Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

History Pre-confederation (to 1867)

God's Mercies

Rivalry, Betrayal, and the Dream of Discovery

by (author) Douglas Hunter

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
Sep 2008
Pre-Confederation (to 1867), Expeditions & Discoveries, 17th Century
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2008
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


From acclaimed author Douglas Hunter, a searing historical work about death, deceit and dishonour, and the rivalry between Samuel de Champlain and Henry Hudson–two of the greatest explorers of the seventeenth century.

Samuel de Champlain of France and Englishman Henry Hudson were rival explorers in a race to describe and exploit the northern half of North America and, not least, to find a profitable passage to the Orient. The English had been trying to find a way through the Arctic since the 1570s. For Hudson, the dream of discovery proved fatal. A mutiny in the summer of 1611 saw Hudson, his teenage son John, and seven other crew members cast adrift in James Bay in an open boat. They were never heard from again.

In May 1613, Samuel de Champlain left the site of present-day Montreal on a journey up the Ottawa River into uncharted territory. Champlain had undertaken the expedition because of extraordinary testimony from a young informant, Nicolas de Vignau, who had spent 1611-12 with the Algonquin and returned to France with an incredible story: He had visited the Northern Sea. What’s more, he had seen an English youth, the sole survivor of a shipwreck, held captive by the Nebicerini people as a gift for Champlain. To rescue both the English youth and his own career, Champlain set out to collect him.

God’s Mercies has all the elements of a great adventure mystery: a mutiny, a massacre, a murder trial, signed confessions, and intrigue at the highest levels of state. Truths would be revealed as lies, and lies would turn out to be half-truths.

About the author

DOUGLAS HUNTER has written widely on business, history, the environment and sports. He was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and the Governor General’s Award for his book God’s Mercies. His previous books include The Race to the New World; Molson: The Birth of a Business Empire; Yzerman: The Making of a Champion; and The Bubble and the Bear: How Nortel Burst the Canadian Dream, which won the National Business Book Award. He is also a doctoral candidate in history at York University, a Vanier Scholar and Canada’s 2012 William E. Taylor Fellow. Born and raised in Hamilton, where Tim Hortons first became successful, Hunter now lives in Port McNicoll, Ontario.


Douglas Hunter's profile page


  • Nominated, Governor General's Literary Award - Nonfiction
  • Short-listed, Pearson Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize

Excerpt: God's Mercies: Rivalry, Betrayal, and the Dream of Discovery (by (author) Douglas Hunter)

Part I

Beyond the Furious Overfall


On September 6, 1611, a veritable ghost ship–sails flapping seemingly untended, the hull gnawed by pack ice and gouged by groundings, her course speaking more of accident than intent–drifted from the western horizon into the reluctant company of fishermen setting seines for mackerel off Dursey Island, on Ireland’s south coast. The eight emaciated Englishmen aboard the bark Discovery had all but given up hope of ever reaching a friendly shore.

It had been a mistake not to steer for Newfoundland when they’d had the chance, and instead to trust that a favourable new breeze could carry them all the way home. The wind had failed them. First, the grain supply ran out, followed by the stock of wild birds they had killed. After exhausting their individual daily ration of salt broth and half a bird, they resorted to eating tallow candles–and, as a special treat, the marrow of gnawed bird bones fried in candle grease and dressed with vinegar. They were so weakened that they sat rather than stood at the whipstaff to steer the ship, and they steered her badly. As one survivor, Habakkuk Prickett, wrote of his skeletal shipmates, they “cared not which end went forward . . . some of them would sit and see the foresail or mainsail fly up to the tops, the sheets being either flown or broken, and would not help it themselves, nor call to others for help.”

Their last hope had been to make Ireland, and they had begun to fear that they had missed it altogether. With a few more careless turns at the whipstaff, they might well have blundered too far south to spy their intended landfall. They then could have missed Land’s End, or even strayed south of Brest and into the Bay of Biscay, by which point the Discovery would have become a ghost ship in fact.

Instead, there was salvation. “A sail! A sail!” they cried. Then more sails appeared: an entire fishing fleet. They steered for the nearest vessel, a bark at anchor.

They had no guarantee of a warm reception. The idea of a common duty of the sea, of sailors of all nations coming to one another’s aid in times of distress, was unknown to the times. That same summer, Jonas Poole narrowly escaped the capsizing of his ship while loading aboard the oil boiled down at a land station after a High Arctic whale and walrus hunt at Spitsbergen. When he and his crew rowed to a nearby ship from Hull, the Marmaduke, the men from the Humber broke out pikes and took to boats to prevent them from boarding. The Marmaduke was considered to be poaching on the commercial territory of Poole’s employers, the Muscovy Company, and the Marmaduke’s crew was entirely prepared to prod fellow Englishmen to certain deaths in open boats in Arctic waters. The Marmaduke’s master had to be talked into rescuing his own ­countrymen.

The Discovery’s men, however, had approached the right ship. She was out of the Cornwall port of Fowey. Her master, John Weymouth, took stock of the misery aboard the hulk and made the charitable decision to weigh anchor and guide these poor starving souls into nearby Bearhaven, on the north shore of Bantry Bay.

