Friday, July 30, 2010

Thoughts on McClure and HMS Investigator

In October of 2009, I was wandering among the tilted and neglected gravestones of London's Kensal Green Cemetery, in very good Arctic company -- my companions were Huw Lewis-Jones, Kari Herbert, and Kenn Harper. We had already found the graves of Sir John Ross and Sophia Cracroft, but time was growing short: darkness was about to fall, and the cemetery would soon be closed. The one further grave we sought was that of Vice Admiral Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure, the man officially credited as the first to traverse the Northwest Passage, and the last commander of HMS Investigator.

Was this crooked path between toppled stones "avenue 5"? Whose grave was this? Or this? We criss-crossed the twisted matrix of graves, passing by a placard which read:

It was hardly encouraging. And then, just at the last moment, I looked more closely at a sarcophagus-sized slab of pink granite, its edges encroached on every side by insolent grass. I rubbed at it with the toe of my shoe, and pieced out "THE NORTH WEST PASS..." Here it was.

Huw took some time to clear the stone, pushing back the grass and dirt with the help of a pair of borrowed gloves. One might imagine that the grave of the man officially recognized as having achieved the greatest dream of British navigators of the nineteenth century would have received more care -- but, as I found later, every grave at Kensal Green is the private property of the family of the deceased, and receives only such specific care as the family may provide. This grave, surely, ought to have received something more.

I thought about this grave when I heard of the re-discovery of McClure's ship, HMS Investigator, in Mercy Bay. A more remote place in the Arctic Archipelago is hard to imagine, and the sheer endurance of McClure and his men in the face of winter after winter of diminishing prospects is astonishing. That there were only three graves found on the nearby shore, and not thirty, is an enormous testament to McClure's leadership. In April of 1853, at a point well beyond that at which any rational man would have abandoned all hope, the men of the Investigator saw a speck on the horizon. Was it some kind of animal? No, it was a man! And, once it drew nearer, it was a man who spoke. As George Malcolm Thomson describes it,

He called : 'I am Lieutenant Pim, of the Resolute. Captain Kellett is in her at Dealy Island' (a hundred and sixty miles to the east). McClure and the lieutenant rushed forward and grasped his hand. In an instant, the scene on the ship was transformed. The invalids leapt from their hammocks. The artificers dropped their tools. The deck was crowded with wildly excited men.
It is difficult to fully comprehend the joyous ebullition of McClure's men -- and astonishing to think that it is this same deck, once crowded with overjoyed sailors, which we are seeing for the first time in 156 years. She now lies at the bottom of the crystal cold waters of Mercy Bay, almost precisely where she was upon that fateful day.

So, while I am a little annoyed by the very highly choreographed array of press releases, net-friendly videos, and hyperbolic tones of the coverage of this event, I am at the same time very deeply moved, and feel called upon to remember the courage of those men. Although Canada was, as yet, some years in the future, the spirit of that emergent nation was clearly manifest in the cheers that went up from that vessel on that day.


  1. A note: there is now an impressive but brief video of the Investigator on YouTube.

  2. Thanks, Russell, for the links to more information, pictures and videos as this story unfolds. I, as well as a friend who is following this, appreciate your work!

  3. That's a great account of the escape, Russell.

    Kensal Green cemetery is a remarkable place. I went there at the beginning of the year as that's where James Fitzjames' natural father is buried.

  4. Thanks for your comments!

    There is now another video which has some amazingly detailed views, in particular of the copper sheathing. I'll post on this soon, I'm sure, but for now it's just amazing to watch ....

  5. I am trying to locate any relatives of Robert McClure

  6. I am looking for relatives of Robert McClure.