EB Odds & Ends

A Newsletter of Eagles Byte Historic Research

April 1998 No. 30

Frozen Assets

The seeds of Michael Lok's downfall (as well as his rise) were sewn even before he was born. We could backtrack all the way to the 1492 first voyage of Columbus, but going back to 1497 will suffice.

It was on May 20th of that year that Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto, his name Anglicized to John Cabot by his English bosses, sailed from Bristol, possibly with his three sons in the ship Matthew. He sighted Newfoundland and sailed on to discover Hudson's Bay, which he mistook for the fabled Northwest Passage. He then spent the summer sailing down the North American coast to a point well south of New England before returning home. For this he received the munificent sum of 10 pounds from Henry VII. Henry might have been more appreciative if Cabot had returned with spices but Newfoundland provides few of the highly-valued plants.

At the end of the fifteenth century the New World was just that. Not knowing of the existence of the Gulf Stream, which brought a warm climate to the British Isles, the English expected that waters at the top of the North American continent, being about the same latitude as Britain, would share a similar climate.

Sebastian Cabot's career, based on a perhaps spurious claim to expertise, waxed and waned throughout the next half-century. Spain made him its chief mapmaker in 1518. Offered command of an English expedition to Newfoundland in 1525 he refused and returned to Spain to lead a Spanish expedition to search for a Northeast Passage to Cathay (China). He may have had a short attention span, soon setting sail for South America, where he'd heard huge amounts of gold and silver were to be found. Running into hostility from the natives he returned empty-handed to Spain. The Spanish exiled him to Africa for four years, after which he decided England might be worth another try. The new king, Henry VIII was wary of upsetting Spain or Portugal and was therefore not interested in voyages of exploration. Henry VIII died in 1547 and his nine-year-old son Edward VI became king. Cabot set to work obtaining royal backing from the new monarch. It took a few years but eventually Cabot had the cash in hand. But that hand was too frail. Now in his sixties, his body denied him further voyages.

Thus far the New World had proved a commercial flop. Europe would have to look to Asia and to Africa for profits. Luckily, the power of the Hanseatic League was beginning to fade a bit. Perhaps English merchant vessels could push across the top of Europe to the east, eventually finding an easier route to China and Japan, developing new markets as the went. At this point England's greatest need was for customers, especially for its textiles. Unemployment was high in the weaving trade and unrest was growing. The demand might come from colder lands, where the greatest amounts of clothing were needed just to survive. All of this was worth a try and Sebastian Cabot was willing to make the attempt, vicariously if not in person. In 1551, with the backing of the Edward VI, he founded a joint-stock company of venturers (backers). The group would attract some of England's most venturous spirits. Navigators like Steven and William Borough, Richard Chancellor, John Davis, Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert, Walter Raleigh and Sir Hugh Willoughby, unconventional scholars like John Dee, merchant-sailors like Michael Lok. Eventually over 200 members would come forth. Cabot was named Governor for Life by his sponsor the Duke of Northumberland. Capitalized at 6,000 pounds The Merchants Adventurers of England for the Discovery of Lands, Territories, Isles, Dominions, and Seignories Unknown was chartered and granted a monopoly of lands to the North East, North, and North West.

On May 10, 1553, three ships, the Bona Esperanza , commanded by Willoughby, the Bona Confidentia , and the Edward Bonaventure , Chancelor in command with Stephen Boroughs as his navigator, sailed for the mouth of the Thames. At Greenwich, where the king was in residence, the three ships fired a salute as members of the Court waved from the lawn, windows, and towers. The severely ailing king was too weak to view the beginning of the expedition he had championed and sponsored.

The venturers left behind an England soon to be in turmoil. First there was the death of the king. Edward VI , short, slight, saintly, studious and sixteen, died of tuberculosis on July 6th, shortly after dictating a prayer for his own soul. He went to his rest supposing his successor would be secure on the throne. The duke of Northumberland, father-in-law of Lady Jane Grey, had recently convinced the dying youth that she, being a Protestant and great-niece of Henry VIII, would be the best defense against the "papists" the king feared. Four days later Lady Jane was declared Queen of England. There was just one problem.

