“The Discovery of the North-West Passage” (by Robert M’Clure, 1856)
This is one of the books which form part of the nation's title-deeds to greatness. It commemorates the achievement of one of the grandest exploits on record. Sir Robert M'Clure and his crew were the first men who ever passed from the Pacific to the Atlantic—thus solving a problem of nearly three centuries' standing. From 1576 to 1854 the feat remained, in the words of Martin Frobisher, the first explorer, “a thing yet undone, whereby a notable mind might be made famous and fortunate.” Captain M'Clure's narrative, edited by one who himself served in the Arctic regions with distinguished honour, may well take its place by the side of the stories of the pious and gallant men who, quite as noble as they, navigated in the days of Elizabeth and James.
The Enterprise under Captain Collinson, and the Investigator under Captain M'Clure, were put into commission in the winter of 1849-50, with orders to search for Sir John Franklin on the side of Behring's Straits, making their way to the eastward. They left England on the 20th of January, 1850. The Investigator was a ship of 400 tons burden, built like a fortification, for in some places there were no less than twenty-nine inches of solid timber on her bow and stern. She was heavily rigged and deeply laden, having her decks crowded with casks, sledges, ice triangles, ice saws, and the crow's nest for observation from the mast-head. Well fitted as these preparations were for the special service for which the Investigator was destined, they were little calculated to increase her speed. It was not till the 1st of July that the Investigator anchored, after upwards of five months' voyage, off Honolulu, in the Sandwich Islands. The Enterprise had already passed this station, and Captain M'Clure was so anxious to rejoin his commander that he revictualled his ship and set sail for the Arctic Ocean in three days. In about sixty days from the time of leaving Honolulu, the season might be expected to close in; and he therefore determined, with a prudent boldness highly characteristic of him, to run straight to the northward through the Aleutian islands, instead of taking the usual course, which lies first N.W. to the Asiatic coast, and then along the shore to the N.E. Though the course which was thus chosen was considerably shorter than the ordinary one, it was extremely dangerous. The ship made rapid progress before strong and fair winds; but when she got amongst the islands she was enveloped in fogs so dense that several sea birds, such as the little auk, actually struck against the rigging without seeing it, and fell on the deck. Yet, notwithstanding the fog, Captain M'Clure pressed on with as much sail as the ship could bear. Once or twice he got bearings of prominent headlands, which enabled him to shape his course; but, generally speaking, the ship drove on, the sea breaking into her channels, with not more than twenty fathoms of water, and across strong and unknown currents, running at times like the races of Alderney or Portland, with such a noise that “you could not hear what was said without great vocal exertion.” By the end of July, these dangers were surmounted, and the Arctic circle was crossed. Shortly afterwards, the Investigator fell in with the Plover, stationed as a depôt ship at the north of Behring's Straits, and soon after with her tender, the Herald. She parted from this ship at the end of July, 1850, and for two years and eight months from that time, the crew of the Investigator saw not a single human being besides each other, with the exception of a few Esquimaux.
