To the west of the southern tip of Greenland, in the Qikiqtaaluk Region of the eastern Canadian Arctic’s Nunavut territory, is an inlet of the North Atlantic Ocean that extends into southeastern Baffin Island, called Frobisher Bay. It is named for the English explorer and privateer, Sir Martin Frobisher (1535-1594).
In June of 1576, the 40-year-old Frobisher mounted an expedition to discover the fabled Northwest Passage and thereby a shorter route to China.
On Kodlunarn Island, near the frigid bay that bears his name, Frobisher came upon a sparkling black rock that contained brassy yellow crystals. Although he didn’t find the Northwest Passage, Frobisher wasn’t disappointed, for he believed he’d discovered the “mother lode.” He took the black stone back to England and had his investors examine it carefully. This convinced them that Frobisher had indeed discovered gold in the “New World,” and they quickly raised the capital to finance his second voyage.
In July of 1577, Admiral Frobisher returned to Hall’s Island in Qikiqtaaluk and established the first European mining operation in Canada. His men loaded 200 tons of ore onto the ships and sailed back to England. Word of Frobisher’s remarkable accomplishments reached Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted to invest in the North American gold mine. Her magnanimity helped make his third voyage possible.
In June of 1578, Frobisher left England with 15 ships and 400 men. But this was no voyage of discovery: this was a for-profit mining expedition. After weeks of backbreaking work on Hall’s Island, they’d stocked the holds of their vessels with an abundance of the sparkling black rock. Frobisher sailed his fleet across the Atlantic and delivered the 1,400-ton cargo of ore to the foundry in Dartford, England. But the smelters had bad news – after many failed attempts, they discovered that they could not refine gold from the ore because it turned out to be common iron pyrite – it was “fool’s gold.”
Frobisher was crestfallen. This major faux pas not only tarnished his reputation, but it also bankrupted him, as well as most of his investors, a few of whom were forced into debtor’s prison. In the end, the worthless sparkling black ore was used to pave the streets of London – a detail has become entrenched in English folklore.
Sir Richard “Dick” Whittington (1354–1423), a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, was a successful merchant who appointed Lord Mayor of London in 1397, 1406, and 1419. A traditional rhyme survives in the English oral tradition:
Turn again, Whittington,
Once Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Twice Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Thrice Lord Mayor of London!
Fictionalized versions of Whittington’s biography have been immortalized in five centuries of theatrical plays, pantomimes, and storybooks that tell the folktale of “Dick Whittington and his Cat.” The earliest written reference to his legend is a theatrical registry notice dated 1604-1605. In The Adventures of Sir Richard Whittington, published in 1730, young Dick travels to London because he had heard that the streets of the city were “paved with gold.”
On Friday, August 20, 1576, during his first voyage to Kodlunarn Island, Admiral Frobisher dispatched five British sailors from the 25-ton barque Gabriel anchored in Frobisher Bay, to go ashore in wooden rowboat. He instructed them to stay away from the Natives, who had already proved themselves to be formidable warriors. Unfortunately, the sailors did not heed his warning and were captured by the local Inuit; very likely to gain possession of their well-built hardwood English dinghy and oars.
The all-too-brief Arctic summer was nearing its end and soon sea ice would choke the bay. After five days of waiting for the missing sailors to return, Frobisher threw in the towel and set sail for England, short-handed. Michael Lok, a prominent investor in the expedition, wrote that Frobisher presumed the five sailors had been apprehended by the Inuit and “judged they were taken and kept by force.
The Canadian archaeologist and historian Robert McGhee has written about sailors long confined aboard a diminutive sixteenth-century sailing vessel:
“Perhaps we should try to imagine the motives of the five sailors, young men who for ten weeks had endured the cramped quarters of a cold, wet, pitching ship. They had lived on bad food and worse beer, and had slept huddled together on the hard deck of a tiny forecastle. They had been subject to the discipline of a captain famous for his temper and impetuous actions. For the past few days they had come to be acquainted with the most extraordinary people they had ever met, smiling strangers who brought them fresh fish … dressed in warm furs, were eager to trade furs and ivory objects that could easily be sold for a profit at home in England, and introduced the sailors to their shy, tattooed, and charming wives and daughters. An invitation to come ashore and further their acquaintance, as well as to walk freely on the dry tundra and drink clean water from a stream, may have been too enticing to resist.”
