By CAPTAIN SHERARD OSBORN, R.N.
“THERE is yet one thing left undone, whereby a great mind may become notable,” wrote worthy Master Purchas — that one deed was the discovery of a north-west passage to the Indies. Many long years afterwards, the words of the good Dean of St. Paul’s sounded like a trumpet-call to his countrymen,and many an aspiring spirit essayed to do that deed whereby bright honour and immortality were to be won.
The veil which hid from human ken the mysteries of the Arctic zone was not to be rent by one bold stroke; it was to be the test of British perseverance, patience, and hardihood. The frozen north would only reveal its wonders slowly and unwillingly to the brave men who devoted themselves to the task. The dread realms of frost and silence were only to be penetrated by the labours of two generations of seamen and travellers. The consummation of the discovery of the north-west passage was to be obtained but by the self-sacrifice of a hundred heroes.
From 1815 to 1833 England sent forth her sons to the north in repeated expeditions by sea and land. The earnestness of many eminent public men, members of the Royal Society — such as Sir John Barrow and Sir Francis Beaufort — kept general interest directed to those regions, in which Frobisher, Baffin, Davis, and Fox had so nobly ventured.
There were no falterers; every call for volunteers was nobly responded to by officers of the Royal Navy; and John Franklin, Richardson, John and James Ross, Parry, Back, and King, with much devotion, toil,and suffering,forced open theportals beyondwhich the Elizabethan school of discoverers had not been able to penetrate, and added much to our knowledge of the geography and physical condition of the Arctic zone between Greenland and Behring’s Straits.
Fifteen years of labour had failed,however, to solve the question as to the actual existence of a water communication between the Pacific and Atlantic. Repeated disappointment had damped public zeal. Just at this juncture, between 1838 and 1843, the success of Captain Sir James Ross in an expedition to the Antarctic Pole with H.M.S. Erebus and Terror, as well as the completion of the northern coast-line of America by the Hudson Bay Company’s servants, Dease and Simpson, caused the attention of the nation to again revert to its old channel — the North-west Passage. Anno Domino 1844 found England with a surplus revenue, a vast body of naval officers begging for employment, and eager for any
opportunity of winning honours and distinction; and the Erebus and Terror, safe and sound from the perils of Antarctic seas, riding at anchor off Woolwich.
All was most propitious for carrying out the darling object of the then venerable Secretary of the Admiralty. A mind like that of Sir John Barrow’s, richly stored with the records of his country’s glories in the exploration of every quarter of the globe, was keenly alive to the importance of keeping her still in the vanguard of geographical discovery; and it must be remembered that he had lived in a century when men, in spite of a long and terrible war, were almost yearly excited by the world-wide fame of the discoveries of Anson, Cooke, Flinders, and Mungo Park. Was it not natural, therefore, that he, and such as he, should desire to add to those triumphs the achievement of the greatest problem man ever undertook to solve.
The chart of the Arctic regions was in the unsatisfactory condition shown in the chart on the opposite page.
How simple an undertaking it appeared to connect the water in which Parry had sailed to Melville Island, in 1819, with Dease and Simpson’s eastern most position off the coast of America in 1838.
The summer of 1844 saw many an eager face poring over that Arctic chart. Whisperings were heard that Sir John Barrow, Beaufort, Parry, Sabine, Ross, and Franklin himself, had expressed strong opinions in favour of another effort. The Royal Society, through its president, the Marquis of Northampton, was known to have urged the resumption of Arctic exploration upon the Government and Admiralty. Many an enthusiastic officer strove hard by zeal and interest to insure being one of those selected for the glorious work. Then it was that Fitzjames, and such men as Graham Gore, Fairholme, Hodgson, and Des Voeux, succeeded in enrolling themselves on the list of the chosen few who were next year to sail for the far north-west. We see them now, as they told us so, and with glistening eye prophesied their own success. Gallant hearts! they now sleep amidst the scenes of their sore trial, but triumphant discovery.
It was at one time intended that Fitzjames (whose genius and energy marked him as no ordinary officer) should command the expedition; but just at this time Sir John Franklin was heard to say that he considered the post to be his birthright as the senior Arctic explorer in England.
He had recently returned from his post as Governor of Van Diemen’s Land: his sensitive and generous spirit chafed under the unmerited treatment he had experienced from the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, and sick of civil employment, he naturally turned again to his profession, as a better field for the ability and devotion he had wasted on a thankless office. Sanguine of success, forgetful of past suffering, he claimed his right to command the latest, as he had led the earliest, of modern Arctic expeditions.
Directly it was known that he would go if asked, the Admiralty were of course only too glad to avail themselves of the experience of Franklin; but Lord Haddington, then First Lord, with that kindness which ever distinguished him, suggested that Franklin might well rest at home on his laurels.
“I might find a good excuse for not letting you go, Sir John,” said the peer, “in the tell-tale record which informs me that you are sixty years of age.”
“No, no, my lord,” was Franklin’s rejoinder, “I am only fifty-nine!”
Before such earnestness all scruples yielded — the offer was officially made and accepted — to Sir John Franklin was confided the Arctic Expedition, consisting of H.M.S. Erebus, in which he hoisted his pendant, and H.M.S. Terror, commanded by Captain Crozier, who had recently accompanied Sir James Ross in his wonderful voyage to the Antarctic seas.
The 18th of May, 1845, found the Erebus and Terror at Greenhithe in the Thames. On board of each ship there were sixty-nine officers and men, every possible corner was carefully filled with stores and provisions — enough, they said, for three years; and, for the first time in Arctic annals, these discovery vessels had auxiliary screws and engines of twenty-horse power each. Hope rode high in every breast, and the cry of Hurrah! for Behring’s Straits! succeeded their last hearty cheer as the gallant ships weighed on the morrow for Baffin’s Bay.
A month they sailed across the Atlantic before they reached their first halting-place, Disco, or the Whale Fish Islands, on the west coast of Greenland, in latitude 69° north. Thither a store ship had accompanied them from England, in order that the expedition might be completed with every necessary up to the latest moment before entering the polar ice.
Love already it is apparent, as much as duty, bound together the gallant souls on board the Erebus and Terror.
Away from Disco they sped with all haste; the Bay of Baffin is fairly entered, and their long and arduous labours commence with an Arctic tempest so severe that their brother seamen of the store-ship, hastening homeward, think with anxiety of the deep-laden Erebus and Terror. He who is strong to save guides the gallant barks, however, past the dangers of an iron-bound coast, and amongst the huge, ghost-like ice-bergs which glimmer through the storm. We see them, in better weather, urging under all sail their strong but clumsy ships, before a favourable gale, along that coast of Greenland, every headland of which has its record of human trial and noble endurance.
There the lofty headland of Sanderson-his-Hope (of a North-west Passage) rears its crest of black granite, rich with crimson lichen, and crowned with snow. Norseman and Dane and Englishman have alike sailed under its stupendous cliffs, or sought shelter in quaint Uppernavik which nestles at its feet. The Erebus and Terror may not delay. Greenland has no charms for men whose leader already talks sanguinely of the yet far distant Mackenzie and Copper-mine rivers.
The floes and broad masses of the Middle-ice now rise upon their sight; the northern horizon gleams with reflected light from the frozen surface of the sea; the south wind fails; the ships sail from the black mists and fog-laden atmosphere common to open water in the Arctic regions, into the bright skies, smooth lanes, and mirror-like pools generally found amongst the pack during the summer season. The ice is streaming southward; the eager novices in either ship look forward with delight to the first onset with the foe they have come to do battle with. Wiser heads know that mother-wit will do more than dashing gallantry in the conflict with packed ice; the sails are taken in so as to reduce the speed, and the experienced ice-master from the crow’s nest at the masthead selects the weakest looking point through which to force the ships into a lane of water, that winds snake-like along the landward edge of the pack.