Thirty-seven year old Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, was not happy with the new arrangement. To her way of thinking a Catholic (herself) rightfully belonged on the throne of England. She had powerful supporters, including most of the country's population; the grasping Northumberland was widely disliked. If Mary had kept a to-do list it would have read.

August 3rd Arrive in London.
August 8th Attend king's burial.
August 22nd Have Northumberland executed.

The following year Lady Jane and her husband followed Northumberland to the chopping block. Mary's younger sister Elizabeth merely went to the Tower of London for safekeeping. Bloody Mary was off and running.

Meanwhile Willoughby and Chancelor headed north, then east. Off the coast of Norway trouble struck. A storm separated the three vessels and Chancellor sailed off alone, expecting to rendezvous with the others at a watchtower near today's city of Vardo. The others never arrived. The Bona Confidentia simply disappeared. Willoughby had taken shelter somewhere near the border with Russia and settled in to wait out the winter. The following summer Russian fisherman entered Willoughby's refuge to be greeted with an ominous silence. The entire crew had perished, probably of scurvy and exposure. Well-preserved food was found within the camp.

After waiting near the watchtower for a week, Chancelor continued on to enter the White Sea. Landing on the Russian coast he managed to convince awe-struck natives he had come in peace and wished to trade. He was informed that they could not trade without the permission of their tsar Ivan IV, who resided far off to the south at a city named Moscow. Escorted by natives Chancellor set off for the capital. Word had proceeded him and the party was met partway by envoys of Ivan.The tsar needed revenue and these Europeans must have seemed heaven-sent. Chancellor reported, "You shall meete in a morning seven or eight hundred sleds coming or going thither, that carrie corne [wheat] and some carie fish...it is very rude, and standeth all without order...There is a faire Castle (the Kremlin), the walls whereof are of bricke, and very high." Entertained by the Tsar, "The number that dined there that day was two hundred persons, and all were served in golden vessels." Which gives a fairly good idea why Ivan needed revenue.

Chancellor returned to a changed London in 1554. Lady Jane and her husband had been executed. Philip of Spain sat with his new wife, Mary I, on the throne of England. Mary and Philip were encouraged by Chancellor's trade agreement and, needing revenue as much as any other monarch, they encouraged further exploration. The Muscovy Company was founded as a subsidiary to the Company of Venturers and Chancellor was soon off headed off to Moscow again. Spending the winter of 1555-1556 at the Court of Ivan IV, he set out for England late that summer. His ship foundered off the coast of Scotland on November 10 and he was drowned. England's first envoy to the Russian government was dead. One of the survivors was Osip Nepeia, sent as Ivan's ambassador to the English Court. Rescued and brought on to England, he was received in London February 28, 1557. Sebastian Cabot probably never met the Russian ambassador. History is not terribly concise about the death of this transplanted Venetian. The day and month seem to be in doubt, as is the location, although London seems to be the most likely site. However it's generally accepted that he died this same year.

With Russian trade secured for awhile the Muscovy Company soon turned its attention to trade with North Africa. The focus of trade shifted away from northern seas for the next several decades.

Just as Sebastian Cabot filled the role of primary sponsor of Willoughby and Chancelor, so did Michael Lok play sponsor to Martin Frobisher. Born sometime around the year 1532, Lok would have been in his early twenties when the Muscovy Company was born.