Nearly 300 years later, in 1860, an Arctic enthusiast from Cincinnati, Ohio, named Charles Francis Hall (1821-1871), sailed to Baffin Island, in the eastern Canadian Arctic, aboard the George Henry, a New London, Connecticut, three-masted whaler, commanded by Captain Sidney Tobias Buddington (1823-1888). Hall hoped to discover the fate of the lost Franklin Expedition – two enormous, state-of-the-art, fully-outfitted, screw-propellor, steam-powered ships with 129 men and officers, that left England in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage and were never heard from again.
The lateness of the season forced George Henry to “winter over” at Baffin Island, as solid sea ice surrounded their ship, and it was soon the vessel was as immobilized as an almond in a bar of chocolate. Like the other Indigenous peoples of North America, the Inuit had no written language. Through an interpreter, the local Inuit elders on Baffin Island told Hall about Frobisher’s mining exploits on Kodlunarn Island in the 1570s, which they had learned about from their grandparents in the oral tradition. The story had been passed down, virtually unchanged, from parents to their children for three centuries and thus carefully preserved through nine generations of Inuit oral tradition.
In 1861, Hall visited Frobisher Bay. Through another interpreter, Hall interviewed the oldest great-grandmother in the village – a venerable Inuit woman named Uqijjuaqsi Nanuq (Hall spelled it phonetically, “Ookijoxy Ninoo”). She knew the fate of the five sailors who disappeared from Frobisher’s first expedition, in 1576.
Hall later wrote:
“Oral history told me that five white men were captured by Inuit people at the time of the appearance of the ships a great many years ago; that these men wintered on shore (whether one, two, three, or more winters, could not say); that they lived among the Inuits; that they afterward built an oomien (large boat), and put a mast into her, and had sails; that early in the season, before much water appeared, they endeavored to depart; that, in the effort, some froze their hands; but that finally they succeeded in getting into open water, and away they went, which was the last seen or heard of them.”
Hall learned that the five sailors had gotten along well with the members of the tribe, and that a chief named “E-loud-ju-arng” was especially fond of the Englishmen. Uqijjuaqsi told Hall that when the qallunaat (white men) were ready to begin their journey back to their homeland, Eloudjuarng composed a song for them, wishing them both safe and swift passage, “and he caused his people, who were very numerous, to sing it.” But, the elderly Inuit woman made it clear that the five British sailors were unsuccessful in their attempt to return to England and that they “finally froze to death.”
When Hall visited Kodlunarn Island (which translates as “White Man’s Land), much to his surprise, the local Inuit showed him a trench about the size of a small ship. They told Hall that the five English sailors from Frobisher’s expedition had built their boat in this trench. They said that the white men took the boat a short distance to Tikkoon Point, where they found a large piece of driftwood that was used as the ship’s mast. The bluff where this occurred was called Nepouetiesupbing, which means a place “to set up a mast.”
Seeing the ship’s trench with his own eyes convinced Hall that the Inuit account of the five English sailors was factual. And he was duly impressed by the level of detail preserved in their oral tradition.
The Inuit account of the mystery of the five British sailors is just one of many historical accounts of the veracity of the old oral tradition. For most of human history, the entirety of human knowledge – traditions, jokes, religions, taboos, beliefs, songs, stories, poetry, dances, languages, recipes, medicines, folklore, crafts, and customs – were recorded and stored exclusively in the memories of living people. The oral tradition is as old as human language. Scientific estimates as to the antiquity of human conversation range widely from as late as 50,000 years ago to as early as 2,000,000 years ago. Written language, on the other hand, is slightly more than 5,000 years old, and dates to about 3,400 BC.
