Interview with the Author, Robert Ruby

Russell A. Potter

RP: The Arctic is a long way from the Middle East -- what was it that first drew you to write about Frobisher's and Hall's voyages?

RR: A long time went by before I realized Frobisher and Hall were indeed my subjects. I had written a book about Jericho and several half-forgotten explorers of the Middle East. This time, my intention was to write about gold. Reading about gold led to alchemy, and alchemy led me into the company of the courtiers who had advised England’s Elizabeth I. Elizabeth introduced me, so to speak, to Martin Frobisher. And Hall in a hundred ways was the natural coda to Frobisher. Here were two figures who acted out their ambitions in the same northern setting, three centuries apart. So I once again wrote about a place-- a small island in Frobisher Bay, this time -- and some relatively unknown explorers.

RP: When I first saw your book's title, I was surprised to see the word "Colony" -- I suspect that many people familiar with Frobisher were unaware that, beyond seeking mountains of gold, he had in fact planned to establish an English settlement in the Arctic. Did this come as a surprise to you? And how do you think that this might alter our understanding of Frobisher's Arctic voyages?

RR: The colony on Kodlunarn Island was previously unknown to me. Its story is what interested me the most. This was "new" history, at least for me. It is also what makes Frobisher an oddly modern person, and the entire enterprise somehow familiar. The colony was about a search for profits, period. His voyages negate most of the cliches about Elizabeth’s navigators as selfless mariners with only the kingdom’s interests at heart, and England as a place where every man is a kind-hearted playwright. Frobisher and the investors were in it for the money. The voyages were venture capitalism, Elizabethan style.

RP: Charles Francis Hall has been the subject of a number of recent books.What was it that persuaded you that Hall's rediscovery of Frobisher's expedition was going to be an integral rather than a peripheral part of the story you had to tell? What is it that makes Hall such a fascinating figure?

RR: Hall is not someone I would have wanted to travel with, but I find it hard not to root for him. He imposed a tremendous amount of hardship on himself; his loneliness, even when he was in the company of a dozen people, gives me the shivers. He was expert at self-torture. You begin to feel as badly for him as he did for the men of the Franklin expedition. But when he found the site of Frobisher’s colony, he became the person he hoped to be: confident commander-in-chief, able detective, and clear-sighted Arctic explorer. Without Hall, Frobisher’s story seemed musty. With him, Frobisher’s accomplishments were easier to judge. Frobisher remained a bit of stranger to me. Hall, thanks to the journals and correspondence, was a person I thought I truly knew.

RP: The Elizabethan savant Dr. Dee almost emerges as a third focus of your book -- what was it about his character that made him stand out from among other Elizabethan backers of Frobisher?

RR: John Dee popped up when I was reading about alchemy. He collected treatises about gold and navigation for his library, tested alchemical recipes in laboratories that were attached to his house, tutored navigators in the library, and visited court to promote himself as a sort of wizard. In his odd way, he was as ambitious and adventuresome as the mariners. He helped erect the intellectual framework for overseas exploration, by lobbying Elizabeth to think of exploration and the establishment of colonies as England’s God-given right. Dee had advised navigators to sail northeast to find a passage to Cathay; when that failed, he endorsed Frobisher’s plan for sailing northwest. Frobisher was one of his pupils, but I have a hard time imagining Frobisher as a patient student.

RP: How important was it to you to actually go to Baffin Island and revisit the places where Frobisher and Hall once sojourned?

RR: Since I’m a journalist rather than a historian, I’m more comfortable writing about what I’ve seen rather than things I’ve only read about. Traveling and interviewing -- that’s what I learned to do as a foreign correspondent. But I was overconfident about how much I could learn on one trip. After a reporting trip to Baffin one summer, I thought my field work was done. When it came time to write, I realized I didn’t know half enough. Same problem after a second trip. I went there four times before the book was done.

RP: Your book gives something of the Inuit perspective on Frobisher's and Hall's expeditions -- in what ways do you feel that their testimony requires us to alter our perception of white "explorers"?

RR: The Inuit are, in every way, the true experts. They’re the people who understand the niche. That sounds mundane, but they probably knew more about Frobisher than Frobisher knew about them. They understood the environment; they knew the limits of what the land could support.

They were still the experts in Charles Francis Hall’s time. Tookoolito and Ebierbing -- the guides Charles Francis Hall knew as Hannah and Joe -- deserve credit for keeping Hall alive. Whites could announce where they wished to go. The Inuit knew whether it was possible to get there, and, if they chose, could lead the way.

RP: To what would you attribute the renewed fascination with the Arctic here on the cusp of the twenty-first century? Are there any authors in this area who have had a strong influence on your own work?

RR: I don’t have any special insight into other people’s fascination. But I can date the beginning of my own. It started in 1987, when a friend recommended I buy a particular book. This friend is a gifted outdoorsman, who had taken me on camping trips that I would never have attempted on my own. The book he recommended was Barry Lopez’ Arctic Dreams. The paperback edition I bought -- it’s on my desk right now -- has two pages describing Frobisher’s misadventures, a story that seemed wholly implausible.

I doubt that I could have found Baffin Island on a map. Frobisher was just a name. But I never forgot the story.