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.

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