Antarctic Polar Regions | The great saga of Arctic (page 1)

1/ From Origins until 1895 : Earlier Explorations (page 1)

In 330BC, did Pythéas, the Greek from Masillia, tell a lie ?
Pytheas was a great Greek navigator who lived in Marseilles (Masillia); around 330 years before our era, he undertook a great sea voyage towards the regions of North Europe. Little is of course known about this undertaking, except for the fact that he genuinely saw the midnight sun and that he berthed in a land that he named Thule. When he returned, his fellow countrymen branded him a liar.

In 982, the Viking, Eric the Red, was banned from the land of Iceland.
Because he had killed two sons of one of his enemies, Eric the Red had to leave his native Iceland. Instead of returning to Norway, the country of his ancestors, he set a south-westerly course. After five days of sailing, he discovered a land of green fields that he named Greenland. Twenty years later, one of his sons was to be the first man to tread American soil when he landed at Newfoundland.

In 1553, Sir Hugh Willoughby obeyed orders.
The time of the great discoveries had arrived. England wanted to discover a northern route to India, which at the time was called Cathay. It was Sir Hugh Willoughby who took on this important mission; in 1953, the navigator set off for the northern seas armed with three vessels. Blocked by the ice, the mariner decided to obey orders and to winter off the Siberian coast. The indigenous people found the entire crew dead a year later. Richard Chancellor, the captain of the third ship, was luckier: he found shelter in the bay of Arkhangelsk; learning about this, the Tsar invited him to Moscow. Two years later, in 1555, the English Muscovy Company was founded.

In 1576, Martin Frobisher thought he had struck gold in the Great North.
After fifteen years of searching for patronage, this British navigator/adventurer set off for the Arctic with two ships. In June 1579, he encountered the south of Greenland and met the first Eskimos. He brought back from this first voyage some stones streaked with yellow: in London it was thought to be gold. Whence the setting up of two other expeditions that were thought to be very promising (1577 and 1588): but the stones turned out to be vulgar fool's gold.

In 1585, the Englishman, John Davis, discovered the strait opening up the passage to India.
The three voyages undertaken by this British navigator were not enough for him to reach the extremity of the strait that was named after him: the Northwest Passage to India had effectively been found, or at least Davis thought so. The inventor of the quadrant (forerunner of the sextant) was right: his observations were to be of great use for future explorations.
From 1597, Barents and the Dutch tried in turn to find the famous Passage.
As the United States of the Netherlands had just freed themselves from the Spanish yoke, they in turn embarked on the conquest of the northern passage that should lead to East India. During three voyages, the Dutch helmsman, Willem Barents, was to try to force fate. But his expeditions had meagre success: the sailors hunted bear and one of them was fatally injured by a huge male. During the third voyage, Barents alighted at Spitzberg. before continuing towards the South-east. On 19 August 1596, the expedition was trapped by ice, and they built a cabin for the winter. Nine months later, in May 1597, Barents abandoned his vessel, still imprisoned by the pack ice. Fifteen men navigated due South in a longboat and a canoe; on 20 June, the helmsman that posterity was to honour by naming a famous sea after him, died, brought down by scurvy.

Between 1607 & 1610, the tragic fate of the Englishman, Henry Hudson.
His skin leathered by cold, wind and storm, the navigator, Henry Hudson, is one of the heroes of Arctic polar conquest. He made his first voyage in 1607 on behalf of the English: having opted to sail due North (as earlier attempts to the East and West had failed), he thus got as far as 80°23', or 1,065 km from the North Pole, a record that was to last for 166 years.
One year later, a new attempt, by the Northeast this time: another failure.
Hudson's third voyage was to be undertaken for the Dutch. He took the Northwest route where he was to discover - not the famous Passage - but the river that was to bear his name as well as the site where the future town of New York was to be built. During his fourth voyage, he encountered Hudson Bay but had to spend the winter there. There was a mutiny on board and, in the spring of 1611, the men of the Discovery (his sailing ship) forced the captain definitively to leave the ship and to embark in a longboat: his son, six sailors and the ship's mathematician chose to remain loyal to him and to accompany him on this last voyage. They were never seen again.
The sailing ship, for its part, struggled back to the English shores after making a stopover during which eight of the mutineer sailors were killed by Eskimos.

