Dreams and nightmares in the Arctic The quest for the Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage is a waterway linking the North Atlantic with the North Pacific Ocean via the North American Arctic. Before the age of the aeroplane, before the building of the interoceanic canals, before even the advent of steam propulsion, many dreamed of finding a shorter route to the Far East, one that did not involve sailing round either of the southern capes. Commercial, political, and strategic reasons made the finding of the Northwest Passage a prize of great worth. In the late 16th and throughout the 17th century, navigators headed into the icy northern waters in search of the prize. Men such as Martin Frobisher, John Davis, Henry Hudson, William Baffin, and Luke Foxe went in search of the Passage, claiming and naming the waterways of north eastern Canada/Nunavut as they went.

In the late 18th century James Cook and George Vancouver searched for the Passage and then war interrupted exploration and it was not until the end of the second decade of the 19th century that there was a renewed interest in finding the Passage. The commercial imperative was not what it had been, but the strategic value of a quick route to the Far East had gained in importance. Also, at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, the victorious Royal Navy had ships and men to spare and the energetic Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty, Sir John Barrow, was determined to put them to practical use.

'Explorations in Northern Canada and Adjacent Portions of Greenland and Alaska' by James White, 1904 (rgs554385)

Between 1818 and 1848 the Admiralty dispatched no fewer than eleven expeditions in search of a Northwest Passage, and there were also private expeditions at work in the Arctic. The disappearance of the last of the Admiralty expeditions, that of Sir John Franklin, triggered a further flurry of expeditions, this time in search of the lost explorers. This exhibition tells the story of this remarkable period of Arctic endeavour.

Left: Sir John Barrow, 1764-1848 (S0012079). Right: Sir John Ross, 1777-1856 (S0019288)

The driving force behind this renewal of Arctic exploration was the dynamic 2nd Secretary of the Admiralty, Sir John Barrow. He was born in Ulverston, Cumbria (historically in Lancashire) in 1764 and began his working career as superintending clerk of an iron foundry in Liverpool before becoming a mathematics teacher in Greenwich. One of the boys he taught was the son of Sir George Staunton, and it was through this connection that Barrow took part in Lord Macartney’s embassy to China in 1792.

After settling in South Africa for a few years, he returned to England in 1804 and took up the post of Second Secretary (Permanent Secretary) of the Admiralty. It was a role to which he was perfectly suited, and he remained in post for forty years supervising the renewed search for a Northwest Passage as well as launching expeditions to Africa and the Antarctic.

In 1818 Captain John Ross was commissioned by the Admiralty to lead the first of a remarkable series of Arctic expeditions in search of a Northwest Passage. Barrow chose John Ross to lead the first expedition because he was an experienced and battle-hardened officer. Ross had joined the Royal Navy at the tender age of nine and had been injured no less than thirteen times during the Napoleonic Wars.

‘Passage through the ice, June 16th, 1818. Lat. 70.44 N.’. From: Voyage of discovery in H.M. Ships Isabella and Alexander, for the purpose of exploring Baffin's Bay and inquiring into the probability of a North-West Passage by John Ross, 1819 (S0011815)

Ross was given command of two ships for the expedition, Isabella and Alexander. These ships were whalers which had been specially insulated and strengthened to withstand the pressure of the Arctic ice.

‘… a tier of large beams were introduced about five feet below the lower deck to support the ship’s sides against pressure, provided the ship should be squeezed, in the event of her being caught between two fields or floes of ice.’

Ross’ instructions from Barrow were to seek a Northwest Passage via Baffin Bay. Barrow believed that Ross would find open sea through at least one of the waterways leading off from the Bay; in particular, Jones, Smith and Lancaster Sounds, which had first been identified by Baffin. The northwest coast of Greenland forms one side of the Bay and it was here that they entered Prince Regent Bay on the west coast of Greenland and where they encountered a large party of Inuit. Their translator, John Sacheuse, a Greenlandic Inuit who, having been saved in a storm by an English ship several years before, opened communication with the party and before long a lively exchange was underway.

