The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson
By Peter C. Mancall
Basic Books, 288 pages, $31
Four centuries ago next year, on April 17, 1610, Henry Hudson sailed out of London on a small wooden ship called Discovery. A veteran explorer with three northern voyages behind him, Hudson brought with him 21 men and two boys, one of whom was his son.
Backed by two dozen wealthy Londoners - merchants, politicians and gentlemen - Hudson was sailing to find a Northwest Passage, a direct water route through North America that would allow European ships to reach the East Indies.
Seventeen months later, in September, 1611, the Discovery would arrive back carrying seven men and one boy. Hudson and his son would not be among those who returned. And the deck of the ship would be stained with blood.
The story of what happened on that voyage is a famous tragedy of northern exploration history. As I have noted before, the image of Henry Hudson set adrift in a small boat with seven men and a two boys, victims of mutiny in a forbidding landscape, haunts anyone who contemplates it.
In Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson, historian Peter C. Mancall offers no startling revelations. But his sense of 17th-century England is so strong that this book is worth reading for context alone.
In 1610, at the end of the Elizabethan Age, he tells us, London was "a city awash with mercantile enthusiasm and maritime pride." At any given time, 2,000 English ships might be at sea, many of them coming and going from the Spice Islands of the East Indies: "Cinnamon, cloves, peppers, and other exotic flora had captured the imagination of the English," Mancall observes, and "much money was to be made in satisfying the newly sophisticated national palate."
The lust for spices had fuelled the search for the elusive Northwest Passage, inspiring voyages by Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert and John Davis, among others. Mancall sets the stage before he details Hudson's career, although he also summarizes the whole story in his opening chapter.
This mistake drains his narrative of energy. But Mancall is a scholar, a professor of history and anthropology at the University of Southern California, and not a professional writer. He follows academic conventions to the letter, confining himself strictly to exposition, and never, never, never breaking into a scene. As a result, he lets opportunities slip away.
At one tense moment during Hudson's final voyage, for example, with the ship trapped among floes, Mancall quotes a witness as observing that "there were some who then spake words, which were remembered a great while after." He quotes details from that account, with one sailor declaring that "if he had a hundred pounds, he would give ninety for the chance to return to London." The ship's carpenter retorts "that if he had that much money, he wouldn't even give up ten pounds - because he believed that the expedition would be a success."
In the hands of a craftsman with a more literary imagination, this altercation could have become a vivid scene. Instead, we get long-distance observation and quotation from the documentary record.
And yet the saga emerges. The mutineers claimed that, as supplies ran out and men neared starvation, Hudson hoarded food and fed his favourites. Also, by demoting those with navigational skills and appointing an illiterate first mate, Hudson had taken sole control of the ship's route. Having narrowly survived one horrendous winter locked in the ice of James Bay, he appeared bent on risking a second - and this some of the men could or would not tolerate.
Mancall stops far short of justifying the mutineers. He remains irreproachably even-handed, and offers comparisons to show that some of those who made it home were lucky to escape the death penalty.
One bit of confusion arises toward the end of the narrative. Mancall tells us that the mutinous Juet survived most of the voyage: "He died, apparently from starvation, before the ship managed to dock on Ireland's west coast." But later, without clarification, he quotes a ship's captain identifying a location as the spot "where the villains Greene and Juet were slain, after they had exposed Master Hudson." Fine, the captain had his facts wrong.
More questionable is Mancall's dismissal of the oral history relating to a spot near the bottom of James Bay known locally as "Young Englishman." He notes that, picking up the story after the abandoned sailors reach shore, "one legend purports that John Hudson trudged southward, where he found Samuel Champlain ... but there is no evidence to support it." Also, "a recent expedition to find a purported grave proved fruitless."
But in his recent book God's Mercies: Rivalry, Betrayal and the Dream of Discovery, Douglas Hunter describes how Champlain learned that some Algonquins had enslaved an English youth, clearly Hudson's son, and travelled overland to free him.
Apparently, the sailors had tried to steal food and got massacred - all but one, this enslaved youth. But Champlain met so much resistance as he neared the implicated tribe that he abandoned the search. Oral tradition says the boy was killed at the place called Young Englishman. If John Hudson was dead by the time Champlain came looking for him, the killers would have had good reason to resist his approach.
Mancall does a splendid job of situating Hudson's last voyage in the context of British exploration. But those marking the 400th anniversary of the expedition might want to supplement their reading with God's Mercies.
Ken McGoogan is the author of Fatal Passage, which inspired a BBC docudrama, and Race to the Polar Sea.