John Davis (English explorer)

Last updated
John Davis
John Davis (English explorer).jpg
Davis, shown bottom left holding his backstaff, in a detail from Englands Famous Discoverers
Bornc. 1550
Sandridge, Devon, England
Died(1605-12-29)29 December 1605
off Malay peninsula
Cause of death homicide
Occupation Explorer, navigator
Known fornamesake of Davis Strait and Inlet
discoverer of the Falkland Islands
inventor of the backstaff
Spouse(s)Faith Fulford
Signature of John Davis (explorer).jpg

John Davis or Davys (c. 1550 29 December 1605) (b. 1543?) was one of the chief English navigators of Elizabeth I. He led several voyages to discover the Northwest Passage and served as pilot and captain on both Dutch and English voyages to the East Indies. He discovered the Falkland Islands (today a British Overseas Territory) in August 1592.

Elizabeth I of England Queen regnant of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until 24 March 1603

Elizabeth I was Queen of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death on 24 March 1603. Sometimes called The Virgin Queen, Gloriana or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor.

Northwest Passage sea route north of North America

The Northwest Passage (NWP) is, from the European and northern Atlantic point of view, the sea route to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The eastern route along the Arctic coasts of Norway and Siberia is accordingly called the Northeast Passage (NEP).

East Indies region encompassing South (Indian subcontinent) and Southeast Asia

The East Indies or the Indies are the lands of South and Southeast Asia. In a more restricted sense, the Indies can be used to refer to the islands of Southeast Asia, especially the Indonesian Archipelago and the Philippine Archipelago. The name "Indies" is used to connote parts of Asia that came under the Indian cultural sphere.


It is important that Captain John Davis of Sandridge should not be confused with a contemporary, Captain John Davis of Limehouse. Both served in the fleet of Captain James Lancaster during the first voyage of the East India Company to the East Indies.

James Lancaster English privateer

Sir James Lancaster VI was a prominent Elizabethan trader and privateer.

East India Company 16th through 19th-century British trading company

The East India Company (EIC), also known as the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) or the British East India Company, and informally known as John Company, Company Bahadur, or simply The Company, was an English and later British joint-stock company. It was formed to trade in the Indian Ocean region, initially with Mughal India and the East Indies, and later with Qing China. The company ended up seizing control over large parts of the Indian subcontinent, colonised parts of Southeast Asia, and colonised Hong Kong after a war with Qing China.

Life and career

Davis was born in the parish of Stoke Gabriel in Devon circa 1550, and spent his childhood in Sandridge Barton nearby. It has been suggested[ by whom? ] that he learned much of his seamanship as a child while plying boats along the river Dart, and went to sea at an early age. His childhood neighbours included Adrian Gilbert and Humphrey Gilbert and their half-brother Walter Raleigh. [1] From early on, he also became friends with John Dee. [2]

Stoke Gabriel village in the United Kingdom

Stoke Gabriel is a village and parish in Devon, England, situated on a creek of the River Dart. The village is a popular tourist destination in the South Hams and is famous for its mill pond and crab fishing. It is equidistant from Paignton, Dartmouth and Totnes, and has a population of approximately 1,200, reducing slightly to 1,107 at the 2011 census. The village is the major part of the electoral ward of East Dart. The ward population at the abovementioned census was 1,877.

Devon County of England

Devon, also known as Devonshire, is a county of England, reaching from the Bristol Channel in the north to the English Channel in the south. It is part of South West England, bounded by Cornwall to the west, Somerset to the north east, and Dorset to the east. The city of Exeter is the county town. The county includes the districts of East Devon, Mid Devon, North Devon, South Hams, Teignbridge, Torridge, and West Devon. Plymouth and Torbay are each geographically part of Devon, but are administered as unitary authorities. Combined as a ceremonial county, Devon's area is 6,707 km2 and its population is about 1.1 million.

Humphrey Gilbert English explorer, politician and soldier

Sir Humphrey Gilbert of Compton in the parish of Marldon and of Greenway in the parish of Churston Ferrers, both in Devon, England, was an adventurer, explorer, member of parliament and soldier who served during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and was a pioneer of the English colonial empire in North America and the Plantations of Ireland. He was a uterine half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh and a cousin of Sir Richard Grenville.

