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HISTORY CORNER: British sea captain Henry Hudson explores North America, then is cast adrift by mutinying crew

| March 15, 2020 1:00 AM

Twice, English explorer Henry Hudson sailed to North America seeking the legendary water route to Asia, only to be abandoned in the Arctic waters, never to be found.

Two other search voyages east above Asia also failed, but he is forever remembered by his name given to the Hudson River and Hudson Bay — as well as waterways, schools, bridges and towns.

On his last trip, some of his crew mutinied and set him, his teenage son and seven others adrift in a small open boat to fend for themselves in the icy waters of James Bay at the south end of Hudson Bay.

He was probably born about 1565 in London and was well educated, but we know little beyond that about his early life.

American investigator Gen. John Meredith Read says Hudson’s grandfather was a founder of the Muscovy Company, English trading company established in 1551 that later commissioned him to search for a sea shortcut to the Orient.

A keen student of geography, astronomy, cartography and navigation, Hudson was apprenticed to the company — as was the custom in those days — and rose through the ranks to command status. If there was such a passage, they believed it had to be somewhere north of Asia or North America.

In 1607, Muscovy gave him a small 80-ton ship called the Hopewell for the search, with a crew of 10 including his teenage son, John, as a cabin boy.

Hudson and his wife, Katherine, had two others — Oliver and Richard.

They sailed westward and explored islands near Greenland, and also saw whales — later becoming a new whaling ground. Then heavy ice forced them to turn back.

The following year, Hudson started his second search voyage on the Hopewell with a crew of 14, making it as far as Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean north of Russia.

Again they were blocked by ice and forced back to England.

In 1609, Hudson joined the Dutch East India Company and was given command of the 85-foot long Half Moon (Halve Maen in Dutch) and with a crew of 17 headed northeast yet once again.

And again ice stopped them. That time however, Hudson didn’t high-tail it home but sailed west to find a route that he supposedly heard about from English explorer Capt. John Smith of Jamestown Colony, Va., and Pocahontas fame in American history.

Despite explicit instructions from his Dutch employers to return home if they didn’t find the Northeast Passage, Hudson made an unauthorized detour and sailed westward across the Atlantic — landing in Nova Scotia in July 1609.

It’s unclear why he did that.

After trading with local Indians, they sailed south as far as Chesapeake Bay before turning around and heading for New York Harbor.

Hudson sailed the Half Moon up the Hudson River as far as today’s Albany and was amazed how lush the countryside was — and marveled at the abundance of wildlife.

“Long before its hills were bulldozed and its wetlands paved over,” one report said, “Manhattan was an extraordinary wilderness of towering chestnut, oak, and hickory trees, of salt marshes and grasslands with turkey, elk and black bear.”

Hudson called Manhattan “as pleasant a land as one can tread upon.”

They traded with Lenape Indians, but not all of them were friendly.

During an argument while trading, crewman John Colman was shot in the neck with an arrow and died.

On the way back to the Netherlands to report to his sponsors, Hudson was stopped in the English port of Dartmouth. The English authorities didn’t like him exploring for another country and seized the ship and the English crewmen.

Hudson was warned not to work for the Dutch again.

The men were released and the ship was allowed to return to Holland.

The Half Moon ended its career when burned by the English in the East Indies — later called the “Dutch East Indies.”

Hudson was melancholy about his failure to find the northern route, but brightened up when English investors — including Henry the Prince of Wales — decided to back him for a fourth try.

On April 17, 1610, Hudson with a crew of 23 men and two cabin boys — including son John — headed westward aboard the 65-foot Discovery.

When Henry Hudson entered Hudson Bay that summer, he might have done things differently if he’d known what lay ahead.

He sailed his little ship into James Bay — a body of water at the south end of the mammoth Hudson Bay. He took endless soundings zigzagging back and forth searching for something in the shallow waters — to the bewilderment of the ship’s troubled crew.

Food was running low, cold weather was closing in and the crew wanted to return to England. Scurvy, fatigue and illness began taking its toll. By Nov. 10, they were iced in to spend winter where they sat — with barely enough food to see them through.

Several crew members died.

Hunting and fishing forays yielded little result. The few local Inuit Indians they met started off friendly, and then became hostile. Discouragement and anger began to envelop the Discovery.

Hudson instituted food rationing and remained determined to charge forward in his quest for a waterway to the Orient as soon as the ice relented, with the crew equally determined to head home.