Great grandson of a Sheriff of London, grandson of a London mercer (dealer in costly textiles), and son of merchant and alderman William Lok (knighted about a year after Michael's birth, for his role as an agent of Henry VIII beyond the seas), Michael Lok moved easily among the higher ranks of society. When he left school in 1545 his father sent him to Flanders and France for some seasoning in world trade. While Sebastian Cabot was busily constructing the Merchants Adventurers, Lok traveled on to Spain and to the East Indies, and captained a ship to the eastern Mediterranean. In the midst of all these journeys he found the time to develop an interest in history and languages. His collection of maps, charts and instruments of navigation became extensive, soon valued at over 500 pounds, a tidy sum for the period. Among the many people he met on his journeys was a navigator about three years his junior, named Martin Frobisher. He traveled to Africa's Gold Coast with his new friend in 1555. They returned with 400 pounds of gold.

When Frobisher decided, sometime between 1575 and 1576, that it was time to once again explore northern routes to the Far East, he looked to his friend Lok, by now a director of the Muscovy Company, to help finance a voyage in search of a Northwest Passage. When the Company rejected Frobisher's appeal for backing, Lok resigned and managed to obtain the backing of the current monarch Queen Elizabeth for another New World voyage. On June 7th, 1576, Frobisher set sail from London in a fleet of three ships including the Michael and the Gabriel.. Arriving in Greenland on July 11th he was prevented by bad weather from landing. The Michael was forced to turn back. Nine days later, sighting Baffin Island, he entered the bay that would one day bear his name, and mistakenly named it Frobisher's Strait. It was an understandable mistake; Frobisher was primed to find the then mythical passage that would lead him directly to Cathay and Japan. Mapmakers of Frobisher's day speculated that North America came to a sharp point somewhere around Labrador, a point that was overhung by a crescent- shaped Asian tip. The theory was that European vessels would sail southwest down a long canal-like river or strait that would lead them directly to the royal courts of the Far East. Frobisher considered that he'd accomplished his main goal. After taking possession of Baffin's Island in the name of England, he sailed from Canadian waters and arrived back in London on October 22nd. He had returned with a piece of rock that seemed as if it might contain gold.

Buoyed up by Frobisher's enthusiastic reports and his piece of rock, Michael Lok formed the Cathay Company and obtained a royal commission for a second voyage to Canada, He was named governor of the Company for a 6-year term. On May 31st Frobisher sailed from London on his second voyage, with the ships Gabriel, Ayde and Mark.. On board the vessels were painter John White and twelve miners from Cornwall. When Frobisher reached his "Strait" he immediately put the Cornish miners to work. By the time he left Canada for a second time his ships' holds were filled with 200 tons of ore. Also aboard were three kidnapped Inuit natives. The expedition reached London on September 17th. the Inuit were all dead within a few weeks.

Metallurgy was little better than alchemy at that time and when the ore was examined reports conflicted as to the gold it contained. But Frobisher didn't bother to wait for conclusive evidence. May of 1578 found him headed for North America for a third time. This time he sailed with a fifteen-ship flotilla, loaded with mining supplies. On June 30th the fleet had landed at Greenland which the explorer claimed for the queen and renamed West England. Continuing on to Baffin Island and through Hudson Strait, Frobisher named Mistaken Strait. He spent most of the month trying to reassemble his now-scattered fleet. One ship deserted to England, another was crushed by ice (there were no casualties). On the 30th the expedition's Anglican chaplain, Reverend Wolfal, conducted what is likely to have been the first service of Thanksgiving in North America, on Anne Warwick (Kodlunarn) Island, to celebrate the discovery of the missing ships the Judith and the Michael.. August found mining operations on and around Anne Warwick Island in full swing. Eventually 1350 tons of ore were extracted. Frobisher left his bay for the last time on Aug 28th. By October 1st all the surviving ships were back in England. The bad news that greeted them was the results of the appraisal of the second voyage's cargo. The 200 tons of cargo contained high concentrations of iron pyrite, as did the new 1350 tons. Fool's gold had claimed another victim. But it wasn't Frobisher. A ship's captain can't be expected to be a scientist as well. The navigator's career continued to flourish. Hadn't he claimed vast new lands in the name of Elizabeth I?

