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henry hudson
Henry Hudson

On This Day: Henry Hudson Set Adrift by Mutineers

June 23, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On June 23, 1611, a mutiny during an attempt to find the Northwest Passage left Henry Hudson adrift on what is now Hudson Bay, never to be heard from again.

Henry Hudson and the Mutiny

English explorer Henry Hudson had led an unsuccessful voyage to find the elusive Northwest Passage, a route from the Atlantic to Pacific through North America, in 1609. A year later, he made a second expedition to find a more northerly route proposed by English explorer Capt. George Weymouth.

“Weymouth had described an inlet (now Hudson Strait) where a ‘furious overfall’ of water rushed out with every ebb tide,” explained Arctic historian John Edwards Caswell. “This phenomenon suggested that a great body of water lay beyond the strait. Hudson was confident that it was the Pacific Ocean.”

He led his ship, the Discovery, into what is now Hudson Bay and then into James Bay, the southernmost part of Hudson Bay. He found no westward passage and, after spending weeks sailing around a “a labyrinth without end,” became trapped in James Bay by the winter.

The crew endured a difficult winter, made worse by Hudson’s delay in calling for a shelter to be built onshore and his refusal to accept a deal for provisions offered by a native trader. Some crewmembers suspected that Hudson was hoarding food rations for himself and his favorites.

In June, just as the ship was beginning its voyage home, Hudson’s crew mutinied. The events of the mutiny are known almost entirely through the journals and testimony of the eight mutineers who eventually made their way back to England; the main source is the journal of Abacuk Prickett.

According to Prickett, the mutiny was organized by Henry Greene, Robert Juet and William Wilson. On a Saturday night, Greene and Wilson came to Prickett with a plan to force Hudson and a group of sick crewmembers onto a shallop (a raft).

The following morning (which would have been June 23, though Prickett identified it as June 22), the mutineers trapped a loyal crewmember in the ship’s hold, and then tied up Hudson as he left his cabin. They then loaded Hudson, his son, and seven other crewmembers onto the shallop. Hudson directed the ship east, and it was never spotted again.

The Fate of the Mutineers

The 13 men on the Discovery sailed home for England, but had violent encounters with Inuit natives. Greene and Wilson were two of four men killed by natives, and Juet also died during the voyage. The eight starving survivors eventually reached Ireland, and were soon returned to England, where they faced charges of mutiny and possible hanging.

The survivors fabricated a story that they had found the Northwest Passage, hoping that their lives would be spared so they could lead others to it. They also deflected most of the responsibility for the mutiny.

G.M. Asher, author of the 1860 book “Henry Hudson the Navigator,” wrote of Prickett’s account: [T]he author's real intention was much more to defend the mutineers than to describe the voyage. … It manages to cast some, not too much, shadow upon Hudson himself. The main fault of the mutiny is thrown upon some men who had ceased to live when the ship reached home.”

The inherent biases of the mutiny’s only surviving eyewitnesses has cast doubt on whether their accounts are true. Peter Mancall, author of the 2009 book “Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson,” suggests that Hudson may have been killed by the mutineers, pointing to the fact that there were blood stains on the ship and that Hudson’s possessions were missing.

What Became of Hudson?

Hudson’s remains were never found and his fate remains unknown. There are, however, several legends suggesting that he, his son or the other men may have survived.

Residents of Chalk River, Ontario, say that Hudson traveled south and lived in Chalk River after his mutiny. In 1970 a 150-pound stone was found by a highway worker inscribed with the words “HH 1612 CAPTIVE.” Although it’s only speculation, some residents believe that these letters were carved by Hudson after the 1611 mutiny.

There is another legend, writes Ian Chadwick, that an “Inuit band which found a small boat on the water, filled with dead white men, and a single survivor, a white boy—John Hudson? The Inuit didn't know what to do with the boy, so they tied him outside their huts, with their dogs. No more is known about his fate.”

Biography: Henry Hudson

There is very little information on Hudson’s early life, but by 1607 he had gained enough knowledge to lead an English expedition in search of a northeast passage to the Orient. He made a second unsuccessful expedition for England in 1608 before accepting a deal with the Dutch government in 1609.

Hudson agreed to search for a northeast passage, but he was intrigued by reports of a possible northwest passage. When his trip east was halted by weather conditions, he sailed west to America and searched for the northwest passage in present-day New York.

He discovered the island of Manhattan and sailed up what is now the Hudson River, hoping that it would lead to the Pacific. Though he failed in his quest to find the Northwest Passage, he did establish relationships with the local Indians and claim the area for Holland.

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