Friday, June 1, 2018

So You Think You Know Who Discovered the North Pole

James Clark Ross as a Royal Navy Captain with Arctic furs and an instrument, bottom right, to measure the magnetic field.  

You have been told that the first persons to reach the North Pole were American explorer Robert Perry, a Navy engineer, and his trusty aide Mathew Henson plus four Inuits who are hardly ever mentioned, Ootah, Seeglo, Egingwah, and Ooqueah.  Perry claimed to have finally reached the illusive prize of decades of Polar exploration on April 9, 1909.  But you may have been misinformed on two counts.
First, there is now significant doubt that the Perry party ever actually achieved the Pole.  After an arduous 36 day “dash” across the rugged sea ice, an exhausted Perry may simply have thrown up his hands and declared he was there.  Later analysis of his raw navigational readings showed sloppiness, inconsistency, and perhaps out-right fraud.  Also, his and Henson’s account of the journey were at odds—Perry claiming a relative bee-line crossing from his base camp to explain how he achieved the distance in the time reported, and Henson’s story of painstaking zig-zagging to avoid ice ridges and fissures.

Members of Robert Perry's sledge team including Mathew Henson and four Inuit posed with flags at the alleged North Geographic Pole on April 9, 1909.

When he got home, Perry had to dispute claims that a rival expedition led by Frederick Cook had reached the goal on April 21, 1908, almost a year earlier.  Cooks data and claims were even more iffy Perry got prestigious support from the Navy, which honored him with a promotion to Captain on his return, the National Geographic Society, and the Explorers’ Club.  For years Perry’s claims were honored until recent investigators began picking apart his story.
Still, if you grant that Perry made it to the Pole, or at least close enough, as some Arctic scholars continue to maintain, the achievement is for the geographic pole—the point on the globe furthest north at the opposite end from a point in Antarctica marking the axis on which the Earth turns at a slight angle to the plane of the planet’s orbit around the sun.  But there are other poles, representing the ends of the magnetic field that surround the globe.  The Magnetic North Pole is currently about 500 kilometers south of the Geographic Pole in northern Canada, but it can wander several kilometers a year.  It has been as far south as 1500 KM and as close as 200 KM over the millenniums. 
The first person to reach the Magnetic North, or at least where it was on June 1, 1831 was Royal Navy officer James Clark Ross.  Ross became the most celebrated British polar explorer of the Victorian Age.

John Ross sponsored his nephew in the Royal Navy and included him on his first Arctic expedition.

Ross was born into a comfortable middle class family with connections to the Royal Navy in London on April 15, 1800.  Under the sponsorship of his uncle, Scottish born Commander John Ross, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, the boy entered the Navy as a midshipman at age 15.
Three years later in 1818 he accompanied his uncle who was in command of an Arctic expedition organized by the Admiralty to find the supposed Northwest Passage from the Atlantic across the northern coast of North America to the Bering Sea.   This was an international obsession.  The discovery of such a route, even if only available for a few months each year, could cut as much as a year from the long voyages to Asia around either the Cape of Good Hope in Africa or around the Horn of South America, a key to untold riches in trade.  It would also secure claims on North America against Arctic rivals including Norway, Russia, and the United States.
The senior Ross commanding HMS Isabella and accompanied by HMS Alexander under Lieutenant William Edward Parry. They sailed counter-clockwise around Baffin Bay repeating the observations made by William Baffin two hundred years before. In August they entered Lancaster Sound at the north end of Baffin Island which later proved to be the eastern gate of the Northwest Passage. After sailing several miles west Ross turned back after seeing what turned out to be a mirage—a mountain range blocking the end of the straight.

William Edward Parry was John Ross's second in Command in 1819 and then commanded four  more expeditions which included the younger James Clark Ross.                                                                                        

Arriving back home in England, Commander Ross was hailed as a hero and promoted to Captain.  But Parry publicly disputed Ross’s decision to turn back and cast doubt on the existence of the mysterious mountain range.  Ross’s reputation was injured and Parry was given command of the next British expedition in 1819.
Parry thought well enough, however, of young John Ross to include him in the crew. Parry’s voyage, undertaken in an unusually ice-free year, went through what was named the Parry Channel and three quarters of the way across the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, making it the most productive voyage in the quest for the Northwest Passage for decades. Parry was rewarded with a promotion to Commander and election as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Sea Ice by German artist Caspar David Frierich based on Parry's accounts of the 1824-25 expedition  showed the power of the ice to trap and smash the HMS Fury.

