OTD: English explorer Martin Frobisher commissioned to find gold in Arctic

On today’s date in 1577, English explorers Martin Frobisher and Michael Lock were commissioned by the Cathay Company to search for gold in the Arctic.

Lock was the expedition’s financial backer, according to Frank Jones’ 1878 book The Life of Sir Martin Frobisher, Knight, which adds Lock was also appointed governor of the Cathay Company for six years upon its creation in March 1577.

“There were rumours floating in the air that secret expeditions were being set on foot to plunder the gold-mines in the North-West,” wrote Jones.

“The assayers of London were generally suspected of such a design, and none knew better than they the value of the ore. It was generally credited that they had gone privately to Her Majesty to procure a lease of all the shores and islands in Frobisher’s Straits. To such a pitch had the public excitement risen.

“The actual outcome of the matter was the establishment of a company called the Cathay Company, the charter for which was obtained from the Crown on March 17, 1577. It was granted to Michael Lock and Martin Frobisher, together with all the venturers in the first voyage. To them was given the sole right of sailing in every direction for discovery, except to the East; the rights of the Muscovy Company being thus protected.”

Frobisher and company “had authority to wage war in behalf of their own interests,” added Jones, “and were to pay only half customs for the first twenty years on all goods imported. Whoever infringed the privileges of the Company was to suffer forfeiture of ships and goods, one half of the fine going to the Queen, the other to the Company.”

Frobisher was appointed the “High Admiral of all seas and waters, countries, lands and isles, as well of Cathay as of all other countries and places of new discovery – a sort of admiral in partibus infidelium” – or for life.


In 2007, the Royal Canadian Mint featured Frobisher on a $20 Proof silver coin.

Designed by Laurie McGraw, the coin was issued to mark the 125th anniversary of the First International Polar Year, which was the first of several multinational expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. It prominently features Frobisher, who made the first to attempt to discover the Northwest Passage aboard the Gabriel in 1576. A ship appears alongside a 16th-century compass and an Inuit paddling a traditional kayak.

The coin has a weight of 27.78 grams, a diameter of 40 millimetres and a mintage of 15,000 pieces.


Frobisher eventually returned to England from his 1577 expedition with tons of worthless pyrites, which were dumped as street ballast in London, giving rise to the legend the city’s streets were paved with gold.

A less-celebratory legend involving Frobisher caused some controversy upon the Mint’s announcement of its 2007 coin. While searching for the Northwest Passage in 1576, five of Frobisher’s crew boarded a ship around a point of land—never to return again.

It’s unknown whether they were seized, but they were never seen again.

Upon learning of this, Frobisher called an Inuk kayaker to the side of his ship by offering a small gift. When the Inuk was within reach, Frobisher seized him and pulled him and his kayak aboard the Gabriel. The Inuk was brought to England, where he was put on display before dying weeks later.

The story of the kidnapping is told in the book Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain, 1500-1776 by U.S. historian Alden Vaughan plus the personal journal of Christopher Hall, the master of the Gabriel.

In 2007, Mint spokesperson Christine Aquino told the Northern News Service the coin doesn’t depict a single historical event.

“That’s purely coincidental,” said Aquino. “It’s to celebrate the first International Polar Year and it’s also meant to mark the importance of continued expeditions in the North.”

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