- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009

By Peter C. Mancall
Basic Books, $26.95, 320 pages

In 1610, Henry Hudson was at the top of his game, A-Rod in the North Atlantic all-stars, a Werner von Braun in the richest international competition of his time, the race to corner Europe’s spice trade. This Englishman was “the most qualified man in Europe” to seek the short sea route to the Orient that he believed must exist somewhere near the pole. Of course, as we now know, he might just as well have tried to dig his way to China. Or better yet to wait four centuries until climate changes and advances in ship design would enable vessels to cross the frozen ocean (though Argonauts no longer go that way since petroleum replaced nutmeg and cinnamon as the Holy Grail).

Be that as it may, University of Southern California historian and anthropologist Peter C. Mancall writes “like the needle of a compass, Henry Hudson was always attracted to the North … one of the most intrepid and important explorers of his age.” In 1607, he reached Svalbard, the archipelago equidistant between Greenland, Norway’s northernmost cape and Russia’s Novaya Zemlya, where the Dutchman Willem Barentsz’s ship perished in the ice 10 years earlier. In 1608, he sailed for the second time in Hopewell in search of a northeast route around Russia to Asia.

This time he reached Novaya Zemla and, like Barentsz, could go no farther, though unlike his predecessor, he returned to tell the tale and venture forth again. In 1609, Hudson sold his services to the Dutch and took command of the smallish Halve Maen (aka Half Moon) that he sailed north past Norway to a Russian landfall before abandoning the search for an eastern route. Heading west, he crossed the Atlantic to Nova Scotia, explored south to Cape Cod, then southwest to the Virginia capes, then north again.

Hugging the coast, he found a broad inlet that he followed north for 150 miles, until shoaling proved it could not be a strait leading to the “South Seas” but only a river that traversed a realm of “trees of sweet wood in great abundance, and great store of Slate for houses, and other good stones.” The Half Moon’s encounters with the locals were largely peaceful and friendly, at first, and her first mate presciently called this “a very pleasant place to build a town on.” The river would take his captain’s name.

In 1610, financed again by wealthy Britons in London, Hudson set out in a smaller ship, Discovery, with a crew of 22 men and two boys, including his teenage son, John. Knowing the Atlantic’s frigid northern waters better than any other mariner, he passed the Faroes and Iceland this time, and rounded Greenland’s tip to sail north of east. He entered what is now called Hudson Strait and found vast Hudson Bay within days of the summer solstice. Sailing south in expectation of spice-laden islands, he offered his crew a choice as the days shortened: already 100 leagues farther west than Englishmen had sailed before, they could continue south in hopes of finding the northwest passage before winter, or they could turn back for home.

Despite some dissent (and a few men who just wanted to escape the ice that threatened constantly) they continued on for 600 miles, deep into what became James Bay. They grounded the ship close to shore and wintered in shelters they built nearby. That they survived the ordeal — incessant wind, subzero cold, scant food and darkness for weeks on end — seems a credit to Hudson’s leadership and skills. Still, several men came close to death and all were near starvation when the ice cleared and they could sail again.

Convinced that Hudson meant to continue searching for the passage, a malcontent named Henry Greene organized the healthiest survivors and led a mutiny that was chronicled by a shipmate, one Abacuk Picket. Hudson, his son and seven others, most of them too weak to work, were cast off in a small open boat, a shallop, with some food, tools and weapons. Discovery sailed north, and a month later Greene and several others were slain in a clash with Inuits. Only nine of the original company survived when the ship reached Ireland, and then London. Hudson and the rest were never seen again.

Fully half the book details the sequelae: a series of examinations and trials for the mutineers, discussions of maritime law in its infancy and inconclusive clues that suggest Hudson and his band survived for at least a while. He was, after all, a superb mariner who recorded his routes and discoveries, an inventive survivor of polar weather and a resolute leader (though he seems to have made a couple of fatal errors in choosing crew). Mr. Mancall writes with authority in tone and scholarship (offering 70 pages of fine-print backmatter) but commits surprising gaffes, e.g., wrongly defining shrouds as “the rope rigging that held the sails to the mast” (rather than ropes that support the mast). On the other hand, intriguingly he calls the people Hudson and others encounter “Americans,” and their larger political units “nations,” showing an ethnic respect that seems rare among academics.

One question he neglects is why Hudson jumped ship (so to speak) and made his most famous voyage, in Half Moon, for Dutch masters. After all, his service to the Dutch was so significant in their brief foray in the New World that many less rigorous histories call him Hendrick Hudson. Given the British authorities dubious verdicts years after the voyage that cleared the mutineers of murder, and given the author’s unsatisfying speculations about Hudson’s fate four centuries later, the book suggests what Hudson himself might have said when all was said and done: I’d hoped for a better result.

Philip Kopper, founder of the venture publishing enterprise Posterity Press Inc., has crossed the Atlantic in large boats and small.

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