________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 35. . . .May 14, 2010


Henry Hudson: New World Voyager. (A Quest Biography).

Edward Butts.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2009.
207 pp., pbk., $19.99.
ISBN 978-1-55488-455-1.

Subject Headings:
Hudson, Henry, d. 1611.
Explorers-Great Britain-Biography.

Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

***1/2 /4



While there is no solid evidence that Hudson explored with Davis, sailed as a merchant mariner or a pirate, or fought the Spanish Armada, none of these things would have been out of character for him. What is known for sure from surviving records is that he was a man who craved adventure. Hudson was at home on the deck of a ship. He was a driven man, with no fear of the unknown. If he had, in fact, seen the Furious Overfall while sailing with Davis, the idea of finding the Northwest Passage could have taken root in his mind then. Whatever its source, that idea became Hudson's lifelong obsession.


At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Henry Hudson emerged from obscurity to become an internationally recognized explorer. He led two expeditions for the Muscovy Company in search of the Northeast Passage that would shorten the route to the lucrative spices and other trade goods to be found in the Far East. His discovery in 1607 of the rich whaling grounds of Spitzbergen proved sufficiently lucrative that his sponsors hired him the next year for another effort to find the Northeast Passage. Bad weather and ice forced him to abandon this effort north of Russia at the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. Apparently Hudson wanted to journey west in search of the so-called Furious Overfall (Hudson Strait) that he suspected was the gateway to a Northwest Passage, but a near mutiny forced him to return to England instead.

      Butts spins an engaging narrative that provides the reader with a great deal of information about the concerns of mariners and the wealthy yet tight-fisted businessmen that sponsored voyages of discovery. He sets Hudson in the context of ongoing geographical exploration and clearly identifies key geographers like Richard Hakluyt in England and Peter Plancius in the Netherlands who shared Hudson's friendship and interest in cartographic and scientific knowledge. The degree of international espionage is startling, as is the extent to which Hudson was acquainted with historical figures such as John Smith, the founder of Jamestown, Virginia.

      Hudson's third voyage in search of the Northeast Passage was financed by the Dutch East India Company. Hudson and his backers were at serious odds over the provisioning of the Dutch vessel, the Half Moon, the start date of the journey, and the trustworthiness of Captain Hudson. Butts suggests that the company's spies knew of Hudson's obsession with searching for a Northwest Passage and, therefore, made him swear an oath on the Bible that he would search for a Northeast Passage before allowing him to set sail in April 1609. In addition, a company agent was assigned to the crew to ensure that company interests were well protected. As with his previous voyage, Hudson encountered impenetrable ice conditions around Novaya Zemlya. With the voyage looking like a failure, Hudson convinced his crew of English and Dutch sailors to make sail for the New World where he would lead them on a quest for a river south of the St. Lawrence but north of Virginia that was, according to Captain John Smith's native sources, a gateway to a "great sea." The expedition reached New England in the summer of 1609, and, by September, they were exploring the Hudson River, sailing upstream as far as present-day Albany, beyond which the vessel could not navigate. Encounters with native peoples often ended in conflict. The expedition would eventually lead to the establishment of a Dutch colony in North America.

      Hudson's obsession with exploring the Furious Overfall in a quest for a Northwest Passage continued to preoccupy his plans. He convinced the crew to sail for Ireland and an overwinter there before exploring the Arctic waters once again. However, Butts speculates that insubordination, perhaps by the Dutch sailors in the crew, caused him to change his plan while mid-Atlantic, and he set sail for England instead, landing in Dartmouth, a rather lawless fishing port, where he prepared an abridged copy of his journal for submission to his Dutch employers. Soon he was under house arrest for working for a foreign power "to the detriment of his own country."

      Many of Hudson's decisions are puzzling to historians and biographers, but that does not stop them from making educated guesses to fill in some of the unknowns. It remains unclear as to why he kept hiring Robert Juet as his first mate, despite his unpleasant and insubordinate manner. Ultimately, Hudson's bad judgment of character would prove fatal. In the course of Hudson's fourth and final journey, this time aboard the English vessel Discovery, and sailing in quest of a Northwest Passage on behalf of the Company of Gentlemen, Hudson successfully navigated the Furious Overfall (Hudson Strait separating Baffin Island from Northern Quebec). Butts captures the drama of this accomplishment as he describes the setting:

As if the swirling currents and the mighty tides don't make the strait dangerous enough, great pans of ice come thundering down the four hundred and fifty mile long waterway, as though in a mad race to reach the Atlantic. To make matters even worse, the nearness of the North Magnetic Pole rendered the compasses useless.

     The crew survived the winter of 1610-11 at the bottom of James Bay. Unable to give up his dream of discovering a path to the Orient, Hudson revealed his intention of sailing west instead of returning to England once the vessel was able to break free of ice in June of 1611. Soon, mutineers co-led by Juet, set Hudson and eight crew adrift in a small boat. Hudson's discoveries helped lay the groundwork for further exploration in the Canadian north and became important in future development of the North American fur trade.

      As with other titles in the "Quest" series, this volume includes a helpful chronology and index. Illustrations includes appropriate portraits of figures named, a couple of maps showing early explorations, and several scenes from Hudson's journeys. The bibliography lists 12 publications published between 1860 and 2010, including six from the 2000s alone. Butts uses recreated dialogue very sparingly but makes good use of quoted phrases from extant sources including the surviving journals of both Hudson and Juet.

Highly Recommended.

Val Ken Lem is the Collections Evaluation and Donations Librarian and subject liaison for History, English and Caribbean Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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