Front Matter A Little Old World Early Mariners Is the World Flat Herodotus the Traveller Alexander Explores India Pytheas Finds British Isles Julius Caesar as Explorer Strabo's Geography The Roman Empire and Pliny Ptolemy's Maps Pilgrim Travellers Irish Explorers After Mohammed Vikings Sail Northern Seas Arab Wayfarers Travellers to the East Marco Polo Mediaeval Exploration Ends Mediaeval Maps Prince Henry of Portugal Bartholomew Diaz Christopher Columbus A Great New World Vasco da Gama Reaches India Discovery of Spice Islands Balboa Sees Pacific Ocean Magellan Sails Round World Cortes Conquers Mexico Explorers in South America Cabot Sails to Newfoundland Cartier Explores Canada Search for a Northwest Passage Frobisher Searches for Passage Drake's Famous Voyage Davis Straight Barents Sails to Spitzbergen Hudson Finds His Bay Baffin Finds His Bay Raleigh Searches for El Dorado Champlain and Lake Ontario Discoverers of Australia Tasman Finds Tasmania Dampier Discovers a Straight Behring Finds his Straight Cook Discovers New Zealand Cook's Third Voyage Bruce in Abyssinia Mungo Park and the Niger Vancouver and his Island Mackenzie and his River Parry and Lancaster Sound The Frozen North Franklin's Land Voyage Parry's Polar Voyage The Search for Timbuktu Landers Discover the Niger Ross Discovers North Pole Flinders Names Australia Sturt's Discoveries in Australia Ross in the Antarctic Seas Franklin Discovers Passage David Livingstone Burton and Speke in Africa Livingston Traces Nyassa Expedition to Victoria Nyanza Baker Finds Albert Nyanza Livingstone's Last Journey Through the Dark Continent Nordenskiold's NE Passage The Exploration of Tibet Nansen Reaches Farthest North Peary Reaches the North Pole The Quest for the South Pole Dates of Chief Events

Book of Discovery - M. B. Synge

Ross Discovers the North Magnetic Pole

The first attempt to discover the North-West Passage by means of steam instead of sail was made by Captain Ross, who, since his expedition in 1819, had been burning to set off again for the Arctic regions. The reward of 20,000 held out to the discoverer of a north-west passage had been repealed, but an old friend, Felix Booth, decided to finance Ross, the Government having refused. "After examining various steamships advertised for sale," says Ross, "I purchased the Victory, which had been once employed as a packet." With food and fuel for one thousand days, and accompanied by his nephew, James Ross, who had been with Parry on his recent Polar voyage, he left England the end of May 1829, not to return for many a long year. Disasters soon began. The Victory  began to leak, her engines were defective, and there was nothing for it but to heave up her paddles and trust to sail. Sailing to the northward, they found the sea smooth and the weather so warm that they could dine without a fire and with the skylights off. Entering Lancaster Sound, they sailed up Prince Regent's Inlet. They soon discovered the spot where the Fury  had been wrecked four years before and abandoned by Captain Parry with whom was James Ross, who now found the stores which had been safely hidden on that occasion. As they made their way up the inlet, strong currents and vast masses of ice hard and solid as granite more than once threatened them with destruction.

"Imagine," says Captain Ross, "these mountains hurled through a narrow strait by a rapid tide, meeting with the noise of thunder, breaking from each other's precipices huge fragments, till, losing their former equilibrium, they fall over headlong, lifting the sea around in breakers and whirling it in eddies."

Escaping these perils, Ross entered a fine harbour. Here he landed, hoisted the colours, and took possession of the new land he had found, and, drinking the King's health, called the land Boothia, after his patron. For the next two months, August and September, he carefully explored the coast of this newly discovered Boothia for some three hundred miles, naming points and capes and islands after friends at home and on board. Heavy squalls of snow and ever-thickening ice pointed out the necessity of winter quarters, and 1st October found the Victory  imprisoned by thick immovable ice. "The prison door was shut upon us for the first time," says Ross sadly. "Nothing was to be seen but one dazzling, monotonous extent of snow. It was indeed a dull prospect. Amid all its brilliancy, this land of ice and snow has ever been, and ever will be, a dull, dreary, heart-sinking, monotonous waste, under the influence of which the very mind is paralysed. Nothing moves and nothing changes, but all is for ever the same—cheerless, cold, and still."

James Ross


The explorers little thought that this was to be their home for the next three years. They spent a fairly cheerful Christmas with mince pies and "iced cherry brandy" taken from the stores of the Fury, and early in 1830 the monotony was broken by the appearance of Eskimos. These were tremendously dressed up in furs, a shapeless mass, and Ross describes one as resembling "the figure of a globe standing on two pins." They soon became friendly, taking the Englishmen to see their snow huts, drawing them charts of Boothia Gulf beyond Felix Harbour, while in exchange the explorers taught English to the little Eskimo children and ministered to their ailments, the ship's carpenter even making a wooden leg for one of the natives.

