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15 Dec - James Clark Ross biography final part

RRS James Clark Ross Diary

Noon Position: 51° 40.0 S, 57° 48.3 W)
Distance Travelled since Grimsby: 15000.0 Nautical Miles
Air temperature @ Noon today: 11.3°C
Sea temperature @ Noon today : 10.3°C
Weather: Moderate, NE, 2, 1012.3 mb

Back to Stanley

This week is summed up in two photographs....

Photo 1

View from the stern (Click to enlarge)

We rocked and rolled back across the Drake passage towards Stanley. This photo is the view from the UIC room looking towards the stern of the ship. The camera has faithfully recorded the scene as it sees it. You can see the ship rolling slightly to one side, a little swell and a bit of spray in the air. This is undoubtably how it looked at that precise moment. If you look closely at the rope hanging in the centre of the picture you may get the idea that its gravity defying position may be due to wind. The snow lying on the deck might give an impression of the temperature. The many white crests of the waves would suggest a rolling sea coming at an angle. The height at which the photo was taken, looking down, makes the sea seem small and insignificant. Maybe sitting at home reading this in a warm house it doesn't look a very remarkable photo. To the camera that took the image it wasn't!

The person holding the camera saw the same image for only a fraction of a second in their eyes. However those eyes are intimately tied to a body and mind that can experience many other sensations and emotions that a simple image can never convey. The image can be seen in simple insolation without any reference to the complex creature to whom that image is only a tiny part of the multifaceted experience of trying to live in that place. The camera cannot record that I had no sleep the night before because I was rolling around in my bunk or that I was tired from fighting to maintain my posture whilst simply sitting in a chair let alone moving around. The whistling of the wind in the gantries, the horizontal movement of the snow, spray, sleet through the air, the albatross wrestling with the air around them cannot be expressed by our faithful camera. My body complains by feeling nauseated and fails to concentrate on simple tasks, everyones mood blackens and the frustrations of inactivity grow. At night a cacophany of creaks and rattles dance across your mind. Eating is a challenge and soup is certainly out of the question! It is funny the first time the breakfast tries to slide off the table and you feel pleased by just catching it in time. Picking all your papers up of the floor and cursing for not leaving them in a drawer, doging dislodged items that have moved in cupboards and are destined to fly at you on first opening the door, the chair you are sitting on sliding around the room as you try and work on a stationary computer are things to be endured. Maybe these things will fade and looking back at my pictures of wonderful sunsets and icebergs my brain will choose to forget these challenges and only pick out the wonderful things.

It is difficult to say when it ceased to be rough. The decline was slow like the coming of winter or the healing of a wound. A relentless unnoticed progress until the reality dawns that it has now stopped. Then we arrived in Stanley.

Photo 2

Calmer waters - Click to enlarge

A nice shot of the stern as the JCR deploys the work boat for a quick tour of Port William. By this stage of the week we had completed all the cargo work and the ship was again full of Rothera bound toys for Christmas. We vacated our berth on FIPASS to allow a trawler to pick up some nets and a cruise ship to come alongside to change passengers, and anchoured just outside Stanley Harbour off Sparrow Cove where the SS Great Britain lay for many years. While we waited for a new gaggle of FIDS to arrive on the Tristar we took the chance to test all the boats and ensure they are all in tiptop condition. So as I write this on Sunday we are taut like a coiled spring ready to go as soon as our passengers arrive.

James Clark Ross: (Part 3 – The closing years)

This is the third and concluding part of a mini biography on James Clark Ross. Previous parts can be seen on the JCR diary over the last month.

JCR returned from his epic Antarctic voyage in September 1843, exhausted following 4½ years away to find public opinion had refocused on the search for the Northwest Passage. The Admiralty, and John Barrow in particular, desired ‘the complete discovery of the Northwest Passage’ and JCR was the obvious candidate to lead any expedition. However, the toll of the last voyage had been huge on JCR, also he had promised his new wife not to undertake any further expeditions and had already been away for 24 years at sea out of 44, so immediately refused the command in 1844. Sir John Franklin, now aged 58, was chosen with the backing of his good friend, JCR, to lead Erebus and Terror back to the Arctic despite his age and lack of experience of ship handling. Ross’s good friend, Crozier was taken as 2nd in command. John Barrow declared it would be a national disgrace if the US or Russia discovered the Northwest Passage first and he was confident that it would be so safe that there was little prospect of loss of life. By simply looking at the narrow escapes of Parry and the two Ross’s on many occasions this was somewhat ambitious. Franklin’s orders were to proceed to Cape Walker and then cross 70,000 square miles of unmapped Arctic wilderness equipped with 3 years supplies. See map for the proposed route. The ships sailed on 19 May 1845 amidst huge public euphoria, while JCR watched from his new home in Aston Abbotts, near Aylesbury. He was settling into married life and had a son, James Coulman, on 15 September 1844 followed by a daughter, Anne on 26 July 1846. Whilst Franklin was struggling in the Arctic, Ross was turning his attention to the completion of his scientific work resulting from his Antarctic voyage.

