English navigator John Davis (ca. 1550-1605), though remembered chiefly as a northern explorer, sailed many seas, took part in naval fighting, and invented a nautical instrument.
John Davis, a Devonshire man, was friendly with the Gilbert and Raleigh families and at times sailed with members of both. One of the most proficient seamen of his day, he published both a practical and a theoretical work on navigation. The backstaff he invented for finding altitudes of heavenly bodies at sea (so named because the pilot using it turned his back to the sun) held the field for a century and a half.
Davis made his first exploration voyage in 1585 in search of the Northwest Passage to the Orient. He rounded Cape Farewell in Greenland, and went north to Godthaab (64°N) before crossing Davis Strait to Cumberland Gulf in Baffin Island, where the lateness of the season compelled his return to England. The next year he persuaded merchants, mostly in Devon, to send a larger expedition. He detached two vessels to explore Gilbert Sound and with a third continued investigation of Davis Strait without making a substantial discovery. Codfish caught and salted off Labrador helped defray costs of the expedition, but Davis found the Devon merchants unwilling to risk money for a new voyage.
Davis nevertheless acquired backing in London and in 1587 went again with three ships, though the pinnace Ellen, in which he sailed, made the only explorations. The result was no profit but considerable discovery, as Davis reached a point about 73°N on the west Greenland coast before turning across Davis Strait to explore Baffin Island further. Homeward bound, the Ellen visited the mouth of Hudson's Strait but did not penetrate it. When Davis reached England on Sept. 15, 1587, he had at least demonstrated the unlikelihood of anyone's pushing through to the Pacific in a single voyage.
This ended Davis's career as an explorer. He received unfair criticism for not having accomplished more; meanwhile, the great Spanish Armada was nearly ready to attack England. In the channel fighting against the Spaniards, Davis appears to have commanded the ship Black Dog, but his combat record is unknown.
Following the Armada's defeat, Davis took part in several voyages, but none involved discovery. He sailed with Thomas Cavendish in 1591 on an expedition intended to penetrate the Strait of Magellan, carry operations into the Pacific, and find the western outlet of the Northwest Passage. This came to nothing because of the bad condition of the ships; Davis did sight the Falkland Islands, though some historians believe these were earlier discovered by Amerigo Vespucci. His last expedition, to the East Indies under the orders of Sir Edward Michel-borne, resulted in his death at the hands of Japanese pirates in 1605.
Davis was married to Faith Fulford in 1582, but Faith proved faithless and with her paramour, a counterfeiter, brought false and unavailing charges against her accomplished husband, whom she had borne several sons.
Source accounts of Davis's voyages and excerpts from his writings are contained in The Voyages and Works of John Davis, published by the Hakluyt Society (2 vols., 1880). Convenient summaries of the voyages are available in Edward Heawood, A History of Geographical Discovery in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1912). James A. Williamson, Age of Drake (1938; 5th ed. 1965), summarizes the explorer's career. Davis is also discussed in Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (1971).