Friday, October 01, 2010

Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage That Redrew the Map of the New World by Douglas Hunter

When I first noticed Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage That Redrew the Map of the New World, I wondered if it could serve as a biography of the famous explorer. I assumed a man whose name has been given to a prominent river and a large bay would be a well-documented historical figure whose origins might make an interesting tale. To my surprise, I learned from the author Douglas Hunter that little is really known about Hudson. No record of his name has been found in documents before 1607, the year he led an English-financed voyage looking for the Northeast Passage from Europe to the Far East via the Arctic Ocean. He led subsequent voyages of exploration in 1608, 1609, and 1610-1611 and died in 1611 somewhere in Hudson Bay, Canada. His four mystery-filled years of exploration is all that is really known about the man.

So, in a sense, by recounting the four voyages of Henry Hudson, Half Moon includes everything that could go into a Hudson biography, but as a reading experience, the book is truly a history. Hunter includes chapters about other explorations (especially those of Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, and John Smith), recounts the history of the Dutch East India Company, describes the workings of British and French royal courts, and tells how Hudson's exploration of the Hudson River Valley was used by both the Netherlands and Great Britain in claiming lands in the New World. Readers learn much about life on sailing ships and the tides of the Hudson River. Most importantly, the author shows how most popular accounts of early exploration of North America are skimpy and misleading. Much occurred that was never publicly revealed.

Greed, not the advancement of knowledge, drove the nations of Europe to send out ships of discovery. The primary objective for over one hundred years was finding a quick route to the Far East. Because each failure to do so bankrupted investors, the process of exploration was very slow. When ships were sent out, they were often poorly financed and were expected to help pay their way with Viking-like raids on unsuspecting seaside villages. Poorly paid sailors expected plunder to make sailing worthwhile. The distinction between pirates, merchants, and navies was almost meaningless at the time. It is no wonder that Africans and Native Americans soon became very wary of ships along the coast.

Half Moon may interest readers usually inclined toward historical novels, for Hunter keeps several story lines running and develops Hudson as fairly mysterious character. I was never quite sure whether to view the captain sympathetically or condemn him. He also provides a health dose of historical details without bogging down, and thoughtful readers may want to learn how their school books were wrong. Half Moon should be found in many public libraries.

Hunter, Douglas. Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage That Redrew the Map of the New World. Bloomsbury, 2009. ISBN 9781596916807.

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