The Demise of Henry Hudson


(This 1161st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 23, 2013.)


In New York State we know Henry Hudson for his 1609 voyage in the Dutch vessel, Half Moon, that took him well up the Hudson River.


That was a strange trip for he first sailed from Amsterdam past Norway, Sweden and Finland to northern Russia, where ice blocked his way. Rather than turn back to port, he then voyaged southwest across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia and down the North American east coast as far as Chesapeake Bay. Only after that did he visit in September and early October what is now New York Harbor and sail 150 miles upriver almost to present-day Albany. He then finally returned not to Amsterdam but to London.


Some historians have claimed that the reason for this odd itinerary was Hudson's service as an English spy seeking to authenticate the charts the Dutch United East India Company had provided him. The fact that he claimed the land along the Hudson River for the Dutch seems to belie this. On the other hand the Half Moon was never returned to the Dutch.


My interest in Hudson has, however, always been more focused on his tragic end two years later in James Bay. As an nature lover, hiker and canoe tripper myself, I find his end not just a gripping tale but one that has too often turned my dreams of outdoor adventures into nightmares.


Seeking the Northwest Passage to the Orient on this 1910-1911 voyage, Hudson was sailing an English ship named Discovery. His 23-man crew included some of those who had served with him in 1609, including his mate, Robert Juet, and Hudson's son Robert who again was listed as one of the two ship's boys. Before the ship left English waters an odd and ultimately decisive trade of passengers was made: a representative of the voyage's sponsor, this time the English East India Company, was sent back and Henry Greene, a personal friend of Hudson but a known troublemaker, came aboard. Only eight of those men would return to England in 1611.


After a tumultuous voyage the ship found itself in late July near the mouth of Hudson Bay. Despite the misgivings of many crew members, they agreed to continue seeking the passage, given Hudson's expressed belief that they would reach Java by February.


In September with the ship now wandering about James Bay the crew was near mutiny and by early November they knew that they would spend the winter locked in the ice. (By strange coincidence Shakespeare's Winter's Tale was first staged in London that month.)


I can only imagine that winter of 1610-11: temperatures below -40, inadequate shelters ashore, food resources diminishing with the supplemented fish and waterfowl less available over time, scurvy fought back by eating boiled pine and tamarack buds, local natives avoiding them and hostility deepening among crew members.


Only by June 12, was the Discovery free of the ice and ready to depart. With rations down to a bare two-week supply and the crew grumbling over what was kept hidden, to their dismay Hudson proposed to continue west.


The mutiny, so long held off, finally matured on June 22, 402 years ago. Led by Juet, Green and Wilson, the mutineers overpowered Hudson and his supporters and forced him and eight others, four of them ill, into the ship's boat. Among the few essentials provided them were some spears, a single gun and powder, an iron pot and some bedding.


The mooring line was cut and the ship and boat separated. For a time the marooned sailors rowed to keep up with the Discovery, but the ship set its sails and passed over the horizon. And that is the last we know of those nine men. They left no trace whatsoever. The mutineers did, however. They made it back to England, but by then half of them including their leaders were dead.


I invite you to think, as I do so often, of those men deserted under the harsh conditions of the north. Did they drown? Did they make it to shore but starved? Were they killed by the Cree or Inuits of the area?


Too often in my dreams I find myself aboard that lonely ship's boat with cold spray coming in over the gunnels.-- Gerry Rising