OTD: Frobisher’s men trade with Inuit before vanishing

On today’s date in 1576, five crew members of English colonist Martin Frobisher traded with local Inuit in northern Canada in what would prove to be a disastrous move.

While searching for the Northwest Passage in 1576, five of Frobisher’s crew boarded a ship around a point of land. It’s unknown whether they were seized; however, the men were never seen again.

Upon learning of his men’s fate, Frobisher called an Inuk kayaker to the side of his ship with the offer of a small gift. When the Inuk was within reach, Frobisher seized him, pulling the unsuspecting victim as well as his kayak aboard the Gabriel.

After biting off his tongue so he would be unable to talk to his captors, the Inuk man was brought to England, where he was put on display – and reportedly shot and killed the Queen’s swans with a blow dart – before dying only weeks later.

The story of the kidnapping is detailed in the book Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain, 1500-1776 by U.S. historian Alden Vaughan.


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

The coin was issued to mark the 125th anniversary of the First International Polar Year – the first of several multinational expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic – and 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 Inuk person paddling a traditional kayak.

“That’s purely coincidental,” Christine Aquino, senior manager of corporate communications, told the Northern News Service in response to claims the Mint’s coin depicted the infamous kidnapping.

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

Despite the Mint’s claim that the coin doesn’t depict a single historic event, Frobisher’s relevance to the International Polar Year has been called into question as he explored the eastern Arctic 300 years before the first year was marked.

Designed by Laurie McGraw, the coin has a weight of 27.78 grams, a diameter of 40 millimetres and a mintage of 15,000 pieces.

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