Voyages In Search of the North-West Passage - Richard Hakluyt - ebook

Voyages In Search of the North-West Passage by Richard Hakluyt.As preface to Richard Hakluyt’s records of the first endeavour of our bold Elizabethan mariners to find North-West Passage to the East, let me repeat here that old voyage of mine from No. 55 of “Household Words,” dated the 12th of April, 1851: The Phantom is fitted out for Arctic exploration, with instructions to find her way, by the north-west, to Behring Straits, and take the South Pole on her passage home.  Just now we steer due north, and yonder is the coast of Norway.  From that coast parted Hugh Willoughby, three hundred years ago; the first of our countrymen who wrought an ice-bound highway to Cathay.  Two years afterwards his ships were found, in the haven of Arzina, in Lapland, by some Russian fishermen; near and about them Willoughby and his companions—seventy dead men.

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Copyright © 2017 Richard Hakluyt

Amazing Classics

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ByRichard Hakluyt




Thirty-five years ago I made a voyage to the ArcticSeas in what Chaucer calls

A little boteNo bigger than a manne’s thought;

it was a Phantom Ship that made some voyages to different parts of the world which were recorded in early numbers of Charles Dickens’s “Household Words.” As preface to Richard Hakluyt’s records of the first endeavour of our bold Elizabethan mariners to find North–West Passage to the East, let me repeat here that old voyage of mine from No. 55 of “Household Words,” dated the 12th of April, 1851: The Phantom is fitted out for Arctic exploration, with instructions to find her way, by the north-west, to Behring Straits, and take the South Pole on her passage home. Just now we steer due north, and yonder is the coast of Norway. From that coast parted Hugh Willoughby, three hundred years ago; the first of our countrymen who wrought an ice-bound highway to Cathay. Two years afterwards his ships were found, in the haven of Arzina, in Lapland, by some Russian fishermen; near and about them Willoughby and his companions — seventy dead men. The ships were freighted with their frozen crews, and sailed for England; but, “being unstaunch, as it is supposed, by their two years’ wintering in Lapland, sunk, by the way, with their dead, and them also that brought them.”

Ice floats about us now, and here is a whale blowing; a whale, too, very near Spitzbergen. When first Spitzbergen was discovered, in the good old times, there were whales here in abundance; then a hundred Dutch ships, in a crowd, might go to work, and boats might jostle with each other, and the only thing deficient would be stowage room for all the produce of the fishery. Now one ship may have the whole field to itself, and travel home with an imperfect cargo. It was fine fun in the good old times; there was no need to cruise. Coppers and boilers were fitted on the island, and little colonies about them, in the fishing season, had nothing to do but tow the whales in, with a boat, as fast as they were wanted by the copper. No wonder that so enviable a Tom Tidler’s ground was claimed by all who had a love for gold and silver. The English called it theirs, for they first fished; the Dutch said, nay, but the island was of their discovery; Danes, Hamburghers, Bisayans, Spaniards, and French put in their claims; and at length it was agreed to make partitions. The numerous bays and harbours which indent the coast were divided among the rival nations; and, to this day, many of them bear, accordingly, such names as EnglishBay, DanesBay, and so forth. One bay there is, with graves in it, named Sorrow. For it seemed to the fishers most desirable, if possible, to plant upon this island permanent establishments, and condemned convicts were offered, by the Russians, life and pardon, if they would winter in Spitzbergen. They agreed; but, when they saw the icy mountains and the stormy sea, repented, and went back, to meet a death exempt from torture. The Dutch tempted free men, by high rewards, to try the dangerous experiment. One of their victims left a journal, which describes his suffering and that of his companions. Their mouths, he says, became so sore that, if they had food, they could not eat; their limbs were swollen and disabled with excruciating pain; they died of scurvy. Those who died first were coffined by their dying friends; a row of coffins was found, in the spring, each with a man in it; two men uncoffined, side by side, were dead upon the floor. The journal told how once the traces of a bear excited their hope of fresh meat and amended health; how, with a lantern, two or three had limped upon the track, until the light became extinguished, and they came back in despair to die. We might speak, also, of eight English sailors, left, by accident, upon Spitzbergen, who lived to return and tell their winter’s tale; but a long journey is before us and we must not linger on the way. As for our whalers, it need scarcely be related that the multitude of whales diminished as the slaughtering went on, until it was no longer possible to keep the coppers full. The whales had to be searched for by the vessels, and thereafter it was not worth while to take the blubber to Spitzbergen to be boiled; and the different nations, having carried home their coppers, left the apparatus of those fishing stations to decay.

