BEST (Beste), GEORGE, chronicler of the three Frobisher voyages “for the discoverie of the passage to Cataya and the East India, by the Northweast”; d. c. March 1583/84.
Best was a member of the second expedition (1577) as lieutenant to Frobisher and of the third (1578) as captain of a ship, the Anne Francis, and ship’s complement assigned to establish a settlement in Frobisher’s Meta Incognita “for further discovery of the Inland & secreats of those countries.” Nothing is known of his career before the Frobisher voyages but that he called himself “a souldiour and one professing armes” who owed his duty “moste” to Sir Christopher Hatton, favourite of Queen Elizabeth, vice-chamberlain to Her Majesty, and investor in the Frobisher voyages. Best’s dedication to Hatton of his account of the Frobisher voyages suggests that Best undertook to join Frobisher’s second voyage at Hatton’s behest, “to make a true reporte of al Occurrents.”
Best’s claim to enduring fame rests on the uncultivated but none the less sound scholarship his narratives evidence; on the range and precision of his observations; on the judicious niceness of the conclusions he drew from his studies and observations. Other contemporaries of Frobisher and participants in the voyages set down accounts of the voyages and the lands visited; only Best seems to have observed with more than a casual eye and to have fitted together his observations of the new land into geographical, meteorological, and sociological conclusions that time has proven correct. From the studies of “the science of Cosmographie & the secrets of Navigation” by which he prepared himself for his first voyage with Frobisher, he insisted that those going into the Arctic must accept as a basic datum that the Arctic was far from being the frigid antithesis of a torrid Tropics (a belief commonly held in the 16th century); a proper reading of the shape of the earth and its relation to the sun, for instance, says that long warming days and the briefest of cooling nights must bring tropical heat to the Arctic during its summers. He was the first to suggest (from observation of the Baffin Island Eskimos’ possession and use of iron objects) the view that late 19th-century anthropologists confirmed: that the Baffin Island Eskimos, marvellous and strange as they were to the Frobisher party, had probably trafficked with Europeans before the arrival of Frobisher.
Best’s concluding chapter of his Frobisher Voyages, “A general and briefe Description of the Countrey, And condition of the people, which are Found in Meta Incognita,” is humanely perceptive of the qualities of the native people (no small triumph of observation in the 16th century) and precisely descriptive of their appearance, dress, tools, manners among themselves and among strangers, and their prowess as hunters and fishers. His hazards on the geography and climatology of the land are many of them today’s facts; his descriptions of the abundant and varied beasts and fowls are of an age of plenty now gone by, but time has not changed “a kinde of small flye or gnat that stingeth and offendeth sorelye,” the only approach to “a hurtefull thing” that Best found in Elizabethan Meta Incognita.
Best was killed six years after his return to England in a duel with Oliver St. John, later Viscount Grandison. He had apparently gone from the Frobisher voyages back to “soldierly” service with Sir Christopher Hatton: Hatton refers to him a few months after his death as “a man of mine.” In 1863, Charles Francis Hall*, using Frobisher’s own words, recalled Best’s name to history when he presented to the British people relics he had found on Kodlunarn (Frobisher’s Countess of Warrick) Island of “‘a wall of good height . . . called Best’s Bulwark, after the lieutenant’s name, who first devised the same’” (Frobisher (Collinson), 374).
Best, A true discourse, repr. in Three voyages of Frobisher (Stefansson), I; in Hakluyt, Principal navigations (1903–5), VII; and in The three voyages of Martin Frobisher, in search of a passage to Cathaia and India by the North-West, A. D. 1576–8, reprinted from the first edition of Hakluyt’s Voyages, with selections from manuscript documents in the British Museum and State Paper Office, ed. Richard Collinson (Hakluyt Soc., 1st ser., XXXVIII, 1867). Harris Nicolas, The life and times of Sir Christopher Hatton, K. G. (London, 1847).