Voyage of Captain James, for the Discovery of a North-West Passage

In the year 1630, several wealthy merchants of Bristol united in fitting out a vessel for the purpose of accurately examining the whole northern coast of America. The command of this vessel, which was small, only of seventy tons burden, but one of the strongest ships of her size that had ever been built, was given to Captain James. She was provisioned for eighteen months, and manned with only twenty-two seamen, but these were all excellent sailors.

His stores having been all shipped, and the men on board, Captain James left Bristol in the month of April 1631. After passing the southern coast of Ireland, he sailed in a west-north-westerly direction, and on the fourth of June discovered the coast of Greenland. Two days subsequently to this, his vessel was encompassed with ice, many immense pieces of which beat so violently against her that the captain was fearful she would have been staved and sunk. The boat that accompanied her was crushed to atoms. In one instance he was obliged to order the ship to be made fast to a great piece of the ice, and during a day and night to employ men incessantly in pushing off such masses of ice as floated against her but in this labor all their poles were broken. The wind at length blew a perfect hurricane, and, though the broken ice on almost all sides rose higher than the decks, and the vessel was beaten about in a most alarming manner, she suffered no injury.

On the morning of the tenth of June, these hardy adventurers passed some masses of the ice that were as high as the topmost of their vessel, and left Cape Desolation, in Greenland, to the eastward. The weather was now so cold that at one time the sails and rigging were all frozen. On the twentieth, the ship reached the southern point of the island of Resolution, at the entrance of Hudson's Strait, but she was several times carried round by the current, and floating ice, and was in imminent danger of being crushed to pieces before she could be brought to anchor. It now began to snow heavily , and the wind blew a storm from the westward. This drove the ice from the sea into the harbor where the vessel was stationed, until it. was choked up. For some time the ice seemed to be perfectly firm and immovable, but it floated out again at the ebb of the tide. The various dangers to which the vessel was exposed in this harbor, of being thrown against the rocks, crushed to pieces in the ice, and sunk, were so great that the captain almost gave up all hope of being able to save her. He describes the thundering noise of the masses of ice beating against each other, the rushing of the water, and the fury of the current, to have been tremendous. After much difficulty and the most persevering exertions, however, she was navigated into a little cove or harbor, where, being made fast to the rocks, she was at length rendered tolerably secure.

Captain James landed on the island, but found that although the summer was far advanced, the ponds were yet frozen. The ground was rocky and barren, and no traces of animals were visible in the snow, though it was evident from some hearths and remains of fire-wood which were seen, that human beings had not long before visited the place. Captain James continued here two days, and then sailed westward; but the masses of ice were still almost impenetrable. They grated the sides of the vessel with such violence that it was feared they would burst through the planks. On looking out from the mast-head scarcely an acre of open sea was visible: nothing was to be seen but a continued and irregular range of ice, towering in different places to an immense height. The ship was thus surrounded till the twenty-seventh of June, when, by a gale from the south-east, the ice opened, and she was enabled to make some way.

Though exposed to incessant danger by the immense masses of ice, which floated on the surface of the ocean, Captain James and his associates proceeded still westward, and entered Hudson's Strait about the beginning of July. On the fifteenth of that month, they arrived betwixt Digg's Island and Nottingham Island, but the summer was so cold and unfavorable that it was now evident there would be no possibility of proceeding much further northward this year. About a fortnight afterwards, they were so fast enclosed in the ice, that notwithstanding the ship had all her sails set, and it blew a strong breeze, she was immovable and as firmly fixed as if she had been in a dry dock. On this, the captain and many of the men walked out of her to amuse themselves upon the ice. Several of the crew now began to murmur, and to express great alarm, lest they should not be able either to proceed or return; and lest their provisions, which were beginning to fall short, would soon wholly fail. The captain encouraged them as well as he was able, and though he was aware their murmuring was not without a reason, he affected to ridicule their fears. Among other contrivances to amuse them, he took a quantity of spirits upon the ice, and there drank the king's health, although there was not a single man in the ship, and though she was at that time under all her sails. This was the twenty-eighth of July. On the thirtieth, they made some little way through the ice, part of the crew heaving the vessel along with their shoulders, whilst others at the same time, broke off the corners of the ice with mallets and iron crows, to clear the way. This labor was continued on the following day, and after much fatigue, they got the ship into thirty-five fathom water. All this time they were in latitude 58 deg. 45 minutes north, and a few days afterwards they were in an open sea free from ice. The Captain and his crew now joined in devout thanksgiving for their deliverance from the dangers to which they had been exposed.

A few days subsequently to this, whilst the ship was under sail, she struck upon some rocks that were concealed by the water, and received three such terrible blows, that the captain was fearful her masts would have been shivered to pieces, and he had no doubt that a hole had been beaten through her sides. But such was the strength of her timbers that she received little injury, and in a short time, was again out of danger.