Fights broke out over food, with Hudson and crew members accusing each other of hoarding. Hudson did not treat them gently.

When it became possible to set sail again at winter’s end, a number of crewmembers plotted mutiny — led by Henry Greene and Robert Juet, who kept a journal.

The mutineers tied up the captain, rounded up those loyal to him, his teenage son, John, and the sick — with whom they no longer wished to share the dwindling food supply.

Nine people were loaded into a 20- to 30-foot lifeboat-like shallop that had a sail and oars. They were given a few blankets, some food, water, tools, firearm, powder and shot — and cut loose.

They were never seen again.

The mutineers made it back to England, but the ringleaders, Greene and Juet, didn’t — both dying on the way.

The Admiralty held a trial, read the journals, interviewed the survivors and in the end did nothing.

No one was ever punished.

There’s a rock called Hudson Stone 115 miles northwest of Ottawa with an inscription that offers a tantalizing clue to what “might” have happened to Henry Hudson and his abandoned crewmembers.

The inscription reads “HH 1612 CAPTIVE.”

Writer Andrew King suggests in “Ottawa Rewind” an interesting hypothesis connecting the stone with Henry Hudson:

“Does the carved ‘HH’ represent ‘Henry Hudson,’ held captive, a note left for someone to find and help him escape?” he asks.

A more sinister speculation is that “he was murdered on his ship and cast overboard by his mutinous crew.” That however doesn’t answer what happened to Hudson’s son John and the others on the small open shallop.

All of them could very well have survived. They were probably no more than 45 miles from shore.

Writer King adds other possibilities of “Hudson sailing back to Britain, or joining a native tribe, fathering children with a female tribe member and living out his days happily as a family man in the Canadian wilderness.”

Something seems missing in the Henry Hudson story:

Granted, he did a great deal of exploration and many geographical places bear his name, but was there a hidden agenda?

Writer and explorer Carl Shuster, in a 1999 article in Beaver Magazine claims that “Hudson was not searching for a northwest passage, since he was not prepared to meet with expected Oriental potentates — he carried no letters of introduction, gifts or trade goods as other explorers did… (but probably) was looking for a harbour where his backers could build a port to take advantage of the area’s rich mineral and other resources.”

And though Hudson is described as one of history’s great explorers, the written record reveals that the seasoned mariner made too many mistakes, lacked the confidence and inspiring leadership needed when risking lives sailing into some of the world’s most dangerous waters with small ships unsuited for such missions.

It can be argued that Henry Hudson brought his troubles upon himself.

Nevertheless, he will not be forgotten.

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Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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Henry Hudson’s melancholy…

“After his second failure to find a passage, no English company was interested in Hudson’s continued quest. Hudson was miserable with his failure. Rev. Samuel Purchas wrote he met with Hudson in the fall and found the explorer “sunk into the lowest depths of the Humour of Melancholy, from which no man could rouse him. It mattered not that his Perseverance and Industry had made England the richer by his maps of the North. I told him he had created Fame that would endure for all time, but he would not listen to me.”

— Ian Chadwick, Henry Hudson’s Fourth Voyage

The Dutch Contract…

“For which said voyage the Directors shall pay the said Hudson, as well for his outfit for the said voyage as for the support of his wife and children, the sum of eight hundred guilders (say $336). And in case (which God prevent) he does not come back or arrive hereabouts within a year, the Directors shall farther pay to his wife two hundred guilders in cash; and thereupon they shall not be farther liable to him or his heirs, unless he shall either afterward or within the year arrive and have found the passage good and suitable for the Company to use; in which case the Directors will reward the before named Hudson for his dangers, trouble, and knowledge, in their discretion.”

— Thomas J. Janvier, Henry Hudson: a Brief Statement of His Aims and His Achievements (1909)

Common belief of northern sea route…

Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer Dr. John Dee, an adviser to the Muscovy Company, along with contemporary geographers and mapmakers Mercator and Ortelius all believed there was a northern passage to the Orient. So did another great explorer Sebastian Cabot who organized several unsuccessful search expeditions before 1577 when he died.

A matter of trust…

The Dutch East India Company commissioned Henry Hudson to find the shortcut route to the Orient but didn’t trust him. His contract required his wife and children to live in Holland while he was away, so that they could be kept under the watchful eye of the company and its agents.

Discovering the Hudson River…

Henry Hudson is often credited as the first European to discover the Hudson River, but in 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verazzano sailed into New York Harbor and saw the river, but thought it was a lake.