Lieutenant de vaisseau Joseph-René Bellot is best remembered as the French naval officer who first volunteered for service on two British expeditions to the Canadian Arctic in 1851 to search for survivors of Sir John Franklin's expedition, lost while seeking the North West Passage. He was killed in a tragic accident on his second voyage in 1853.
Bellot's early career demonstrated his precocious intelligence, courage, and resolution, which, coupled with his considerate and capable manner, was to prepare him well for his future role as Arctic explorer. He was a gifted student who progressed rapidly, and by the age of 18 he had left the naval academy and was serving on a French corvette in the Madagascar campaign. During this voyage Bellot displayed exceptional courage in rescuing a sailor from the sea, for which he received a commendation, and several days later was himself wounded while capturing cannon during an attack on Tamatave, a seaport of Madagascar. For the latter episode, Bellot was presented with the Cross of the Legion of Honour on December 2, 1845. On his return his commander, Romain-Desfossé, recommended him to the naval minister for his outstanding abilities.
Bellot's Arctic experience began aboard the Prince Albert under the command of the Arctic fur trader William Kennedy, on the expedition privately funded by Lady Jane Franklin to search for her husband, missing in the Canadian north. He volunteered his service and so impressed Lady Franklin at an interview that he was appointed second in command, despite reservations expressed by her advisers in the Admiralty. The Prince Albert sailed from Aberdeen on May 22, 1851, passing Kap Farvel, Greenland, on June 24; on July 8, near Upernarvik Greenland, it received intelligence from a passing whaler that traces of the Franklin expedition had been found on Beechey Island. On September 9, while in Prince Regent Inlet, Kennedy left the Prince Albert with a small shore party at Port Leopold, Somerset Island, leaving Bellot in charge.
While ashore, the ship began drifting in the ice, and after much tribulation Bellot anchored the ship in overwintering quarters in Batty Bay, 50 miles to the south. It took Bellot three attempts, spread over six difficult weeks of adverse weather, to finally bring the party back safely overland to the ship.
The next year, in 1852, Bellot and Kennedy, following a trial preliminary sledge journey to Fury Beach, completed one of the longest sledge journeys undertaken during the Franklin searches, an excursion of about 1100 miles. Tracing the coast of Somerset Island southwards, on April 5 they discovered the straits that now bear Bellot's name, separating the island from Boothia Peninsula, the northernmost point of the North American continent. Continuing westward they crossed Franklin Strait and Prince of Wales Island to Ommanney Bay on the west coast, before recrossing the island to Peel Sound and heading north to reach Cape Walker on May 4. The two men then traced the northern and western coastlines of Somerset Island back to Batty Bay, arriving in late May. The expedition reached Aberdeen on October 7, 1851 and Bellot returned to France, from where he maintained regular correspondence with Lady Franklin. During this time he declined an invitation to serve with Elisha Kent Kane on his second Grinnell Expedition to Smith Sound.
In April 1853, Bellot wrote to Lady Franklin requesting that he be allowed to join Edward Inglefield's expedition that was soon to depart on the Phoenix, which together with the Breadalbane was to deliver supplies and despatches to Edward Belcher's Franklin Search expedition then in the Canadian Arctic. Partly on her recommendation and partly on his previous record of service, Bellot was accepted at once by the Admiralty. Bellot sailed almost immediately, meeting up with Belcher's supply ship—the North Star—at Beechey Island (Nunavat) on August 8, 1853. A few days later he set off on foot with four men to deliver correspondence to Belcher on board HMS Assistance, then trapped in pack ice in Wellington Channel to the north. While on this journey Bellot became trapped on floating ice with two of his men, David Hook and William Johnson. Having spent the night in a makeshift shelter, Bellot went out the following morning to review their predicament. He was never seen again, although his stick was discovered on an adjacent ice-floe. It is assumed that he fell into the freezing water and drowned.
Joseph-René Bellot was born in Paris on March 18, 1826, the son of Étienne Bellot (a farrier and blacksmith) and Adélaide Estelle Laurent. His family moved to Rochefort in 1931, a place of which he always spoke fondly and regarded as his adopted home. At school he displayed natural gifts and application, and was rewarded by scholarships that allowed him to attend the local college and then the naval academy, where he received numerous prizes. He left the academy at the age of 17/2 in September 1843. Bellot then spent six months at Brest serving successively on the Suffren and Friedland before being appointed to the corvette Berceau, bound for Madagascar, in which he served until mid-1845. In November of that year, he was promoted to enseigne de vaisseau (junior grade lieutenant) on the corvette Triumphante (a small warship) on a voyage to the Pacific and on which he acted as navigator. Following his return in August 1850, he was attached to the naval map office, where he completed his journals. His Arctic voyages occupied the period 1851-1854. An account of his first Arctic voyage on the Prince Albert was published in 1854 and subsequently translated into English. Bellot died unmarried on August 18, 1854. A memorial (original tablet now in Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Yellowknife) was erected on Beechey Island by officers of Belcher's Arctic expedition on August 27, 1854. Another memorial was established in Rochefort and Sir John Barrow presented a commemorative plaque to the Musée de la Marine in Paris. Memorial subscriptions in Britain raised over £2000, part of which was used to erect a commemorative obelisk, the Bellot Memorial, in Greenwich Park, London. The remaining monies raised went to support his dependent sisters. Bellot's portrait, by Stephen Pearce, resides in the National Portrait Gallery, London, emphasizing Bellot's status as an honorary Englishman. Bellot lends his name to the straits between Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic, to the cold wind that blows through these straits, and to thoroughfares in Paris and Greenwich.
Ian D. Hodkinson
See also Franklin, Lady Jane; Franklin, Sir John; Inglefield, Edward A.; Kane, Elisha Kent; Kennedy, William; North West Passage
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