Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Baffin, Williamlocked

  • Wayne K. D. Davies

Baffin, William (1584?–1621), Arctic explorer, was probably born in London, possibly in 1584. Neither his parents' names nor details of his early life are known. He certainly married, and may have been the William Baffin who married Susan Hodges at St Bride's, Fleet Street, on 24 January 1607. In 1612 he was chief pilot aboard the Patience, which led the navigator James Hall's fourth expedition to Greenland and sailed from Hull, accompanied by James Barker on the Heartsease, on 22 April. The voyage was largely financed by London merchants, who, if he was indeed a London man, may have insisted on Baffin's participation.

Baffin's narrative of the journey, first published in 1616 as A Journall of the Voyage Made to Greenland, described how the expedition reached 67° N on Greenland's west coast before turning south to trade with the indigenous inhabitants. On 9 July, at lat. 65°20ʹ N in Cockin Sound, Baffin made the first recorded observation of a measurement of longitude by an English navigator, although he noted that the complicated calculations had been made by 'some of the better sort' of mariners. He estimated his longitude using calculations derived from the sun's height when the moon reached a meridian line he had established. The calculation of 60°30ʹ was significantly further west than the real position of 52°50ʹ, an error that can be attributed to the fact that the complex motions of the moon were not understood until detailed lunar tables became available two hundred years later. Baffin also described the death of Hall, mortally wounded by an arrow in an apparently unprovoked attack when trading for furs on 22 July. Despite the incident the expedition continued its search for a mine known from Danish sources, but found its minerals of no value. The expedition turned for home on 26 July when they also realized the indigenous inhabitants would not trade, and reached Hull on 17 September. Baffin's narrative provided a useful description of the fauna and flora of the area, the various seasonal habitations and boats, as well as the religious beliefs and funerary practices of the inhabitants. He was especially impressed with their small, one-person boats, covered with watertight sealskin and powered by a single paddle, which he described as having 'incredible speed' and great manoeuvrability.

In 1613 Baffin served with the Muscovy Company in their whaling expedition to the islands now known as Spitsbergen, employed in the Tiger as chief pilot to Captain Benjamin Joseph's fleet of seven vessels. The fleet left London on 30 May and found over a score of vessels from the chief ports of western Europe in the area. They managed to assert their company's charter rights over the foreign vessels and planted crosses asserting King James's claim to the islands. Baffin pioneered observations to measure the sun's refraction at high latitudes, calculating a variation of 26ʹ at 79° N. He also showed that the common sailing compass produced a critical error in latitude measurement of 5½° E. Hence it is clear that his work significantly improved the latitude calculations of mariners, especially in high latitudes. Between 16 April and 4 October 1614 Baffin was part of Joseph's next venture to the area in the Tomasine, which led a fleet of eleven ships. He set out with two small boats from the main expedition to explore and map a great deal of the previously unknown Spitsbergen coast.

However, it was the next two Arctic expeditions that established Baffin's real claim to distinction. On 15 March 1615 he sailed as pilot of the Discovery, commanded by Robert Bylot, the fourth venture by the Northwest Company of London to find the elusive passage to the south seas, following the previous expeditions of Hudson, Button, and Gibbons. With a small crew of sixteen men and two boys they left London on 16 April, reached Cape Farewell on 6 May, and crossed to Resolution Island at the entrance to Hudson Strait on 17 May. During this part of the journey Baffin described ice islands 240 feet high, speculating that they were seven times as deep; he was the first to record such measurements in feet rather than nautical terms. His narrative indicated he wanted to search for the elusive passage to the north, but Bylot insisted they try to penetrate the strait, although weather conditions meant they were unsuccessful for two weeks. On 8 June they landed on and named the Savage Islands, where they found evidence of a recently abandoned native camp, from which they took the skins they found, leaving knives and iron objects in return. Baffin also described finding a bag of carvings depicting human forms, including one of a woman with a child on her back, one of the first recorded examples of aboriginal art. Resuming their journey, they reached the vicinity of Salisbury Island by 22 June. Baffin noted that he had previously made a measurement of longitude at sea on 26 April using occultation of stars by the moon—the first recorded mention of such a measurement at sea by an English navigator. His new attempt near Salisbury Island used lunar observation and estimated the longitude to be 74°5ʹ W. (In 1821 William Edward Parry recalculated Baffin's measurement in the same place and found it to be less than a degree to the west.) By 8 July the expedition had penetrated into Foxe Channel, naming Mill Island on the way. Ice conditions hindered progress beyond 65°26ʹ N, and their discovery that the flood tide came from the south-east convinced them there was no passage. On 13 July they turned for home, and reached Plymouth on 8 September. Baffin's narrative clearly indicates that he did not believe there was a passage to the south seas in this vicinity, given the depth of tide and ice conditions, but he covered himself by suggesting that if one existed it could be only a small strait or creek. This was borne out by Parry's 1821 discovery of the Fury and Hecla Strait separating Melville peninsula from the land that Baffin had glimpsed, which Parry realized was an island and named in Baffin's honour. Baffin's journal and chart for this voyage survive (BL, MS 12206) and were first published by Thomas Rundall in 1849. It shows the exemplary nature of his daily recording system; longitude estimates were routinely made, as well as those for latitude, wind direction, and high tides, together with brief comments on the events of the day. Baffin also pioneered the modern notation of compass needle variation by recording the northern deflection, rather than the more typical use of the southern end by his contemporaries.

