A team of professors from Laval University think they have finally solved some of the mystery surrounding Canada's first great gold scandal.
The 400-year-old plot concerns the ill fortunes of Martin Frobisher, a renowned British sailor who made three trips to Canada's Arctic between 1576 and 1578, convinced he had found a massive gold strike near Baffin Island. The find turned out to be a bust, and for centuries historians have wondered if Frobisher simply got it wrong or was duped by clever fraudsters.
Georges Beaudoin, a geologist, and Réginald Auger, a historian, believe Frobisher was duped, likely by crooked chemists in London. To prove this, they tested tiny samples of lead the explorers left behind in Canada. Their results were published in the latest edition of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences.
"There was fraud for sure," Dr. Auger said in an interview. "There are so many fishy things that went on with that expedition."
Dr. Auger said two theories have dominated historical discussions about Frobisher's mishap.
Both revolve around the testing his crew carried out on the rocks they dug up. In that era, it was common to use lead in testing, or assaying, because it acted as a kind of sponge that soaked up precious metal from molten rock.
Some historians have speculated Frobisher used lead that contained tiny bits of precious metals, and his crew simply mistook that for gold in the rock. Others have concluded that gold was surreptitiously added to the samples, in much the same way samples from the infamous Bre-X Minerals site in Indonesia were doctored.
Dr. Auger and Dr. Beaudoin tested actual scraps of lead that Frobisher's men left behind, the largest measuring about the diameter of a two-dollar coin. Dr. Auger found the five pieces during an archeological dig in 1993 on Kodlunarn Island, a barren six-hectare strip of land at the southeastern tip of Baffin Island where Frobisher planned to build a giant gold mine and town site.
When Dr. Beaudoin read about his colleague's dig in a university magazine, he offered to test the samples. "I knew the Frobisher story in a very general way before that. It was an interesting way of applying my geological knowledge," he said.
The tests found no significant traces of gold, indicating Frobisher's assayers on Baffin Island did not make a mistake or inadvertently contaminate their samples with the lead. That pointed to only one conclusion, the authors said.
"Because some of the London assays recorded gold grades more than [100,000] times higher than the concentration in the rocks, we conclude that gold was added by the assayers in London," the professors say in their report.
Dr. Auger said he doubts Frobisher knew about the fraud, since he had no financial interest in the discovery and was initially more interested in finding a passage to China.
So why did he pursue such a dangerous and expensive expedition in pursuit of gold when his own crew couldn't find any? The professors say the answer is simple: greed and power.
They note that after Frobisher's first voyage in 1576, Michael Lok, a British entrepreneur, took some rock samples to gold assayers in London. Two assayers found nothing, but the third was convinced the gold was there. That conclusion prompted Lok and his investors to finance Frobisher's return trips.
His last voyage, launched before testing was completed on samples from his 1577 trip, involved 15 vessels and 400 men. He returned with 12 shiploads of rock, only to be told it was all worthless.
The result caused a scandal and Lok was thrown in jail. Frobisher was spared by a commission to the navy to help fight the Spanish (he died, according to Dr. Auger, "with an arrow in his butt"). "Power and greed were likely the ultimate reasons for not objectively assessing all assay results," the two write in their paper. "It was as much the fault of the promoters as that of investors with huge political power, such as Queen Elizabeth I, who, when informed of [the gold find], put aside her plans to discover a passage to China, and the venture focused its efforts on securing as much of the precious ore as possible."
The same motivation, Dr. Beaudoin says, drove the promoters and investors behind Bre-X, who ignored red flags and truly believed they had found the world's biggest gold deposit.
However, the study hasn't convinced Donald Hogarth, an Ottawa geologist who has studied Frobisher for decades. "My feeling is that Martin [Frobisher] hired a bunch of dummies," Dr. Hogarth said. "They just weren't good analysts."