It has been 400 years since English explorer Henry Hudson mapped the northeast coast of North America, contributing significantly to our understanding of the northeastern waterways geography. In his honor, several bodies of water that he navigated now bear his name: Hudson Bay, the Hudson River, and Hudson Strait, yet what happened to the famed explorer remains a mystery.
Not much is known about Henry Hudson’s early life prior to his first significant voyage in 1607. Most historians believe he was born around 1565 in England, and lived for some time in London. Most scholars also believe that Hudson’s grandfather was one of the founders of the Muscovy Company. This was a very important trading company of this time, and would be the reason Hudson would go on his voyages. It is very likely that Henry worked on ships from a young age, probably as a cabin boy. He would have learned how to cook, handle sails, care for a ship, and keep a ship’s log. He would also have learned navigational skills as well. It is not exactly known when, but at some point, Hudson married a woman named Katherine and they had three sons – Oliver, John, and Richard.
Henry Hudson made four voyages in search of a water route to the Far East. His first two voyages were through Arctic waters and proved to be unsuccessful due to ice. His third and fourth voyages were to North America; his discoveries influenced other explorers and laid the foundation for future colonization and trading.
First Three Voyages
In 1607, a time when countries and companies competed with each other to find the best ways to reach important trade destinations, especially Asia and India, the Muscovy Company, entrusted Hudson to find a northern route to Asia. They provided a ship called the Hopewell for the expedition Hudson brought his son John with him on this trip, as well as Robert Juet. Juet went on several of Hudson’s voyages and recorded these trips in his journals.
Despite a spring departure, Hudson found himself and his crew battling icy conditions. They had a chance to explore some of the islands near Greenland before turning back. But the trip was not a total loss, as Hudson reported numerous whales in the region, which opened up a new hunting territory.
The following year, Hudson once again set sail in search of the fabled Northeast Passage. The route he sought proved elusive, however. Hudson made it to Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean to the north of Russia. But he could not travel further, blocked by thick ice. Hudson returned to England without achieving his goal.
In 1609, Hudson joined the Dutch East India Company as a commander. He took charge of the Half Moon with the objective of discovering a northern route to Asia by heading north of Russia. Again, ice put an end to his travels, but this time he did not head for home. Hudson decided to sail west to seek western passage to the Orient. According to some historians, he had heard of a way to the Pacific Ocean from North America from English explorer John Smith.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Hudson and his crew reached land that July, coming ashore at what is now Nova Scotia. They encountered some of the local Native Americans there and were able to make some trades with them. Traveling down the North American coast, Hudson went as far south as the Chesapeake Bay. He then turned around and decided to explore New York Harbor, an area first thought to have been discovered by Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524. Around this time, Hudson and his crew clashed with some local Native Americans. A crew member named John Colman died after being shot in the neck with an arrow and two others on board were injured.
After burying Colman, Hudson and his crew traveled up the river that would later carry his name. He explored the Hudson River up as far as what later became Albany. Along the way, Hudson noticed that the lush lands that lined the river contained abundant wildlife. He and his crew also met with some of the Native Americans living on the river’s banks. Hudson understood what it took to complete a journey. The single most expensive item on a voyage of exploration was the ship itself, and every vessel that Hudson commanded returned safely.
On the way back to the Netherlands, Hudson was stopped in the English port of Dartmouth. The English authorities seized the ship and the Englishmen among the crew. Upset that he had been exploring for another country, the English authorities forbade Hudson from working with the Dutch again. He was, however, undeterred from trying to find the Northwest Passage. This time, Hudson found English investors to fund his next journey, which would prove to be fatal.
Life on the sea during Hudson’s time was primitive, with terrible living conditions. Navigation was hard, with only a compass, an astrolabe, and a quadrant. The astrolabe helped to navigate from the North Star. The quadrant helped to determine latitude. The chronometer had not been invented yet, so an exact longitude is hardly known, and there is only an hourglass to keep time.
For his fourth voyage, Hudson was backed by a wealthy and influential group of men, including the Prince of Wales, and provided with the Discovery. The Discovery left London on 17 April 1610 with a crew of 23, and again included his son John and Robert Juet, made their way across the Atlantic Ocean. Before he had even reached the sea, Hudson brought aboard another man, Henry Greene, to serve as a spy on the crew.
After skirting the southern tip of Greenland, they entered what became known as the Hudson Strait. The exploration then reached another of his namesakes, the Hudson Bay. From Hudson Bay he probed still farther south, into James Bay, in which he sailed back and forth and discovered that he’d come to a dead end.
Hudson and his crew spent the winter in James Bay since they were unable to sail through the icy waters. By June 1611, the Discovery was free of ice and could continue on her journey. But by the end of winter, the crew had only grown more upset with their captain. Many of them felt that their trip was a waste of time. In June 1611, Robert Juet, after being demoted as mate, led a mutiny against Hudson. Hudson, his son, and several sick crew members were sent adrift in a small boat. What became of the castaway men is still unknown today. No one is sure what happened to Henry Hudson, but he was never heard from again. It is likely that he quickly starved to death or froze to death in the harsh cold weather of the north.
On trial for Hudson’s murder later that year, the remaining crew admitted to cutting the captain and a group of individuals still loyal to him loose on a small lifeboat, according to court documents. None of the men was convicted of the murder or even punished for the mutiny, and historians generally believe their claims too but Mancall. Peter C. Mancall, professor of History and Anthropology at University of Southern California, also director of the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute, and author of Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson (2009) believes that some physical evidence points to a more violent end for the captain. Mancall highlighted evidence that was found and documented after the ship docked in London: blood stains, most damningly, along with letters from another sailor mentioning the growing personal rift between captain and crew. A number of Hudson’s possessions were also missing.
While he never found his way to Asia, Hudson is still widely remembered as a determined early explorer. His efforts helped drive European interest in North America. Today his name can be found all around us on waterways, schools, bridges and even towns. His journeys generated invaluable information about the North Atlantic. Six accounts, including three purportedly written by Hudson, detailed the dangers posed by icebergs, the location of marine resources such as whales and seals, and expert advice about what it would take to survive in northern waters. His backers saw the merit in making these narratives widely available. In 1625 the minister Samuel Purchas published them for the general benefit of the English reading public.