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HUDSON, HENRY, English navigator and discoverer, and, in a sense, a founding father of both New York City and the Hudson’s Bay Company; fl. 1607–11.
The antecedents and early life of Hudson are obscure. He first appears in 1607 already in middle life and of international reputation. In that year he was employed by the English Muscovy Company to seek a short route to China by way of the North Pole. He succeeded only in setting a “farthest north” record and in making observations which led to the founding of the Spitzbergen whale fishery. His search in 1608, on behalf of the same employers, for a northeast passage through the Russian Arctic was a complete failure.
It may be taken as an indication of Hudson’s reputation for zeal and competence that his ill success convinced his countrymen that these enterprises were impracticable. Less easily discouraged, the directors of the Dutch East India Company hired him to re-attempt the northeast passage. He sailed in 1609 in the Half Moon with a mixed crew of Dutch and English (including a former shipmate, the cantankerous Robert Juet). On meeting the polar ice beyond the North Cape of Norway, the crew mutinied and refused to go farther. The captain therefore put about to seek a route to China by way of North America. He ascended the Hudson River (discovered in 1524 by the Italian Verrazzano) as far as Albany and proved the trading potentialities of that inland waterway. On the homeward voyage he put in at an English harbour and there received an order from the Privy Council forbidding him to return to the Netherlands, or to re-enter the service of a foreign power.
This prohibition mattered less to the discoverer as he found immediate employment with his own countrymen. His last voyage, though unsuccessful, had revived hopes of a genuine passage to China elsewhere. Sir Thomas Smith, incorporator and first governor of the East India and Northwest Passage companies and treasurer of the Virginia Company, Sir Dudley Digges, a wealthy young gentleman interested in explorations, and Mr (later Sir) John Wolstenholme, a famous Yorkshire promoter of expeditions, in association with a number of merchants, financed a fresh expedition and appointed Hudson to the command. He was to direct his search towards Davis Strait [see John Davis], a region which, with the nebulous Strait of Anian in mind, he regarded as affording the best promise of success.
The ship Discovery was manned with a larger and more miscellaneous crew than had sailed with Hudson on his previous English-based voyages. He carried Juet with him as mate. It is a sign of weakness on the explorer’s part that he could not refuse this important post to one with whose unpleasant disposition he was fully acquainted. Possibly to lessen his dependence on the troublesome old man, he shipped, although with no higher rank than that of seaman, Robert Bylot, a first-class navigator, and, as he was to prove, a man of stolid but invincible courage. Four landsmen were taken aboard: Edward Wilson, surgeon (not to be confused with William Wilson, later promoted boatswain, and a principal conspirator against his captain), Abacuk Pricket, a serving-man of Sir Dudley Digges, Thomas Wydowse (or Woodhouse), a mathematician, who may also have owed his berth to Digges, and (without the knowledge of the owners) one Henry Greene. This last was a dissolute young man, disowned by his well-to-do Kentish family, whom Hudson had befriended, and whom he now, with characteristic good-nature and want of judgement, took on board, promising, despite Greene’s unauthorized position, to procure him a seaman’s wages when the voyage was over. Greene was a man of some education; and Hudson, who was plainly naïve in all but purely professional relationships, may have fancied that he had found in him the counterpart of John Janes, the friend of John Davis and picturesque chronicler of some of his voyages.
The Discovery sailed from London on 17 April 1610, and after a prosperous voyage as far as Iceland put into a bay to refresh her crew while they waited for the ice-fields to the west to disperse. There the first symptoms of discord appeared. Greene, who was arrogant and of great physical strength, quarrelled with Edward Wilson and beat him so severely that “wee had much adoe to get the surgeon aboord.” Though the crew were much incensed at this, Hudson shielded his favourite and fixed the blame for the quarrel on Wilson. They were again at sea when the drunken Juet, who, like the surgeon, detested the pretensions of the young upstart, openly declared that Hudson had shipped Greene to act as a spy on officers and men. The captain, on hearing this, flew into a rage and was with difficulty dissuaded from putting back to Iceland and sending the old mate home with the fishing fleet. This was an undignified and disheartening prelude to a season of hardship which only the highest degree of subordination and harmony could make tolerable. Late in June they raised the Island of Good Fortune (later Resolution Island) which marked Davis Strait on the right hand and Hudson Strait to the left.
