BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

Accessibility help
Text only
BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!



The series has now ended but you can still enjoy a wealth of information on the site, from the interactive timeline to historical narratives and profiles.


Martin Frobisher and Fool's Gold, Episode 7 - 04/10/05


Sir Martin Frobisher(Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Sir Martin Frobisher
(Getty Images)
View more images

The Dutch and Portuguese were in the Far East long before the English. But in the middle to late 1500s the journey was still hazardous for the English and investors chose to trade overland via the Levant or elsewhere. Some thought it possible to sail over the top of Russia to the East Indies or at least discover some grand river system that would achieve the same. Sir Humphrey Gilbert was convinced that it would be possible to sail to China in a northwesterly direction, hence the continuing dream of a northwest passage.

When Martin Frobisher was commissioned to cross the Atlantic in search of the Northwest Passage, his backers were the Muscovy Company and his authority, the seal of Elizabeth I. The courses of Frobisher's three voyages tell us something of the thinking of these 16th century navigators. They did not go south and around the Horn - Magellan had rounded it more than half a century earlier - but kept to a northerly track. The navigators believed there had to be a passage through the waterways of what we call Canada.

Why go to China? Not for the sake of exploration, no one did that. The purpose was because there was a chance of riches. The Frobisher voyages didn't discover a passage and yielded nothing but a hoard of iron pyrites from Greenland, which, in spite of the attempts of Agnello, a well-known Italian alchemist, could not be turned into gold. So convincing was Agnello and so envious of the Spanish gold galleons were the investors that they wanted to believe they had struck it rich.

Elizabeth ordered quadruple locks for the worthless cache in the Tower of London. The significance of this episode is that while Elizabethan explorers were literally catching up with the Portuguese and Dutch, they remained uncertain of what they would find and significantly were not looking for territories to conquer and colonise. They were looking for nothing more complicated than profits, not empires.

Back to top

Historical Figure

Sir Martin Frobisher, c. 1535-1594

Frobisher was an almost exact contemporary of Elizabeth I. He was a Yorkshireman who spent almost his whole life at sea. He learned his trade as a boy seaman and then his profession as a master mariner. His quest was a northwest passage to Asia.

In 1576 he commanded the Gabriel and the Michael on a traumatic expedition during which the Michael was abandoned, Frobisher nearly perished but managed to reach Labrador and the waterway named after him, Frobisher Bay. His financiers and the Queen wanted a way to Cathay and riches. Frobisher returned with black ore, wrongly assayed as gold. Later he went with Drake to the Caribbean and in 1588 distinguished himself against the Armada and was knighted.

Back to top

Did You Know...

Sixteenth century sailors could calculate lines of latitude but not longitude. So when they wanted to return to England they first had to find the latitude and then sail along it until reaching home.

Back to top

Have Your Say

Events of this episode took place in Europe & M. East region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

Comment on Europe & M. East

There are currently no messages.

Back to top

Contemporary Sources

American Native Indians in England
Robert Fabyan, a former sheriff of London, recorded seeing captured Indians in King Henry the Seventh's court.

"This year also were brought unto the king three men taken in the Newfound Island. These were clothed in beasts' skins, and did eat raw flesh, and spake such speech that no man could understand them, and in their demeanour were like to brute beasts, whom the king kept a time after. Of the which upon two years after I saw two, apparelled after the manner of Englishmen in Westminster Palace, which at that time I could not discern from Englishmen till I was learned what they were."

Sir George Peckham's report on exploration, 1583
Reasons to justify exploration and to justify the rights of Christians over those of lesser peoples, even to the extent of taking their lands.

"True Report of the Late Discoveries and Possession taken of New-found-lands, wherein is also briefly set down her highness's lawful Title thereunto, and the great and manifold commodities that is likely to grow thereby to the whole Realm in general and the adventures in particula ...

"It is lawful and necessary to trade and traffick with the Savages, and to plant in their countries. I say that Christians may lawfully travel into those countries and abide there, for, from the first beginning of creation of the world and from the renewing of the same after Noah's flood, since all men have agreed that no violence should be offered to ambassadors, and that strangers should not be driven away from the place or country whereunto they do come, we may justly trade and traffic with the Savages and lawfully plant and inhabit their countries."

Back to top

Have Your Say

Timeline & Map

Interactive Timeline

More on the Empire

Elsewhere on

Elsewhere on the web

Book of the series

Audio CD


Send your Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy