A new exhibition on the North-West Passage retrace the routes of the early explorers who gallantly searched for a shortcut to the East. By Nick Smith
In the 16th century, England was looking for a sea-route between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans that would enable merchant ships to ply their trade with China. Martin Frobisher was the first of our explorers to weigh anchor and set sail in the hope of discovering a navigable route across the top of the New World through the Arctic sea ice.
Frobisher spent three voyages trying to discover the passage he was convinced existed. Each time he failed, ending up in what is now North-eastern Canada as so many did after him. And yet, such were the potential commercial rewards involved, the search for the passage became a national obsession.
Despite his failure, Frobisher didn’t return empty handed. In 1576 he brought back to Britain several hundred tons of what he believed to be gold-bearing ore. A leading Italian alchemist confirmed Frobisher’s suspicion and Queen Elizabeth I promptly ordered the seafarer back for more. The existing samples were considered so valuable that they were kept at the Tower of London under quadruple locks. That they turned out to be worthless – quite literally fool’s gold – did not deter a stream of British explorers who had their sights set on the more important goal of the passage itself.
In the 19th century – the Golden Age of North-West Passage exploration – great naval officers such as Sir James Clarke Ross, Sir William Parry and Sir John Franklin all tried and failed. But by now more than commercial gain was at stake – the pride and prestige of a nation depended on success, especially as Russia was now interested in the route for strategic military reasons. The matter was finally settled at the dawn of the 20th Century, when in 1906 Norway’s greatest explorer became the first to forge a way through. His name was Roald Amundsen, Britannia’s nemesis, the man who was to beat Captain Scott to the South Pole five years later.
It is this search for the shortcut to the orient that is the subject of a new exhibition, North-West Passage: An Arctic Obsession at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. One of the curators is Claire Warrior, who has assembled the display of 120 exhibits – paintings, letters, maps and artefacts – from the museum’s priceless polar collection. ‘In some ways it’s a fictive concept’ says Claire, ‘because there’s no such thing as the North-West passage. There are lots of passages. The trouble is that they used to be heavily blocked with ice, and so for the British it was a question of trying to find a route through that was most easily navigable.’
The exhibition focuses mainly on the 19th century, and examines some extraordinary stories. But it is John Franklin’s tale that best typifies the isolation of those early days of the North-West Passage. For two winters, Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror were trapped in the ice as one of the great tragedies in British exploration unfolded.
‘Franklin probably died on board the ship’, says Claire, ‘but his body has never been found.’ The rest of the crew abandoned ship, started to walk for the mainland, and were never seen again. Some skeletons have been found along with evidence of cannibalism, ‘but nobody really knows – and that’s the attractive thing about the Franklin mysteries – nobody really knows what happened.’
Franklin’s wife Jane decided that she’d find out for herself and dedicated much of the rest of her life searching for her lost husband, coordinating several rescue missions that were valuable cartographic and surveying ventures in themselves. She was not alone in thinking that Franklin must have survived. ‘People were convinced that this expedition couldn’t have failed. It was so well equipped. It had the creature comforts, it had the tinned food,’ says Claire. But six years later Jane was still writing letters to Franklin. One of the most poignant exhibits on show is a letter in Jane’s hand that starts: ‘My dearest love. Should this letter ever be opened by you after the many I have written to you in vain, it will be a happiness indeed. You must always have felt that I would never rest till I had more tidings of you. It is my mission upon earth, it keeps me alive…’
The final irony of the Franklin expedition is that it may have been the ‘creature comforts’ that killed the men. Recent forensic evidence has revealed that the 8,000 tins of food the expedition had on board were sealed with solder containing high levels of lead. If their supplies were contaminated, lead poisoning would have accelerated the men’s deaths.
There’s no longer as much ice in the North-West Passage as in Franklin’s day, which means adventurous types can follow the routes of Franklin and Amundsen in near clear seas during the summer. As you sail from Resolute Bay through the straits, islands and waterways that bear the names of the most heroic of Arctic explorers, you’ll see polar bears and musk oxen, white whales, narwhal and northern seals. Cruising in the lonely northern waters offers a taste of what Franklin and his contemporaries endured, although it’s almost certain that lead poisoning and cannibalism will be off the menu.
North-West Passage: An Arctic Obsession is running at the National Maritime Museum from 23rd May 2009 – 3rd January 2010, admission free (see www.nmm.ac.uk)
Tags: Arctic exploration, cannibalism, Claire Warrior, Daily Telegraph, Erebus, Exhibition, Exploration, History of Exploration, John Franklin, Lady Jane franklin, Martin Frobisher, National Maritime Museum, Nick Smith, North-West Passage, Roald Amundsen