Saturday, March 21, 2009

Who “discovered” the Northwest Passage?

The latest row over the Northwest Passage has stirred up a considerable bit of dust in the UK, and may be spilling over into the rest of the world as well. The latest news soberly informs us that Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland, is demanding not only that Dr. John Rae be recognized at the true discoverer of the Passage, but that Sir John Franklin’s claim on public memorials in Waterloo Place and Westminster Abbey be “corrected,” whatever that may mean. But before the Dean of Westminster sends a man ‘round with a chisel, it seems time to take a deep breath and ask very carefully: who, indeed, did discover the Northwest Passage?

The question is less simple than it sounds. What counts as “discovery”? Is it enough to have located the route of a passage, or must one sail through it? What if the discovery, or the route, is partly accomplished on foot? What happens if we add the adjective “navigable” to the question?

There is one fact worth mentioning at the outset: There is more than one “Northwest Passage” – depending on the melting of the ice, the size of the vessel, and the ability to break through older, denser floes half a dozen could easily be traced, depending on a variety of choices as to which route one takes.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the “discovery” of such a passage was always understood as proving its existence. Attempts and surveys had been made from the east and from the west; to locate a water route between them was universally understood as the goal. Ships coming from the east had managed to penetrate as far west as Parry’s Winter Harbour on Melville Island, but the route beyond that point was clogged with heavy pack ice, an unlikely to be navigable in any year. From the west, ships had enjoyed considerably less success, and indeed most of the discoveries in this direction had been accomplished by land, or by small parties using canoes. Sir John Franklin had completed the larger portion of these, stretching from Prudhoe Bay in the west to “Point Turnagain.” In the late 1830’s, Dease and Simpson, surveyors for the Hudson’s Bay Company, had extended Franklin’s map to its furthest westward point, a river they named the “Castor and Pollux,” after the sons of Zeus. Their survey was included in the very latest Admiralty charts supplied by Arrowsmith to Franklin’s 1845 expedition – a detail of the westernmost survey is shown above.

There was, however, a significant problem with Dease and Simpson’s survey, although no one realized it at the time. They incorporated their findings with James Clark Ross’s maps, which showed “King William Land” as contiguous with the Boothia Peninsula (Ross had in fact crossed over an ice-covered strait, of which more anon). They then, being unable to sight land to the westward, extended a dotted line connecting the waterway they saw with the “G[ulf] of Boothia (supposed).” Franklin would naturally have assumed two things from this: 1) To sail east of King William Land would lead him into a dead-end bay, shown as “Poctes Bay” on his maps; and 2) if his men needed to reach the Gulf of Boothia, they could have done so by boat if the waters were free of ice.

Franklin therefore steered to the west of King William Land, encountering a dense floe of heavy, multi-year ice, ice which entombed his ships within in its slow-grinding maw. He was in a “passage,” certainly, but one which would only by safely traversable in years of extraordinarily light ice, or else by modern, fortified icebreakers not yet available to him. He is often blamed for this, since we now know that there was indeed another passage to the east of King William, which was in fact an Island. This was established by Dr. John Rae in his survey of 1854, the one for which Canadian author Ken McGoogan feels that Rae, not Franklin, should be given the laurels of the Passage for surveying. And indeed it was by this route that Roald Amundsen, early in the twentieth century, sailed his little vessel the Gjøa.

It should be mentioned at this point, however, that had Franklin tried to sail to the east of King William, he would almost certainly have run both his vessels aground. The tiny Gjøa drew only about 1/3 as much water as Franklin’s heavy “bomb “vessels “Erebus” and “Terror,” and yet even Amundsen was obliged to throw large quantities of cargo overboard to lighten his vessel when he entered these waters, so close were the soundings to the draft of his ship. A “navigable” passage, yes – but not for ships of the sort which the British Admirality had been sending.