Weymouth delivered the men into one of the most virulently anti-Anglo fissures of the Irish coast. Ten years earlier, Spanish forces had landed at Bearhaven and assumed command of Dunboyne Castle from Daniel O’Sullivan, of the O’Sullivan Beara clan. O’Sullivan was the chieftain of the Irish Catholic Congress, and his baronies for centuries had earned most of their income from leasing local fishing rights to the Spanish. When the English defeated invading Spaniards at Kinsale in 1602, O’Sullivan was undeterred by the Spanish withdrawal and chose to fight on as the last Irish chieftain not to recognize the rule of the English crown. And when the English under Sir George Carew, Lord President of Munster, arrived by sea and land to deal with the insurrection, the customary atrocities followed.

On Dursey Island, all two hundred inhabitants were killed – some by the sword, others burned to death in a church, others tied in pairs and tossed from the island’s cliffs into the ocean. After Dunboyne Castle was overrun, an untold number of defenders were killed as they tried to swim to Bear Island; those pulled from the water by the English probably became the twenty­seven men Carew hanged as traitors in the market square of Bearhaven. It was in this harbour, so recently bloodied by English soldiers slaughtering Irish patriots like walrus in the Greenland Sea, that the Discovery’s famished men sought mercy.

If enlightened mariners had learned anything from their wildly unpredictable encounters with indigenous populations in this age of exploration and conquest, it was that they could never be sure of how the people on the shore had been treated by previous visitors–and how, as a result, these people would choose to treat those who followed. In Bearhaven, the eight people aboard the Discovery were about to reap the consequences of Carew’s atrocities.

The locals did not harm the Discovery’s men. Neither did they want anything to do with them. They were advised to deal with their own kind – the English who were fishing offshore. And so the starving eight were turned away. But their countrymen in the fishing fleet were no more charitable. The Discovery’s men “found them so cold in kindness that they would do nothing without present money, whereof we had none in the ship,” wrote Prickett.

They were rescued a second time by John Weymouth, who agreed to let them pawn their best anchor and cable. They used the proceeds to buy beer, bread, and beef from the other fishing boats. They also needed seamen and a pilot to get home, for the Discovery’s complement was down to eight greatly weakened hands. Another English ship’s sympathetic captain, a man named Taylor, agreed to accept a note from Weymouth for the value of the anchor and cable so that Taylor could guarantee the wages that the Discovery’s crew promised to the men they hired from the fishing fleet. So angry was Taylor with the men who had otherwise refused to help the Discovery home that, according to Prickett, “Taylor swore he would press them, and then, if they would not go, he would hang them.”

And so the Discovery’s small circle of survivors were able to strike a bargain with the necessary hands: three pounds ten shillings for every man who could help them reach Plymouth or Dartmouth, and five pounds for the pilot. And what if the weather forced them instead into Bristol? Another pound for each of them, then. It was at Plymouth, about twenty miles west of Weymouth’s home port of Fowey, that the Discovery regained England proper after a seventeen-month absence.

No one knows what the survivors volunteered of their ordeal between their hailing Weymouth’s bark off Dursey Island and dropping anchor off Plymouth Castle. Prickett allowed that men in the fishing fleet had “made show that they were not willing to go with us for any wages.” Taylor’s anger with their reluctance suggests their unwillingness was based on nothing stronger than revulsion with the state of the ship and crew. But the questions would have been inevitable: Where had they been? How had they come into such desperate straits? And most pointedly: Where was the rest of the crew? There had been fourteen other men aboard on the outbound journey in April 1610, as well as a youth, the captain’s son. What of them all?

No one, English or Irish, likely would have offered their charity or services had even the most basic details of the Discovery’s voyage been surrendered. The extra hands may have noticed the darkened splotches of blood in some of the berths; in explanation, the survivors may have been compelled to produce the clothing, bloodstained and torn by weapons, of missing men, which they had so carefully preserved. From there, a story of sorts would have tumbled forth. The survivors may have learned from these initial experiences of being questioned what to emphasize, how to parry the skepticism. Far more educated and worldly men would be demanding more specific answers once the ship was back in England. And the consequences of not providing an entirely credible answer would be so much greater.

However ­close-­lipped the survivors managed to remain on the final leg home, there would have been no suppressing their awful tale once they touched Plymouth. They would hurry on to London, to explain themselves. And if explanations were not enough, then promises would be made– enough, hopefully, to save them all from the hangman.


There would be no single, coherent account of what had occurred aboard the Discovery on her voyage of 1610-11: of how the explorer Henry Hudson, his son John, and seven companions had disappeared on this expedition in search of the Northwest Passage; of how five more men then perished on the voyage ­home.

After the Discovery regained England in September 1611, the survivors delivered Hudson’s papers to one of the voyage’s key investors, Sir Thomas Smythe. Hudson had concluded his journal entry for August 3, 1610, with: “Then I observed and found the ship at noon in 61 degrees 20 minutes with a sea to the westward.” Hudson was about to steer the Discovery into a vast subarctic bay. It was a cul­de-sac from which he would not escape with his life.

