Robert Bylot

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Robert Bylot was a 17th-century explorer who made four voyages to the Arctic.[1] He was uneducated and from a working class background, but was able to rise to rank of Master in the British Royal Navy.[2]

Bylot was first mate on Henry Hudson's ship Discovery, during 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 (Hudson) and members of the crew, 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. It was due to Bylot's navigational skills that the ship was able to return from the Arctic safely.[3] Upon return to England, Bylot was tried as a mutineer but was pardoned.

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 latitude 65°, then returned to England.[4]

In 1615, the Muscovy Company hired Bylot to find the Northwest Passage as captain of the Discovery. On this voyage, Bylot proved that Hudson Strait was not a shipping route to Asia.[5]

The following year (1616), the Muscovy Company again hired Bylot to continue to search for the Northwest Passage. This time he was accompanied by pilot William Baffin. The Bylot-Baffin 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.[6] Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, they were able to reach 77° 45' North latitude, a record which held for 236 years.[7]

Bylot and Baffin's work in Baffin Bay was doubted by cartographers back in England. As late as 1812, 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.[8] When the bay was "rediscovered" by Sir John Ross in 1818, the charts 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.[9] Historian Farley Mowat has 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.[10]

Bylot Island, one of the more dramatic of the Arctic Islands, was named after him.


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