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The quest for the Northwest passage

Between the end of the 15th century and the 20th century, colonial powers from Eurasia dispatched explorers in an attempt to discover a commercial sea route north and west around North America. The Northwest Passage represented a new route to the established trading nations of Asia. In 1493 to defuse trade disputes Pope Alexander VI split the discovered world in two between Spain and Portugal; thus France, the Netherlands and England were left without a sea route to Asia, either via Africa or South America.[7] The British called the hypothetical route the Northwest Passage. The desire to establish such a route motivated much of the European exploration of both coasts of North America. When it became apparent that there was no route through the heart of the continent, attention turned to the possibility of a passage through northern waters. This was driven in some part by scientific naiveté, namely an early belief that seawater was incapable of freezing (as late as the mid 18th century, Captain James Cook had reported, for example, that Antarctic icebergs had yielded fresh water, seemingly confirming the hypothesis), and that a route close to the North Pole must therefore exist.[7] The belief that a route lay to the far north persisted for several centuries and led to a number of expeditions into the Arctic, including the attempt by Sir John Franklin in 1845. In 1906, Roald Amundsen first successfully completed a path from Greenland to Alaska in the Gjøa. Since that date, a number of ice-fortified ships have made the journey. From west to east the Northwest Passage runs through the Bering Strait (separating Russia and Alaska), Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and then through several waterways that go through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. There are five to seven different routes through the archipelago, including the McClure Strait, Dease Strait and the Prince of Wales Strait, but not all of them are suitable for larger ships.[8][9] The passage then goes through Baffin Bay and the Davis Strait into the Atlantic Ocean. There has been speculation that with the advent of global warming the passage may become clear enough of ice to permit safe commercial shipping for at least part of the year. On August 21, 2007 the Northwest Passage became open to ships without the need of an icebreaker. According to Nalan Koc of the Norwegian Polar Institute this is the first time it has been clear since they began keeping records in 1972.

In 1776 Captain James Cook was despatched by the Admiralty in England under orders driven by a 1745 Act which, when extended in 1775, promised a £20,000 prize for whoever discovered the passage. Initially the Admiralty had wanted Charles Clerke to lead the expedition, with Cook, in retirement following his exploits in the Pacific, acting as a consultant. However Cook had researched Bering's expeditions and the Admiralty ultimately placed their faith in the veteran explorer to lead with Clerke accompanying him. After journeying through the Pacific, in another West-East attempt Cook began at Nootka Sound in April 1777 and headed North along the coastline, charting the lands and searching for the regions sailed by the Russians 40 years previously. The Admiralty's orders had commanded the expedition to ignore all inlets and rivers until they reached a latitude of 65° N. Cook, however, failed to make any progress in sighting a Northwestern Passage. Various officers on the expedition including William Bligh, George Vancouver and John Gore thought the existence of a route was 'improbable'. Before reaching 65° N they found the coastline pushing them further south, but Gore convinced Cook to sail on into the Cook Inlet in the hope of finding the route. They continued to the limits of the Alaskan peninsula and the start of the thousand-mile chain of Aleutian Islands. Despite reaching 70° N they encountered nothing but icebergs. Ultimately they failed in the search, cursing the Russians for their "late pretended Discoveries" and the existence of the passage as nothing more than geographical fantasy.[7] From 1791-1795, the Vancouver Expedition (led by George Vancouver who had accompanied Cook previously) surveyed in detail all the passages from the Northwest Coast and confirmed that there was no such passage south of the Bering Strait.[12] This conclusion was supported by the evidence of Alexander Mackenzie who explored the Arctic and Pacific oceans in 1793.

The Franklin expedition
In 1845, a well-equipped two-ship expedition led by Sir John Franklin sailed to the Canadian Arctic to chart the final unknown parts of the Northwest Passage. Confidence was high, as there was less than 500 kilometres (311 miles) of unexplored Arctic mainland coast left. When the ships failed to return, a number of relief expeditions and search parties explored the Canadian Arctic, resulting in final charting of a possible passage. Traces of the expedition have been found, including notes that indicate that the ships became ice-locked in 1846 near King William Island, about half way through the passage, and were unable to extricate themselves. Franklin himself died in 1847 and the last of the party in 1848, after abandoning the ships and attempting to escape overland by sledge. While starvation and scurvy contributed to the deaths of the crew, another factor was significant. The expedition took 8,000 tins of food which were carelessly sealed with a lead-based solder. The lead appears to have contaminated the food, poisoning the crew. They would have become weak and disoriented — later stages of lead poisoning include insanity and death. In 1981 Dr. Owen Beattie, an anthropologist from the University of Alberta, examined remains from sites associated with the expedition. This led to further investigations, and the examination of tissue and bone from the mummified bodies of three seamen, exhumed from the permafrost of Beechey Island. Laboratory tests revealed high concentrations of lead in all three. New evidence shows that cannibalism may also have been a last resort for some of the crew.

