The outline of Henry Hudson that emerges in Half Moon—it’s too scant of detail to call it a portrait—is of a man whose primary attribute was pig-headedness. His historical contributions are less clear. Despite agreeing to specific assignments laid out by those who financed his voyages of exploration, Hudson followed his own instincts and charted his own routes. The upshot of that disposition was that on Sept. 2, 1609, Hudson anchored his ship, the "Half Moon" from which the book takes its title, at the entrance of what is now called the Hudson River.
Knowing Hudson's course would have alarmed his backers in Amsterdam, who had contracted the English captain to find a shortcut to the Orient by sailing over the top of Russia. During the next three weeks, Hudson would sail the Half Moon up the river as far as present-day Albany. Along the way, he made numerous contacts with the native tribes. Most of these encounters were peaceful, but one led to the death of a crew member and two others to the killing of several natives. Upon his return to Europe, the self-serving Hudson anchored in an English port instead of proceeding to Amsterdam to face the consequences of his failure and “pathological” disobedience.
The next year, Hudson returned to the New World as master of the Discovery. It would be the crafty mariner’s last voyage. After spending a horrendous winter locked in by ice in James Bay, Hudson, his son and seven other men were set adrift by a mutinous crew and never seen again. In try after try, Hudson had failed to discover the illusory Northwest Passage, and he never fully recognized the riches of the territory onto which he stumbled.
As author Douglas Hunter points out, nothing is known about Hudson’s life before 1607 and precious little afterward. If he left logs of his travels, they have not been found. Thus, Hunter relies primarily on the sketchy journal of crew member Robert Juet to chronicle the Half Moon’s voyage and to describe Hudson’s role in directing it. With so little original material to go on, Hunter stretches it out with historical and geographical digressions that enable him to speculate on Hudson’s background, political connections, geographical awareness and motivations. It’s a worthy and admirable effort, but it doesn’t demonstrate that Hudson was especially pivotal in opening up America.
This is a work of painstaking scholarship and detection, but, ultimately, one must ask, “To what end?”
Edward Morris is a writer in Nashville.