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Mutiny and Murder in the Arctic

Mutiny and Murder in the Arctic
The cover image for historian Peter Mancall's new book

Was English explorer Henry Hudson, the man credited by Europeans with the discovery of New York, murdered in cold blood by his own crew?

“The full story of Hudson’s saga reveals one of the darker chapters of the European age of discovery,” said Peter C. Mancall, director of the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute. “What caused the men on the ship to turn against their captain, for which the penalty back in England could have been the noose?”

In his new book Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson — A Tale of Mutiny and Murder in the Arctic (Basic Books, 2009), Mancall tackles the 400-year-old mystery of how Hudson died, examining accounts left behind by the voyage’s only survivors — the mutineers.

Despite his central role in the exploration of northeastern United States and Canada, Hudson’s fate and the whereabouts of his body remain unknown.

“Hudson was one of the most intrepid and important explorers of his age,” said Mancall, professor of history and anthropology at USC College. “He was not a man who easily gave up.”

In the summer of 1610, Hudson guided his ship, Discovery, to Canada, navigating the body of water now known as the Hudson Strait and entering Hudson Bay. Thinking that the wide expanse was the northern sea passage to Asia for which he had long been searching, Hudson committed himself to an even longer journey, according to Mancall. He ordered his men to ground the ship for the winter and continue westward in the spring.

“As Mancall so eloquently points out, the resolute will that had served Hudson so well in reaching this summit of exploration also made him unwilling to abandon his goal and led to his demise,” notes a recent Publisher’s Weekly review of Fatal Journey.

The next year, demoralized by a harsh winter and desperate to return to England, the crew turned against its captain in a surprise ambush. Hudson was no longer on board when Discovery left the thawing shores of Hudson Bay in June 1611.

“Daylight is abundant in the Arctic around the time of the summer solstice,” Mancall said. “In that bright landscape, it is difficult to keep a secret.”

The survivors were charged with murder upon their return to England. Facing death by hanging, they claimed that Hudson had not been killed during the mutiny.

Fatal Journey traces the survivors’ claim that they merely banished Hudson from the ship. Hudson and those loyal to him — including his teenage son — were given a small boat and supplies and cut loose from the Discovery, according to depositions given to London courts.

But Mancall pointed out that a search of the ship turned up evidence contradicting this story. There were bloodstains on the deck and some of Hudson’s possessions were missing. The search also uncovered a hidden note, written by the ship’s mathematician, who was banished with Hudson, revealing prior animosity between the leader of the mutineers and Hudson.

“No matter how well-provisioned Hudson was with knowledge, experience, financial backing, food, water and weapons, he knew such advantages took a ship commander only so far,” Mancall said.

If Hudson indeed was left alive, he presumably made his way for shore, according to Mancall. He might have hoped that another English vessel would soon come to rescue him and the other victims of the uprising.

Henry Hudson, the namesake of three major bodies of water in North America, was never heard from again.

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