Take heed. There is a noise like thunder, and a mountain snaps in two. The upper half comes, crashing, grinding, down into the sea, and loosened streams of water follow it. The sea is displaced before the mighty heap; it boils and scatters up a cloud of spray; it rushes back, and violently beats upon the shore. The mountain rises from its bath, sways to and fro, while water pours along its mighty sides; now it is tolerably quiet, letting crackers off as air escapes out of its cavities. That is an iceberg, and in that way are all icebergs formed. Mountains of ice formed by rain and snow — grand Arctic glaciers, undermined by the sea or by accumulation over-balanced — topple down upon the slightest provocation (moved by a shout, perhaps), and where they float, as this black-looking fellow does, they need deep water. This berg in height is about ninety feet, and a due balance requires that a mass nine times as large as the part visible should be submerged. Icebergs are seen about us now which rise two hundred feet above the water’s level.

There are above head plenty of aquatic birds; ashore, or on the ice, are bears, foxes, reindeer; and in the sea there are innumerable animals. We shall not see so much life near the North Pole, that is certain. It would be worth while to go ashore upon an islet there, near Vogel Sang, to pay a visit to the eider-ducks. Their nests are so abundant that one cannot avoid treading on them. When the duck is driven by a hungry fox to leave her eggs, she covers them with down, in order that they may not cool during her absence, and, moreover, glues the down into a case with a secretion supplied to her by Nature for that purpose. The deserted eggs are safe, for that secretion has an odour very disagreeable to the intruder’s nose.

We still sail northward, among sheets of ice, whose boundaries are not beyond our vision from the masthead — these are “floes;” between them we find easy way, it is fair “sailing ice.” In the clear sky to the north a streak of lucid white light is the reflection from an icy surface; that is, “ice-blink,” in the language of these seas. The glare from snow is yellow, while open water gives a dark reflection.

Northward still; but now we are in fog the ice is troublesome; a gale is rising. Now, if our ship had timbers they would crack, and if she had a bell it would be tolling; if we were shouting to each other we should not hear, the sea is in a fury. With wild force its breakers dash against a heaped-up wall of broken ice, that grinds and strains and battles fiercely with the water. This is “the pack,” the edge of a great ice-field broken by the swell. It is a perilous and an exciting thing to push through pack ice in a gale.

Now there is ice as far as eye can see, that is “an ice-field.” Masses are forced up like colossal tombstones on all sides; our sailors call them “hummocks;” here and there the broken ice displays large “holes of water.” Shall we go on? Upon this field, in 1827, Parry adventured with his men to reach the North Pole, if that should be possible. With sledges and portable boats they laboured on through snow and over hummocks, launching their boats over the larger holes of water. With stout hearts, undaunted by toil or danger, they went boldly on, though by degrees it became clear to the leaders of the expedition that they were almost like mice upon a treadmill cage, making a great expenditure of leg for little gain. The ice was floating to the south with them, as they were walking to the north; still they went on. Sleeping by day to avoid the glare, and to get greater warmth during the time of rest, and travelling by night — watch-makers’ days and nights, for it was all one polar day — the men soon were unable to distinguish noon from midnight. The great event of one day on this dreary waste was the discovery of two flies upon an ice hummock; these, says Parry, became at once a topic of ridiculous importance. Presently, after twenty-three miles’ walking, they had only gone one mile forward, the ice having industriously floated twenty-two miles in the opposite direction; and then, after walking forward eleven miles, they found themselves to be three miles behind the place from which they started. The party accordingly returned, not having reached the Pole, not having reached the eighty-third parallel, for the attainment of which there was a reward of a thousand pounds held out by government. They reached the parallel of eighty-two degrees forty-five minutes, which was the most northerly point trodden by the foot of man.