So back to our definition: had Franklin established a water route through the passage? Not yet, indeed, but during the lengthy period – two years at least – in which his ships were trapped, he and the commanders who succeeded him after his death certainly dispatched land parties. We have the original “Victory Point” record, as well as one other paper found further up the coast of King William, as evidence that such a party was dispatched. And, having Arrowsmith’s charts on board his vessels, Franklin surely knew that, at the southern extreme of the land off whose coast he was trapped, lay the “Cairn erected 25 Aug. 1839” by Dease and Simpson. It takes little conjecture to imagine that he would have made every effort, over a two-year period, to have a party reach this point and close one map with the other.

But we need not trust to conjecture – we can instead turn to Inuit evidence, and the evidence of the bones of Franklin’s men themselves. There are multiple stories reported by Inuit hunters, told not only to Charles Francis Hall but to Schwatka and even to Rasmussen in the 1920’s, of an encounter with survivors of Franklin’s expedition at Washington Bay. Cape John Herschel, the site of Dease and Simpson’s cairn, stands at the eastern edge of this bay; even if no party sent earlier had made it this far, clearly these survivors, who were hauling their sledge over the coastal ice, would have passed this point. For evidence of this, we need not rely solely on the Inuit; Francis Leopold McClintock found a skeleton at Gladman Point, westward of this site, and he and other explorers noted that the remains of Franklin’s men were scattered over the remaining coast, with the last few on the Todd Islets. And these bones are still there; they were shown to the crew of the St. Roch II by Louie Kamookak, whose grandfather, an RCMP officer, had found them there in the 1930’s.

So it is clear, that in the sense of “discovering” – that is, establishing a water-route connection between eastern and western surveys, that Franklin’s men must have done so. It is on this basis that the inscription on Franklin’s statue in Waterloo Place says that they “forged the last link with their lives.”

But it is objected; this route was not navigated; indeed it was not even navigable. This is true enough, but no one claims Franklin’s men navigated a passage, only that they found one. Nunavut politician Tagak Curley may proclaim loudly that “dead men can’t discover anything” – and yet by the Inuit testimony alone, it is clear that some living men did indeed pass this very point. Franklin himself, we now know, was dead (though he might have been alive if indeed an earlier party reached this point in 1847), but in any case, men from the expedition he commanded surely did do so. Ken McGoogan has argued that in order to truly "discover" something one must return with news of this discovery -- but I disagree. To discover is to find, to know, and to recognize.  Would Rae's discovery of the strait that now bears his name be invalid if he were to have met with an accident on his way home before he told anyone about it?

There is a belief among the Rae faithful that he has been slighted, and this all evolves from the fact that, in 1854, he clearly established that King William was an island. His own name, in the form of the “Rae Strait,” marks the southern end of this passage. Does this make him the “discoverer” of the passage? Well, he certainly discovered “a” passage, and one which, as Amundsen proved, was indeed navigable by a small vessel. But this does not subtract from Franklin’s achievement. Scottish national feeling aside – and one could as easily blame one Scot (James Clark Ross) for mis-naming a strait as “Poctes Bay” as credit another with showing this to be mistaken – there is no reason to argue that we should honor Rae instead of Franklin. Instead, I believe, we should honor him as well as Franklin. Neither man, while living, would have wished it any other way.


  1. As a postscript, it should be added that, officially speaking, Sir Robert McClure was recognized by Parliament as having been the first to actually traverse a Northwest Passage, although he did so partly on foot after being forced to abandon his ship, HMS Investigator. McClure, somewhat unfortunately, allowed his journals (edited by Sherard Osborn) to be published under the title "Discovery of the north-west passage," which confuses his transit with the discovery itself. If one regards this as both, it nevertheless post-dates that of Franklin's men by six years, and is very nearly coincident with Rae's survey, as McClure and his men reached Beechey Island in April of 1854.

  2. Nice post Russell. Another observation: what does discovery mean? Is discovery something achieved in the seeing or in the reporting? Is it a personal event or a social one? After all, it seems likely that Inuit hunters would have recognized a passage (perhaps even traversed it on routes West during earlier centuries). Yet they are not credited because they were not part of the British empire (yet). In a sense, this was the issue with Mallory's claim on Everest - it seemed possible for many decades that he reached (albeit not discovered) the summit of the mountain, but never returned to tell his tale. Perhaps discovery is a bit like trees falling in the forest, not "real" unless communicated to the world beyond.

