Note: This book is reviewed by my husband Jim.
Apparently it is not always easy to recognize a good harbor while sailing along the coast of a continent. For example, Francis Drake sailed right past the Golden Gate without noticing it on his famous circumnavigation of the globe. And quite a few French, English, and (maybe) Spanish explorers sailed right past the entrance to New York harbor without noticing it. John Verrazano “discovered” the entrance to the harbor in 1524, but did not explore the area enough to realize its potential; moreover, he never penetrated the harbor far enough to become aware of the large river that empties into it from the north. Not until 1609, when Henry Hudson piloted the Half Moon on a strange voyage of discovery, did Europeans learn of the great harbor and the strategic transportation corridor of the Hudson River Valley.
Hudson’s employers must have been indeed surprised by the results of his voyage, since he had been hired to try to find a Northeast passage (around Russia to the north) to the Orient! How Hudson ended up exploring the east coast of the America instead is the subject of Douglas Hunter’s Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage that Redrew the Map of the New World.
Hudson was in the employ of the Dutch East India Company (known as the VOC) when he made his historic voyage. He had attempted, but failed, to find a northeast passage to the Orient in 1608. When he tried again in 1609, he encountered rough weather near Norway. He might have returned to port in Amsterdam; instead, he made a 3,000-mile detour and headed across the Atlantic. Several earlier cartographers had speculated that a large river traversed the North American continent all the way to the Pacific, and in violation of his charter with the VOC, Hudson set out to find it.
Recreating Hudson’s actual voyage is difficult because no logbook has survived. Instead, we have only the diary of one of his crew and later recorded oral history of some other survivors of the voyage. Hudson tried first at the Chesapeake Bay, hoping to work his way north to what we know as the Potomac River, but was frustrated by the presence of the English colony at Jamestown and an English vessel that might have been a war ship. So he left the Chesapeake and voyaged north, coming upon the Verrazano Narrows and ultimately the New York harbor and what we now call the Hudson River.
He ventured up the Hudson near present day Albany, where the river ceased to be navigable, which was no mean feat of sailing. He hoped to cross the continent, or if not, at least to make it to the St. Lawrence River. (As we now know, there is no transcontinental river, but Hudson contributed greatly to the European understanding of the geography of eastern North America. His voyage inspired the Dutch to colonize the New York area.)
Frustrated, Hudson returned to Europe, but he did not return to Holland; instead, he stopped at Dartmouth, England. From there he was able to arrange another voyage of discovery, this time to find a northwest passage around Canada. That trip resulted in the discovery of Hudson Bay. Hudson’s crew mutinied on that voyage and abandoned him, his son, and a few loyal crew members to their fate—they were never seen again.
Evaluation: Hunter’s book is a fairly scholarly attempt to recreate the voyage of the Half Moon. It does contain several very informative small-scale maps, but I recommend keeping a good atlas handy while reading this book. Although it focuses primarily on a single voyage, the book provides a good insight into how long and piecemeal the process of discovering and exploring the New World was for Europeans. Nevertheless, it is not always a very readable book in that it discusses in great detail where the Half Moon was on particular dates. It may primarily be of interest to specialists in Hudson the man, Hudson the water, and/or exploration in general.
Published by Bloomsbury Press, 2009