William Baffin

Last updated

William Baffin
London, England
Died23 January 1622
Nationality English
OccupationNavigator, explorer
Signature of William Baffin (c. 1584 - 1922).png

William Baffin (c.1584 – 23 January 1622) was an English navigator, explorer and cartographer. He is primarily known for his attempt to find a Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, during the course of which he was the first European to discover Baffin Bay situated between Canada and Greenland. He was also responsible for exceptional surveys of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf on behalf of the East India Company.



Nothing is known about Baffin's early life [1] (an estimated year of birth, 1584, originated in the Encyclopædia Britannica in the 19th century, but without known documentary support). [2] It has been conjectured that he was born to a humble station in London and gradually raised himself through his diligence and perseverance. [2] [3] In printing his journals, Samuel Purchas wrote of him as a "learned-unlearned Mariner and Mathematician... wanting art of words" who "really employed himself to those industries, whereof here you see so evident fruits." [4]

His earliest mention occurs in 1612, when he was chief pilot on Captain James Hall's 4th expedition to Greenland. [5] Hall's three earlier explorations had been underwritten by Christian IV, the king of Denmark-Norway anxious to reestablish contact with the Norse settlements there. It was still unknown that they had been overrun by the Inuit centuries before, but after the third failed expedition, Christian abandoned the project. Hall then successfully interested four English merchants—Thomas Smythe, James Lancaster, William Cockayne, and Richard Ball—in permitting him to continue his work. Baffin and Hall sailed from the Humber aboard the Patience on 22 April, [lower-alpha 1] accompanied by the Heart's Ease. [6] [2] During this voyage, Captain Hall was killed by the Inuit on the west coast of Greenland but Baffin successfully returned to Hull on 9/11 under the new captain Andrew Barker. [2]

Over the next two years, Baffin served in the Muscovy Company-controlled whale-fishery off Spitzbergen. [3] During the 1613 season, he served under Captain Benjamin Joseph as pilot of the Tiger, the flagship of the 7-vessel whaling fleet; [2] in 1614, he and Joseph served on the Thomasine, amid a fleet of 11 ships and 2 pinnaces. [2] Icy conditions precluded exploration to the north, but Baffin examined a "considerable portion" of Spitzbergen's coast, returning to London on 4 October. [2]

In 1615, he entered the service of the "Company of Merchants of London, Discoverers of the North-West Passage", which had been established in 1612. Its first governor was Thomas Smythe, [7] one of the underwriters of Hall's fourth voyage. [lower-alpha 2] [lower-alpha 3] Baffin served as pilot of Discovery , which left England under Captain Robert Bylot on 15 March. [2] It carefully explored Hudson Strait in search of a Northwest Passage from the North Atlantic to the Far East. The accuracy of Baffin's tidal and astronomical observations on this voyage was confirmed when William Edward Parry passed over the same ground in 1821. [3] [2]

William Baffin's chart of the Hudson Strait. Baffin Chart of Hudson Strait.png
William Baffin's chart of the Hudson Strait.

Baffin again sailed as pilot of Discovery the next year. Leaving Gravesend on 26 March, [2] he passed west of Greenland up the Davis Strait, discovering the large bay to its north which now bears his name, together with a series of sounds which radiate from its head and were named by him after members of the North-West Passage Company: Lancaster, Smith, and Jones. [3] On this voyage, he sailed over 300 statute miles (480 km) farther north than his predecessor John Davis: [3] since his voyages seemed to preclude hope of an ice-free nautical path to the Orient, the area was not explored again for two centuries [3] and his furthest north (about 77° 45′ N) remained unsurpassed in North America until the Royal Navy officer Edward Augustus Inglefield reached 78° 28′ N in the same area in 1852.

Map of a voyage undertaken by Thomas James, with Baffin Bay based on Baffin's charts. You can see that Baffin's cartography was quite accurate, and clearly identifies the shape of the bay as we know it today. The Platt of Sayling For The Discoverye Of A Passage Into The South Sea 1631-1632.jpg
Map of a voyage undertaken by Thomas James, with Baffin Bay based on Baffin's charts. You can see that Baffin's cartography was quite accurate, and clearly identifies the shape of the bay as we know it today.

