William Baffin ( – 1622)


BAFFIN, WILLIAM (d. 1622), navigator and discoverer, was most probably a native of London, but nothing is known of his early life. The earliest mention of him is in 1612, as pilot of the Patience, fitted out at Hull by James Hall, for a voyage of discovery to Greenland. Hall was a Yorkshireman, as was Andrew Barker, master of the Patience’s consort. the Heartsease; but four merchants of London – Sir Thomas Smythe (most commonly misspelt Smith), Sir James Lancaster, Sir William Cockayne, and Mr. Ball – had a large and principal share in the adventure and it is conjectured that Baffin may have been appointed at their instance. The expedition left the Humber on 22 April, and examined the west coast of Greenland, as far as 67° N.; but, Hall having been killed in an affray with the natives, the ships returned to England under the command of Barker. The account of the voyage was written by Baffin, part of which only, as published by Purchas, has been preserved; another account, written by John Gatonby, one of the quartermasters, is in Churchill’s ‘Collection of Voyages,’ vi. 241. On his return from Greenland, Baffin entered the service of the Muscovy Company, which had for some years past sent their ships to catch whales near Spitzbergen. They had just obtained a charter, pretending to give them the exclusive right of this fishery; and authorised by it had, in 1612, been sufficiently strong to drive away all foreigners. In 1613 they again sent out a fleet of seven ships, under the command of Captain Benjamin Joseph, in the Tiger, with William Baffin as chief pilot. They found seventeen foreign ships, Dutchmen, Dunkirkers, and Biscayans, already on the Spitzbergen coast; these all submitted to the English claim without resistance; most of them were ordered away, a few only being allowed to fish on payment of half their take to the English ships, which returned safely in September with full cargoes. The narrative of this voyage, written by Baffin, has been preserved in Purchas; another account, by Robert Fotherby, one of the party, is printed from the original manuscript in ‘Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society’ (1860), iv, 285. The following year, 1614, Baffin served again in the Spitzbergen fishery with Captain Joseph, and in company with Fotherby, whose narrative of the voyage is given by Purchas. The two, leavingtheir ship, provisioned two boats and persistently pushed along the north coast to the eastward, as far as Hinlopen Strait; but the year was very unfavourable, the ice coming close down to the coast during the greater part of the season. Baffin returned to London on 4 Oct., and the next year took service with the company for the discovery of a north-west passage, the directors of which were Sir Thormas Smythe, Sir Dudley Digges, and John Wolstenholme; he was appointed pilot of the Discovery, commanded by Captain Robert Bylot. The account of this voyage, written by Baffin was printed very incorrectly by Purchas; the original manuscript, with map, is in the British Museum (Add.MSS. 12,206), and was edited for the Hakluyt Society in l849 (RUNDALL, Naratives of Voyages towards the North-west). As pilot of the Discovery in 1615, Baffin carefully examined Hudson Strait and the eastern coast of Southampton Island, with such accuracy that his latitudes and his notes on the tides are in remarkable agreement with the more rigid observations of the present century. They passed up Fox Channel, beyond Cape Comfort but finding the land heading them, and, he says, ‘very thick pestered with ice, and the further we proceeded the more ice and shoaler water, with small show of any tide, we soon resolved there could be no passage in this place, and presently we bore up the helm and turned the ship’s head to the southward (13 July). The land which we saw bear north and north-east was about nine or ten leagues from us; and, surely, without any question, this is the bottom of the bay on the west side; but how far it runneth more eastward is yet uncertain.’ In August 1821, Captain Parry, with better fortune, repeated Baffin’s observations; he confirmed the remark as to the ‘small show of any tide,’ and he saw also the land to the north-east; but he foundthis to be an island, to which he gave the appropriate name of Baffin’s Island, and succeeded in passing away beyond (Voyages of Fury and Heela, 1824, p. 33). The Discovery anchored in Plymouth Soundon 8 Sept.; and Baffin, summing up the results of the voyage, says that ‘doubtless there is a passage; but within this strait, which is called Hudson’s Strait, I am doubtful, supposing the contrary … and my judgment is if any passage within Resolution Island, it is but some creek or inlet, but the main will be up Fretum Davis.’ Acting on this opinion in the next year, 1616, also in the Discovery, with Captain Bylot, he passed up Davis Strait, and pushing to the north as far as 78° N., discovered and named Smith’s Sound (in which the false spelling has become a geographical fact), Lancaster Sound, Jones Sound, Wolstenholme Sound, Sir Dudley Digges Cape, with many others, and charted the whole in a manner which we have warrant to suppose was fairly accurate according to the nautical science of the day. Unfortunately, the map and the journal, as well as the narrative, were handed over to Purchas who published the narrative alone, and that probably in a garbled and imperefct form, considering the reproduction of the chart and of the journal too costly an undertaking. And, so far as is known, neither the one nor the other has ever been seen since, though Mr Markham offers the very plausible conjecture that the map published by Luke Foxe in l635 (North-West Fox, &c) may have been in this part, copied from the lost map of Baffin. It does not mark all Baffin’s names, but it does represent the bay as something like the reality, and closed, as it is described by Baffin. Baffin’s conclusion, stated in his report to Sir John Wolstenholme is briefly: ‘There is no passage, nor hope of passage, in the north of Davis Strait, we having coasted all or nearly all the circumference thereof, and find it to be no other than a great bay.’ The want of the original map, however, permitted very wild statements as to the shape and size of Baffin’s Bay to grow up, so that in course of time it came to be doubted whether the whole story was not a fable; and in later maps the distorted representation of Baffin’s most important discoveries was omitted altogether as a mere fancy, till, in 1818, Captain Ross rediscovered them, and without difficulty identified the localities which Baffin had described and named (Voyages in H.M. ships Isabel1a and Alexander (4to, 1819), 140,146).