Once Hudson turned south into the great bay that would eventually bear his name, he ceased to exist in flesh and blood. The pages of his journal beyond August 3, like the man himself, would go missing. Their publication was likely prevented by censorship imposed while the passage search continued. The suppressed pages were then lost altogether, robbing him of his own voice and reducing his final months to hearsay and anecdote, difficult to define against the scheming and pleading of the voyage’s conspirators and apologists and the self-serving statements of the survivors. The story of how and why Hudson and his companions were lost would never be his to tell. And those who did do the telling had much to answer for.

The story of the Discovery’s final voyage is also one of storytelling. Different people attempted to preserve observations for posterity. But words were discarded, destroyed, suppressed, selectively edited, and lost. Not everyone who lived would be heard from in the end. Not everyone who died would be kept silent.

The story of Hudson’s final, fateful voyage might fittingly start not with the Discovery’s departure from London in April 1610 but with words set down on paper, written months beforehand. They captured Henry Hudson en route from the unfathomable to the unknowable, with both life and career in the balance.


One never quite knew what would creep into, or slip out of, a port like Dartmouth. This major centre of the English cod fishery was a hub of activity on a span of the English Channel that was notorious for bad behaviour. Foreign agents could move in and out of the country through the coast’s myriad bays, coves, creeks, and estuaries. West Country ports like Dartmouth also had a disreputable standing among London’s merchant adventurers. They were places beyond their administrative reach, havens for pirates, who were a threat not only to ships but also to ship’s masters as they lured crewmembers away with promises of easy riches. The letter of commission to Sir Henry Middleton, the general, or commander, of the sixth voyage of the East India Company, which would sail from London in April 1610, firmly directed: “To prevent disorder either on the outward or homeward voyages, the General is forbidden (unless compelled by necessity) to allow any of his ships to touch at Falmouth, Plymouth, or Dartmouth.”
The arrival that Dartmouth’s mayor, Thomas Holland, observed in the lower reaches of the river Dart on November 7, 1609, was a genuine curiosity, and he promptly placed her under his personal surveillance.

The ship was under the flag of the Verenigde Nedelansche Geoetroyeerde Oostindische Compagnie– the United Netherlands Chartered East India Company, better known by its initials as the VOC, and to the English as the Dutch East India Company. However one referred to it, the VOC was the most powerful and profitable commercial entity in the world, the main engine of prosperity for the Dutch Republic.

A typical VOC merchant vessel, a plodding hauler of trade wares that might have wandered into Dartmouth’s riverine harbour on a return voyage from Java, would have been of passing interest to Holland. But this VOC ship was a special case. She was a small, well­armed, nimble vessel: a jaght, or hunter, designed for chasing down pirates and capable of conducting piracy of her own. As the crew came ashore, Holland determined that sixteen people were aboard. Most were, predictably, Dutch, and some of them were ill, battling the onset of scurvy after six months away from home. But Holland discovered that her captain, or master, and two other crewmembers were English. Holland did not know that there had been a fourth Englishman, whose life had been cut short two months earlier by an arrow through the throat.

The ship wasn’t going anywhere soon. There were fresh provisions to secure, sick men needing rest and recuperation, and doubtless some odds-and-ends repairs to effect after a long ocean passage. Holland had the opportunity to chat up the ship’s master about where he had been and what he was intending to do next with this wayward Dutch vessel. The mayor was then compelled to set down what he had learned in a letter.

Holland explained that this ship out of Amsterdam called the Half Moon, “of 70 tons or thereabouts,” had just arrived, “whereof one Henry Hudson, an Englishman late of London, is master.” English masters and pilots in the service of the Dutch were not unusual, but the voyage Hudson was close to concluding with this penultimate stop in Dartmouth was without precedent, and in many aspects seemingly without logic.

Editorial Reviews

"A page-turner . . . God’s Mercies is entertaining, enlightening, and significant: Bravo!"
The Globe and Mail
"A work that combines scholarly rigour and fresh insight...a riveting account."
Literary Review of Canada

"Hunter writes with the kind of vividness that makes you want to pull the blankets closer. . . . A first-rate adventure story."
Calgary Herald

"Hunter knows how to construct a dramatic narrative…. It’s tough to marry historical scholarship and entertainment. Part of the challenge is to provide just the right level of detail for average readers while faithfully hewing to the historical record. But Hunter gets the balance just right as he plows through the historical evidence and pulls pieces of the puzzle together. Adventures in Canadian history don’t come much better than this."
Winnipeg Free Press

"Let Douglas Hunter join the ranks of Canada's greatest explorers. His journey into the lives and curiously intertwined fates of Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain is the stuff of great adventure and even new discovery. There's enough wind in this writer's sails to carry the reader effortlessly through the European founding – or perhaps we should say invasion – of the land we now call Canada. A grand achievement indeed."
–Roy MacGregor, author of Canadians: Portrait of a Country and Its People

Other titles by Douglas Hunter