Teaming up with Francis Drake in the Caribbean in 1585 he helped destroy the Spanish citadel at Cartagena. When Drake left his game of bowls to destroy the Spanish Armada on August 8th, 1588, Frobisher was there as Drake's vice-admiral. When he died at Plymouth in 1594, he died as a national hero. His friend and sponsor Michael Lok was not as fortunate. When the gold rush went bust, the merchant was left with the sole financial responsibility. The Queen and other backers had pledged subscriptions for the joint-stock company, but most pledges were never paid. The costs of the voyages had come out of his own coffers and now he was broke. In the age of the great courtiers as in later periods - nobody knows you when you're down and out. He petitioned the crown for relief but was ignored. He spent the rest of his life trying to resuscitate his finances but with little success. Following a six-month stint in debtors' prison he was appointed consul for the Levant in Aleppo in 1587. Political infighting resulted in his dismissal two years later, He was never able to collect his wages. Struggling along he attempted to keep his spirits up by further studies. In 1612 he translated Pater Martyr's Historie of the West Indies from Italian into English. Like Sebastian Cabot before him, his death was so little noted that the exact date and place of death are not certain. 1615 seems likely.

March 26, 1999
Received the following corrections to the above article from James McDermott" (JIMMCDERMOTT@prodigy.net). I reprint them here, with his permission.

A few corrections re: Michael Lok and Frobisher's voyages: - Lok and Frobisher didn't sail to West Africa in 1555. In 1554, Frobisher sailed on the second Guinea voyage, commanded by Lok's elder brother John. there is no evidence that Michael had even met Frobisher prior to 1574. - 1576 voyage: consisted of two vessels, Gabriel and Michael (not three). I assume that your naming of the ship 'Mark' in the 1577 voyage was a mis-stating of Michael. - The 'Company of Cathay' did not in fact exist. Lok repeatedly petitioned the Queen for articles of association (with himself as governor); but the supposed discovery of 'gold' made this an impossibility - the Queen was hardly likely to allow an independent company to have control over such an asset (see Acts of the Privy Council, 1579 for proof that the company did not exist 'bi reason there is no suche companie in lawe'). - Lok went to prison upon eight occasions following the collapse of the enterprise; not because of his own debts. He had been ordered by the other adventurers to enter into charter-parties for freight ships for the third, 1578, voyage under his own name (but on their behalf). Once the clamour of creditors became unbearable, they (including the Queen and half of her Privy Councillors who were also adventurers) conveniently forgot this and allowed Lok to take the rap for their debts. Of the £2150 he personally invested, he owed only £27. 15sh. at the end of the enterprise. - Frobisher was not Drake's vice-admiral during the Armada campaign. Drake was vice-admiral to Lord Charles Howard (England's Lord High Admiral); after several days' fighting, Howard reorganized the English fleet, dividing it into four great squadrons with himself, Drake, Frobisher and John Hawkins as their commanders. Also, for the record, following the 1585 West Indies raid Frobisher came to detest Drake, and once threatened to make him 'spill the best blood in his belly'. - Finally, though the last known reference to Lok was his court case in 1615, the Inquisition post-mortem upon his estate was only conducted in 1623, so he may have survived into his ninetieth year.

Looking back on the info I sent to you- If we count the small pinnace that accompanied the two barks on the first voyage, then yes, one could say that three vessels sailed (though, usually, pinnaces are discounted; otherwise, Frobisher's third, 1578 voyage could be said to have comprised c. 35 - 40
vessels, whereas the usual 'headcount' is fifteen).

For references, either R.Collinson, Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher
(London, Hakluyt Soc. 1867), or V. Stefansson & E.McCaskill (same title;
London, 1938) are better than the ones quoted.


In order that the April issue of Odds & Ends not become the May issue, I've dropped a few features this month. The Eagles Byte Timeline, Pearl of an URL and Feedback will return in the next issue. Keep those comments coming and thnks for your interest.



© 1998 David Minor / Eagles Byte