Baffin had expressed an opinion against the existence of a north-west passage; but his imagination would not be convinced, and suggested that better fortune might attend an expedition on the other side, starting from the neighbourhood of Japan. In some such hope, though quite indefinite, he obtained an appointment as master’s mate in the Anne Royal, a large ship belonging to the East India Company and commanded by Captain Andrew Shilling. This was one of the fleet which sailed from the Downs on 5 March 1616-7, and arrived at Surat in the following September. Captain ShiIling was then directed to proceed into the Red Sea for settling an English trade in those parts; and arrived off Mocha on 13 April 1618. The Anne Royal remained in the Red Sea for about four months, during which time Baffin was busily employed in surveying and in charting his observations; and so also, when, later in the year the ship went intothe Persian Gulf. In February the Anne Royal left India homeward bound, and arrived in the Thames in September 1619. A minute of the court of directors, dated l Oct., orders ‘William Baffin, a masters mate in the Anne, to have a gratuity for his pains and good art in drawing out certain plots of the coast of Persia and the Red Sea, which are judged to have been very well and artificially performed; some to be drawn out by Adam Bowen, for the benefit of such as shall be employed in those parts’ (Calendar of State Papers, Colonial, East Indies, 1617-21, 257).

Early the next year Captain Shilling, in the London, a new ship, again sailed for the East Indies in command of a company’s fleet of four ships, and Baffin accompanied him as master. They arrived at Surat on 9 Nov. 1620, and having learned that a combined force of two Portuguese and two Dutch ships, making common cause against the English, were waiting at the entrance of the Persian Gulf to attack such of their ships as came that way, they sailed at once to look and anticipate them. On 16 Dec. the two fleets, equal in point of numbers, met and engaged. They fought for nine hours, and separated to repair damages. Twelve days later they met again, Captain Swan, of the English ship Roebuck, whose journal is given by Purchas (the original manuscript of which is in the India Office) says: ‘Our broadsides were brought up, and the good ordnance from our whole fleet played so fast upon them that, doubtless, if the knowledge in our people had been less answerable to their willing minds and ready resolutions not one of the galleons1 unless their sides were impenetrable, had escaped us.’ It was, perhaps, not only the want of knowledge but the imperfections of the guns, of the powder and of the shot, that rendered it possible for ships to fire at each other all day without any decided result. On this occasion, however, some damage was done, and towards evening the enemy towed their ships off, and were not pursued. Captain Shilling was mortally wounded, and died on 6 Jan. 1620-1; Captain Blyth succeeded to the command, but the change made no difference to Baffin, who continued master of the London, and the fleet presently returned to Surat. In the following year the English in India agreed to assist the Shah of Persia in driving the Portuguese out of Ormuz, a place which, in former ages, had been the emporium of the East, the wonder and admiration of the world; and though in the hands of the Portuguese, and since the opening of the route round the Cape of Good Hope, its wealth and importance had declined, it was still extremely rich. The Shah had long regarded the Portuguese possession with jealousy, and had coveted the accumulated treasures, greater in repute than in fact, and now hoped, with the help of the English, to achieve his desire. The attack began with the reduction of Kishm, an adjacent island, on which Ormuz as largely dependent for water; and here, on 23 Jan.1621-2, Baffin whilst taking the angles of the castle wall, in order to measure its height and distance, received his death-wound. According to the account given by Purchas, ‘he received a shot from the castle into his belly, wherewith he gave three leaps, and died immediately.’ His death made little difference to the result of the siege; Kishm surrendered on 1 Feb., and Ormuz also, after a stout defence on 23 April 1622. Baffin appears to have left no surviving children; but his widow preferred a claim for some money which she asserted belonged to her husband, in compensation for which she eventually received 500l. She is described as then, in 1628, a woman advanced in years and deaf, and as having married again. Amongst early navigators Baffin takes a high place as one of the first who endeavoured to determine longitude at sea by astronomical observations. In his first recorded voyage to Greenland (8 July 1612) he describes his attempt to determine the longitude by observing the time of the moon’s culmination; and in his voyage to Hudson’s Bay (21 June 1615) he has recorded by the lunar distance of the sun. The measurements were of necessity too rude to give results even approximately correct, but that was the fault of the instruments; and though the observation led to no immediate improvement, the date is noteworthy as that of the first lunar observation taken at sea.

[ The Voyages of William Baffin, 1612-22, edited, with notes and an introduction, by Clements R Markham, C.B., F.R.S. (1881), for the Hakluyt Society. Mr Markham’s Introduction embodies the result of much laborious research, and it is scarcely to be hoped that any further evidence as to Baffin’s origin and early life can now be discovered.] J.K.L.