Voyages in Search of the North-West Passage

Author: Richard Hakluyt

Certain Other Reasons or Arguments to Prove a Passage by the North- West

Learnedly written by Master Richard Willes, Gentleman.

Four famous ways there be spoken of to those fruitful and wealthy islands, which we do usually call Moluccas, continually haunted for gain, and daily travelled for riches therein growing. These islands, although they stand east from the meridian, distant almost half the length of the world, in extreme heat under the equinoctial line, possessed of infidels and barbarians, yet by our neighbours great abundance of wealth there is painfully sought in respect of the voyage dearly bought, and from thence dangerously brought home to us. Our neighbours I call the Portuguese, in comparison of the Molucchians for nearness unto us, for like situation westward as we have for their usual trade with us; for that the far southeasterings do know this part of Europe by no other name than Portugal, not greatly acquainted as yet with the other nations thereof. Their voyage is very well understood of all men, and the south-eastern way round about Africa, by the Cape of Good Hope, more spoken of, better known and travelled, than that it may seem needful to discourse thereof any farther.

The second way lieth south-west, between the West Indies, or South America, and the south continent, through that narrow strait where Magellan, first of all men that ever we do read of, passed these latter years, caving thereunto therefore his name. This way, no doubt, the Spaniards would commodiously take, for that it lieth near unto their dominions there, could the eastern current and Levant winds as easily suffer men to return as speedily therewith they may be carried thither; for the which difficulty, or rather impossibility of striving against the force both of wind and stream, this passage is little or nothing used, although it be very well known.

The third way, by the north-east, beyond all Europe and Asia, that worthy and renowned knight Sir Hugh Willoughbie sought to his peril, enforced there to end his life for cold, congealed and frozen to death. And, truly, this way consisteth rather in the imagination of geographers than allowable either in reason, or approved by experience, as well it may appear by the dangerous trending of the Scythian Cape set by Ortellius under the 80th degree north, by the unlikely sailing in that northern sea, always clad with ice and snow, or at the least continually pestered therewith, if haply it be at any time dissolved, beside bays and shelves, the water waxing more shallow towards the east, to say nothing of the foul mists and dark fogs in the cold clime, of the little power of the sun to clear the air, of the uncomfortable nights, so near the Pole, five months long.

A fourth way to go unto these aforesaid happy islands, the Moluccas, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a learned and valiant knight, discourseth of at large in his new "Passage to Cathay." The enterprise of itself being virtuous, the fact must doubtless deserve high praise, and whensoever it shall be finished the fruits thereof cannot be small; where virtue is guide, there is fame a follower, and fortune a companion. But the way is dangerous, the passage doubtful, the voyage not thoroughly known, and therefore gainsaid by many, after this manner.

First, who can assure us of any passage rather by the north-west than by the north-east? do not both ways lie in equal distance from the North Pole? stand not the North Capes of either continent under like elevation? is not the ocean sea beyond America farther distant from our meridian by thirty or forty degrees west than the extreme points of Cathay eastward, if Ortellius’ general card of the world be true? In the north-east that noble knight—Sir Hugh Willoughbie perished for cold, and can you then promise a passenger any better hap by the north-west, who hath gone for trial’s sake, at any time, this way out of Europe to Cathay?

If you seek the advice herein of such as make profession in cosmography, Ptolemy, the father of geography, and his eldest children, will answer by their maps with a negative, concluding most of the sea within the land, and making an end of the world northward, near the 63rd degree. The same opinion, when learning chiefly flourished, was received in the Romans’ time, as by their poets’ writings it may appear. "Et te colet ultima Thule," said Virgil, being of opinion that Iceland was the extreme part of the world habitable toward the north. Joseph Moletius, an Italian, and Mercator, a German, for knowledge men able to be compared with the best geographers of our time, the one in his half spheres of the whole world, the other in some of his great globes, have continued the West Indies land, even to the North Pole, and consequently cut off all passage by sea that way.

The same doctors, Mercator in other of his globes and maps, Moletius in his sea-card, nevertheless doubting of so great continuance of the former continent, have opened a gulf betwixt the West Indies and the extreme northern land; but such a one that either is not to be travelled for the causes in the first objection alleged, or clean shut up from us in Europe by Greenland, the south end whereof Moletius maketh firm land with America, the north part continent with Lapland and Norway.

Thirdly, the greatest favourers of this voyage cannot deny but that, if any such passage be, it lieth subject unto ice and snow for the most part of the year, whereas it standeth in the edge of the frosty zone. Before the sun hath warmed the air and dissolved the ice, each one well knoweth that there can be no sailing; the ice once broken through the continual abode, the sun maketh a certain season in those parts. How shall it be possible for so weak a vessel as a ship is to hold out amid whole islands, as it were, of ice continually beating on each side, and at the mouth of that gulf, issuing down furiously from the north, safely to pass, when whole mountains of ice and snow shall be tumbled down upon her?

Well, grant the West Indies not to continue continent unto the Pole, grant there be a passage between these two lands, let the gulf lie nearer us than commonly in cards we find it set, namely, between the sixty-first and sixty-fourth degrees north, as Gemma Frisius in his maps and globes imagineth it, and so left by our countryman Sebastian Cabot in his table which the Earl of Bedford hath at Theinies; let the way be void of all difficulties, yet doth it not follow that we have free passage to Cathay. For example’s sake, you may coast all Norway, Finmarke, and Lapland, and then bow southward to St. Nicholas, in Moscovy. You may likewise in the Mediterranean Sea fetch Constantinople and the mouth of the Don, yet is there no passage by sea through Moscovy into Pont Euxine, now called Mare Maggiore. Again, in the aforesaid Mediterranean Sea we sail to Alexandria in Egypt, the barbarians bring their pearl and spices from the Moluccas up the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf to Suez, scarcely three days’ journey from the aforesaid haven; yet have we no way by sea from Alexandria to the Moluccas for that isthmus or little trait of land between the two seas. In like manner, although the northern passage be free at sixty-one degrees latitude, and the west ocean beyond America, usually called Mare del Sur, known to be open at forty degrees elevation for the island of Japan, yea, three hundred leagues northerly of Japan, yet may there be land to hinder the through passage that way by sea, as in the examples aforesaid it falleth out, Asia and America there being joined together in one continent. Nor can this opinion seem altogether frivolous unto any one that diligently peruseth our cosmographers’ doings. Josephus Moletius is of that mind, not only in his plain hemispheres of the world, but also in his sea-card. The French geographers in like manner be of the same opinion, as by their map cut out in form of a heart you may perceive as though the West Indies were part of Asia, which sentence well agreeth with that old conclusion in the schools, Quid-quid praeter Africum et Europam est, Asia est, "Whatsoever land doth neither appertain unto Africa nor to Europe is part of Asia."

Furthermore, it were to small purpose to make so long, so painful, so doubtful a voyage by such a new found way, if in Cathay you should neither be suffered to land for silks and silver, nor able to fetch the Molucca spices and pearl for piracy in those seas. Of a law denying all aliens to enter into China, and forbidding all the inhabiters under a great penalty to let in any stranger into those countries, shall you read in the report of Galeotto Petera, there imprisoned with other Portuguese, as also in the Japanese letters, how for that cause the worthy traveller Xavierus bargained with a barbarian merchant for a great sum of pepper to be brought into Canton, a port in Cathay. The great and dangerous piracy used in those seas no man can be ignorant of that listeth to read the Japanese and Indian history.

Finally, all this great labour would be lost, all these charges spent in vain, if in the end our travellers might not be able to return again, and bring safely home into their own native country that wealth and riches they in foreign regions with adventure of goods and danger of their lives have sought for. By the north-east there is no way; the South-East Passage the Portuguese do hold, as the lords of those seas. At the south-west, Magellan’s experience hath partly taught us, and partly we are persuaded by reason, how the eastern current striketh so furiously on that strait, and falleth with such force into that narrow gulf, that hardly any ship can return that way into our west ocean out of Mare del Sur. The which, if it be true, as truly it is, then we may say that the aforesaid eastern current, or Levant course of waters, continually following after the heavenly motions, loseth not altogether its force, but is doubled rather by another current from out the northeast, in the passage between America and the North Land, whither it is of necessity carried, having none other way to maintain itself in circular motion, and consequently the force and fury thereof to be no less in the Strait of Anian, where it striketh south into Mare del Sur beyond America (if any such strait of sea there be), than in the strait of Magellan, both straits being of like breadth, as in Belognine Salterius’ table of "New France," and in Don Diego Hermano de Toledo’s card for navigation in that region, we do find precisely set down.

