Somewhere around 4,000 years ago the earliest inhabitants of the Arctic arrived on the coast of Alaska – approximately 10,000 years after the arrival in America of the first Indian ancestors from Siberia.
These were the people of the Arctic Small Tool tradition, thought to have originated from among the seal hunters dwelling on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia. Their names stems from the minuscule size of their tools: stone harpoon tips, arrowheads and knives were sometimes barely an inch long. There are traces of this group along the Canadian littoral and into Greenland, indicating an eastward migration, although it is unclear over what time span. Carbon 14 dates indicate that they may have been in Greenland by 2,000BC.
The reason behind their 5,600km/3,500-mile migration is also anyone’s best guess. It may have been in pursuit of game, for the withdrawal 2,000 years before of the ice sheet covering Hudson’s Bay and the islands must have brought on an explosion of wildlife.
The Independence I culture were the first people to reach the High Arctic islands and northeastern Greenland. They are named for the fjord along which their remains were first found. These people seem to have lived in small bands, travelling almost constantly along the so called ‘muskox way’ which describes their migration route. In spring the bands grouped together for seal hunting along the shores. Their houses seem too skimpy for the polar climate – although the climate in the north was warmer than it is now: They were little more than skin tents, with vertical stone slabs (called ‘mid-passages’) in the middle of the dirt floor. Families appear to have virtually hibernated through the winters, sleeping under muskox skins as a fire made of muskox bones warmed the stones of the mid-passage.
By about 1,600BC, Independence I had more or less disappeared from the High Arctic, probably as a result of a cooling climate.
The Pre-Dorset Culture
Pre-Dorset is the name given to an almost simultaneous culture which lived mainly along the shores of the Foxe Basin and the Hudson Strait from 3000 BC to 500 BC. The Pre-Dorset seem to have been a more sedentary lot than Independence I, deriving most of their food from seal, walrus and caribou. Their tools included toggling harpoons, spears and bows and arrows (the latter made of driftwood and caribou sinew).
The Pre-Dorset were not affected by the extremely cold winters until much later, around 500BC. By then, the climate had become so cold that the ground was permanently frozen, as it is today. The people adapted themselves by learning to hunt through sea ice, focusing on the breathing holes which walrus and seal keep open all winter.
The Dorset Culture
Next came the Dorset period, dating from 1000BC to 1100AD and later in some areas. They occupied a triangular area of land, bounded by Victoria Island in the west, Ellesmere Island and northern Greenland in the north, and Newfoundland in the southeast.
These small bands of seasonally nomadic people used only hand-thrown harpoons and lances to hunt, eschewing bows and arrows. Their winter houses were rectangular and partly submerged, usually clustered in groups of 3-15 houses. Seals, walrus and caribou were their primary quarries.
Most remarkable about the Dorset people was their art: Delicate carvings, realistic or abstract were made in ivory, antler or bone. Most are thought to have given magical powers to their makers or owners. Inuit legends are full of descriptions of the Dorset people, whom they call the Tuniit or Tunirjuat.
The Thule Period
Around 900AD a warming occurred in the north, causing the ice of the Beaufort Sea (north of the Bering Strait) to retreat. The settlements of the Denbigh and Ipiutak cultures of Alaska had grown, and these hunters of seals and whales were finding it more and more difficult to take enough for their needs. Consequently, a second migration to the east began. Within 200 years these people, called the Thule by archeologists, had spread over all the coasts formerly inhabited by the Dorset culture.
The Thule, classically ‘Eskimo’, were superbly adapted to the Arctic. Their hunters had the know-how to capture huge whales, which could feed an entire small settlement for a year. The hunters used open skin boats (umiaks) to take bowhead whales, which were then stripped of their blubber, meat and baleen. Their houses, clustered in groups of 6-30, were deep pits with rock slab floors, walls of piled boulders and rafters of whalebone. The roofs were probably covered with animals skins and insulated with sod. A tunnel entrance kept the cold out. The houses were heated with soapstone lamp bowls filled with flaming seal and whale oil. Gadget-oriented, the Thule created clever tools and devices of bone, antler, ivory and stone to accomplish their every task.
The Dorset were, it seems, no match for the resourceful Thule. There are no signs of massacre, but the Dorset may have starved in unsuccessful competition with the newcomers, or perhaps they were simply absorbed by intermarriage.
The end of the 18th century brought the ‘Little Ice Age’, in which cold winters in the eastern Arctic increased the extent of the sea ice and made whaling more difficult from land. This marked the end of the Thule culture, forcing the people in the region to leave their winter pit houses for temporary snow house villages on the sea ice.