On the twentieth of August, and in latitude 57 deg. north, they came within sight of land, part of the continent of North America, which the captain named New South Wales, in honor of Charles, Prince of Wales, afterwards King Charles the second: and on the third of September they passed a cape, to which he gave the name of Cape Henrietta Maria, after the Queen. In the ensuing evening, they encountered such a tempest of thunder, snow, rain, and wind, as none of the crew had ever before been exposed to. The sea washed completely over the decks, and the vessel rolled so tremendously, that it was not without great difficulty all things could be kept fast in the hold, and betwixt the decks.

As the winter was now approaching, Captain James began to look out for some harbor, where he and his companions could pass that cheerless season, with as little discomfort, and in as much security, as possible. Landing, on the third of October, upon an island, in the bay that has since been called James' Bay, he found the tracks of deer, and saw some wild fowl; but not being able to discover a safe anchorage, he proceeded onward with the vessel, and two days afterwards moored the ship, in a place of tolerable security near the same island. It now snowed without intermission, and was so cold that the sails were frozen quite hard, and the cable was as thick with ice as a man's body.

Several men were sent ashore to cut wood for fuel, and they collected as much as, it was estimated, would last two or three months. It was found inconvenient, particularly for some of the crew who were sick, to continue entirely in the vessel; a kind of house was, therefore, erected on shore, under the direction of the carpenter. In the meantime the captain. and some of the men went into the woods to see whether they could discover any traces of human beings, that, in case they found such, they might be on their guard against attack. None were found. The topsails were now taken down from the vessel, thawed, and dried by great fires, and then folded up and secured from wet between the decks. The main-sail was carried on shore, to be used as a covering for the house. In about four days, the house was ready, and a portion of the crew slept in it every night, armed with muskets to defend themselves in case of attack, and guarded by two buck-hounds, which had been brought from England, for the hunting of deer. Such of the other rigging of the vessel as could be taken down, was now removed, and placed under the decks.

On the fourteenth of October, six of the men set out with the dogs, in the hope of killing some deer, the tracks of which they had previously seen. They wandered more than twenty miles over the snow, and returned the next day with one small and lean animal; having passed a cold and miserable night in the woods. Others went out a few days afterwards, and to a still greater distance; these were not only unsuccessful, but they lost one of their companions, who, on attempting to cross a small frozen lake, fell in and was drowned. The captain consequently gave directions that hunting to such distances should be no more attempted.

The crew at first brought beer ashore from the ship; but this, even in their house, and close by the fire, was frozen and spoiled in one night. After this they drank water, which they obtained from a well that they sunk near the house. Their time was chiefly passed in setting traps and hunting for foxes and other animals, and in such occupations as were requisite for their own preservation.

The winter was now so far advanced, that the ship appeared, from the shore, like a piece of ice in the form of a ship. The snow was frozen on every part, and her decks and sides were covered with ice. The captain began to despair of ever again getting her off. Every day the men were employed in beating the ice from the cables, and digging it out of the hawsers with a calking iron; and in these operations the water would freeze on their clothes and hands, so as very soon to render them unequal to almost any exertion.

The ship was found to beat so much; that the captain could devise no other means of preventing her from being shattered to pieces and destroyed, than by directing holes to be bored through her sides, and sinking her in shallow water; where, in the ensuing spring, he might have a chance of again raising her. This was a fearful expedient; but, after all the provisions and things requisite for use on shore had been taken out of her, it was adopted; although it was the general opinion of the crew that she could never be floated again. They, however, had so strong an attachment for their captain, and so much confidence in him, that, even in the midst of despair, they obeyed implicitly all his commands. With true Christian confidence, he exhorted them not to be dismayed. 'If,' said he, we end our days here, we are as near heaven as in England; and we are much bound to God Almighty for having given us so large a time for repentance, and having thus, as it were, daily called upon us to prepare our souls for a better life in heaven. He does not, in the meantime, deny that we may use all proper means to save and prolong our lives; and in my judgment, we are not so far past hope of returning to our native country, but that I see a fair way by which we may effect it.' He then said that there was timber enough in the island for them to build a pinnace or large boat, by which they might endeavor to effect their escape, in case their vessel should be destroyed. This was on the thirtieth of November.

The sufferings and the hardships which these brave men encountered for many successive months, it is impossible to describe. Happily, they had a tolerable store of provisions from their ship, and had not to depend upon the precarious subsistence to be obtained by hunting. Their liquids of every kind, wine, vinegar, oil, etc., were all frozen so hard, that they were obliged to cut them with hatchets, and then melt them over the fire for use.