With the abandonment of projects for the Northwest Passage, Baffin took service with the East India Company, [3] possibly with the intent of eventually discovering the passage from the western end. [2] He left as master's mate to Andrew Shilling, captain of Anne Royal, on 4 February 1617. [2] The fleet – under the command of Captain Martin Pring – reached Saldanha Bay in South Africa on 21 June and Surat in British India in September. Baffin's ship then performed separate service on runs to Mocha in Yemen and other ports of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Upon his return to London in September, 1619, [2] the company granted him special recognition for the valuable charts he had made during the course of his voyage. [3]

Map of northern India attributed to Baffin; published after his death (1625). This map was drawn after intelligence from the Mughal court was passed to Sir Thomas Roe, the current ambassador, who then passed the intelligence on to Baffin in 1619. William Baffin - Northern India; Mughal Empire - 1625.jpg
Map of northern India attributed to Baffin; published after his death (1625). This map was drawn after intelligence from the Mughal court was passed to Sir Thomas Roe, the current ambassador, who then passed the intelligence on to Baffin in 1619.

In 1620, he sailed east again as master of the London on the special recommendation of Capt. Shilling, the commander of the expedition. [8] [2] Baffin left the Downs on 25 March and reached Suvali Beach near Surat in India on 9 November. Hearing of a joint Portuguese and Dutch fleet searching for them, Shilling went in search of them: he was wounded in battle in the Gulf of Oman on 28 December and died on 6 January. [2] A year later, the East India Company agreed to join the Persian assaults on the Portuguese fortresses on Qeshm and Hormuz islands in exchange for certain trade concessions. At Qeshm off Bandar Abbas, he was sent ashore on 23 January 1622 to take measurements of the height and distance of the walls of Fort Queixome to assist the fleet's gunners. One of his contemporaries described his death:

Master Baffin went on shoare with his Geometricall Instruments, for the taking of the height and distance of the Castle wall, for the better levelling of his peece to make his shot; but, as he was about the same, he received a small shot from the Castle into his belly, wherewith he gave three leapes, and died immediately. [9]

He was one of few English casualties. The garrison swiftly surrendered, [10] and Anglo-Persian control of Qeshm permitted the swift conquest of Ormuz, opening Persia to direct trade. [11]

His wife – reckoned a "troublesome, impatient woman" [12] – forced the East India Company into court over her husband's wages and other claims. Three years later, a settlement of £500 was agreed upon. [2]


A William Baffin rose Rosa William Baffin 1.jpg
A William Baffin rose

Baffin Bay and Baffin Island were named in William Baffin's honour, [13] and he is responsible for the names of several of their features. [3] His journals were the only account of several of his voyages. [5] Excerpts were printed by Samuel Purchas in 1625, but Baffin's charts and hydrographic observations were omitted owing to the expense involved.[ citation needed ] All but one were subsequently lost, [2] and in time Baffin's discoveries came to be doubted. [3] He was, however, a hero to the explorer John Ross, who led an expedition in 1818 that confirmed Baffin's account in almost all particulars. [14]

Besides his geographical discoveries, Baffin is celebrated for the scrupulous accuracy of his many scientific and magnetic observations. [3] His reckoning of longitude at sea by lunar distances on 26 April 1615 is the first of its kind on record. [3] [2]

He is also the namesake of the William Baffin rose. [15]