High Arctic Explorations
Early Trade Links
It may have been Iceland or Norway, but as early as 330BC, a voyage to the North by Pytheas, astronomer and geographer of Massalia (now Marseille), is documented in the annals of Greek history. His travels took him along the coasts of Iberia and France, around the isle of Britain, and northwards still to the Orkneys and other islands so far north that "the sun rose again a short time after it had set". This land he gave the name Thule, the Ultima Thule of the Romans, the utmost bound of the earth. The sea there was covered with a strange substance so that "it can neither be traversed on foot nor by boat" (pack ice ?), and just beyond Thule, it was "congealed" – mare concretum, as Pliny put it later.
The Romans never made use of their northern discoveries, although they brought the North into the contemporary vocabulary. A number of its animals and minerals were greatly prized, although there is no record as to how they found their way south: Ptolemy II, king of Egypt (285-246BC) kept a polar bear in his private zoo in Alexandria; The Romans pitted polar bears against seals in ‘aquatic battles’ staged in flooded arenas; And as far away as Japan, a pair of polar bears were presented to the emperor as a gift in 858AD.
Amber was another – more tractable – prized export from the North. The ‘Amber Road’, as it is known, began at the shores of the Baltic Sea, up the Vistula, and across the Alps to the centres of civilization. Baltic amber has been found in the tombs of several pharaohs, and was common – albeit costly – in Rome.
Walruses and narwhals yielded their ivory to the southern markets, although since only the tusks of these animals reached the south, descriptions of their original owners ranged from the fanciful to the fabulous. Walruses were believed to be giant, tusked fish, and narwhals, the elusive unicorn. Turkey, Egypt, Iran and China were the principal consumers of ivory, although the latter had its own source of supply: the giant, now extinct, mammoth.
Yet another northern prize was the white gyrfalcon, the bird of kings and emperors which, according to Marco Polo in the 13th century, came from an island in the ‘Northern Ocean’. Most went to the Mongolian court of the Kublai Khan, who liked to travel "attended by full ten thousand falconers, who carry¡gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons and sakers¡".
A good deal of activity, it seems, but unfortunately few records remain documenting these early travels: It was naturally in the interest of the traders to keep their sources secret. Much of this trade was conducted from the Russian or Eastern Hemisphere Arctic, although it is believed that a branch line of the trade route came to the western Arctic via the Bering Strait.
While the eastern Arctic was perceived as a source of merchandise and profit, the western Arctic in these early days attracted individuals who sought peace and solitude, as well as the legendary Insulae Fortunatae, the ‘Islands of the Blest’ , a place of heavenly delight thought to be somewhere in the western seas. St. Brendan, called ‘the Navigator’, was born in about 484AD in Ireland’s County Kerry. Founder of many monasteries, he was also a great traveller. When he was 70, the story goes, he set out with 17 other monks to find the Blessed Isles. They built a large curragh, its frame of ash laths covered with ox hides and caulked with tallow. Their curragh bears a certain resemblance to the traditional Inuit umiak, which was built using walrus hides. St. Brendan and his men sailed north and west, and although their accounts of the journey are full of Irish marvels and fancy, it seems likely that they reached North America. Sailing past the Faroes (‘Island of Sheep’) to Iceland (‘Island of Fire’), before finally, far to the west and shrouded in fog, they reached their Island of the Blest – Newfoundland. That, anyway, is the theory.
Although Brendan’s voyage may be problematic, Irish monks did settle in uninhabited Iceland, far from women and temptation, and by 800AD there were almost 1,000 of them.
The monks’ peace was rudely shattered in about 860AD by the arrival of a very different type of traveller, the Norsemen. Brawny, brave and brawling, they were a rough lot, but also excellent navigators. In the south, these fierce warriors looted and pillaged coastal cities from sleek dragon ships, but to Iceland they came as settlers: good land was already scarce in their native Norway.
Among the latecomers were Thorvald and his teenage son, Eirik, known in history as ‘Erik the Red’, for he had fiery red hair with a temper to match. These two had to leave Norway because of "some killings", to quote one of the sagas of the period. But even Iceland couldn’t contain Eirik, and after three years and some more killings, he was banished. The enterprising Eirik set sail for the west, where he had heard tell of land. And land he found, in the deeply indented shores of western Greenland. Although traces remained of previous occupants ("bits of skin boats and stone implements" – belonging to the Thule and Dorset Inuit), they had vanished, and the land was vacant.
