Barrow Sir John

Although Sir John Barrow only made one brief trip to the Arctic himself, sailing to Svalbard for a summer on board a whaler during his teenage years, his name is inextricably linked with the exploration of the Arctic through his role as the prime figure in the mapping of Arctic Canada that took place in the first half of the 19 th century.

Coming from humble origins in rural north Lancashire, Barrow was a bright child who impressed his teachers in mastering Latin and mathematics, and made his way by a combination of talents and a natural sense of diplomacy that enabled him to enlist and maintain the support of increasingly influential patrons. Through a series of such connections, he found himself attached to Lord George Macartney's embassy to the imperial court of China in 1792-1794, during which he learned some Chinese and was an energetic observer of Chinese life. In 1797, Macartney was appointed the first British governor of Cape Colony, and Barrow accompanied him as comptroller of his household, becoming Auditor General of Public Accounts for the colony in 1799 as his reputation for probity and efficiency spread.

When Cape Colony was returned (temporarily) to the Dutch in 1803, Barrow returned to Britain, and his patrons and accomplishments alike recommended him for the post of Second Secretary to the Admiralty. In this position he proved himself an able administrator during the latter stages of the Napoleonic Wars, when the Royal Navy was at its largest, and then in the period of massive contraction in ships and personnel that followed the final defeat of Napoleon (whose place of incarceration, St Helena, was Barrow's own suggestion, having visited it on his way back from China).

Barrow's interest in geographical questions and historical research, together with his concern to find some activity for otherwise unemployed naval officers, came together after the war in his proposals for a series of expeditions that would complete "those details of geographical and hydrographical science of which the grand outlines have been boldly and broadly sketched by Cook, Vancouver, and Flinders.," as he put it in his introduction to the published account of the first of these voyages, undertaken in 1816 to sail up the River Congo. As a civil servant rather than a politician, he had no formal way of actually initiating policy, so he approached the task indirectly by using his formidable connections. In the Royal Society (of which he was a fellow), he gained the support of its president, Joseph Banks, for a renewed program of exploration. As a contributor to the influential Quarterly Review, he promoted the need for it, and in the Admiralty he would certainly have offered suggestions as to how the morale of a shrinking navy could be improved and the energies of its officers directed.

The arguments he used in support ranged from maintaining Britain's prestige as an exploring nation (saying that national honor should not allow the world's largest navy to stand idle while other countries forged ahead) to maintaining its security as an imperial nation, noting that control of strategically placed bases on major waterways was the key to peace and prosperity for a maritime empire. In 1818, Barrow also published his Chronological History of Voyages into the Arctic Regions, which, by reminding his contemporaries of the strides already made by British mariners from Martin Frobisher onwards, and ending with the first two Arctic expeditions sent out under his own instructions, amounted to a manifesto for a renewed exploratory effort on a grand scale.

Once the initial proposals were approved, the selection of officers would largely have been within

Barrow's direct control, so as First Lords of the Admiralty came and went, Barrow himself, as the more permanent fixture, became the center of power to which ambitious naval officers with an interest in exploration were attracted. The Arctic was to prove his strongest and most enduring passion, and between 1818 and 1845 he sent out 13 expeditions to Svalbard or the North American Arctic, the overarching aim of which was to find a sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, whether that be by a North West Passage or by a polar route through what he imagined to be an open polar sea.

Barrow began with a two-pronged attack in 1818, sending two ships under David Buchan and John Franklin to Svalbard in an attempt to get into the pack ice that had defeated Constantine Phipps's voyage in 1773. At the same time two other ships under John Ross and William Parry were sent to Baffin Bay to confirm Bylot and Baffin's report of its outlets to the north and west. Both were unsuccessful: Buchan and Franklin found the North Atlantic pack as impenetrable as earlier and later explorers, while Ross fell victim to a mirage that convinced him Lancaster Sound was an enclosed bay. The following year Barrow sent Parry back again, in command this time. In an exceptionally lucky year for ice conditions, Parry pushed through Lancaster Sound for some 1040 km (650 mi) before he was turned back by the permanent pack of the Beaufort Sea, spending the winter on the southwest coast of Melville Island (the first ship-borne expedition ever to winter deliberately in the High Arctic). Barrow conceived of this expedition too as part of a pincer movement, the other arm of which was John Franklin's overland expedition (1819-1822) to map the continental coastline of North America eastward from the mouth of the Coppermine River, in the (vain) hope that he would meet up with Parry.

Plotting the discoveries from these expeditions on the Admiralty's charts began to give Barrow an inkling that a North West Passage would not be found in an open arena of drifting icebergs through which a ship could pick its way, but would be one of many possible paths through a labyrinth of islands separated by channels that might be choked with standing ice-floes. The point he never seems to have grasped, or at least acknowledged, was that channels that were blocked by ice one year might be open the next, and vice versa, rendering the route only occasionally and unpredictably passable and thus, for practical purposes, unusable. Since the logic of this would effectively have closed down Barrow's project—something he would have wanted to avoid for other strategic reasons—it is perhaps not surprising that he chose to ignore it.