From that point they returned. In those high latitudes they met with a phenomenon, common in alpine regions, as well as at the Pole, red snow; the red colour being caused by the abundance of a minute plant, of low development, the last dweller on the borders of the vegetable kingdom. More interesting to the sailors was a fat she bear which they killed and devoured with a zeal to be repented of; for on reaching navigable sea, and pushing in their boats to Table Island, where some stones were left, they found that the bears had eaten all their bread, whereon the men agreed that “Bruin was now square with them.” An islet next to TableIsland — they are both mere rocks — is the most northern land discovered. Therefore, Parry applied to it the name of lieutenant — afterwards Sir James — Ross. This compliment Sir James Ross acknowledged in the most emphatic manner, by discovering on his part, at the other Pole, the most southern land yet seen, and giving to it the name of Parry: “ParryMountains.”

It very probably would not be difficult, under such circumstances as Sir W. Parry has since recommended, to reach the North Pole along this route. Then (especially if it be true, as many believe, that there is a region of open sea about the Pole itself) we might find it as easy to reach Behring Straits by travelling in a straight line over the North Pole, as by threading the straits and bays north of America.

We turn our course until we have in sight a portion of the ice-barred eastern coast of Greenland, ShannonIsland. Somewhere about this spot in the seventy-fifth parallel is the most northern part of that coast known to us. Colonel — then Captain — Sabine in the Griper was landed there to make magnetic, and other observations; for the same purpose he had previously visited Sierra Leone. That is where we differ from our forefathers. They commissioned hardy seamen to encounter peril for the search of gold ore, or for a near road to Cathay; but our peril is encountered for the gain of knowledge, for the highest kind of service that can now be rendered to the human race.

Before we leave the NorthernSea, we must not omit to mention the voyage by Spitzbergen northward, in 1818, of Captain Buchan in the Dorothea, accompanied by Lieutenant Franklin, in the Trent. It was Sir John Franklin’s first voyage to the Arctic regions. This trip forms the subject of a delightful book by Captain Beechey.

On our way to the south point of Greenland we pass near CapeNorth, a point of Iceland. Iceland, we know, is the centre of a volcanic region, whereof Norway and Greenland are at opposite points of the circumference. In connection with this district there is a remarkable fact; that by the agency of subterranean forces, a large portion of Norway and Sweden is being slowly upheaved. While Greenland, on the west coast, as gradually sinks into the sea, Norway rises at the rate of about four feet in a century. In Greenland, the sinking is so well known that the natives never build close to the water’s edge, and the Moravian missionaries more than once have had to move farther inland the poles on which their boats are rested.

Our Phantom Ship stands fairly now along the western coast of Greenland into Davis Straits. We observe that upon this western coast there is, by a great deal, less ice than on the eastern. That is a rule generally. Not only the configuration of the straits and bays, but also the earth’s rotation from west to east, causes the currents here to set towards the west, and wash the western coasts, while they act very little on the eastern. We steer across Davis Strait, among “an infinite number of great countreys and islands of yce;” there, near the entrance, we find HudsonStrait, which does not now concern us. Islands probably separate this well-known channel from FrobisherStrait to the north of it, yet unexplored. Here let us recall to mind the fleet of fifteen sail, under Sir Martin Frobisher, in 1578, tossing about and parting company among the ice. Let us remember how the crew of the Anne Frances, in that expedition, built a pinnace when their vessel struck upon a rock, stock, although they wanted main timber and nails. How they made a mimic forge, and “for the easier making of nails, were forced to break their tongs, gridiron, and fire-shovel, in pieces.” How Master Captain Best, in this frail bark, with its imperfect timbers held together by the metamorphosed gridiron and fire-shovel, continued in his duty, and did depart up the straights as before was pretended.” How a terrific storm arose, and the fleet parted and the intrepid captain was towed “in his small pinnesse, at the stern of the Michael, thorow the raging seas; for the bark was not able to receive, or relieve half his company.” The “tongs, gridyron, and fire-shovell,” performed their work only for as many minutes as were absolutely necessary, for the pinnesse came no sooner aboard the ship, and the men entred, but she presently shivered and fell in pieces, and sunke at the ship’s stern with all the poor men’s furniture.”

