Fatal Journey': the final days of Henry Hudson

by Peter Mancall


The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson" examines the murky events that led to the 17th century explorer's death.

Special to The Seattle Times

Basic Books, 288 pp., $26.95                            See: Amazon

Henry Hudson, the English explorer who gave his name to New York's Hudson River and Canada's Hudson Bay, lost his sailing ship to mutineers. They left him, his teenage son and seven men in a small boat and sailed back to England, where mutineers risked a hanging.

It was 1611. England's only settlement in America was at Jamestown, Va. Hudson had led his ship the previous fall into James Bay, in an Arctic climate zone in what is now central Canada. The ship had been trapped in pack ice for the winter, and he and his men had holed up in a freezing hut.

With the breaking of the sea ice, Hudson was keen to go on searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. The mutineers were not. They wanted to go home.

The full story of the mutiny would make a chilling book, but historians don't have that story. They have the stories the mutineers offered to an English court — self-serving stories that saved their necks. The court of inquiry also had a letter hidden in Hudson's ship by one of the men about to be marooned, but the man was lost, and could not elaborate on what he had said.

How to make a book from such scraps? Discuss whether they ring true. Embed the story in known history — of why English merchants were willing to back Hudson, and men like him; of Hudson's adventures in the Arctic, and what sort of captain he was; of the desperadoes on his crew, and what happened to them; of the climate and fauna of James Bay, and why no English explorer returned there for a generation; and of the Cree Indians, who encountered Hudson's winter encampment.

The author, Peter Mancall of the University of Southern California, does all these things. He is a specialist on the period, having earlier written a history of the mapmaker Richard Hakluyt, who lived in Hudson's time. Mancall heads an institute associated with the Huntington Library of San Marino, Calif., which has a fabulous collection of books and manuscripts from the period.

What Mancall's publisher touts on the book's cover as "a tale of mutiny and murder in the Arctic," however, is mostly not a murder story. It is a wider story of seamanship, survival, geography and English power. That is the only way the book could have been written: as a murder story there are too many unknowns in it. We don't even know what Hudson looked like.

Nor does anyone exactly know how Hudson, his son and their companions met their ends almost 400 years ago, though Mancall says they could not have lasted another Canadian winter. Hudson, he writes, was a master mariner who sailed his wooden ships farther into the Arctic than any Englishman had or would for another 200 years, but unlike the Cree, "he could not live there."

This is a story that stretches the imagination and leaves the reader with a shiver.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

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