On the 2nd of August, they fell in with the ice. It was covered with immense herds of walruses, and a was loaded with grape and canister to shoot some of them; but the cubs and their mothers played together so affectionately, that the softhearted captain could not find it in his heart to fire. Some of these creatures weighed nearly two tons, and depressed the ice on which they lay as much as two feet. On the 5th of August, the Investigator rounded Point Barrow, the North-west extremity of the American continent, and began to steer to the eastward, being the first ship that ever accomplished that feat. The region which now lay before them is, in its geographical conformation, one of the strangest parts of the globe. Behring’s Straits on the West, and Davis's Straits on the East, open into the Arctic Ocean and Baffin's Bay respectively. These great bodies of water are separated from each other by an immense archipelago, threaded by sounds, inlets, straits, and bays innumerable. The broad features of this remarkable region may be made intelligible by a very familiar illustration. It is traversed by three passages, occasionally branching out into large land-locked bodies of water. They may be compared to the three great lines of road which cross London from West to East—the New-road, Oxford-street, and the Strand. The northernmost of these passages is laid down very distinctly in the excellent map prefixed to Commander Osborn's book, but has never, we believe, been traversed. The central one—the Arctic Oxford-street—is that through which Captain M'Clure succeeded in making his way; and the southernmost, which we have compared to the Strand, is that into which Captain Collinson penetrated to an extraordinary distance in the Enterprise, and in which, as it now seems most probable, Sir John Franklin's crews perished. Confining our attention for the present to the central passage, its principal localities from West to East may be described somewhat as follows, Banks's Land, Barrow Strait, and Melville Island may be considered as occupying respectively the relative positions of Hyde-park, Oxford-street, and Tyburnia. Beyond Banks's Land lies a large island of very irregular form. It no collective name; but different arts of it have been named Prince Albert Land, Prince of Wales's Land, Wollaston Land, and Victoria Land. It is separated from Banks's Land by a narrow strait, named after the Prince of Wales, and it occupies, relatively to Banks's Land, the position which the district between Regent-street and Park-lane occupies relatively to Hyde-park. The Prince of Wales's Strait may be compared to Park-lane. To the North of this large island lies a great land-locked water, called Melville Sound, on the North of which are Melville and Cornwallis Islands. Melville Sound communicates at its eastern extremity with Lancaster Sound, and Lancaster Sound with Baffin's Bay, very much as Holborn communicates with the streets near the Post Office, by Newgate-street and its continuations. Melville Sound had been explored by Sir E. Parry as early as 1820; and the state of things at the time of Captain M'Clure's expedition may be represented by supposing that the route through Oxford-street, from East to West had been ascertained as far as the bottom of Orchard-street, which leads into Portman-square, and that some one had been sent to Kensington Church on the other side, to see whether it was not possible to reach the same point by the West and North, or by the South and East of Hyde-park.
The only chance open to the explorers of making their way from Cape Barrow to Melville Island lay in following what is galled in the Arctic regions the land-water. When the heavy fields of ice approach within a certain distance of the coast, they ground, owing to their enormous draught of water; and between the shore and the place at which the ice takes the ground, a lane of water intervenes—sometimes only a few yards, sometimes miles in width-and even this narrow passage is encumbered with stray masses of ice, “so dense and heavy in their nature as to cause the vessel to tremble in every timber whenever she unavoidably struck any of them.” The Investigator and her crew worked their way along the land-water, having endless fields of ice on their left, and the vast plain in which the American continent here terminates on their right. The soil is a dark blue clay, but it abounds with moss, grass, flowers, and is broken here and there by fine sheets of water. Many large herds of reindeer were observed in the neighbourhood. The depth of the sea was so uniform that, after a little time, the ship was steered through various fogs simply by soundings. She stood in till she came to three, and stood out till she came to six, fathoms. On the 13th of August, the unusual phenomenon of a thunderstorm occurred—on the 17th, the surface of the land-water itself was covered with thin ice-on the 24th, they passed the mouth of the Mackenzie river, whence they continued to make their way along the coast until they reached Cape Bathurst—the last headland on the American shore before the commencement of the southernmost of the three passages through the Arctic Archipelago. Here they fell in with some Esquimaux, of whom they made various inquiries about the ocean to the northwards--getting, however, no more satisfactory answer than that it was “the land of the White Bear.” From this point they struck across to the North, and reached the southern extremity of Banks's Land. Following up a deep opening in it, they found themselves at length in what they supposed to be a strait, which, by observation, could not be more than sixty miles distant from other waters already explored from the West, and which would therefore, if it continued, complete the long-sought North-West Passage. Captain M'Clure's journal describes his feelings at this moment as anxious in the extreme. There is something very noble in the expression which they found, under circumstances which put all thought of display or cant out of the question:
