The Northwest Passage

Many early efforts to discover the Northwest Passage were made by English sailors, or other Europeans who were granted the patronage of the English Crown. An example was Giovanni Caboto, an Italian who had searched unsuccessfully in Spain and elsewhere to find sponsorship for ambitious overseas voyages before coming to England as a last resort. Changing his name to John Cabot, he persuaded King Henry VII and some Bristol merchants to finance a journey to explore the fabled Northwest Passage and eventually set off in May 1497. He was gone 3 months, landing on an unclaimed stretch of territory that he called New Found Land, and on his return was awarded the grand sum of ten pounds by a grateful English king.

Nearly a century later, a succession of English 'sea dogs', notably Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert and John Davis, all made their own separate efforts to map these unexplored regions. The risks of exploring any undiscovered territory were considerable, but to undertake such an enterprise in the Arctic's extreme climatic conditions required immense personal courage as well as superb seamanship. Frobisher wrote powerfully of 'horribile snows' and how 'the yce comming on us so fast, we were in great danger, looking every houre for death'. The dangers became painfully obvious in the case of the explorer Sir Hugh Willoughby, who had left England in May 1553 but became disorientated by savage storms and fierce winds off the Norwegian coast. Deciding to ride out the winter months in the relative sanctuary of an offshore river, Willoughby and his 63 men met a gruesome end in the bitter winter frosts, and their corpses, together with Sir Hugh's will, were discovered by Russian fishermen the following summer.

There were numerous other dangers: ferocious and fast-moving, the polar bear terrified these early Arctic explorers. As they crossed the ice or foraged for food on nearby land, the explorers were often vulnerable to attack, and one sailor recorded how a 'great leane white bear' grabbed an unfortunate Englishman and 'bit his head in sunder . . . which she tare in peeces'.1 Some ships collided with whales and sank and there was the constant risk that disease, fights and even mutiny could break out among the crew, all of whom soon suffered from what one explorer, William Parry, called 'the most dreary isolation and the total absence of animated existence' during their long months at sea.2 Although some of the indigenous people they encountered along the way were friendly, others were deeply hostile. Five members of Frobisher's crew rowed ashore near Alaska and were either kidnapped or killed by Inuits, while on one desperate occasion Frobisher himself had to run for his life, taking an arrow in his buttock from an Inuit marksman and fleeing from the scene, in the words of one chronicler, 'rather speedily'.

Such dangers posed considerable risks not only for the seamen but also for their commercial sponsors. Many of these explorers had the backing of businessmen who recognized just how important their discoveries would be in the world of commerce, or who were convinced that the region could boast quantities of gold and other minerals. Henry Hudson, who made his way to Iceland and then around the southern tip of Greenland in 1610, had funding from several trading houses, notably the Dutch East India Company, which had been formed to develop trade and ties with newly discovered parts of the world. Investors who hoped to find an ice-free passage to the Indian subcontinent were disappointed by his findings, but Hudson did return with accounts of the whales off the Norwegian coast, and within months a major English whaling industry had sprung up, in close competition with Dutch rivals.

It was in the early eighteenth century, however, that the outside world, the British in particular, made great strides in exploring the Canadian Arctic. This was partly because the Royal Navy had been left with a surplus of ships at the end of the Napoleonic wars in Europe and many officers who were eager to find peacetime employment, and who were often buoyed with patriotic pride. It was also because the British government knew that any Arctic sea route would potentially offer a shorter route to the jewel in her imperial crown: India.

British interest in the region had been stirred during the war years by the travels of David Buchan, a Scottish naval officer who had patrolled the coasts of Newfoundland in search of the French fleet. In 1818, three years after Napoleon's defeat, he volunteered to undertake a much more ambitious project. This time he would head for uncharted waters and lead an expedition to the North Pole alongside another intrepid British naval commander, maverick and explorer, one whom he specifically asked to take his side. The name of the young lieutenant, a 32-year-old veteran of numerous naval clashes, such as the battles of Trafalgar and Copenhagen, was eventually to become almost synonymous with Arctic exploration: John Franklin.