By the ninth century, when Vikings (called “Normans”) were settling in northwestern France, moveable-block printing presses were already in use in China and Korea. Gutenberg’s printing press was unveiled in Germany, in 1436, but this technology didn’t reach England until 1476 – a little less than a century before the birth of William Shakespeare.
The development of written language changed everything. It made it possible to gain knowledge directly from an author who lived in another time and place. But prior to the invention of written language, all manner of knowledge was passed on from one living person’s mouth to another person’s ear, from one generation to the next, in the oral tradition. As more and more human knowledge was collected and published in books, it was no longer the personal responsibility of each individual to be the repository of all empirical truths.
In cultures without written language, information was shared thoughtfully, without altering or editing the original time-honored account, to ensure continuity of culture. This made it possible for one person to amass more knowledge and information through the oral tradition, than a single individual could gain from personal experience alone, in one lifetime.
This is how the story of the fate of Frobisher’s five lost sailors remained intact through three centuries and nine generations of Inuit oral tradition.
In a world without books (or the internet), one’s mastery of the oral tradition was the only “search engine” available to determine (for example) which plants were poisonous to eat. One dared not “fool around” or “get creative” with the content of the oral tradition – the consequences were too permanent. Fake news, or mere misunderstanding, could literally cost you your life. In matters pertaining to the oral tradition, originality and innovation were, by necessity discouraged. Thus, the preservation of the oral tradition required each individual’s adherence to this code of conduct.
In The Lessons of History (1968) Will and Ariel Durant wrote:
“As the sanity of the individual lies in the continuity of his memories, so the sanity of a group lies in the continuity of its traditions; in either case a break in the chain invites a neurotic reaction,… Tradition is the memory of the race. Insanity is the loss of memory.”
These precepts apply to all human cultures, including those of the English-speaking world.
Bess Lomax Hawes (1921-2009) was an American anthropologist and folklorist. She created the National Heritage Fellowships, and was named the first director of the Folk and Traditional Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, in Washington D.C. When Walter A. O’Brien ran for the mayor’s seat in Boston, in 1949, Hawes and Jacqueline Steiner co-wrote one of his campaign songs, “Charlie on the M.T.A.” And Hawes single-handedly prevented square dancing from becoming the national dance of the United States,
Hawes often spoke of the sanctity of the oral tradition regarding the traditional ballads of the British Isles. Although there were often dozens lyric variants and a wide variety of tunes for each one of these old songs. They have remained largely unchanged for centuries. And this was no accident: in their oral tradition, one sang a ballad exactly as one learned it – just as one’s parents or grandparent had sung it – without alteration or amendment.
Most of the hundreds of traditional English-language ballads perpetuated for centuries in an oral traditional. Except for a few, they weren’t written down until they were collected by nineteenth and twentieth-century folklorists.
Hawes liked to tell the story of a little boy in Scotland who was singing an unaccompanied traditional Scots ballad. When he mistakenly (and probably unwittingly) changed one of the words in a verse he’d sung many times before, his mother slapped his face.
“It’s bigger than you are,” she admonished him, “so how dare you?”
Robert McGhee, The Arctic Voyages of Martin Frobisher – An Elizabethan Adventure (London, British Museum Press, 2002), 54-57.
Charles Francis Hall, Arctic Researches and Life Among the Esquimaux, Being the Narrative of an Expedition in Search of the John Franklin Expedition in the Years 1860, 1861, and 1862 (New York: Harper Brothers Publishers, 1865), 80, 247, & 497
Kenn Harper, “Five Missing Men,” Nunatsiaq News, August 10, 2007, https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/Five_Missing_Men/
Kenn Harper, “Five Missing Men,” Nunatsiaq News, October 16, 2020, https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/taissumani-oct-16/.
Anchi Hoh, “The History of Printing in Asia According to Library of Congress Asian Collections – Part 1,” June 20, 2021, https://blogs.loc.gov/international-collections/2021/06/the-history-of-printing-in-asia-according-to-library-of-congress-asian-collections-part-1/.
Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 72.