Finding a direct route by sea to China became something of an obsession for the kingdoms of Western Europe in the mid-1400s after the Ottoman Turk Empire gained control of much of the Middle East. Finding a the Northwest Passage was a 400-year obsession for sea-faring nations.
It was well understood that trade with China, then most often called Cathay, was a source of tremendous wealth. But after the Turks took command of the East, sea powers like England, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands had no easy access to the Far East. The only alternative was to sail south around the Horn of Africa and then head east through the Indian Ocean on the way to Cathay – an agonizingly long journey that drastically reduced the advantage of any trade in the Orient.
Discovery of America
Thus, after Columbus discovered the American continent in 1492, a flame of excitement ignited across Europe over the possibility that Cathay could be reached by sailing directly west. In fact, that was the initial goal of Columbus. Columbus is most known for “discovering America” but less is said about the fact that he also sailed north and became the first European to make a tentative stab at what came to be known as The Northwest Passage.
One might think that after the discovery of a continent as huge and magnificent as North America, all interest in a Northwest Passage and Chinese trade would have taken a back seat to the potential wealth of the New World. But in those times, there was no basic economic model that could deliver fast profits for European countries. Back then, short-term profits were the goal. What early explorers needed to do was find quick pay-off resources, especially easy access to gold or silver. The Spaniards and Portuguese found just that in the form of the Inca and Aztec civilizations of Central and South America. They enjoyed an immediate payoff by conquering and robbing the riches of the ancient peoples in those regions.
But for England, realizing any form of wealth from North America would not be so easy. Unlike South America, there was no gold-rich civilization to plunder, but rather, primitive Indians living close to nature. These were people who had little need for metals with monetary value. Before anyone could make money by establishing a colony in the New World, a system of long-term economic investment was needed. But in those days, there were no such models or institutions – no real business methods – for making investments now that would start paying off maybe 10 or 20 years after an initial investment.
Thus, there was much interest was in finding the fabled Northwest Passage, which everyone hoped would mean a quick seaway to the riches of the China trade. Of course, no one knew if a Northwest Passage existed, but it was reasonable to think that such a sea route might be found – and so one of history’s greatest, centuries-long searches began.
Columbus made only a cursory stab at exploring the northern coasts of the Americas. After his discoveries in the south, he and his patron country of Spain turned all their interests to engorging themselves on the gold of Central and South America.
The next direct attempt to find the Northwest Passage was made by Italian explorer John Cabot, (whose real name was Giovanni Caboto). Despite him being Italian, the English bankrolled his mission to find the Northwest Passage, and he sailed under the British flag. In short, Cabot made three trips across the Atlantic, but the details of what he actually found are sketchy. Most historians think he died in 1499 on his third trip to America, although there are some reports claiming that he actually returned to England. What is known is that an associate of Cabot’s, a man by the name of William Weston, made a subsequent trip and actually sailed up the Hudson Strait in 1500. This was the first significant attempt to penetrate a waterway that might be the Northwest Passage.
The next notable attempt to find the Northwest Passage was made by another English seaman, Martin Frobisher. He made trips in 1576 and 1578. His journey quickly devolved into a search for gold, however, and he made no serious attempts at finding a direct passage to China. English sailor John Davis made exploratory voyages to find the Northwest Passage in 1585, 1586 and 1587, but he also made no real progress, although he did attain Cumberland Sound off Baffin Island.
The man who really moved the search for the Northwest Passage forward was Henry Hudson. His famous attempt occurred in the years 1610-11. After much sailing around in the northern coastal regions of eastern Canada, there was tremendous excitement when Hudson discovered the straight that now bears his name, the Hudson Straight, which is at the northern tip of Labrador. Hudson pressed forward in the frigid waters until his ship became trapped in the ice at James Bay.
Hudson and his crew survived a brutal and frigid winter. When the ice began to melt in the spring of 1611, Captain Hudson wanted to keep sailing west, but his crew was fed up. They organized a mutiny, dumped Hudson, his teenage son, and six loyal men on a small boat, and cast them off to fend for themselves. They disappeared into the wilderness and were never heard from again.
Hudson had penetrated deep into Canada. The vast Hudson Bay north of present day Manitoba, Canada still bears his name.
Other attempts at finding the Northwest Passage took a different approach. For example, the French sailors René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1682 sailed north up the Mississippi River and eventually gained access to Lake Superior. They hoped that the Great Lakes might provide a direct route to across the continent. This obviously met with failure.
It would take almost four centuries until a true Northwest Passage was found and navigated. The credit for being the first to navigate the Northwest Passage went to the amazing Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, and the first to reach both the North and South Poles.
Amundsen finally made the icy trip on his ship, the Gjøa, a 47-ton steel seal-hunting ship. This quest established the first true route of the Northwest Passage in a journey that started in 1903 and ended in 1906 — more than 400 years after the first attempt by Christopher Columbus.