Hudson Strait does not owe its discovery to the man after whom it is called. On his third voyage to Meta Incognita (1578), Frobisher had entered it by mistake and, so he asserted, sailed up it 60 leagues. Sir Martin, however, was an indifferent navigator – at least in the opinion of his sailing master, Christopher Hall – and was noted, even in that uninhibited age, for overstatement. Experienced pilots put more weight on the observations of Davis (in 1587) and on the voyage of Capt. Waymouth, who in 1602 attempted the passage of the strait until thwarted by his crew who put the ship about and sailed for home. In 1606 John Knight had approached the strait entrance only to perish mysteriously on the Labrador coast.
There are vaguer claims of discovery far antedating that of Frobisher. G. M. Asher, the 19th-century historian, believed that Hudson Strait was known to Sebastian Cabot, and on the strength of old maps, unsupported by any trustworthy record, credited Portuguese navigators with having passed through the strait clean into the bay. The claim on behalf of Sebastian Cabot has the modern endorsement of J. A. Williamson. The best informed of Hudson’s contemporaries harboured no such beliefs. Luke Fox ignores all earlier claimants to assert that it was Davis and Waymouth who “did (I conceive) light Hudson into his Streights.” In the absence of incontrovertible evidence it is a fair conclusion that while both Portuguese and English navigators had been aware of the strait and had groped hesitantly about its eastern entrance, Hudson first supplied the daring and resolution to grasp the clue and follow without faltering wherever it led.
An ambiguous remark of Pricket suggests that it was the captain’s intention to go north up Davis Strait – in conformity with his belief in an ice-free sea at higher latitudes – when the ship was caught in the tide and swept south of Resolution Island into the ice-clogged waters of Hudson Strait. Once in, he dared not turn back, as his frightened and divided crew might have insisted on abandoning altogether so dangerous an enterprise. With the ship battered by ice and swept back and forth by the tide-race in uncharted and, as they feared, reef-strewn waters, men fell sick from fear; and Hudson himself, as he later confessed to Pricket, was almost daunted.
When near Akpatok Island the crew mutinied at the instigation of the unforgiving Juet and clamoured to have the ship put about, the carpenter, Philip Staffe, stood loyally by his captain, who with a mixture of objurgation and entreaty reduced his unruly followers to obedience. A careful pilot, Hudson missed no opportunity of fixing landmarks on both sides of the strait, and after a devious voyage of six weeks passed between Cape Wolstenholme on the Quebec mainland and Digges Island (names bestowed in honour of the voyage’s patrons) into Hudson Bay itself.
In the “larger discourse” of Pricket, which furnishes graphic glimpses of the voyage rather than a connected survey, Hudson appears chiefly in moments of passionate contention. Yet he must have displayed great patience and resolution to carry his ship through the manifold dangers of the strait which two centuries later, despite their foreknowledge, were to impress Franklin* and Parry*. His progress was slow, on an average ten miles a day of distance gained, and in an atmosphere of “indescribable gloom” calculated to excite the superstitious fears of the best-disposed among his company. The conquest of the strait confers on Hudson a greatness which his subsequent folly and mismanagement cannot annul.
Hudson hove to near Digges Island and sent Pricket ashore in the boat, accompanied by Bylot and Greene. They came back reporting abundance of wildfowl and the finest grass they had seen since leaving England. Pricket urged the captain to remain for two days in order to refresh the crew and build up his depleted food supply; but Hudson, confident that he had duplicated the feat of Magellan and was now in the Pacific, rejected the advice in a tone of annoyance. There was some justification for Juet’s vicious taunt that Hudson was an unpractical visionary who expected to be in the Spice Islands by Candlemas.
While steering away to the south Hudson took advantage of his increased prestige to revenge himself on the mutineers who had nearly wrecked the expedition at Akpatok Island. Juet was arraigned before the crew (a dangerous precedent), convicted of inciting to disobedience, and degraded from the office of mate. This appointment, with the pay attached to it, was transferred to Robert Bylot. The boatswain was, for the same reason, deposed from his post. William Wilson was appointed in his place and the pay of the rank divided between him and John King, a loyal but ignorant fellow whom his shipmates tended to despise. Hudson was weak enough to apologize to the men whom he had disgraced and to promise that if their future conduct were satisfactory he “would bee a meanes for their good, and that hee would forget injuries.”