Map showing Davis's northern voyages. From A life of John Davis, the navigator Markham Davis Strait map.jpg
Map showing Davis's northern voyages. From A life of John Davis, the navigator

He began pitching a voyage in search of the Northwest Passage to the queen's secretary Francis Walsingham in 1583. [4] Two years later, in 1585, the secretary relented and funded the expedition, which traced Frobisher's route to Greenland's east coast, around Cape Farewell, and west towards Baffin Island. [2] In 1586 he returned to the Arctic with four ships, two of which were sent to Greenland's iceberg-calving eastern shore; the other two penetrated the strait which came to bear his name as far as 67°N before being blocked by the Arctic ice cap. Sunshine attempted (and failed) to circumnavigate the island from the east. [5] The initially amiable approach Davis adopted to the Inuit bringing musicians and having the crew dance and play with them [4] changed after they stole one of his anchors; they were likely irate at having been interrupted during one of their religious ceremonies. Inuit also attacked his ships in Hamilton Inlet (Labrador). [2] A third expedition in 1587 reached 72°12'N and Disko Island before unfavorable winds forced it back. On his return, Davis charted the Davis Inlet in the coast of Labrador. The log of this trip remained a textbook model for later captains for centuries. [2]

Francis Walsingham English spy, diplomat and politician

Sir Francis Walsingham was principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I of England from 20 December 1573 until his death and is popularly remembered as her "spymaster".

Martin Frobisher English explorer

Sir Martin Frobisher was an English seaman and privateer who made three voyages to the New World looking for the North-west Passage. He probably sighted Resolution Island near Labrador in north-eastern Canada, before entering Frobisher Bay and landing on present-day Baffin Island. On his second voyage, Frobisher found what he thought was gold ore and carried 200 tons of it home on three ships, where initial assaying determined it to be worth a profit of £5.2 per ton. Encouraged, Frobisher returned to Canada with an even larger fleet and dug several mines around Frobisher Bay. He carried 1,350 tons of the ore back to England, where, after years of smelting, it was realised that the ore was comparatively worthless iron pyrite. As an English privateer, he plundered riches from French ships. He was later knighted for his service in repelling the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Greenland Autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark

Greenland is an autonomous country of the Kingdom of Denmark, located between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Though physiographically a part of the continent of North America, Greenland has been politically and culturally associated with Europe for more than a millennium. The majority of its residents are Inuit, whose ancestors began migrating from the Canadian mainland in the 13th century, gradually settling across the island.

In 1588 he seems to have commanded Black Dog against the Spanish Armada. [4] In 1589 he joined the Earl of Cumberland as part of the Azores Voyage of 1589. In 1591 he accompanied Thomas Cavendish on Cavendish's last voyage, which sought to discover the Northwest Passage "upon the back parts of America" (i.e., from the western entrance). After the rest of Cavendish's expedition returned unsuccessful, Davis continued to attempt on his own account the passage of the Strait of Magellan; though defeated by foul weather, he discovered the Falkland Islands in August 1592 aboard Desire . His crew was forced to kill hundreds of penguins for food on the islands, but the stored meat spoiled in the tropics and only fourteen of his 76 men made it home alive.

Spanish Armada Fleet of Spanish ships, intended to attack England in 1588

The Spanish Armada was a Habsburg Spanish fleet of 130 ships that sailed from Corunna in late May 1588, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, with the purpose of escorting an army from Flanders to invade England. Medina Sidonia was an aristocrat without naval command experience but was made commander by King Philip II. The aim was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and her establishment of Protestantism in England, to stop English interference in the Spanish Netherlands and to stop the harm caused by English and Dutch privateering ships that interfered with Spanish interests in the Americas.

George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland English noble

Sir George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, 13th Baron de Clifford, 13th Lord of Skipton, KG, was an English peer, naval commander, and courtier of Queen Elizabeth I of England. He was notable at court for his jousting, at the Accession Day Tilts, which were highlights of the year at court. Two famous survivals, his portrait miniature by Nicholas Hilliard and a garniture of Greenwich armour, reflect this important part of his life. In contrast, he neglected his estates in the far north of England, and left a long succession dispute between his heirs.

Azores Voyage of 1589

The Azores Voyage of 1589 also known as Cumberlands Third Voyage was a series of conflicts in the Azores islands between August and September 1589 by an English military joint stock expedition led by George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland during the Anglo–Spanish War. All the islands were attacked either for provisions and the attainment of Spanish and Portuguese prizes. A number of Portuguese and Spanish ships were captured and also included a battle at Faial which resulted in the capture of the fort and main town which was subsequently sacked and burned. The English were able to return home unmolested with a total of thirteen prizes - the expedition was a success and with a good profit for the investors although many lives were lost to disease and storms.

