Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

Previous section
Martin Frobisher: Privateer

North West Passage: Where is the Inuit Voice?

In 1574, Martin asks the Privy Council (advisors to Queen Elizabeth I) for permission and funds for an expedition across the top of the Atlantic Ocean (‘the north-west passage’) in an attempt to reach China and India. He says,

‘.. the matters that chiefly moved me to enter prose and avance this new voyage… First is the great hope to fy[nde} our English seas open into the Seas of East India… whereby would also grow to the Realm & [to such] followers therof great Roches and Benefit’.

Permission is granted, and Martin’s three ships are funded and licensed by the Muscovy Company of English merchants who have been exploring the north-east of the UK, towards Scandinavia in the hope of reaching China that way. Queen Elizabeth says she had ‘good liking of their doings’ and waves to the departing ships from a window of Greenwich Palace.

Silver disc engraved with the map of America tracking the voyages of Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher.
Silver Disc Engraved with Drake's Voyages 1577-80


  • Why are traders, businessmen and merchants keen to reach China and India?
  • How do you think they are hoping to get there? What knowledge do we have now that they didn’t then?
  • Why would Queen Elizabeth have a ‘good liking of their doings’?
  • Who benefits from the voyage?
  • Is Martin credible as a person to loan money too?

The ships sail through stormy seas, sinking one ship and making another turn for home. The third continues on until they see the southernmost tip of what is now called Baffin Island in Canada. Frobisher names it ‘Queen Elizabeth's Foreland’. They come to a bay, and then to a strait, which Martin calls Frobisher Bay and Frobisher's Strait.


  • Martin believes he has ‘discovered’ a possible north-west passage to China and India. How do you feel about Martin naming land and sea after himself and his Queen?
  • What do you think he thinks about his place in the world?
  • Would the land already have had a name from anyone already living there?
  • The bay and the strait are still named after Frobisher today. Baffin Island is named after a later British sailor from the early 1600s. Where else in the world is named after the first colonial explorers? (Now, in Canada, when a public event takes place on unceded First Nations land, this is acknowledged with a statement at the start of the event).

The ship finds its way barred by ice. In trying to find a way through, the expedition meets some local Inuit.

A watercolour drawing of an Inuit man wearing skin jacket, shorts and boots. He is holding an oar and bow and arrow and standing in front of the sea.
Illustration of an Inuit

It is agreed that one of the Inuit will guide the crew through the ice. The crew split up, and Martin instructs five men back to shore avoiding the Inuit. The men disobey and are captured by the Inuit. Martin searched for the men, but doesn’t find them. He takes the Inuit guide hostage in attempt to make an exchange. It fails and the guide is released. Inuit oral tradition says that the men lived with them of their own free will until they died attempting to leave Baffin Island in a self-made boat.

Before sailing home, Martin takes a black rock as a token of possession of the new land.


  • Do you think Martin expected to find anyone living in the area?
  • How do you think the Inuit’s felt seeing and meeting Martin and his crew?
  • How would they have communicated, we assume there would have been a language barrier?
  • How do you think the guiding agreement is decided?
  • What happened for the Inuit to capture the five men?
  • Did they live peacefully with them? We only have the voices of the crew, not of the Inuit.
  • How do you feel about Martin’s action in taking a hostage?
  • Why does Martin take the rock?
  • What assumptions, or world view, are behind that action?

Once back in London, Martin takes the rock to his patrons who funded the voyage. They assess it and deem it worthless as it contains no gold. However, one of the Lok family take it to an Italian alchemist living in London, Giovanni Battista Agnello, who believes he finds gold within the rock. Martin says, ‘as many affirme, are signes of great store of Golde…’

There is much excitement and in 1577, a much bigger voyage sets out with the Queen’s own financial support of £1,000 and a Royal Navy vessel.

Frobisher asks the Queen if he can become High Admiral of the North-Western Seas and Governor of All Lands Discovered, and to receive five per cent of profits from trade. We don’t know if she agreed. Among the crew are thirty Cornish miners to dig out the rock. Once the expedition lands on Baffin Island, the crew and the miners begin to collect the ore.