‘Can it be that so humble a creature as I am will be permitted to perform what has baffled the talented and wise for hundreds of years. But all praise be ascribed unto Him who has conducted so far in safety! His ways are not our ways, or the means that he uses to accomplish within our comprehension. The wisdom of the world is foolishness with Him.’The conjecture of the explorers as to the nature of the inlet in which they found themselves was perfectly correct. They had added the last link of the chain so laboriously constructed; but before they could verify the fact, they had to undergo the most terrible dangers. Before the middle of September, the Investigator was completely beset—and that not in a harbour, but in a narrow strait, with strong currents and westerly winds driving the ice and the ship together upon a lee shore; and their only safeguard was a huge floe, which, drawing more water than the ship, grounded before her, and formed a kind of natural dock. By dint of great labour, and by watching for opportunities, the ship was gradually hauled twelve hundred yards farther off shore; but she was still in the midst of the pack, or field of broken ice, the extremities of which were continually dashed by the united force of the wind and sea on the dark cliffs which bounded the strait—holding out to the explorers a certain prospect of being instantly overwhelmed and ground to powder if the ship should take the ground before the ice. On the 15th of September, the wind changed, and the ice opened to a certain extent; and day and night the men laboured to work the ship to the northward, “leaping and carrying the hawsers from piece to piece of ice, trusting to its white glimmer to see their road and secure a footing.” Thus they drifted along “in a churning sea of ice amidst darkness and snow storm,” until they were within thirty miles of the middle line of strait of which we have spoken. At this tantalizing distance the ship ceased to drift. It now became a question whether the Investigator should attempt to retrace her course to the southward, or winter in the pack. Captain M'Clure chose the latter alternative—a proof of courage such as hardly any man, even of his own profession, has ever given. To winter in the pack had been considered by the greatest Arctic authorities equivalent to certain destruction, and Captain M'Clure's description of what he went through seems to justify the opinion:
‘Sometimes a pressure would take place upon the opposite sides of the body of ice, the sheets of young ice would crack across, and one part overrun the other with a sharp chirping noise. At another time some huge field of ice, which from its great depth was much more acted upon by the tides and currents than its neighbours, would rush with fearful velocity through the lighter ice, turning up everything that came in its way, and giving rise to fears lest such a moving field should touch and sink the ship.’
At another time, the whole pack, and the ship with it, drifted bodily on to the cliffs of a small island in the middle of the strait. The cliffs rose sheer out of the water to a height of 400 feet, and the wind, tide, and ice pressure set her right upon them. The crew stood to their work with the most thorough-bred indifference. As two of them were coiling down a hawser with due neatness, one said, “It is a bad job this time.” “Yes,” said the other, quietly, “the old craft will double up like an old basket when she gets alongside of them rocks.” When within 500 yards of the cliffs, “the ice coachwheeled her along them,” and they passed in safety. By degrees the ship settled down as the pack consolidated itself; but she underwent several severe “nips,” which strained every joint of every timber. “The crashing, creaking, and straining,” wrote Captain M'Clure, “is beyond description, and the officer of the watch, when speaking to me, is obliged to put his mouth close to my ear on account of the deafening noise;” and yet, with all these terrors, in the midst of eternal ice, and hundreds of miles from any human being, except perhaps some miserable Esquimaux, the sailors danced, sang, acted plays, laughed and joked as naturally and as heartily as if they had been at home. The usual preparations for an Arctic winter were made; and when the ice was suficiently consolidated, sledge parties were sent out in various directions to search for Sir John Franklin, and to make explorations. One of these was commanded by Captain M‘Clure himself. It consisted of one officer and six men, who had to drag a weight of about 1200 lbs. between them. In some places, the snow had weighed down the ice, until the sea-water, filtering into it over the top of the floe, had rendered the surface as stiff as mud. No water was to be had, for the snow only parched the mouth, and the only refreshment of the party on halting was as much melted snow as their allowance of fuel would thaw, and a little frozen pemmican. In the evening the men lay down in bags provided for the purpose, and the captain read them all to sleep with a story out of Chambers Miscellany. After six days of this work, they reached, on the evening of the 26th of October, a headland which overlooked Barrow Straits and Melville Sound, and thus completed the great discovery of their voyage. The exact nature of their exploit may, perhaps, be best understood by recurring to our former illustration. If we suppose the whole of the entrance to London by Oxford-street, west of the Marble Arch, to have been quite unknown——and the entrance by way of Kensington and Knightsbridge to have been known only at a few isolated points reached by the streets leading northwards from Chelsea—Captain M’Clure’s feat would be exactly parallel to that of a person who should drive for the first time through Kensington and Knightsbridge, and halfway up Park-lane, and then make his way on foot to the Marble Arch. And his position during the following year would be described by saying that, being unable to bring his carriage through the upper part of Park-lane, he went round Hyde Park, and attempt to reach the Marble Arch from the west by Oxford-Street—failing, however, to get further than the bottom of Stanhope-place, and being a second time obliged to complete his round on foot.
