetland and Faroes. On 11 July he sighted Cape Farewell, the southern point of Greenland, which he judged to be the Friesland (or Faroes) of the brothers Zeni. Shortly afterwards in a storm he lost the company of the Michael, and his pinnace was lost. The Michael returned to Bristol on 1 Sept. On 20 July Frobisher sighted Queen Elizabeth's Foreland, near the south-east end of Frobisher Bay, which he supposed to be a strait. Passing over to the northern shore, he sailed westward into the bay ‘above fifty leagues, having upon either hand a great main or continent.’ The one on his right he supposed to be Asia, and the other on his left, America. After an exchange with the natives of bells, looking-glasses, and toys for their coats of seals and bear skins, and capturing an Esquimau with his canoe, he returned to Harwich 2 Oct. 1576, and thence to London, ‘where he was highly commended of all men … for the great hope he brought of the passage to Cathay’ (Best in Hakluyt, iii. 59). One of the sailors in this first voyage brought home a piece of black pyrite, which an Italian alchymist named Agnello, in defiance of the London goldsmiths, pronounced to contain gold. Whereupon preparation was made for a second voyage the following year, Frobisher being ‘more specially directed by commission for the searching more of this gold ore than for the searching any further discovery of the passage’ (Best, ib. iii. 60). This falsehood proved the ruin of Frobisher's Arctic expeditions, when the truth became known after the termination of his third voyage. In reply to petitions tendered by Frobisher and his friends, a charter was issued to the Company of Cathay 17 March 1577, with Michael Lock as governor for six years, and Frobisher as captain-general and admiral of the ships and navy of the company. In addition to his two old small barques, the Michael and Gabriel, the latter in charge of Edward Fenton [q. v.], the queen also provided one of her large ships, the Aid, of two hundred tons, the inventory of which is one of the curiosities of naval history (Collinson, p. 218). All things being prepared for a second voyage, the fleet left the Thames 27 May 1577, and proceeded on the course of the previous voyage, calling at Kirkwall in the Orkneys. Sailing hence 8 June, two days later they met three sail of Englishmen from Iceland, by whom they sent letters to England. On 4 July Frobisher sighted Greenland, which he again identified with the Friesland of the Zeni brothers, of which Best writes: ‘For so much of this land as we have sayled alongst, comparing their carde with the coast, we find it very agreeable’ (Hakluyt, iii. 62). We have here the earliest mention of the use of the Zeno map in northern navigation. After a storm, in which the Michael was nearly wrecked, the fleet met once more on 17 July at Hall's Island, at the north entrance to Frobisher Bay, ‘whence the ore was taken up which was brought into England this last year’ (1576), the said Christopher Hall, master of the Gabriel, ‘being present at the finding’ (Best in Hakluyt, iii. 63). From this period until 23 July Frobisher explored the south part of Meta Incognita, including Jackman's Sound, where, instead of gold, he found the horn of a sea unicorn or morse, which was afterwards ‘reserved as a jewel by the queen's maiestie's commandement in her wardrobe of robes’ (ib. iii. 65). Passing over to the north shore on 29 July, he proceeded to the Countess of Warwick's Island (Kod-lun-arn), where ‘wee found good store of gold to our thinking plainly to bee seen, whereupon it was thought best to load here than to seek further for better’ (Best, ib.) By the middle of August Frobisher loaded his ship with about two hundred tons of this precious mineral while exploring the northern mainland, building a fort called Best's Bulwark, and capturing a native woman and man. Having altered his determination for any further discovery of the passage through the straits westward, on 24 Aug. Frobisher sailed for England, where he arrived at Milford Haven 23 Sept., whence he proceeded to Bristol, where he found the Gabriel already in port, and learned that the Michael had reached Great Yarmouth in safety. The report of Frobisher's two hundred tons of ore filled England with rejoicing. A large part of the treasure was deposited in Bristol Castle, the rest in the Tower of London, the queen commanding four locks to be placed upon the door of the treasury, the keys of which were to be handed over to Frobisher, Michael Lock, warden of the Tower, and the master of the mint. On 30 Nov. Lock had to inform Secretary Walsingham that a schism had grown up among the commissioners ‘through unbelief, or I cannot tell what worse.’ On 6 Dec. Sir W. Winter wrote to say that he could not get a furnace hot enough ‘to bring the work to the desired perfection.’ At length it was admitted that the ore was ‘poor in respect of that brought last year, and that which we know may be brought next year’ (Fox Bourne, i. 154). It was resolved to send out another and much larger expedition early next year, and it was resolved that it should not be stayed. After repairing to the court at Greenwich, where the queen, ‘besides other good gifts and greater promises, bestowed upon the general a fair chain of gold,’ Frobisher sailed from Harwich on 31 May with a fleet of fifteen vessels, in three divisions, headed by the Aid, Judith, and Thomas Allen, for the ‘North-West parts,’ and the fancied treasures of Meta Incognita. Taking a new route, he sailed down the Channel and along the southern coast of England and Ireland, and sighted Cape Clear on 6 June. Hence he sailed north-west until the 20th, when he reached the south of Greenland, where he landed, and named it West England, giving the name Charing Cross to the last cliff of which he had sight as he sailed past two days later. On 2 July the fleet sighted the islands off Meta Incognita, but could not proceed on account of the Ice. After losing himself in the ‘Mistaken Streight’ (i.e. Hudson's), through no want of being warned by the more experienced Christopher Hall, master of the Aid. Frobisher anchored in the Countess of Warwick's Sound 31 July, where he found Fenton in the Judith, who arrived there ten days before him. Meanwhile Hall in the Thomas Allen was beating up in the open two or three of the other vessels which had lost their bearings in the storms and mist. After wasting nearly two months in finding the rendezvous and repairing damages there, the only results were the accidental discovery of a new strait by Frobisher, afterwards explored by Hudson, the further discovery of the upper part of Frobisher Bay by Best, and the loading the soundest vessels with mineral that turned out to be worthless. The fleet sailed for England early in September, and arrived at various ports near the beginning of October. At first Frobisher was heartily welcomed, but popular feeling soon turned against him, on account of the mineral being declared to be inferior to that previously collected.
In an undated letter, written between 1576 and 1578, probably before the termination of his third voyage, his first wife, Isabel, whom he married 30 May 1559, wrote to Walsingham that whereas her former husband, Thomas Rickard of Snaith, left her with ample portions for herself and all her children, her present husband, ‘whom God forgive,’ had spent everything, and ‘put them to the wide world to shift,’ she and her children were starving at Hampstead, and begged Walsingham to help her in recovering a debt of 4l. due to her husband, and so to keep them from starving until Captain Frobisher's return (Fox Bourne, i. 177).
One curious fact of geographical interest in this voyage of 1578 remains to be noted. The Emmanuel Buss of Bridgwater, as she came homeward, to the south-east of Friesland (i.e. Greenland), discovered an island in lat. 57½° north, and sailed along the coast three days, ‘the land seeming to be fruitful, full of woods, and a champaign country’ (Best in Hakluyt, iii. 93). This island has been a source of perplexity to map-makers and navigators down to our day. It was doubtless an island, now submerged, a phenomenon by no means unknown in these regions, if we are to believe Ruysch, in his map of the 1507 Ptolemy. The following account of Buss (as the island was called) seems to have been entirely overlooked by recent writers on Frobisher. J. Seller, the hydrographer, in 1671, writes that Buss was twenty-five leagues long, and that it was ‘also several times seen by Capt. Zach. Gillam, 1668,’ &c. Again: ‘This island (Buss) was further discovered by Capt. Thos. Shepherd in 1671, who brought home the map of the island that is here annexed’ (English Pilot, 4th book, North Coast of America, Greenland to Newfoundland, London, 1671? fol. p. 5, Brit. Mus. 1804, b. 7).
In 1580 Frobisher had so far regained favour at court as to be employed as captain of one of the queen's ships, the Foresight, in preventing the Spaniards from giving assistance to the Irish insurgents in Munster. About this period he also received the reversionary title of clerk of her majesty's ships (Fox Bourne, i. 177).
In the autumn of 1581 a project for a fourth voyage to Cathay by the north-west was set forth by the Earl of Leicester and others, of which Frobisher was to have the command; but as the instructions issued to him in February 1582 were changed for the purposes of trade, and not discovery, as originally intended, Frobisher retired in favour of Fenton, who finally sailed in April 1582. In September 1585 Frobisher sailed from Plymouth in charge of the Primrose, in Drake's expedition to the West Indies as vice-admiral, where he distinguished himself in an assault upon Cartagena, and returned to England in July 1586 (Hakluyt, iii. 534).
