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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

V. Seafaring and Travel

§ 11. Thomas James and Luke Fox

We find the literary expression of this controversy in two volumes, which are almost, if not quite, the earliest separately published English narratives of voyages in search of a north-west passage. These are The Strange and Dangerous Voyage of Captain Thomas James in his Intended Discovery of the North-West Passage into the South Sea (1633), and the whimsically named North-West Fox; or Fox from the North-West Passage, of captain Luke Fox of Hull (1635). These explorers were both engaged in their work in 1631, and met in the icy regions, their work, apparently, being inspired by the healthful rivalry of the Bristol and London merchants. James, who was furnished with a ship by the merchants of Bristol, and is said to have belonged to a good family, was a man of education, and a scientific seaman, who, while knowing the importance of setting sail in a well-found vessel with a trained company, was sensible of the necessity of a proper knowledge of navigation, and of being supplied with proper instruments. Accordingly, before putting to sea, he endeavoured to extend his former studies by obtaining journals, plots (or charts), descriptions, or whatever would assist him, and set skilful craftsmen to make quadrants, staves, semicircles and compass-needles. The narrative of his voyage is very interesting as a picture of the life of the explorer in those times, and of professional seamen at work. Fox, on the other hand, belonged to the old school. He had spent his whole life in the practical business of the sea.

  • “Gentle Reader,” he says, “expect not heere florishing Phrases or Eloquent tearmes; for this child of mine, begot in the North-West’s cold Clime (where they breed no Schollers), is not able to digest the sweet milke of Rhethorick, that’s food for them.”
  • He goes on to deride the “mathematicall sea-man,” who, he avers, would fail in contest with the “ruffe and boisterous ocean.” He proceeds:
  • Being deprived of sun, moon and stars for long season, they will then think that they only dreamed before; when they imagined of the course of the seas, and that their books were but weak schoolmasters; that the talk of art were far short of the practice, when, at beholding the stars, which they thought to have used as guides and directions, seem now as they threatened their ruin and destruction; nay, when they shall look forth and tremble at the rising of every wave, and shall be aghast with fear to refrain those rocks and dangers which lie hid within the sea’s fairest bosom, together with the greatness of the ocean, and smallness of their ship; for want of experience to handle, not knowing how to shun, they will then think that the least gale is of force to overthrow them, and know that art must be taught to practice by long and industrious use. For it is not enough to be a seaman, but it is necessary to be a painful seaman; for a seabred man of reasonable capacity may attain to so much art as may serve to circle the earth’s globe about; but the other, wanting the experimental part, cannot; for I do not allow any to be a good seaman that hath not undergone the most offices about a ship, and that hath not in his youth been both taught and inured to all labours; for to keep a warm cabin and lie in sheets is the most ignoble part of a seaman; but to endure and suffer, as a hard cabin, cold and salt meat, broken sleeps, mouldy bread, dead beer, wet clothes, want of fire, all these are within board; besides boat, lead, top-yarder, anchor-moorings and the like.
  • But Fox was not so insensible of the value of written experience as his words might imply, for he, like Eden, Hakluyt and Purchas, was a collector of voyages, and he deserves an honourable place here because his volume includes an account of expeditions from early times down to Baffin and some later discoverers. The narratives of James and Fox have been reprinted in a single volume by the Hakluyt society. They did not explore beyond the bay which takes its name, to use Purchas’s expression, from “that worthy irrecoverable discoverer,” Hudson.