  • What is alchemy, and why is it important here?
  • What is Frobisher doing when he says ‘many affirme’ when there’s been only one confirmation?
  • What does Martin’s requested title tell us about his views of the world? Again, we only have the voices of the crew, not of the Inuit as to the talks and discussions.

During the time on Baffin Island, there are talks and skirmishes with the Inuits.

Coloured illustration showing a wooden boat flying an English flag, with an Inuit in a canoe, and other Inuit people on a cliff edge aiming arrows.
Illustration of 'Skirmish' Between Frobisher's Crew and Inuits

In one skirmish, one Englishman was wounded and five or six Inuit killed, three by drowning after jumping off a cliff to avoid capture after being wounded. The older woman is captured, then released after having her shoes pulled off ‘to see if she were cloven footed’.

Martin forcibly takes three Inuit people from Baffin Island: a man, a woman and a child.

Watercolour image of Kalicho, an Inuit from Frobisher Bay wearing sealskin suit and holding a bow.
Illustration of Inuit Man Kalicho

We are uncertain about their names. The English were careful to record what they believed to be their names, but Arnaq probably meant ‘woman’ and Nutaaq ‘child’. The man was Kalicho. A writer at the time, George Best, wrote in 1578, ‘this new prey (which was a sufficient witness of the captain’s far and tedious travel towards the unknown parts of the world, as did well appear by this strange infidel, whose like was never seen, read, nor heard of before, and whose language was neither known nor understood of any)’.

Watercolour image of Arnaq and Nutaaq, an Inuit mother and child from Frobisher Bay wearing sealskin suit. The baby is peeking out from the hood of the suit.
Illustration of Inuit Woman 'Arnaq' and baby 'Nutaaq'

All three Inuit people die soon after reaching England, Kalicho from wounds inflicted in his capture. The young man named William Camden saw Arnaq and Nataaq in London in 1577 and described them later as having ‘black hair, broad faces, flat noses, swarthy coloured, apparelled in sea-calves’ skins, the women painted about the eyes and balls of the cheek with a blue colour like the ancient Britons’.


  • Why would Martin remove people from their home?
  • What does this tell us about him and his view of people different from himself?
  • Why don’t we have accurate names for the three people?
  • How would they have felt?
  • Whose voices do we hear?
  • Whose are missing?


  • Use the illustrations of Arnaq, Nutaaq and Kalicho, and that of the skirmish from the British Museum collection to discuss the encounters between the English crew and the Inuit.

In 1578, The Queen names the new territory Meta Incognita (Latin for Unknown Shore), and believes it will bring new wealth in the form of gold ore. Martin sets out again for Frobisher Bay. This time with 15 ships and 100 men to establish a colony. There are disagreements, a colony can’t be formed, and all men return to England. Frobisher is credited with starting the Canadian tradition of Thanksgiving as we know it, but there was a First Nations celebration around similar themes at the same time of year too.


  • This is a large party of ships. The express intentions of this voyage are for profit (the ore) and to settle and colonise the area because of its access to natural resources. How do you think the Inuit will feel about this?
  • What causes the disagreements?
  • What about the long term impacts of being credited with ‘inventing’ Thanksgiving?


  • Martin’s expeditions are not the only ones to reach Baffin Island. The Library and Archives of Canada, from the French colonial archives, contain documents including: ‘Mémoire des Anglais pour justifier leurs prétentions sur la baie…’ or, ‘Memories of the English for the justification of claiming the bay…’

Over the next five years, Martin attempts to smelt gold from the ore. However, it did not hold gold, but was instead iron pyrite, or Fool’s Gold. It’s a financial disaster, bankrupting all of Martin’s backers.

The ore is used as hardcore to make roads in London, so are the roads of London really paved with gold? Frobisher needs a new job. In 1585, he joins Francis Drake’s fleet as Vice Admiral on a ship called Primrose. He is part of a fleet raiding Spanish ports and trading with the West Indies.

Lump of iron pyrite, showing its crystalline formation.
Iron Pyrite

‘It is greatly to be feared that Frobisher has played us a trick…’, Privy Council member


  • Compare the image of Iron Pyrite to real gold. Do they look similar or the same?
  • Why do think it’s called Fool’s Gold?
  • How do think Martin felt at this point?