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Stranger Than Fiction: The True Story of Buss Island

In the late 16th century, Martin Frobisher made an extraordinary discovery in the North American Arctic. On a small island located at the mouth of what would become known as Frobisher Bay but was, at the time, considered to be the Northwest Passage to China, he discovered an abundance of a black stone that, once tested, revealed an incredibly high percentage of gold. In his quest for more gold, Frobisher led a total of three expeditions into the Arctic, the third and largest comprising 15 ships. While Frobisher's precious ore quickly became worthless stone after the first two cargoes failed to yield any significant quantity of gold, one of his ships, the Emmanuel, made an enticing discovery in 1578 that would puzzle and elude explorers for centuries to come: Buss Island.

Compass rose designed by Jack McMaster, 2004

Compass rose designed by Jack McMaster, 2004

The island was named after the type of ship that discovered it: the Emmanuel was a buss, a small but sturdy two or three masted herring fishing vessel. While the ship was sailing just south of Greenland, the Emmanuel's Captain James Newton spotted an island "seeming to be fruiteful, full of woods, and a champion countrie". Despite the fact that it had never been seen before by any of the ships regularly sailing in the area, there were few doubts about the island's existence and it was soon added to new maps.

While its discovery did not spark a frenzy of new exploration - Europeans were, after all, busy setting up world-wide trading companies such as the East India Company at the time - Arctic sailors such as James Hall and Henry Hudson, looking for the Northwest Passage, carefully observed the sea as they approached the island's reported location, hoping to see and perhaps even explore it. However, it was not until Captain Zachariah Gillam and the Nonsuch sailed into Hudson Bay in 1668 that the island was sighted again, almost a century after its original discovery.

A few years after the Nonsuch expedition, Thomas Shepherd, another Hudson's Bay Company man and Captain of the Golden Lion, not only saw the island but set foot on it and produced a map. Shepherd named 12 of the island's features after Hbc Directors: these included Rupert's Harbour, Viner's Point, and Shaftesbury Harbour. His excellent report led the Company to seek a supplemental charter from the King in 1673, which was granted in 1675. For the sum of £65 the Company received:

"...the sole trade and commerce of all the Seas Bayes Islettes Rivers Creekes and Sounds whatsoever lying within neare or about the said island... And all mynes Royall as well discovered as not discovered of Gold Silver Gemmes and Precious stones to bee found or discovered within the Island aforesaid."

Martin Frobisher - Henry Holland/Library and Archives Canada/C-011413

Martin Frobisher
Henry Holland/Library and Archives Canada/C-011413

Hoping to strike it rich a second time, the Company immediately sent out an expedition party of two vessels under Shepherd's command. The party left London so late that they barely made it to Hudson Bay in time for winter. The expedition's failure to locate Buss Island somewhat dampened Hbc's enthusiasm: it remained the only expedition Hbc ever sent out specifically to seek out the island. Other explorers, however, kept looking, yet the island continued to elude them.

By the mid-18th century, sailors seriously began to doubt the existence of the island. Only marginal and unreliable testimonies reported its existence: perhaps it had sunk? The area was (and still is) known for its volcanic activity, so maybe a catastrophe had happened since the Emmanuel had discovered it. More search parties took to the seas and probed for the sea bottom in the area where Buss should have been, but none ever found much support for the "sunken island" theory. More likely, Buss Island never existed at all. It was probably either a mirage, or else a few ships went astray and "discovered" an island that was already known, or a piece of Greenland, having mistaken their actual location for one hundreds of kilometers away.

The story of Buss Island would normally end here, with its removal from marine charts and world maps in 1856. In a quirky turn of history, however, interest in Buss Island is still alive and well. Not too long ago Hbc was contacted by a science-fiction writer, researching Buss for his next project, who was hoping we would consider selling it to him!



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