The efforts of Arctic explorers of past years, Frobisher, Davis, Baffin, Behring, and Cook, had all been more or less frustrated by the impenetrable barrier of ice, which seemed to stretch across the Polar regions like a wall, putting an end to all further advance.
Now, early in the nineteenth century, this impenetrable bar of ice had apparently moved and broken up into detached masses and icebergs. The news of a distinct change in the Polar ice was brought home by various traders in the Greenland waters, and soon gave rise to a revival of these voyages for the discovery of the North Pole and a passage round the northern coast of America to the Pacific Ocean. For this coast was totally unknown at this time. Information was collected from casual travellers, whale-fishers, and others, with the result that England equipped two ships for a voyage of discovery to the disputed regions.
These were the Isabella (385 tons) and the Alexander (252 tons), Commander Ross being appointed to one and Lieutenant Parry to the other.
Parry had served on the coast of North America, and had written a little treatise on the stars in the Northern Hemisphere. He was thinking of offering his services for African discovery when he caught sight of a paragraph in a paper about an expedition for the discovery of the North-West Passage. He wrote at once that "he was ready for hot or for cold—Africa or the Polar regions." And he was at once appointed to the latter. The object of the voyage was clearly set forth. The young explorers were to discover a passage from Davis Strait along the northern coast of America and through the Behring Strait into the Pacific Ocean. Besides this, charts and pictures were to be brought back, and a special artist was to accompany the expedition. Ross himself was an artist, and he has delightfully illustrated his own journals of the expedition. The ships were well supplied with books, and we find the journals of Mackenzie, Hearne, Vancouver, Cook, and other old travelling friends taken for reference—thirty Bibles and sixty Testaments were distributed among the crews. For making friends with the natives, we find a supply of twenty-four brass kettles, one hundred and fifty butchers' knives, three hundred and fifty yards of coloured flannel, one hundred pounds of snuff, one hundred and fifty pounds of soap, forty umbrellas, and much gin and brandy. The expedition left on 18th April 1818, and "I believe," says Ross, "there was not a man who did not indulge after the fashion of a sailor in feeling that its issue was placed in His hands whose power is most visible in the Great Deep." Before June had set in, the two ships were ploughing their way up the west coast of Greenland in heavy snowstorms. They sailed through Davis Strait, past the island of Disco into Baffin's undefined bay. Icebergs stood high out of the water on all sides, and navigation was very dangerous. Towards the end of July a bay to which Ross gave the name of Melville Bay, after the first Lord of the Admiralty, was passed. "Very high mountains of land and ice were seen to the north side of Melville's Bay, forming an impassable barrier, the precipices next the sea being from one thousand to two thousand feet high." The ships were sailing slowly past the desolate shores amid these high icebergs when suddenly several natives appeared on the ice. Now Ross had brought an Eskimo with him named Sacheuse.
"Come on!" cried Sacheuse to the astonished natives.
"No—no—go away!" they cried. "Go away; we can kill you!" "What great creatures are these?" they asked, pointing to the ships. "Do they come from the sun or the moon? Do they give us light by night or by day?" Pointing southwards, Sacheuse told them that the strangers had come from a distant country.
"That cannot be; there is nothing but ice there," was the answer.
Soon the Englishmen made friends with these people, whom they called Arctic Highlanders, giving the name of the Arctic Highlands to all the land in the northeast corner of Baffin's Bay. Passing Cape York, they followed the almost perpendicular coast, even as Baffin had done. They passed Wolstenholme Sound and Whale Sound; they saw Smith's Sound, and named the capes on either side Isabella and Alexander after their two ships. And then Ross gave up all further discovery for the time being in this direction. "Even if it be imagined that some narrow strait may exist through these mountains, it is evident that it must for ever be unnavigable," he says decidedly. "Being thus satisfied that there could be no further inducement to continue longer in this place, I shaped my course for the next opening which appeared in view to the westward." This was the Sound which was afterwards called "Jones Sound." "We ran nine miles among very heavy ice, until noon, when, a very thick fog coming on, we were obliged to take shelter under a large iceberg." Sailing south, but some way from land, a wide opening appeared which answered exactly to the Lancaster Sound of Baffin. Lieutenant Parry and many of his officers felt sure that this was a strait communicating with the open sea to westward, and were both astonished and dismayed when Ross, declaring that he was "perfectly satisfied that there was no passage in this direction," turned back. He brought his expedition back to England after a seven months' trip. But, though he was certain enough on the subject, his officers did not agree with him entirely, and the subject of the North-West Passage was still discussed in geographical circles.