The popularity which emboldened the captain thus to assert himself was short-lived. In October the voyagers found themselves in the bay later named for Thomas James, “a labyrinth without end.” Lacking the resolution to confess failure in that quarter Hudson wasted some weeks in seeking a southerly outlet, and found himself compelled to winter in the southeast angle of the Bay – presumably at the mouth of Rupert River. His own natural irritation was shared by the men who saw themselves cheated of the rewards promised for the actual discovery of a passage and faced by a winter of certain but incalculable hardship.
This state of suppressed ill-temper was aggravated by Hudson’s indiscretion. About this time John Williams, the gunner, died, and according to custom his effects were sold by auction before the mast. Included was a grey cloth gown, a garment coveted by all the men now that the sub-arctic winter was upon them. Hudson gave great offence by appropriating this and handing it over to his favourite Greene, who had neither cash nor assured wages to pledge in payment of the debt.
Hudson, who a week before had impatiently rejected Staffe’s suggestion that a building be erected on land to house the crew, now ordered him to build one. Staffe exclaimed that it had grown too cold and that “hee neither could nor would goe in hand with such worke.” Hudson, who had been indulgent towards coarse and hardened offenders, betrayed his weakness by unrestrained severity to one whose fidelity was incorruptible. “Hee ferreted him [Staffe] out of his cabbin to strike him, calling him by many foule names, and threatning to hang him.” After a day or two, through the loyal temper of Staffe, and perhaps also through the remorse of the hasty but generous captain, the quarrel was settled and the house built. But in the meantime the insolent Greene showed his contempt for Hudson by treating Staffe with special civility. The incensed captain deprived him of his gown, which he handed over to Bylot, and, taunting Greene with the vices which he himself had condoned, threatened to retract his promise of wages.
The Discovery was very ill provided for the many months which must elapse before she reached a home port. Pricket, who was in a position to know, asserts that Hudson could have obtained a more generous provision, but with characteristic optimism rejected it, probably wishing to keep the ship light for the dangerous navigation which she was certain to encounter in the ice. Though short rations were supplemented by partridge and other wildfowl, many suffered from scurvy during the winter. About the time that the ice broke up the explorers were visited by an Indian who after a kind reception took his leave promising by signs to return “after so many sleepes.” The travellers never saw him again. In desperation Hudson took the boat and went in search of the natives to obtain “flesh.” He discovered their settlement, but the natives refused all intercourse and set the woods on fire to keep the unwelcome visitors at a distance. The returns from fishing were disappointing and the fears of the men were aggravated by uncertainty as to how much food they had in hand.
Greene, less placable than Staffe, was labouring to discredit Hudson with the crew. Pricket states that he and William Wilson, a coarse but resolute fellow, plotted to steal the shallop and “shift for themselves” – an incredible story unless those seasoned vagabonds planned not to return home but to join the Indians and live in the wilderness. As long as Bylot remained loyal Hudson was safe from direct mutiny, for as Juet was deemed incapable of carrying the ship home, those two alone could pilot the others out of the wilderness. But about this time, on what grounds it is not known, Hudson transferred the post of mate to the subservient and illiterate John King. Greene, Wilson, and Juet could safely plot the captain’s destruction, now they were assured of the friendship or neutrality of Bylot.
The voyage home was begun 12 June 1611. Hudson divided what purported to be the remaining rations among his company, telling them that they must live off that until they reached Digges Island. The men were certain that he was withholding a reserve supply, but could only guess at its amount. Candour on that point might even then have saved him.