Greenland, at this time, was enjoying a warm spell. Whereas the climate had been cold from about 300 to 700AD – so cold as to kill off the native Inuit, Eirik arrived just as a cycle of more temperate weather set in, which was to last about 300 years until 1200AD. With only a hint of exaggeration, Eirik promptly dubbed his newly found ice-capped land ‘Greenland’, on the basis that "men would be drawn to go there if the land had an attractive name".
And so they were. A sales trip home in 986AD yielded a flotilla filled with colonists and their cattle. Some perished in a storm, others turned back, but eventually 14 ships with about 400 settlers made it to Greenland and settled in. They flourished, and by about 1100AD, the colony had 300 farms, 16 churches and a population of about 3,000. The idyll, however was short-lived. As the warm weather faded, the ice moved south and starvation set in. The last Norseman in Greenland was dead by 1492, "unknelled, uncoffin’d and unknown", as Byron said.
During their heyday in Greenland, the Norse, ever on the move, had continued to push their explorations westward. Eirik’s son, Leif the Lucky, sailed in 1001AD to lands sighted earlier by a ship bound for Greenland that had been blown off course. They first came to an icy land with sloping rock beaches and called it Helluland, ‘Flat Stone Land’ – probably Baffin Island. Continuing south, they reached densely wooded Labrador (Markland, or ‘Forest Land’), and finally Vinland (‘Wineland’), a lovely place where grapes hung heavily on the vines. After years of debate and conjecture, it is now almost certain that Vinland was located on the northern tip of Newfoundland, at L’Anse aux Meadows. The Norse settlement here was another short-lived project: this was no empty land, and the resident Skraelings (either Dorset Inuit or ancestors to Newfoundland’s now extinct Beothuk Indians) were not about to allow their lands to be taken without putting up a fight.
The Road to Cathay and the Search for the Northwest Passage
As the last Norsemen were dying in Greenland, Europe was emerging from its own dark period. The Black Death and the gloomy, war plagued years gave way to the exuberant Renaissance. Interest in exploration – and territorial expansion – revived, and royal purse strings loosened. Columbus, bound for India, found America instead. Magellan, also in Spain’s service, circumnavigated the world.
Spain and Portugal now held a monopoly on the immensely profitable trade with the east, much to the chagrin of other sea-faring nations – notably England and Holland. Barred from the southern routes to the "worlde of golde, precious stones, balmes, [and] spices", they sought a northern alternative. Thus began the nearly obsessive, centuries-long search for a northeast (via the Russian Arctic) or northwest (via the Canadian Arctic) passage. The Arctic was not the goal in itself, but a very difficult obstacle on the road to Cathay.
"The Voyage to Cathaio by the East, is doubtlesse very easie and short", wrote Mercator, the eminent Flemish geographer. On top of it, speculated the English, it could belong entirely to them.
Part of the confusion regarding the ease of the passage was the belief, held until the end of the 19th century, that at the top of the world, beyond a narrow belt of ice, lay an open, unobstructed Polar Sea. What they found instead was, as the poet Milton wrote: Mountains of ice, that stop the imagined way, Beyond Petsora eastward to the rich Cathaian coast.
Not to be discouraged, however, and inspired by the pioneering voyages of the whaling fleets, the Elizabethan sailors and their successors poked and probed, north, east and west in their tiny ships. Cathay eluded them, but in the course of their efforts they explored and mapped much of the north. A kind of polar fever hit England, spurred no doubt by the financial rewards offered by the crown at various times: £ 5000 for the first ship to reach 89 degrees North, £ 5,000 for the first ship to reach 110 degrees W and £ 20,000 for the first successful transit of the Northwest Passage.. The expeditioners brought home descriptions – and sometimes samples – of the wildlife and people of the Arctic, and laid the basis for two immensely important companies: the Muscovy Company, which yielded wealth and furs to Russia, and the Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company.
From 1670 to about 1818, it was the fur trade (principally in beaver) that motivated much of the northern explorations, focusing on the Canadian mainland. With the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, however, national pride and a large unemployed navy turned British eyes, minds and budgets back to the icy north. Britain undertook to lead the European nations in Arctic exploration, and made a systematic effort to find and map the Northwest Passage. The journeys undertaken to the Arctic in the 19th century are the stuff legends are made of. Heroic sea captains, fantastic feats of bravery and endurance, tyrannical expedition leaders, lost ships and great manhunts – yet it was not until the 20th century that a man – not an Englishman but a Norwegian – quietly sailed right through the Passage in a humble fishing vessel with a crew of only six.
