In the annals of exploration of the Arctic, Captain Richard Collinson, of the British Royal Navy, is often portrayed as a tragic figure who narrowly missed great discoveries because of his cautiousness. Between 1848
and 1859, Collinson headed one of the more than fifty naval and private expeditions that sought to discover and rescue the crews of Sir John Franklin's ships the Erebus and Terror that had gone missing in 1845. Collinson sailed from England aboard the Enterprise in January 1850. The Investigator captained by the expedition's second-in-command Sir Robert McClure set off with the Enterprise. The ships became separated in the Straits of Magellan and never reunited.
Unlike the majority of the Franklin search expeditions, the Enterprise and the Investigator entered the Arctic via the Bering Strait and traveled east. The two ships were supposed to rendezvous in Hawaii, but Collinson became impatient and departed just one day before the Investigator arrived. They missed a second rendezvous near present-day Kotzebue because of what appears to have been McClure's attempt to avoid Collinson's command. Despite leaving Honolulu after the Investigator, the Enterprise arrived first at their next prearranged meeting and resupply point. Collinson sailed west of the Aleutian Islands, while McClure took a shorter route through them. Then, using the excuse that he had to catch up with Collinson, McClure forged ahead into the Arctic Archipelago.
Although he was aware that McClure had gone ahead, Collinson delayed for two weeks before continuing North in September 1850. When the Enterprise finally did continue, it quickly encountered pack ice. Rather than attempt to take refuge at Pt Barrow, Collinson retreated to Hong Kong for the winter. Returning to the Arctic the following year, Collinson took the Enterprise through the Beaufort Sea into the Prince of Wales Strait, which separates Banks and Victoria Islands. Failing to find McClure, Collinson sailed south and west halfway around Banks Island and found a cache left by McClure at Cape Kellett, which indicated that the Investigator had passed that point only two weeks before. Again it was fall, and instead of following McClure, Collinson turned east to make winter harbor—this time at Walker Bay on Victoria Island. (This site, which appears on many older maps as Fort Collinson, was the location of Hudson's Bay Company and the Canalaska Trading Company posts in the 1930s.) McClure's ship spent that winter, and the next, locked in the ice on the northern coast of Banks Island and was eventually abandoned. His crew sledged several hundred miles east, where they were rescued and returned to England aboard another vessel. For having traveled from west to east through the Arctic Archipelago, McClure and his crew shared in the parliamentary prize for discovery of a North West Passage.
Although McClure, rather than Collinson, received the credit for discovering a North West Passage, it was
Collinson who actually navigated one. In 1852, he took the Enterprise through the narrow Dolphin and Union Strait that separates Victoria Island from the Canadian mainland, wintering in 1852-1853 at Cambridge Bay. As a result, he was able to fill in portions of the map of the region west of King William Island. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who, half a century later, was the first to completely navigate the North West Passage by ship, described it as an injustice that Collinson was denied the honor of discovery while McClure had received acclaim. Amundsen noted that he had depended heavily on Collinson's soundings and surveys of that "narrow and foul" channel (Dolphin and Union Strait) in order to guide through his much smaller ship.
During the winters at Walker Bay and Cambridge Bay, Collinson sent out sledging parties to explore the region. At both places, they met groups of Inuit, but had difficulty communicating because the expedition interpreter Johann Miertsching was aboard the Investigator. Nonetheless, some ethnological data were recorded. The assistant surgeon on the Enterprise, Edward Adam's, made detailed drawings and paintings of Copper Inuit on Victoria Island. Adam's sketches are the earliest known images of Copper Inuit. At one encounter near Cambridge Bay, Collinson's crew was able to get the Inuit to draw maps of the region. One of those maps, purportedly of the area around King William Island and the Boothia Peninsula, seems to have indicated two ships—possi-bly Franklin's ships, but Collinson chose not to investigate the area. If he had he would likely have discovered the fate of Franklin.
Explorers like Collinson were an important, if unpredictable, source of trade goods and exotic materials obtained by Inuit. Ethnologist and explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson recorded that one of his informants, an elderly man named Pamiungittok, reported visiting Collinson's ship at Walker Bay. Pamiungittok was around 80 years old at the time and, according to Stefansson, described the crew of the Enterprise as "excellent people.. .[who] paid well for water boots, etc. [and] threw away much valuable stuff which the people picked up." However, Collinson's journal indicates that the Inuit they met on Victoria Island had relatively little interest in trading meat to the explorers. This situation differed markedly from that along the Alaska coast, where Collinson had found no shortage of Inupiat anxious to trade with him. At the instigation of an Inuk near Cambridge Bay, Collinson did exchange a kayak he had obtained in Alaska for a local example.
After failing to discover the whereabouts of either Franklin or McClure, Collinson sailed west back through Dolphin and Union Strait. He returned to England in 1855 via the Cape of Good Hope, thus circumnavigating the globe. The entire voyage was plagued with problems and failures caused in part by Collinson's poor relations with his officers and crew. By the end of the voyage, he had placed all but two of his officers under arrest. Upon return to England, Collinson urged that they face court martial, and they too attempted to have him tried for drunkenness and tyranny. No one was tried, and Collinson was offered no new naval commands.
See also Franklin, Sir John Biography
Sir Richard Collinson was born in Gatehead, Durham, England in 1811. The son of an Anglican priest, he was educated at Ovingham near Newcastle before joining the Royal Navy at the age of 12. After athree-year posting at the Pacific Station on the west coast of South America, Collinson served on a number of ships charged with surveying. He received his first commission in 1835 aboard the Sulphur. Collinson served on the Sulphur during the first Opium War (1838-1842), and was promoted to Captain in 1842. Following the war, Collinson continued his survey work, returning to England in 1846. Although he received no commands following his Arctic voyage, Collinson was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1862, and was recognized for his Arctic service and knighted in 1875. Collinson was a member of several geographical societies and as such published The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher, 1576-78 (1867). He died in England in 1883.
Amundsen, Roald, The North West Passage: The Gjoa Expedition 1903-1907, Volume 2, New York: Dutton, 1908 Berton, Pierre, The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909, New York: Viking, 1988
Collinson, Richard, Journal of the Enterprise on the Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin's Ships by Behring Strait, 1850-1855, edited by T.B. Collinson, London: Sampson, Low, Marston, and Rivington, 1889 Condon, Richard G., The Northern Copper Inuit, A History,
Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996 Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, My Life with the Eskimo, New York: MacMillan, 1913, reprinted New York: Collier 1962
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