‘First communications with the natives of Prince Regents Bay, as drawn by John Sackheuse and presented to Capt. Ross, August 10th 1818’. From: Voyage of discovery in H.M. Ships Isabella and Alexander, for the purpose of exploring Baffin's Bay and inquiring into the probability of a North-West Passage by John Ross, 1819 (S0015475)

John Ross wrote:

‘We accordingly provided ourselves with additional presents, consisting of looking-glasses and knives, together with some caps and shirts, and proceeded towards the spot, where the conference was held with increased energy. By the time we reached it the whole were assembled; those who had originally been left at a distance with their sledges, having driven up to join their comrades. The party now, therefore consisted of eight natives, with all their sledges, and about fifty dogs, two sailors, Sacheuse, Lieutenant Parry, and myself; forming a groupe of no small singularity; not a little also increased by the peculiarity of the situation, on a field of ice, far from land.
One of them having inquired what was the use of a red cap, which I had given him, Sacheuse placed it on his head, to the great amusement of the rest, each of whom put it on in his turn. The colour of our skins became next a subject of much mirth, as also the ornaments on the frames of the looking- glasses.’
‘Ervick, a Native of Prince Regent Bay’. From: A Voyage of Discovery, made under the Orders of the Admiralty, in His Majesty's Ships Isabella and Alexander, for the purpose of exploring Baffin's Bay, and Inquiring into the Probability of a North-West Passage by John Ross, 1819 (rgs332738)
‘In hopes of amusing them, the violin was sent for, and some tunes were played; they, however, paid no attention to this, seeming quite unconcerned, either about the sounds or the performer; a sufficient proof that the love of music is an acquired taste, and that it requires experience to distinguish between that and other similar noises. A flute was afterwards sounded for them, which seemed to excite somewhat more attention; probably from resembling more nearly in shape the objects to which they were accustomed; one of them put it to his mouth and blew on it, but immediately threw it away. On returning to the cabin some biscuit was produced, and a piece eaten by Sacheuse before presenting it to them. One of them then took a piece also into his mouth, but immediately spat it out with apparent disgust. Some salt meat, that was afterwards offered, produced the same effect. We now also ascertained their names, that of the eldest being Ervick, and that of the two others, who were his brother's sons, Marshuick and Otooniah. ‘
‘Chart of HMS Ships Isabella and Alexander 1819 [showing Croker’s Mountains blocking Lancaster Sound].’ From: Voyage of discovery in H.M. Ships Isabella and Alexander, for the purpose of exploring Baffin's Bay and inquiring into the probability of a North-West Passage by John Ross, 1819 (S0020056)

Sailing on, the expedition encountered icebergs, polar bears and seals but nothing to impede their progress. They entered Baffin Bay in the summer of 1818, where they began the process of investigating the various inlets before addressing the chief possibilities - Smith, Jones and Lancaster Sounds, one of which it was hoped would lead to open water. Ross quickly rejected Smith and Jones Sounds but Lancaster Sound seemed more promising.

There was a feeling of great anticipation when on the 30 August 1818, Isabella sailed into the Sound. Shortly afterwards Ross declared that through a break in the fog he had seen a range of mountains blocking the Sound, making further progress impossible. He was so convinced that his mountains were there that he named the range, Croker’s Mountains, in honour of the First Secretary of the Admiralty, John Wilson Croker.

It seems likely that what Ross had actually seen was an optical illusion created by ice crystals suspended in the air. Such phenomena are not uncommon in the Arctic.

With Lancaster Sound seeming blocked by a mountain range, Ross sailed round the southern coast of Baffin Bay and the mission completed, turned for home.

Captain William Edward Parry, 1790-1855 (S0023458)

Ross was confident that he had fulfilled his instructions from the Admiralty, but Barrow thought otherwise, believing that Ross had given up too easily and should have investigated Lancaster Sound more thoroughly. Barrow decided to send another expedition but this time with William Edward Parry in command. Parry had acquitted himself well during the first expedition as commander of the Alexander.

Parry was born in 1790 in Bath and entered the Royal Navy in 1803 at the age of thirteen. He had served throughout the Napoleonic Wars including in the Arctic waters around Spitzbergen. The second Northwest Passage expedition, in the ships Hecla and Griper, sailed from Deptford in 1819 and was destined to be one of the most successful of all the Arctic expeditions. The expedition reached Lancaster Sound in July 1819 and quickly proved Croker’s Mountains to be a mirage.