John and Sebastian Cabot
In 1496, John Cabot, a Venetian captain living in Bristol, sailed westward on behalf of Henry VII to discover land for Britain. Reaching Newfoundland and Labrador, he claimed them for his adoptive country, thereby establishing Britain’s foothold in Canada. Cabot failed to return from his second westward voyage, but his son, Sebastian, followed in his father’s footsteps and spent many years sailing for both English and Portuguese interests, in the Arctic and elsewhere. In his later years, Sebastian settled in Britain, and became governor of the Merchant Adventurers, a trading company. The eastern trade was obviously of vital interest to his group, and he launched an expedition to China, via the eastern route and Russia’s White Sea. His expedition was under the command of Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor. The former froze to death with all his men off Lapland. The latter travelled by sled to Moscow, and with tsar Ivan IV, in 1555 charted the Muscovy Company which traded with England in furs and whale oil.
Frobisher led three expeditions in 1576-1578 to seek out the Northwest Passage and mine for gold in Frobisher Bay (off Iqaluit, which until recently was also named after the explorer). The gold he found was, unfortunately, worthless marcasite, and the ‘strait’ he discovered (dubbed ‘Mistaken Strait’), was eventually ascertained to lead not to the dazzling riches of the east but to a vast inland sea (Hudson’s Bay).
Frobisher was a stiff, uncompromising man – a characteristic which did not sit well with the Inuit. His encounters with them were the first of any European expedition, and they did not bode well for the future: On one occasion, five of his men were captured by Inuit while ashore, and were never seen again. Frobisher, in return seized three Inuit, a man, a woman and a child, and took them back to England – rather like field samples. They soon died.
The waters to the north of Hudson’s Bay were initially explored by John Davis, an Englishman from Devon, who led three privately funded expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage in 1585, 1586 and 1587. His ships were unbelievably small: the Sunshine weighed in at 50 tonnes, the Moonshine a mere 35. In them, Davis visited southern Greenland, where he entertained the Inuit with fiddling and dancing, and explored Davis Strait, Baffin Bay (including Cumberland Sound) and western Greenland. His journeys in the Arctic carried him to 72¡ã12′N, farther north than anyone had been in his time. Davis never returned to the Arctic: After these trips, he joined the British fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada, then travelled to the Southern Hemisphere where he discovered and named the Falkland Islands.
In May 1607 Henry Hudson, a British captain trained in the service of the Muscovy Company, sailed north in the 80-ton Hopewell on yet another expedition headed for China and Japan, this one intending to cross the (non-existent) North Polar Sea. He explored the east coast of Greenland as far north as 73 degrees N, then followed the edge of the pack ice eastwards to the Svalbard islands (now Norwegian territory) which he explored to a latitude of 81 degrees N.
The following year he set off again in the Hopewell, sailing beyond Svalbard still in the hope of crossing the Polar Sea. This time, the islands of Novaya Zemlya barred his way. The Dutch East India Company commissioned him to try again in 1609, but contrary winds forced him to abandon his northerly route and he sailed for the west, now seeking a northwest passage. He shot a great deal too far to the south, however, and failed utterly. But he did manage to establish a claim to an area of the New World for the Dutch, and achieved immortality by attaching his name to a mighty river: the Hudson River in New York State.
In 1610, Henry was again in the service of the British. His sponsors, Smith, Digges and Wolstenholme, gave him instructions to search for a northwest passage "through any of the inlets which Davis saw.", and off he went on what was to be his final voyage to the northwest. In July of that year he turned his ship into Frobisher’s ‘Mistaken Strait’ and became the first European to enter Hudson’s Bay. Hudson followed the east side of the bay south where the ice set in and held the ship fast for the winter. When it finally broke free in June, the crew mutinied, setting Hudson, his son and others adrift in a small open boat. He was never heard of again. The ringleaders of the mutiny were killed by Inuit in Hudson’s Strait on their way home. Eight crew members made it back to England, including navigator Robert Bylot.