During the search for Franklin, Commander Robert McClure and his crew in HMS Investigator traversed the Northwest Passage from west to east in the years 1850 to 1854, partly by ship and partly by sledge. McClure started out from England in December of 1849, sailed the Atlantic Ocean south to Cape Horn and entered the Pacific Ocean. He sailed the Pacific north and passed through the Bering Strait, turning east at that point and reaching Banks Island. McClure's ship was trapped in the ice for three winters near Banks Island, at the western end of Viscount Melville Sound. Finally McClure and his crew – who were by that time dying of starvation — were found by searchers who had travelled by sledge over the ice from a ship of Sir Edward Belcher's expedition, and returned with them to Belcher's ships, which had entered the sound from the east. On one of Belcher's ships, McClure and his crew returned to England in 1854, becoming the first people to circumnavigate the Americas, and to discover and transit the Northwest Passage, albeit by ship and by sledge over the ice. This was an astonishing feat for that day and age and McClure was knighted and promoted to Captain and both he and his crew shared £10,000 awarded them by the British Parliament.

Gjøa was the first vessel to transit the Northwest Passage. With a crew of six, Roald Amundsen traversed the passage in a three year journey, finishing in 1906.The 70ft square-sterned 48 ton sloop was built by Kurt Johannesson Skaale in Rosendal, Norway in 1872, the same year Amundsen was born. She was named Gjøa after her owner's wife. For the next 28 years she served as a herring fishing boat, before Amundsen bought her in 1900 for his forthcoming expedition to the Canadian Arctic. Gjøa was much smaller than vessels used by other arctic expeditions, but Amundsen intended to live off the limited resources of the land and sea through which he was to travel, and reasoned that the land could sustain only a tiny crew (this had been the cause of the catastrophic failure of John Franklin's expedition fifty years previously). Her shallow draught would help her traverse the shoals of the arctic straights. Perhaps most importantly the aging ship was all that Amundsen (who was financing his expedition largely by spending his inheritance) could afford.

Alaska Exploration

The Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. One day in March 1899, Edward H. Harriman strode briskly into the office of C. Hart Merriam, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey. Without appointment or introduction, Harriman launched into a grand plan for an expedition along the coast of Alaska. Merriam, skeptical, listened politely, and, when Harriman left, checked the man's credentials. He soon learned that E.H. Harriman was a highly respected railway magnate, who had the financial resources and the talent to realize such a grand scheme.


Shackleton Expedition in Antarctica.... See the video

On the l9th January l915, after a five-week sail from South Georgia and three days after sighting land, Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance was beset by early pack ice at the extreme south east corner of the Weddell Sea. Shackleton, who had aimed to achieve the crossing of the Antarctic continent from west to east in the wake of Amundsen's conquest of the South Pole, was forced to abandon his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in the face of a more immediate and dangerous challenge. After nine months wedged on the floating pack ice, Endurance was finally crushed and sank. Saving as many supplies as they could (including Frank Hurley's precious photo archive), the crew of twenty-eight set up camp: initially Ocean Camp, located on the solidly packed ice, from October l915 to January l9l6; and after the sinking of Endurance, Patience Camp, on the volatile ice floes, January-April l916... keep reading it on the link


The South Pole Expeditions
Welcome to the home page of This site is dedicated to the heroic explorers of our polar regions and the surrounding islands. The tales of these brave souls were often related in expedition mail sent home to anxious loved ones and beneficiaries. As you browse through this site, you will witness an extensive mix of reference material that will be useful to philatelists and students of polar history alike

The Scott expedition

After a year spent undertaking science work, and laying provisions along the route of the party who were to make the journey to the South Pole, a five-man party (Scott, Lieutenant Henry Bowers, Dr Edward Wilson, Petty Officer Edgar Evans and army Captain Lawrence Oates) was selected for the final stretch to the pole itself. On arriving at the South Pole on January 17-January 18, 1912, Scott found that Amundsen had been there a month earlier - Scott had predicted some months before this would probably be the case. Amundsen had planted a Norwegian flag along with letters for Scott and his king. Although the letters showed that Amundsen respected Scott's ability to get there and back Scott wrote in his diary that it did not conceal his disappointment. Amundsen returned to his base in good order, while Scott's entire party perished on the return journey. Scott acknowledged that there had been no margin for error or delay in his calculations and his party succumbed to injury, frostbite, malnutrition and exhaustion. As their progress slowed the worsening and unusually cold weather further reduced their pace.[3] The first to die was Evans, who suffered a swift mental and physical breakdown near the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. The reasons for this and actual cause of death shortly afterwards remain uncertain. One theory that has been advanced is that he suffered a head injury that went unnoticed during a minor fall. Other theories as to the cause of his death have included scurvy owing to vitamin deficiency, effects of starvation and weight loss, hypoglycaemia and hypothermia. Oates, afflicted by frostbite, had lost the use of one foot, which made it very hard for him to keep up. Because the party would not abandon him to die, their progress was critically slowed. Oates' condition deteriorated, until at a point some 30 miles short of the One Ton supply depot he came to the view that he could not go on and his disability was endangering the remainder of the party. Waking on the morning of March 17, 1912, Oates left the tent, stepping out into the blizzard with the memorable words "I am just going outside and may be some time." It was his 32nd birthday. His body has never been found.
His last words:

Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale...We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker of course and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. For God's sake, look after our people.