They sailed along the southern coast of Devon Island until seeing an inlet to the south (Prince Regent Inlet) which was investigated until ice blocked further progress. They then sailed on west from Lancaster Sound into Barrow Strait. Many islands were discovered and were named by Parry as Cornwallis, Bathurst, Byam Martin and Melville Island (after Sir Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty), collectively known today as the Parry Islands.

‘Hecla and Griper in Winter Harbour. From: Journal of a voyage for the discovery of a north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, performed in 1819-20 in H.M. ships Hecla and Griper by William Edward Parry, 1821 (rgs328912)

They continued sailing west along Barrow Strait. In his account of the voyage, ship’s surgeon, Alexander Fisher, wrote:

‘Saturday 4th [September] – At seven o’clock this afternoon, we accomplished the first portion of the discovery of the north-west passage, deemed by the British Government worthy of a reward! for at that hour we crossed the meridian of 110° of longitude, west of Greenwich.’

The reward was the not insubstantial sum of £5,000. Any further progress, however, was halted by heavy ice fields, in what was to be later named McClure Strait. Parry decided to overwinter in Winter Harbour, Melville Island.

This was the first deliberate wintering in the High Arctic by a British naval expedition. Parry had planned for this possibility by taking plenty of tinned food which would be supplemented by the meat of caribou, arctic hare, ptarmigan and musk ox. Also, once the ships were iced-in, they were fitted with thick tented cloth roofs which kept out the worst of the elements. Theatrical and musical entertainments were performed and a newspaper, The North Georgia Gazette, was started to keep up the morale of the men during the forced confinement.

'Eskimaux children dancing' by George Lyon. From: Journal of a second voyage for the discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific; performed in the years 1821-22-23, in His Majesty's Ships Fury and Hecla under the orders of Captain William Edward Parry, 1824 (S0014159)

Parry’s first expedition, highly successful as it had been, did not result in the discovery of a Northwest Passage through Lancaster Sound. This caused many in the Admiralty to revert to a previously held opinion that the Passage should be sought north of Hudson’s Bay in Foxe Basin. Parry’s second expedition was to test this theory and in April 1821 he sailed from London with two ships, Fury and Hecla. Fury was the sister ship of Hecla and as such was better suited to the Arctic Seas than had been Griper. Being sister ships meant that masts, sails and other material could be transferred from one to the other without the need of adaptation or modification, a great advantage if the ships were damaged in the Polar Sea. The ships had been further improved by the addition of extra cork insulation and the replacement of beds with hammocks which allowed better ventilation and reduced the formation of damp and ice.

Parry’s first task was to investigate Repulse Bay by way of the Frozen Strait. The idea being that Repulse Bay might not be a bay at all but a strait leading to another possible route of a Northwest Passage. In fact, Repulse Bay proved to be just that, a bay. By now it was September and after some further exploration along the north coast of Melville Peninsula they settled in for the winter in a small cove on the south coast of the Peninsula. This was to be a very interesting time for them as the area they had chosen to winter was one frequented by the Inuit.

Interior of an eskimaux snow-hut, Winter Island, 1822 by George Lyon. From: Journal of a second voyage for the discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific; performed in the years 1821-22-23, in His Majesty's Ships Fury and Hecla under the orders of Captain William Edward Parry, 1824 (S0014155)

During the course of the winter they were visited regularly by Inuit people, and Parry obtained some very useful maps drawn by Iligliuk, a local woman. In July 1822 Parry resumed exploring Melville Peninsula, aided by the Inuit maps. Near the large Inuit community at Igloolik they discovered and named Fury and Hecla Strait. This strait separates Baffin Island from the North American mainland and leads on to Prince Regent Inlet which Parry had explored during his first expedition. As Fury and Hecla Strait was blocked by ice, Lyon led a sledging party across the peninsula to confirm open water on the far side. This was an exciting discovery as it seemed to offer a more southerly and shorter entrance to the Passage than did Lancaster Sound.

Parry and Lyon spent the summer practising kayaking and learning to drive dogs. As there seemed little prospect of making progress through the ice and another winter in the Arctic would put too great a strain on the health of his men, Parry decided to return home, arriving in October 1822 to a hero’s welcome. He had been promoted to captain whilst away, and was now appointed Acting Hydrographer of the Navy.

