Saturday, July 19, 2003

"England's El Dorado" by Fred Pearce, New Scientist. May 3rd, 2003

Inspired by the New-World-riches acquired by the Spanish king Phillip II, England's Queen Elizabeth I wanted treasure of her own. Martin Frobisher, a swashbuckling captain and friend of Francis Drake's, put himself forward as the man to lead an expedition to discover and claim the Northwest Passage. His first expedition, launched in 1576, ran afoul of local Inuits. Frobisher turned tail for home bringing only a captive Inuit man and a sample of black rock.

An Italian alchemist/assayer, Giovanni Baptista Agnello, claimed that the black rock contained gold. On the strength of these claims, a second expedition was soon launched which even included an assayer and a portable furnace. The second expedition returned to England in triumph, carrying 160 "tonnes" of black and red ore.

Elizabeth immediately ordered a third expedition to "Meta Incognita" (the Unknown Shore, now known as Baffin Island). And so in 1578, Frobisher set sail once more, with 15 ships and 400 men, including Cornish miners and 100 pioneers to found an Arctic settlement. Unbeknownst to Frobisher, the expedition also included a spy working for King Phillip of Spain.

The colony was never established. No more red ore was found. The ships returned home with 1200 tonnes of black rock, which turned out to contain no gold. Frobisher returned to piracy. Leftover ore was incorporated in to a wall (which can still be seen) around what was then one of Elizabeth's estates.

For more information on Elizabeth's maritime exploits (and lots of other cool stuff), see www.nmm.ac.uk, the website of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich England.

Some additional tidbits on the Frobisher expeditions comes from: Roanoke by Lee Miller; America 1585: The Complete Drawings of John White by Paul Hulton, and The Queen's Conjurer by Benjamin Wooley.

Apparently, Frobisher's second expedition returned to England with three Inuits: a man, a woman, and her child. All three captives soon died: the man from injuries sustained during capture, the woman and child from fever. Yet before their deaths, their portraits were painted in water color by John White (later of the "lost colony" at Roanke Virginia).

John Dee, alchemist and mathematician, tried to teach "modern" navigational methods to Frobisher before the first expedition. He also lost a sizable personal investment in the second expedition.