Soldiers of the Sixteenth Century

Other Fruitless Expeditions

English sailor, 1570s

Caption: English sailor, 1570s

View Multimedia - Explorations of Martin Frobisher

Caption: View Multimedia - Explorations of Martin Frobisher

After the expeditions of Cartier and Roberval in 1541-43, the British and French made various other attempts throughout the rest of the sixteenth century to find the Northwest Passage or another Eldorado, but they all ended in failure.

The most important expeditions were those of the Englishman Martin Frobisher between 1576 and 1578. Like Cartier, Frobisher was searching, though much farther north, for gold and the famous passage to Asia. One hundred men, including 30 soldiers and 11 gentlemen, took part in his second expedition in 1577. During this voyage, the relations between the Inuit and the English quickly deteriorated. The latter attempted to take some natives hostage; a battle ensued, in which the European soldiers used their harquebuses and their bows. A few men, including Frobisher himself, were wounded by Inuit arrows. The place where this battle occurred, the first in the North, was named Bloody Point.

From a military point of view, the wounds suffered by the British in this battle indicate that they were not wearing any armour or protective clothing, or that their protection was insufficient. British soldiers at the time employed much the same weapons as the French, with the exception of the longbow which the British alone had. British soldiers also often wore livery, although the soldiers and sailors of the Frobisher expeditions may not have had any.

Believing that he had discovered gold on Kodlunarn Island, Frobisher returned the next year leading a fleet of 15 ships with some 400 men. At the time, it was the largest expedition ever mounted in the Arctic. There were probably around 200 sailors and 100 soldiers on board, since, out of the 100 men who were supposed to pass the winter on Baffin Island that year, 40 were sailors and 30 were soldiers. The rest of the men were regular officers, gentlemen, and of course miners, for during the summer months more than 1,300 tonnes of "gold" were dug up. Having accumulated such a treasure, Frobisher, like Cartier before him, decided to return immediately rather than passing the winter there. When analyzed upon the fleet's return to England, however, his treasure turned out to be nothing more than gneiss.

Other expeditions followed Frobisher's, although they were much more modest in scale and apparently unarmed, like those undertaken between 1585 and 1587 by John Davis, the discoverer of the strait that today bears his name. Davis and his sailors also encountered the Inuit and were unable to penetrate any farther than Frobisher. A few years earlier, in 1583, Sir John Gilbert had barely had time to take official possession of Newfoundland once again, in the name of the British sovereign, before disappearing in a storm.

Additional Images

Inuit hunter in a kayak as seen during Frobisher’s expedition
Sir Humphrey Gilbert cutting the first sod in Newfoundland in August 1583