Parry’s account of his second voyage is packed with superb engravings based upon the drawings of Captain Lyon.

Inuit boots (left, S0011838) and sun goggles (right, S0011850) brought back by Parry in 1823
‘That affection of the eyes, known by the name of snow-blindness, is extremely frequent among these people. With them it scarcely ever goes beyond painful irritation, whilst among strangers inflammation is sometimes the consequence. I have not seen them use any other remedy besides the exclusion of light; but, as a preventive, a wooden eye-screen is worn, very simple in its construction, consisting of a curved piece of wood six or seven inches long, and ten or twelve lines broad. It is tied over the eyes like a pair of spectacles, being adapted to the forehead and nose, and hollowed out to favour the motion of the eye-lids. A few rays of light only are admitted through a narrow slit an inch long, cut opposite to each eye. This contrivance is more simple and quite as efficient as the more heavy one possessed by some who have been fortunate enough to acquire wood for the purpose. This is merely the former instrument, complicated by the addition of a horizontal plate projecting three or four inches from its upper rim like the peak of a jockey's cap. In Hudson's Strait the latter is common, and the former in Greenland, where also we are told they wear with advantage the simple horizontal peak alone.’

Parry made one further attempt on the Passage, but the success of his first two expeditions was not to be repeated. Fury was wrecked on the eastern shore of Somerset Island at a stretch of shore named by the crew as Fury Beach. The crew had to be transferred to Hecla and the heavily laden ship limped home, arriving in October 1825.

Manner of making a resting place on a winter’s night by George Back. From: Narrative of a journey to the shores of the Polar Sea, in 1819-22; with an appendix on various subjects relating to science and natural history by Sir John Franklin, 1823 (S0014160)

While Parry was leading his expedition into the Foxe Basin, another expedition, led by John Franklin, was approaching the Arctic overland. Franklin led his men from York Factory on the south shore of Hudson’s Bay to Fort Providence on the Great Slave Lake. In June 1821 the expedition started down the Coppermine River, reaching the Arctic Ocean in late July. They were the first Europeans to reach the river’s mouth for fifty years. The next leg of their journey, to Repulse Bay, proved too much, and after struggling on for a couple more weeks they were forced to retrace their steps. By now they were so short of food that they were forced to eat rock lichen or 'tripe de roche', and the leather from their boots and jackets.

The situation was so desperate that the party split up. George Back went ahead to bring back supplies with Franklin following behind him. Robert Hood, John Richardson and a number of voyageurs stayed behind. At some point Hood and four of the voyageurs were killed and it is possible that some of them were eaten by the others. Eventually Back was able to get help from men of the Yellowknives First Nation, and the few survivors were rescued. Franklin was known thereafter as the man who ate his boots. The expedition had been a complete disaster. After travelling a vast distance Franklin had mapped a tiny stretch of coastline and most of his men had died.

Franklin’s proposal for a land expedition to the shores of the Arctic Ocean (rgsu213355)

In 1821 Franklin led a second expedition to the Arctic Ocean, hoping to make up for his earlier failure. In contrast to the first expedition, the second was a marked success, in that many hundreds of miles of Arctic coastline were surveyed and named without the death and disaster of the first expedition. Herschel Island, Camden Bay, Prudhoe Bay, Liverpool Bay, Franklin Bay, Darnley Bay and Dolphin and Union Strait were all explored during this expedition. The expedition is also credited with the first European sighting of Victoria Island.

Franklin believed that they could have travelled even further, but the health of the men and the lateness of the year was causing concern. He wrote:

‘The readiness with which they would have prosecuted the voyage, had it been advisable to do so, was the more creditable, because many of them had their legs swelled and inflamed from continually wading in ice-cold water while launching the boats, … Nor were these symptoms to be overlooked in coming to a determination; for though no one who knows the resolute disposition of British sailors can be surprised at their more than readiness to proceed, I felt that it was my business to judge of their capability of so doing, and not to allow myself to be seduced by their ardour, however honourable to them, and cheering to me.’