In the beginning of January, the whole surface of the adjacent sea was so entirely frozen that no water whatever was to be seen. Some of the men were obliged to be out of doors a considerable part of the day, in fetching timber, and in other necessary employments. Their shoes were all destroyed, except some that had been sunk in the ship, and which were now, of course, inaccessible. They were, consequently, reduced to the necessity of binding up their feet, as well as they could, in pieces of cloth. Their noses, cheeks, and hands, were sometimes frozen in blisters, which were as white as paper; and blisters as large as walnuts rose on different parts of their skin. Their mouths became sore, and their teeth loose.

Timber was cut down, according to the direction of the captain, and the carpenter and crew worked hard at the pinnace, till nearly the end of March, when the carpenter became so weak and ill, that it was necessary to lead him to his labor.

Though they were in the midst of a wood, yet when their fuel began to fail, they had great difficulty in obtaining more. Almost all the axes had been broken in felling timber for the pinnace, and it was peculiarly requisite that care should be taken of such cutting instruments as remained, lest there should be none left for finishing it. And, in felling the timber now, the trees were so hard frozen, that it was first requisite to light large fires around such as were to be cut, in order to thaw the wood, before the axes could make any impression upon them.

During all this season of distress, Captain James and his crew never omitted to perform their religious duties. They particularly solemnized Easter day, the 26th of April, 1632; and it was on this day, whilst they were sitting round their fire, that the captain proposed to attempt, on the first opening of the warm weather, to clear the ship of ice. This was considered by some of the crew impossible; because they believed her to be filled with one solid mass of ice. The attempt, however, was resolved up on; and the question was as to the implements with which it was to be made. These were brought into review, and were only two iron bars (one of which was broken), and four broken shovels, apparently very ineffectual instruments for such a labor.

The time passed miserably and slowly on, till the 16th of May, when they had a comfortable and sunny day. Some efforts were this day made to clear the decks of snow. From this period the vessel began to occupy much of the attention of the captain and his crew. The great cabin was found to be free both from ice and water, and a fire was lighted to clear and dry it. One of the anchors, which was supposed to have been lost, they found under the ice, and recovered. The rudder, which had been torn off by the ice, they were not able to find. By the 24th of May, they had labored so hard in clearing the vessel, that they came to a cask, and could perceive that there was some water in the hold. They pierced the cask, and found it full of good beer; which was a cause of great joy to them.

Their next object was to dig through the ice on the outside of the vessel, to the holes that had been cut for the purpose of sinking her. They succeeded in this operation; and, through the lowest of these, a considerable quantity of water flowed out. The holes were then prevented from admitting any more water, by having strong boards nailed on the outside. Five days afterwards the weather became much warmer than it had been. The water in the hold of the vessel tended to thaw the ice; and, by means of pumps, it was gradually cleared. Several butts of beer, one of cider, and another of wine, were found perfectly sound and good; as well as many barrels of salt beef and pork. A considerable store of shoes and clothing were now also found. These, when dried, were peculiarly accept able. But it was a subject of sincere rejoicing, that, on examination of the vessel, no defect could be perceived in her; and sanguine hopes began to be entertained that she might still prove capable of performing the remainder of the voyage. Not long after this, the rudder was discovered and got up from beneath the ice.

The carpenter now died. He had been a man beloved by the whole crew, and, with the most exemplary patience, had endured a long illness, in the course of which, with great exertion, he had completed all the most difficult parts of the pinnace. Thus, although he was deeply lamented by his comrades, the loss of him was not so severely felt as it might otherwise have been. At this time nearly the whole crew were disabled, by illness, from working; nor did any of them recover until after the commencement of the warm weather.

From the elevated parts of the land, the open water was first seen on the 19th of June. Four days afterwards the provisions and other articles that were on shore, were carried on board. A cross was next erected the king's and queen's pictures were tied to the top of it; and the island was named Charlton Island. The rigging of the ship was now set. On the 13th, the sea was clear of ice; and on the 2d of July, after the captain and his crew had all devoutly paid thanksgiving to the Almighty for their providential deliverance, they weighed anchor, and proceeded on their voyage.

Still, however, though in the open sea, they suffered great inconvenience from the beating of the floating ice against the ship. On the 22d of July, they again passed Cape Henrietta Maria. The ship had now become so leaky, that, for some time, it was found difficult to keep her clear of water by the pumps. After almost incredible exertions, they made their way northward, according to their estimate, as far as 69 deg. 35 min., when at length they came to an impenetrable mass of ice. It was the opinion of the whole crew, that in the present condition of the ship, the autumn now fast approaching, it would not only be imprudent, but wholly impracticable, to make any further attempt to discover the hoped-for passage of the sea to the north-west. The captain, therefore, with a sorrowful heart, consented to relinquish his object; and, on the 26th of August, determined on returning to England. In his passage homeward, the vessel encountered many difficulties from contrary winds and stormy weather; but, at length, safely arrived at the mouth of the Severn, October 22, 1632.