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Chapter 34 on the North West passage opens with these two paragraphs:
"In 1576 Humphrey Gilbert published * A Discourse of a Discovery for a New Passage to Cataia *. Like Michael Lok and John Dee, Gilbert believed in the existence of a north-west passage around (or through) North America to the trading ports and thence the spices and other luxury commodities of China (Cataia or Cathay), Japan, and the East Indies.
We know today that the North American land-mass is so broad and extends so far to the north that a north-west passage is a practical impossibility. By 1575, informed Europeans knew the LIE [my emphasis] of the atlantic coast for at least half the length of what is now California. A navigable passage could have been possible only if the Pacific coast north of San Francisco Bay sheared obliquely to the east. Ortelius' map of 1572, which shows the east coast of North America with remarkable accuracy, shows the Pacific coast lying even further west than it does in fact... European cartography did not stop the English from claiming to know better than their Spanish and Continental rivals." (p. 186) Sic dicit geographicus pontifex.
A north west passage does exist, though. Not the land mass was the essential problem, it was the ice. The * Enc. Brit. * writes: "But the Northwest Passage was not finally conquered by sea until 1906, when the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen... completed an arduous three-year voyage in the converted 47-ton herring boat "Gjöa"." Nelson could have looked there before formulating a theory all of his own. In this theory John Dee, the "spiritualist" was England's bad spirit, the cause of their Northwest Passage spleen at which "informed continental European" would be laughing their heads off, probably Ortelius' map before them, showing how things really stood.
And the silly Englishmen would not grow wiser in the course of time. Still in the 19th century they had not heard of Ortelius' map, one must conclude from Nelson's theory. And while the 16th-century Englishmen might have had the excuse that even trying the impossible was a must, given that the sea routes were controlled by the Ottoman Empire and the Spanish Empire (soon, in 1580, to include the other sea power Portugal under Philip II), 19th-century Englishmen had no longer such an excuse.
But not all other Europeans were as informed as Nelson suggests. The Danes and the Dutchmen had their own expeditions; even Spaniards and Portuguese. In the 1590s the Dutch organized an expedition under Willem Barents, famous for being the first men to have wintered in the Arctic (Nova Zembla). In 1620 the Danes were trying their luck under Jens Munk.
So, even some Dutchmen had not drawn the right conclusions from Ortelius' map. Among them probably the Dutchman who visited London in 1576 out of interest for the Frobisher expedition. His name? Incredible! Abraham Ortelius. Richard Hakluyt in his diary:
"And that it may be knowen that not only the French affect this enterprise, but even the Dutch long since thought of it. I can assure you that Abraham Ortelius, the great geographer told me at his last being in England 1577 that if the wars of Flanders had not been, they of the Low Countries had meant to have discovered those parts of America, and the Northwest strait before this time. And it seemed that the chief cause of his coming into England was to no other end but to pry and look into the secrets of Frobisher's voyage, for it was even then when Frobisher was preparing for his first return into the Northwest." (Richard Hakluyt. Divers Voyages touching the discoverie of America, and the islands adjacent. Amsterdam 1967, p. ?)
© Robert Detobel