William Baffin

The English navigator and explorer William Baffin (ca. 1584-1622) discovered Baffin Bay and was active in the early exploration of the Arctic.

William Baffin's background and his activities prior to 1612 are either unknown or based on conjecture. He was probably born in London and appears to have been of humble birth. Self-educated but remarkably skilled in his profession, he wrote several accounts of voyages which demonstrate some exposure to classical literature. Little is known of his personal life, though Baffin's elderly widow appears in official documents as a somewhat quarrelsome petitioner of the East India Company. There is no evidence of any children surviving Baffin's death.

Baffin first appears in history in 1612, when he served as chief pilot aboard a vessel off the western coast of Greenland. In 1613 and 1614 he was with the Muscovy Company's whaling fleets off Svalbard (Spitsbergen), and in 1615 he explored the Hudson Strait. In 1616 the Northwest Passage Company employed Baffin as pilot aboard the ship Discovery under the command of Robert Bylot. This company, which had previously dispatched several other expeditions under such men as Henry Hudson and Sir Thomas Button, sought to discover a westward route to Asia.

The Discovery left England in March 1616. It passed beyond the farthest point reached by earlier expeditions, and Baffin explored the coast and inlets of the large bay subsequently named in his honor. Though Baffin failed to realize that Lancaster Sound, which he named in honor of one of the sponsors of the expedition, constituted an opening into the strait for which he was searching, he did chart and name the main features of Baffin Bay. The Discovery returned safely to England in August 1616.

Baffin, apparently convinced that the Northwest Passage could not be discovered from the western approaches, sought employment with the East India Company. His last two voyages (1617-1619 and 1620-1622) were to the East. In 1622 the fleet with which his ship sailed engaged in hostilities with a rival Portuguese fleet and besieged a Portuguese fortress in the Strait of Ormuz. During this siege Baffin "received a shot from the castle into his belly, wherewith he gave three leaps, and died immediately."

While chiefly known as the discoverer of Baffin Bay, Baffin made a significant contribution to early geography as a scientific navigator as well. He may have been the first seaman to determine longitude by use of the angular distance of the moon from some other celestial body. He was required to keep accurate logs, and in addition to astronomical observations he also recorded tidal movements and other phenomena. Some of the most important data collected by Baffin concerned magnetic variation in the Far North. His records of compass variations are permanently important in tracing the changes in the magnetic pole. Baffin was also an accomplished map maker.

Further Reading on William Baffin

An old but complete and interesting study of Baffin is Sir Clements R. Markham, The Voyages of William Baffin, 1612-1622 (1881). This work includes an excellent historical introduction and numerous accounts of Baffin's voyages written either by himself or by others who accompanied him. Augustine Courtauld, From the Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of Polar Writings (1958), also includes excerpts from Baffin's writings. A brief account is in Jeanette Mirsky, To the North! The Story of the Arctic Exploration from Earliest Times to the Present (1934; rev. ed. entitled To the Arctic! The Story of Northern Exploration from Earliest Times to the Present, 1948). Other books of interest are Sir Clements R. Markham, The Lands of Silence: A History of Arctic and Antarctic Exploration (1921); Nellis M. Crouse, The Search for the Northwest Passage (1934); and Paul Emile Victor, Man and the Conquest of the Poles (trans. 1963).