Hudson’s folly

Cold, ice, eerie silence and a crew on edge meant mutiny

Hudson’s follyOur Henry Hudson is bigger than theirs. The vast Canadian bay called after him dwarfs that (relatively) picayune American stream, the Hudson River. But the river flows by New York City, media capital of the world, and not by Arctic tundra, so books about the English explorer are coming out now, four centuries after he sailed to Manhattan, and not, as a Canadian might expect, in 2011, the 400th anniversary of his death in James Bay. Still, in a nice piece of cross-border irony, Canadian Douglas Hunter will publish in September Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage That Redrew the Map of the New World (Penguin), a study of Hudson’s 1609 New York journey, while American Peter Mancall examines the mutiny that cast adrift the explorer, to his death, two years later in the newly released Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson (Perseus).

Mancall’s book is a context-setting gem that explains why early modern Englishmen kept putting themselves in mortal peril in the Arctic. Hudson may have been the most experienced North Atlantic sea captain of his age, but he accepted conventional scientific reasoning. If the Arctic sun beat down 24 hours a day in summer, how could a solid ice cap possibly form? There must be a relatively easy way through. And in a corollary to the thinking that saw Virginia settlers plant olive trees because they were on the same latitude as southern Europe, Hudson probably went ever more deeply south in Hudson Bay in the fall of 1610 in order to overwinter near London’s latitude (52° north), a location he believed would offer a London-level winter.

But the more important context Mancall provides is the remarkable parallel between Hudson’s age, with its rapidly evolving economic structure, and our own. The 17th-century lust for spices was less a mania for fusion cuisine or a purely commercial gold rush than a cross between the modern search for alternative sources of energy to oil and Big Pharma’s quest for the benefits—medical and financial—of the next wonder drug. The king of Naples’ famous cookbook, from 1500, had 125 recipes featuring cinnamon, not only to give His Majesty an opportunity to showcase his wealth, but because herbalists taught that cinnamon soothed upset stomachs, strengthened the liver and whitened teeth. Mace mixed with fennel and wine cured “all griefs of the spiritual members,” while nutmeg handled freckles, poor memory and the “secret griefs” of both sexes.

England, one contemporary patriotic pamphlet urged, should enrich itself as “nurse to the world.” Mercantile and governmental elites agreed, believing that the spice trade would be the engine of a new world economy. And not only were there fortunes to be made, trading in spices was the right thing to do morally, just as switching to sustainable energy is considered to be now. Finding a secure trade route would be a pious blow both to Christendom’s ancient enemy, the Islamic states that controlled the overland routes from the Far East, and to England’s newer foe, the Catholic Iberian nations that controlled the southern sea routes. That left, for the English latecomers, only the voyage around Russia, quickly abandoned as a non-starter, and the Holy Grail: the Northwest Passage around or through the New World.

Hudson sought it as much as any other man of his day, and in 1610—excited to find the bay now named for him—he decided to winter there. The Discovery’s crew were crushed, physically and morally, by the cold, the ice and the eerie, overwhelming silence. They encountered no natives, or at least none who showed them how to utilize the land’s bounty. Details of their ordeal are scant, although it’s known supplies ran perilously low, but from an account of another expedition Mancall extracts one telling detail that sums up how hard the English found it to adapt to conditions unimaginable at home. Sailors making repairs kept putting iron nails in their mouths as they had always done; the metal would freeze to their flesh and have to be ripped out, opening lesions that never healed.

When the crew learned in the spring of 1611 that Hudson was still set on seeking the passage rather than sailing home, some rose in mutiny. They put Hudson, his teenage son and—in an act of pure ruthlessness—the sick and injured in a tiny boat, and steered the Discovery toward England. There, it took six years before they faced trial, not for mutiny, since—remarkably—there was no specific law against that until 1689, but for murder. Since the mutineers hadn’t directly harmed Hudson, and swore they were acting to save their own lives, they were acquitted. As for the nine abandoned men, they may have survived to the next winter. But they surely died then, one after another, victims, in Mancall’s mournful conclusion, as much of stubborn hubris as of the brutal Arctic cold.

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