From 1596 to 1597 Davis seems to have sailed with Sir Walter Raleigh to Cádiz and the Azores as master of Raleigh's ship; from 1598 to 1600 he accompanied a Dutch expedition to the East Indies as pilot, sailing from Flushing and returning to Middleburg, while carefully charting and recording geographical details. He narrowly escaped destruction from treachery at Achin on Sumatra.

Walter Raleigh English aristocrat, writer, poet, soldier, courtier, spy, and explorer

Sir Walter Raleigh, also spelled Ralegh, was an English landed gentleman, writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy and explorer. He was cousin to Sir Richard Grenville and younger half-brother of Sir Humphrey Gilbert. He is also well known for popularising tobacco in England. Raleigh was one of the most notable figures of the Elizabethan era.

Cádiz Municipality in Andalusia, Spain

Cádiz is a city and port in southwestern Spain. It is the capital of the Province of Cádiz, one of eight which make up the autonomous community of Andalusia.

Dutch Republic Republican predecessor state of the Netherlands from 1581 to 1795

The United Provinces of the Netherlands, or simply United Provinces, and commonly referred to historiographically as the Dutch Republic, was a confederal republic formally established from the formal creation of a confederacy in 1581 by several Dutch provinces—seceded from Spanish rule—until the Batavian Revolution of 1795. It was a predecessor state of the Netherlands and the first fully independent Dutch nation state.

From 1601 to 1603 he accompanied Sir James Lancaster as Pilot-Major on the first voyage of the English East India Company. For his part Davis was to receive £500 (around £1.5 million at 2015 values [6] ) if the voyage doubled its original investment, £1,000 if three times, £1,500 if four times and £2,000 if five times. [7]

Before departure, Davis had told London merchants that pepper could be obtained in Aceh at a price of four reals of eight per hundredweight - whereas it actually cost 20. When the voyage returned, Lancaster complained that Davis had been wrong about both the price and availability of pepper. [8] Unhappy at being made a scapegoat for the situation, on 5 December 1604 Davis sailed again for the East Indies as pilot to Sir Edward Michelborne, an "interloper" who had been granted a charter by James I [9] despite the supposed East India Company monopoly on trade with the East. [10] On this journey he was killed off Bintan Island near Singapore by one of his captive "Japanese" pirates whose disabled vessel he had just seized. The pirates had taken the English in through several days of friendly discourse prior to the surprise attack in which the subject was 'dragged back, hacked and slashed, and thrust out again'. [11] He died almost immediately after the attack. [12]

The Dartmouth Town Council blue plaque erected in memory of Davis John Davis plaque in Dartmouth.jpg
The Dartmouth Town Council blue plaque erected in memory of Davis

In the centuries after his death, the importance of Dutch whalers actually led the settlements along Greenland's western coast to be called "Straat Davis" after their name for the Strait, while the name "Greenland" was used to refer to the eastern shore, erroneously presumed to be the site of the Norse Eastern Settlement. [13]


Davis's explorations in the Arctic were published by Richard Hakluyt and appeared on his world map. Davis himself published a valuable treatise on practical navigation called The Seaman's Secrets [14] in 1594 and a more theoretical work called The World's Hydrographical Description in 1595 [15] . The account of Davis's last voyage was written by Michelborne on his return to England in 1606.


John Davis's Backstaff from The Seamans Secrets Davis Backstaff.jpg
John Davis's Backstaff from The Seamans Secrets

His invention of the backstaff and double quadrant (called the Davis Quadrant after him) remained popular among English seamen until long after Hadley's reflecting quadrant had been introduced. [2]

Personal life

On 28 September 1582, [16] Davis married Mistress Faith Fulford, daughter of Sir John Fulford (the High Sheriff of Devon) and Dorithy Bourchier, the daughter of the Earl of Bath. He had five children: his first son, Gilbert was baptised on 27 March 1583; [17] a daughter Elizabeth who died in infancy; Arthur, born 1586; John, born and died 1587; and Philip.

Related Research Articles

Henry Hudson English explorer

Henry Hudson was an English sea explorer and navigator during the early 17th century, best known for his explorations of present-day Canada and parts of the northeastern United States.

Willem Barentsz navigator, cartographer, explorer

Willem Barentsz was a Dutch navigator, cartographer, and Arctic explorer.

