Skip to main content
 Previous Next
  • Zoom In (+)
  • Zoom Out (-)
  • Rotate CW (r)
  • Rotate CCW (R)
  • Overview (h)
Stephen Borough: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Stephen Borough

(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

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

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

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

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

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:

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

HomeStephen Borough : Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
 Text Only
 Text & Inline Image
 Text & Image Viewer
 Image Viewer Only