Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Enterprising Endeavours of the Polar Pioneer

           Here’s one for you – Who was the naturalist on HMS Beagle? 

Charles Darwin, right? 


Charles Darwin was the geologist. 

The naturalist was Robert McCormick.

And Darwin wasn’t all that impressed with him – in a letter to his friend and teacher John Henslow, he wrote, 
My friend the Doctor [i.e. McCormick] is an ass, but we jog on very amicably: at present he is in great tribulation, whether his cabin shall be painted French Grey or a dead white— I hear little excepting this subject from him.” 
(Oct. 30th 1831). 

Robert McCormick (1800-1890) was a Royal Navy surgeon, naturalist and explorer, who was assistant surgeon on HMS Hecla on William Edward Parry’s 1827 expedition to the North Pole.

Robert McCormick

The problem of the Northwest Passage had long frustrated explorers seeking a sea route around the northern coast of the American continent. This would eliminate the need to sail around the treacherous Cape Horn at the tip of South America, allowing traders access to the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic. But all attempts to find the elusive route had been unsuccessful. The earliest recorded attempt was sanctioned by Henry VII, who sent John Cabot to find a route to the Orient in 1497, and over the years many others, including Drake, Frobisher, Cook, Bligh and Vancouver tried and failed.

William Parry

Parry had sailed on three attempts to discover a Northwest Passage; the first, in 1818, was under the command of John Ross, which had been unsuccessful and had caused some controversy when Ross returned home, against the advice of his officers (including Parry and Edward Sabine). The second, with Parry in command was a response to that made in the preceding year, but was also unsuccessful although it sailed further West than any previous attempt, (it was a voyage on which Edward Sabine and his brother Joseph also participated). His third attempt, in 1824-5, was also a failure and one of his two ships, HMS Fury, was lost.

Norway, Svalbard and the North Pole

On April 4th 1827, HMS Hecla sailed for Norway under command of Parry, who was under orders to attempt to reach the North Pole, overland from Spitzbergen, the largest of the islands forming the Svalbard archipelago. The Hecla left Hammerfest, on the Norwegian mainland, on April 21st and sailed for Svalbard. 


After exploring the Northern shores of Svalbard, the Hecla dropped anchor at Hecla Cove, Treurenburg Bay, Spitzbergen on June 20th 1827. 

Treurenburg Bay

The following day, a Thursday, Parry provisioned two boats, which he called the Endeavour and the Enterprise, with sufficient supplies for seventy-one days, and set off rowing North. 

Position of Sjuøyane (Seven Islands)

On the 23rd they reached Walden Island, one of the Sjuøyane (Seven Islands), where they stored supplies and sent word back to Lieutenant Foster (in temporary command of the Hecla) to send a spare boat also to be stored at Walden Island, although bears disturbed the supplies, so they were re-located on nearby Little Table Island. 

Detail of Sjuøyane (Seven Islands)

Parry’s plan was to travel at night (at that latitude, in Summer, there was continual daylight), so as to lower the risks of snow-blindness and to allow what little warmth there was from the sun to dry the men’s clothes as they rested. 

HMS Hecla moored at Treurenburg Bay

At latitude 81o 12' 51˝ they hauled the boats onto an ice floe, and began to drag them overland. Some of the supplies were loaded on sledges and moved separately, but the hard going sometimes meant the men would have to return and travel the same distance three or four times to haul the loads onwards. 

Travelling amongst the ice hummocks

They were rationed to ten ounces of ships biscuit, nine ounces of pemmican, one ounce of cocoa and a gill of rum daily, together with what birds they managed to shoot, and with three ounces of tobacco per man per week. When they could, they rowed the boats between the ice floes and when their way was blocked, Parry and Lieutenant Ross landed first and sought the easiest route forward, then the sledges followed to pack down the snow and so make a better road for the boats. 

The boats hauled up for the night

Bedevilled by snow, rain and fog, they made slow progress, sometimes only making three miles a day, but continued as best north as they could navigate. To make matters worse, the flow of ice from the north meant that they were slowly drifting south, at a rate, Parry estimated, of about four miles a day. On July 23rd 1827, a reading showed they had reached a latitude of 82o 40' 23˝ and Parry estimated that earlier that day they may have possibly reached 82o 45' North, a distance of 172 miles from where the Hecla was moored. 

Hammerfest harbour - from Parry's Narrative

It was decided that further progress was impossible and returning was by far the better course, so after a full day of rest they turned around. The southward drift of the ice now played in their favour – on July 30th Parry measured they had walked seven miles but were twelve and a half miles further south than his last sounding, a gain of five and a half miles. On August 7th they shot a polar bear, which they cooked on a fire made from its own blubber, and Parry reports that the men suffered from indigestion they ate so much of it (what he wouldn’t have known is that the liver of the polar bear contains so much vitamin A in the form of retinol, it is poisonous to humans - 30 to 90 grams of polar bear liver is enough to kill a man). 

Treurenburg Bay - from Parry's Narrative

On August 11th they reached the limit of the ice and after 48 days on it, they took to open water to row the fifty miles back to Little Table Island, which they reached at 11 am on the following day. Ironically, polar bears had eaten their stored provisions, but Foster had sent further supplies and the requested spare boat to Walden Island, and the party returned to the Hecla on August 21st

Snowstorm at sea off Walden Island

Three men required medical treatment - two with swollen legs and the other with a bruise. Back at Svalbard, the company carried out various scientific experiments, observations and collections (McCormick gathered a number of birds), before setting sail on August 28th for home. They reached Shetland on September 17th, and Parry went ashore at Inverness on the 26th, travelling overland back to the Admiralty, three days later. The expedition had reached the further-most point North ever before achieved and a record that stood for another forty-nine years. 

Title Page - W E Parry Narrative 1828

In 1828, Parry published his account of the voyage, Journal of a voyage for the discovery of a north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific: performed in the years, 1819-20, in His Majesty's ships Hecla and Griper, under the orders of William Edward Parry; with an appendix containing the scientific and other observations, which is an utterly absorbing read. 

In 1829, he was knighted and in 1852, he became a Rear-Admiral. He died in 1855. 

Like Edward Sabine, Parry has a crater on the moon named after him.

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