Crossing the North West passage

Earlier this week the Ob River, a large oil tanker, became the first vessel of its kind to sail across the Arctic. The tanker left Norway and travelled to the north of Russia on its route to Japan. The reason for taking this difficult and risky route is that it could shave 20 days off the journey – a financially good move for the tanker’s owners.

The search for a way to cross the North West  passage is nothing new,  During the nineteenth century over two hundred expeditions went to the Arctic. The end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 marked the beginning of a predominantly peaceful period in Europe, the first for some time. One of the many consequences of the end of this prolonged period of conflict was that the British Navy had a huge staff, and little use for them. The Navy were actively looking for ways to employ their officers, and the officers were keen to find means of getting a promotion. That year, when the renowned whaler William Scoresby reported the melting of the northern ice cap to president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, there was a great deal of interest from the Navy.

The hope of finding a North West Passage, a short cut to Asia, had been harboured for centuries by explorers and traders. However, following the reports from the whalers interest was renewed. As Sir John Barrow, the influential 2nd Secretary to the Admiralty from 1804-1845, commented,

“the discovery of a North-West Passage to India and China has always been considered as an object peculiarly British… it has received the patronage of sovereigns, and the promise of rewards from different parliaments.”

The discovery of such a route would reduce the time it took for trading with Asia significantly, and give Britain further economic power.

The passage was such a highly sought goal that in the eighteenth century legislation had been passed offering large financial rewards to the ship that first discovered a North West Passage or reached latitude of 89 degrees north. In addition it followed the trend at the time of colonial expansion and the accompanying natural science. For Banks the incentives lay beyond the possibility of a shipping passage, scientific investigation in the north had other attractions; in correspondence with Scoresby, Banks suggested that the decrease in polar ice might explain a succession of unusually cold summers in England that had reduced the cider crop of apples.

Barrow and Scoresby continued their correspondence, and Barrow wished to get Scoresby a command of a Naval vessel to explore the Arctic. However, other people felt it was inappropriate for a whaler to be given command, despite his experience in the Arctic and scientific education at the University of Edinburgh. Meanwhile the rewards available from the government were increased in late 1818 when an Act of Parliament offered £20,000 for discovering a passage by sea, and £5000 for sailing within one degree of the North Pole.

The first naval expedition set out from Britain in 1818 with two ships, the Isabella was captained by John Ross with William Parry, his second in command, captaining the Alexander. Banks, and The Royal Society played an active role in planning the journeys, they recommended staff and directed the research that was to take place. The army captain and astronomer Edward Sabine, who was recommended by the Royal Society joined the crew of the Isabella. He was directed primarily to investigate geomagnetism, partly in order to settle the precise nature of the Earth’s polarity, which was still under discussion. Other requirements were to measure tides, currents and soundings and regular recordings of the sea temperature and specific gravity at different depths, as well as trying to detect electrical variation in the atmosphere when the Aurora Borealis was observed. A variety of equipment was provided for the purposes of this work including a water bottle provided by Sir Humphry Davy, which could be set to open at any depth between 5 and 80 fathoms, and a device for bringing up samples from the ocean’s bottom. The sampler did not work effectively and Ross had a new instrument made on board; the “deep-sea clam” is one of the things that Ross was best remembered for on this voyage. The instructions to the officers also encouraged observations of plants and animals to advance knowledge of natural history. To aid the collection of scientific data, the Royal Society produced a book, Instructions for the adjustments and use of the instruments intended for the northern expeditions (1818). This demonstrates the amateur status of most of those men on the expeditions who were expected to carry out scientific research, in the early nineteenth century, science was the pursuit of gentlemen, rather than a profession in itself.

“Passage Through the Ice, June 16, 1818 Lat. 70.44 N” by Sir John Ross, 1819

Further expeditions were commissioned, and scientific studies continued to be important. George Fisher was recommended by the Royal Society and carried out several experiments during the following two voyages.  Before the ships returned to England Fisher set up an observatory in order to establish the exact position of Spitsbergen. He also carried out a large number of experiments with pendulums in order to determine the amount that the Earth is flattened at the poles.  Some of his most important work was to measure the effect of the iron on ships on the rate of going of shipboard chronometers. This was extremely important for navigators who relied on chronometers being accurate in order to know the longitude of the ship.

Understanding currents and tides meant that the ice flows could be better predicted, while magnetic investigations would impact on the use of magnetic compasses. Only on later voyages did the scientific scope broaden to include less practically based experiments. These early expeditions achieved a lot in the field of oceanography, and allowed conclusions to be drawn about the chemical properties of sea water, in particular its varying salinity, both across the world and at varying depths. This in turn led to a better understanding of sea currents and phenomena such as the Gulf Stream.

The nineteenth century explorations of the Arctic are often overshadowed by the loss of Sir John Franklin and his crew. I think it’s important to recall the role that scientific experiment played in those voyages, giving them a purpose beside the colonial and commercial interests.

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  1. Really interesting article and a great connection between the environmental changes happening today and the historical context of the North-West passage.

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