And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, "followed the sea" with reverence and affection,than to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames. The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled--the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the "Golden Hind" returning with her round flanks full of treasure . . . to the "Erebus" and "Terror," bound on other conquests--and that never returned. [Joseph Conrad, "Heart of Darkness," Part One, Blackwood's Magazine No. 1,000 (Feb., 1899): 194]

Conrad's attitude towards the great adventure of discovering and sailing through the mysterious North-West Passage of what is now the Canadian Arctic is typically Victorian, although he does not even hint at the scientific aspect of this "knightly quest." For over 400 hundred years, beginning with Elizabethan polar navigator Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1537-83) and the discoverer of Newfoundland, John Cabot, Englishmen had been searching for a fast, direct route to Cathay, Japan, and India; the lure was not geographical knowledge or advancement of Empire per se, but the vast profits to be made from the trade in Eastern commodities, especially spices. As Conrad suggests, Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) was but one of a long line of British famous navigators, in which list we should also place Martin Frobisher (1535-1594), Henry Hudson (1580-1611), James Clark Ross (1800-1882), and Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912), whose feats were collectively celebrated in a series of four "British Polar Explorer" stamps in 1972 by the Royal Mail.

Millais's Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage by Sir John Everett Millais, RA. This painting, which depicts a retired ship's captain obsession with the route to Asia, implies an analogy between the Northwest Passage to Asia and death.

Giovanni Caboto (otherwise, John Cabot, 1425-c. 1500), not an Englishman at all, was the first such explorers. In 1497, when the Genoese navigator in the service of Henry VII of England made landfall on the north-eastern coast of North America, he heard reports of people living to the north, the Esquimaux or Eskimo. Mistakenly, Cabot concluded that these were subjects of the Great Khan of Cathay. The discovery that same year by Vasco da Gama of Portugal of a sea-route around Africa to India, and by Fernando Magellan in 1520, sailing in the service of the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, of a southern passage around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean, spurred on the English search for the North-West Passage, fraught with the perils of ice and cold though the quest might be. Henry Hudson, who had discovered the New York river that bears his name when sailing for the Dutch, ended his voyages of exploration ignominiously when his men, feeling that their captain had distributed food unfairly when their ship was trapped in the ice over the winter, mutinied rather than continue the search from James Bay. On 23 June, 1611, Hudson, his son, and seven loyal seamen were cast adrift in an open boat, never to be seen again.

In the seventeenth century the enthusiasm of Great Britain for this enterprise waned considerably after half a dozen unsuccessful expeditions backed by Bristol and London merchants between 1612 and 1632, and negative reports by Luke Foxe and Thomas James.

Foxe, having concluded that no passage existed, dined on board James's ship. When his host confidently told him that he was going to the Emperor of Japan, with letters from His Majesty, Foxe famously replied, "Keep it up then, but you are out of the way to Japan, for this is not it."

James chilled British ardour for the search further on his return with his description of the cold. "it would be sometimes so extreme that it was not endurable; no clothes were proof against it; no motion could resist it. It would, moreover, so freeze the hair on our eyelids that we could not see; and I verily believe that it would have stifled a man in a very few hours."

Enthusiasm was rekindled in 1744 when 20,000 was offered by Parliament to anyone discovering a North West Passage. In 1778 Captain Cook, on his last and fatal voyage in the Pacific, sailed north after discovering the Hawaiian group which he named the Sandwich Islands, and passed through the Bering Strait before being turned back by ice. "The season was now so far advanced, and the time when the frost is expected to set in so near at hand, that I did not consider it consistent with prudence to make any further attempts to find a passage into the Atlantic this year". [Robin Tenison-Hanbury]

The best-equipped polar expedition ever assembled in British history was launched by the Admiralty in 1845 under the leadership of Sir John Franklin, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who had been second-in-command of an 1818 abortive voyage into the Spitsbergen Ice, and who the following year had been appointed to map the Arctic coast north of Hudson's Bay. On one or both of those expeditions Franklin's ship may well have carried in its library a copy of Mary Shelley's best-seller Frankenstein, a Gothic novel that makes extensive use of British polar exploration.

Related Materials


Beattie, Owen, and John Geiger. Frozen in Time: Unlocking the Secrets of the Franklin Expedition. Saskatchewan: Western Producer Prairier Books, 1988.

Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert. “Terror to Terror: How heroic lies replaced hideous reality after the Arctic death of Sir John Franklin.” Times Literary Supplement. (13 November 2009): 3-4.

Hanbury-Tenison, Robin. "The North West Passage."

Neatby, L. H. "Franklin, Sir John." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988. Vol 2: 838.

Marsh, James, and Owen Beattie. "Franklin Search." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988. Vol 2: 839.

Williams, Glynn. Arctic Labryrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage. London: Allan Lane, 2009..

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Content last modified 20 November 2010