A voyage to the top of the world for tons of worthless rock

It's a story overlooked in high school history books, but England's first attempt to colonize the Americas began in the Arctic. As far as failures are concerned, it was rather unspectacular, but it has all the right ingredients for a delectable fable: queens, piracy, alchemy, adventure, and the hunt for gold.

Robert Ruby's engaging new book, "Unknown Shore," traces the route to this overlooked colony, its demise, and the explorers who followed after. It is largely an account of two men: the British explorer Robert Frobisher and an American named Charles Hall.

The two are separated by almost 300 years. As Ruby weaves their stories together, however, what emerges is a tale of greed, conceit, and insatiable desire.

The tale begins in 1576 with a two-ship expedition led by Frobisher through the Canadian Arctic. His goal: to find and sail the Northwest Passage, a hypothesized channel that would allow the British to trade freely with Asia without having to use Spain and Portugal as intermediaries.

But first they had to find the passage, using maps of best-guesses and speculation. "Every few years cartographers refashioned their maps," Ruby writes. "The geography, like a distant lover, changed according to expectations and desires."

Frobisher got only as far as the northern tip of Greenland on his first journey, and his second, and his third. During his first voyage, he mistook a bay for the strait to Cathay, and lost five men to a storm and five men to the Arctic. He gained one rock and one Inuit, which he brought back to Britain as proof of having landed on the frozen terrain.

The Inuit held fascination value. The rock, according to a Venetian alchemist, contained gold. The promise of gold lured Frobisher back for a second voyage, then a third, to the land Queen Elizabeth had dubbed "Meta Incognita," or "Unknown Shore."

By his third expedition, in 1578, Frobisher's fleet numbered 15 ships, and aimed to bring back as much of the rock as possible while creating a colony to mine the land.

The mission was a bust. "Prospects of a land of gold clouded everyone's judgment," Ruby writes. Frobisher, driven by greed, pushed his fleet to deliver more than 1,000 tons of what turned out to be worthless rock. In their hurry to leave during a storm, they left some men behind. The tiny, accidental colony was soon lost - its citizens undone by the harsh Arctic winter.

Three centuries later, the British were still trying to find a northwest passage. By then, they knew it would be frozen over for more then half the year and held no promise for lucrative trade. But, Ruby writes, "The Royal Navy's search for a northwest passage became something of a national sport, as gentlemanly as cricket."

Enter Charles Hall, who was ardently watching the quest from the United States. An engraver and self-employed newsman, Hall knew nothing about Arctic exploration, but when a British explorer and his crew disappeared, Hall took it upon himself to find them and uncover the true story of their fate. He traveled there on board a whaling ship, befriended the Inuit, and - through a painstakingly precise questionnaire - recorded their oral history.

"Unknown Shore" is a fascinating read, full of stories that history forgot. True, Ruby's back-and-forth narrative, hopping between 16th-century England and 19th-century America, gets a bit confusing. (To complicate matters further, Frobisher had a pilot also named Hall.)

He spends too much time setting up both Frobisher's and Charles Hall's exploits and not enough time following up. His writing is often self-conscious, bringing his own detailed research to the reader's attention and pointing out not only known minutiae but unknown as well (e.g. "Why he chose to step forward is known only to him....").

However, Ruby's portrayal of what he does know is vivid: "Water, rugged mountains, and ice," he writes. "They are the phyla of the north. In summer, depending on the evening light, the ice floes glow pink. They float on a sapphire sea. The land is hardened gray steel." It's descriptions like these that bring the land, and the people, alive.

Lauren Gravitz is a freelance science writer in Cambridge, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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