By 1847, no news had been heard of the Franklin expedition and plans were laid for a 3-pronged search to try and rescue the 138 men.  Huge pressure was put on the most experienced Arctic explorer to go and find them.  So JCR agreed to lead a shipborne search from the east while Richardson would look using an overland route from the south and HMS Herald and Plover would search from the west.

Ross sailed on 12 April 1848 in the Enterprise (450 tons) and Investigator (400 tons) with 3 years supplies. He had a very experienced crew drawn from his previous expeditions including Lieutenant Francis McClintock (who was destined to finally solve the Franklin mystery years later and also advance sledge travel techniques) and Robert McClure (who was the first person to travel across the Northwest Passage, albeit not in a ship). It was their experience on Ross’s expedition that would lay the foundations for their later exploits. Ross sailed up through the Barrow Strait in the footsteps of Franklin searching for any remains of the expedition. After discovering the Wellington Channel blocked by ice (one of Franklin’s proposed routes) they made it to Port Leopold just before the ice closed in for the winter. For a map click here. During the months of darkness Arctic foxes were caught and fitted with brass collars with details of the search before being released hoping this ‘Twopenny Post’ would be found by Franklin’s men. Ross had surprisingly not brought dogs from Greenland so man-hauling sledge expeditions were sent out from the ships. He also experimented with the design of the sledges and sensibly incorporated Inuit ideas and developed a type of sledge that was used by the Navy for many years to come. During April and May 1849, Ross led 14 men on a 40 day sledge journey along the north side of North Somerset Island and then down the west side reaching within 170 miles of the Magnetic Pole which he had hoped to reach. He called the furthest point, Cape Coulman, after his wife. On returning to the ships after covering 539 miles, 2 men were lame and had to be pulled on sledges, 3 were useless and everyone was immediately declared sick except McClintock who had developed a taste for sledge travel. Unfortunately no one was sent to Beechy Island where Franklin had spent his first winter. As soon as the men were fit again, they cut a 2 mile long channel through ice 3-5ft thick and were released on 28 August, leaving a house and supplies for any survivors of Franklin. However within several days of leaving the harbour the ships were again trapped in the ice and carried 250 miles west towards Baffin Bay. Upon reaching open water on the 25 September they found their passage back to the east blocked by ice and, with no other options open to them, returned to the England on 28 October 1849. On the passage home virtually every member of the crew suffered from scurvy including Robertson, the surgeon, who almost died and this was blamed on the disgraceful quality of provisions. Within 3 days of their return, Richardson also arrived back in London with no news of Franklin to widespread public alarm. Ross received criticism on his return for not staying for a second winter mainly from ‘armchair’ critics. His performance was approved by the admiralty because practically he had no choice but to return early because of illness in his men and ice conditions. He had achieved new advances in sledge design, mapped a further 150 miles of coast line and taught a new generation of officers the skills needed for polar exploration.

The Admiralty were persuaded to put up a £20,000 reward for the discovery of the Franklin expedition and 5 new search missions left in 1850 including one led by the now 73-year-old John Ross. He had sailed in the Felix, which left in a state of chaos for the septuagenarian explorer:

"The Felix....went to sea....in a sad state of disorder, from the continued drunkenness of the crew. The sailing master had drank himself into a state of insanity, delirium tremens, and was in his bed; the mate was little better, perhaps worse, for he was furious with drink; and the whole of the crew were much in the same state and positively refused to weigh the anchor or make sail on the vessel."

However the fleet of 10 search ships arrived at Beechy Island to find 3 graves and remains of Franklin’s first wintering harbour. There were no indications of where he had planned to go and after no further clues were found as to their fate and the ships were forced to return home the following year after extensive exploration of the surrounding area with no extra news. Amazingly Ross released two carrier pigeons from Beechy Island and one managed to fly 2,000 miles home and was found in Kilmarnock but the message had fallen off on the journey!! McClintock was also present during the winter and organized sledging journeys with the novel idea of laying caches of provisions to increase the range of travel and covered 770 miles in 80 days. This sensible system was adopted by many later explorers, including Shackleton and Scott. By this time rumours had filtered back from the Inuit of two ships that had been wrecked and of white men who had died walking across the ice. More searches were organized and JCR gave his help and advice but refused to go back to the Arctic himself.

