Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/6/2009 (4543 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson
By Peter C. Mancall
Basic Books, 303 pages, $34
American historian Peter C. Mancall brings the iconic Arctic explorer back to life in this vivid retelling of the tragic fate of Henry Hudson.
Mancall’s finely tuned sensibility, along with a willingness to allow a hefty measure of speculation to inform his narrative, marks him as an audacious historian.
From the point of view of this armchair voyager, Mancall ranks with the finest contemporary Canadian writers in Arctic and Western Canadian exploration history, Ken McGoogan, D’Arcy Jennish and Heather Robertson, as a first-class storyteller.
The accounts of Hudson’s voyages in search of a northern route to Asia, in 1607-08, along the coast of New York and up later became known as the Hudson River, in 1609, and into Hudson’s Bay, in 1610-1611, where the crew mutinied and set adrift their captain, his son and eight sick crewmen are well-documented.
Hudson was an experienced captain who knew the ways of the North Atlantic and Arctic waters. The merchants who bankrolled his expeditions trusted him to bring back their ships and sailors knew Hudson seldom lost men on his dangerous voyages of exploration.
His men on his final fatal voyage, however, did not measure up to his other crews. Discord was evident from the beginning of the journey.
Thanks to 20/20 hindsight, we can say that Hudson should have turned back, tossed out the malcontents of the ship, and searched for a more congenial crew?
As Mancall reminds us, Hudson’s was the first ship to overwinter in the Arctic region. The men were not psychologically prepared to withstand the cold, dark and boredom of a northern Canadian winter.
They were afraid to ask the indigenous people for help in finding food or medicines for scurvy or for building suitable shelters.
The fear that Hudson might continue his search for the Northwest Passage in the spring would have been overwhelming for the men, who were just happy to have survived a hellacious winter.
We’ll never know what was on Hudson’s mind before the fateful day the crew rebelled. The only account is a journal written by one of the mutineers.
He accused Hudson of hiding food from his crew and conveniently points the finger at the men who died on the return journey to England as being the dastardly mutinous ringleaders.
In any event, it was enough evidence to convince an English court to acquit the survivors of murdering their captain. Whether it persuades modern readers is questionable.
Mancall, who teaches at the University of Southern California, has four previous books to his credit. Here he hypothesizes that Hudson survived, at least, for the summer season.
There has been some fragmentary physical evidence found in the James Bay area that supports Mancall’s contention.
Hudson was not a man to give up easily; he would have hoped a ship would be sent to rescue them. The men knew how to build a rudimentary shelter. They could fish and kill enough migratory birds over the summer season to feed them in the winter and they might have been able to trade with the local Cree population.
Hudson’s failed efforts convinced most 17th-century English seamen that the Northwest Passage was either a chimera or, if found, it would be of little use because of ice and cold.
Until the creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company few English ships ventured into the bay and even fewer overwintered in that cold forlorn land.
Ian Stewart is a Winnipeg teacher and writer who enjoys being warm and on solid ground.