Robert Bylot (sometimes spelled Billet) is one of the most enigmatic characters in early 17th-century Arctic exploration. Despite commanding, or being a central character in, four expeditions between 1610 and 1616, scholars know little about his early life or his later years. Only one island bears his name, while the men he sailed with and whose contributions were no more notable are commemorated on a much grander scale. Apparently, Bylot never entirely escaped the stigma of being one of the returning mutineers from Henry Hudson's disastrous fourth voyage.
Bylot first appeared as leading seaman on Hudson's ship Discovery in 1610. With the backing of a private group of investors including Sir Thomas Smythe, Sir Dudley Digges, and John Wolstenholme, Hudson searched for the North West Passage. The Discovery sailed on April 17, entered Ungava Bay on June 25, and passed Digges Island to enter Hudson Bay proper on August 2. On September 10, as the Discovery sailed back and forth in James Bay, a near mutiny persuaded Hudson to demote the mate, Robert Juet, and promote Robert Bylot in his place. From November 1610 to June 1611, Hudson and his crew wintered in James Bay, where most suffered from scurvy and hunger and one man died. When the ice released the ship, Bylot was demoted in his turn, with quartermaster John King replacing him as mate.
On June 22, Henry Greene, Robert Juet, and William Wilson, uncertain that Hudson was going to head straight home and sure he was hoarding food, mutinied. Hudson, his son John, and seven others were cast adrift in the ship's boat. Bylot's role in the mutiny is unclear, although he navigated the Discovery out of Hudson Bay. When Henry Greene was killed by Inuit on Digges Island, Bylot took over as ship's master and piloted the survivors home. Bylot and seven others arrived off the coast of Ireland on September 6, 1611, and returned to London on October 20. Bylot and Abacuk Prickett immediately reported to Sir Thomas Smythe. Although a recommendation was made that the mutineers be hanged, Bylot was pardoned for his work in bringing the ship home, and the others were not brought to trial until 1616 and were finally acquitted in 1618. Apparently the news they brought back of the North West Passage outweighed their deeds.
In 1612, Smythe, Digges, and Wolstenholme obtained a charter as the Governor and Company of Merchants of London, Discoverers of the North West Passage (sometimes called the North West Passage Company). The director was Henry, Prince of Wales (who died before the end of that year), and Bylot, Prickett, and Edward Wilson were members. The new company hired Captain Thomas Button to return and sail through the North West Passage. On April 15, 1612, Button sailed from Gravesend in the Resolution with Bylot, Prickett, and a letter to the Emperor of Japan, and accompanied by the refitted Discovery.
Button and Bylot's voyage was not a rescue mission to find Hudson. Button's orders were to sail to Digges Island, note the direction of the flood tide, and sail directly into it. Details of the voyage are not known as the company kept the journals secret to protect their monopoly. However, Button did as he was ordered. He arrived at Digges Island, where five men were killed in a battle with Inuit. Sailing west, Button reached the western shore of Hudson Bay at latitude 60° 41' N, naming the place Hopes Checkt. Sailing south, Button touched Cape Churchill, which he named Hubbard's Hope, and reached the Nelson River on August 15, claiming the land for King James I, an important factor in England's later disputes with the French.
After wintering in the Nelson River, Button sailed north in the Discovery, abandoning the Resolution because so many of the crew had died. Button and Bylot sailed into Roe's Welcome to latitude 65°, before retreating out of what they believed to be a bay. They mapped and named Southampton, Coates, and Mansel islands, left Hudson Bay on August 19, 1613, and arrived home on September 27. This voyage established that there was no open sea route to the Orient in mid-northern latitudes, and for many years all or part of Hudson Bay was known as Button's Bay.
In 1614, William Gibbons, in the Discovery, attempted to find the North West Passage, but was blocked by ice. In 1615, again sponsored by Smythe, Digges, and Wolstenholme, Bylot was given command of the Discovery and sailed with William Baffin as his pilot. On June 21, Baffin made the first lunar observations taken at sea to determine longitude. Bylot sailed up Fox Channel, mapping the east coast of Southampton Island. On July 13, having rounded Cape Comfort, Bylot saw land and thick ice ahead and returned south. The Discovery docked at Plymouth on September 8. Bylot's 1615 voyage convinced his sponsors that there was no outlet to the west from Hudson Bay. Consequently, they sent Bylot and Baffin out in 1616 to find a more northerly route.
Bylot sailed through Davis Strait and circumnavigated the bay above it. He named Smith (a misspelling of Smythe), Wolstenholme, Jones, Lancaster Sounds, and Sir Dudley Digges Cape after the voyage's backers. At the entrance to Smith Sound, Bylot reached 78° N, a record that would not be surpassed for 236 years. Probably because of Bylot's role in the Hudson mutiny, he named Baffin Bay after his navigator rather than himself. Bylot Island, an offshore adjunct to its giant neighbor Baffin Island, lies to the south of Lancaster Sound.
After Bylot's return in 1616, the map of his voyage and the original journal written by Baffin were lost. Thus, many of his discoveries were doubted, and it was not until John Ross's voyage of 1818 that they were reconfirmed. Bylot and Baffin's voyages of 1615 and 1616 convinced the Muscovy and North West Passage Companies that there was no route to Asia around or through North America, and commercial interest in the area waned.
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