Now, too, as we sail up the strait, explored a few years after these events by Master John Davis, how proudly we remember him as a right worthy forerunner of those countrymen of his and ours who since have sailed over his track. Nor ought we to pass on without calling to mind the melancholy fate, in 1606, of Master John Knight, driven, in the Hopewell, among huge masses of ice with a tremendous surf, his rudder knocked away, his ship half full of water, at the entrance to these straits. Hoping to find a harbour, he set forth to explore a large island, and landed, leaving two men to watch the boat, while he, with three men and the mate, set forth and disappeared over a hill. For thirteen hours the watchers kept their post; one had his trumpet with him, for he was a trumpeter, the other had a gun. They trumpeted often and loudly; they fired, but no answer came. They watched ashore all night for the return of their captain and his party, “but they came not at all.”

The season is advanced. As we sail on, the sea steams like a line-kiln, “frost-smoke” covers it. The water, cooled less rapidly, is warmer now than the surrounding air, and yields this vapour in consequence. By the time our vessel has reached Baffin’s Bay, still coasting along Greenland, in addition to old floes and bergs, the water is beset with “pancake ice.” That is the young ice when it first begins to cake upon the surface. Innocent enough it seems, but it is sadly clogging to the ships. It sticks about their sides like treacle on a fly’s wing; collecting unequally, it destroys all equilibrium, and impedes the efforts of the steersman. Rocks split on the Greenland coast with loud explosions, and more icebergs fall. Icebergs we soon shall take our leave of; they are only found where there is a coast on which glaciers can form; they are good for nothing but to yield fresh water to the vessels; it will be all field, pack, and saltwater ice presently.