The most significant of Baffin's exploits was in 1616, again sailing under the command of Bylot in search of the north-west passage, when he succeeded in charting the basic outline of the area now known as Baffin Sea. They left Gravesend on 26 March, but were forced to shelter in ports in south-west England before sailing directly to the west coast of Greenland. Since their specific instructions were to try to reach 80° N before turning west and south-west to Japan, they coasted north past the area known as Hope Sanderson, the furthest point north that John Davis had reached on his third voyage in 1587. By 4 June they were at 74°4ʹ, sailing with difficulty in a narrow channel only 7 or 8 leagues wide between the pack ice and the shore. On 1 July, at 75°40ʹ N, they found deep and open sea, leading to renewed hope that they would find a passage to the south seas since the land was trending north-west. The next day they discovered and named a large sound after Wolstenholme, one of their major sponsors. By 5 July they were confronted by a great bank of ice and land to the west but had found two large inlets to the east and north. The large number of whales in the area led them to name the first Whale Sound and the other Thomas Smith Sound, after another company sponsor. This latter inlet was described as trending north beyond 78°. Baffin's measurements led him to claim that the area had the greatest compass variation ever known, which he measured at 56° W, and which cast doubt upon Gilbert's principle that compass variations varied directly with the size of neighbouring lands. Forced south and west by the ice, they subsequently found two major west trending passages, Jones Sound on 10 July and later Lancaster Sound on 12 July at 74°20ʹ N (again named after principal company shareholders), but were unable to penetrate them because of ice conditions. It is ironic that outside Lancaster Sound Baffin wrote 'here our hope of passage began to be lesse'. This sound would eventually prove to be the much sought-after passage through the Arctic islands in the nineteenth century. On 27 June at 65°40ʹ N they turned east to Cockin Sound in Greenland in search of fresh provisions for their sick crew members. They recovered after eating scurvy grass, so on 6 August sailed for home, and arrived in Dover on 30 August. Baffin concluded that the area north of Davis Strait was 'no other than a great bay. … I would hardly have believed to the contrary until mine eyes became witnesse of that I desired not to have found'. But the expedition was not a complete loss. Baffin advised the company that the northern part of the bay contained considerable whale and seal resources, but warned that ships could normally get into the area only in early July and would be able to stay for only about a month. He also provided convincing explanations for the origin of icebergs in the area.

Purchas's failure to include Baffin's map with the narrative of the 1616 expedition in his voluminous 1626 survey of exploration was made on grounds of cost and his belief that Baffin's work had shown there was no route to the Pacific via this route. Baffin's journal and maps were subsequently lost, so the utility of his exploratory work was often questioned until expeditions by Sir John Ross in 1818 and Parry in 1821–3 showed the accuracy of Baffin's work and immortalized his exploits by naming Baffin Island and bay after him. However, only Purchas suggested that Baffin 'would, if he might get employment, search the passage from Japan, by the coast of Asia' (Purchas, 411). If this was a true report of Baffin's opinion, then it was probably influenced by the disappointment of his own Arctic voyages and the standard view that Portuguese explorers had sailed eastwards from the Pacific through the passage. Whatever the truth of this opinion, it is clear that in 1617 Baffin sailed as master's mate on the Anne Royal, captained by Andrew Shilling, part of Martin Pring's East India Company fleet to India and Japan, which left Gravesend on 4 February and reached Surat in September. Some of the ships under Shilling's command were directed to the Red Sea, and reached Mocha on 13 April 1618. During the next four months Baffin surveyed and charted the area with his usual diligence and accuracy, following this up with similar activities during a visit to the Persian Gulf. He received a gratuity from the company for his comprehensive charts.

Baffin again sailed under Shilling's command for India in February 1620, with a fleet of four new ships led by the London. On hearing that Portuguese and Dutch ships had made common cause in the Persian Gulf to keep out British ships, they sailed to the area and attacked their rivals on 16 December. After two engagements the English drove off their rivals but Shilling had been mortally wounded in the engagement and command passed to Captain Blyth, who returned to Surat. In 1621 English officials in India were persuaded to help the shah of Persia's forces drive the Portuguese out of the historic trading entrepôt of Hormoz. The English began with an attack on the neighbouring strategic castle and Isle of Qeshm. Baffin was mortally wounded by a cannon ball on 23 January as he ventured too close to the castle walls when measuring their height to help range the English siege guns. The English attack was successful and the island was captured on 1 February but the castle at Hormoz did not fall until 23 April. Baffin's childless widow pressed a claim for compensation from the East India Company for her husband's work and untimely death and was finally awarded £500 in 1628. Baffin's recorded career may have been short, but his work provided very important additions to the science of navigation and to knowledge of Arctic regions.


  • C. R. Markham, ed., The voyages of William Baffin, 1612–1622, Hakluyt Society, 63 (1881)
  • T. Rundall, Narratives of voyages to the north west in search of a passage to Cathay and India, 1496 to 1631 (1849)
  • CSP col., 3.257
  • J. Ross, A voyage of discovery … for the purpose of exploring Baffin's Bay and … a north-west passage (1819)
  • D. W. Waters, The art of navigation in England in Elizabethan and early Stuart times (1934)
  • W. E. Parry, Journal of a second voyage for the discovery of a north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific (1824)


  • BL, log and account, Add. MS 12206
, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latterday Saints