“So-ho! steady—steer her with a small helm, my lad!” bawls out, in strong North-country dialect, the honest old ice-pilot, who has grown grey killing whales in Greenland. “Stand by to brail up the after-sails, if you please, sir; and to pack all the canvass upon her directly we break through the pack-edge,” he urges to the officer of the watch.
We need not follow them in their daily labour. Ice is now on every hand: open water scarce. The crews often drag the ships for hours with ropes along the edge of the land floe that is still fast to the face of the glacier which curves round Melville Bay. Now we see them perfectly beset, the vessels secured to the lowest icebergs that can be found: they studiously avoid those lofty masses which, with spires, and domes, and steeples, resemble huge cathedrals of crystal — for they know that such icebergs are prone to turn over, or break up suddenly, and would infallibly crush any ship that might be near them.
For a while the discovery ships meet the whaling-vessels of Aberdeen and Hull, striving, like themselves, to get through the loose ice into the waters of Pond’s Bay. On July 26th they part company from the last of them, and pursue their solitary course alone. Again they pass from the northern edge of the pack into open water — if such may be called an open sea, where icebergs are strewn plentifully.
The course is now shaped for Lancaster Sound. August has set in; the sun, which has hitherto wheeled round the heavens without setting, again commences to dip below the horizon; its absence and already declining power is marked by the nightly formation of thin, glass-like ice, known as bay-ice. The south wind freshens; the Erebus and Terror press on, staggering in a heavy sea, all the more remarkable that a hundred miles of ice have just been passed through behind them. The great entrance of Lancaster his Sound breaks out of the clouds to the westward. Capes Warrender and Hay frown grimly over the angry sea, backed by lofty mountain ranges, whose dark precipices, streaked with snow, look as if they were formed of steel and inlaid with silver.
“On, on! to the westward!” is the cry.
Why need to stop and erect cairns, and deposit records of their progress. Do they not intend to pass into the Pacific next year? Have not they ordered their letters to be directed to Petropaulskoi and the Sandwich Isles? Why lose one precious hour at the threshold of their labour?
The ice is again seen: it extends along the southern side of Barrow’s Straits, and is streaming out into Baffin’s Bay; the ships haul in for the coast of North Devon. The scene changes considerably from what our explorers have seen in Greenland. No glaciers stretch from the interior, and launch their long, projecting tongues into the sea: no icy cliffs reflect there the colours of the emerald and turquoise: Arctic vegetation, wretched as it is, does not gladden the eyesight in even the most favoured spots.
They have passed from a region of primary rock into one of magnesian limestone. Greenland is paradise, in an Arctic point of view, to the land they have now reached: it is desolation’s abiding place; yet not deficient in the picturesque. The tall and escarped cliffs are cut by action of frost and thaws into buttresses and abutments, which, combined with broken castellated summits, give a Gothic-like aspect to the shores of North Devon.
Valleys and plains are passed, all of one uniform dull colour; they consist simply of barren limestone. The barrenness of the land is, however, somewhat compensated for by the plentiful abundance of animal life upon the water. The seal, the whale, and the walrus abound; whilst wild fowl in large flocks feed in the calm spots under beetling cliffs or in shallow lakes, which can be looked down upon from the mast-head.
It is not far to the entrance of Wellington Channel: they reach Beechey Island, and mark the value of the bay within it as a wintering-place, and its central position with respect to the channels leading towards Cape Walker, Melville Island or Regent’s Inlet. Ice again impedes their progress.
Their first instructions from the Admiralty were to try to the south-west from Cape Walker. They cannot now advance in that direction, for it is a hopeless block of heavy floes; but Wellington Channel is open, and smiles and sparkles in blue and sunlit waves, as if luring them to the north-west. Why not try a north about passage round the Parry Islands? urges Fitjames. Franklin agrees with him that anything is better than delay, and at any rate they determine to explore it, and ascertain whither it led. Away they press northward, until what we know as Grinnel Land rises ahead, and they have to turn more to the west. From Wellington Channel they pass between Baillie Hamilton Island and the striking cliffs of Cape Majendie.