Scott's journal

Captain James Cook FRS RN (October 27, 1728 (O.S.) – February 14, 1779)
Cook was an English explorer, navigator and cartographer. Ultimately rising to the rank of Captain in the Royal Navy, Cook made three voyages to the Pacific Ocean, achieving the first European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia, the European discovery of the Hawaiian Islands, and the first recorded circumnavigation and mapping of Newfoundland and New Zealand.

After service in the British merchant navy as a teenager, he joined the Royal Navy in 1755, seeing action in the Seven Years' War, and subsequently surveying and mapping much of the entrance to the Saint Lawrence River during the siege of Quebec. This allowed General Wolfe to make his famous stealth attack on the Plains of Abraham, and helped to bring Cook to the attention of the Admiralty and Royal Society at a crucial moment both in his personal career and in the direction of British overseas discovery, and led to his commission as commander of the HM Bark Endeavour and the first of his three Pacific voyages in 1766.

Cook accurately charted many areas and recorded several islands and coastlines on European maps for the first time. His huge achievements can be attributed to a combination of excellent seamanship, his superior surveying and cartographic skills, courage in exploring dangerous locations to confirm the facts (for example dipping into the Antarctic circle repeatedly and exploring around the Great Barrier Reef), ability to lead men in adverse conditions, and boldness both with regard to the extent of his explorations and his willingness to exceed the instructions given to him by the Admiralty.

Cook died in Hawaii in a fracas with Hawaiians during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific in 1779.


Ferdinand Magellan (Portuguese: Spring 1480–April 27, 1521)
Magellan was a Portuguese maritime explorer who, at the service of Spain, led the first successful attempt to sail around the entire Earth. He did not complete his final, westward voyage; he was killed during the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines. He did, however, die farther west than the Spice Islands of Indonesia, which he had visited from the west on earlier voyages, making him one of the first individuals to cross all the meridians of the globe. He became the first person to lead an expedition sailing westward from Europe to Asia and to cross the Pacific Ocean.
Memorial to Hernando de Magallanes in Punta Arenas (Chile)Of the 237[1] or 270[2] crew members who set out with Magellan to circumnavigate the globe, only 18[1][2] managed to return to Spain and thereby complete the circumnavigation. They were led by Spaniard Juan Sebastián Elcano, who took over command of the expedition after Magellan's death.

Cape Horn (Dutch: Kaap Hoorn; Spanish: Cabo de Hornos; named for the city of Hoorn in the Netherlands) is the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile. It is widely considered to be the southern tip of South America. Cape Horn is the most southerly of the great capes, and marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage; for many years it was a major milestone on the clipper route, by which sailing ships carried trade around the world. However, the waters around the cape are particularly hazardous, due to strong winds, large waves, and icebergs; these dangers have made it notorious as a sailors' graveyard.

Today, the Panama Canal has greatly reduced the need for cargo ships to travel via the Horn. However, sailing around the Horn is widely regarded as one of the major challenges in yachting, and a number of recreational sailors continue to sail this route, sometimes as part of a circumnavigation of the globe. Several prominent ocean yacht races, notably the Vendée Globe, sail around the world via the Horn, and speed records for round-the-world sailing follow the same route.

Jacob Le Maire (c. 1585 - December 22, 1616) was a Dutch mariner, born in Antwerp, who circumnavigated the earth in 1615-16. He discovered the strait between Tierra del Fuego and Staten Island, Argentina; that strait is now named the Le Maire Strait in his honour. He was the first person to round Cape Horn, proving that Tierra del Fuego was not a continent.

In June 1615 Jacob le Maire and Willem Schouten sailed with two vessels, Eendracht and Hoorn, from Texel in the United Provinces, in command of an expedition whose objective was to evade the trade restrictions of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) by finding a new route to the Pacific and the Spice Islands. They followed the north coasts of New Ireland and New Guinea and visited adjacent islands, including what became known as the Schouten Islands. In 1616 they rounded Cape Horn, which they named for the Hoorn, which was lost in a fire. The Dutch city of Hoorn was also the birthplace of Schouten. Although they had opened an unknown route, the VOC claimed infringement of its monopoly of trade to the Spice Islands. Le Maire and Schouten were arrested and the Eendracht was confiscated in Java. After being released, they returned from Jacatra to Amsterdam; Le Maire died during that journey.

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