The first of three major expeditions that Franklin was to make there proved to be difficult, costly and nearly disastrous. He was financed by major entrepreneurs who were interested in exploiting the local fur trade, as well as accessing the passage. Franklin moored off the coast of Alaska, where he personally led an overland party of 20 men along the Coppermine River, which today stretches through Canada's Northwest Territories. This terrain would have been challenging even to the most experienced land explorer, which Franklin certainly was not, and within days the party faced starvation and had been reduced to eating old shoes and other scraps of leather. Eight of his men died in this expedition, and the others were lucky to escape with their lives.

Five years later, in 1825, Franklin was much better prepared as he undertook another journey to the region. This time he took his ships to explore the Beaufort Sea, moving along the Alaskan shore for some 500 miles and drawing up detailed maps before heading back. His most renowned voyage, and the journey that associated his name so closely with a very British brand of heroism, adventurism and tragedy, began exactly 20 years later. Now 59 years old, many of his friends and family urged Franklin to retire quietly from Arctic exploration but were dismayed to find that he was determined to go.

By this time, senior figures in the Admiralty were very keen to reach the last, unmapped areas of the Canadian Arctic, covering about 70,000 square miles, and they regarded Franklin, the veteran of two earlier missions there, as the best man for the job. On 19 May he and his second-in-command, Captain James Fitzjames, led 130 men on board the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror and headed for the waters of the northern Atlantic. They never returned, and although other sailors caught occasional glimpses of them along the Canadian coast, no trace of either of the two ships or their crew was ever found.

Over the next years, many intrepid individuals searched for clues to the fate of Franklin and his men, almost all without success. However, they did explore the remaining unmapped regions of the Canadian Arctic. The Englishman, Robert McClure, set sail from London in December 1849 to search for Franklin, but though he found no clues, and nearly died of starvation in the process, he and his crew did manage to cross the Northwest Passage by ship and sledge. By the standards of the day this was an astonishing feat, and McClure and his men, feted as British national heroes, were generously rewarded.

Soon afterwards, in May 1853, an American doctor and sailor, Elisha Kane, sailed from New York to search for the British expedition that had disappeared eight years before. In the course of his journey he succeeded in going further north than anyone had previously travelled, charting the coasts of Greenland and Ellesmere Island, discovering the ice-free Kennedy Channel and making his way into those places that are today known as Smith Sound and the Kane Basin. He was no natural sailor and suffered from chronic seasickness almost as soon as a ship set sail. Yet he was also supremely determined and throughout his journey always showed exemplary courage. His diary entry for 20 August 1853 recorded the dangers he and his crew faced:

We were dragged out by the wild sea, and were at its mercy . . . at seven in the morning we close upon the piling masses of ice . . . down we went with the gale again, helplessly scraping along a lee of ice seldom less than thirty feet thick . . . one upturned mass rose above our gunwale, smashed our bulwarks and deposited a half ton of ice in a lump upon our decks. Our staunch little brig bore herself through all this wild adventure as if she had a charmed life.3

His voyage ended in near disaster when, in May 1855, he was forced to abandon his 140-ton brig, the Advance, and with his crew undertook a heroic north-easterly trek to reach the sanctuary of Upernavik, on Greenland's west coast. They returned to New York, amidst jubilant scenes, a few months later.

For all the ingenuity and determination of so many explorers, it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that anyone managed to finally navigate their way across the entire length of the Northwest Passage. In 1903, a clever and resourceful 29-year-old Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, left the coast of Greenland with a handful of others on board a hunting vessel, the Gjoa. Initially he moved steadily through the islands of Canada's Arctic coast, but was eventually forced by bad weather to stop, and for two long winters lived among the Inuit people of King William Island. It was not until 1906 that he finally navigated the Northwest Passage, arriving at the mouth of the Mackenzie River and then completing his epic journey by sailing around the Alaskan Peninsula and on to San Francisco in October.

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