Hudson doesn't find the Pacific

On August 2 of 1610 Henry Hudson sailed into the bay now named for him believing he had traversed the fabled Northwest Passage and reached the Pacific Ocean. Which might sound like one more of those Canadian heritage moments a la Alexander Mackenzie when courage, enterprise and perseverance led to a snowy dead end.

Literally in Hudson’s case. Fed up with his determination to press on west through this frozen wasteland after wintering on the shore of James Bay, his crew mutinied the next spring and cast Hudson, his son and seven others adrift and he vanished from history if not geography. Mind you the enormous land mass that became the Hudson’s Bay Company was very beneficial to the development of Canada. And in a significant and inspiring way rather than as part of cold random futility.

You see Hudson, despite or possibly because of his annoying personality, was a remarkable explorer. The Hudson river in New York is also named for him, because he explored that region too in its New Amsterdam days in the service of the East India Company. It is more than a little surprising that a nation as small as the Netherlands could have been a major colonial player, if not quite equal to Britain which, in turn, would be an astonishing candidate for dominant world power if we didn’t know it had happened.

Britain was less populous and wealthy than France or even China, a damp foggy set of islands off the north coast of mighty Europe. But it had something even nations like France and Spain didn’t. It had liberty. Its people were free to explore, to experiment, to dare and dream in constructive ways, not merely as conquistadors but as founders of new societies. Where explorers for tyrannical or autocratic regimes were expected to serve the crown as the crown bid them, those working for England were given genuine entrepreneurial leeway.

Within limits, obviously. The state expected service in return for patronage. But it’s very revealing that the fabled French explorers Radisson and Groseilliers had their furs confiscated by the authorities in New France over improper paperwork, whereupon the English welcomed them into their far more dynamic because less bureaucratic empire. And Hudson was sponsored in his voyages by Dutch and English companies (the Virginia Company and the British East India Company on his final voyage) not the monarch directly.

As far as I know Hudson was an annoying git. If I’d been there in 1611 I might well have joined the mutiny and maybe so would you. It does seem the surviving mutineers were deliberately not punished. They were tried for murder of which they were innocent rather than mutiny for which they would have been convicted. And while it may have been for reasons of state, because their information was too valuable, there may also have been at least some element of sympathy for their conduct. But however obnoxious Hudson was, the fact remains that a free society could use the talents of such a man far more constructively than a closed regime could.

Thus his failure to find the Pacific was turned to enormous social advantage even if it ended even more badly for him than it seemed on that dismal day when he realized this blasted sea of ice he’d found was once again not the Pacific.