Parry's next attempts were at finding a more southerly route, closer to the continental coastline (1821-1823 and 1824-1825), while Franklin was sent back on a second overland expedition to chart more of its length (1825-1827). The latter nearly connected with Frederick Beechey (1825-1828), who had been despatched through Bering Strait in the opposite direction. Barrow did not forget his open polar sea either. In 1827, he sent Parry on his fifth and final expedition to make an attempt on the pack ice north of Svalbard by foot. Dragging heavy boats over the ice (since they expected to encounter open water ahead), his men only succeeded in exhausting themselves as the current pushed the floes south almost as fast as they could move north. They had not traveled far enough to show that the ice extended all the way to the North Pole, so the theory of the open polar sea survived until another day, but it did give Barrow important information, later exploited by Fridtjof Nansen, about currents that confirmed the idea of large-scale flows of water across the entire polar basin.

When the Hudson's Bay Company expedition under Thomas Simpson and Peter Dease (1836-1839) completed the survey of the northern continental coastline, Barrow thought he had assembled enough information to ensure that one more push could make the final link through the North West Passage to the Pacific. He therefore persuaded the Admiralty to back a lavishly equipped two-ship expedition under Franklin, which sailed in 1845. Its failure, the mystery of its fate, and the long search for its remains by more than a dozen further expeditions became the central, abundantly mythologized event of the 19th-century exploration of the Arctic. However, Barrow knew of none of this, as he retired a few months before the expedition sailed, and died three years later when the chances of a successful outcome were still considered high.

The chaotic and densely packed Canadian Arctic archipelago made its exploration all the more difficult by constantly changing ice conditions. That a task suited to aerial reconnaissance and satellite photography was accomplished at all in the age of wooden sailing ships is due to a combination of political, economic, cultural, and other factors, but the crucial thread that linked them was Barrow's social and professional position at the focus of these overlapping forces, and his singular determination over three decades to push the search for a North West Passage through to its conclusion. When in his retirement he added to his earlier text of 1818 by writing Voyages of Discovery and Research Within the Arctic Regions, From the Year 1818 to the Present Time, the achievement he surveyed was, in its inspiration and organization, largely his own.


Born near Ulverston in Lancashire (now in Cumbria) on June 19, 1764, John Barrow was the son of smallholders Roger Barrow and Mary Dawson. He was educated at the local Town Bank Grammar School, then worked as a surveyor, bookkeeper, and tutor, before accompanying his employer on a diplomatic mission to China in 1792-1794, and on colonial service in Cape Colony in 1797-1803. In 1803, he was appointed Second Secretary to the Admiralty, a post in which he remained, apart from a few months in 1806-1807, until 1845. From 1815, he initiated and organized a series of naval expeditions to many parts of the world, including the Arctic expeditions commanded by David Buchan (1818), Sir John Ross (1818), Sir John Franklin (1819-1822, 1825-1827, and 1845-1848), Sir William Parry (1819-1820, 1821-1823, 1824-1825, and 1827), George Lyon (1824), Frederick Beechey (1825-1828), and Sir George Back (1833-1835 and 1836-1837). He married Anne Maria Truter in Cape Town in 1799, and they had several children. He was an active member of the Royal Society, and was one of the founding members of the Geographical Society of London (later the Royal Geographical Society) in 1830. He died in London on November 23, 1848.

Jonathan Dore

See also Back, Sir George; Beechey, Frederick; Exploration of the Arctic; Franklin, Sir John; Lyon, George Francis; North West Passage, Exploration of; Open Polar Sea; Parry, Sir William Edward; Ross, Sir John; Royal Geographical Society; Simpson, Thomas

Further Reading

Barrow, Sir John, An Account of Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa, 2 volumes, London: Cadell and Davies, 1801-1804, and (Volume 1) New York: G.F. Hopkins, 1802; reprinted, New York: Johnson Reprint, 1968

-, Travels in China, London: Cadell and Davies, 1804, and Philadelphia: W.E. M'Laughlin, 1805; reprinted, Taipei: Ch'eng Wen, 1972

-, A Chronological History of Voyages into the Arctic

Regions, London: John Murray, 1818; reprinted, Newton Abbot, Devon: David and Charles, and New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971

-, The Eventful History of the Mutiny and Piratical

Seizure of H.M.S. Bounty, London: John Murray, 1831; reprinted, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989; reprinted as Mutiny!: The Real History of the H.M.S. Bounty, New York: Cooper Square Press, 2003 ———, Voyages of Discovery and Research within the Arctic Regions, From the Year 1818 to the Present Time, London: John Murray, and New York: Harper, 1846

-, An Autobiographical Memoir of Sir John Barrow, Bart.,

Late of the Admiralty: Including Reflections, Observations, and Reminiscences at Home and Abroad, From Early Life to Advanced Age, London: John Murray, 1847 Bartlett, Christopher John, Great Britain and Sea Power, 1815-53, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963; reprinted, Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 1993

Berton, Pierre, The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988, New York and London: Viking, 1989; reprinted, New York: Lyons Press, 2000 Dawson, Warren R., The Banks Letters, London: Trustees of the

British Museum, 1958 Fleming, Fergus, Barrow's Boys, London: Granta Books, 1998;

New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000 Lewis, Michael, The Navy in Transition, 1814-1864: A Social

History, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965 Lloyd, Christopher, Mr Barrow of the Admiralty: A Life of Sir John Barrow, London: Collins, 1970

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