John Davis (English explorer) bigraphy, stories - British explorer

John Davis (English explorer) : biography

1550 - 29 December 1605

John Davis or Davys (c. 155029 December 1605) was one of the chief English navigators and explorers under Elizabeth I. He led several voyages to discover the Northwest Passage, served as pilot and captain on both Dutch and English voyages to the East Indies. He discovered the Falkland Islands (today a Crown Dependency of the United Kingdom) in August 1592.

Davis was born in the Parish of Stoke Gabriel circa 1550 and spent his childhood in Sandridge. It has been suggested that he learned much of his seamanship as a child while plying boats along the river Dart, and went to sea at an early age. His childhood neighbors included Adrian and Humphrey Gilbert and their half-brother Walter Raleigh. From early on, he also became friends with John Dee.

On 29 Sept 1582, Davis married Mistress Faith Fulford, daughter of Sir John Fulford (the High Sheriff of Devon) and Dorithy Bourchier, the daughter of the Earl of Bath. He had five children: his first son, Gilbert was baptised on 27 March 1583; a daughter Elizabeth who died in infancy; Arthur, born 1586; John, born and died 1587; and Philip.

It is important that Captain John Davis of Sandridge should not be confused with a contemporary, Captain John Davis of Limehouse. Both served in the fleet of Captain Lancaster during the first voyage of the East India Company to the East Indies.


He began pitching a voyage in search of the Northwest Passage to the queen's secretary Francis Walsingham in 1583. Two years later, in 1585, the secretary relented and funded the expedition, which traced Frobisher's route to Greenland's east coast, around Cape Farewell, and west towards Baffin Island. In 1586, he returned with four ships, two of which were sent to Greenland's iceberg-calving eastern shore; the other two penetrated the strait which became known for him as far as 67°N before being blocked by the Arctic ice cap. The Sunshine attempted (and failed) to circumnavigate the island from the east.Gosch, C.C.A. Hakluyt Society (London), 1897. The initially amiable approach he took to the Inuit bringing musicians and having the crew dance and play with them changed after they stole one of his anchors; they were likely irate at having been interrupted during one of their religious ceremonies. His ships were also attacked by Inuit in Hamilton Inlet. A third expedition in 1587 reached 72°12'N and Disko Island before being repulsed by unfavorable winds. On his return, he charted the Davis Inlet in the coast of Labrador. The log of this trip remained a textbook model for later captains for centuries.

In 1588, he seems to have commanded the Black Dog against the Spanish Armada. In 1589, he joined the Earl of Cumberland off the Azores. In 1591 he accompanied Thomas Cavendish on the man's last voyage, which sought to discover the Northwest Passage "upon the back parts of America" (i.e., from the western entrance). After the rest of Cavendish's expedition returned unsuccessful, Davis continued to attempt on his own account the passage of the Strait of Magellan; though defeated by foul weather, he probably discovered the Falkland Islands in August 1592 aboard the Desire. His crew was forced to kill hundreds of penguins for food on the islands, but the stored meat spoiled in the tropics and only fourteen of his 76 men made it home alive.

From 1596 to 1597, Davis seems to have sailed with Sir Walter Raleigh to Cádiz and the Azores, as master of Raleigh's ship; from 1598 to 1600, he accompanied a Dutch expedition to the East Indies as pilot, sailing from Flushing and returning to Middleburg, while carefully charting and recording geographical details. He narrowly escaped destruction from treachery at Achin on Sumatra.

From 1601 to 1603, he accompanied Sir James Lancaster as chief pilot on the first voyage of the English East India Company. In December 1604, he sailed again for the same destination as pilot to Sir Edward Michelborne or Michelbourn. On this journey, he was killed off Bintan Island near Singapore by one of his captive "Japanese" pirates whose vessel he had just seized.

In the centuries after his death, the importance of Dutch whalers actually led the settlements along Greenland's western coast to be called "Straat Davis" after their name for the Strait, while "Greenland" was used to refer to the eastern shore, erroneously presumed to be the site of the Norse Eastern Settlement.Inter alia, cf. Permanent Court of International Justice. "". 5 April 1933. Accessed 10 May 2012.


His invention of the backstaff and double quadrant (called the Davis Quadrant after him) remained popular among English seamen until long after Hadley's reflecting quadrant had been introduced.


Davis's explorations in the Arctic were published by Richard Hakluyt and appeared on his world map. Davis himself published a valuable treatise on practical navigation called The Seaman's Secrets in 1594 and a more theoretical work called The World's Hydrographical Description in 1595. The account of Davis's last voyage was written by Michelborne on his return to England in 1606.

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