Ever since mankind discovered that the Earth was round, and that it could get to one place on the globe by either going east, or west, it has always striven to find the shortest routes to its chosen destinations.
Starting in the late 15th century, when European powers first discovered and began colonising the Americas, interest began to grow about the countries that lay far beyond the great North and South American landmasses: Japan, China, Korea, Indochina and the Spice Islands of the South Pacific, as well as the fabled ‘Terra Australis Incognitia’, which legend held, existed somewhere far beyond the immeasurable horizon. For untold centuries, these mystical lands of mystery had remained largely unseen by Western eyes.
Overland treks to the Far East took months to complete, assuming that you’d get there at all, of course! Sailing from Europe to Asia took just as long, going past Spain, past the Rock of Gibraltar, down south, hugging the coast of Africa, and then either hooking around into the Indian Ocean, or risking a dangerous passage through the torrential storms that lurked around Cape Horn. Only the bravest sailors with the biggest balls ever reached the Orient, and made it back alive.
European Interest in the Far East
The East had much to offer the West. Porcelain, ivory, silk, tea, and exotic spices like pepper, mace, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and other commodities like rubber, tin and exotic fruits such as bananas and coconuts. For centuries, these commodities were hideously expensive. Lavishing money on any one of them was considered a sign of almost obscene wealth. And anybody who could get their hands on commercial quantities of these products and ship them back to Europe in a timely manner could make themselves fortunes and fortunes on top of more fortunes in gold and silver!
It was for all these reasons – the desirability, the danger, the long waiting-times, and the sheer risk involved, that ever since mankind first became aware of the Americas, that he has tried to find ways around them. A sea-route through or around the Americas would cut a trip from Europe to Asia by weeks, and allow for relatively fast and efficient trade. But in an age when most of the world remained unmapped, how was this to be done?
Remember please that this is a time before great arctic and antarctic exploration, a time before coast-to-coast mapping, a time before GPS, satellite imagery and photographs from space. Nobody knew what lay at the extremities of the Earth. But somehow, they were going to have to find out!
What is the ‘Northwest Passage’?
The Northwest Passage is the name given to a collection of potential or theoretical sea-routes that might, or might not, exist between Europe, and Asia, going along the top of the North American continent, through the Arctic Ocean, and past the northern border of what is today, Canada. Once mankind had become fairly proficient with sailing and navigation, and had started getting a better idea of how the world was shaped, he almost immediately wanted to try and tackle this transportational and geographical nightmare head-on!
A History of the Northwest Passage
The Northwest Passage as we understand it today was first thought of back in the 1400s, shortly after knowledge of the Americas started being spread around the courts and cities of Europe. Eager rulers, kings and princes commissioned sea-captains to provision their ships, round up their crews, and sail off into the wide blue yonder, to find a viable passage up and over the North American continent to the riches of the far-off Orient. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, voyages and expeditions which departed from Canada, and the northern regions of what would become the United States, and from Europe, all attempted to map and plot both the frozen wastes of the far north, and to find a way through it which was viable enough to become a regular shipping-route.
Persistence in finding the Northwest Passage, should it exist, lasted for several lifetimes. By the 1700s, dozens of expeditions and voyages had tried, and failed to find a way through the frozen north between the northern Atlantic, and Pacific, oceans. The vast majority of these expeditions were beset by all the usual problems of the era: weather, food, and disease. The freezing temperatures, the lack of food and adequate equipment, and the scourge of scurvy from a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, which were difficult to keep in an edible condition on a voyage lasting several months, meant that even the most determined adventurers either had to turn back, or died before they got the chance to. Even before the turn of the 19th century, attempts to find the Northwest Passage, and the grisly fates which awaited those who were foolhardy enough to try, had become part of common folklore.
The most legendary of all these voyages is one which may not even have ever taken place: The Voyage of the Octavius.
The Octavius, as far as ghost-ships go, has to be one of the greatest maritime tales out there, up alongside the Flying Dutchman and the Mary Celeste herself! So what happened?