See also


  1. Baffin's journal of this voyage, however, begins on 8 July. [2]
  2. Other prominent members of the company included James Lancaster, Francis Jones, Dudley Digges, and John Wolstenholme. [7]
  3. The previous 3 seasons of exploration had been led by, respectively, Henry Hudson (who was marooned by his men after a winter trapped in Hudson Bay), Thomas Button (who stayed near Churchill), and William Gibbons (who stayed on the Labrador coast). [2]
  1. Markham, Clements. The Voyages of William Baffin, 1612-1622. London: Hakluyt Society, 1881, page xxi.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 DCB (1966).
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 EB (1911).
  4. Cited in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography . [2]
  5. 1 2 EB (1878).
  6. Markham (1881), pp. xx–xxi.
  7. 1 2 Markham (1881), pp. v–vi, xxx.
  8. Markham 1881, p. xxxix.
  9. Alan Villiers Monsoon Seas: The Story of the Indian Ocean. 1952. McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. New York London Toronto, p. 40.
  10. Sykes (2006), p. 278.
  11. Chaudhuri (1999), p. 64.
  12. Cited in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. [2]
  13. Quinn & al. (2015), p.  82.
  14. Sandler (2006), p.  27.
  15. "William Baffin rose", Canadian Rose Society

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.

Robert Bylot was an English explorer who made four voyages to the Arctic. He was uneducated and from a working-class background, but was able to rise to rank of master in the English Royal Navy.

Martin Frobisher English seaman and privateer (1535–1594)

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 £5.20 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 realized that the ore was a worthless rock called hornblende. As an English privateer, he plundered riches from French ships. He was later knighted for his service in repelling the Spanish Armada in 1588.

William Edward Parry English naval officer and Arctic explorer

Sir William Edward Parry was an Anglo-Welsh explorer of the Arctic best known for his 1819–1820 expedition through the Parry Channel, probably the most successful in the long quest for the Northwest Passage, until it was finally negotiated by Roald Amundsen in 1906.

John Ross (Royal Navy officer) Scottish Royal Navy officer and polar explorer

Sir John Ross was a Scottish Royal Navy officer and polar explorer. He was the uncle of Sir James Clark Ross, who explored the Arctic with him, and later led expeditions to Antarctica.

John Davis (explorer) English explorer and navigator (1550–1605)

John Davis was one of the chief navigators of Queen Elizabeth I of England. 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 in August 1592.

Baffin Bay Marginal sea between Greenland and Baffin Island, Canada

Baffin Bay, located between Baffin Island and the west coast of Greenland, is defined by the International Hydrographic Organization as a marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean. It is sometimes considered a sea of 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.

David Buchan was a Scottish naval officer and Arctic explorer.

Luke Foxe English explorer (1586 – 1635)

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.

Jan Jacobszoon May van Schellinkhout was a Dutch seafarer and explorer.

Nicholas Woodcock was a 17th-century English mariner who sailed to Spitsbergen, Virginia, and Asia. He piloted the first Spanish whaling ship to Spitsbergen in 1612 and participated in the Anglo-Persian sieges of Kishm and Ormus in 1622.

Thomas Marmaduke was an English explorer, sealer, and whaler in the early 17th century.

Thomas Edge was an English merchant, whaler, and sealer who worked for the Muscovy Company in the first quarter of the 17th century. The son of Ellis Edge, Thomas Edge was born in the parish of Blackburn in Lancashire in 1587/88. Edgeøya takes its name from him. Edge's Point, the eastern point of Recherche Fjord, also commemorated his name, but is now known as Lægerneset.

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 first successful expedition to 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.

Robert Fotherby was an early 17th-century English explorer and whaler. From 1613 to 1615 he worked for the Muscovy Company, and from 1615 until his death for the East India Company.

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.

Timeline of European exploration

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.

William Goodlad was a 17th-century English whaler. He was admiral of the Muscovy Company's London whaling fleet for nearly two decades, participating in several of the disputes involving the right to catch whales in Spitsbergen. The Arctic explorer Luke Foxe, in writing about the early voyages to Spitsbergen, said of him: "... but this I leave to Capt. Goodlade [sic], whose great experience this way, and to the E.-ward thereof, is the best able to supply or confute, if he be pleased so to shew himselfe".

Andrew Shilling, was a naval commander in the fleet of the English East India Company (EIC).