On the night of 23 June, the ship being then becalmed off the island later named Charlton by Thomas James, who wintered there in 1631–32, Greene and William Wilson entered Pricket’s cabin to inform him of their intention to mutiny and turn the captain and the feebler men (still suffering from the effects of scurvy) adrift and so secure for themselves an enlarged ration which might suffice for survival. After a timid protest the frightened serving-man prevailed upon the two ringleaders and their accomplices to take an oath to “doe nothing but to the glory of God and the good of the action in hand, and harme to no man” (he does not explain the construction that he put upon this) and withdrew his opposition. At daybreak Hudson, his son John, Wydowse, and five others were seized and pushed overboard into the shallop. Scorning to save his life by conniving at such a crime, Staffe voluntarily followed his captain into the boat. The mutineers then cut the shallop adrift and ran some distance to the north before heaving-to to ransack the ship. They turned up a concealed food hoard of some size, but not an excessively large emergency supply for a company of 21. While they were thus engaged the shallop came into sight and the more pitiful urged that the castaways be readmitted to the ship. The resolute Wilson prevailed, and they hoisted sail and fled, “as from an enemy.”
By force of character and the prestige of his gentle birth Greene asserted his authority over the diminished band. He snubbed the unfortunate Juet and restored Bylot to the post of mate. Pricket now learned that it had been Greene’s intention to maroon him with the rest and that he owed his life to the more prudent conspirators who looked to him to procure their pardon through his master, Sir Dudley Digges. The luckless serving-man’s hope of proving his innocence by his hypocritical device of an oath was shrewdly thwarted by Greene, who fixed on him the character of a chief conspirator by installing him (much against his will) in Hudson’s cabin and putting him in charge of rations.
Bylot carried the ship directly to Digges Island, no inconsiderable feat of navigation, as reckoning had been confused by their devious course in James Bay in the autumn before. There they met with Eskimos of whom, on the way in, they had seen only traces. Greene was confident of obtaining food from these people. With incredible rashness he landed and committed himself and an unarmed party to the frightened and suspicious natives. They were set upon: Greene fought courageously to protect the retreat of his comrades with the broken staff of a pike and was struck dead by an arrow as he was clambering into the boat; William Wilson and one other man were mortally wounded. The desperate survivors put in at another part of the island and secured enough wildfowl for a pittance on the voyage home. Juet died on the way and the rest were brought to the point of starvation. When all others were reduced to despairing indifference, the skill, patience, and wooden courage of Bylot barely prevailed to bring the ship to the south of Ireland where help was obtained to carry them on to London.
Nothing is known of the ultimate fate of the victims of their crime. Later visitors to James Bay – Thomas James, Radisson* and others – discovered traces which have been conjecturally associated with Hudson and his men. The plot which cost them their lives appears the more odious from its rarity. Polar travellers have often risked and, in one instance at least, have sacrificed their lives rather than abandon disabled comrades. Yet in view of the privations endured by the eight survivors it might be supposed that had the crew of the Discovery remained intact all must have perished from want. This inference is, however, by no means forced. Pricket mentions no excessive privation in the period between the marooning of Hudson and the second arrival of the ship at Cape Digges. We may assume that all 21 could have survived to that point; and 21 men under leadership more prudent than that of Henry Greene might well have eluded the treachery of the natives and secured provision for the voyage home. Such a feat of survival would have been no more remarkable than John Davis’s return voyage from Patagonia 20 years before.
For the incidents of this celebrated voyage and the last episode in the life of its commander we are chiefly indebted to the “larger discourse” of Abacuk Pricket. His truthfulness has naturally been questioned. He had to save not only his own character but those of his living comrades who could repay in kind any testimony he brought against them. Under these circumstances the fact that he spared the living and laid the burden of guilt almost entirely on the dead has troubled the critics. Yet he is plausible and consistent throughout, and the critical parts of his narrative are not without corroboration. We know that Greene bore an evil character before the voyage began; and a fragment, luckily preserved, of the diary of Thomas Wydowse supports Pricket’s portrayal of Juet as disloyal and a confirmed trouble-maker. There is a strength and realism about the villain Wilson which Pricket, who was no Shakespeare, could not have coined. The tragedy of Hudson is probably as accurately recorded as any historical transaction which depends chiefly on one primary source and that not wholly disinterested.
