Henry Hudson sails into Hudson Bay

Richard Cavendish remembers Henry Hudson's attempted discovery of the Northwest Passage.

Henry Hudson’s fame seems to be in inverse proportion to his achievements, perhaps because of his tragic end. He never found the Northwest Passage and he discovered few, if any, of the places subsequently named after him, perhaps not even Hudson Bay. Nothing whatever is known of him until 1607, when London merchants employed him to search out a route to the Far East round the north of Russia. He found lots of whales and tried again in 1608, when two of his crew saw a ‘mermaid’. Hudson switched to finding a way to Cathay round the north of Canada. In Dutch service in 1609 he sailed up the Hudson River (discovered by Verrazano in 1524) from today’s New York City to Albany. In 1610 an English consortium financed him to make another attempt on the Northwest Passage.

Hudson set off from London in April in the aptly named Discovery with a crew of 22, including his son John. They reached the coast of Greenland in June. In July they entered what is now the Hudson Strait, which Martin Frobisher had discovered in 1578, and sailed on into Hudson Bay, which Hudson thought must be the Pacific. Whether Sebastian Cabot had found it before, on his voyage in 1508-09, is disputed. 

Mapping the eastern coast, Hudson and his men were increasingly encumbered by ice and in November they found themselves frozen in and forced to winter in the bay. They had enough food in store for nearly six months and they caught fish and birds, but scurvy broke out and though Hudson was a good navigator, he was a poor leader of men. He had experienced serious difficulties with his crews before and he could not cope with the mounting alarm on Discovery as the men were reduced to eating frogs and moss. 

Hudson eventually lost all control and the bulk of the crew resolved to give up exploring and go home. On June 22nd, 1611, with the ice at last breaking up, they seized Hudson, John and six others who were either loyal or scurvy-ridden, put them in a small boat and gave them some provisions (or so they said later) before casting them adrift and sailing away in Discovery. 

Nothing more was ever heard of Hudson and the other castaways. The mutineers returned across the Atlantic and some reached London, where far from being hanged, as threatened, they were employed in further attempts to find the elusive Northwest Passage. When, at last, four survivors were tried for murder in 1618, they maintained that they had mutinied only when faced with starvation and were acquitted.