Now we are in Baffin’s Bay, explored in the voyages of Bylot and Baffin, 1615–16. When, in 1817, a great movement in the Greenland ice caused many to believe that the northern passages would be found comparatively clear; and when, in consequence of this impression, Sir John Barrow succeeded in setting afoot that course of modern Arctic exploration which has been continued to the present day, Sir John Ross was the first man sent to find the North–West Passage. Buchan and Parry were commissioned at the same the to attempt the North Sea route. Sir John Ross did little more on that occasion than effect a survey of Baffin’s Bay, and prove the accuracy of the ancient pilot. In the extreme north of the bay there is an inlet or a channel, called by Baffin Smith’s Sound; this Sir John saw, but did not enter. It never yet has been explored. It may be an inlet only; but it is also very possible that by this channel ships might get into the PolarSea and sail by the north shore of Greenland to Spitzbergen. Turning that corner, and descending along the western coast of Baffin’s Bay, there is another inlet called Jones’ Sound by Baffin, also unexplored. These two inlets, with their very British titles, Smith and Jones, are of exceeding interest. Jones’ Sound may lead by a back way to Melville Island. South of Jones’ Sound there is a wide break in the shore, a great sound, named by Baffin, Lancaster’s, which Sir John Ross, in that first expedition, failed also to explore. Like our transatlantic friends at the South Pole, he laid down a range of clouds as mountains, and considered the way impervious; so he came home. Parry went out next year, as a lieutenant, in command of his first and most successful expedition. He sailed up Lancaster Sound, which was in that year (1819) unusually clear of ice; and he is the discoverer whose track we now follow in our Phantom Ship. The whole ground being new, he had to name the points of country right and left of him. The way was broad and open, due west, a most prosperous beginning for a North–West Passage. If this continued, he would soon reach BehringStrait. A broad channel to the right, directed, that is to say, southward, he entered on the Prince of Wales’s birthday, and so called it the “Prince Regent’s Inlet.” After exploring this for some miles, he turned back to resume his western course, for still there was a broad strait leading westward. This second part of Lancaster Sound he called after the Secretary of the Admiralty who had so indefatigably laboured to promote the expeditions, Barrow’s Strait. Then he came to a channel, turning to the right or northward, and he named that Wellington Channel. Then he had on his right hand ice, islands large and small, and intervening channels; on the left, ice, and a cape visible, CapeWalker. At an island, named after the First Lord of the Admiralty Melville Island, the great frozen wilderness barred farther progress. There he wintered. On the coast of Melville Island they had passed the latitude of one hundred and ten degrees, and the men had become entitled to a royal bounty of five thousand pounds. This group of islands Parry called North Georgian, but they are usually called by his own name, Parry Islands. This was the first European winter party in the Arctic circle. Its details are familiar enough. How the men cut in three days, through ice seven inches thick, a canal two miles and a half long, and so brought the ships into safe harbour. How the genius of Parry equalled the occasion; how there was established a theatre and a North Georgian Gazette, to cheer the tediousness of a night which continued for two thousand hours. The dreary, dazzling waste in which there was that little patch of life, the stars, the fog, the moonlight, the glittering wonder of the northern lights, in which, as Greenlanders believe, souls of the wicked dance tormented, are familiar to us. The she-bear stays at home; but the he-bear hungers, and looks in vain for a stray seal or walrus — woe to the unarmed man who meets him in his hungry mood! Wolves are abroad, and pretty white arctic foxes. The reindeer have sought other pasture-ground. The thermometer runs down to more than sixty degrees below freezing, a temperature tolerable in calm weather, but distressing in a wind. The eye-piece of the telescope must be protected now with leather, for the skin is destroyed that comes in contact with cold metal. The voice at a mile’s distance can be heard distinctly. Happy the day when first the sun is seen to graze the edge of the horizon; but summer must come, and the heat of a constant day must accumulate, and summer wane, before the ice is melted. Then the ice cracks, like cannons over-charged, and moves with a loud grinding noise. But not yet is escape to be made with safety. After a detention of ten months, Parry got free; but, in escaping, narrowly missed the destruction of both ships, by their being “nipped” between the mighty mass and the unyielding shore. What animals are found on Melville Island we may judge from the results of sport during ten months’ detention. The island exceeds five thousand miles square, and yielded to the gun, three musk oxen, twenty-four deer, sixty-eight hares, fifty-three geese, fifty-nine ducks, and one hundred and forty-four ptarmigans, weighing together three thousand seven hundred and sixty-six pounds — not quite two ounces of meat per day to every man. Lichens, stunted grass, saxifrage, and a feeble willow, are the plants of Melville Island, but in sheltered nooks there are found sorrel, poppy, and a yellow buttercup. Halos and double suns are very common consequences of refraction in this quarter of the world. Franklin returned from his first and most famous voyage with his men all safe and sound, except the loss of a few fingers, frost-bitten. We sail back only as far as Regent’s Inlet, being bound for BehringStrait.

The reputation of Sir John Ross being clouded by discontent expressed against his first expedition, Felix Booth, a rich distiller, provided seventeen thousand pounds to enable his friend to redeem his credit. Sir John accordingly, in 1829, went out in the Victory, provided with steam-machinery that did not answer well. He was accompanied by Sir James Ross, his nephew. He it was who, on this occasion, first surveyed Regent’s Inlet, down which we are now sailing with our Phantom Ship. The coast on our right hand, westward, which Parry saw, is called North Somerset, but farther south, where the inlet widens, the land is named Boothia Felix. Five years before this, Parry, in his third voyage, had attempted to pass down Regent’s Inlet, where among ice and storm, one of his ships, the Hecla, had been driven violently ashore, and of necessity abandoned. The stores had been removed, and Sir John was able now to replenish his own vessel from them. Rounding a point at the bottom of Prince Regent’s Inlet, we find FelixHarbour, where Sir John Ross wintered. His nephew made from this point scientific explorations; discovered a strait, called after him the Strait of James Ross, and on the northern shore of this strait, on the main land of Boothia, planted the British flag on the Northern Magnetic Pole. The ice broke up, so did the Victory; after a hairbreadth escape, the party found a searching vessel and arrived home after an absence of four years and five months, Sir John Ross having lost his ship, and won his reputation, The friend in need was made a baronet for his munificence; Sir John was reimbursed for all his losses, and the crew liberally taken care of. Sir James Ross had a rod and flag signifying “Magnetic Pole,” given to him for a new crest, by the Heralds’ College, for which he was no doubt greatly the better.

