Thomas James North-West Passage expedition 1631–32

Thomas James’s 1631 voyage to find the North-West Passage became famous thanks to his memoir The Strange and Dangerous Voyage of Captain Thomas James (1633).

The Bristol Society of Merchant Venturers funded James’s voyage, but feared that the London merchants funding the rival one by Luke Foxe would secure a monopoly over any markets or trade he might discover. This concern led to James petitioning King Charles I and an agreement was reached that whatever discoveries either expedition might make, the ‘rights and privileges arising’ would be divided up in proportion to each city’s investment, making it a dual venture.

‘The Strange and Dangerous Voyage’

James was an educated man and a scientific seaman and had done a lot of research into previous expeditions, but his expedition on the Henrietta Maria (named after King Charles I’s wife) was fraught with difficulty from beginning to end. Due to the ice, it took the expedition over a month to get through the Hudson Strait before turning south to explore Hudson Bay. In September, James sighted and named Cape Henrietta Maria, north of Ontario, and in October the expedition anchored off Charlton Island in James Bay ahead of a difficult winter.

Sinking and raising the Henrietta Maria

Fearing the Henrietta Maria would be ruined through ice and fierce storms James sank his ship and the crew built cabins on the island. Poor provisions and clothing meant that the crew suffered terribly from cold and malnutrition: most developed scurvy and four died.

The following spring the remaining crew repaired the damaged hull of Henrietta Maria, pumped her out and set sail. Severe ice hampered their return and the ship limped back to England. Some believe the Henrietta Maria’s ordeal inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

No passage through Hudson Bay

James found no entrance to the North-West Passage and, along with Luke Foxe’s own failed attempt, the enthusiasm for funding expeditions to find the passage were severely dampened. It was now clear that Hudson Bay could not form any part of a route leading to the Pacific. This did not stop trade flourishing in the area with the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but the search for the passage would not be resumed for over 80 years.

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