Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Carry on up the Northwest Passage - Part One

I'm not sure something can be called a tradition if you've only done it once but last Christmas I wrote a two part post about the Ross Sea expedition as a polar Christmas special. Yes I know Santa lives at the North Pole but you get the general idea. So as its nearly Christmas once more I thought I'd do another one and this time head north, so grab yourself a mince pie, turn up the heating and enjoy. This one's a three parter.

It baffles me to the point of incomprehension, how men of power in cosy English drawing rooms can have failed to grasp almost straight away after the first expeditions sent north to find it, the basic impracticability of the northwest passage as a trade route. Even if a route could be found through the ice clogged channels to reach the waters off the northern coast of Canada and if they were not found to be frozen solid, continue eastwards to emerge in the Pacific, it was never going to be an economic game-changer. Such an expedition would, if it were possible at all, only be accomplished during a short season and in most years would get nowhere near the fabled passage before being either repelled by the ice or finding itself trapped and forced to overwinter before trying again.

Frobisher's Gabriel 1576

With all this soon becoming apparent, it seems likely therefore that the repeated attempts at the conquest of the northwest passage were made with another primary motivation: That the passage should be completed as a feat of navigation in its own right and most importantly that the British should be the ones to do it.

The initial thrust into the unknown during the Age of Exploration gave rise to misplaced hopes that a new Eldorado lay in the frozen north.  Explorer and dashing man about the Elizabethan court Martin Frobisher set out in search of the fabled passage in 1576 with three ships, of which only one, the Gabriel, made it to the southern end of Baffin Island, where five members of the crew put ashore only to be taken captive by the local Inuit. Frobisher failed to secure their release and they were never seen again. Undeterred by this encounter, Frobisher found some more friendly natives to serve as guides and returned to England with a mysterious piece of black rock, which was erroneously identified as gold ore. With riches in prospect, Frobisher formed the Cathay Company with the backing of Elizabeth I to return and collect more. Two further expeditions followed, establishing mines in Frobisher Bay. In all some 1300 tons of worthless ore was brought back to England where it was later identified as containing iron pyrites - fool’s gold. In the end it was used for surfacing roads.

 The north-west passage

Frobisher's fellow Devonian John Davis, who had the ear of Francis Walsingham, was the next to set out in search of the northwest passage in 1585. A thrust up Cumberland Sound found it to be merely an inlet of Baffin Island rather than a passage to the west. Two further expeditions followed in the next two years in which Davis sought to penetrate northward up the strait which now bears his name, reaching 72 degrees north before finding his way blocked by the ice. Davis mapped the western coast of Greenland and the southern extremities of Baffin island before discovering what would come to be known as Hudson Strait on his way back south. During his travels Davis developed his eponymous quadrant or back staff, for use in determining the angle of the sun above the horizon at noon and thereby one's latitude. This was a significant improvement on the existing cross staff which required the user to squint directly at the low polar sun in order to take a sighting, whereas the Davis Quadrant was used with one's back to the sun and aligned to the horizon whilst the shadow cast by the sun was used to obtain the angle required to calculate latitude. This not very exciting video sort of explains it.

John Davis (left) holding his quadrant
Davis, Frobisher and other stout hearted Englishmen were far too busy the following year giving a bloody nose to the Spanish Armada to worry about the northwest passage and it would be some thirty years before interest in the frozen north was rekindled. By this time James I was on the throne and the most accomplished explorer of the age was Henry Hudson. Hudson had been employed by the Dutch East India company in unsuccessfully trying to find a northeast passage around the northern coast of Russia and in probing the eastern coastline of North America, where he explored the river that now bears his name. In 1610 Hudson was somewhat forcibly persuaded to switch his allegiance to the English Muscovy Company and set out aboard the Discovery in search of the north-west passage. It would prove an ill fated voyage. Finding his way through the strait identified by Davis and into the large bay later named in his honour, Hudson began exploring and charting the coastline in search of a possible route westwards. As winter set in, the Discovery became trapped in the bay by the ice and Hudson and his crew became the first to overwinter in the Arctic. The ship was beached and the crew survived through the winter but when summer came around and Hudson declared his intention to continue searching for the passage he faced mutiny from a crew determined to return home rather than face further hardship. Hudson either was murdered in cold blood or set adrift in a small boat along with his son and a number of other loyal crew members as the mutineers maintained. None of them was ever seen again. The ship returned home with just eight crew, all of whom faced murder charges but all were acquitted and two even later returned to Hudson's bay on the Discovery in 1612, so common sense rather than cowardice must have been the motivation for their actions against Hudson as the court accepted. On its next mission Discovery explored much of the remainder of the bay and overwintered again. The accompanying ship Resolution was crushed in the ice and the scurvy-riddled survivors returned on the Discovery to announce that the bay contained no route to the west.

Hudson set adrift by John Maler Collier 1881
With Hudson's Bay seemingly a dead end, the Company of Merchants of London decided that the search for the passage should be directed further to the north and east. The Discovery was once more pressed into service and placed under the command of Hudson mutineer and now Arctic veteran Robert Bylot. He was joined by pilot William Baffin, who had been recently employed by the King of Denmark in searching for evidence of Danish Viking settlement on Greenland to strengthen that monarch's claim to the territory. In two summer expeditions in 1615 and 1616, avoiding overwintering, the Discovery probed first to the north of Southampton Island at the top of Hudson's Bay and then, believing the area to be entirely enclosed by land, forged up Davis Strait in the following summer, charting more of the west coast of Greenland before reaching a new landmark of 77 degrees north at Baffin Bay. They identified three ice clogged channels between the islands at its northern end, one of which, Smith Sound headed north and the other two, Jones Sound and Lancaster Sound, headed west. Baffin and Bylot considered the passages, which they had named in honour of their sponsors, unpromising and turned for home, charting the eastern coast of Baffin Island as they went. It would be another two centuries before an expedition ventured into such far-flung parts and when they did so they would be impressed by the accuracy of Baffin's observations, which included the earliest known determination of longitude by the lunar distance method.

