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    Stephen Borough

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0136                                                                                                                  

    (Eloise McCaskill Popini)


            Stephen Borough or Burrough (1525-1584), navigator, was one of the

    leading figures in the early English attempts to find a route to Cathay

    by the Northeast Passage. He was born on an estate called by his family's

    name in the parish of Northam, Devonshire, on September 25, 1525. Little

    is known of his career until he appears, with Richard Chancellor, as a

    trained pilot of Mediterranean experience consulted for advice, by the

    company later known as the Muscovy Company, in connection with the first

    English voyage in 1553, to find the passage through the "north east frostie


            The attempts in the early part of the sixteenth century to find the

    Northwest Passage had failed. The souther routes, around Africa and South

    America, were monopolized by Spain and Portugal. The Thorne-Barlow theory,

    that it was possible to sail due north over the Pole itself, was doubted.

    But the growth of English manufactures and expansion of her commerce, as well

    as the general progress of discovery, made the need for new markets and the

    extension of overseas trade imperative. To the Orient there remained only

    one route for the English to attempt, that by the northeast. This led to the

    formation, for the prosecution of the Cathay enterprise, of a combination of

    capitalists, courtiers, and merchants at first called the "Merchants Adven–

    turers of England for the discovery of lands, territories, isles, dominions

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    EA-Biog. Popini: Stephen Borough

    and seignories unknown" (not to be confused with the old Merchant Adventurers

    who exported cloth to the Low Countries). Sebastian Cabot was their chief

    advisor and first Governor. The chief participants in their early efforts

    include such names as Sir High Willoughby, Richard Chancellor, Arthur Pet,

    and Stephen and William Borough.

            In the spring of 1553, pland and preparations were complete for the

    first voyage. For his good record of war service and his commanding appearance,

    Si f r Hugh Willoughby was chosen Captain-General. Richard Chancellor, a pro–

    fessional seaman and pro g t ege of Sir Henry Sidney, was made chief pilot and

    second-in-command. The fleet consisted fo of three ships, the Bona Esperanza ,

    of 120 tons, the Edward Bonaventure , of 160 t ons, and the Bona Confidentia ,

    of 90 tons; each was accompanied by a pinnace and a boat. Willoughby sailed

    in the Esperanza , having with him six merchants and a crew of thirty-one.

    Chancellor was captain of the Edward Bonaventure , with Stephen Borough as

    master and John Buckland mate. Among the thirty-seven members of the crew

    were William Borough, younger brother of Stephen, and Arthur Pet. In this

    ship were also ten landsmen, including a chaplian, merchants, and gentlemen

    adventurers. The Confidentia was commaned by Cornelius Dunforth, with three

    merchants and twenty-four officers and men. The pinnaces were manned by drafts

    from the ships to which they were attached. (For further details of the

    organization of the voyage see article on Willoughby.) The fleet sailed

    from Ratcliff May 10, 1553.

            It was not until June 23 that the boyage really got under way with a

    final clearance from Orford Ness. A course was steered due north until the 27th.

    Westerly winds prevented their touching at the Shetlands, and, "after much

    traversing and tracing the seas by reason of sundry and manifold contrary

    winds," they came to the southern end of the Lofoten Archipelago on the coast

    003      |      Vol_XV-0138                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Popini: Stephen Borough

    Norway toward the end of July. Touching at various points, they arrived August

    2 at the island of Senjen in latitude 69 1/2°. Here they were promised a pilot

    to conduct them around the North Cape (while Borough was first to observe and

    name) to Vardo, the farthest outpost of western European civilization in the

    Northeast. Before the pilot could come aboard, a storm arose which scattered

    the fleet far out to sea. When night came Willoughby was forced to heave to.

    In the morning he was rejoined by the Confidentia , but the Bonaventure, Chan–

    cellor's ship, was nowhere to be seen. Since the story of the expedition at

    this point splits into two parts, it is the course of the latter ship, of which

    Borough was master, that will be followed in this article.