Robert Bylot and William Baffin
In 1616 pilot William Baffin joined Robert Bylot, who was to act as Master, on an expedition which had been instructed to sail north along Greenland’s west coast to the 80th parallel, then south and west to the 60th – thus reaching Japan. Not knowing, of course, that this was a physical impossibility (minor obstacles include Ellesmere Island and the permanent Arctic pack ice), they followed John Davis’ route and sailed Davis Strait as far north as 74 degrees. Here they found a polynya, or pool of open water, at the head of Baffin Bay, which they dubbed the North Water. Still pushing northwards, they passed Davis’ turning point and entered a narrowing inlet they called Smith Sound. Then, turning west, their ship Discovery reached Jones Sound (named for Alderman Jones, one of their patrons) and continued on to reach Bylot Island. Davis Strait, Baffin reported, was nothing but a large bay, with what he believed was a smaller bay (Smith Sound) at its head – a mistake that would not be rectified for many years.
A whaler and a member of the Royal Geographic Society, it was Captain William Scoresby who rekindled the British fascination with the Arctic following the distraction of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1817 Scoresby wrote a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, a prestigious scientist and president of the Society, to the effect that he had just returned from the Arctic, and had found the Greenland Sea between 74 degrees and 80 degrees N free of ice. Scoresby’s experiences in the Arctic began at age 10, when he stowed away on his father’s whaling ship. As a young man, still engaged in the whaling trade, he embarked on a study on the natural phenomena of the Arctic: polar ice, currents, magnetic variations and temperatures. His knowledge should have made him a prime candidate to lead an expedition to the Northwest Passage but he disqualified himself by being a member of the wrong social class, and – more important – by disagreeing with the Second Secretary to the Admiralty, John Barrow, Jr. Barrow was utterly certain that the Northwest Passage lay across the North Polar Sea; Scoresby doubted its very existence.
Scoresby never did get to lead his glorious expedition. Nonetheless, he stands as one of the greats in the history of the Northwest Passage.
John Ross and James Clark Ross
In 1818 John Ross sailed from England on an expedition planned by John Barrow, Jr., with instructions to sail to the Pacific via Baffin Bay. His ship was the Isabella, and alongside sailed W.E. Parry on board the Alexander. The party sailed up Baffin Bay, bypassing Smith Sound, and penetrated Lancaster Sound. At this point, Ross claimed, he saw a vast mountain range which barred his route into Lancaster, and named the range ‘Croker’s Mountains’. No such mountains exist – it is possible that they were a mirage, an example of the ‘looming’ phenomena that is common to the Arctic. But reports submitted by other crew members – including his nephew – implied that, in fact, Ross was simply too frightened to continue. Whatever the reason, Ross lost favour with Barrow, and was never again given an official Arctic command.
Not to be deterred, however, Ross managed to find a private sponsor to underwrite an 1829 journey to the Arctic by ice-strengthened paddle steamer, the Viceroy. He passed through Lancaster Sound (largely under sail – the machinery failed) and on to Boothia Peninsula, which he name for the sponsor – Booth’s Gin. Ross and his expedition spent four winters in the Arctic before losing their ship to the ice and returning to England in a whaling vessel. There was only one achievement of note on the expedition: James Clark Ross, John Ross’ nephew, became the first man to reach the Magnetic North Pole.
William Edward Parry
In 1819, a year after his return from the aborted mission with John Ross, Parry set out on another Barrow-sponsored expedition to the Northwest Passage. Commanding a superbly outfitted ship, the Hecla, Parry’s instructions were to proceed directly to Lancaster Sound. This he did, and the expedition sailed all the way to Melville Island at the edge of the Beaufort Sea and back to England with the loss of only one man. In the process, they had crossed 110 degrees W, winning a £ 5000 prize offered by the Admiralty for himself and his crew.
Parry, however, was convinced that the passage, if there was one, lay closer to the continental shore – and possibly through Hudson’s Bay. The Lords of the Admiralty backed him, and provided two ships, the Fury and the tried-and-true Hecla, each of 375 tons. In 1821, leaving Hudson Strait, Parry entered Foxe Basin and began a meticulous examination of all inlets along its western coast. Prevented from sailing further by heavy ice, Parry spent two winters in the area before turning home. During this time the expedition was in close contact with the local Inuit, and learned much about their lives and lands.
A third expedition, in 1824, took Parry to Prince Regent Inlet. His ships, again the Fury and the Hecla, made a slow and difficult passage across Baffin Bay and it was late September before they entered Lancaster Sound. The expedition was disastrous: no progress was made towards the discovery of the elusive Passage, and worse still, the Fury was wrecked in a storm on Somerset Island. The crew managed to get to the Hecla, and the ship returned disconsolately to England.
The supplies of Fury were cached at Fury Beech on Somerset, and later used by Ross when that expedition was forced to retreat to Fury Beach in the winter of 1833-34 to survive.
