Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition Of Henry Hudson, by Peter C. Mancall
For some reason, which I am not consciously aware of, I have a taste for reading books about historical mutinies for some reason or another from time to time . Mutinies thrive on situations where trust is lacking and where danger is high, and those circumstances certainly were in play during the early explorations of the age of discovery, where provisioning was often lacking and where intrepid captains in search of new paths to spices and trade wealth put themselves and their crews in harm’s way. It is not a wonder that there were mutinies given the absence of state control over far flung ships of discovery, but rather that they happened as rarely as they did. In this particular book we have a bit of puffing by the author but a great deal of interesting context about the subject of the book, Henry Hudson, and his life and times. Since Henry Hudson was an early English navigator and explorer who is remembered through his exploration of Hudson Bay and the Hudson River in the unsuccessful search for the Northwest Passage–he also unsuccessfully sought the Northeast Passage–he is certainly well worth knowing about.
This book, in a bit more than 200 pages, reads like a historical mystery novel. The author begins in media res with a discussion of the mutiny that left him marooned in subarctic Canada while his erstwhile servant led a group of unhappy people back towards England, many of whom would not make it. After that the author spends a couple of chapters looking at the context of northern exploration and the desire for European countries of new trade routes that would help in obtaining spices. Finally, after this the author discusses Hudson’s previous explorations in the North Atlantic and his efforts to find a Northwest Passage. Finally, after nearly 100 pages, the author begins talking about the fatal voyage that led Hudson to discover the bay named after him that stranded his crew in ice for an entire winter and that after some moves by a few upset crew members, led to a mutiny by four (or more) of his sailors that led to him and a few others (including one of his sons) to being put in a small boat and left behind as the mutineers set sail for home. Most of the book focuses on the interrogations of the few surviving crew, the efforts by others to find the few traces of his efforts to survive that could be found, the murder trial of a couple of the surviving crew members that was inconclusive, and the author’s own reasonable speculation as to the ultimate and unpleasant fate of Hudson and those marooned with him.
In many ways, this is a melancholy book that serves to push a somewhat leftist agenda. The author spends a lot of time talking about the social animosities of the crew members based on matters of class, and his speculation about Hudson is based on his desire to point out the fragility of European explorers and their dependence on the know-how of the local indigenous population. Indeed, a less than charitable reader would suspect that there are a few obvious motivations for the author writing this book. For one, it allows him to praise the culture and knowledge of indigenous peoples in the age of exploration, which the author has written and edited about at some length. In addition, the research involved is close to his own existing interests in the efforts of the English establishment (led by Haklyut and others) to support missions of exploration and colonization. This, therefore, is no great stretch for the author, and allows him to add to his list of published works without requiring a substantial amount of new research, especially given the paucity of accounts to work with and the large amount of room for guesswork and speculation that the subject affords.
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