Northwest Foxe or Foxe from the North-west Passage

Captain Luke Fox or Foxe was born in Hull in 1586 and christened in St Mary’s Lowgate. He was the son of Richard Fox, an Assistant at Hull Trinity House and Luke later became one of the Younger Brethren of the same body. Although he probably had a relatively limited formal education he became adept at navigation – claiming to have acquired ability in the use of globes and other ‘mathematicke instruments’ – and certainly developed a passion for arctic history. Luke’s early sailing career encompassed the British coastal trade and he voyaged in European and Mediterranean waters. By all accounts he was a highly regarded and skilful seaman. He was almost certainly at one time involved in the alum trade on the Yorkshire coast and married a Whitby woman, Ann Barnett, in 1613.

Foxe was fascinated by the idea of finding a new route to the spice riches of the Orient by way of a North-west passage and had made an unsuccessful attempt to join an arctic voyage to the region whilst young. He certainly had a good knowledge of earlier voyages of British exploration in the region and remained determined to lead an expedition in their wake and well beyond. He gained the valuable support of Henry Brigges, the prominent Oxford mathematician, and of Sir John Brook and in the closing months of 1629 petitioned King Charles I for backing for a voyage. He proved successful and, with Royal Patronage and the backing of prominent merchants and institutions, set sail from Deptford, London on HMS Charles, an 80 ton pinnace, on the 28th April 1631. HMS Charles carried stores and provisions for an eighteen month voyage, taking strong beer, admirable sac and aqua vitae as well as pease, oat and wheatmeal, sugar, rice and ‘excellent fat beef’. To maintain the crew’s health they took balsams, plaster and purging pills as well as a ‘churygion’ (surgeon) to attend to cases of illness. Foxe also carried a letter from King Charles I addressed to the Emperor of Japan. Twenty men and two boys signed on as crew and as the ship departed on this voyage to the unknown, Foxe ordered the pinnace’s guns to be fired in salute as they it slipped down the River Thames.

The expedition sailed up the North Sea and called in at the Orkney Islands before the long crossing of the Atlantic. The little ship entered Hudson’s Strait on the 22nd June after an eight week voyage and picked its way through the ice along the northern shore. Fox reached the remote Salisbury’s Island, at the western end of the Hudson’s Strait on the 10th of July where he became ‘immured in the ice’ but broke through after a couple of days struggle. However the route north westwards from the end of the Strait was blocked by ice and following his previously agreed instructions, he approached what we now call Hudson’s Bay, passing Mansell’s Island five days later. From here Fox set a course across the Hudson’s Bay entrance and sailed along the south western coast of Southampton Island. Then he voyaged southwards, following the coast and looking for the elusive westwards passage.

A page from his book, North-west Fox. London, 1635

Although he soon concluded that his expedition was ‘out of the road for finding a passage’, he continued to search diligently. After voyaging further south he rounded Cape Churchill and reached Port Nelson where an earlier expedition had overwintered some twenty years before. Here he found remains of the expedition including an inscribed cross. Foxe later described many of the places he visited and the things he saw, including the remains of native dead. The ground being hard, the corpses were often wrapped in animal skins and covered in stones. At some of the places they landed they were able to replenish their food supplies through hunting and gathering, in some places, blackberries, strawberries and other plants. Foxe took his ship along the totally unexplored southern shore of the Bay and met an expedition under the command of James of Bristol at the end of August. Then, voyaging northwards, Fox was the first person to sail beyond what is now known as the Foxe Channel and into the Foxe Basin. The pinnace then followed the coast of what is now known as the Foxe Peninsula taking soundings and recording tidal observations along the way. By now weather conditions were worsening and the crew’s health was causing problems. After reaching his farthest westwards, a place he named Port Dorchester, on the 22nd September, he turned for home. He arrived back on the English Channel on the 31st October after a voyage of nearly six months, and had an audience with the King to recount his experiences.

Although Luke Foxe did not discover the North West Passage his achievements are, nevertheless, impressive. His expedition was the first to circumnavigate Hudson’s Bay; he proved that this stretch of water did not offer a way through to the Pacific. Foxe had voyaged to many previously unexplored places and returned home without losing a man. He also produced one of the earliest books on Polar exploration – and perhaps the first book published by someone from Hull. Entitled ‘North-west Foxe’. This publication, which includes accounts of other people’s voyages and a review of Arctic exploration, has been described as one of the most interesting and important documents in its field, reflecting the diversity of his interests ice, tides, weather conditions, flora and fauna etc. The book was probably published in early 1635 by command of the King but Foxe, who by then in poor health and poverty stricken, died in Whitby a few months later.

Select Bibliography

Amir R. Alexander, Geometrical Landscapes: The Voyages of Discovery and the Transformation of Mathematical Practice (USA: Stamford University Press, 2002)

Miller Christy (ed.). The Voyages of Captain Luke Fox of Hull, and Captain Thomas James of Bristol, In Search of a Northwest Passage, in 1631-32. 1st series. Vols. 88, 89. (UK: Hakluyt Society, 1894).

Nellis Maynard Crouse, The Search for the Northwest Passage (USA: Columbia University Press,1934)

Luke Fox, North-west Fox or Fox from the North-west Passage (1635 republished Canada 1965)

John Richardson, The Polar Regions (UK: A & C Black 1861) J.J. Sheahan, The History of Hull (UK: John Green, 1865)

On-line References

Luke Fox. The Columbia Encyclopaedia, Sixth Edition

Discoverer’s Web. Luke Foxe & Thomas James