Sir Martin Frobisher: The first gold rush

Once those pioneering sailors had brought news of strange new lands, all sorts of others saw opportunities of exploiting them in various ways. Martin Frobisher, a Yorkshireman, wanted to find a better route to China than round the southern tip of Africa or South America. He knew that the huge American continent lay in the way of going west, but he wondered whether might be a short cut, a north-west passage over the shoulder of North America into the China Sea.

This looks at least possible on a globe, and he was determined to go and search for it. For about fifteen years he tried to get sponsorship, and eventually, in 1576, he set sail with two tiny ships of about 20 tons each, and a boat that was lost in a storm. His second ship deserted, but he carried on alone. He discovered what he thought was the way through, although it turned out to be merely a deep inlet in what is now called Baffin Island, off the north coast of Canada; it is now called Frobisher Bay after him.

Frobisher's ship

More exciting at the time, however, was a cliff on Baffin Island, a cliff of ck rock glittering with golden specks. Legend has it that one of Frobisher’s men, or more likely the investor Michael Lok, brought back a lump of black stone as a gift for his wife. Disgusted with this ugly gift, she threw it into the fire, at which point it began to glisten like gold.

Gold! The news was electrifying. According to legend, the lumps of black earth Frobisher had brought back were checked and pronounced genuine, but perhaps he lied deliberately, in order to get support for another voyage. He certainly succeeded, for Queen Elizabeth was delighted; here at last was a chance of getting some gold of her own, rather than always having to steal it from the Spanish, who seemed to have control of the gold mines. She gave Frobisher a 200-ton navy ship, established the Cathay company, which gave him the right to sail in every direction but east, and made him high admiral of all lands and waters that he might discover.

Sir Martin Frobisher

In two major expeditions, Frobisher mined 1,400 tons of the black rock, and hauled it 5,000 miles back to a purpose-built factory at Dartford, where the hundreds of men toiled for two years, crushing and smelting. But all that glisters is not gold; the effort was entirely wasted, for the glittering specks turned to be ‘fool’s gold’ – iron pyrites, and almost worthless. All that is left today of that heroic endeavour are a few lumps of stone in the walls in Vicarage Lane, Dartford – the remains of palace built by Henry VIII – and still, when the sun shines, they glitter like gold.

fool's gold

Frobisher went on to sail with Drake (he was knighted for his valour in fighting the Spanish Armada in 1588) and finally with Raleigh. He died in Plymouth after being wounded in a naval battle.

From ‘What the Tudors & Stuarts Did For Us’ by Adam Hart-Davis