The Victory as it left Woolwich (detail). From: The Last Voyage of Capt. Sir John Ross by from Robert Huish, 1835 (rgs318443)

The coastal surveys of John Franklin’s second expedition would eventually prove useful, when a Northwest Passage was finally discovered, but that was to be a long time in the future. In the meantime, naval expeditions were resumed. The first, in 1829, saw the unlikely return of John Ross to the Arctic. Although John Ross had fallen out of favour with the Admiralty, he felt he still had much to give in the field of Arctic exploration and was determined to lead another expedition in search of a Northwest Passage. Without government backing he was obliged to raise funds himself and was greatly aided by a generous donation of £10,000 from his wealthy friend, the gin distiller, Felix Booth. Ross was accompanied by his nephew, James Clark Ross, a veteran of five previous Arctic expeditions.

John Ross was an early proponent of steam power, and to transport his expedition to the Arctic he purchased a recently constructed paddle steamer which had been working as a ferry between Liverpool and the Isle of Man. Victory steamed from London in May 1829 and after various mishaps caused by the malfunctioning steam engines entered Lancaster Sound in August. Steaming south they entered Prince Regent Inlet and explored a large peninsula, which Ross named Boothia Peninsula after his financial backer.

… chart of the discoveries made in the Arctic region in 1829, 30, 31, 32 & 33 … by John Ross … and James Clark Ross (rgs555518)

In October Victory was manoeuvred into a bay on the east coast of the Peninsula which Ross named Felix Harbour, where she became frozen in for the winter. This was to be the first of four winters spent in the Arctic. During their first winter they made friends with an Inuit community and James Clark Ross made several sledging journeys with the Inuit. In May and June 1830 he explored King William Island but failed to realize that it was an island, believing it to be another peninsula. The following May James Clark Ross crossed Boothia Peninsula and became the first European to reach the North Magnetic Pole (NMP) at 70°05’03”N, 96°46’W.

Successful and rewarding as the sledging journeys were, they brought Victory no nearer to escaping from the pack-ice and the continuation of the search for a Northwest Passage. During their third winter it became clear that Victory would never be able to break free of the ice, so they abandoned her and sledged 280 miles to Fury Beach on Somerset Island where they constructed a large timber and canvas shelter from the wreck of the Fury. They named their new home Somerset House.

In August 1833 an opening in the ice allowed them to put to sea in the small boats. Sailing up Prince Regent Inlet they reached Lancaster Sound where they were picked up by a whaler. This turned out to be the Isabella which Ross had commanded in 1818.

North shore of the Great Slave Lake.Watercolour by George Back (rgs243958)

Before the Polar Rosses’ almost miraculous return from the Arctic, there was great concern for their welfare and calls for a rescue mission to be launched. The newly formed Royal Geographical Society stepped forward and offered to organise an overland expedition. As a veteran of Franklin’s two overland expeditions, George Back was chosen to lead the rescue expedition which departed from England in February 1833.

In August, they reached Fort Reliance at the eastern shore of the Great Slave Lake, where they settled in for the winter. In March 1834, Back received a letter which informed him that the Rosses were safely back in England. There was still work for him to do though, and over the next few months he and his men became the first Europeans to follow the course of the Great Fish River to the Arctic Ocean. Once there, they explored Chantrey Inlet and a section of the coast near King William Island before turning back. They were back in England by September 1835.

The Terror beset in ice. From: Narrative of an expedition in H.M.S. Terror, undertaken with a view to geographical discovery on the Arctic shores in 1836-37 by Captain Sir George Back, 1838 (rgs301755)

Following the limited success of his overland expedition, Back was given command of the next of the naval Northwest Passage expeditions. Although the Royal Geographical Society did not actually sponsor this expedition, they did lobby the government to mount it and provided advice on possible routes. However, the wrong route was chosen, and Back was sent into Hudson Bay with instructions to investigate the Wager River from where he was to haul his boats overland to the Great Fish River (now known as the Back River).

In the event, Back was not even able to land. They set off in June 1836, but unfortunately or inevitably his ship (a bomb vessel named HMS Terror) became trapped in heavy ice in Hudson’s Bay, and was almost wrecked. After extracting the badly damaged ship Back turned for home, but was again trapped by ice with a massive berg capturing the ship and lifting it out of the water. With a twisted keel and taking on water at an alarming rate, they just made it across the Atlantic before beaching the ship at Lough Swilly in Northern Ireland.