Eager eyes are straining from the mast-head; is it a mere bay, or is it a strait they are sailing through?
“Water, water! — large water!” replies the ice-master from his eyry to the anxious queries of the veteran leader.
Away, away they press — every studding sail alow and aloft—the old ships never went so fast before — no, not on that great day in their history when they were the first to sail along the Victoria continent of the Southern Pole. From 74 1/2° to 77° north latitude they pushed up this noble strait, but not, as they hoped, to reach an open or navigable sea, but to find as we found in 1852 — a wide expanse of water perfectly choked up with ice, extending from the head of Wellington Channel far to the westward for hundreds of miles.
Baffled but not beaten, the prows of the stout ships are again turned southward, and aided by a greater share of success than has fallen to the lot of those who have come after Sir John Franklin in those same quarters, the gallant Erebus and Terror sailed down a channel which is thus proved to exist between Cornwallis and Bathurst Islands and entered Barrow’s Straits at a point nearly due north of Cape Walker, in which direction Franklin was now constrained to alone look for a route whereby to reach the sea off the coast of North America.
It was well known that this southern course was that of his predilection; founded on his judgment and experience. There are many in England who can recollect him pointing on his chart to the western entrance of Simpson’s Strait and the adjoining coast of North America, and saying:
“If I can but get down there my work is done; thence it’s all plain sailing to the westward.”
Franklin might well say this, since he and Richardson had explored nearly all that coast of Arctic America towards Behring’s Straits.
The fortnight, however, which had been spent in Wellington Channel, was the short period of navigation common to the ice-choked seas within Lancaster Sound. September and an Arctic autumn broke upon them. Who that has ever navigated those seas can ever forget the excitement and danger of the autumn struggle with ice, snow-storm, and lee-shores. We see those lonely barks in the heart of a region which appears only to have been intended to test man’s hardihood, and to show him that, after all, he is but a poor weak creature.
Channels surround them in all directions, down and up which, let the wind blow from any quarter, an avalanche of broken floes and ugly packed ice rolls down, and threatens to engulph all that impedes its way, checked alone by the isles which strew Barrow’s Straits and serve, like the teeth of a harrow, to rip up and destroy the vast floes which are launched against them.
Around each island, as well as along the adjacent coasts, and especially at projecting capes and headlands, mountains of floe-pieces are piled mass on top of mass, as if the frozen sea would invade the frozen land.
The Erebus and Terror, under the skilful hands of their noble ships’ companies, flit to and fro; seek shelter first under one point, and then another. Franklin, Fitzjames, and Crozier, are battling to get into Peel Channel, between Capes Walker and Bunny. The nights are getting rapidly longer, the temperature often falls fifteen degrees below freezing point, the pools of water on the great ice-fields as well as on the land are again firmly frozen over. The wild fowl and their offspring are seen hastening south; the plumage of the ptarmigan and willow grouse are already plentifully sprinkled with white; the mountain-tops and ravines are already loaded with snow, which will not melt away for twelve long months.
Enough has been done to satisfy the leaders that a further advance this season will he impossible. Winter quarters must be sought; there is none nearer that they know of than Beechey Island; the “Erebus” and “Terror” bear away for it. Fortune favours them, they are not caught in the fatal grip of the winter-pack, and drifted out into the Atlantic, as many subsequent voyagers have been. Their haven is reached, and with hearty cheers the ships are warped into Erebus and Terror Bay, and arrangements rapidly made to meet the coming winter of 1845-46.
( To be continued.)
Cover: ‘Erebus’ and the ‘Terror’ in New Zealand, August 1841 by John Wilson Carmichael