The Surprising Riches of Fool’s Gold

Pyrite, the stone rejected as an imposter, is the cornerstone of the modern world. /

Nobody calls Martin Frobisher “The Pyrite Pirate,” which seems a shame. But to be fair: while he was arrested three or four times for piracy, he was never convicted.

Still, he was reportedly quite good at plundering Spanish and French ships as a privateer (essentially pirates licensed by Elizabeth I’s government). But Spanish ships’ gold was coming from the New World and a larger treasure beckoned: The possible discovery of a Northwest Passage to Asia.

“It is still the only thing left undone whereby a notable mind might be made famous and remarkable,” he said. He sure sounded determined. In the words of an anonymous account (probably written by Frobisher’s chief financial backer), Frobisher vowed “rather to make a sacrifice onto God of his lyfe than to return home withowt the discovery of [China] except by compulsion of extreme force and necessity.”

By the standards of other explorers in the mid-1500s, the “force and necessity” wasn’t that extreme, but it wasn’t easy, either. A storm sank one of his ships. The crew of another ship feared the sea ice near Greenland and returned home. Finally he reached what is now Baffin Island and entered what seemed to be a strait—a northern counterpart “lyke as Magellan’s at the southwest end of the world”—only better. “That land upon his right hand as he sailed westward he judged to be the continent of Asia,” wrote George Best, who served with Frobisher on later voyages. “And there to be divided from the firm of America, which lieth upon the left hand.”

Instead, it was just a 140-mile-long bay on Baffin Island. And it was occupied by Inuit, who captured five ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 45 / March 31, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from March 31, 2016

    Issue 45: The fun in naming, how pyrite changed the world, and why it’s fine that piratebush didn’t change much of anything. /

  2. Our First Mission Isn’t Finished

    There’s plenty left to name in the sometimes silly, always vast field of taxonomy. /

  3. Let Us Now Praise Obscure, Useless Plants

    God and I delight in piratebush like he delights in me. /

  4. Fetal Heartbeat

    “like the wings of millions of monarchs returned” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 45: Links to amazing stuff.

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