I. Meta Incognita

On page 187, in chapter 34 "The Lure of Gold", Nelson writes:

"Martin Frobisher, the leader of the first expedition, set out on 12 June 1576 from Gravesend to 'Meta Incognita' (unknown land) in three vessels, returning on 2 October empty-handed."

"Unknown land" = terra incognita.

Nelson could have looked up the word "meta" in a Latin dictionary, for instance the Oxford Latin dictionary. He would have found:

  1. A cone.
  2. A cone-shaped turning-post at either end of a race track b) (considered as the goal).
  3. A turning-point or goal in the course of a heavenly body.
  4. A boundary, limit.

Under 4. we find the interesting example: "meta Herculea", i.e. the Straits of Gibraltar.

Gibraltar was the furthest point to the West Hercules reached in his tenth labor. The myth tells us that Hercules separated Africa from Europe and built a pillar at either side, today the rock of Ceuta in Morocco and the rock of Gibraltar on the other side.


George Best, a captain under Frobisher in all three voyages, wrote a report of the three voyages. I cannot find it in the bibliography, so I suppose N. has not read it. Writing of the Northwest Passage expeditions, good scholarship would have required that George Best's report be read. George Best sailed with Frobisher in 1577 and 1578 and tells us (quotes from * The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher * edited by rear-admiral Richard Collinson for The Hakluyt Society, 1867, reprint by Burt Franklin, Publisher, New York - it contains Best's report published late in 1578 or early 1579 and a lot of documents related to Frobisher's voyages) Best writes in the report of the first voyage:

On page 31:

"For even the greater strength and stoutness of Hercules himselfe, when out of * Groecia * westward he had travelled and conquered all the regions and countries comming to the straight betweene Spaine and Barbarie, made accompte to have beene at the west ende of the world, and therefore there created two pillars as a perpetual monument of his fame, which to this day are called * Herculoe Columnoe *, the pillers of Hercules..."

And on page 226 Best has the queen say at the departure of the third expedition :

"And bicause that place and countrey, hath never heretofore bin discovered, and therefore hathe no speciall name, by which it might be called and known, hir Majestie named it very properly * Meta Incognita *, as a mark and bounds utterly hitherto unknown..."

When Nelson writes that Frobisher returned "empty-handed", he is misled by his own title for the section, "The Lure of Gold". Of the eight voyages to which he alludes under this heading - and he considers them all to have been expeditions for the discovery of some riches - only 2 were concerned with gold, the second and third voyage of Frobisher. The only purpose of Frobisher's first voyage was the discovery of the Northwest Passage.

What a noise would there not have been if the blunder had been in an Oxfordian work!

© Robert Detobel