Back was so shaken by the experience, and his health so impaired, that he never went to sea again, preferring to sail a desk for the rest of his career. Among his later achievements was his co-editorship of the Royal Geographical Society’s celebrated publication, Hints to Travellers.

‘Erebus and Terror pass Gravesend Sketch by Clements Markham (S0017084)

The next major Royal Naval expedition in search of a Northwest Passage is probably the most famous of all. This was the expedition led by Sir John Franklin which sailed from England in May 1845. Franklin’s ships were HMS Terror, repaired and fitted with an auxiliary steam engine and another bomb vessel, HMS Erebus. Both of these ships had just returned from an epic voyage to the Antarctic, where in the capable hands of James Clark Ross, they had been used to great effect, with Antarctica’s most prominent volcanoes named after them.

At 59 years of age, Franklin was getting old for the rigours of Arctic exploration. However, he was very experienced, having led two overland expeditions and taken part in some of the early Arctic voyages, not to mention having accompanied his uncle, Matthew Flinders, on his great voyage of Australian discovery and having taken part in the Battle of Trafalgar.

Erebus and Terror sailed from Greenhithe, Kent, on 19 May 1845, with a crew of 24 officers and 110 men. They reached Greenland thirty days later, then made their way into Baffin Bay and then Lancaster Sound. The last European to speak to Franklin and see any of the expedition alive was a Captain Martin of the whaler Enterprise, who saw Erebus and Terror in Lancaster Sound in July 1845.

Left: Sir John Franklin, 1786-1847 (S0014656). Right: Captain Francis Crozier, 1796-1848 (S0014253)

From Lancaster Sound Franklin sailed into Barrow Strait and then north into Wellington Channel, before rejoining Barrow Strait by way of Crozier Strait. Then, after wintering on Beechey Island, they sailed on into Victoria Strait where the ships became trapped. They spent the winter off King William Island and then in June 1847 Franklin died.

Second in command Francis Crozier decided to abandon the ships and lead the remaining men along the coast of the island and across the sea ice towards the Back River on the North American mainland. Just over one hundred men were still alive at this point, but from later archaeological finds, it seems that they all died on the 250 mile (400 km) trek to the Back River. Many bodies have been found on the island, and thirty or forty more on the coast of the mainland. All sorts of other things have been found too, including cutlery from the officer’s mess.

James Clark Ross, 1800-1862 (rgs700083)
Ships’ biscuit left at Port Leopold by Sir James Ross in 1849 (S0013021)

Of course, this was unknown to those waiting anxiously in Britain for news. James Clark Ross led the first of the Franklin search expeditions, sailing from London in May 1848. The expedition consisted of HMS Enterprise; captained by Ross and HMS Investigator captained by Edward Bird (Bird had been first lieutenant of HMS Erebus during Ross’ Antarctic expedition). Also taking part in this expedition were Robert McClure and Leopold McClintock, who both went on to lead their own Franklin search expeditions. Arriving in Baffin Bay in June, Ross encountered a group of whalers who informed him that it had been a particularly severe winter and there was still much ice further north, so he sailed up the coast of Greenland avoiding the worst of the ice and then into Lancaster Sound.

The two ships sailed up and down the northern and southern coasts of the Sound showing blue lights and firing canons and rockets in the vain hope of attracting the attention of Franklin’s expedition (most of whom were probably dead by now many miles to the south of Lancaster Sound). They wintered on the north-eastern tip of Somerset Island, putting into Port Leopold where they offloaded barrels of biscuits and salt pork. Since Ross believed that Lancaster Sound offered the best hope of rescue for Franklin and his men, this was the obvious place to leave a cache of supplies.

Arctic fox (S0026244)

Copper collar fastened on neck of fox-cub caught and released by crew of H.M.S. Enterprise, at Port Leopold, 1848 (rgs700453)

In the spring they charted the north and west coasts of Somerset Island, crossed Peel Sound, solid with ice and charted the east coast of Prince of Wales Island. Ross also tried a novel means of alerting Franklin’s men; he fitted captured Arctic foxes with copper collars made in the ship’s forge. These were stamped with the name of the rescue ship and its position. The hope was that once the foxes were released, they would scavenge their way to Franklin’s camp where, if caught, they would provide a path to rescue for the lost explorers.