  3. Very useful summary, Russell, thanks, and I like Michael's point too. A counter-argument could be this: rather than there being several 'Passages', you might suggest that there wasn't one at all, because with the technology of the nineteenth century or earlier, none of the Passages were remotely practical. So if we demote Franklin, we really ought to demote Rae and McClure as well.

  4. Thanks, Michael and William, for the comments. It's been said -- I can't at the moment recall by whom -- that the "Northwest Passage" was as much an ideological and cultural goal as a physical one, and that's surely true. The Inuit couldn't "discover" it because it wasn't a meaningful goal within their culture, although of course they knew many things about where you could and couldn't go, by land or sea.

    Yet I'd say, within that very Western, very British obsession, Franklin's claim is better than Mallory's, as we have eyewitness testimony that some of Franklin's men did indeed make it to the magical spot. If one attaches "practicable" to "passage," of course, the route and type of vessel chosen by Amundsen, along with the high value he placed on Inuit knowledge of the land, showed that at least one passage was practicable, and had been so for centuries. All that was needed was that the British Navy check some of its biggest ideological assumptions -- that big ships and lots of men were better than small ships and a few men. Which of course they didn't.

    As to communicating discovery, this is indeed a further issue. McClure won Parliamentary recognition because the evidence from McClintock's voyage on the Fox was still six years in the future, although the accomplishment (if we count it as that) was six years in the past.

  5. Would it have been possible for one of Franklin's ships to have sailed South, past the RGS islands, without running aground? The waters around these islands have been described as shallow bottom. Only six feet deep in some places.

    Inuit accounts place one of the ships to the West of Adelaide peninsula meaning that it would have, in some fashion, completed a Northwest Passage by transversing the remaining unknown portion.

    There has been some speculation that the Utjulik ship was really to the West of KWI. On the other hand the Inuit were fairly consistent in placing the derelict ship off of Adelaide peninsula.

  6. They key word here may be "sailed" -- if one of the ships was heaved up in heavy ice, it could have been simply carried with the pack, although such movement was very slow. On. Lt. Gould's chart, the "probable drift of the Erebus and Terror" is shown as a dotted line, passing between the Geographical Society Islands and the Graham Gore peninsula. He then shows the ship diverging, with "Terror" sinking off Grant Point. This is the ship with the body on board, but Inuit testimony consistently says that it was not -- initially at least -- sunk, but anchored in shallow water. Many now believe that the other ship had sunk much earlier, and that this was the only remaining ship; in any case, it's the one Dave Woodman and others have sought in this area, particularly in the vicinity of O'Reilly Island. The current Canadian search under Grenier may indeed believe that this wreck is in fact further north near the RGS islands, and there's some Inuit testimony on this (see Eber's book, mentioned below).

    There's a second candidate -- although not necessarily a second ship -- shown off Ogle Point. This is the ship whose masts were reportedly seen by Anderson's guides in 1855, but never reported as they were wary of being obliged to extend their journey. It's marked "probably Erebus" on the chart.

    A dotted line then extends thence to a third possible site off Cape Hardy on Matty Island; this is labelled "Possibly Erebus, reported 1926." I think Dave Woodman has established that this is likely a reporting of some supplies, including flour and sugar, left there by Amundsen.

    Dorothy Eber's new book, Encounters on the Passage, for which I was one of the UT Press's evaluators, locates some late Inuit oral tradition which seems to point to a ship east of KWI, perhaps at this last site.

    GIven all these possibilities, finding the wreck of one of Franklin's ships -- either one! -- would go some ways to establishing how far they got (assuming it was piloted) and might indeed constitute actual navigation of the elusive "last link" ...

    I'll try to scan a section of Gould's chart and make it available here.