From Mount Observation, as they named the headland from which the discovery had been made, the party returned to their ship, which they reached on the 31st of October. On the last night of their absence, Captain M'Clure pushed on in advance of his men, missed his way, and had to spend on the ice a night of thirteen hours without fire or arms, with the thermometer at 15° below zero, and in the neighbourhood of various prowling bears. He reached the ship, however, next morning, without serious inconvenience. When the sledge returned, its cargo weighed upwards of one hundred pounds more than on its departure, as the ice had accumulate upon every article it contained. Such had been the fatigues of the expedition that eight men had only consumed eighteen pounds of pemmican, thirty-one pounds of biscuit, and two pounds of oatmeal, in nine days. They had been too tired to care for anything but water. The winter following passed as Arctic winters usually do, but in the spring exploring parties were sent out to look for the missing ships. The various parties from different ships seem, by Commander Osborn's account, to have embraced very nearly the whole of the Arctic archipelago; but, unfortunately, Mr. Rae's discoveries have proved that Franklin's crews occupied a position forming a common centre to which two expeditions approached, though neither reached it.
The Investigator remained in the Prince of Wales's Strait throughout the whole of the winter, and the following spring and summer, and did not leave her berth in the ice till the middle of August, 1851, when she turned to the southward, with the view of passing round Banks's Land by the west and north. For 800 miles no ice was encountered; but suddenly she came upon a bare cliff, 400 feet high, and descending sheer down into water 90 feet deep. There was consequently small hope of the ice grounding before reaching the cliffs, so that, if it should set in that direction, the ship would infallibly be destroyed. The open space of water was but about 200 yards wide, and every moment of progress was full of the most fearful risks. On one occasion, the ship was moored to a huge mass of ice, which was struck by a moving floe with such force that " the mass slowly reared itself on its edge, close to the ship's bows, until the upper part was higher than the foreyard." . . . . "The ice had but to topple over to sink her and her crew." Happily it fell back the other way, but immediately afterwards it was driven on the land with irresistible force, carrying the ship with it. She was “nipped" between two bergs, and though the second broke up at the right moment, so closely was she beset that there was not room to drop a lead-line round the vessel, and the copper was hanging from her bottom in shreds, or rolled up like brown paper. At this time they were on the north-west extremity of Banks's Land, and were detained there for nearly a fortnight; but suddenly a south wind sprung up, and drove them off into the pack in a perfectly helpless condition. Captain M’Clure's diary or this day notices the occurrence thus:— "Thus we launch into this formidable frozen sea—Spes mea in Deo." By the use of enormous charges of gunpowder, the ship was disembedded from the ice, and enabled to make her way along the sea in frightful danger; for “the wind slackened, and the pack again rolled along the coast, pivoting upon the grounded pieces, and threatened , as it pulverised, or threw masses of thirty or forty feet thick high up on the beach, or a-top of one another, to occasion a like catastrophe to their frail bar. Through the long dark night, the sullen grinding of the moving pack, and the loud report made by some huge mass of ice which burst under the pressure, boomed through the solitude; and as the starlight glimmered over the wild scene to seaward, the men could just detect the pack rearing and rolling over by the alternate reflected lights and shadows." Two days afterwards they entered Barrow's Strait from the westward, being the first crew that ever achieved that exploit; and on the 23rd of September they reached a bay which they called Mercy Bay, and in which they determined to winter.