William Baffin British explorer

William Baffin was an English navigator and explorer. He is primarily known for his attempt to discover a Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, during the course of which he was the first European to discover Baffin Bay in present-day Canada. He was also responsible for exceptional surveys of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf on behalf of the East India Company.

Buss Island phantom island

Bus, Buss, or Busse Island was a phantom island in the North Atlantic Ocean. It was recorded as discovered during the third expedition of Martin Frobisher in September 1578 by sailors aboard the ship Emanuel of Bridgwater and was indicated on maps as existing between Ireland and mythical Frisland at about 57° N. The island was then named for the type of vessel that its discoverers used. It is believed that Frobisher took Greenland for Frisland and Baffin Island for Greenland and Emanuel, returning home, made a mistake in dead reckoning and mistook optical effects near Greenland at around 62° N for new land.

William Parry (explorer) English naval officer and Arctic explorer

Rear-Admiral Sir William Edward Parry was an English explorer of the Arctic who was known for his 1819 expedition through the Parry Channel, probably the most successful in the long quest for the Northwest Passage.

Baffin Bay A marginal sea between Greenland and Baffin Island, Canada

Baffin Bay, located between Baffin Island and the west coast of Greenland, is a marginal sea of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is connected to the Atlantic via Davis Strait and the Labrador Sea. The narrower Nares Strait connects Baffin Bay with the Arctic Ocean. The bay is not navigable most of the year because of the ice cover and high density of floating ice and icebergs in the open areas. However, a polynya of about 80,000 km2 (31,000 sq mi), known as the North Water, opens in summer on the north near Smith Sound. Most of the aquatic life of the bay is concentrated near that region.

Hakluyt Society

The Hakluyt Society is a text publication society, founded in 1846 and based in London, England, which publishes scholarly editions of primary records of historic voyages, travels and other geographical material. In addition to its publishing role, the Society organises and participates in meetings, symposia and conferences relating to the history of geographical exploration and cultural encounter. It is a registered charity and a non-profitmaking institution administered by a voluntary team of council members and officers. Membership is open to all with an interest in its aims.

Hugh Willoughby English polar explorer

Sir Hugh Willoughby was an English soldier and an early Arctic voyager. He served in the court of Henry VIII and fought in the Scottish campaign where he was knighted for his valour. In 1553 he was selected by a company of London merchants to lead a fleet of three vessels in search of a northeast route to the Far East. Willoughby and the crews of two ships died on the voyage while the third vessel went on to open a successful and long-lasting trading arrangement with Russia.

Luke Foxe was an English explorer, born in Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorkshire, who searched for the Northwest Passage across North America. In 1631, he sailed much of the western Hudson Bay before concluding no such passage was possible. Foxe Basin, Foxe Channel and Foxe Peninsula were named after him.

Jacob van Heemskerck Dutch explorer

Jacob van Heemskerck was a Dutch explorer and admiral.

Jens Munk Danish explorer

Jens Munk was a Dano-Norwegian navigator and explorer. He entered into the service of King Christian IV of Denmark and is most noted for his attempts to find the Northwest Passage to India.

Farthest North Most northerly latitude reached by explorers before the conquest of the North Pole

Farthest North describes the most northerly latitude reached by explorers before the conquest of the North Pole rendered the expression obsolete. The Arctic polar regions are much more accessible than those of the Antarctic, as continental land masses extend to high latitudes and sea voyages to the regions are relatively short.

James Hall was an English explorer. In Denmark, he was known as Jacob Hald. He piloted three of King Christian IV's Expeditions to Greenland under John Cunningham (1605), Godske Lindenov (1606), and Carsten Richardson (1607). In his first voyage he charted the west coast of Greenland as far north as 68° 35' N. The discovery of silver resulted in larger expeditions being sent the following two years, both of which were expensive failures. In 1612 he again went to Greenland, this time in search of the Northwest Passage. He had two English ships under his command, the 140-ton Patience and the 60-ton Heart's-Ease. William Baffin served as his chief pilot. On 12 or 22 July, he encountered Inuit in Amerdloq Fjord. Angry over the seizure of several Inuit by Cunningham in 1605, one of them struck Hall with a spear; he died the following day.

