THE NORTH POLE

On his fourth voyage Wrangell and his small party of followers started from Cape Yakan, the nearest point to the Arctic regions, and, after passing Cape Tchelagskoi, made for the north; but a violent storm broke up the ice, there only three feet thick, and involved the explorers in the greatest danger. Now dragged across some large unbroken slab, now wet to the waist on a moving plank, sometimes above and sometimes under water, or moored to a block serving as a ferryboat, which the swimming dogs dragged along, they at last succeeded in crossing the shifting reverberating ice and regaining the land, owing their life to the strength and agility of their teams of dogs alone. Thus closed the last attempt made to reach the districts north of Siberia.

The Arctic calotte was meanwhile being attacked from the other side with equal energy and yet more perseverance. It will be remembered with what untiring enthusiasm the famous north-west passage had been sought. No sooner had the peace of 1815 necessitated the disarmament of numerous English vessels and set free their officers on half-pay, than the Admiralty, unwilling to let experienced seamen rust in idleness, sought for them some employment. It was under these circumstances that the search for the north-west passage was resumed.

The Alexander, 252 tons, and the Isabel, 385, under command of the experienced officers, John Ross and Lieutenant Parry, with James Ross, Back, and Belcher, who were to win honour in Arctic explorations amongst their subordinates, were sent by the Government to explore Baffin's Bay and set sail on the 18th April. After touching at the Shetland Islands, and seeking in vain for the submerged land seen by Bass in N. lat. 57° 28', the explorers came on the 26th May to the first ice, and on the 2nd June surveyed the western coast of Greenland, hitherto very imperfectly laid down in maps, finding it greatly encumbered by ice. Indeed the governor of the Dutch settlement of Whale Island told them that the severity of the winter months had been steadily increasing during the eleven years of his residence in the country.

Hitherto it had been supposed that the country was uninhabited beyond 75° N. lat., and the travellers were therefore greatly surprised to see a whole tribe of Esquimaux arrive by way of the ice. They knew nothing of any race but their own, and stared at the English without daring to touch them, one of them even addressing to the vessels in a grave and solemn voice the inquiries, Who are you? Whence do you come? From the sun or from the moon?

Esquimaux family
Esquimaux family.
(Fac-simile of early engraving.)

Although in many respects far inferior to the Esquimaux who had become to some extent civilized by long intercourse with Europeans, the new-comers understood the use of iron, of which a few of them had even succeeded in making knives. This iron as far as the English could gather was dug out of a mountain. It was probably of meteoric origin.

As public opinion in England subsequently confirmed, Ross, in spite of qualities as a naval officer of the highest order, showed extraordinary apathy and levity on this voyage, appearing not to trouble himself in the least about the geographical problems for the solution of which the expedition was organized. He passed Wolstenholme and Whale Sounds and Smith's Strait, opening out of Baffin's Bay, without examining them, the last named at so great a distance that he did not even recognize it. Still worse than that was his conduct later. Cruising down the western shores of Baffin's Bay a long deep gulf no less than fifty miles across gradually came in sight of the eager explorers, yet when on the 29th August the two vessels had sailed up it for thirty miles only Ross gave orders to tack about, on the ground that he distinctly saw at the further end a chain of lofty mountains to which he gave the name of Croker. His officers did not share his opinion; they could not see so much as the slightest sign of a hill, for the very excellent reason that the gulf they had entered was really Lancaster Sound, so named by Baffin, and connecting his bay with the western Arctic Ocean.

The same sort of thing occurred again and again in the voyage along this deeply indented coast, the vessels keeping so far off shore that not a detail could be made out. Thus it came about that Cumberland Bay was passed on the 1st October without any survey of that most important feature of Davis Strait, and Ross returned to England, having literally turned his back on the glory awaiting him.

When accused of apathy and neglect of duty, Ross replied with supreme indifference, "I trust, as I believe myself, that the objects of the voyage have been in every important point accomplished; that I have proved the existence of a bay, from Disco to Cumberland Strait, and set at rest for ever the question of a north-west passage in this direction."

It would have been impossible to make a more complete mistake. But fortunately the failure of this expedition did not in the least discourage other explorers. Some saw in it a brilliant confirmation of the venerable Baffin's discovery, others looked upon the innumerable inlets, with their deep waters and strong currents, as something more than mere bays. They were straits, and all hope of the discovery of the north-west passage was not yet lost.