Saturday, October 6, 2012

Henry Hudson's Search for the East Indies from the North

By Katherine Pym

Henry Hudson
In the first decade of 17th century, Henry Hudson worked for several merchantmen companies, both in England and in Holland. His goal was to find the northern route to the Spicerie Islands in the South Pacific.

He worked for the Muscovy Company, England's East India Company, and the Dutch East India Company.  These companies pooled their resources, made their captains sign extensive contracts, gave them long lists of rules and regulations, then sent them on their way to find the easiest, fastest passage to Spicerie ports of call.

The route south through the Cape of Good Hope was fraught with danger, i.e., weeks of calm or killer storms, scurvy, the bloody flux, pirates. Once into the Cape, there were added dangers of rogue waves that came out of nowhere, swamping and sinking a ship to the depths of the sea.

If it weren't for the ice that filled the northern regions, that route would be far easier to navigate.  When they went north toward Greenland or west to Newfoundland, these intrepid explorers found a vast ocean crowded with so much fish, they leaped into their boats rather than be netted.  They brought home stories of ling cod, and whale meat/lard.  Fishermen sent their ships to these waters, and the English dinner table began to find new foods that delighted the palate. Oil lamps and candles began to smell of whale lard. 

When Hudson worked for the Muscovy Company, he did not find a Northwest Passage, but alerted his employers of a place where one could catch many whales.  The Dutch East India Company (VOC) had so many failures, when they heard of Hudson, they enlisted his services.

Hudson promised better things.  He was certain the passage could be found.  All their previous captains could not find the passage, and the directors wanted to know how he would go about it. 
Henry replied that he followed Petrus Plancius' theory.  Plancius was one of the founders and cartographer of the VOC, so the directors nodded their approval. When Hudson offered this theory, Plancius was still alive. He could be consulted for authenticity.

The theory was of a temperate, open sea in the North Pole not covered with ice. What Hudson professed was a mild climate above '74 degrees latitude - the point at which the Dutch ships had always found their path blocked by ice'. Hudson not only affirmed to have seen this, he raised the stakes higher by adding the depth of the sea was so great at this point, the swells could never freeze. In this temperate area, Hudson declared to have seen a new land with many animals, sweet grasses wherein the animals grazed. It was a veritable paradise.

Hudson further added if he could go above '83 degrees latitude', he would sail west to the Pacific then south into the warmer seas of the East Indies. VOC demanded more proof, so Hudson sent for Petrus Plancius.  The gentleman, also an astronomer and clergyman, nodded his concurrence at Hudson's every point. He added the sun's long days and white nights during the summer kept the waters warm enough so that ice could not form. As a result, Henry was given the opportunity to seek a northern route to the South Seas.

Once aboard ship, Hudson disregarded all instructions by the VOC. He used his own maps and went northwest through bad weather. Finding the way too difficult, Hudson tootled south. He expected to find a waterway along the American coast he could travel to the Pacific. He did not find it, but did find a land rich in fisheries and game, trees so big they would make excellent ships.

Hudson had found Manhattan Island. The VOC was not impressed but other merchants were, which started the colonization of that area.
Henry Hudson's last journey
In 1610, this time financed by English merchants, Hudson tried again. He found his way into what is now the Hudson Bay. The seas were filled with ice. His crew turned surly, and one night mutinied. They grabbed hold of Henry Hudson and a few faithful crewmen, put them in a small boat without food, water, or warm clothing, and sent them adrift.  Henry Hudson disappeared into the night, never to be seen again.

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Bibliography: Nathaniel's Nutmeg by Giles Milton, and Wikipedia (Hudson, Petrus Plancius)


  1. Interesting. I didn't know much about Hudson's story. Now you've got my wheels spinning, and I can't help thinking about how I could use him in a novel. Thanks!

  2. Poor Hudson, he wasn't as fortunate as Captain Bligh of the later HMS Bounty. Fascinating post, Kathy.

  3. Hudson's voyage and fate forms part of Nicholas Monsarrat's excellent The Master Mariner, vol 1.

  4. Very interesting. I'd never heard his story before. The reference to the Muscovy Company is interesting. The last time I read anything about it was in one of Dorothey Dunnett's books.

  5. the story goes in my grandmother's family that someone was descended from Uncle Henry. I'm sure it was true. Myself and 10.000 others as well! So, I've always found his story fascinating.

    Thanks, Kathryn!

  6. A replica of his ship the Halve Maen (Half Moon) was built in Albany NY back in the late 1980's or early 1990's. This ship makes regular trips down to NY and back again. It is possible to volunteer to serve aboard this vessel for these trips from time to time.


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