Mutiny and mystery on the high seas

By Alexander Theroux
October 11, 2009

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In June of 1611, the crew of the ship Discovery, after having suffered seven freezing months in the northern confines of what is now Hudson Bay with scarce provisions and tensions high, launched a mutiny. The discontented seamen forced Henry Hudson, the English explorer and one of the most skilled navigators of his day, into a small skiff along with his 17-year-old son, John, and seven other men.

The mutineers later set sail for home, with only eight of the 13 surviving the trip, the others eventually falling victim to starvation and a savage Inuit attack at Digges Island. The crewmen who did reach England were arrested but never convicted. (Some say it was because their geographic knowledge was too valuable.) What happened to the men in that skiff? No one knows.

“Fatal Journey’’ is a rich, exhilarating narrative of exploration, desperation, and ice-bound tragedy. Acclaimed historian Peter C. Mancall provides a stunningly accurate account of Hudson’s drive and the goals he shared, the similar hazards he faced, and the brutality he met with other daring mariners of his time and even earlier such as Sir Francis Drake, Ferdinand Magellan, Martin Frobisher, Walter Raleigh, John Davis, George Weymouth, John and Sebastian Cabot, indeed Columbus himself.

The central focus of Hudson’s career was to discover the fast (and fabled) water route, the Northwest Passage, to the tropical Spice Islands in the Southwest Pacific (or the “South Sea,’’ as it was called then), and the East Indies. Of the possible routes - across the North Pole; through the waters north of Russia and into the Northwest Pacific; or through the interior of North America - it was Hudson alone on four major voyages from 1607 to 1610, who pursued all three. A married Londoner with three sons, he sailed everywhere, including on Aug. 2, 1609 to the outer shore of Cape Cod.

The press to find the Passage was motivated by the European hunger for those rare and exotic spices to be found in Asia “that pleasured the palate, doctored the body, and salved the soul,’’ as Mancall explains. King James supported the East India Company, which had been chartered by Queen Elizabeth in 1600 to ensure the future of England’s spice trade, and that breakthrough remained the greatest prize any explorer could seek.

On Hudson’s last voyage, the crew took a northerly route past Iceland, entering what would eventually become known as Hudson’s Bay. After the three-masted ship became icebound - very like Shackleton’s would in Antarctica three centuries later - the spring thaw left the intrepid (or rash) Hudson, ill-disposed to fail in his quest for the passage, with a momentous decision. Great arguments ensued about whether to return to England. Hudson favored continuing on, while many of his men, too many, hungry and desperate, had had enough.

Sailing ice-filled waters, braving impossible elements with inadequate supplies and clothes, fighting ferocious storms under thin sail, fearing fierce monsters, mariners in those days lived a life of severest hazard. No one better knew the North Atlantic than Hudson; he had sailed it up and down. He explored the East Coast of America and of course navigated what is now the Hudson River, although every schoolboy knows that the river was discovered by Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524, almost 100 years before. But Hudson was perhaps a blunt captain. He was accused of showing a lack of justice, arbitrary preferments, and secreting away food for his own use. Mancall carefully documents the poisonous atmosphere that inexorably led to the mutiny and profiles all the hungry, angry ringleaders on board, Robert Juet, William Wilson, and notably the rancorous Henry Greene.

A trial was held in London in 1618 for the conspirators. It was all the talk of the city. The later widely disseminated written account of Hudson’s shipmate, Abacuck Pricket, whose narrative would become the most detailed of the final fatal expedition, some discredit as self-serving.

It is the resourcefulness of a man like Hudson that allows for speculations that he might have survived. He probably died with his men, however, somewhere in the area of James Bay, maybe Charlton Island, in the winter of 1611-1612.

The mystery of what happened to the explorer, of course, has long since become the stuff of legend. One tall tale claimed that Hudson survived and several years later carved his initials in a rock, which a road crew unearthed in Deep River, Ontario, in 1960. Then of course in Washington Irving’s classic American tale, his luminous ghost shares liquor with Rip van Winkle.

Alexander Theroux is the author of many books, including “Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual.’’

FATAL JOURNEY: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson
By Peter C. Mancall
Basic Books, 320 pp., illustrated, $26.95

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