At an early age, he was sent to a school in London, where he was placed under the care of a kinsman, Sir John Yorke. In 1553, Sir John sent him to sea with a trading expedition sailing to the Guinea coast of Africa. The following year on another expedition to Guinea he was held hostage for several months before being freed. Frobisher made at least one trip to Morocco returning in 1559. From 1559 to 1562 Frobisher had partnered with a pirate named Strangeways and they plotted to seize a Portuguese strong hold By 1565, he is referred to as Captain Martin Frobisher and in 1571—1572 as being in the public service at sea off the coast of Ireland. Frobisher was charged with piracy at least three times, although the cases never went to trial. He had married in 1559.
It took him fifteen years to gain the necessary funding for his project. In 1576 Frobisher managed to convince the Muscovy Company, an English merchant consortium which had previously sent out several parties searching for the Northwest Passage, to license his expedition. With the help of Micheal Lok, the Muscovy Company's director, Frobisher was able to raise enough capital for three barks: the Gabriel and Michael, of about 20-25 tons each, and a pinnace of ten tons, with a total crew of 35.
A few days later, the mouth of Frobisher Bay was reached, and because ice and wind prevented further travel north, Frobisher determined to sail westward up this passage (which he conceived to be a strait) to see "whether he might carry himself through the same into some open sea on the back side."
Baffin Island was reached on the 18 August 1576, where the expedition met some of the local natives. Having made arrangements with one of the natives to guide them through the region, Frobisher sent five of his men in a ship's boat to return the native to shore, but instructing them to avoid getting too close to any of the other natives. The boat's crew disobeyed, however, and were apparently taken captive by the Inuit. After days of searching had agreed to guide them to see if an exchange for the missing boat's crew could be arrangepting to leave Baffin Island in a self-made boat. Frobisher turned homewards, and reached London on 9 October. Among the things which had been hastily brought away by the men was a "piece of a black stone,". There assayers were unimpressed with the ore. Only one out of four experts consulted believed the ore to be gold-bearing, and he admitted he "knew how to flatter nature". Nevertheless, Frobisher's backers, led by Micheal Lok and the Muscovy Company used this assessment to lobby for investment for another voyage.
On 27 May 1577 the expedition, consisting, besides the Ayde, of the ships Gabriel and Michael, with an aggregate complement of 150 men, including miners, refiners, gentlemen, and soldiers, left Blackwall, and sailing by the north of Scotland reached Hall's Island at the mouth of Frobisher Bay on 17 July. A few days later the country and the south side of the bay was solemnly taken possession of in the queen's name.
Several weeks were now spent in collecting ore, but very little was done in the way of discovery, Frobisher being specially directed by his commission to "defer the further discovery of Mark Simon until another time." There was much parleying and some skirmishing with the natives, and earnest but futile attempts were made to recover the men captured the previous year.
Frobisher was received and thanked by the queen at Windsor. Great preparations were made and considerable expense incurred for the assaying of the great quantity of "ore" (about 200 tons) brought home. This took up much time, and led to considerable dispute among the various parties interested.
On the 30 June 1578, the expedition, consisting in all of fifteen vessels, left Harwich, and sailing by the English Channel on June 20 reached the south of Greenland, where Frobisher and some of his men managed to land. On 2 July, the foreland of Frobisher Bay was sighted. Stormy weather and dangerous ice prevented the rendezvous from being gained, and, besides causing the wreck of the barque Dennis of 100 tons, drove the fleet unwittingly up a new strait (Hudson). After proceeding about sixty miles up this "mistaken strait," Frobisher with apparent reluctance turned back, and after many buffetings and separations, the fleet at last came to anchor in Frobisher Bay.
Some attempt was made at founding a settlement, and a large quantity of ore was shipped. Too much dissension and discontent prevented a successful settlement. On the last day of August, the fleet set out on its return to England, which was reached in the beginning of October. The ore was taken to a specially constructed smelting plant at Powder Mill Lane in Dartford. Kent. Despite many attempts, the ore was apparently not worth smelting and was eventually used in Elizabethan road construction. This ended Frobisher's attempts at the Northwest Passage. .
In 1585, he commanded the Primrose, as vice-admiral to Sir Francis Drake in his expedition to the West Indies. Soon afterwards, the country was threatened with invasion by the Spanish Armada, and Frobisher's name was one of four mentioned by the Lord High Admiral in a letter to the queen of "men of the greatest experience that this realm hath." For his signal services in the Triumph, in the dispersion of the Armada, Martin Frobisher was knighted. He continued to cruise about in the Channel until 1590, when he was sent in command of a small fleet of ships to the coast of Spain.
In November 1594, he was engaged with a squadron in the siege and relief of Brest, when he received a gunshot wound at Fort Crozon, a Spanish-held fortress and due to poor medical treatment, died days later at Plymouth on 15 November. His soft organs were buried at St Andrew's Church, Plymouth on 22 November. His body was then taken to London and buried at St Giles-without-Cripplegate
Martin Frobisher Infant/First/Primary School. Altofts, Yorkshire, is named after him.
Frobisher Bay, in the Canadian Territory of Nunavut, is named after him.