Nevertheless, to approve that there lieth a way to Cathay at the north-west from out of Europe, we have experience, namely of three brethren that went that journey, as Gemma Frisius recordeth, and left a name unto that strait, whereby now it is called Fretum Trium Fratrum. We do read again of a Portuguese that passed this strait, of whom Master Frobisher speaketh, that was imprisoned therefore many years in Lisbon, to verify the old Spanish proverb, "I suffer for doing well." Likewise, An. Urdaneta, a friar of Mexico, came out of Mare del Sur this way into Germany; his card, for he was a great discoverer, made by his own experience and travel in that voyage, hath been seen by gentlemen of good credit.

Now if the observation and remembrance of things breedeth experience, and of experience proceedeth art, and the certain knowledge we have in all faculties, as the best philosophers that ever were do affirm truly the voyage of these aforesaid travellers that have gone out of Europe into Mare del Sur, and returned thence at the north-west, do most evidently conclude that way to be navigable, and that passage free; so much the more we are so to think, for that the first principle and chief ground in all geography, as Ptolemy saith, is the history of travel, that is, reports made by travellers skilful in geography and astronomy, of all such things in their journey as to geography do belong. It only remaineth, that we now answer to those arguments that seemed to make against this former conclusion.

The first objection is of no force, that general table of the world, set forth by Ortellius or Mercator, for it greatly skilleth not, being unskilfully drawn for that point, as manifestly it may appear unto any one that compareth the same with Gemma Frisius’ universal map, with his round quartered card, with his globe, with Sebastian Cabot’s table, and Ortellius’ general map alone, worthily preferred in this case before all Mercator’s and Ortellius’ other doings: for that Cabot was not only a skilful seaman, but a long traveller, and such a one as entered personally that strait, sent by King Henry VII. to make this aforesaid discovery, as in his own discourse of navigation you may read in his card drawn with his own hand, that the mouth of the north-western strait lieth near the 318th meridian, between 61 and 64 degrees in the elevation, continuing the same breadth about ten degrees west, where it openeth southerly more and more, until it come under the tropic of Cancer; and so runneth into Mare del Sur, at the least 18 degrees more in breadth there than it was where it first began; otherwise I could as well imagine this passage to be more unlikely than the voyage to Moscovy, and more impossible than it for the far situation and continuance thereof in the frosty clime: as now I can affirm it to be very possible and most likely in comparison thereof, for that it neither coasteth so far north as the Moscovian passage doth, neither is this strait so long as that, before it bow down southerly towards the sun again.

The second argument concludeth nothing. Ptolemy knew not what was above 16 degrees south beyond the equinoctial line, he was ignorant of all passages northward from the elevation of 63 degrees, he knew no ocean sea beyond Asia, yet have the Portuguese trended the Cape of Good Hope at the south point of Africa, and travelled to Japan, an island in the east ocean, between Asia and America; our merchants in the time of King Edward the Sixth discovered the Moscovian passage farther north than Thule, and showed Greenland not to be continent with Lapland and Norway: the like our north-western travellers have done, declaring by their navigation that way the ignorance of all cosmographers that either do join Greenland with America, or continue the West Indies with that frosty region under the North Pole. As for Virgil, he sang according to the knowledge of men in his time, as another poet did of the hot zone.

Quarum quae media est, non est habitabilis aestu. Imagining, as most men then did, Zonam Torridam, the hot zone, to be altogether dishabited for heat, though presently we know many famous and worthy kingdoms and cities in that part of the earth, and the island of S. Thomas near Ethiopia, and the wealthy islands for the which chiefly all these voyages are taken in hand, to be inhabited even under the equinoctial line.

To answer the third objection, besides Cabot and all other travellers’ navigations, the only credit of Master Frobisher may suffice, who lately, through all these islands of ice and mountains of snow, passed that way, even beyond the gulf that tumbleth down from the north, and in some places, though he drew one inch thick ice, as he returning in August did, came home safely again.

