Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Carry on up the Northwest Passage - Part Three

Happy New Year, Readers. Well here we are in 2016 and I'm going to kick off another year of blogging by concluding my Christmas Polar Special on the northwest passage. Parts One and Two here and here. We resume our tale in 1829 when, with the admiralty short of funds, the next assault on the passage came from an unlikely quarter in the form of John Ross, who had spent the last decade in obscurity trying to recover his reputation following the Lancaster Sound debacle.

Ross obtained funding from a private investor Felix Booth, whose family had made their fortune from supplying the Dickensian masses with gin. Through his patronage of Ross, Booth would gain respectability and ultimately end up as a baronet with a chunk of the Arctic named after him. Ross set out for the northwest passage aboard the Victory, a former whaler with the prerequisite robustness for the Arctic, which was fitted out with an experimental steam engine and paddles. The benefits of steam power in the tricky waters of the Arctic were self evident but the hopelessly unreliable engine would in the end be abandoned to rust on a distant shore when all aboard declared themselves sick of the thing.

Victory on the Thames

Ross spent no less than four winters in the Arctic. Penetrating deep into Prince Regent Inlet he reached the body of water he named the Gulf of Boothia, hemmed in to its west by the peninsula he named Boothia Felix. Here too the Victory would ultimately also be abandoned. The Arctic had lured the Victory into its depths during the mild winter of 1829 and then trapped it as the gulf remained frozen through the next summer and the next and the next. In the end the ship had to be abandoned and the crew trekked overland, dragging boats behind them to reach the beach where Parry had dumped the supplies of the wrecked Fury. Here they spent the winter of 1832 in a cabin they named Somerset House, eking out their rations and catching what game they could. Only a single man, the carpenter, was lost to scurvy though all suffered its effects. Finally in the following spring they were able to make their way out through Lancaster Sound in small boats and were picked up by a passing whaler, which turned out ironically to be the Isabella, Ross' 1819 flagship.

Map of NW Passage with Amundsen's successful 1903-6 route shown 

There had been some successes. James Ross, who had accompanied his uncle, had led summer sledging expeditions which had crossed Boothia Felix and passed over the frozen sea on the far side to reach King William Island, although Ross believed himself to have been passing over land throughout. On his travels he discovered the North Magnetic Pole on the western coast of Boothia and sighted open water from Victory Point - his furthest west, on the northwest shore of King William Island.

Meanwhile, a search party organised by James' father George Ross sent Lt. George Back, veteran of Franklin's expeditions and a favourite of Barrow, down the Great Fish River to reach Chantry Inlet at the bottom of the Gulf of Boothia. By the time he got there, having upset numerous officers of the Hudson's Bay Company along the way, the Rosses had returned as grizzled heroes. The younger Ross in particular was covered with glory. His uncle, it was alleged, had lurked morosely in his cabin whilst young James had boldly ventured where no man had gone before with his sledging teams. Ross Snr's arch enemy Barrow did much to perpetuate this version of events.

Abandonment of the Victory by William Bradford
In the latter half of the decade the Hudson's Bay Company were finally stirred out of their torpor by their irritation at Back's high handed manner and a sense of frustration with what they saw as the admiralty's bungling and overcomplicated approach to what they saw as a straightforward problem. The company sent a number of successful expeditions in small boats to chart practically all of the northern coastline from the Mackenzie River to the Gulf of Boothia but they too made the same mistake as James Ross in presuming King William Island to be part of Boothia. This in turn informed misguided admiralty opinion that the northwest passage would be achieved by passing to the west of King William Island and thence, conditions allowing, towards the open water sighted by Ross and onwards to the Pacific. Alas in truth these waters were an icy deathtrap from which no ship could escape. The only safe route, such as it was, was to be accomplished by passing to the east of King William Island and through the strait between the island and the mainland. The trouble was, everyone assumed this to be dry land.

In an attempt to further illuminate this poorly understood and critical corner of the Arctic, George Back had been dispatched by Barrow in 1836 aboard the bomb ship Terror on a repeat of Lyon's failed expedition to reach the northern coast overland from Repulse Bay. He came back having failed in much the same manner as Lyon, having met with atrocious weather and with the Terror a virtual wreck.

James Ross - polar hero - note the dipping needle used to locate the magnetic north pole
Further attempts on the passage were once more put on hold and instead in 1838 a grand new venture to the Antarctic was in the offing, headed up by man of the moment James Ross. HMS Terror was patched up and would be commanded by Lt Francis Crozier, a veteran of Parry's expeditions, whilst Ross took over her sister ship HMS Erebus. The expedition was a tour-de-force and more blanks on the admiralty charts could be filled in with details of the Ross Sea, the Ross Ice Shelf, Mount Erebus etc. Ross returned in 1843 once more covered with glory though he himself was disappointed that he had not achieved more, in particular he had failed to locate the southern magnetic pole to complete the set. Ross would have been the obvious choice to command the next and hopefully final assault on the northwest passage but he was burnt out having spent much of the past twenty years in Arctic service. The honour therefore fell to Sir John Franklin, who had recently returned from a miserable tenure as governor of Van Diemen's Land.

So the stage was set for the disaster that was the Franklin expedition of 1845; the last to be sent out by Sir John Barrow. With high expectations and enough supplies for five years in the ice, Franklin set out in HMS Erebus with Crozier commanding HMS Terror. The ships were last seen by whalers at the entrance to Lancaster Sound and until 2014 when the wreck of the Erebus was dramatically discovered on the seabed off King William Island, that was the last anyone saw of them.

