Robert Bylot (fl. 1610–1616) was an English explorer who made four voyages to the Arctic. He was uneducated and from a working-class background, but was able to rise to rank of master in the English Royal Navy.
First voyage, 1610–1611
Bylot was first mate on the Discovery during Henry Hudson's 1610–1611 expedition into what is now known as Hudson Bay. In the spring of 1611, Hudson wanted to continue the expedition, but the crew wanted to return home. There was discontent between the captain and members of the crew, and Bylot was stripped of his rank.
Later there was a mutiny in which Hudson, his son and several sailors were set adrift in an open boat in James Bay. It was due to Bylot's navigational skills that Discovery was able to return from the Arctic safely; Hudson and his party were never seen again. Upon return to England, Bylot was tried as a mutineer but was pardoned.
Second voyage, 1612–1613
Bylot returned to Hudson Bay in 1612 with Sir Thomas Button. They wintered over at the mouth of the Nelson River, and in the spring of 1613, continued north. They were able to reach 65° N, then returned to England.
First voyage, 1615
In 1615, the Muscovy Company hired Bylot to find the Northwest Passage as captain of Discovery. William Baffin was the pilot. They sailed west from Hudson Strait and were blocked by ice at Frozen Strait.
Second voyage, 1616
The following year, the Muscovy Company again hired Bylot and Baffin to continue to search for the Northwest Passage. The voyage resulted in several notable achievements. First was the circumnavigation and mapping of what is now called Baffin Bay. Second was the discovery of Smith Sound, by which the North Pole would eventually be reached. Third was the discovery of Lancaster Sound, through which the Northwest Passage would eventually be found three centuries later.
Bylot and Baffin's work in Baffin Bay was doubted by cartographers back in England. As late as 1812, some charts of the area only showed a dotted bulge with the words: "Baffin's Bay according to the relation of W. Baffin in 1616, but not now believed."
When the bay was "rediscovered" by Sir John Ross in 1818, the records of the Bylot–Baffin voyage proved extremely accurate. In England, almost total credit for the discovery was given to Baffin, and Bylot was virtually ignored. Historian Farley Mowat speculated two possible reasons for this: Bylot's lack of education and lower position relative to Baffin in English society, and his involvement in the mutiny during Hudson's expedition.
- Mowat, F. M. (1973). The Polar Passion: The Quest for the North Pole. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. ISBN 9780771066214.
- Neatby, L. H. (1979) . "Bylot, Robert". In Brown, George Williams (ed.). Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. I (1000–1700) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.
- Rundall, Thomas (1849). Narratives of voyages towards the North-west, in search of a passage to Cathay and India. 1496 to 1631. London: Hakluyt Society.
Media files used on this page
Author/Creator: Manitoba Historical Maps, Licence: CC BY 2.0
James, Thomas. The Platt of Sayling For The Discoverye Of A Passage Into The South Sea 1631-1632 [facsimile]. [1:21,542,400]. In: Christy Miller. The Voyages of Captain Luke Foxe of Hull, and Captain Thomas James of Bristol, in Search of a Northwest Passage, in 1631-32 with Narratives of the Earlier Northwest Voyages of Frobisher, Davis, Weymouth, Hall, Knight, Hudson, Button, Gibbons, Bylot, Baffin, Hawkridge, and others. London: Hakluyt Society, 1884. As reproduced by, Hakluyt Society, vol II, First Series, No. 89.
The title of this map states clearly the intention of the voyage to North America undertaken by Captain James. He entered Hudson Bay to search for and hopefully discover a passage leading west into the Western (or Southern) Ocean. His purpose was not fulfilled. Interestingly, James indicated on his map the wider arena of exploration in the quest for the Northwest Passage, by including the northern regions of Foxe Basin, Davis Strait and Baffin Bay. During his attempt he clarified the character of the west mainland shore south of Cape Henrietta Maria, and made unnecessary further search south of the Nelson river for this western waterway. James erroneously made Southampton Island into a peninsula, although he had not traveled into its immediate area. (Warkentin and Ruggles. Historical Atlas of Manitoba. map 6, p. 26)Map originally printed in black in Thomas James, The Strange and Dangerous Voyage of Captaine Thomas James, in his intended Discovery of the Northwest Passage into the South Sea Wherein the Miseries Indured Both Going Wintering Returning & the Rarities Observed both Philosophicall and Mathematical are related in this Journal of it. London: 1633.