The fourth argument is altogether frivolous and vain, for neither is there any isthmus or strait of land between America and Asia, nor can these two lands jointly be one continent. The first part of my answer is manifestly allowed by Homer, whom that excellent geographer, Strabo, followeth, yielding him in this faculty the prize. The author of that book likewise On the Universe to Alexander, attributed unto Aristotle, is of the same opinion that Homer and Strabo be of, in two or three places. Dionysius, in his Periegesis, hath this verse, "So doeth the ocean sea run round about the world:" speaking only of Europe, Africa, and Asia, as then Asia was travelled and known. With these doctors may you join Pomponius Mela, Pliny, Pius, in his description of Asia. All the which writers do no less confirm the whole eastern side of Asia to be compassed about with the sea; then Plato doth affirm in is Timaeus, under the name Atlantis, the West Indies to be an island, as in a special discourse thereof R. Eden writeth, agreeable unto the sentence of Proclus, Marsilius Ficinus, and others. Out of Plato it is gathered that America is an island. Homer, Strabo, Aristotle, Dionysius, Mela, Pliny, Pius, affirm the continent of Asia, Africa, and Europe, to be environed with the ocean. I may therefore boldly say (though later intelligences thereof had we none at all) that Asia and the West Indies be not tied together by any isthmus or strait of land, contrary to the opinion of some new cosmographers, by whom doubtfully this matter hath been brought in controversy. And thus much for the first part of my answer unto the fourth objection.

The second part, namely, that America and Asia cannot be one continent, may thus be proved:- "The most rivers take down that way their course, where the earth is most hollow and deep," writeth Aristotle; and the sea (saith he in the same place), as it goeth further, so is it found deeper. Into what gulf do the Moscovian rivers Onega, Dwina, Ob, pour out their streams? northward out of Moscovy into the sea. Which way doth that sea strike? The south is main land, the eastern coast waxeth more and more shallow: from the north, either naturally, because that part of the earth is higher, or of necessity, for that the forcible influence of some northern stars causeth the earth there to shake off the sea, as some philosophers do think; or, finally, for the great store of waters engendered in that frosty and cold climate, that the banks are not able to hold them. From the north, I say, continually falleth down great abundance of water; so this north-eastern current must at the length abruptly bow toward us south on the west side of Finmark and Norway, or else strike down south-west above Greenland, or betwixt Greenland and Iceland, into the north-west strait we speak of, as of congruence it doth, if you mark the situation of that region, and by the report of Master Frobisher experience teacheth us. And, Master Frobisher, the further he travelled in the former passage, as he told me, the deeper always he found the sea. Lay you now the sum hereof together, the rivers run where the channels are most hollow, the sea in taking his course waxeth deeper, the sea waters fall continually from the north southward, the north-eastern current striketh down into the strait we speak of and is there augmented with whole mountains of ice and snow falling down furiously out from the land under the North Pole. Where store of water is, there is it a thing impossible to want sea; where sea not only doth not want, but waxeth deeper, there can be discovered no land. Finally, whence I pray you came the contrary tide, that Master Frobisher met withal, after that he had sailed no small way in that passage, if there be any isthmus or strait of land betwixt the aforesaid north-western gulf and Mare del Sur, to join Asia and America together? That conclusion arrived at in the schools, "Whatsoever land doth neither appertain unto Africa, nor to Europe, is part of Asia," was meant of the parts of the world then known, and so is it of right to be understood.

The fifth objection requireth for answer wisdom and policy in the traveller to win the barbarians’ favour by some good means; and so to arm and strengthen himself, that when he shall have the repulse in one coast, he may safely travel to another, commodiously taking his convenient times, and discreetly making choice of them with whom he will thoroughly deal. To force a violent entry would for us Englishmen be very hard, considering the strength and valour of so great a nation, far distant from us, and the attempt thereof might be most perilous unto the doers, unless their park were very good.