We have sailed northward to get into HudsonStrait, the high road into Hudson Bay. Along the shore are Esquimaux in boats, extremely active, but these filthy creatures we pass by; the Esquimaux in HudsonStrait are like the negroes of the coast, demoralised by intercourse with European traders. These are not true pictures of the loving children of the north. Our “Phantom” floats on the wide waters of Hudson Bay — the grave of its discoverer. Familiar as the story is of Henry Hudson’s fate, for John King’s sake how gladly we repeat it. While sailing on the waters he discovered, in 1611, his men mutinied; the mutiny was aided by Henry Green, a prodigal, whom Hudson had generously shielded from ruin. Hudson, the master, and his son, with six sick or disabled members of the crew, were driven from their cabins, forced into a little shallop, and committed helpless to the water and the ice. But there was one stout man, John King, the carpenter, who stepped into the boat, abjuring his companions, and chose rather to die than even passively be partaker in so foul a crime. John King, we who live after will remember you.

Here on aim island, CharltonIsland, near our entrance to the bay, in 1631, wintered poor Captain James with his wrecked crew. This is a point outside the Arctic circle, but quite cold enough. Of nights, with a good fire in the house they built, hoar frost covered their beds, and the cook’s water in a metal pan before the fire was warm on one side and froze on the other. Here “it snowed and froze extremely, at which time we, looking from the shore towards the ship, she appeared a piece of ice in the fashion of a ship, or a ship resembling a piece of ice.” Here the gunner, who hand lost his leg, besought that, “for the little the he had to live, he might drink sack altogether.” He died and was buried in the ice far from the vessel, but when afterwards two more were dead of scurvy, and the others, in a miserable state, were working with faint hope about their shattered vessel, the gunner was found to have returned home to the old vessel; his leg had penetrated through a port-hole. They “digged him clear out, and he was as free from noisomeness,” the record says, “as when we first committed him to the sea. This alteration had the ice, and water, and time, only wrought on him, that his flesh would slip up and down upon his bones, like a glove on a man’s hand. In the evening we buried him by the others.” These worthy souls, laid up with the agonies of scurvy, knew that in action was their only hope; they forced their limbs to labour, among ice and water, every day. They set about the building of a boat, but the hard frozen wood had broken their axes, so they made shift with the pieces. To fell a tree, it was first requisite to light in fire around it, and the carpenter could only labour with his wood over a fire, or else it was like stone under his tools. Before the boat was made they buried the carpenter. The captain exhorted them to put their trust in God; “His will be done. If it be our fortune to end our days here, we are as near Heaven as in England. They all protested to work to the utmost of their strength, and that they would refuse nothing that I should order them to do to the utmost hazard of their lives. I thanked them all.” Truly the North Pole has its triumphs. If we took no account of the fields of trade opened by our Arctic explorers, if we thought nothing of the wants of science in comparison with the lives lost in supplying them, is not the loss of life a gain, which proves and tests the fortitude of noble hearts, and teaches us respect for human nature? All the lives that have been lost among these Polar regions are less in number than the dead upon a battle-field. The battle-field inflicted shame upon our race — is it with shame that our hearts throb in following these Arctic heroes? March 31st, says Captain James, “was very cold, with snow and hail, which pinched our sick men more than any time this year. This evening, being May eve, we returned late from our work to our house, and made a good fire, and chose ladies, and ceremoniously wore their names in our caps, endeavouring to revive ourselves by any means. On the 15th, I manured a little patch of ground that was bare of snow, and sowed it with pease, hoping to have some shortly to eat, for as yet we could see no green thing to comfort us.” Those pease saved the party; as they came up the young shoots were boiled and eaten, so their health began to mend, and they recovered from their scurvy. Eventually, after other perils, they succeeded in making their escape.

A strait, called Sir Thomas Rowe’s Welcome, leads due north out of Hudson Bay, being parted by Southampton Island from the strait through which we entered. Its name is quaint, for so was its discoverer, Luke Fox, a worthy man, addicted much to euphuism. Fox sailed from London in the same year in which James sailed from Bristol