John Ross would make four Arctic voyages with Parry from 1819 to 1827.  On the third voyage, 1824-1825 one of the two expedition ships, HMS Fury was trapped in the ice trying to enter Hudson’s Bay from the North.  Parry’s last arctic voyage would have a different mission—trying to reach the Geographic North Pole by sailing north from Norwegian arctic island of Spitzbergen in 1847.  That voyage achieved the furthest point north ever recorded by Europeans,
82°45’N, a record that would stand for 49 years.
Parry’s Navy career then took him to other duties and the Admiralty once turned to Captain John Ross to resume the search for the Northwest Passage.  James Clark Ross, now a Lieutenant and the most experienced Arctic junior officer in the Royal Navy, was his uncles right hand man on the Second Ross Expedition, 1829-34.  The expedition was blocked from advancing for four years at the north end of the Boothia Peninsula.  Having been criticized for turning back too early on his first voyage and well provisioned Captain Ross waited for an ice melt that would allow him to go further but in 1831 his ship HMS Victory became totally trapped by the ice.
In 1831 the Captain dispatched his nephew to lead a small party overland to try and find open water.  It was on that trek that James Clark Ross identified what was then the location of the North Magnetic Pole on the western side of the peninsula.  It was on this trip that the younger Ross charted the Beaufort Islands, later renamed Clarence Islands by his uncle.
When the Captain determined the Victory would have to be abandoned, James Clark Ross trekked to the site of the wreckage of Parry’s HMS Fury.  He found that ship gone, presumably crushed and sunk in the ice, but discovered her boats reparable on the beach.  On July 1, 1832, the crew sailed in three of the boats and reached Barrow Strait at the end of August. Finding an unbroken field of ice, they waited four weeks for the ice to melt, gave up, returned south, left their boats at Batty Bay and walked back to Fury Beach. On July 8, 1833 they left for Batty Bay and on August 14 saw open water for the first time. They reached the head of Prince Regent Inlet and on August 26 they were seen by the Isabella which Parry had commanded in 1819.  By October 1833 they were back in England.
The achievement of the Magnetic Pole was widely celebrated when the expedition finally returned, and the saga of the expedition’s ordeal was widely recounted.  James Clark Ross was promoted to Captain and due to his expertise with instruments that measure the earth’s magnetic fields, was given a special assignment to conduct a magnetic survey of Great Britain with Edward Sabin from 1834-39. 
He interrupted that service in 1836 to lead a relief expedition to find and resupply the crews of 11 British whaling ships trapped in the ice around Baffin Island.  He set sail in HMS Cove in January. The crossing was difficult, and by the time he had reached the last known position of the whalers in June, all but one had managed to return home. Ross found no trace of this last vessel, William Torr, which was probably crushed in the ice in 1835.
Despite his fame for these exploits, James Ross’s most celebrated expedition was yet to come and at the other end of the world.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror off the coast of Antarctica.

Between 1839 and 1843, Ross commanded an Antarctic expedition comprising the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, bomb vessels, unusual warships named after the mortar bombs they were designed to fire and constructed with extremely strong hulls to withstand the recoil of the mortars which was of great value in thick ice.  Ross charted much of the coastline of the continent.
In 1841 he discovered the Ross Sea, Victoria Land, and the volcanoes Mount Erebus and Mount Terror. They sailed for 250 nautical miles along the edge of the low, flat-topped ice shelf they called the Great Ice Barrier, later named the Ross Ice Shelf. In the following year, he attempted to penetrate south at about 55°W and explored the eastern side of what is now known as James Ross Island, discovering and naming Snow Hill Island and Seymour Island. Ross reported that Admiralty Sound appeared to him to have been blocked by glaciers at its southern end.
Antarctica features discovered and charted by James Clark Ross.

For his monumental discoveries Ross was awarded the Gold Medal of the Société de Géographie in 1843, knighted in 1844, and elected to the Royal Society in 1848.
In 1848 Ross had one last adventure.  He commanded one of three expeditions to find Sir John Franklin, an experienced Arctic hand and recently the Governor of Tasmania.  After Ross himself had declined the assignment, Franklin was put in charge of the latest Northwest Passage expedition in 1845 and given Ross’s trusty ships Erebus and Terror to complete the estimated 500 final miles of the Passage.  The expedition was last seen by Europeans on July 26, 1845, when Captain Dannett of the whaler Prince of Wales encountered Terror and Erebus moored to an iceberg in Lancaster Sound.  It is now believed that the expedition wintered in 1845–46 on Beechey Island. The ships became trapped in ice off King William Island in September 1846 and never sailed again. According to a note later found on that island, Franklin died there on June 11, 1847. But no one then knew that.
Ross was given command of HMS Enterprise, accompanied by HMS Investigator, Because of heavy ice in Baffin Bay he only reached the northeast tip of Somerset Island where he was frozen in at Port Leopold. In the spring he and Francis McClintock explored the west coast of the island by sledge. He recognized Peel Sound but thought it too ice-choked for Franklin to have used.  In fact, Franklin had used it in 1846 the sea ice was atypically low. The next summer he tried to reach Wellington Channel but was blocked by ice and returned to England, frustrated.

The fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew as imagined by artist W. Turner Smith in The End in Sight,  1848. 

He was not alone.  None of the first three expeditions had any better luck.  In 1854, the Scottish explorer Dr. John Rae, surveying the Boothia Peninsula for the Hudson’s Bay Company, learned from Inuit hunters that both ships had become icebound, and the men had tried to reach safety on foot but had succumbed to cold, and some had resorted to cannibalism.  The report horrified Victorian society which refused to believe it.  Public pressure to find Franklin or a more heroic ending resulted in 25 more expeditions being sent over the next four decades, including one commanded by 70-year-old Sir John Ross in 1870.  Eventually, more ships and men were lost looking for Franklin than in the expedition itself.
As for Sir James Clark Ross, he settled into an honored and comfortable retirement with his wife, Lady Ann Ross.  They split their time between a London townhouse and in the ancient House of the Abbots of St. Albans in Buckinghamshire.  He died at Aylesbury in 1862, five years after his wife.  They were buried next to each other in churchyard of St. James the Great, Aston Abbotts. In the gardens of the Abbey there is a lake with two islands, named after the ships Terror and Erebus.

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