Sir Martin Frobisher (1539-94) was an adventurer during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I who made a name for himself both as an explorer and a military commander.
He came from a wealthy background but preferred a career at sea rather than that of a businessman. At the age of 14 he joined an expedition to West Africa but was soon involved in what must be regarded as piracy.
He became obsessed by the notion that there was a “quick” route to the Far East by sailing to the north of North America - the famed “Northwest Passage”. After several years of fundraising, Frobisher set off in 1576 and got as far as Baffin Island. He returned to England having collected some samples of local rock that were suggestive of gold ore, although the evidence was slight.
Even so, the possibility that there was gold to be found in the far north was enough to allow Frobisher to raise the funds for a much larger expedition, which set sail in 1577. He brought back 200 tons of the supposed gold ore, and the Queen was also interested in the possibility of extending her realm to the new – supposedly rich – lands that Frobisher had discovered.
In 1578 Martin Frobisher set off on a third expedition, this time with the intention of establishing a colony on Baffin Island. However, this came to nothing, and so did the intended gold-exporting business when it was proved beyond doubt that all he had discovered was a vein of iron pyrites, or “fool’s gold”.
Martin Frobisher now turned his attention to aiding Francis Drake in the latter’s state-sponsored harassment of Spanish ships and ports. In 1588 he served under Lord Howard as the commander of one of the four naval divisions that defeated the Spanish Armada. It was for this service that he received his knighthood.
After a short time managing his estates in Yorkshire and Nottinghamnshire he found the call of the sea and adventure to be too strong and in 1592 he joined Sir Walter Raleigh in a military expedition to the Azores. In 1594 he led a squadron of ships that took part in the Siege of Morlais during the French “War of The Three Henrys”. However, during the siege of Brest, shortly afterwards, he received a gunshot wound from which he died after his return to England.
Sir Martin Frobisher has a deserved place on the list of “sea dogs” who did much to make the reign of Queen Elizabethan I a golden age for England.
© John Welford