This was Parry’s last attempt at the Northwest Passage. But he had the Arctic in his blood, and as an encore he decided to tackle the North Pole using sledging techniques that he had learned from the Inuit. His theory was that even if his ship was stopped by ice, surely a sledging party could walk across the ice to the Pole!
In June 1827 the faithful Hecla was anchored in Spitzbergen. From here, two teams of 14 men (2 officers, 2 Royal Marines and 10 seamen in each) set out in specially prepared boats equipped with 71 days’ provisions. Reaching the ice edge at 81 degrees 13′N, they hauled the 6m/20ft boats out of the water and began to drag them across the rough pack ice. The idea of the boat/sledges must have looked good on paper, but Parry would have done better to adopt the Inuit kamatik design without trying to improve on it. Where their sledges are light, his, at 1,500kg/3,500lbs each, were certainly not. And where dogs do the hauling for the Inuit, Parry and his men were themselves pulling, pushing and rowing the contraptions through the soft summer ice. Furthermore, they found that the ice carrying them was drifting south faster than they were hauling north. The group finally abandoned their goal after travelling 275km/172 miles north of their starting point, to a latitude of 82 degrees 45′N – a record at the time – returning to the Hecla after a 61 day absence.
Norwegian Roald Amundsen studied medicine for a time, then went to sea, eventually qualifying as a mate. In this capacity he joined an expedition to Antarctica, led by Adrien de Gerlache, and became in 1898 one of the first to overwinter there.
Amundsen credited his fascination with polar exploration to the narratives of Sir John Franklin, whose determination he shared to be the first man to navigate the Northwest Passage. He was closely associated with another Scandinavian, Fridtjof Nansen, an explorer and scientist who had developed a vessel specifically designed to navigate in icy waters. At age 30, Amundsen hadn’t the funds to build himself such a vessel, and with enormous effort, managed instead to scrape enough together to buy himself the Gjoa, a 21m/70ft herring-cutter with a 13-horsepower engine. He spent several months in the Arctic making oceanographic observations before setting sail (surreptitiously at dawn, in order to escape his creditors) on June 16, 1903.
The Gjoa met no ice at all on the first leg of her trip from Godhavn, and sailed easily to Beechey Island. Amundsen’s phenomenal luck ran out in Peel Sound, where his ship ran aground and the engine caught fire. He and his crew then spent two winters on King William Island, conducting magnetic observations and learning from the local Inuit. They finally set off again in August, 1905, and crept cautiously through the channels – with Amundsen apparently so nervous that he was unable to eat. Finally, the group spotted a whaler, which could only have come from the Bering Strait end of the Passage. A few days later, however, the ice closed in, and it would be another full year before the Gjoa sailed triumphantly into San Francisco Bay in 1906.
In 1910, Amundsen decided to make an attempt on the North Pole, aboard Nansen’s Fram. The news reached him, however, that Peary had beat him to it, and so he changed his plans and went instead to the South Pole. In a characteristically well-organized operation, he drove dog teams across the continent, reaching the Pole on the 14th of December, 1914. During the 1920′s he completed a transit of the Northeast Passage, then flew with American Lincoln Ellsworth in an airship across the Arctic Basin from Svalbard to Alaska. He disappeared during an air rescue mission while seeking survivors from another flight.
Sir John Franklin
In 1845, Sir John Franklin set out from England for his third voyage in search of the Northwest Passage. For over 300 years, sailors had tried to find this northerly route which linked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and provided an alternative to the stormy and lengthy passage around the Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. Honour and glory stood to be gained by the discoverer of the Passage, as well as a £ 20,000 purse offered by the British crown.
But Franklin was not to return to England in a blaze of glory. In fact, he was not to return at all. His ships, the Erebus and the Terror, disappeared and with them, their crews of 132 men. The expedition was sighted in July 1845 by a whaler off the coast of Melville Bay, and then never seen again.
Their disappearance led to one of the greatest rescue efforts ever. So great, in fact, that the achievements of the searchers by far eclipse those of the party sought. Dozens of ships and hundreds of men from all over Europe and America raced into the uncharted Arctic waters in effort to find Franklin and his men. Lady Jane Franklin, Sir John’s wife, was behind many of the expeditions launched. For almost 20 years, this small but indomitable woman coaxed and campaigned the British and American governments to keep up the search for her husband, often providing or raising the funds required to equip the expeditions herself.
The search continued long after the hope of finding survivors had passed, for the extraordinary thing about the Franklin expedition is that there was so little to indicate what had become of it.