 Franklin was 60 years old by the time of his last attempt at the NWP
It was a few years before anyone started to worry. After all, Sir John Ross had been gone for four years and Trafalgar veteran and living legend Franklin was famous as 'the man who ate his boots'. Surely he was indestructible? Eventually however, with no sign of Erebus and Terror and with much agitation from Franklin's indomitable wife Lady Jane, the search began. Sir John Ross, now in his seventies, was the first to volunteer. Between 1848 and 1855 over twenty ships were sent in search of Franklin. Five were abandoned in the ice. Franklin's would-be rescuers could not be accused of not trying. Amongst the schemes attempted were the release of balloons carrying messages with details of the location of the search ships and of caches of supplies that were left behind. Similarly brass buttons with messages were given to any Inuit they encountered and inscribed collars were fitted to Arctic foxes which were captured and released in the hope that one of the Franklin party might bag one for dinner. Some of the rescuers did however lose sight of the primary mission.

A balloon, button and fox collar from the Franklin search in the Polar Museum Cambridge - my pic.

In the course of the search, the crew of one ship, HMS Investigator under the tyrannical Captain McClure, completed the northwest passage after a fashion. The Investigator had entered through the Bering Strait and then attempted to pass through Prince of Wales Strait between Victoria Island and Banks Island. Failing here and almost being wrecked in a ferocious storm, McClure then tried to make it around the western coast of Banks Island, which had been sighted by Parry in 1820 but never explored, and became trapped in the ice. His sledging parties did reach Melville Island however, where Parry had overwintered. Here they left messages for any parties reaching Melville Island from the east. With the holy grail seemingly tantalisingly close, the search for Franklin was forgotten and McClure became fixated on the passage. When rescue finally arrived from the search parties to the east, McClure tried to convince them that all was well. One look at his crew, dying from starvation and scurvy, convinced the horrified medical officer from the rescue ship HMS Resolute, which had entered from the Atlantic side, that the situation was hopeless and the crew travelled by sledge to the Resolute, thereby becoming the first to travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Arctic.

President Obama sits behind a piece of Arctic history - Wikipedia commons
HMS Resolute would itself ultimately be abandoned off Melville Island and both crews made their escape eastwards. The Resolute was later salvaged and some of its timbers were made into a desk which was presented to President Hayes by Queen Victoria in 1880. It is still used by the President of the US today. After all that, no-one was any the wiser about what had happened to Franklin's expedition. His 1845 winter base on Beechey Island had been found along with the graves of three men but no message had been left and where Franklin had gone after that first winter remained a mystery.

The puzzle was at least partially solved by an overland expedition sent by the Hudson's Bay Company. They spoke with Inuit who had encountered a party of forty of Franklin's men who had  dragged themselves inland to try to follow the Great Fish River northward to salvation. There was no game to be had at that time and according to the Inuit the desperate survivors had resorted to cannibalism before succumbing to starvation. A few items bearing the initials of crew members were handed over by way of proof. Lady Jane Franklin was having none of it and privately raised funds for another expedition led by Commander McClintock in the Fox.

This 1895 Painting by Thomas Smith imagines the end of the Franklin expedition survivors

The Fox reached the eastern coast of Boothia in 1858 and McClintock reached King William Island by sledge the following year. Here they found heaps of abandoned supplies, the remains of three of Franklin's men and at James Ross' Victory Point they found the only message ever retrieved from the Franklin expedition. It had been left in 1848 by Crozier, written on the margin of an earlier message stating that all was well from the previous year. It confirmed that the ships had been abandoned off the west coast of King William Island after two years trapped in the ice. The message also recorded that 24 out of the 133 crew of Erebus and Terror had died and that Sir John Franklin had been amongst their number. It stated that the survivors were heading inland to follow the Great Fish River.

Two factors above all had most likely done for the expedition. Firstly they had sailed the wrong side of King William Island into an unescapable ice trap. Secondly, modern autopsies conducted on the well preserved corpses buried back on Beechey Island revealed lethally high levels of lead poisoning from the lead cans used for storing the expedition's supplies. With no hope of escape and understanding perhaps that something in their supplies was slowly killing them, the crews had embarked on a desperate march southwards which none had survived. So had ended the dreams of a bold generation of explorers. Landseer's bleak 1864 painting of two polar bears tearing at wreckage summed up the glum mood surrounding the fate of Franklin and hinted at the dark rumours of cannibalism that had outraged Victorian sensibilities. Franklin himself was lauded as a fallen hero and posthumously promoted to Rear Admiral.

Man Proposes God Disposes by Landseer 1864

As for the northwest passage, it would remain unconquered for another half century until a certain Roald Amundsen finally succeeded in passing through it on the Gjoa expedition of 1903-06. It was primarily a scientific expedition in a small ship with a crew of just seven and Amundsen refused to be hurried. In mild conditions Amundsen had been the first man since Franklin to sail down Peel Sound to reach King William Island and set up base on the south-eastern coast at the point now known as Gjoa Haven. Here they spent the next two years in exploratory expeditions and diligent scientific observations. Amundsen succeeded in relocating the north magnetic pole in a different location to that in which James Ross had found it in 1830, proving that it was not fixed. In the summer of 1905 the Gjoa sailed westwards, following the passage along the northern coast to emerge on the Pacific side in the Beaufort Sea. Here he overwintered at Herschel Island, from where he was able to travel inland by dog sled to Eagle City, Alaska. From here he telegraphed the news that the northwest passage had at last been conquered - by a Norwegian. Sir John Barrow would have been turning in his grave.

Amundsen and the crew of the Gjoa - eventual conquerors of the passage

The Gjoa expedition

Erebus rediscovered


1 comment:

  1. An excellent blog post! I did want to point out, though, that the William Bradford painting above doesn't depict the Victory -- this is Charles Francis Hall's "Polaris" being abandoned at Thank God Harbor in Greenland!