            After losing sight of Willoughby, Chancellor and Borough steered for

    Vardo, their prearranged rendezvous in case of separation. There they waited

    a week for the other two ships and then decided to proceed without them. Chan–

    cellor "held on his course toward that unknown part of the world and sailed so

    far that he came at last to the place where he found no night at all, but a

    continual light and brightness of the sun shining clearly upon the huge and

    mighty sea. And having the benefit of this perpetual light for certain days,

    at the length it pleased God to bring them into a certain great bay, which was

    of 100 miles or thereabout over." This was the White Sea. They anchored in the

    "bay" at the mouth of the Dvina, near the site of the present city of Archangel.

    They sighted a boat full of fishermen, the first men they had seen since leaving

    Vardo. These were terrified at the sight of strange ships and men and fled.

    But Chancellor in the ship's boat overtook them and won their friendship. The

    Englishmen were surprised to learn that they were in Russia or "Muscovie," the

    realm of Ivan IV. Thus has been ascribed to Borough and Chancellor the English

    "discovery" of Russia. News of their coming was at once sent to Czar Ivan (not

    yet called the Terrible) and they were invited to his court. After a stay of

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    EA-Biog. Popini: Stephen Borough

    unknown duration in Moscow, they returned to the Bay of St. Nicholas, where

    the ship had been laid up for the winter. As soon as navigation became

    possible they set sail for England, arriving the summer of 1554. (For

    further details of this voyage and of the sojourn in Russia, see article

    on Richard Chancellor.)

            The quest for the passage was for the moment forgotten in commercial

    circles in the excitement over the new trade possibilities with Russia. A

    second expedition for the White Sea was prepared, but Borough did not accom–

    pany Chancellor on this voyage, remaining behind to prepare for a voyage the

    following year, which was aimed at the original purpose of the discovery of

    the passage. Stephen Borough's own account of this voyage, preserved in

    Hakluyt, forms a narrative of the first expedition of western Europeans to

    Novaya Zemlya and is also the principal source of our knowledge of the earliest

    Russian voyages to these regions. Borough's account bears the title "The navi–

    gation and discoverie toward the river of Ob, made by Master Steven Burrough,

    Master of the Pinnesse called the Serchthrift, with divers things worth the

    nothing, passed in the yere 1556."

            According to this account, the ship departed from Ratcliffe the 23 of

    April in company with the Edward & the Philip and Mary , which were intended

    for trade and put into Gravesend the 27th. Here Sebastian Cabot came aboard

    with "divers gentlemen and gentlewomen" and the aged gentleman, who was then

    about 80, "for very jpy that he had to see the towardness of our intended

    discovery, entered into the dance himself, amongst the rest of the young and

    lusty company." Borough then relates the events of the crossing to Norway.

    At the end of May "the North Cape (which I so named the first voyage) was

    thwart of us." On June 7 he was exchanging farewell salutes with Chancellor's

    ship, the Edward Bonaventure , which he had met and escorted to Vardo. On the

    005      |      Vol_XV-0140                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Popini: Stephen Borough

    9th, anchorage was taken at the mouth of the Kola River, where the Serchthrift

    stayed for nearly two weeks. Here he met a fleet of Russian fishing boats.

    The skipper of one of them, Gabriel by name, was very friendly and rendered them

    services. On June 22 they left the river in company of the Russian vessels,

    rounding Cape St. John, the northern arm of the bay. Two days later the

    Searchthrift was in danger of being wrecked on a lee shore, and Gabriel,

    whose craft had reached shelter, came out in a skiff to render aid. On July 9

    they rounded Kanin Nos and reached the mouth of the Petchora on the 15th. They

    spent five days here, and on July 21, the day after leaving, the ship was in

    great peril of ice, but finally got clear. She followed an easterly course a

    little to the north of the seventeenth parallel until the 25th, on which date

    the small islands to the south of Novaya Zemlya were discovered and named by

    Borough St. James's Islands. They pushed on eastward until July 31, when they

    arrived at Vaigach Island, the most easterly point they were destined to reach.