The story goes that in 1775, the whaling ship, the Herald encountered a seemingly-abandoned three-mastered schooner, bobbing off the west coast of Greenland. It being the 11th of October, the weather was already solidly set into winter, and the crew on the Herald were surprised not to see anybody on board, tending the sails, steering the ship by the helm, or even just standing on-deck! After hailing the ship and receiving no reply, some of the Herald’s crew lowered a boat, rowed across, and boarded the vessel and started to investigate.
What they found was the entire crew – captain, his wife, child, and all the deckhands and sailors, stone-dead and frozen in their bunks, berths and cabins, their frigid corpses preserved by the winter cold. In all, the boarding-party came across twenty-eight dead bodies.
Despite what you might think, during the days of sail, it was not uncommon for vessels to come across other vessels in the open sea, which had been completely abandoned. This happened so often that there were actually recognised rules, regulations and procedures for salvaging vessels, sailing them to major ports, and then putting forth a salvage-claim in order to earn some extra money.
What made the Octavius different from other ships was what the Herald’s crew supposedly found in the captain’s cabin. Apart from the body of the captain himself, they also came across his log or journal. The last entry was dated in November, 1762! If this was correct, then the Octavius had been floating around in the North Atlantic for over a decade! Further examination of the extremely fragile logbook revealed that the ship had sailed to China, and was attempting to sail home again to England via the supposed ‘Northwest Passage’. The ship, like many before it, became frozen in the ice, locked into a white, shivering prison that wouldn’t release it for months on end. It was this mention of seeking, and then apparently finding, a navigable Northwest Passage, which made the story of the Octavius so famous.
Apparently too freaked out by what they saw to take anything from the ship, let alone try and salvage it, the crew of the Herald upped anchor and sailed off without so much as attaching a towline to the Octavius, leaving it to float off into the mists of history from whence it came.
So, is the story true?
Probably. Probably not. The first record of any sort of event like this happening doesn’t make its way into a source of any kind until 1828, when a similar tale appeared in an American newspaper in Philadelphia. Similar stories popped up throughout the 1800s and the early 1900s, likely based off of the 1828 version. In all likelihood, something like the Octavius did happen, once upon a time, and the story had been told, retold, mixed and muddled with other ships and other stories for two-hundred odd years that the truth, if it ever existed, was lost to time.
Whether or not the story is actually true, its very existence proved a point: People were fascinated about the possibility of the Northwest Passage and about ships which had supposedly found it, and sailed it; so much so that people were willing to believe these stories even if they were apparently baseless and purely anecdotal.
Finding the Northwest Passage!
As the 18th and 19th centuries progressed, greater and greater importance was being placed on trying to find the Northwest Passage, if indeed, it existed at all. Remember that much of the world was uncharted at this point and most people in Europe, the Americas and the Pacific knew little, if anything about the lands beyond those in their immediate surroundings. This is how myths like the ‘Island of California’, ‘Atlantis’ or ‘Skull Island’ with King Kong, or even Australia, came to be.
The Age of Reason, and the Age of Enlightenment were all the rage in Europe at the time. In the 1700s, more and more things were being examined not religiously or spiritually, or taken at face value. People wanted proof! They wanted facts! They wanted to study and understand everything about everything that they could. “Here be Monsters!” was no longer acceptable on a map. You had go out there and find out all you could about these monsters first! Likewise, writing down on a map that there was a ‘Northwest Passage‘ north of Canada was also not acceptable. You needed proof! And the first people to find definitive proof of such a waterway would make international geographical history!
So, who do you ask to search for the nearly impossible?
Captain James Cook.
Although he didn’t discover Australia, Captain (or more correctly, Lieutenant) James Cook was famous in Britain as being a bit of a whiz when it came to navigation and cartography. He filled in and found out more places in the South Pacific than almost anyone else at the time. He mapped and plotted and charted every little sandbar that he could find during his voyages. And he almost always came back to England as a scientific and exploratory hero. If anybody could find the Northwest Passage, it was Cook!