Unfortunately, as Franklin’s men had decided to head for the North American mainland and not towards Lancaster Sound, Ross’ food cache and the roaming foxes were in entirely the wrong area, several hundred miles from the last survivors of the ill-fated expedition. After Ross’ expedition, the search for a Northwest Passage was subsumed by the search for the lost expedition.

Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure, 1807-1873 (S0025859)

The search for John Franklin and his men is one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of exploration. Following James Clark Ross’ expedition of 1848, no fewer than twenty, and by some calculations, as many as fifty, search expeditions were launched. In 1850 the Admiralty, stung by Lady Franklin’s criticism that they were not doing enough, offered a reward of £20,000 to anybody that could bring the survivors safely home and two further rewards: £10,000 for information leading to their rescue and £10,000 for the discovery of the fate of the expedition.

In 1850 the expedition under the command of Richard Collinson, consisting of the ships HMS Enterprise and HMS Investigator, approached the Arctic via the Bering Strait and made their way into the Beaufort Sea. Robert McClure, captain of Investigator, almost managed to reach Melville Strait but found no sign of Franklin or his men. While Collinson’s ships approached from the Bering Strait, Horatio Austin (in command of HMS Resolute and HMS Assistance) approached from Lancaster Sound.

Pen & ink sketch of 'Winter quarters: despatches leaving HMS Assistance by balloon and fox'. From a private journal kept by Clements Markham on board H.M.S. Assistance in the Arctic regions (rgs213433)

Serving on board HMS Assistance was a young midshipman called Clements Markham. He would go on to become the President of the Royal Geographical Society where he later organised the first British expedition to the Antarctic since that of James Clark Ross, sixty years earlier. Markham kept a diary of the voyage, from which we know that the practice of catching Arctic foxes and fitting them with collars was still very much alive.

In August 1850, Erasmus Ommanney, Captain of the Assistance, discovered evidence of Franklin’s first winter camp at Cape Riley on the northern shore of Beechey Island. More ships arrived and Captain William Penny found the remains of a hut and a number of artefacts at Cape Spencer, on Devon Island and then on 27 August, the first graves were discovered: John Hartnell of Erebus and John Torrington of Terror, who both died in January 1846 and William Braine of Erebus, who died in April 1846.

Sledge party leaving HMS Investigator in Mercy Bay under the command of Lieutenant Gurney Cresswell. From: A series of eight sketches in colour … by Lieut. S. Gurney Cresswell of the voyage of H.M.S. Investigator during the discovery of the North-west passage, 1854 (S0015204)

In 1852 the Admiralty launched its largest and most ambitious search expedition under the command of Sir Edward Belcher. This expedition was not only to look for Franklin’s men but also for the men of the Enterprise and Investigator which had failed to return. This expedition could not be judged a success. Of the five ships under his command, HMS Assistance, HMS Resolute, HMS Intrepid and the steam tender Pioneer were all abandoned in the Arctic.

It looked like the fate of Franklin would remain a mystery until, in 1854, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Dr John Rae, submitted a report based on interviews with several Inuit who had seen Franklin’s men in 1850. He learnt that a party of white men had been seen north of King William Island walking towards the Back River and that later several corpses had been seen west of that river. The Inuit had taken relics from the corpses which Rae bought from them.

John Rae, 1813-1893 (S0019287)
Franklin relics brought by Dr. Rae. From: A series of fourteen sketches made during the voyage up Wellington channel in search of Sir John Franklin ... by Commander Walter W. May, 1855 (rgsK233915)

Rae’s report made for grim reading. He reported that the Inuit had met with a party of men dragging a boat after their ships had been crushed in the ice.

‘From the appearance of the men, all of whom, except one officer, looked thin, they were then supposed to be getting short of provisions, and purchased a small seal from the natives. At a later date the same season, but previous to the breaking up of the ice, the bodies of some thirty persons were discovered on the continent, and five on an island near it, about a long day’s journey to the N. W. of a large stream, which can be no other than Back’s Great Fish River (named by the Esquimaux Oot-Koo-hi-ca-lik) … Some of the bodies had been buried (probably those of the first victims of famine), some were in a tent, or tents, others under the boat, which had been turned over to form a shelter, and several lay scattered about in different directions. Of those found on the island one was supposed to have been an officer, as he had a telescope strapped over his shoulders, and his double barrelled gun lay under him.’

