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Judging Henry Hudson

            Three of the most noteworthy bodies of water in North America—the Hudson River, Hudson Strait, and Hudson Bay—take their names from the English explorer Henry Hudson.  No other explorer earned as much notice from mapmakers, not even Christopher Columbus.  This raises a significant question: was Hudson worthy of the honor?

            Much of Hudson’s life remains a mystery.  He was probably about forty years old when he entered the historical record in 1607 as the captain of an English ship called the Hopewell.  He sailed from London in search of a quick route to the Spice Islands of the South Sea, the modern Pacific Ocean.  After studying his maps he realized that the best course would take him across the North Pole and then into the Pacific.  This was no fool’s quest.  Contemporary cartographers believed that the sun melted the ice at the pole during the summer, which meant a ship could get through the region frozen the rest of the year.

            Not surprisingly, ice blocked Hudson’s way and forced him to return home.  But his determination to reach the East Indies drove him to try again the next year, this time aiming the Hopewell towards the Northeast Passage, which purportedly ran north of Russia.  Again, ice blocked his path so he sailed back to London.  In 1609, the Dutch East India Company hired Hudson to make yet another  effort to go through the Northeast Passage.  When ice again blocked the Halve Maen he followed a tip he had received from Captain John Smith, who had learned from the Powhatans of a water route somewhere north of the Chesapeake that cut through North America.  Hudson crossed the Atlantic and sailed along the coast from the modern Maritime Provinces of Canada down to the Chesapeake, before finally heading up the river that now bears his name, which seemed a possible opening to the fabled channel.  But he got no farther than modern-day Albany and decided to sail back to England.   His expedition of that year, currently being commemorated on its 400th anniversary, encouraged subsequent Dutch colonization, which began in earnest a decade or so later. 

            In 1610 Hudson set off in the Discovery on another journey for the East Indies, this time  determined on making it through the Northwest Passage.  He and his men sailed through the body of water now named Hudson Strait and then into Hudson Bay, where they sailed as far south as they could and spent a brutal winter trapped by ice in modern-day James Bay.  When the ice finally thawed in June 1611, Hudson’s crew mutinied.  The rebels believed that they had to get rid of Hudson because his command of the Discovery put the entire expedition at risk.  His crime?  According to the most detailed surviving report, Hudson had insisted on distributing scanty food supplies among all the crew, even those who had become ill or injured and hence were less likely to survive.  The mutineers also claimed that their captain had hidden rations for his favorites.  For these infractions the mutineers put Hudson, his seventeen-year old son, and seven others loyal to the captain on a small boat (known as a shallop) and set them adrift.  No one reported seeing them again.  

            In sum, Hudson’s naval record consisted of the command of four voyages that never reached their intended destination and presumptive execution at the hands of men who believed he was not merely incompetent but dangerous.  This hardly seems the sort of career that would inspire  cartographers to spread his name so prominently around the map of North America.  The mutineers and the  mapmakers rendered different judgments of Hudson.  Four hundred years after the mutiny, the time seems ripe  for reassessment

            Long-distance travel was almost unimaginably dangerous in the early modern era.  The Portuguese lost so many ships to storms that an entire literary genre sprang up to commemorate the victims.   Even when they made land in exotic environments, captains and crews faced disease-bearing microbes that often devastated them.  Sir Francis Drake, who had sailed around the world from 1577 to 1580, later succumbed to dysentery near Puerto Rico.  Explorers were also often unprepared to negotiate with local peoples or unable to understand the nature of existing regional tensions.  Europeans gave credit to Ferdinand Magellan for circumnavigating the globe, but he died in a conflict in Cebu in the Philippines long before his ship made it back to the Atlantic.

            Hudson understood what it took to complete a journey.   The single most expensive item on a voyage of exploration was the ship itself, and every vessel that Hudson commanded returned safely.  Further, Hudson twice sailed into the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic without losing a single member of his crew.  One of his men, felled by a Delaware arrow, died on his third expedition—though the mixed English-Dutch crew apparently killed quite a few Native Americans.  During the long winter of his fourth voyage in 1610-1611 only one man died despite frigid conditions that none of the crew could have expected.  If keeping a crew alive is one measure of a captain’s ability, then Hudson had an exemplary record.

            What’s more, although Hudson never found the short-cut to East Indian riches, his journeys generated invaluable information about the North Atlantic.  Six accounts, including three purportedly written by Hudson, detailed the dangers posed by icebergs, the location of marine resources such as whales and seals, and expert advice about what it would take to survive in northern waters.   His backers saw the merit in making these narratives widely available.  In 1625 the minister Samuel Purchas published them for the general benefit of the English reading public.    

            Henry Hudson died because some of the men he commanded and trusted decided that he was unfit to be their captain.  They accused him of endangering their lives, but his real crime was that he refused to give up his search for the East Indies when his men wanted to go home.  The mutineers were willing to sacrifice the crew’s weakest members.  Hudson was not.  Scholars can debate the significance of his four journeys, but history should be kinder toward him than those who put him into the shallop.