75: The Hunt for the Northwest Passage

For around 400 years, the Northwest Passage was the holy grail for many nations and explorers, and the hunt for it involved tales of heroism, wonder, disaster and doom. What was this passage, why was it so important, and what were some of these dramatic tales? Find out in this week’s plog!

Picture: Environment and Society

Trade Routes

In the 1500 and 1600s, companies like the Dutch East India Company were at their peak, trading and shipping goods like silks and spices from the East Indies to Europe. It’s important not to underestimate how big business this was. The Dutch East India Company was wealthier than Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple today, combined! However, they and other traders with the Far East had a big issue- it was really difficult to get there. Trading over land meant long arduous journeys in a time before highspeed trains or cars, and the risk of robbery, as well as paying taxes at various over-land checkpoints, made this route very undesirable. Most trading then was done by sea, yet this still involved a long perilous journey around southern Africa’s Cape of Good Hope before reaching Asia, a journey in which many died of horrific conditions like scurvy. An alternative, shorter sea route then would have been like gold dust to these trading companies. Some began to think perhaps instead of going east to reach the East Indies, one could go west, and so the hunt for the Northwest passage began.

Picture: GRID-Arendal/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Northwest Passage Explorers

Many tried to work out a viable trade route west from Europe, through the islands of northern Canada to the East Indies, Japan and China on the other side. One of the earlier attempts came from Martin Frobisher, an English privateer. After an already colourful career involving being abandoned by his ship on the Gold Coast in West Africa, Frobisher set his sights north and together with the Moscovy company raised the funds to send three ships to northern Canada to explore. These ships made it as far as Baffin Island, naming Frobisher Strait after their Captain along the way (now known as Frobisher Bay). Some altercations with local Inuit during the trip led to five sailors being taken captive by the locals, never to be seen again, although Inuit oral tradition states the men came with them willingly and died later when they attempted to leave Baffin Island in a homemade boat.

When returning from Baffin Island, Frobisher got interested in some black stone that his men had collected from the region. They thought it was perhaps sea coal, although when Frobisher brought the samples to local assayers in London they declared it worthless. Giovanni Battista Agnello, an alchemist in London however, said the black rock contained gold dust. Spurred on by this potentially enriching discovery, Frobisher petitioned the Queen to return to the region, both to collect this gold dusted rock, and to continue to hunt for the Northwest Passage. This petition was granted and in 1578 he set off north again with 15 boats. This voyage made it as far as Frobisher Bay once again, adding a few new real routes and phantom islands to the map in the process. After a failed attempt at setting up a colony in the area, the ships collected 200 tonnes of this potentially gold bearing ore and returned home.

There was an unfortunately surprise in store for Frobisher upon his return. Instead of bringing the Queen tonnes of gold, it was discovered that this rock was in fact iron pyrite, a fools gold, which was utterly worthless. Much of it was eventually melted down to be used in road construction. However, whilst Frobisher didn’t discover the complete Northwest Passage, or manage to make riches along the way, the efforts of his expeditions helped to map the Northern Canadian waterways, making route finding easier for later expeditions. In fact dozens of other explorers played an important role in mapping this region, both through expeditions in boats and expeditions on land following the coastlines. Perhaps the most famous of all was John Franklin.

Martin Frobisher, in all his frilly Elizabethan Glory (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

John Franklin

John Franklin was an admiral who had undertaken some expeditions in Canada and Alaska, and through his roles in Napoleonic Wars he became a well loved celebrity of his day. In 1845, Franklin jumped on the Northwest Passage bandwagon, heading north with two boats, the Erebus and Terror. Nothing was heard from Franklin and his men for two years, and for the following 12 years many expeditions set off to the region to try to track down the crew or discover what happened to them. Many of these expeditions were organised by Lady Jane Franklin, John’s wife, and as a by-product of her expeditions much more of the Northwest Passage was mapped.

The fate of Franklin and his men remained a mystery for a long time, although stories circulated throughout the local Inuit community about where boats had been found, where men had been seen and where some had perished. One story told of 30 corpses found, some of which showed signs of cannibalism amongst Franklin’s men. At the time much of this was ignored by the British, and people as famous as author Charles Dickens wrote to newspapers to declare he believed these stories to be false.

Over the decades the story slowly came together. The Erebus and Terror had made it as far as Beechey Island in 1845-46, but after returning southward they had gotten stuck in the ice. Whilst trapped, some of the crew and Franklin himself perished. The remaining survivors, a group of 105 of the crew, left the ships and tried to travel south by foot. Inuit stories told of the men dying as they walked, and more recent post mortems on some of the bones found showed that many of the crew were very unwell, with scurvy, botulism, clear signs of starvation and lead poisoning, thought to be from the tin cans their food was stored in. Additionally, despite the statements of Dickens and his contemporaries, the Inuit had been right. Some of the men had resorted to cannibalism in a last desperate attempt to survive. The final part of the Franklin story was only uncovered within the last decade. Louie Kamookak, an Inuit oral historian, had spent countless hours studying the Inuit stories of Franklin’s expedition, and travelling along the ice hunting for the remains of the ships. He was instrumental in helping discover the wrecks, the HMS Erebus being found in 2014 and the HMS Terror in 2016, finally closing the chapter on Franklin’s great misadventure.

Artists impression of a stranded boat from the Franklin expedition (Winerla/DeviantArt/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The end

Over subsequent years, explorers like John Rae, Robert McClure and Roald Amundsen managed to find their way through the Northwest Passage, and the area has been fully mapped today. In 1960 the USS Seadragon became the first submarine to complete the route, and in 1984 the MV Explorer became the first cruise ship to transit the passage. Greater ease in navigating the route today has been due to a mixture of better mapping, and a warming climate reducing the sea ice in the region. However, it has not become the buzzing marine highway hoped for the in 1600s when the hunt for the passage was at it’s peak. Some suggest that with greater melting of sea ice due to a warming climate, the waters might become more friendly for commercial shipping, but for now it remains a little used route, remembered better for the valiant efforts and lives lost hunting for it rather than for realising the hopes of being a highway of trade.

For more info:

More on the Franklin expedition here

Timeline of Northwest Passage attempts here

Music: kongano.com

Cover Image: Guillaume Sanson/Public Domain

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