Touching their laws against strangers, you shall read nevertheless in the same relations of Galeotto Perera, that the Cathaian king is wont to grant free access unto all foreigners that trade into his country for merchandise, and a place of liberty for them to remain in; as the Moors had, until such time as they had brought the Loutea or Lieutenant of that coast to be a circumcised Saracen: wherefore some of them were put to the sword, the rest were scattered abroad; at Fuquien, a great city in China, certain of them are yet this day to be seen. As for the Japanese, they be most desirous to be acquainted with strangers. The Portuguese, though they were straitly handled there at the first, yet in the end they found great favour at the prince’s hands, insomuch that the Loutea or President that misused them was therefore put to death. The rude Indian canoe voyageth in those seas, the Portuguese, the Saracens, and Moors travel continually up and down that reach from Japan to China, from China to Malacca, from Malacca to the Moluccas, and shall an Englishman better appointed than any of them all (that I say no more of our navy) fear to sail in that ocean? what seat at all do want piracy? what navigation is there void of peril?

To the last argument our travellers need not to seek their return by the north-east, neither shall they be constrained, except they list, either to attempt Magellan’s strait at the south-west, or to be in danger of the Portuguese on the south-east; they may return by the north-west, that same way they do go forth, as experience hath showed.

The reason alleged for proof of the contrary may be disposed after this manner: And first, it may be called in controversy, whether any current continually be forced by the motion of primum mobile, round about the world or no; for learned men do diversely handle that question. The natural course of all waters is downward, wherefore of congruence they fall that way where they find the earth most low and deep: in respect whereof, it was erst said, the seas do strike from the northern lands southerly. Violently the seas are tossed and troubled divers ways with the winds, increased and diminished by the course of the moon, hoisted up and down through the sundry operations of the sun and the stars: finally, some be of opinion that the seas be carried in part violently about the world, after the daily motion of the highest movable heaven, in like manner as the elements of air and fire, with the rest of the heavenly spheres, are from the east unto the west. And this they do call their eastern current, or Levant stream. Some such current may not be denied to be of great force in the hot zone, for the nearness thereof unto the centre of the sun, and blustering eastern winds violently driving the seas westward; howbeit in the temperate climes the sun being farther off, and the winds more diverse, blowing as much from the north, the west, and south, as from the east, this rule doth not effectually withhold us from travelling eastwards, neither be we kept ever back by the aforesaid Levant winds and stream. But in Magellan strait we are violently driven back westward, ergo through the north-western strait or Anian frith shall we not be able to return eastward: it followeth not. The first, for that the north-western strait hath more sea room at the least by one hundred English miles than Magellan’s strait hath, the only want whereof causeth all narrow passages generally to be most violent. So would I say in the Anian Gulf, if it were so narrow as Don Diego and Zalterius have painted it out, any return that way to be full of difficulties, in respect of such straitness thereof, not for the nearness of the sun or eastern winds, violently forcing that way any Levant stream; but in that place there is more sea room by many degrees, if the cards of Cabot and Gemma Frisius, and that which Tramezine imprinted, be true.

And hitherto reasons see I none at all, but that I may as well give credit unto their doings as to any of the rest. It must be Peregrinationis historia, that is, true reports of skilful travellers, as Ptolemy writeth, that in such controversies of geography must put us out of doubt. Ortellius, in his universal tables, in his particular maps of the West Indies, of all Asia, of the northern kingdoms, of the East Indies; Mercator in some of his globes and general maps of the world, Moletius in his universal table of the Globe divided, in his sea-card and particular tables of the East Indies Zanterius and Don Diego with Fernando Bertely, and others, do so much differ both from Gemma Frisius and Cabot among themselves, and in divers places from themselves, concerning the divers situation and sundry limits of America, that one may not so rashly as truly surmise these men either to be ignorant in those points touching the aforesaid region, or that the maps they have given out unto the world were collected only by them, and never of their own drawing.


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Chicago: Richard Hakluyt, "Certain Other Reasons or Arguments to Prove a Passage by the North- West," Voyages in Search of the North-West Passage, trans. Chater, Arthur G. in Voyages in Search of the North-West Passage Original Sources, accessed August 22, 2019,

MLA: Hakluyt, Richard. "Certain Other Reasons or Arguments to Prove a Passage by the North- West." Voyages in Search of the North-West Passage, translted by Chater, Arthur G., in Voyages in Search of the North-West Passage, Original Sources. 22 Aug. 2019.

Harvard: Hakluyt, R, 'Certain Other Reasons or Arguments to Prove a Passage by the North- West' in Voyages in Search of the North-West Passage, trans. . cited in , Voyages in Search of the North-West Passage. Original Sources, retrieved 22 August 2019, from