In 1588 Frobisher commanded the Triumph in the great Armada fight. On Sunday, 21 July (O.S.), in conjunction with Drake in the Revenge, and Hawkins in the Victory, he first beat the Spanish rear-admiral; later in the day he with Hawkins engaged Don Pedro de Valdez, leader of the Andalusian squadron, who, however, did not yield until Drake came to their assistance next morning, very much to Frobisher's annoyance. On Wednesday the 24th, when the English fleet was augmented from the Thames, Frobisher led one of the four newly formed squadrons. On Monday the 29th, Frobisher, with Drake and Hawkins, gave their final blows to the remains of the armada while in difficulties on the shoals off Gravelines. During the week previous Frobisher was knighted at sea by the lord high admiral, Charles, lord Howard of Effingham (ib. i. 600). Frobisher's services this year terminated with his appointment on 26 Nov. to the Tiger, in command of a squadron of six ships to sweep the Narrow Seas. On 7 May 1589 he was engaged off Ostend (Jones, p. 282). In May 1590 he proceeded to sea as vice-admiral to Sir John Hawkins [q. v.], with a fleet of twelve or fourteen ships, to intercept the Portuguese carracks coming from India, but without result, as means were found by Philip II to warn them to delay sailing (Lediard, p. 275). In the summer of 1591 Frobisher was residing at Whitwood in Yorkshire, when he married his second wife, Dorothy, widow of Sir W. Widmerpoole, daughter of Lord Wentworth. In the following May he was sent by Sir W. Raleigh in the Garland ‘to annoy the Spanish fleet’ off the coast of Spain, while Sir John Burroughs, his colleague, proceeded towards the Azores to intercept the Plate fleet from Panama. Frobisher soon afterwards capturing a large Biscayan ship with a valuable cargo of iron, &c., worth 7,000l., returned home, while Burroughs joined the Earl of Cumberland (Monson, p. 23). In 1593 he paid his last visit to his Yorkshire home, where he became a justice of the peace for the West Riding.
In the autumn of 1594 Frobisher with the Dreadnought and ten sail co-operated with Sir John Norris in the relief of Brest and the adjoining port of Crozon, already in the hands of the Spaniards. In the last fight, when the garrison surrendered and the fort was reduced to ashes, Frobisher was wounded in the hip while leading his men on shore; this ultimately led to his death through unskilful surgery (Lediard, p. 308). He died soon after reaching Plymouth, where his entrails were buried in the church of St. Andrew, while his other remains were interred in St. Giles's, Cripplegate, 14 Jan. 1595 (Jones, p. 335). An impartial account of Frobisher is still a desideratum, as recent attempts to exalt his fame at the expense of Drake and Hawkins have only served to obscure it. Although a gentleman by birth, Frobisher was no scholar, as his letters prove (cf. ib. p. 284). Frobisher from his youth was trained in a rough school, whose highest ideal was courage, tempered by piracy, which was either patronised or reprobated according to its value or inconvenience to the state.
Frobisher's portrait, often reproduced, will be found in Holland's ‘Herωologia.’ Two cartographical relics remain to be noticed, ‘a chart of the navigation of 1578,’ and Frobisher's ‘plot of Croyzon, 1594,’ where he met with his death-wound (Hatfield MSS., Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. Appendix, pp. 192–3).[Best's True Discourse, 1578, 4to (reprint in Hakluyt, 1599, vol. iii.); Collinson's Frobisher's Voyages (Hakluyt Soc.), 1867; Fox Bourne's English Seamen, 1862; Hakluyt's Navigations, 1589, fol. (for Ellis and Hall's Narratives); ib. Voyages, 1599–1600, 3 vols.; Holland's Herωologia, 1620; F. Jones's Life of Frobisher, 1878; J. J. Cartwright's Life of Frobisher in Chaps. of Yorkshire History, 1872; Lediard's Naval Hist. 1734, fol.; Sir W. Monson's 1st naval tract, War with Spain, 1682, fol.; Settle's True Report (2nd voyage), 1577, 8vo (reprint in Hakluyt, 1589); Frobisher MSS. in Brit. Mus. and State Papers.]