With the qualifications noted above Pricket’s account of these transactions is graphic and convincing. Without much intelligence or aptitude for geography he had the gift of his fellow-Puritan Bunyan for exact observation and vivid expression and he furnishes the material for a just estimate of the discoverer with whom his fortunes were linked. Hudson was a man in whom courage, vision, and intensity of purpose were vitiated by lack of the more commonplace qualities of good leadership. He had not the rude force of Sir Francis Drake, or the robust good nature of John Davis, which enabled those captains to bend men to their will in times of danger and uncertainty. He showed little discretion either in his choice of favourites or in the extent to which he countenanced them. Hence, like his more modern counterpart, William Bligh, his trouble was chiefly with his officers. There must have been honest sturdy men of the type of Philip Staffe among the crew or the voyage would have terminated with Juet’s first mutinous gesture at Akpatok Island. Hudson also must have had his share of moral force and persuasiveness to survive that crisis and rally his panic-stricken company for a fresh effort.
Hudson’s achievement gives him a very high rank in the band of navigators from the British Isles who have done so much to unfold the map of the Canadian sub-continent. Parry and Franklin alone can compare with him in the extent to which he outstripped his predecessors and in the sum total of his original discoveries; but Parry was supported by a large, well-trained staff and a disciplined crew, while Franklin owed more to the journeys of Hearne* and Mackenzie* than Hudson to the nebulous findings of Cabot and the Portuguese navigators. The records of the latter, however meritorious, were unfruitful and did little to smooth the path of those who followed them. Single-handed Hudson blazed the way through the 400 miles of his strait and opened up the vast tract of inland sea beyond. More than that, his colossal effort gave his countrymen such an impetus that, barely five years after his disappearance, the rough chart of his bay was nearly complete and Baffin could assert with reasonable confidence that it was a closed sea with no navigable outlet to the west. It was not Hudson’s fault that the English then proved less enterprising than his previous Dutch employers, allowing a half-century to elapse before they undertook the commercial exploitation of his last magnificent venture.
Ironically, the very importance of Hudson’s achievement served to shield the Discovery’s eight survivors – who were at least guilty of conniving at his fate – from the vengeance of the law. Foremost among these was Robert Bylot whose plea that he had had no share in the mutiny would have been given less weight in a criminal court than the palpable fact that he had been assigned high rank by the mutineers as soon as their crime was accomplished. If he were granted the pardon to which he seemed entitled through his splendid service in retrieving the expedition and its records (as well as his value as a pilot on future voyages in search of a passage beyond the Bay), the others could hardly be treated with severity. Hence, though some or all of the eight men suffered a period of detention, and the High Court of Admiralty held enquiries over a number of years, there is no record of a prosecution until 1618 when Pricket (who in the meantime had taken part in Button’s expedition to Hudson Bay), Edward Wilson, and two of their former comrades were subjected to a form of trial before the Admiralty court. In view of the lapse of time and mitigating circumstances, the authorities evidently wished to close the case with an acquittal. The four were arraigned, not on the inescapable charge of mutiny, but of murder – and it was not murder to turn experienced seamen adrift near a shore that was neither totally barren nor uninhabited. All four were acquitted.
Abacuk Pricket’s narrative and other contemporary documents relating to Hudson have been collected by G. M. Asher in Henry Hudson, the navigator: the original documents in which his career is recorded, collected, partly translated, and annotated (Hakluyt Soc., 1st. ser., XXVII, 1860). An excellent biography is Llewellyn Powys’s Henry Hudson (London, 1927), which provides a comprehensive bibliography and reprints the documents relating to the trial of Pricket and three other mutineers, which were unknown in Asher’s time.
DAB. DNB. Dodge, Northwest by sea, 114–29. C. R. Markham, A life of John Davis, the navigator, 1550–1605, discoverer of Davis Straits (London, 1889). L. H. Neatby, In quest of the North West Passage (Toronto, 1958), 14–29. Oleson, Early voyages, 163–66. Voyages of Foxe and James (Christy). The voyages of William Baffin, 1612–1622, ed. C. R. Markham (Hakluyt Soc., 1st ser., LXIII, 1881).
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This biography was first published with terms that were regarded as appropriate at the time and are now considered offensive. These terms have been amended.
Cite This Article
L. H. Neatby, “HUDSON, HENRY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 3, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hudson_henry_1E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||L. H. Neatby|
|Title of Article:||HUDSON, HENRY|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1966|
|Year of revision:||2013|
|Access Date:||June 3, 2023|