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John Davis (English explorer)

John Davis
Davis, shown bottom left holding his backstaff, in a detail from Englands Famous Discoverers
Born c. 1550
Sandridge, Devon, England
Died 29 December 1605(1605-12-29)
off Malay peninsula
Cause of death Murder
Nationality English
Ethnicity White
Occupation Explorer, navigator
Known for namesake of Davis Strait and Inlet
discoverer of the Falkland Islands
inventor of the backstaff
Home town Sandridge, Devon, England
Spouse(s) Faith Fulford

John Davis or Davis (c. 1550 – 29 December 1605) was one of the chief English navigators and eElizabeth 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 British Overseas Territory) 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.[1] From early on, he also became friends with John Dee.[2]

On 28 September 1582,[3] 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;[4] 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.


  • Career 1
  • Publications 2
  • Inventions 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


He began pitching a voyage in search of the Northwest Passage to the queen's secretary Francis Walsingham in 1583.[5] 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.[2] 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. Sunshine attempted (and failed) to circumnavigate the island from the east.[6] The initially amiable approach he took to the Inuit – bringing musicians and having the crew dance and play with them[5] – 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.[2] 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.[2]

In 1588, he seems to have commanded Black Dog against the Spanish Armada.[5] 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 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.

The Dartmouth Town Council blue plaque erected in memory of Davis
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.[7]


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.


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.[2]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c d e
  3. ^ "England Marriages, 1538–1973 ," index, FamilySearch ( : accessed 27 Jul 2014), John Davys and Fayth Fulford, 28 Sep 1582; citing Stoke Gabriel,Devon,England, reference ; FHL microfilm 917534.
  4. ^ "England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975," index, FamilySearch ( : accessed 27 Jul 2014), John Davis in entry for Gylbert Davis, 27 Mar 1583; citing STOKE GABRIEL,DEVON,ENGLAND, reference ; FHL microfilm 917534.
  5. ^ a b c
  6. ^ Gosch, C.C.A. Danish Arctic Expeditions, 1605 to 1620. Book I.—The Danish Expeditions to Greenland in 1605, 1606, and 1607; to which is added Captain James Hall's Voyage to Greenland in 1612. Hakluyt Society (London), 1897.
  7. ^ Inter alia, cf. Permanent Court of International Justice. "Legal Status of Eastern Greenland: Judgment". 5 April 1933. Accessed 10 May 2012.

External links

  • , Dartmouth History Research Group Paper 33John Davis 1543-1605, The Master Navigator from the DartRay Freeman and Eric Preston. , ISBN 1-899011-24-2.
  • Markham, A.H. (1880) The Voyages and Works of John Davis the Navigator. Hakluyt Society. Descriptions of the three voyages Davis undertook to discover the Northwest Passage. (Reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-108-01150-1)
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