1615: To his dying day, W. Baffin claimed that the NW Passage did not exist!
William Baffin, English navigator, boarded the same ship as Hudson, Discovery. We are in 1615. Under the flag of the new Hudson Bay Company, created by King Charles II, the man that was pursuing the dream of his predecessors sailed as far round the west coast of Greenland as he could and thus got to the latitude of the current American base of Thule.
The following year, in 1616, he made another voyage. He headed still further North (77° 50') and thus successively discovered the sea and the land that were to bear his name. Turning off to the West, he entered the Lancaster Strait, which in fact led to the Beaufort Sea. If the weather had been more clement, Baffin would undoubtedly have discovered the Northwest Passage. But, to avoid being trapped by the ice, he turned back. To his dying day, Baffin claimed that the much sought-after passage did not exist.

1619: the Danish awakening.
As trading possibilities in these poisonous Arctic waters were coming to light as time went by, the Danes told themselves that they should urgently participate in the effort of international discovery in order to have the right to a share of the fishing waters one day. King Christian IV launched a certain Jens Munk, a whale hunter from his country, on the search for the passage. He commanded him to attempt the western route. But a terrifying winter overwhelmed the ship and the crew was obliged to winter in Hudson Bay. The outcome of this winter spent in inhuman temperatures was catastrophic: of the 59 crew members making up the expedition, only three survived, one of which was the whaler Munk. When they finally got back to their country, the Danes thought that they were seeing ghosts… Throughout the century, numerous attempts were to be made to reach the Pacific and to find the Passage to the East. Without success. Disappointed, the great explorers left the field free for the great traders.

January 1725: the Dane, Bering, enters the stage on behalf of the Tsars of Russia.
Barely one week after the death of Peter the Great, his wife, Catherine, ratified her husband's projects and confirmed for Vitus Bering the mission that he had entrusted to him some years previously - to discover the Northwest Passage. Only this time, it was a question of crossing the whole of Siberia on foot (8,000km from St Petersburg), building two ships where they were and then setting off from the Pacific.
Four years later, Bering was ready. He crossed the strait that was to bear his name, but, because of an early onset of winter, he did not manage to reach Alaska and the American shores. So he returned empty-handed. In Moscow, this adventure was seen as a near miss.
In 1731, Bering convinced Empress Anne to renew the experience. Ten years later, two ships set out from Okhotsk, the first under Bering's command, the other under the command of Captain Tchirikov. The latter was to be the luckier of the two.
In effect, Bering had barely passed the Kamtchatka Peninsula before being shipwrecked: he had to wait for rescue, which only arrived after his death. Whereas Tchirikov, for his part, had the good fortune of reaching the Alaskan shores after 41 days of sailing. But he could still not provide any proof of the existence of the Northwest Passage: he could not even say whether Russia and America were joined by land or by sea. A new failure, therefore.
Meanwhile, throughout the 18th century, tired of exploring for the Northwest Passage, the Europeans were fishing and trading.

1818: after Napoleon, why not conquer the Poles?
In 1818, new attempts by the English: they sent two ships towards the Northeast Passage and two other vessels towards the Northwest Passage. Another bitter failure. The four vessels returned to port after a few months without finding anything.
The following year, with two reasonably comfortable ships, Edward Parry took on a new mission: to go beyond the Lancaster Strait, which for years had been a natural barrier for mankind. On 04 September 1819, a crew crossed the 110th meridian west of Greenwich by 74°40' latitude north for the first time. When the fine weather returned, Parry attempted to go further, reaching the 113th meridian west but unable to sail any further West. He returned to England.
During a later expedition, Parry had two landing craft built, which could also be hauled by his men across the ice (the forerunner of the sledges used by modern adventurers): setting out from Spitzberg aboard these two canoes, he was soon obliged to proceed on foot and to clamber all the time over the chaotic ice. Furthermore, he observed that the drift of the pack ice was delaying their progress towards the pole. Three months after leaving their ship, they returned to the Hecla anchored at Spitzberg; they had covered more than 2,000km on the pack ice! After which, Parry returned to England.

