How many of us have realized that the Canadian North was first ‘discovered’ 434 years ago by an English pirate? A pirate, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Sir Martin Frobisher was arrested at least four times for high-sea piracy, but was let go with a scolding by Queen Elizabeth I. Confiscating Spanish ships was one thing, but a good English ‘sea-dog’ was always supposed to keep his hands off English goods. Frobisher ended up spending time in jail for confiscating English wine vats that had been on a French ship. Upon release from prison, Frobisher decided to sail over the top of Canada through the mythical Northwest Passage to China. His goal was to become rich by finding an alternative route for Asian pepper. Because there was no refrigeration in those days, pepper was in high demand, being used by Europeans to make their meat palatable.
One of Frobisher’s specialties as Captain was to punish sabre-duelling crewmates by chopping off their right hands. Frobisher was also a brave leader who thought nothing of diving into iceberg-strewn waters to rescue drowning sailors. Once while on their way to Baffin Island, his ship Gabriel fell over on its side and began filling up with water. Without a moment’s hesitation, Frobisher grabbed an axe and hacked off the foresail, enabling the ship to right itself. Though a rough-and-tumbles privateer, he never went anywhere on his daring voyages without his bible. Upon returning to England with three Inuit hostages and a mysterious black rock, Frobisher kicked off Canada’s first Gold Rush. The Russian Tsar officially protested this kidnapping of Asian Siberians! Frobisher claimed that his Inuit hostages were being held to seek the release of five of his crewmembers that had disappeared. Before dying from English fog and food, the 3 Inuits thrilled the Queen by shooting royal birds and kayaking down the Avon River.
All the credible scientists told Frobisher’s financial backer, Michael Lok, that the black rock was worthless ‘fools gold’. But Michael Lok, being an early stock promoter of the less reputable kind, ignored their advice and instead consulted an Italian alchemist, Giovanni Agnello, who used ‘black magic’ to discern that Martin Frobisher’s rock was indeed gold.
The English business community, backed by Queen Elizabeth I, became so excited about the first Canadian Gold Rush, that they sent 15 Ships to Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island. The Queen even lent her own 200-ton ship AID. Gold Rush fever brought together the largest Armada of English ships ever assembled until World War II. Frobisher’s public image was rapidly transformed by his stockpromoter, Michael Lok, from that of an uncouth pirate to that of the ‘rare and valiant’ Captain General embarking on a heroic mission. Everyone, including Martin Frobisher himself, believed that he had discovered the Northwest Passage to China, and that Baffin Island contained King Solomon’s hidden mines. In this first English attempt to colonize the New World, Frobisher brought 120 would-be settlers, miners, carpenters, and an Anglican priest named Rev. Robert Wolfall.
On their way to Baffin Island, they faced desperate circumstances due to mountainous icebergs that could crush their ships like matchboxes. The hardened sailors knelt down on the decks and prayed for God’s mercy. Two of the sailors’ prayers recorded for posterity by Captain Best were ‘Lord help us now or never’ and ‘Now Lord look down from heaven and save us sinners, or else our safety will come too late’. With no radar or telecommunications to guide them in the fog, they saved the sailors on the sunken ‘Dennis’ by using trumpets, drums, canons and the two passwords: ‘Before the world was God’, to be answered by ‘After God came Christ His Son’. Captain Best recorded that Rev. Wolfall encouraged Frobisher’s men ‘to be thankful for their strange and miraculous deliverance’ at sea. To celebrate their safe arrival on Baffin Island, Rev. Wolfall celebrated the first Anglican Communion service ever held in Canada, just 420 years ago.
After three Frobisher Bay expeditions costing over 20,000 pounds, including 3,500 pounds of the Queen’s money, Martin Frobisher brought back 2,300 tons of alleged gold to England. This ‘gold rush’ treasure was promptly secured with 4 padlocks in the Tower of London and Bristol Castle. Once the geologists found out that the Baffin Island gold was fool’s gold, Frobisher and many of his investors went into bankruptcy. His financial backer, Michael Lok, was sent to jail. To cover the embarrassment of Canada’s first Bre-X-style disaster, the 2,300 tons of fools gold was dumped into the Bristol Harbour and also used to pave roads. Yet Frobisher never stayed defeated for long. Within a few years, he joined the British navy and ended up being knighted by Queen Elizabeth for defeating the Spanish Armada.
Sir Martin Frobisher’s story teaches us that all of us are on a journey, that sometimes our hopes and dreams turn out to be fools gold, but that God can even use our mistakes and turn them to a higher good. My prayer for those reading this article is that God may turn everything that is against us to our advantage.(Romans 8:28)
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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