The chaps at the Royal Society in London and other great learned institutions certainly seemed to think so…so much so, that they begged Cook to come out of retirement to do so!
Cook’s Voyage Northwest
Any country which found a viable way to, and through the Northwest Passage would gain considerable prestige. Because of this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Cook’s last voyage was somewhat of a secret. Of course nobody could hide the fact that a world-famous, celebrity explorer was going off on another voyage, but they could at least hide the reason for the voyage. The public and press were told that Cook and his crew were returning a Tahitian native whom they had befriended, back to his home-islands in the South Pacific, and while there, would explore more of the islands in that region.
The Tahitian, Omai, had spent two years in England previous to 1776, and although he was a smash-hit among the gentry, aristocracy and the intelligentsia, the time had come, he decided, to go home. Cook agreed to arrange his passage and, on the 12th of July, 1776, Omai, Cook and his crew, set sail for the South Pacific.
Omai arrived in Tahiti in August, 1777, a year and a month after leaving England. Cook saw his friend off, and then set sail northwards for North America, and the hoped-for Pacific entrance to the Northwest Passage. On the way, he stopped at, and named, a cluster of volcanic islands. His charts called them the ‘Sandwich Islands’. Today, we call them ‘Hawaii’.
Despite his persistence, Cook wasn’t able to find any definitive evidence of a Northwest Passage, although he did spend several weeks mapping the entire Pacific coast of the North American continent. Sadly, Cook never returned to England – he died in Hawaii during the voyage, in 1779.
Finding the Northwest Passage: 19th Century Explorations
Attempts to find the Northwest Passage continued after Cook’s death in 1779. But it was very tricky going. Europe – indeed, most of the world, in the 1600s and 1700s experienced what was called the ‘Little Ice Age’, a period in history (approx 1600-1850), when the world on a whole was much colder than it is today. So cold, in fact that slow-moving rivers (like the Thames in London) would freeze solid! In London, you could even go skating on the Thames in winter time, and people held ‘Frost Fairs’ on the river, to make the best of a bad situation, and have a bit of fun!
Unfortunately, while the Little Ice Age meant that you could go skating on the Thames every winter, it also made exploring the Northwest Passage extremely difficult – because with dropping temperatures, winters were longer, and harsher, making traversing the frozen north extremely difficult. Many expeditions were lost, had to turn back, or even had to cancel their expeditions altogether. Providing exploratory crews with suitable ships, enough food, and adequate supplies was hampered by the fact that nobody knew how long it would take to explore the Northwest Passage. They could be gone for a year…two years…three years…five years! The uncertainty meant that only the bravest of sea-captains agreed to take on the challenge.
The Fateful Franklin Expedition
One of these sea captains was Sir John Franklin.
Admiral Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), was the head of one of the most famous – and tragic – expeditions to the Northwest Passage during the 19th century. Tragic, because most people expected that if an expedition was going to succeed, then it was going to be Franklin’s!
The crew were all stout and sober men, and their two ships – Erebus and Terror – were modern, sturdy, reinforced, and had the latest motive technology on board: a couple of these newfangled steam-engine contraptions! They also had vast quantities of every possible type of equipment they could need, and large stores of canned food, which would last much longer than other types of preserved food, and which would remain edible for years on end, if necessary.
Armour-plated against the ice, and with steam-powered engines, the two ships were expected to be no match for something as pesky as ice! Their reinforced, iron-clad bows were expected to be able to smash through the ice, and their steam engines were expected to force them through with no problems at all! No more reliance on wind, and currents, no more being hemmed in by frozen wastelands – The Franklin Expedition would charge ahead full of that courage, zeal and confidence that seemed to permeate every aspect of the Victorian age!
