John Davis (also spelled Davys), explorer, navigator (born ca. 1550 near Dartmouth, England; died 27 December 1605 off Bintan Island, near Singapore). Davis made it his life's work to become the first European to find and travel the Northwest Passage, launching three failed expeditions between 1585 and 1587. During these endeavours, Davis reached Greenland, which had largely been forgotten by Europeans since the 13th century. Davis explored the strait named for him and the east coast of present-day Baffin Island. He was later credited as the first European to sight the Falkland Islands, as they are now called. He contributed to European knowledge of the Arctic and its inhabitants, and invented the backstaff navigational instrument.

Early Life and First Expedition

John Davis was born on a small freehold farm in Sandridge near Dartmouth, England, around 1550. He was childhood friends with Walter Raleigh (later known as an explorer and writer) and his half-brothers, Humphrey and Adrian Gilbert. Little is known of Davis' formative years, but his writing and navigational skills suggest that he was educated from a young age. Davis soon caught his contemporaries’ sense of excitement over the possible existence of a northern water route around the Americas. In 1583, Davis and his colleagues proposed an exploratory mission to the queen’s secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, who later became a funder of the Davis expeditions. Davis left Dartmouth with two ships in June 1585, returning on 30 September. It was during this expedition that Davis first made contact with the Inuit. He also crossed the southern part of what subsequently became known as Davis Strait and reached the east coast of present-day Baffin Island during this voyage.

Second and Third Expeditions

John Davis returned to the Arctic in 1586 and again in 1587. During his second expedition, Davis piloted a fleet of four ships: the Sunneshine, the Mooneshine, the Mermayde and the North Starre. While attempting to locate a passage between Greenland and Iceland, the North Starre was lost. Davis continued to Davis Strait, but the ice eventually proved unnavigable, and he returned to England on 14 October.

Although Davis’ second expedition failed in that it did not lead to the Northwest Passage, he launched a third journey in 1587. Davis was successful in reaching about 73° north along the Greenland coast (Hope Sanderson), and then sailed west before turning south along the Baffin Island coast. He noted the entrances to what became known as Frobisher Bay and Hudson Strait. Davis also navigated what is now Davis Inlet and the vicinity of Hamilton Inlet along the Labrador coast before returning to England. It would be his last trip to the Arctic.

During all three expeditions, Davis recorded much of the uncharted coast while making keen observations about various aspects of the Arctic, including local weather, geology and vegetation. His stories of the Inuit are considered some of the most accurate and sympathetic accounts of the region’s inhabitants to be produced by a European explorer. At times, Davis enjoyed cordial relations with the Inuit, who reacted positively to music and dancing performed by his crew. However, violent clashes also occurred.

Outside the Arctic

After he failed to find the Northwest Passage, John Davis may have commanded the Black Dog in 1588 against the Spanish Armada. In 1592, while searching for a passage through the Strait of Magellan, Davis is said to have discovered what are now called the Falkland Islands. Davis also served as chief pilot on the East India Company’s successful first expedition. He was killed by Japanese pirates on his third expedition to the East Indies off the coast of Bintan Island, near Singapore.

Davis was greatly admired by his colleagues, and his written work remained standard among mariners for years. He was one of the first European explorers to have contact with and write about the Inuit, and his documentation of large swaths of the Arctic laid the foundation for future expeditions, notably those of Henry Hudson and William Baffin. In 1594, he invented the backstaff (a navigational instrument used to measure the altitude of a celestial body) known as the “Davis quadrant,” which remained in use even after the 1731 invention of the reflecting quadrant. His Seaman's Secrets (1594) was long the mariner's handbook and his Worldes hydrographical discription (1595) was a detailed account of geographical knowledge to date. The logbook from his third voyage would also serve as a model for future ships’ logs.

Davis was greatly admired by his colleagues, and his written work remained standard among mariners for years. He was one of the first European explorers to have contact with and write about the Inuit, and his documentation of large swaths of the Arctic laid the foundation for future expeditions, notably those of Henry Hudson and William Baffin. In 1594, he invented the backstaff (a navigational instrument used to measure the altitude of a celestial body) known as the “Davis quadrant,” which remained in use even after the 1731 invention of the reflecting quadrant. His Seaman's Secrets (1594) was long the mariner's handbook and his Worldes hydrographical discription (1595) was a detailed account of geographical knowledge to date. The logbook from his third voyage would also serve as a model for future ships’ logs.