Rae concluded with the sensational assertion:

‘From the mutilated state of many of the corpses, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource – cannibalism, - as means of prolonging existence.’
Leopold McClintock, 1819-1907 (S0015988)

Fork, belonging to F.J. Hornby of H.M.S. Terror, brought by McClintock from boat found on the west coast of King William Island, 30 May 1859 (rgs700532)

By now the Admiralty had washed its hands of the Franklin expedition, and in any case the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 kept the Royal Navy fully occupied. Nevertheless, Lady Franklin was determined to discover the fate of her husband, and between 1850 and 1857 she organised several private expeditions to the Arctic.

In 1857, at personal expense, she acquired the steam yacht Fox and persuaded Captain Francis Leopold McClintock to command one last expedition in search of Sir John, even though there could be very little chance of finding any of the expedition alive. With Alan Young as Master of the Fox, the expedition left Aberdeen in July 1857 and reached Melville Bay in August.

It wasn’t until spring 1859, that McClintock led a sledge party overland to King William Island. Here he met two Inuit families who provided him with a number of relics from the expedition and later he was able to obtain some silver-plated items from another group of Inuit. In May 1859, Lieutenant Hobson, leading another sledge party, reached Cape Victory on King William Island and found a stone cairn containing a sealed copper tube. Inside the tube was a report which recorded that Sir John Franklin died on 11 June 1847, that the ships had been abandoned and that the remaining crew set off to walk to the Great Fish River. The mystery was conclusively solved.

Roald Amundsen, 1872-1928 (S0014464)

The many searches for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin led to the discovery of almost all of the previously uncharted Arctic waterways. The tremendous amount of knowledge gained was to be of great help to the man who eventually made the first complete navigation of a Northwest Passage. That man was no other than Roald Amundsen, the man made famous some years later when he beat Captain Scott in the race to the South Pole.

Reading the accounts of the British Arctic explorers and witnessing the exploits of his fellow Norwegian, Fridtjof Nansen, filled Amundsen with a thirst for polar glory. After a sealing expedition in the Arctic, Amundsen joined the Belgica Antarctic Expedition of 1897-99, gaining valuable polar experience. During his time in the Antarctic he began planning an expedition to find a Northwest Passage.

The Gjoa in summer, Gjoahaven, King William Island. Photograph by Roald Amundsen (S0019271)

Back home he purchased a small fishing boat, the Gjøa, recruited a small party of like-minded men and in order to avoid his creditors, slipped out of Christiania (Oslo) harbour in the dead of night. After collecting sledge dogs in West Greenland he headed into Lancaster Sound, reaching Beechey Island in August 1903. After taking magnetic observations they headed into Peel Sound and it was here that Amundsen made the decision that was to lead to his ultimate success; instead of sailing west round King William Island and becoming stuck in the ice of Victoria Strait (as had Franklin), Amundsen sailed east round the island through the Ross and Rae straits. The waters of the Ross Strait were shallow and the Gjøa ran aground several times but eventually they got through and south of the island found a very good little harbour which they named Gjøa Haven.

Man and his wife in snow hut. Photograph by Roald Amundsen (S0010485)

Amundsen and his men spent over two years at Gjøa Haven, taking magnetic observations and making contact with the local Inuit. Amundsen was fascinated by the Inuit and made copious notes about their way of life. He also learned how to erect an igloo and expanded his knowledge of Inuit dog driving techniques.

In August 1905 Gjøa finally left Gjøa Haven and entered Simpson Strait. Emerging from the Strait they entered Queen Maud Gulf and then travelled through Dease Strait, Coronation Gulf, Dolphin and Union Strait and out into Amundsen Gulf. They reached Herschel Island before resting for the winter at King Point in the Yukon. They had completed the first navigation of a Northwest Passage and in doing so had succeeded where so many had failed.

Map to illustrate the voyage and Arctic explorations of Capt. Roald Amundsen, 1903-1906 (rgs503857)

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All images © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Exhibition curated by Eugene Rae and Jools Cole. Digital Exhibition created by Hania Sosnowska.