Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

The White North

For the last three hundred years many British sailors, and not a few belonging to other nations, have been making voyages into the region of perpetual ice and snow. For a long time, far, we may say, into this century, these voyages were made in the hope of gain—not to be got at once, indeed, but to come some day. It was believed that there was a short way to the East, which would make trade with India and China more profitable. Now—and there is still as much zeal about Arctic voyaging as ever—it is knowledge that men have in view.

Sebastian Cabot was the first to have the idea of a "North-west Passage," as it was called. This was about 1497. Half-a-century afterwards, Sir Hugh Willoughby sailed to find it, but he and his crew perished of hunger. Then a "Northeastern" passage was looked for. Frobisher, Davis, Barentz are the names of some of the brave seamen who went on this errand. But no one had more success than Henry Hudson, who made his way in a vessel in which one would hardly like now to cross to America, with a crew of ten men and a boy, as far north as latitude 80 30'. This was in 1607. He made three more voyages. In the fourth his crew mutinied and put him out in an open boat to die of cold and hunger. Hudson's Bay, which he discovered, bears his name. In 1743 the English Government offered a large reward to any one who should discover a north-west passage, and some years afterwards another reward to any one who should get to within one degree of the North Pole. This second reward has never been earned, for no one has been nearer to the Pole (as I write the distance has been lessened by 160 miles) than 400 miles, nearly six degrees; but the first was paid to Captain McClure, who discovered the passage in October 1856. By that time, however, all idea that it might be found useful for trade had been given up. But I cannot tell the story of Arctic navigation; all that I can do is to give some account of the adventures of one man, John Franklin. I choose him, not because he was the most skilful and experienced of the many brave seamen who have explored these dreary and dangerous regions, but because he is certainly the most famous.

Franklin, born at Spilsby in Lincolnshire in 1786, was present as a midshipman at the battles of Copenhagen and Trafalgar. Most of the time between these two he spent in a voyage of discovery in the Southern hemisphere. His first voyage to the Arctic regions was made in 1818. In the year following he was sent again, this time in command of a land expedition. He and his party went by sea to Fort York, on the east side of Hudson's Bay. There they took what was called a "York boat," a flat-bottomed boat about forty feet long, which drew only twelve inches of water. In this they could navigate even very shallow rivers. Their plan was to go from river to river, and lake to lake, dragging their boat over land when it was necessary. After a great deal of labour and suffering, the party reached the Great Slave Lake, which is about 800 miles north-west of Fort York. Here they were to pass the winter, and to build a house which they called Fort Enterprise. But on examining their store of provisions they found that they had not enough to last. One of the officers, Lieut. Back, started for Fort Chipewyan, which is on Athabasca Lake, to have some more sent on. He travelled more than a thousand miles (there and back) on snow-shoes, sometimes having no food for two or three days together. The party left their winter quarters in the beginning of June, in the next year, and on the 15th of that month reached the shore of the Arctic Sea. The journey back was a terrible one. For days together the travellers lived on a plant, called tripe de roche, with now and then some singed hide or bit of old leather. They thought themselves lucky if they found the bones and putrid flesh of a dead deer. On October 4, Lieut. Back went on ahead to Fort Enterprise to fetch provisions, and a few days afterwards Franklin and some of his party followed him, leaving the rest, who were too weak to move, under the care of Mr. Richardson, the doctor, and another officer. When Franklin reached the fort he found nothing. The Indians had promised to make a store of provisions, but had not done it. Back had left a note saying that he was going on to Fort Providence, and would send food from there. Franklin and his companions were too weak to move more than a few yards at a time. On October 24 he, with two others, started to look for the Indians, but his snow-shoes broke, and he was compelled to come back. While he was away some reindeer came close to the house, but the men were too weak to shoot them. On the 29th Richardson, the doctor, arrived with a seaman: these two were the only survivors of the party of eight left at the first halting-place. Hood had been murdered by a Canadian boatman, Michel by name, and Richardson had shot Michel in self-defence. The man had been suspected of murdering and devouring two others of his companions. Only six of the company were now left alive, and of these two soon died. On November 7, three Indians, who had been sent by Back with food, arrived. The Indians took the kindest care of the sick men. In the end, after spending another winter in the country, they reached York Factory on July 14, and four months later got back to England. Franklin had been away from England for more than two years. In 1825 he went again to the same region, and by the same way. This time everything was well managed; proper preparations for food, etc., were made, and the expedition was prosperous. Many hundred miles of the north coast of America were surveyed, and the party returned safely to England.

John Franklin


In 1843 Franklin, now Sir John, went again in command of an expedition, which this time was to go by sea. He had now two ships, the Erebus  and the Terror, which had lately come back from a voyage to the regions of the South Pole. The ships were made as fit for the work as possible, and were supplied with provisions for two years. The crew consisted of twenty-three officers, and a hundred and eleven men. No man had had more experience of Arctic voyaging than Franklin, but he was too old for the work. The expedition set sail on May 19, and was last seen by the captain of a whaling ship in Melville Bay, which is on the west coast of Greenland. But though both the ships and the crews were absolutely lost, something has been learnt about their fate by those who went out in search of them. It seems that at first things went well with them. But in the second year their ships were caught in a pack of ice from which they never got free. In this ice their second winter was spent. And now the great discovery was made. Though the ships could not be moved, two of the officers made an expedition to King William Island, and saw then that if they could only get their ships so far—and there was nothing but ice to hinder it—they would have made the North-west Passage. Franklin himself died on June 11, 1847. If the survivors had made up their minds at once that the ships must be left, and had made their way by land to some factory in Northern Canada, they might have saved their lives. But they were unwilling to give up the hope of success, especially as they knew that it was within their reach, if only they could get clear of the ice. And of this they had hopes for a time. The whole pack began to move southward, but when it was sixty miles from the American shore it became fixed again. So it came to pass that the crew had to spend the third winter in the ice. When this was finished their provisions had come to an end, for they had started with food for three years only. In the spring of 1843 the survivors, one hundred and five in number, started on sledges for the Great Fish River. They seemed not to have actually reached it, though we know that they were not far off. Some Eskimos—this is the name given to the Indians who inhabit these regions—declared that they had seen white men travelling in this direction. Many expeditions were sent out from England in search for them. In 1854, Dr. Rae got from the Eskimos some forks and spoons that had belonged to the two ships. And in 1859, Captain M'Clintock, in the steam yacht Fox, which had been fitted out by Lady Franklin, found papers which one of the two officers mentioned before had left at Point Victory, with some words added by Captain Crozier, who was in command of the Terror, in 1848. It was on this paper that the date of Sir John Franklin's death was given. Captain M'Clintock collected a number of relics belonging to the expedition. Of the Erebus  and Terror nothing was ever discovered.