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Scotland and the Antarctic

Section 1: Background - Arctic and Antarctic ... Arctic exploration

The search for the Northwest Passage

After the Napoleonic Wars the Royal Navy reduced its manpower from 130,000 to 23,000. The officers not required were put on half pay (about 3,000 men). The Second Secretary to the Navy at that time was John Barrow. He thought these officers could be used for exploration and used to solve some of the great mysteries of that time. Barrow sent several expeditions to try and find the mouth of the Niger but his second great project was to explore the Arctic - in particular to look for the Northwest Passage.

In 1818 John Ross was sent to the Arctic. He was the first of many to be sent to find an easy route to the Far East and so avoid the stormy passage around Cape Horn (South America) or Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).

Ross found his way as far as Lancaster Sound. In 1819 William Edward Parry managed to sail further and reached Melville Island. The same year John Franklin led an overland expedition to try and find the Passage. Parry, Lyon and Franklin led further expeditions - all suffered extreme hardship, ships were lost and men died of scurvy. Many ships overwintered in the Arctic so they could resume their search when the ice broke up in the following summer.

In 1829-1833 John Ross led an expedition which survived four winters trapped in the ice. His nephew, James Clark Ross, was with him on this epic voyage. James Clark Ross was to discover the position of the North Magnetic Pole.

In 1839-1843 James Clark Ross was sent by John Barrow to the Antarctic in the ships Erebus and Terror. He charted large areas of the coastline and discovered the active volcano Erebus. On his return he was asked to lead another expedition to the Arctic but declined. John Franklin was to lead the expedition in Erebus and Terror (now fitted with steam locomotive engines). The ships were never seen again.

A massive search began to find the Franklin expedition involving a large number of ships and over 500 men. A total of 39 expeditions set out over the next 15 years.

Sir John Barrow (1764-1848) and Sir Clements Markham (1830-1916)

John Barrow served for 40 years as Second Secretary to the Admiralty. He sent forth numerous expeditions where man was pitted against the hazards of nature. He was a figure who most explorers looked at with awe (including Roald Amundsen). Barrow was for many years President of the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Clements Markham was a British naval officer. He was on a Royal Navy ship for two years in the search for Franklin (1850-51) and served under Sir George Nares on an expedition to Greenland in 1875. A keen horticulturist, he was responsible for the introduction of the rubber tree from Brazil to Malaya. Markham was for many years secretary and president of the Royal Geographical Society. He chose Robert Scott for the British Antarctic Expeditions. Markham was a great admirer of Barrow and his ideas of pitting man against nature. His influence on Scott and Shackleton resulted in the trip to the South Pole using man-hauled sledges - which proved a disaster to the polar party in 1912.

In the early 1850s two ships sailed south around Cape Horn to try to penetrate the Northwest Passage from the west through the Bering Straits while other ships attempted the passage from the east. Captain Robert McClure on the Intrepid thought he had found the passage through the Prince of Wales Strait but was stopped by ice and wintered in the Strait. Over the winter, a sledge journey confirmed there was a route through to Melville Sound and Barrow Strait.

In the following spring the passage through was still blocked, so McClure sailed south again and up the west coast of Banks Island. Once more he faced heavy ice and spent a second winter in Mercy Bay where his ship became severely beset in the ice.

Map showing the North West Passage

Meanwhile, an expedition under the command of Captain Edward Belcher had penetrated as far as Melville Island and spent the winter in Winter Harbour. In the spring, one of the many sledging parties Belcher sent out found a note from McClure in a cairn and found him in Mercy Bay just as he was about to abandon the Intrepid.

McClure and his crew joined the sledge party back to Winter Harbour, thus becoming the first party to cross the Northwest Passage, even though part of it was done on foot. He was to be awarded 10,000 for this achievement.

This was not the end of the story, as the ships of Belcher's squadron (including the Resolute) became beset and were abandoned. The crews of five ships were now sailing east on one ship. Fortunately they came upon two other ships from another expedition which took two crews aboard.

The Resolute
The Resolute was found in the spring by an American whaler and brought to an American port where she was sold to the American Navy. She was restored and returned to England as a present for Queen Victoria from the American president. Years later, when she was broken up, some of the wood was made into a desk which was presented to the then American president. The desk has been used by successive presidents and was a favourite of John F Kennedy.

The Fate of the Franklin expedition
In 1853 the Arctic explorer John Rae found the first information about the fate of Franklin for which he received an award of 10,000. In 1857 Francis McClintock found the diaries and log book of the Franklin expedition, solving one of the great mysteries of the Antarctic. After Erebus and Terror had been trapped by the ice the party tried to walk overland to the Fish River where they hoped to meet up with trappers. They all died on route.

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