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England’s oldest ship logbook?

November 30, 2011

Although the ARCdoc project has as its time frame the period 1750 to 1850, it is inevitable that other items will come to the team’s attention. Sure enough, team member Matthew Ayre, whilst working in the British Library, came across the logbook of William Baffin; a remarkable document that dates from his voyage to the Arctic in 1615. But Baffin was no stranger to those hazardous waters and this logbook is for his fourth voyage.

William Baffin by Hendrick van der Borcht

It is not known for certain, but it is widely believed that Baffin was born in 1584 of humble parentage, working his way to a respected position as navigator and explorer. He first ventured into the Arctic in 1612 under a Captain James Hall as chief pilot. He then spent time in the whaling grounds off Spitsbergen in the employ of the Muscovy Company who, at that time, controlled English whaling. The purpose of his 1615 voyage in the Discovery was however to find the fabled North West Passage, and whilst he enjoyed no more success in that direction than did his successors, he did put together a volume of scientific observations unmatched for two centuries and much admired by Sir Edward Parry (whose logbooks, incidentally, form part of the ARCdoc remit). Baffin Island and Baffin Bay both bear his name to this day.

Baffin returned to the Arctic the following year after which he took employment in the East India Company sailing to Surat in 1617. He died in 1620 of wounds received in an Anglo-Persian assault on a Portuguese fort in the Persian Gulf.

His logbook may yet prove to be the oldest such English document. It will be the object of study by the ARCdoc team who plan to write a short paper on this remarkable collection of observations and the equally remarkable author.

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