Arctic exploration

Arctic exploration is the physical exploration of the Arctic region of the Earth. It refers to the historical period during which mankind has explored the region north of the Arctic Circle. Historical records suggest that humankind have explored the northern extremes since 325 BC, when the ancient Greek sailor Pytheas reached a frozen sea while attempting to find a source of the metal tin. Dangerous oceans and poor weather conditions often fetter explorers attempting to reach polar regions and journeying through these perils by sight, boat, and foot has proven difficult.

Christian IVs expeditions to Greenland

Christian IV's expeditions were sent by King Christian IV of Denmark to Greenland and Arctic waterways during the years 1605–1607. The expeditions were commissioned in order to locate the lost Eastern Norse Settlement and reassert sovereignty over Greenland.

Timeline of European exploration timeline

This timeline of European exploration lists major geographic discoveries and other firsts credited to or involving Europeans during the Age of Discovery and the following centuries, between the years AD 1418 and 1957.

Capture of Recife (1595)

The Capture of Recife also known as James Lancaster's 1595 Expedition or Lancaster's Pernambucan expedition was an English military expedition during the Anglo–Spanish War in which the primary objective was the capture of the town and port of Recife in Pernambuco on the Portuguese colony of Brazil in April 1595. An English expedition of ships led by James Lancaster sailed via the Atlantic capturing numerous prizes before he captured Recife. He held the place for nearly a month and then proceeded to defeat a number of Portuguese counterattacks before leaving. The booty captured was substantial, Lancaster chartered Dutch and French ships that were also present there thus making the expedition a military and financial success.


  1. Markham, Albert Hastings (1880). Voyages and Works of John Davis. The Hakluyt Society.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 "John Davis: Master Navigator". Collections Canada. 19 March 2004. Retrieved 9 June 2009.
  3. Markham, Clements R. (1889). A life of John Davis, the navigator, 1550-1605, discoverer of Davis straits. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.
  4. 1 2 3 "John Davis at the Encyclopædia Britannica" . Retrieved 9 June 2009.
  5. Gosch, C.C.A. Danish Arctic Expeditions, 1605 to 1620. Book I.—The Danish Expeditions to Greenland in 1605, 1606, and 1607; to which is added Captain James Hall's Voyage to Greenland in 1612. Hakluyt Society (London), 1897.
  6. "Relative Value of a U.K. Pound". Retrieved 2 September 2016.
  7. Markham, Sir Clements Robert (1877). The Voyages of Sir James Lancaster, Kt., to the East Indies: With Abstracts of Journals of Voyages to the East Indies During the Seventeenth Century, Preserved in the India Office : and the Voyage of Captain John Knight (1606), to Seek the North-west Passage. Hakluyt Society. p. v.
  8. Smart, Christopher; Goldsmith, Oliver; Johnson, Samuel (1815). The World Displayed, Or, A Collection of Voyages and Travels. Dublin: J Christie. p. 93.
  9. "East Indies: June 1604." Calendar of State Papers Colonial, East Indies, China and Japan, Volume 2, 1513-1616. Ed. W Noel Sainsbury. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1864. 141. British History Online Retrieved 16 July 2019.
  10. Milton, Giles (1999). Nathaniel's Nutmeg, Or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader who Changed the Course of History. Hodder & Stoughton. pp. 114–5. ISBN   978-0-374-21936-9.
  11. Laughton, J.K., "John Davys". Dictionary of national biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. 1959-1960 reprint of 1885-1901 edition. London: Oxford University Press. v. 5, p.659.
  12. Ibid, 1888 edition. Internet Archive website, v. 14, p. 209. Retrieved 15 July 2019.
  13. Inter alia, cf. Permanent Court of International Justice. "Legal Status of Eastern Greenland: Judgment Archived 11 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine ". 5 April 1933. Accessed 10 May 2012.
  14. 1 2 Davis, John (1880) [1607]. "The Seamans Secrets". The voyages and works of John Davis, the navigator. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society. pp. 229–337.
  15. Davis, John (1880) [1595]. "The Worldes Hydrographical Discription". The voyages and works of John Davis, the navigator. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society. pp. 191–228.
  16. "England Marriages, 1538–1973 ," index, FamilySearch (  : accessed 27 Jul 2014), John Davys and Fayth Fulford, 28 Sep 1582; citing Stoke Gabriel,Devon,England, reference ; FHL microfilm 917534.
  17. "England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975," index, FamilySearch (  : accessed 27 Jul 2014), John Davis in entry for Gylbert Davis, 27 Mar 1583; citing STOKE GABRIEL,DEVON,ENGLAND, reference ; FHL microfilm 917534.