Briefly the fate of the search for the Northwest Passage and Franklin’s expedition are as follows. McClure in 1850, commanding the Investigator, headed up through the Bering Strait and tried to penetrate to the south of Banks Island but was repelled by the ice. He then wintered, sailed round the north side to confirm it was an island and was lucky to reach as far as the Bay of Mercy, where he wintered again. For a map click here During the winter rations were reduced and sledge journeys failed to make contact with the expected expeditions from the east. Having failed to be released from the ice during the summer they prepared for a third winter in the ice. The men were half-starved, suffering from scurvy and several mental breakdowns and about to abandon the ship, which would have resulted in almost certain death. However, Commander Kellet in the Resolute, coming from the east, found a message from McClure the previous summer in a cairn. He then risked an early sledging expedition from the east to reach McClure before he abandoned ship the following spring. He reached McClure with only days to spare and saved the crew. The very fortunate McClure was taken back to Kellet’s ship and then to England via Lancaster Sound. So, he became the first man ever to cross the Northwest Passage, abliet using sledges and ships and taking 4 years to do it! The first ship to navigate the passage was Roald Amundsen, forty-five years later.

McClintock sledged 1,348 miles in 1852 looking for Franklin and then returned in the Fox in 1858-9. For a map click here. In the latter expedition he sledged far to the south around King William land and found a cairn near Victory Point. Within it was a letter from Crozier, Franklin’s second in command, stating that Franklin had died in September 1848, the ships had been crushed in the ice and the 109 survivors were trying to walk south to civilisation. Remains of the expedition were found to the south, including remains of bodies suggesting that despite resorting to cannibalism, the remains of the party had finally died of starvation before rescue. James Ross had been present on the very first expedition to the Northwest Passage, taken part in 6 expeditions looking for it and had spent a staggering nine winters and sixteen summers in the Arctic. It is fitting that James Ross’s protégé, McClintock had finally unravelled the mystery of Franklin’s fate and ended a remarkable chapter in the history of the Royal Navy.

The long years of searching for the Franklin expedition had placed great strain on James Clark Ross. Worried about his two great friends, physically tired after his own search expedition and hurt by ill-informed criticism of his voyage, he tried to enter into a quiet family life at his home in Buckinghamshire. Another two sons were born (Thomas in September 1850 and Andrew in June 1854) and he enjoyed a relaxing and happy few years with his wife. Promoted to rear admiral of the Red in 1856 he continued with his scientific work. In January 1857, his beloved wife Anne, died of pneumonia, aged forty. James Ross was devastated and wrote a new will stating:

"I wish to be buried by the side of my beloved wife. If there be not room there, my coffin might rest upon hers as the grave is dug purposely of sufficient depth, and thus our dust may mingle in the grave, while our souls rejoice together in glory everlasting."

Despite throwing himself into scientific pursuits to try and console himself, it was noted by his friend, Jerdan that ‘the icy hand of death robbed the brave seaman of his consort, and left him alone – heart stricken and desolate. It was sad to witness the despondency that fell upon his indomitable and elastic spirit.’ By 1862 Ross admitted that recently ‘I have lived the life of a recluse, which is now more congenial to my feelings than the laborious trifling and heartless intercourse with the world.’ During his last years, heart broken, his health slowly declined, in some part due to alcohol.

The full reports of the Antarctic expedition had not yet been published but the magnetic observations recorded were ‘justly held to be the greatest work of the kind ever performed’ in the eyes of Royal Society. James Clark Ross is the only officer from the Royal Navy to be named in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Edward Sabine commented that ‘with the large extent and high character of his contributions to the advancement of the sciences connected with the physical geography in the polar regions of both hemispheres, he has established a claim to be regarded as the first scientific navigator of his country and of his age.’ Joseph Hooker, surgeon and naturalist, was justified when he said:

‘Ross was really the greatest by far of all our scientific navigators, both in point of length of service and span of the globe. Justice has never been done to him.’

Rear admiral Sir James Clark Ross died on 3 April 1862 and was buried with his wife at Aston Abbots.

Sir James Clark Ross - Click to enlarge

Coming up next week: Rothera

Thanks to: Johnnie Edmonston for sorting out the computer problems onboard that led to the late publication of this weeks diary.