When young Lieutenant Parry, who had commanded the Alexander in Ross' expedition, was consulted, he pressed for further exploration of the far north.
And two expeditions were soon fitted out, one under Parry and one under Franklin, who had already served with Flinders in Australian exploration. Parry started off first with instructions to explore Lancaster's Sound; failing to find a passage, to explore Alderman Jones Sound, failing this again, Sir Thomas Smith's Sound. If he succeeded in getting through to the Behring Strait, he was to go to Kamtchatka and on to the Sandwich Islands. "You are to understand," ran the instructions, "that the finding of a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific is the main object of this expedition." On board the Hecla, a ship of three hundred and seventy-five tons, with a hundred-and-eighty-ton brig, the Griper, accompanying, Parry sailed away early in May 1819. The first week in July found him crossing the Arctic Circle amid immense icebergs against which a heavy southerly swell was violently agitated, "dashing the loose ice with tremendous force, sometimes raising a white spray over them to the height of more than a hundred feet, accompanied with a loud noise exactly resembling the roar of distant thunder." The entrance to Lancaster Sound was reached on 31st July, and, says Parry: "It is more easy to imagine than to describe the almost breathless anxiety which was now visible in every countenance, while, as the breeze increased to a fresh gale, we ran quickly up the Sound." Officers and men crowded to the masthead as the ships ran on and on till they reached Barrow's Strait, so named by them after the Secretary of the Admiralty.
"We now began to flatter ourselves that we had fairly entered the Polar Sea, and some of the most sanguine among us had even calculated the bearing and distance of Icy Cape as a matter of no very difficult accomplishment." Sailing westward, they found a large island, which they named Melville Island after the first Lord of the Admiralty, and a bay which still bears the name of Hecla and Griper Bay. "Here," says Parry, "the ensigns and pendants were hoisted, and it created in us no ordinary feelings of pleasure to see the British flag waving, for the first time, in those regions which had hitherto been considered beyond the limits of the habitable world." PARRY'S SHIPS, THE HECLA AND GRIPER PARRY'S SHIPS, THE HECLA AND GRIPER, IN WINTER HARBOUR, DECEMBER 1819.
From a drawing in Parry's Voyage for the North-West Passage, 1821.
Winter was now quickly advancing, and it was with some difficulty that the ships were forced through the newly formed ice at the head of the Bay of the Hecla and Griper. Over two miles of ice, seven inches thick, had to be sawn through to make a canal for the ships. As soon as they were moored in "Winter Harbour" the men gave three loud and hearty cheers as a preparation for eight or nine months of long and dreary winter. By the end of September all was ready; plenty of grouse and deer remained as food through October, after which there were foxes and wolves. To amuse his men, Parry and his officers got up a play; Miss in her Teens was performed on 5th November, the last day of sun for ninety-six days to come. He also started a paper, The North Georgian Gazette and Winter Chronicle, which was printed in England on their return. The New Year, 1819, found the winter growing gloomier. Scurvy had made its appearance, and Parry was using every device in his power to arrest it. Amongst other things he grew mustard and cress in boxes of earth near the stove pipe of his cabin to make fresh vegetable food for the afflicted men. Though the sun was beginning to appear again, February was the coldest part of the year, and no one could be long out in the open without being frostbitten. It was not till the middle of April that a slight thaw began, and the thermometer rose to freezing point. On 1st August the ships were able to sail out of Winter Harbour and to struggle westward again. But they could not get beyond Melville Island for the ice, and after the ships had been knocked about by it, Parry decided to return to Lancaster Sound once more. Hugging the western shores of Baffin's Bay, the two ships were turned homewards, arriving in the Thames early in November 1820. "And," says Parry, "I had the happiness of seeing every officer and man on board both ships—ninety-three persons—return to their native country in as robust health as when they left it, after an absence of nearly eighteen months." CUTTING THROUGH THE ICE FOR A WINTER HARBOUR THE SEARCH FOR A NORTH-WEST PASSAGE: THE CREWS OF PARRY'S SHIPS, THE HECLA AND GRIPER, CUTTING THROUGH THE ICE FOR A WINTER HARBOUR, 1819.
Drawn by William Westall, A.R.A., after a sketch by Lieut. Beechey, a member of the expedition.
Parry had done more than this. He not only showed the possibility of wintering in these icy regions in good health and good spirits, but he had certainly discovered straits communicating with the Polar sea.
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