So the long winter passed away. A few land journeys with sledges only ended in disappointment, but at last the vessel was free of ice and joyfully they hoisted her sails. But worse disappointment was in store. She had sailed for three miles when they met a ridge of ice, and a solid sea forbade any further advance. In vain did they try to saw through the ice. November found the poor Victory  hopelessly icebound and her crew doomed to another winter in the same region.

James Ross


It was not till May that a journey across the land of Boothia to the west coast was possible. Ross and his nephew had been calculating the position of the North Magnetic Pole all the long winter, and with signs of spring they set forth.

"Our journey had a very new appearance. The mother of two Eskimos led the way with a staff in her hand, my sledge following with the dogs and one of the children, guided by one of the wives with a child on her back. After a native sledge came that of Commander Ross, followed by more Eskimos. Many halts were made, as our burdens were heavy, the snow deep, and the ice rough."

After a fortnight's travelling past the chain of great lakes—the woman still guiding them—the Rosses, uncle and nephew, separated. James Ross now made for the spot where the Magnetic Pole was supposed to be. His own account shows with what enthusiasm he found it. "We were now within fourteen miles of the calculated position of the Magnetic Pole and now commenced a rapid march, and, persevering with all our might, we reached the calculated place at eight in the morning of the 1st of June. I must leave it to others to imagine the elation of mind with which we found ourselves now at length arrived at this great object of our ambition. It almost seemed as if we had accomplished everything that we had come so far to see and to do; as if our voyage and all its labours were at an end, and that nothing remained for us but to return home and be happy for the rest of our days. Amid mutual congratulation we fixed the British flag on the spot and took possession of the North Magnetic Pole and its adjoining territory in the name of Great Britain and King William IV. We had plenty of materials for building, and we therefore erected a cairn of some magnitude under which we buried a canister containing a record of the interesting fact." Another fortnight found the successful explorers staggering back to the Victory  with their great news, after an absence of twenty-eight days.

Science has shown that the Magnetic Pole revolves, and that Ross's cairn will not again mark its exact position for many a long year to come.

By the end of August the ice had broken and the Victory  was once more in full sail, but gales of wind drove her into harbour, which she never left again. Despite their colossal efforts, it soon became apparent that yet another winter would have to be passed in the frozen seas. The entries in Ross's journal become shorter and more despondent day by day. "The sight of ice to us is a plague, a vexation, a torment, an evil, a matter of despair. Could we have skated, it would not have been an amusement; we had exercise enough and, worst of all, the ice which surrounds us obstructed us, imprisoned us, annoyed us in every possible manner, had become odious to our sight." By October there was no open water to be seen; "the hopeful did not hope more, and the despondent continued to despair."

This was their third winter in the ice—food was growing scarce, the meat was so hard frozen that it had to be cut with a saw or thawed in warm cocoa. Snow-blindness afflicted many of the men badly. At last came the summer of 1833, but the Victory  was still fast in her winter quarters, and all attempts to release her had failed. They now decided to abandon her and to drag their boats over the ice to the wreck of the Fury, replenishing their stores and trusting to some whaler to take them home. We get a pathetic picture. "The colours were hoisted," says Ross, "and nailed to the mast, we drank a parting glass to our poor old ship, and, having seen every man out, I took my own adieu of the Victory  in the evening. She had deserved a better fate. It was like parting with an old friend."

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge


On 23rd April the weary explorers began dragging their boats and the last month's provisions over the ice in the face of wind and snow. The journey was painful and distressing. They found Barrow's Strait full of impenetrable ice, and resolved to pass the winter on Fury beach, which seemed almost like home to the half-starved men. Erecting a house which they called "Somerset House," they prepared for a fourth winter. For severity it was unequalled, the crew developed scurvy, and all were suffering sorely when, in the following August, the unfortunate party was rescued by the whaler, "Isabella of Hull, once commanded by Captain Ross." It was the ship in which Ross had made his first Arctic exploration. At first the mate refused to believe the story of these "bear-like" men. The explorers and Ross had been lost these two years. But, almost frantic with delight, the explorers climbed on board the Isabella  to be received with the heartiest of cheers when their identity was disclosed. "That we were a repulsive-looking people, none could doubt," says poor Ross, "unshaven since I know not when, dirty, dressed in rags of wild beasts, and starved to the very bones, our gaunt and grim looks, when contrasted with those of the well-dressed and well-fed men around us, made us all feel what we really were, as well as what we seemed to others." Then followed a wild scene of "washing, dressing, shaving, eating, all intermingled," while in the midst of all there were questions to be asked and the news from England to be heard. Long accustomed to a cold bed on the hard snow or the bare rock, few of them could sleep that night in the comfort of the new accommodation.

They were soon safely back in England, large crowds collecting to get a glimpse of Captain Ross. His own words best end the account of his travels. "On my arrival in London," he says, "on the 20th of October 1833, it became my first duty to repair to the royal palace at Windsor, with an account of my voyage, and to lay at the feet of His Majesty the British flag which had been hoisted on the Magnetic Pole."

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge