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9-10-2015, 13:18

Company of Cathay (1577-1583)

A joint stock company chartered in London in 1577 under control of the English explorer Martin Frobisher and several other prominent investors to seek the Northwest Passage to Cathay (China) and to mine for gold ore allegedly found on Baffin Island during Frobisher’s first voyage to the New World (June-October 1576).

The original “right” to seek either a Northeast Passage (along the north Russian coast) or a Northwest Passage (along the North American coast) was granted by English kings to the Muscovy Company in 1553 and 1555. Frobisher and several influential friends succeeded in securing the right to the Northwest Passage from the Muscovy Company before his first voyage. He discovered Frobisher Bay (which he took to be a strait) on Baffin Island, just missing the entrance to Hudson Strait by a few miles. Hunting for minerals along the shore yielded a small amount of iron pyrite and marcasite that looked like goldbearing ore—and was declared to be such by assayers in London—but was in fact worthless.

The Company of Cathay received a charter from Queen Elizabeth I as well as a ?1000 investment on March 17, 1577, with Frobisher named “General of the whole Company.” He led a three-ship fleet back to his supposed strait on July 17. Because the company was a money-making enterprise, the efforts of Frobisher and his men were almost entirely dedicated to mining supposedly gold-bearing ore while they expended only a modest effort trying to discover the Northwest Passage to Cathay. They never discovered that Frobisher Bay was a dead end. The fleet returned to England in late September, the entire voyage having cost the company more than ?6000. Although none of the 200 tons of ore yielded any gold, the company’s German assayers predicted a sufficient yield to make a profit. As a result, the company planned a third voyage for the following year.

Frobisher returned to the bay at the head of a fleet of 15 ships and 120 men (including 40 “miners”) in late July 1578. He made a brief wrong turn into Hudson Strait but turned back because the need for gold ore outweighed any interest in a Northwest Passage. The summer was unusually cold, and ice was a constant menace (sinking one of his ships). Despite the hardships, Frobisher’s men gathered 1,350 tons of ore from points around the bay. After discussing the possibility of leaving two ships and several men to continue the work through the winter, those at the bay eventually decided that everyone should return to England. The fleet returned safely by October 1, 1578, but they had spent more than ?9000 on this voyage with a result as disappointing as the earlier venture. Despite five years’ labor, the stones yielded no treasure and eventually ended up paving English highways. The company finally declared bankruptcy in 1583.

Further reading: Pierre Berton, Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 (New York: Lyons Press, 2000); Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, AD 500-1600 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

—Paul Dunscomb