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It is a remarkable fact that every officer who may have had a command in exploring the Arctic Seas, in search of a passage from the northern part of the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, from the days of Elizabeth to the present time, has fully satisfied himself of the uninterrupted continuity of the two oceans—a point that, in our time, has been incontestably proved, the whole northern coast of America having been traversed, by various parties, close along the shore of the Polar Sea ; and the navigable part of the question is just now in the act of being decided, under the command of an officer, who was among the first in the field on former occasions, and who claims that command as his birthright: he goes under a strong conviction of success. It is a proud feature, and always has been in the naval service, that neither age, nor ease, nor the enjoyment of comfort at home, can deter its officers from embracing services, though surrounded with dangers and difficulties, when a feeling of duty, and a conviction of overcoming them, takes possession of their minds.
Whether Fenton was actuated by such a feeling there is no record to show; but, like Davis, he had fully persuaded himself that the discovery of a north-west passage was feasible, and that the attempt might be made with great probability of successan opinion, indeed, very prevalent at that time. He was recommended by the Earl of Leicester, who had great influence with the Queen, as an officer well qualified to be employed on such a service, to which the Queen not only consented, but contributed two of her ships to be attached to the expedition. These were the Galleon Leicester (called the Bear in the Instructions), of 400 tons, Fenton the General, William Hawkins the Lieutenant-General; the Bonaventure, 300 tons, Luke Ward the ViceAdmiral; the Francis, 40 tons, Captain John Drake; and the Elizabeth, pinnace, 50 tons, Thomas Skevington, Commander.
The Earl of Cumberland was at this time bringing himself into notice, and into favour at court; to him was intrusted the charge of arranging matters for the voyage, to the expense of which, it is said, he largely contributed. When all was ready, the Lords of the Privy Council gave to Fenton a Code of Instructions of twenty-four articles, which are not remarkable for clearness, and are some of them liable to misconstruction. They begin very properly by inculcating the spirit and practice of religion, morality, justice, and humanity; and, for the first time, they confer a power over life and death, which had long been practically assumed by the General or Admiral of an expedition, but not allowable to inferior officers. The article runs thus :
Art. 5. After awarding punishments for certain offences, it proceeds—
“ Provided always, and it shall not be lawful, neither for you nor your Lieutenant, to proceed to the punishment of any person, by loss of life or limb, unless the party shall be judged to have deserved it by the rest of your assistants, or, at the least, by four of them; and that which shall concern life, to be by the verdict of twelve men of the company employed on this voyage, to be impannelled for that purpose, with the observation of the form of our country's laws in that behalf, as near as you may.”
Art. 9 directs the commander “ to go on your course by the Cape of Good Hope, not passing by the Strait of Magelhaens, either going or returning, except upon great occasion incident, that shall be thought otherwise good to you, by the advice and consent of your assistants.
“ Art. 10. You shall not pass to the north-eastward of the 40th degree of latitude, at the most, but shall take your right course to the Isles of the Moluccas, for the better discovery of the North-West Passage, if without hindrance of your trade, and within the same degree, you can get any knowledge concerning that passage, whereof you shall do well to be inquisitive, as occasion in this sort may serve.”
To succeed in finding the North-West Passage at or below the 40th degree of latitude would indeed be passing strange! It raises a suspicion, as insinuated, that these Instructions were drawn up as a blind; and that, through the influence of the two Earls of Leicester and Cumberland, they had contrived to give legally, as it were, a voyage to Fenton, similar to that which had so recently enriched Drake, by which he might have opportunities of making reprisals on Spanish ships, or depredations on Spanish possessions. Fenton was prohibited from going to the north beyond the 40th degree, where only a passage could be found; but he was unlimited in going to the south, where all the Spanish possessions lay. The prohibition of passing the Strait of Magelhaens, twice repeated in the Instructions, looks very like an apprehension that the voyage might be considered as following up that of Drake, which would involve Elizabeth in the suspicion of sanctioning the same practices, two of her ships now forming the most considerable part of the force of the expedition.
The ships left Plymouth in May, 1582, and arrived at Sierra Leone, in want of provisions, their flour having proved naught, and unfit for use : they therefore exchanged their pinnace for a cargo of rice, and some other provisions. Thence proceeding down the coast, and trafficking with the natives, they crossed over to the Brazils, anchored in a small bay, and with a net caught at one draught six hundred large mullets, and six great basses. Departing thence, they captured a small Spanish ship carrying passengers, whom they liberated after two days, detaining only a couple, and taking some sugar and ginger from her. From these passengers Captain Fenton learned, that a Spanish fleet, under Diego Flores de Valdes, had departed from Rio de Janeiro six weeks before, for the purpose of waiting in the Strait to intercept him; notwithstanding which, after a consultation, it
was resolved to proceed and pass the Strait of Magelhaens; and they set sail for that purpose; but as second thoughts are sometimes best, they agreed, in the first place, to call at Port St. Vincent, to victual and procure necessaries before they proceeded farther. This port was preferred to the river Plate, as less likely there to be betrayed to De Valdes; but the precaution was unnecessary, for the Francis, having parted from the fleet, got into the river Plate, where she was cast away, but the crew saved, and kept among savages fifteen months.
A few days after Fenton had entered the river of Port St. Vincent, three Spanish ships were observed to anchor on the bar. Captain Ward of the Bonaventure went on board his Admiral to learn what he meant to do. He was told he had determined to set his watch in a warlike manner, which may be supposed to mean, that he had made up his mind to fight them, and so Captain Ward understood it; nothing more appears to have passed between them, but without further delay a very smart action commenced by moonlight, which was only suspended by the setting of that planet, when the Spanish Vice-Admiral is said to have been left “in a miserable torn condition,” so much, indeed, that at daybreak they observed her sunk very near to them, “ with some of her crew yet hanging about her shrouds, most of whom were drowned.” A