The ships in the Franklin expedition were not fast by any means – they maxed out at about 4kn. (four knots, or four nautical miles an hour) each, and each ship was fitted with just a single screw propeller. But they were able to cover significant distances. Leaving England on the 19th of May, 1845, they arrived in Greenland about two months later. Here, they offloaded some crew, dispatched letters back to England by the next available ship, took on extra provisions, supplies and equipment, and then headed for Canada, the cold white north, and hopefully – the fabled Northwest Passage of dreaded mythology and legend!
The crew of the Franklin expedition left Greenland in late July, 1845, heading for Canada. Here, they sailed through the waters surrounding the province of Nunavut, and started heading…northwest. In the winter of 45-46, they made landfall at the tiny Beechey Island, east of the current hamlet of Resolute – one of the most northern settlements in all of the Canadian arctic. From there, they sailed for King William Island. By now, the ships are well within the bounds of the Arctic Circle.
Despite their modern technology, steam-powered machinery and self-assured preparedness, the expedition starts getting into trouble. By September of 1846, both the Erebus and the Terror have become locked in hard by ice off the coast of King William Island. Unable to make any progress until the ice released their vessels, the crew (approximately 130 men and officers), decided to set up camp nearby, and try and weather it out.
Their preparations were no match for the ferocity of Mother Nature, however. The two expedition ships remained trapped in the ice. unable to move, the men were forced to abandon them, and continue on foot to what they hoped, would be the nearest civilisation. On the 11th of June, 1847, Franklin himself died, the remainder of his expedition party eventually succumbing to starvation, hypothemia and frostbite, with some of them even resorting to cannibalism to try and survive. By the end of 1848, there were hardly any of them left.
The details of the fate of Franklin, his crews and his two ships were gleamed by British explorers in the years after his expedition, when they went in search of his ill-fated party. They encountered native Inuit people who related these tales to them, explaining what had happened and what they had witnessed. It was clear that, even in the age of steam and canned food – the Northwest Passage would not be so easily conquered.
In fact, finding the Northwest Passage proved so difficult, that it would be sixty years, and another century later – before it was achieved at all!
Roald Amundsen and the Passage
The man who finally broke through the Northwest Passage, and who finally made history, was a Norwegian – Roald Amundsen! Instead of going all-out, like Franklin had done, Amundsen decided on a different approach – using small ships, and fewer crew. This would, he believed, make travel easier, and safer. Without bringing along absolutely everything, including the kitchen sink, Amundsen believed that travel through the arctic would be sped up and the risks involved with being overburdened, would be minimalised.
Amundsen made history in the early 1900s, finally breaking through the Northwest Passage during his expedition of 1903-1906. During this epic trek, he and his crew learned valuable tips from the local Inuit people, who showed him how to stay warm, the best types of clothing to wear, and the most efficient ways to travel across the ice and snow. Amundsen’s tiny wooden vessel – the Gjoa – the first ship to successfully traverse the Northwest Passage – remains a national treasure of the Kingdom of Norway, and is on public display at the Norwegian Maritime Museum in Oslo.
The Northwest Passage Today
Throughout the 20th century, more explorers and navigators attempted to breech the Northwest Passage, all with varying degrees of success and failure. But what about now?
Actually, it’s pretty easy to navigate the Northwest Passage today. Thanks to global warming, and the resultant reduction in polar ice, dangerous sea-routes once frozen shut for centuries, have now become navigable by modern shipping. It is still dangerous to go there – you need a special ship with reinforced bows and strengthened hulls to make it through safely – but it is possible. As yet, the Northwest Passage is only sparsely used, however.
This is largely due to safety concerns raised by the Canadian government. Since it’s nominally a Canadian waterway, Canadian officials would be in charge of the safety of any vessel passing through the Passage. To ensure the safety of the vessel and crew, rescue-stations and other facilities would have to be constructed along the course of the Passage. These would only be practical if enough ships passed through the area to make their construction worthwhile. Until they are, people sail the Northwest Passage at their own peril, with the very real risk that if something goes wrong – they’d be entirely on their own, since the nearest major settlements would be too far away to easily contact.