A State-of-the-Art Expedition
When Franklin set sail in 1845 he was already one of the best-known Arctic explorers of his day. But at the age of 59, his last journey north – hardly a successful one – had been 17 years before. Nevertheless, it had been sufficient to earn him his knighthood if not the parliamentary purse. The Erebus and the Terror were also veterans of the frozen seas, but in another hemisphere: they had sailed with Sir James Clark Ross to Antarctica in 1839. No expense had been spared to outfit them exactly to Franklin’s specifications. The Erebus had had a steam locomotive engine attached to her propeller, intended to drive the ship through the ice. On board there were 3 years’ worth of supplies, for the ships would necessarily have to spend at least one winter frozen in the Arctic – Franklin had spent 2 winters there on his previous trip, surviving only by eating the leather of his own boots. During the winter the men would need something to do, so an organ and a library of over 2,900 volumes were loaded as well. But the winter was also the time for overland explorations, and a number of sledges had been specially designed by Franklin to be hauled by his men across the ice.
By and large, the equipment stowed for this expedition represented only minor improvements over those taken on previous trips. It had never occurred to Franklin, for example, that he and his men might benefit by adopting some of the ways of the people who thrived in Arctic conditions: the Inuit. For instance, he might have learned that lightly-built and lightly packed sledges would travel more quickly over ice, and require less effort – particularly if they were hauled by dogs instead of men. The clothing issued to the ships’ crews was standard navy uniform – hardly as effective against the cold and wind as the Inuits’ furs.
It was in the men’s diet that Franklin sought to make the greatest difference, however. Scurvy had been a problem on almost every expedition to date, so barrels of lemon juice (a known anti-scorbutic) were loaded, as well as meat and vegetables preserved with the newly-developed canning process.
By the end of the first summer, the ships had sailed beyond Beechey Island, backtracking to a small sheltered bay off the island when it became apparent that the ice would block any further progress. The crews were put to preparing the ships for what was expected to be a 10-month stay. Walls of snow blocks were built around the ships to provide insulation; All heavy supplies were removed so the ships would be light enough to bob free of moving ice instead of being crushed by floes; Huge canvas tents were erected over the decks to provide a protected exercise area.
The first to die, in January 1946, was Petty Officer John Torrington, who was buried on Beechey Island. Two other crew members died that winter, and were buried in coffins with simple markers. The ship’s doctor identified the small hard lumps he found in the dead men’s lung tissue as being caused by tuberculosis. The graves were discovered in 1850 by one of the earliest search parties. They also found stone rings where tents had been erected, the gravel foundations of a storehouse and carpenter’s shed, the remnants of a garden, a shooting gallery, several lookout platforms – and a neat pile of over 700 tin cans. Had Franklin adhered to a long-standing Navy tradition of leaving a message in a cairn, describing the journey to date and indicating the ships’ planned routes from that point, he would have saved a great deal of hardship, sorrow and expense on his behalf. But there was no message, and no cairn to show that there ever had been one. Why the punctilious Franklin overlooked such an obvious gesture has long been a subject of puzzlement.
The early expeditions sent to find Franklin returned to England more or less empty handed. And that despite some very creative efforts, including tying notes to hydrogenated balloons and to collars attached to Arctic foxes in the hope that the missing men would find the messages. On January 20, 1854, the navy had had enough of subsidizing these expeditions (the total expenditure would reach £ 675,000), and published an announcement that unless the lost men were found by March, they would be listed as having died in the service of Queen Victoria.
That pretty much put an end to the matter until, in October of that same year, Dr. John Rae, one of the first to travel overland using Inuit methods, came upon a group of natives far south of the search areas. Among their prized belongings were silver forks and spoons from the Franklin expedition, as well as one of Franklin’s own medals. They told Rae of a group of 40 white men who had dropped, one by one, while dragging ships’ lifeboats mounted on sledges across King William Island. Rae received a substantial reward based on the information provided by the eskimos, although he was not knighted because he reported that the men of the Royal Navy had indulged in cannibalism.
In 1857, Lady Jane Franklin hired Captain Francis M’Clintock to verify Rae’s reports – and find out more if he could. M’Clintock met a group of Inuit on King William Island who had relics from Franklin’s ships, including cutlery and silver buttons. These people described finding a wrecked ship, and told of seeing Englishmen who "fell down and died as they walked." On the island’s south coast, M’Clintock found a bleached skeleton dressed in the shreds of a steward’s uniform with a clothes brush and pocket comb lying nearby.