            They remained for more than three weeks at Vaigach, experiencing very

    bad weather, storms, rain, and fog. They again met some small craft, with

    Russians who were hunting walrus and bear, and who told them about the Samoyeds

    (now called Nentsi). Borough gives in his narrative the earliest first-hand

    English account of these people, who lived in deerskin tents and worshipped

    idols. One of the crew, Richard Johnson, was left among them for the winter

    and wrote a graphic description of their "devilish rites," which is appended

    to Borough's account in Hakluyt. (How Johnson reached home is not known.)

            On August 4, so much drift ice was encountered that Borough thought it

    advisable to turn westward again instead of proceeding into the Kara Sea and

    on to the Ob. On September 11 he finally arrived at Archangel, where he

    spent the winter, intending to continue his voyage to the Ob the following

    summer. This [ ?] plan was abandoned, however, when it became necessary for

    006      |      Vol_XV-0141                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Popini: Stephen Borough

    him to turn westward to search for the ships of the Muscovy Company that had

    been lost in the summer of 1556 on the return trip from Archangel. He learned

    in Finland that the Bone Confidentis was lost and the Philip and Mary had

    sailed for England the previous March. Borough arrived in England the end

    of the summer of 1557.

            After yearly northern voyages he made a journey to Spain, probably in

    1559, where the Spaniards gave him great honor and a "payre of perfumed gloves

    worth five or six ducates." In May 1560, he once more took charge of a fleet

    of ships on a northern voyage for the Muscovy Company. His ship, the Swallow ,

    was loaded with woolen goods, sack, salt, raisins, and prunes, to be exchanged

    for furs. He also carried instructions to bring home Anthony Jenkinson who

    was waiting at St. Nicholas to return with the fleet after his famous journey

    into Central Asia. Borough probably also made the 1561 journey in command of

    the Swallow and two other vessels which, in May, conveyed Jenkinson to St.

    Nicholas [ ?] on his journey through Russia as Ambassador to Persia.

            An important result of Borough's journey to Spain was his recommenda–

    tion of the translation of the important navigating manual of Martin Cortes,

    "Breve compendio de la sphera y de la arte de navigar," Seville, 1551.

    This translation was made by Richard Eden and published in London in 1561

    under the title, "The Arte of Navigation." Eden writes in the preface:

    "Steuen Borough was the fyrst that moued to have this work translated into

    the Englyshe tongue." The cost of translation and publication was defrayed

    by the Muscovy Company.

            On January 3, 1563, Borough was appointed pilot-chief and one of the

    four masters of the Queen's ships in the Medway. This employment, probably

    varied by sundry services at sea, extended over a period of twenty years.

    He died in 1584 in his sixtieth year, and was buried in Chatham Church.

    His monument in the chancel bears the following inscription:

    007      |      Vol_XV-0142                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Popini: Stephen Borough

            "Here lieth buried the bodie of Steven Borough, who departed this life

    ye xij day of July in ye yere of our Lord 1584, and was borne at Northam in

    Devonshire ye [ ?] vth of Septemb. 1525. He in his life time discouered

    Moscouis, by the Northerne sea passage to St. Nicholas, in the yere 1553.

    At his setting foorth of England he was accompanied by two other shippes,

    Sir Hugh Willobie being Admirell of the fleete, who, with all the company

    of ye said two shippes, were frozen to death in Lappia ye same winter. After

    his discouerie of Roosia, and ye Coastes thereto ad i k oyinge — to wit Lappia,

    Nova Zemla, and the Countrie of Samoyeda, etc.: he frequented ye trade to

    St. Nicholas yearlie, as chief pilot for ye voyage, until he was chosen of

    one of ye foure principall Masters in ordinarie of ye Queen's Maties foyall

    Nauy, where in his he continued in charge of sundrie sea services t ill time of

    his death."


    Richard Hakluyt. Divers Voyages , 1582.

    Principal Navigations , 1599, Vol. I.

    Vilhjalmur Stefansson (with the collaboration of Olive R. Wilcox),

    Great Adventures and Exlorations , New York 1947, Ch.12

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