1829: the Ross family (John & James) pulls off a few firsts...
It was still a question of the Northwest Passage. John Ross set off with his nephew, James, (who had been a member of Parry's crew) aboard Victory, a vessel which, for the first time in the history of polar navigation, was equipped with a steam engine that was supposed to replace the sails. The contraption did not work too well and was thrown overboard by the captain. They were, furthermore, the first to discover the igloo technique and to realise that the magnetic needles of all compasses pointed to a place that was not the Geographical North Pole, but which came to be called the Magnetic North Pole. Obliged to abandon Victory at the beginning of the spring of 1832, the two men continued with rowing boats and sledges. On 25 August, they were rescued by a whaleboat and returned to England safe and sound.

1819 - 1848: the time of Sir John Franklin, still dramas leading to failures...
1819: when Parry was once again commissioned by the British Admiralty to force the NW Passage, John Franklin was sent with a handful of men on a land reconnaissance of the expedition. They covered 600 miles along the shores in the areas around Hudson Bay; 18 men perished in a forced march intended to rejoin Fort Providence, one of the most dramatic episodes of the entire Arctic conquest.
1825: new English offensive on the North Pole. Parry was again on the voyage, F.W. Beechey (who had already led an expedition in 1825 along the Canadian shores) was to circumnavigate the two Americas and to go to meet Parry via the Bering Strait, and Franklin, for his part, was in charge of the land reconnaissance. Renewed suffering (Franklin and his men escaped from a general massacre by the Eskimos), renewed failure…
1845: the British admiralty decided on this occasion to go for the jackpot. Sir John Franklin was to captain two ships that had returned from a glorious epic in the southern waters, Erebus and Terror. There were 160 men on board, four years of food supplies, hot water for everybody thanks to a steam machine, music of their choice, a library of several hundred books, and silver cutlery… "There's no doubt about it" thought the English, "we shall succeed this time".
After a dispatch sent from the shores of Greenland, and then a report from a whaleboat that had clearly spotted the expedition in Baffin Bay, the British were to spend three years without the slightest news of Franklin and his men. A silence that was to lead to the largest rescue operation ever undertaken in the Polar Regions.
For ten years, under the instigation of the Admiralty and above all encouraged by Lady Franklin, the explorer's faithful wife, expeditions would follow one another in an attempt to discover what had happened to Erebus and Terror. A French Lieutenant, Joseph René Bellot, was even to set out in 1851 in search of the missing people before becoming the first French Arctic explorer to die at sea, a drifting prisoner on an islet of ice in the company of two companions who, for their part, were to survive. The English set up an obelisk in the town of Greenwich in the memory of this intrepid polar explorer.
It was in the course of those numerous rescue missions (in all, 39 ships were to take part in the operations) that the junction was made - a land rather than a sea junction - between the furthest points reached by the explorers, some progressing from East to West, others going from Alaska to Baffin Bay , that is to say from West to East.
A final expedition launched in 1859, (financed by the missing person's wife) was finally to solve the Franklin mystery. Setting out in 1845, Erebus and Terror had quickly become trapped in the ice in September 1846. June 1847: Franklin's death. A few months later, under the command of the First Mate Crozier, 23 men had died of cold. In April 1848, the two ships had been abandoned. The 105 survivors had attempted to rejoin the coast but all had perished in that dramatic adventure.
Between 1871 and 1874, two new record latitudes were reached by sailors of her Gracious Majesty: 82° 15' for Charles Hall aboard Polaris, and 83° 20' for George Nares and Albert Markham, aboard Alert and Discovery respectively, they reached a geographical point that was 740 km from their goal.