William Baffin
The focus of efforts now returned to Hudson's Bay and its environs. As rival merchant companies in London and Bristol began to appreciate that the area might yield up profit in trade and petitioned the crown for rights to exploit whatever resources were found. Two rival expeditions set out in 1631. Luke Foxe of London set out in the Charles, named in honour of the new king whilst Thomas James of Bristol set out in the Henrietta Maria named in honour of his queen. Both explored the bay separately before Foxe probed to the north, sailing into the body of water now known as Foxe Basin to the west of Baffin Island. Having assessed the motion of the tides, Foxe concluded that they flowed in from the south-east and decided to go no further, assuming that no passage westwards would be found further into the bay. Following this he headed for home with all his crew alive and well. The Henrietta Maria meanwhile elected to remain in Hudson's Bay overwinter. The ship was deliberately sunk in shallow water and the crew built cabins on land. They endured a harsh winter and many died from the effects of cold and scurvy. Refloating the ship in the following spring they set out for home but the ice still abounded in their path and the ship struggled for twenty days through floes that threatened constantly to sink it. She was leaking badly and the men manned the pumps constantly. At night the ship was anchored to a large floe and would be battered through the night whilst the crew were in terror of being sunk. James' account of the ordeal would later inspire Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Gustav Dore illustration from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Sometimes when we had made her fast in the night to a great piece of ice we should have such violent storms that our fasting would break and then the storm would beat us from piece to piece most fearfully. Otherwhile we should be fast enclosed amongst great ice as high as our poop... Amongst these several and hourly dangers I heard men murmur and say that they were happy that I had buried and that if they had a thousand pounds they would give it, so they could lay fairly by them. For we, they say, are destined to starve upon a piece of ice.

From The Strange and Dangerous Voyage of Thomas James 1633.

Such tales of woe dampened enthusiasm for sending voyages of exploration into the uncharted, frozen north in search of the fabled passage but the lure of profits to be had from the fur trade ensured that Hudson's Bay was now firmly on the map. The Hudson's Bay Company was established by royal charter in 1670, building their headquarters at the mouth of the Hayes River. It was named York Factory in honour of the Duke of York and here native trappers traded furs in exchange for rifles, metal tools, glass beads and in particular, somewhat ironically given the locals' ready supply of furs, patterned woollen blankets. All of this was a great affront to the French who up until this point had dominated the fur trade from their outposts in Quebec and when war broke out between Britain and France following the Glorious Revolution the French began seizing the company's trading posts, which changed hands several times.

The wreck of the Pelican

The Battle of Hudson's Bay was fought in 1697 between French and British squadrons when the French attempted to capture York Factory. The French flagship Pelican lost its consorts in thick fog and found itself engaged by the three ship British squadron. Pelican was being pounded into submission with blood running from her scuppers when a lucky shot detonated the magazine of the British flagship Hampshire sending it straight to the bottom. The remaining British ships surrendered and fled respectively but Pelican was so badly damaged that it too sunk. The victorious French somewhat ignominiously waded ashore and took control of York factory. In 1713 it was ceded back to Britain at the conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession with the Hudson's Bay Company having sole rights to the fur trade in the region.

Hudson's Bay may have been back in British hands but the company saw no profits to be had from exploration and showed no inclination to spend money sending ships and men off in search of the northwest passage. The quest for the passage was finally reignited in 1741 when it found a champion in the form of Arthur Dobbs; a member of the Irish landed gentry who became a major landowner in North Carolina and later served as its governor. Dobbs was both a man with an eye to a profit and an intellectual who wished to see the  geographical secrets of the north unlocked. He felt the Hudson's Bay Company were not fulfilling their duties in the field of exploration and agitated in parliament for them to lose their monopoly unless they did more. Competition, Dobbs argued, would stimulate exploration.

Arthur Dobbs

The result was a pair of bad tempered naval expeditions sent to scout the narrow passage known as Roe's Welcome Sound at the north-west corner of Hudson Bay passing between Southampton Island and the mainland and leading into Foxe Basin. Two ships, a converted collier named Discovery and a bomb vessel named Furnace were dispatched in 1742 under the command of two former Hudson's Bay Company men, cousins Christopher Middleton and William Moor. Having explored two ice-clogged inlets named Wager Bay and Repulse Bay and found their further progress blocked by ice the ships returned to report that neither offered a passage westwards. Dobbs was unimpressed and refused to accept expedition commander Middleton's findings. Moor at first supported Middleton and then came around to Dobbs' viewpoint when the command of a second expedition was proffered. Moor returned to Wager Bay in the Furnace in 1746-7 in company with the California under Francis Smith. Over a miserable winter iced in at York Factory the two fell out and several men died of scurvy. The following season the two ships explored separately, concluded that Wager Bay ended in two small, unnavigable rivers and returned home in disappointment. The Hudson's Bay Company's views on the futility of further exploration had been reinforced and the admiralty were inclined to agree. Moor remained a supporter of Dobbs but he was largely discredited and in 1749 a debate in parliament ended in a vote against Dobb's motion to repeal the company's monopoly.

A 19th Century view of York Factory

If there was a north-west passage to found, everyone was now forced to admit, it lay further to the north and was probably impenetrable. For the time being there was no more appetite to search for it and it remained, if it existed at all, a blank on the map.

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