Sunday, October 18, 2009

Half Moon

Henry Hudson and the voyage that redrew the map of the New World
Douglas Hunter

Henry Hudson didn't take directions very well. He was hired by the Dutch East Indies Company to go look for the northeast passage, a route to the Pacific Ocean over the top of Russia. Instead he went west and discovered New York City. Hunter's book explores Hudson's reasons for going so far off course, traces the actual voyage as best as he could determine and talks about the consequences for the colonization of North America that stem from Hudson's discoveries.


Hudson had made two earlier voyages of exploration, both financed by English business interests. In 1607 and 1608 he went to Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean searching for a trans polar route and a northeast passage to the Pacific Ocean and the lucrative trade with China. In 1609 no English patronage was to be found for another expedition. Hudson wanted to find a northwest passage, north of Canada or a mid continental route, through North America. The Dutch East India Company was interested in finding a northeast route, which Hudson had already tried. He knew that sea ice made that route impossible but because the Dutch were willing to finance a voyage Hudson agreed to go. After a quick trip to the arctic Hudson turned his ship, the Half Moon, westward to look for a passage to China. He was in direct violation of his instructions from the Dutch, who wanted him to go northeast and report back to Holland immediately. In Half Moon Hunter speculates that Hudson may have been working as a double agent, exploring for England on Hollands dime.

Hunter incorporates what is known about exploration in the beginning of the 17th century into the story. Richard Hakluyt, the English geographer and supporter of new world exploration gave Hudson all the latest information about explorations on the North American coastline, including Giovanni da Verrazzano's brief visit to the mouth of the Hudson River in 1524. Hakluyt had pieced together reports from French, Spanish, Dutch and English explorers, fur traders and fisherman which seemed to indicate that a river on the east coast connected to one that reached the Pacific with only a short portage west of the Allegheny mountains. Of course he was wrong.

Half Moon makes connections between Sebastian Cabot, Jacques Cartier, Henry Hudson, Samuel de Champlain in the search for a mirage, a quick passage to Asia, and how their efforts led to the colonization of North America by Europeans. While they made voyages of discovery, others, some of them members of their crews, came to trade, farm or fish and built new nations in the process.


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