The rations of the crew were now reduced by one-third; but, most happily for them, the land was found to abound in game, and indeed their experience did not confirm the common opinion of the universal migration to the southwards of the animal world during an Arctic winter. Hares, deer, wolves, and occasionally musk oxen, visited them, and the season wore on not unpleasantly. Christmas-day was passed with its usual festivity, and the abundance of game kept the men employed and amused. In the spring, Captain M‘Clure made a sledge excursion across the ice, and actually crossed the track of a party on the same errand from one of the ships exploring from the side of Baffin’s Bay, but without meeting them. As spring advanced, the length of service and the want of fresh vegetables began to tell upon the crew. Six men were laid up with scurvy, and sixteen more showed symptoms of its approach; but the ice held the ship unrelentingly in its place.
When the third winter—that of 1852-3—set in, seventeen men were on the sick list, and provisions were running low, for the duties of the ship prevented the healthy art of the crew from getting game. Nevertheless, the third Christmas-day was kept cheerfully and bravely. In the midst of all their privations—which had apparently less prospect than ever of terminating happily—the men still wrote songs, drew caricatures, and acted plays; and their gallant leader closed his journal for the car with the words, “I cannot but feel, as the wife of Manoah did, if the Lord were pleased to kill us, he would not have shown us all these mercies." The hardy sailor's trust in God prompted him to the strictest discharge of his own duties. He determined to despatch half of his crew, in two parties of fifteen each, to Greenland and the Hudson Bay Company's posts respetively, whilst he with the remaining thirty stayed to pass a fourth winter in the ice. A week was wanting to the day fixed for the departure of the men, when the first death took place. Captain M’Clure was walking on the ice with the first lieutenant, discussing the subject of the funeral, when a figure was seen approaching them, wildly shouting and gesticulating; and at last the eager listeners distinguished the words, "I'm Lieutenant Pim, late of the Herald, and now in the Resolute. Captain Kellett is in her at Deal Island." In truth, relief was at hand. The crew made their way to another ship, which had gained a point at no great distance from them, and they reached England by the Atlantic on the 28th of September, 1854. Before quitting the Investigator, she was surveyed, and the impossibility of extricating her being universally recognised, the men to whom she had so long been a home hoisted her colours to the mast-head. It may well be doubted whether the union jack ever waved over a scene dignified h more resolute and enduring courage. The whole story is to the last degree grand and noble, and it suffers nothing in the hand of its narrator. Of Captain M’Clure's conduct we can give no more worth illustration than is conveyed by an extract from the despatch which he intended to send home by Captain Kellett, in the event of its being considered possible for him to spend another winter in the ice. After mentioning the place at which information of his movements might be expected, he proceeds:
‘If, however, no intimation be found of our having been there, it may at once be surmised that some fatal catastrophe has happened, either from our being carried into the Polar Sea, or smashed in Barrow's Strait, and no survivors left. If such be the case—which, however, I will not anticipate—it will then be quite unnecessary to penetrate further to the westward for our relief as, by the period that any vessel could reach that part, we must, want of provisions, all have perished. In such a case, I would submit that the officer may be directed to return, and by no means incur the danger of losing other lives in quest of those who will then be no more.’If, during the late war, our navy had few opportunities for performing brilliant achievements, we may console ourselves by the reflection that one exploit, at any rate, was performed by British seamen, which neither Nelson nor Collingwood has excelled. The moral grandeur and unaffected simplicity of the sentences we have quoted seem to us nobler even than the admonition to the traveller passing by Thormopylae to tell the Lacedemonians that their countrymen lay there in obedience to their laws.
Saturday Review, November 8, 1856.