MARTIN FROBISHER: Elizabethan Privateer

James McDermott, Author MARTIN FROBISHER: Elizabethan Privateer

Frobisher Bay in the Canadian subarctic and a plaque at St. Giles Cripplegate in London are all that remain of the memory of Sir Martin Frobisher (1535–1594). McDermott's crowded biography, as thorough a life of the elusive adventurer as the relatively few available facts make possible, traces his checkered career from a stark Yorkshire boyhood to the coasts of Africa and North America, and his privateering on the Atlantic to his later undertakings for Queen Elizabeth. McDermott fills in the gaps with supposition and parallel descriptions of such seafaring contemporaries as Drake and Hawkings, veering off into material that few readers, other than aficionados of privateering and particularly those knowledgeable about antique nautical terms, would care to know. Frobisher's three unrewarding voyages to barren "Meta Incognita" (now Baffin Island) in search of a northwest passage to the Orient and failed get-rich-quick scheme to mine for gold in Inuit country left him in need of money, and so he resumed his semi-official piracy of foreign ships. Elizabeth, who in 1588 was in need of a tough captain, made Frobisher a vice-admiral, and his role in thwarting the Spanish Armada earned him a knighthood. Despite the dry prose, independent historian McDermott, who has been researching his hero for 30 years, successfully evokes the life of an admittedly unlikable character, as he survived the downside of ambition and climbed upward no matter what the cost to others. Ultimately, the fame of his "brief asides" into legitimacy, even his heroic death during a mission "under the authority of the Broad Seal of England," McDermott concludes with apparent sadness, "should not disguise the truth of a career whose despoliations had defined Martin Frobisher." Color illus. not seen by PW. (May)

Reviewed on: 04/09/2001
Release date: 05/01/2001
Paperback - 526 pages - 978-0-300-20476-6
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