Learning from Martin Frobisher’s Fool’s Gold

Learning from Martin Frobisher’s Fool’s Gold

Sir Martin Frobisher was a 16th century English privateer and explorer famous for making three voyages to what is now northern Canada. Frobisher’s early career was rather dicey featuring periods of trading and privateering (officially sanctioned piracy), imprisonment in Ghana and Portugal, and several stints in English prisons for piracy.

Cornelius Ketel (Dutch, 1548-1616). Sir Martin Frobisher, 1577.

In the 1570s, Frobisher became interested in the great economic quest of the day: the search for the “northwest passage” to the Pacific which would allow England direct access to the riches of India, China, and the Pacific by sailing through the Arctic. In 1574, Frobisher petitioned Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council for permission and financing to lead a search for the northwest passage and in 1576 secured the backing of the Muscovy Company for his expedition.

This first voyage made land on the southern tip of Baffin Island in July 1576. Seeing the mouth of a great bay, now named Frobisher Bay, he mistook it for the opening of a strait to the northwest passage and after sailing up the bay and finding no passage and having several crew members captured by the Inuit inhabitants, the expedition turns back to England. The return was not without some excitement however since among the cargo was a black stone which had been found on Baffin Island which they believed contained gold.

The black stone was taken to three assayers who all declared that it was worthless. However, a London alchemist claimed it did in fact bear gold. This created gold fever in England and, ignoring the three assayers, in 1577 Frobisher commanded a larger expedition that reached Baffin Island in search of more ore. The expedition returned to England in September with 200 tons of the black ore which was sent for assaying.

An even larger expedition was mounted in 1578 comprising 15 ships and over 400 men to establish mines and a colony on Baffin Island to increase the extraction of the ore. Though the colony was a failure, the expedition returned to England with over 1,400 tons of ore which was sent to a specially constructed smelting plant in Dartford, Kent.

After the considerable expense in money, time, and lives for the three expeditions and over five years of assaying and smelting the huge quantity of ore, it was found to be completely worthless, bankrupting the company and sending several of it’s principals to debtor’s prison. The “precious” ore from far-off Baffin Island was later used in road construction.

In hindsight, we wonder at their greed and arrogance, ignoring the counsel or the three original assayers. In a desire for riches, they turned deaf ears to the negative reports, turning to speculative hopes that resulted in a great loss of money and sadly lives.

As it often does, history offers lessons to be learned – greed and a desire for quick riches can lead to ruin. The truth of this lesson s one the Bible warns us about.

“The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.” Proverbs 21:5

“But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” 1 Timothy 6:9

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” Proverbs 12:15

“Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Proverbs 11:14

“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” Proverbs 13:20

There is no shortage of “get rich quick” ideas out there but the Bible warns us about pursuing these and encourages us to seek wise counsel and to seek contentment. When it comes to investing, are you listening to the schemers or to wise counsel?

One great reason to work with a financial advisor is having objective counsel when it comes to saving and investing for your goals. It’s our privilege at Beacon Wealth Consultants to guide Christians in stewarding their resources well. If you would like to talk with an advisor about your goals or find out if your investments align with your values, give us a call today!


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