The British Arctic Expedition, under the auspices of the Royal Navy, explored Ellesmere Island, Greenland, setting a farthest north record. For nearly a quarter century after the final expedition mounted in 1852 in search of Sir John Franklin and his expedition, the British government steadfastly refused to support any scientific, geographic, or military expeditions into the polar regions. The combined efforts of the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society in London in the early 1870s pressured the government to alter this stance. In late 1874, with the fall of William Gladstone's (1809-1898) Liberal government and the beginning of Benjamin Disraeli's (1804-1841) Conservative government, this changed, and the Admiralty announced that an expedition would be mounted to explore northwest Greenland and northern Ellesmere Island. At the last moment, the government also stated that an attempt would be made to reach the North Pole.
One of the difficulties considered by the Admiralty in planning any expedition was that all the officers who could command or lead were flag officers or on the retired list. Thus, in 1873, Albert Markham, then a first lieutenant, was granted leave from the Royal Navy to allow him to sail on a Dundee whaler, the Arctic, to the Davis Strait, to Disko and Upernavik in Greenland, to Melville Bay, Baffin Bay, and Lancaster Sound. This travel made Markham one of the few serving officers with any experience sailing or navigating in pack ice. When the expedition was announced by the Admiralty, George S. Nares was selected as the commanding officer. Nares was commanding the Challenger Expedition, an around-the-world scientific expedition that had sailed in 1872, at the time and was recalled from that post while the
Vintage print depicting the HMS Alert pressed onshore in the Kennedy Channel during the British Arctic Expedition. Copyright Bryan and Cherry Alexander Photography
Challenger was still in the Pacific Ocean. Markham was named second-in-command.
The difficulty in mounting a major expedition was exacerbated by the time limitations placed on the process by nature. In order to reach a reasonable northern latitude in the first year of the projected two-year expedition, the ships would need to leave England in late spring. This left barely six months to acquire and fit ships, identify and train crews, and gather the needed stores. The Admiralty outfitted two ships, HMS Alert and HMS Discovery, for the voyage and appointed Markham as commander of the former and Henry F. Stephenson as commander of the latter, with Nares in command of the expedition as a whole.
After hurried preparations, the ships sailed from Portsmouth, England, on May 29. The vessels faced a particularly stormy passage to Greenland and reached Disko in early July. The ships then sailed to Upernavik where dogs, fuel, and final supplies were obtained. They then sailed the middle passage into Smith Sound on July 28 and reached Discovery Harbor, on the north side of Lady Franklin Bay on Ellesmere Island, on August 25. Here the Discovery was moored for its winter quarters. The Alert continued north in Robeson Channel and rounded the northern shore of Ellesmere Island, where it put into winter quarters on September 1 at Floeberg Beach. This was the most northerly latitude reached by a ship to that date. Autumn sledging parties explored and mapped the northern coast of Ellesmere Island and laid depots of supplies and equipment for the spring sledging season.
The first sledges went out on April 3, 1876, with Pelham Aldrich following the north coast of Ellesmere Island to Cape Joseph Henry and beyond. Leaving Markham and A.A.C. Parr at the cape to head north, Aldrich's party continued to explore the coast, reaching Cape Columbia, the most northerly point of Canadian Arctic territory. The men continued to explore and map Ward Hunt Island, Milne Fjord, Yelverton Bay, turning back at Alert Point. Their arduous trek permitted them to discover, explore, and map over 250 miles of coastline. The party returned to the Alert, some suffering from scurvy, on June 25 without any loss of life.
Markham and A.A.C. Parr turned north at Cape Joseph Henry and began a drive to attempt to set a record for the most northern trek. Almost immediately, signs of scurvy appeared in the men and they were forced to halt on May 10. Markham and Parr made one further attempt to go north, but gave up on May 12 after reaching 83°20'26'' N. Nearly the entire party was suffering from scurvy by the time they reached Cape Joseph Henry, and one man died before the Alert was reached.
The third sledging expedition left the Discovery on April 6 under the command of Lt. Lewis Beaumont. Traveling first to the Alert at Floeberg Beach, the sledges then turned eastward to the northern coast of Greenland. Scurvy soon developed among the men and Lt. Wyatt Rawson was sent back in early May with the most ill. Beaumont continued along the Greenland coast until reaching Sherard Osborn Fjord, turning back on May 22. After more than a month of terrible conditions, starvation, and scurvy, the men reached Polaris Point on the Greenland shore opposite Lady Franklin Bay. Because of ice conditions, they could not cross to the Discovery until August 15, by which time two men had died.
The scurvy that the ship's physicians and the Admiralty medical staff confidently declared would not occur abruptly ended the expedition. The Alert left winter quarters in July 31 and joined the Discovery in Lady Franklin Bay. The two ships sailed for England on August 20 and reached Portsmouth on November 2, 1876. Generally judged a dismal failure as a result of disease and the early end to the expedition, the expedition did, in fact, support important geographical discoveries and provided a large quantity of scientific specimens and data. A subsequent parliamentary inquiry on the command of the expedition further clouded the scientific and geographical successes.
Philip N. Cronenwett
See also Markham, Sir Albert H.; Royal Geographical Society
Markham, Albert, The Great Frozen Sea: A Personal Narrative of the Voyage of the "Alert" During the Arctic Expedition of 1875-6, London: Daldy, Isbister, 1878 Moss, Edwin L., Shores of the Polar Sea: A Narrative of the Arctic Expedition of1875-6; Illustrated by Sixteen ChromoLithographs and Numerous Engravings from Drawings Made on the Spot by the Author, London: Marcus Ward, 1878
Nares, George S., The Official Report of the Recent Arctic
Expedition, London: J. Murray, 1876 Nares, George S., Narrative of a Voyage to the Polar Sea During 1875-6 in H.M. Ships "Alert"' and "Discovery" With Notes on the Natural History Edited by H.W. Feilden, London: S. Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1878 Royal Geographical Society, The New Arctic Expedition: Correspondence Between the Royal Geographical Society and the Government, London: W. Clowes, 1873
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