Unicorns and the Northwest Passage

In 1576, Humphry Gilbert published A discourse of a discouerie for a new passage to Cataia to drum up the political and economic support he needed to raise a venture from England to China via the yet-to-be-discovered Northwest Passage.

A portion of Gilbert’s book explored an argument about which was the best way to get to China – by the Northeast Passage over Russia, or the Northwest Passage over America. Gilbert recounts a debate he had on the subject with a man he refused to name – which was probably Anthony Jenkinson, an employee of the Muscovy Company and a proponent of the Northeast Passage.

Gilbert Portrait
Portrait of Humphrey Gilbert

According to Gilbert, the argument made by the unnamed proponent (Jenkinson) for the Northeast Passage rested on three points. The second of these points involved a unicorn horn.

According to Jenkinson, a unicorn’s horn was found on the coast of Tartary. Since unicorns only existed in India and China, the horn must have come to Tartary by sea – demonstrating that there was a sea passage between China and Tartary. While the definition of where “Tartary” was located changed over time, for Englishmen at the end of the sixteenth century, Tartary was located in the eastern and northern Russia – but west of Siberia.

Gilbert dismissed Jenkinson’s argument. Gilbert claimed that the barbarians of Tartary did not know what a unicorn horn looked like so how could they have properly identified one if it washed ashore. Furthermore, unicorn horn does not float so it could not have come in with the tide.

Humphrey Gilbert Unicorn text
Text from Gilbert’s A discourse of a discouerie for a new passage to Cataia

Additionally, Gilbert argued that the Asinus Indicus was a one-horned beast that was plentiful in the north parts including Lapland, Norway, and Finland. Moreover, there was a fish in the area with a horn. More likely than not, the horn found in Tartary belonged to an Indian Ass or a fish (perhaps the narwhal) and not a unicorn.

Gilbert argued that the sea passage to Asia was to be found in the Northwest. He lays out the pathway in a map he included in his book.

Gilbert Map
Map from Humphrey Gilbert’s A discourse of a discouerie for a new passage to Cataia


A close up of the map shows the pathway Gilbert expected to find over the north parts of America. Note how Giapan (Japan) was just across the strait connecting America and Asia.

Close up of Gilbert Map
Close up of Gilbert’s map from A discourse of a disouerie for a new passage to Cataia


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