Sir Edward Belcher achieved notoriety in the annals of Arctic exploration through his command of the British Arctic Expedition of 1852-1854. The mission was less than successful, resulting in the premature abandonment of four ships. These events and the acrimony arising from them have overshadowed Belcher's positive achievements, particularly his contributions to Arctic ethnology and surveying.
Belcher's Arctic experience began as assistant surveyor on Beechey's Blossom expedition of 1825-1828. This expedition was sent, in part, to provide logistic support in the western American Arctic to expeditions led by Sir John Franklin (overland) and Sir William Parry (by sea from the east) that were attempting to establish the existence of a North West Passage. Passing through Bering Strait, the expedition surveyed the coastline of North America as far east as Pt Barrow, Alaska.
In 1852, at the mature age of 53, Belcher was given command of a mission to search the eastern Canadian Arctic for the lost Sir John Franklin boat parties and to set up supply depots for another two-ship expedition commanded by Captain Richard Collinson, which was to search for the North West Passage from the west through Bering Strait. Belcher's expedition comprised five ships: HMS Assistance (Commander G.H. Richards, Belcher's command ship), Resolute (Captain H. Kellett), Pioneer (Lieutenant S. Osborn), Intrepid (Commander F.L. McClintock), and North
Star (Commander W.J.J. Pullen). Pioneer and Intrepid were steam-powered support tenders attached to Assistance and Resolute, respectively; North Star was the supply ship. Belcher's orders were to use "Beechey Island . as the basis for your operations . there to establish a general depot," then to "recover those traces of Sir John Franklin which ceased at Cape Bowden, to the north of Beechy Island ... passing up Wellington Channel with one sailing vessel and one steamer (Belcher, 1855). Further orders were to "deposit, if possible, at Parry's Winter Harbour, Melville Island or failing that at Byam Martin Island." provisions "for any parties that might reach such positions from Captain Collinson's or Commander [Robert] M'Clure's ships" (HMS Enterprise and Investigator, respectively) (Belcher, 1855).
The expedition departed from Greenhithe on the Thames on April 21, 1852, sailing through Baffin Bay and Lancaster Sound and, after separating en route, were reunited at Beechey Island on August 11. Ice conditions were favorable and Assistance and Pioneer set out immediately to explore Wellington Channel, reaching almost 78° N before being forced to overwinter at Northumberland Inlet, on the northwest point of Devon Island. Resolute and Intrepid reached Melville Island, but after initially failing to find traces of Collinson's expedition retreated to overwintering quarters at Dealy Island. Winter sledge parties, having later located a cached message from McClure at Sandstone Rock, Winter Harbour, crossed Melville Strait to establish contact between the two expeditions. McClure's ship was immovably trapped by ice at Mercy Bay on the north coast of Banks Island, but he was able to visit Kellet on the Resolute on April 19, 1853. After some deliberation, Investigator was abandoned and the ship's complement transferred over the ice to Resolute and Intrepid, effectively making them the first men to traverse the North West Passage, albeit partly on foot. Their trials, however, were not over; the returning two ships entered the pack ice and spent the winter of 1853-1854 beset south of Bathurst Island. Kellet then sent a message to Belcher detailing his plans for the 1854 season, but received orders to abandon the ships and return expeditiously to Beechey Island. Meanwhile, Assistance and Pioneer, after failing to find further traces of the Franklin expedition, attempted to return to Beechey Island but similarly became beset further south in Wellington Channel. It was at this point that Belcher's resolve broke and the order for the abandonment of all four ships was given, despite the reservations of some of his officers, particularly Kellet. It appears that Belcher was temperamentally unequipped to face a third harsh winter in the High Arctic. The expedition returned to England that summer aboard the North Star and two other ships HMS Phoenix and HMS Talbot that had arrived at Beechey Island with further supplies. They arrived home on September 28, 1854.
To compound Belcher's embarrassment, the abandoned Resolute later drifted unharmed into Lancaster Sound and out into Baffin Bay, where on September 16, 1855 she was picked up by Captain James Buddington of the Connecticut Whaler George Henry. Buddington sold the ship to the United States Government, who immediately refitted it and, as a gesture of goodwill and no doubt with some measure of amusement, presented it back to the British Government. When the Resolute was broken up in 1879, an oak desk, made from its timbers, was presented by Queen Victoria to the President of the United States Rutherford Hayes. Later, in 1965, the ship's bell was also presented to President Lyndon Johnson by the then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
The repercussions of the expedition were wide ranging, with much rancor among the participants. For example, Osborn used his account of M'Clure's Discovery of a North West Passage as a vehicle for castigating Belcher as incompetent. The recent discovery of manuscript letters and annotations in Commander Richards's copy of Osborn's book indicates, however, that the vitriol flowed in both directions and that Belcher retained the support of at least one of his fellow officers. Belcher faced court martial but was acquitted on the grounds that in abandoning his ships and preserving the safety of his men he had followed the letter, if not the spirit of his orders.
Leaving aside his later Arctic experiences and his reputation for being bad tempered and abrasive, Belcher seems to have been a competent and well-regarded naval surveyor, with his treatise on surveying being widely used by the Royal Navy over many years. He was also a collector of Inuit artifacts and a member of the Anthropological Institute of London. The collections he made during his Arctic voyages were acquired by General Pitt Rivers and now form part of the Pitt Rivers Museum collections in Oxford, UK. His 1852 expedition also made valuable collections of fish, molluscs, crustaceans, and fossils, including that of an Ichthyosaur.
Born in 1799, Edward Belcher was the son of Andrew Belcher of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and grandson of the then governor of the Province, William Belcher. He joined the British Royal Navy in 1812. Following routine naval employment, he was appointed as assistant surveyor on Beechey's voyage to the
Pacific and Bering straits (1825-1828), and on his return was promoted to Commander. There then followed several long years of exploration, most notably around the world in HMS Sulphur (1836-1842), and a survey of islands in Indonesia and the Philippines in HMS Samarang (1843-1846). He was knighted in 1843. His explorations culminated in his conspicuously unsuccessful expedition to the Canadian Arctic in 1852-1854, the story of which is recounted in his curiously entitled account The Last of the Arctic Voyages. Despite recriminations over this, his final Arctic voyage, he was recognized as Knight Commander (KCB) in 1867 and was promoted to Admiral in 1872. He died on March 18, 1877.
See also Beechey, Frederick; British Arctic Expedition, 1875-1876; Collinson, Richard; Franklin, Sir John; McClintock, Francis Leopold; McClure, Sir Robert; North West Passage; Parry, Sir William Edward
Amor, Norman, Beyond the Arctic Circle: Materials on Arctic Exploration and Travels Since 1750 in the Special Collections and University Archives Division of the University of British Columbia Library. Occasional Publication No. 1, Vancouver, University of British Columbia Library, 1992 [ Belcher archive] Barr, William (editor), A Frenchman in Search of Franklin. De Brays's Arctic Journal, 1852-1854, Toronto: University of Toronto, 1992
Belcher, Edward, A Treatise on Nautical Surveying: Containing an Outline of the Duties of the Naval Surveyor; with Cases Applied to Naval Evolutions and Miscellaneous Rules and Tables Useful to the Seaman or Traveller, London: Richardson, 1835
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Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, 1996 Pierce, Richard, "Edward Belcher (1799-1877)." Arctic, 35 (1982): 552-553
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