1878: finally, the discovery of the Northeast Passage, by the Swedes.
It was with disconcerting ease that Baron Eric Nordenskjöld (born in Finland into an old Swedish family) surmounted the Northeast Passage between 1878 and 1879 (he had nevertheless to spend the winter there on one occasion) between the waters of the North Sea and those of the Bering Strait. This aristocratic navigator encountered no difficulty whatsoever, not with the indigenous people who traded with voyagers, nor with his ship, Vega (a 45-metre long ship powered by a mixture of steam and sail), nor with his crew, nor with the winter nor the ice.
After wintering, sailing was resumed on 18 July 1879, and, two days later, the coveted passage between the Old World and the New World was found and surmounted.

June 1881: the dramatic shipwreck of the Jeannette.
It was precisely at this same period that the famous drama of the Jeannette occurred. Entry on stage of Gordon Bennett. Who was he? The all-powerful owner of the New York Herald, no less, that showman par excellence who had dispatched Henry Morton Stanley to track down Livingstone at the heart of the mysterious African continent.
This time, he relied on the American captain, George Washington De Long, who wanted both to conquer the pole, and, hungry no doubt for sensationalism because the Swede had been gone for barely a year without the slightest indication of being missing, to find Baron Nordenskjöld. Thus it was that Jeannette reached the Bering Strait on 29 August 1879, or a little more than a month after the Baron's success.
Because the latter was not dead, the American sailor was to concentrate all his efforts on the conquest of the pole. The three-master was soon stuck in the ice and began to drift - the men were forced to spend the winter aboard.
In June 1881, the Jeannette met her end, the sailing ship was crushed by the force of the ice. The men were 800km North of the mouth of the Iena River. The captain divided his crew into three: only the group led by the Chief Engineer, Melville, was to be saved, the others were to die in the adventure. De Long's logbook was even to be found, describing in detail the 139 days that followed his shipwreck. The account ended a few hours prior to the author's death; a drama that is strangely reminiscent of the fate that was to befall, 30 years later, the famous Robert Falcon Scott and his companions at the time of their conquest of the South Pole.

Winter 1883: the De Greely affair, or the martyrs to science.
Another enormous and harrowing Arctic polar adventure. Adolfus de Greely was an American Major: he was commissioned to set up an observation base at 81° latitude north in Franklin Bay. The first part of this mission was successful, but they had to be resupplied to be able to continue further North and attempt to conquer the pole. However, the ships failed to arrive. Greely was to wait a year plus a winter and had to decide - seeing neither ships nor equipment arrive - to return home under his own devices.
Obliged to head South, the men had to prepare themselves for a third winter on the ice. Prudent and professional above all else, Greelly enclosed in a watertight chest the scientific observations that his men had previously made, together with an account written by his First Mate, Lieutenant Lockwood, who had managed to plant the American flag at a latitude that hitherto had never been reached: 83° 22' N!
In the United States, the affair was front-page news because a kind of fatality had overwhelmed the expeditions undertaken to go to the rescue of those lost scientists. Finally, the order was given to do everything possible to find the Greely expedition.
On 20 June 1884, a Lieutenant Colwell discovered seven poor survivors in a tent, veritable zombies. A few days earlier, the same man had discovered, a few kilometres away, a message that had been written eight months earlier by those same survivors, which mentioned that, at that time, they had only three months of food supplies; with three months of food supplies, they had therefore survived for eight months!
In fact, that winter of 1883 had been a veritable nightmare: in addition to all the deprivations and the scurvy, the men had resorted to eating their own boots to suck the leather. There had been a simultaneous amputation of a foot and a finger for a man who had not even reacted during the said operations, and the execution of one of the team members, a Private Henry, who had on several occasions been caught stealing other people's rations. As the amputee had died on the return journey, there were therefore six martyrs to science that survived that sinister odyssey…