Finally, a member of this expedition, William Robert Hobson, found the cairn and that message that he and all the other search parties had sought. Two notes were written on a single sheet of paper. The first was dated May 28, 1847, and reported that the expedition had spent its first winter on Beechey Island and its second off the northwest coast of King William Island. The second note was written in the margins around the first. Written nearly a year later, it described how the Erebus and the Terror had been trapped in ice off King William Island since September 12, 1846, and had been deserted on April 26, 1848, nearly 3 years after setting sail from England. Twenty four men had died, including Sir John Franklin who had breathed his last on June 11, 1847. No cause of death was given, nor any indication of where the body lay buried. The note continued to say that the 105 survivors were planning to walk south in the hope of reaching Back River, along which they planned to row until the nearest fur trading fort.
And then M’Clintock found the boat.
It was a heavy lifeboat from one of the ships, mounted on a sledge. Inside were silk handkerchiefs, button polish, heavy cookstoves, books, scented soap and curtain rods, among other non-essentials. And on top of the heap were two human skeletons.
M’Clintock returned to England to deliver the sad news to Lady Jane: Her husband had been dead for 12 years, and it was furthermore unlikely that his remains would ever be found.
A disaster, certainly, yet it was in the name of the Franklin search that much of the Arctic was travelled for the first time and charted. And perhaps Lady Franklin would have derived some measure of triumph from the fact that no man in the 19th century would succeed where her husband had failed in his quest for the Northwest Passage. That would have to wait until Roald Amundsen and the Gioa sailed across in 1905.
What Went Wrong?
The men died from starvation, exhaustion and scurvy. Taken independently, each of these alone could have explained the deaths. But a 1984 research expedition added to their list of woes: the exhumed bodies were found to contain extraordinarily high levels of lead. Lead, in smaller amounts interferes with the functions of various body organs, including the brain. Confusion sets in, then madness – which might explain why a number of the men died hauling such an impractical load. The body weakens, becoming vulnerable to other diseases – especially when coupled with exhaustion or malnutrition. In large doses, lead is lethal.
The lead came from the very canned foods which were supposed to have been the expedition’s very lifeline. Every one of the 8,000 cans stocked on board ship had been soldered with a mixture of tin – and lead. The latter, naturally, had dissolved into the food.
In 1983, an expedition successfully located and visited the sunken wreck of the HMS Breadalbane, a ship that had been involved in the search for Franklin in 1853. The event rekindled some interest in finding the Erebus and the Terror – almost 150 years after they disappeared.
In Europe and America, the oil rendered from whale blubber was a much sought after commodity for lighting and lubrication. The plastic-like baleen strips from a whale’s mouth were used for everything from furniture to ladies’ corsets. It was a market not to be ignored, with vast profits awaiting those who had the courage, the skill and the stamina to capture and kill these huge animals, and withstand the harsh life at sea. As the industry grew, with more and more countries deploying whaling fleets, so did the whale populations decline in each of the known whaling grounds. The fleets were driven to search out new areas, and after exhausting the more readily accessible coasts of the Bay of Biscay, Svalbard, Newfoundland and Labrador, they began to follow the whales north, into the Davis Strait.
The Dutch were the first to arrive, in 1719, with the British close behind. For over a century the rich waters between Greenland and Canada provided good catches, particularly after the ‘rediscovery’ of the ‘North Water’, the vast polynya at the head of Baffin Bay that had been sighted by an English expedition over 100 years earlier. By the beginning of the 19th century, the whalers had developed a standard circuit in the area: north along the Greenland coast, across Melville Bay to Baffin Island and south along the Baffin coast. These voyages lasted a single season, and after reaching Cape Dyer, the whalers would head for the Atlantic and home.
The whalers also had the effect of keeping the Arctic dream alive – particularly following the Napoleonic Wars, a period during which England had all but withdrawn from Arctic exploration. With ships designed for quite another purpose, they had in fact reached a more northerly point than any of the much acclaimed and very expensively outfitted voyages of discovery. The whalers’ achievements – and their downright familiarity with the Arctic – reawakened that British competitiveness, and brought on a new wave of Arctic epics.
In the 1830′s, the first onshore whaling stations were established on the coast of Baffin Island. Cumberland Sound, near present-day Pangnirtung, was found to contain an astonishing population of whales, and it was there that the Americans, the Scots and the British held their concessions until the decline of whaling at the turn of the century.
Chronology of Arctic and Polar Exploration