Book of Discovery - M. B. Synge
Now, while explorers were busy opening up Australian inland, Ross was leaving the Australian waters for his voyage to the south. Four years after the return of the Ross polar expedition, Sir John Franklin had been made Governor of Van Diemen's Land, where he was visited by the ships sent out from England on the first Antarctic expedition under the command of Sir James Ross, who had returned to find himself famous for his discovery of the North Magnetic Pole.
An expedition had been fitted out, consisting of the Erebus and the Terror—ships which later on made history, for did they not carry Sir John Franklin to his doom in the Arctic regions some years later? The ships sailed in the autumn of 1839 by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and excited great interest at Hobart Town, where the commanders, Ross and Crozier, were warmly received by the Governor. In a bay, afterwards called Ross Cove, the ships were repaired after the long voyage, while an observatory was built by the convicts under the personal supervision of Sir John Franklin. Interesting news awaited the explorers, too, at Hobart Town. Exploration had taken place in the southern regions by a French expedition under D'Urville and an American, Lieutenant Wilkes—both of which had made considerable discoveries. Ross was somewhat surprised at this, for, as he said, "England had ever led the way of discovery in the southern as well as in the northern regions," but he decided to take a more easterly course, and, if possible, to reach the South Magnetic Pole.
On 5th November 1840 the ships were off again, shaping their course for Auckland Island, nine hundred miles from Hobart Town. The island had been discovered in 1806 by Captain Bristow. He had left some pigs, whose rapid increase filled the explorers with surprise. Christmas Day found them still sailing south, with strong gales, snow, and rain. The first iceberg was seen a few days later, and land on 11th January.
"It was a beautifully clear evening," says Ross, "and we had a most enchanting view of the two magnificent ranges of mountains whose lofty peaks, perfectly covered with eternal snow, rose to elevations of ten thousand feet above the level of the ocean." These icy shores were inhospitable enough, and the heavy surf breaking along its edge forbade any landing. Indeed, a strong tide carried the ships rapidly and dangerously along the coast among huge masses of ice. "The ceremony of taking possession of these newly discovered lands in the name of our Most Gracious Sovereign Queen Victoria was proceeded with, and on planting the flag of our country amid the hearty cheers of our party, we drank to the health, long life, and happiness of Her Majesty and His Royal Highness Prince Albert."
The end of the month found them farther south than any explorer had sailed before. Everything was new, and they were suddenly startled to find two volcanoes, one of which was active; steam and smoke rising to a height of two thousand feet above the crater and descending as mist and snow. Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, Ross called them, in memory of his two ships. They sailed on, but soon were stopped by a huge barrier of solid ice like a great white wall, one thousand feet thick and one hundred and eighty feet above sea-level. They knew now they could get no farther this season—they had reached a point one hundred and sixty miles from the Pole. Could they but have wintered here "in sight of the brilliant burning mountain and at so short a distance from the Magnetic Pole," they might easily have reached it the following spring,—so they thought,—but reluctantly Ross had to turn. "Few can understand the deep feelings of regret with which I felt myself compelled to abandon the perhaps too ambitious hope I had so long cherished of being permitted to plant the flag of my country on both Magnetic Poles of our globe."
The whole of the great southern land they had discovered received the name of Queen Victoria, which name it keeps to-day. They had been south of the Antarctic Circle for sixty-three days, when they recrossed it on 4th March. A few days later they narrowly escaped shipwreck. An easterly wind drove them among some hundreds of icebergs. "For eight hours," says Ross, "we had been gradually drifting towards what to human eyes appeared inevitable destruction; the high waves and deep rolling of our ships rendered towing with boats impossible, and our situation was the more painful from our inability to make any effort to avoid the dreadful calamity that seemed to await us. The roar of the surf, which extended each way as far as we could see, and the dashing of the ice fell upon the ear with painful distinctness as we contemplated the awful destruction that threatened in one short hour to close the world and all its hopes and joys and sorrows upon us for ever. In this deep distress we called upon the Lord . . . and our cry came before Him. A gentler air of wind filled our sails; hope again revived, and before dark we found ourselves far removed from every danger."
PART OF THE GREAT SOUTHERN ICE BARRIER, 450 MILES LONG, 180 FEET ABOVE SEA-LEVEL, AND 1000 FEET THINK.
April found them back again in Van Diemen's land, and though Ross sailed again the following autumn into southern latitudes, he only reached a point some few miles farther than before being again stopped by a great wall barrier of thick ice. After this he took his ship home by way of Cape Horn, and "the shores of Old England came into view on the 2nd of September 1843." After an absence of four years Ross was welcomed home, and honours were showered on him, including the award of the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Paris.
"Till then they had deemed that the Austral earth,
With a long, unbroken shore,
Ran on to the Pole Antarctic,
For such was the old sea lore."