Bold Adventures of Captain Ross
DESCRIPTION: "Come listen a while with attention, You seamen and landsmen likewise," to the tale of Bold (John) Ross. They sail to the "Pacific Ocean." They haul in the Fury's stores. They will see the North Pole or die. They find where the "magnet does bend."
EARLIEST DATE: 1908 (FIrth)
KEYWORDS: sailor hardtimes
1829-1833 - John Ross's (second) expedition to the Northwest Passage
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Palmer-Sea 96, "Bold Adventures of Captain Ross
cf. "Tars of the Blanche" (listed tune)
cf. "Lady Franklin's Lament (The Sailor's Dream)" [Laws K9] (subject: the Northwest Passage)
NOTES [4600 words]: John Ross's 1829 VIctory expedition to seek the Northwest Passage was well worth of a ballad. It's sad that this feeble and erroneous piece is all that Palmer could find.
The tale the song tells is based on fact, but fact mixed with an incredible amount of fiction. Here are the examples of each:
This song is in the first person ("Bold Ross was our noble commander" -- although oddly enough it never specifies whether it was John Ross or James Clark Ross), but other than John Ross, only one of the sailors on the Victory published an account of the voyage -- and that account, by steward William Light and touched up and published by Robert Huish, was intensely critical of John Ross (Edinger, pp. 227-228, 256-257, etc. -- since Light's was the only other account of the voyage, it has to be cited by those who studied the expedition, even though Light is considered an extremely biased witness).
"We sailed to the Pacific Ocean": The reason sailors sought the Northwest Passage was indeed to go from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, but Ross (who entered the Passage from the Atlantic end) never came near the Pacific.
The Fury: When Ross's ship was stuck, he did indeed retreat to the place where the Fury had been wrecked a decade earlier, and used the leftover supplies from that ship (which had had a much larger crew than the Victory) to provision his men.
"Our mainmast was soon smashed to pieces, While we hauled in the ship, Fury's stores": The expedition did indeed use supplies from the wreck of the Fury, as noted above, but the Victory was still capable of sailing when she was finally abandoned and scuttled; she simply couldn't get out of the ice.
"The North Pole": Ross's goal was never to see the North Pole; he wanted to sail the Northwest Passage. As it happened, his nephew James Clark Ross would find the north MAGNETIC pole during the expedition.
"Parry" is William Edward Parry, who had been Ross's second-in-command on Ross's first Northwest Passage expedition, and had made three voyages to try to find the Passage after Ross was disgraced. "Cook" is Captain Cook, who never sought the passage but did explore the Bering Sea region, where the Passage would end if it could be found.
"The bright magnet": presumably the North Magnetic Pole.
"King William's Name": James Clark Ross named one of the regions he explored "King William Land" (although this was presumably retrospective naming, since George IV was still king when the expedition set out). It is now known that this was part of an island, so it's "King William Island" -- and it was where the Franklin Expedition came to grief. Many think that this happened because John Ross published a map of King William Land showing it as part of the mainland, causing Franklin -- who had to decide whether to go east or west of King William Land -- to make the disastrous choice to go west, resulting in his ships being trapped in the ice.
As you can probably tell, the Ross expedition to a degree informed the planning for the Franklin Expedition; for an overview of the latter, and of the whole Northwest Passage sage, see the notes to "Lady Franklin's Lament (The Sailor's Dream)" [Laws K9]. But there is more to say about Ross's expedition than is found in the notes to that song, or in the text of this song..
It all started in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. The British Navy was huge -- too many ships and too many men for peacetime purposes. The Navy downsized as best it could -- many ships were dropped and many sailors paid off -- but getting rid of the officers wasn't so easy. With no ships to serve in, many of them were put on "half pay" -- that is, relieved of ship's duties but kept on the books at, yes, half the amount they were paid while on regular duty. Nobody liked this much -- the Navy didn't like paying even half the salaries; the officers didn't like getting only half the salary. There was intense competition for what jobs were available at sea -- and, indirectly, great political pressure to find something for them to do (Berton, p. 18; Williams, p. 170). Officers, after all, came from the upper classes, so they had clout.
One idea for finding occupations for a few ships was exploration. Among other things, in 1818 four ships were designated to explore the polar regions. Two, under David Buchan and John Franklin, would try to reach the North Pole. And two would resume the old, half-forgotten quest for the Northwest Passage (Williams, p. 171).
Command of the Northwest Passage expedition of 1818 went to "that stubborn and often maddening Arctic explorer Sir John Ross" (the description of Ross is from Berton, p. 13). He seemed, at first glance, a good choice: he was very brave, he was skilled at surveying, and he was clever about inventing things (e.g. he devised a tool for taking deep sea samples, and a device for drying the air inside a cold ship; for the latter, see Edinger, pp. 129-130). It was also argued that his experience in the Baltic made him at least a little more knowledgeable than most about working in cold conditions (Berton, pp. 22-23).
Ross was given command of the large whaler Isabella (a name to remember; we'll hear it again), and Parry, his second-in-command, was given the smaller (and, as it turned out, much slower) Alexander (Williams, p. 172). They were ordered to go through the Davis Strait (well explored by whalers), verify the existence of Baffin Bay (previously explored by, you guessed it, Baffin -- but his records were not taken very seriously), and then head west from Baffin Bay to look for the Northwest Passage. All this Ross did (Berton, p. 30); Baffin Bay was real -- and, as Baffin had said, there were openings to the west of it: Lancaster Sound, Jones Sound, and Smith Sound (which was more of a passage north than west). Ross picked the likeliest of them -- Lancaster Sound, the southernmost of the three -- and started on his way (Williams, pp. 176-177).
He didn't know it, but he had found the best entrance to the Northwest Passage (technically those other inlets, Jones Sound and Smith South, could also have led to passages, but being further north, they were almost always blocked by ice). In went Ross -- for perhaps 50 miles (Berton, p. 30, says 30; Edinger, p. xviii, says 80). The Isabella, being faster, went ahead of the Alexander in the heavy fog. Then the fog broke. And Ross saw... something. And instantly turned around, and headed everyone for home (Delgado, p. 57).
Ross would later claim that Lancaster Sound was closed. He had seen mountains -- he dubbed them the "Croker Mountains" after the First Lord of the Admiralty -- and that was enough reason to give up the whole expedition.
He didn't have to give up. Ross's ships had been provisioned to over-winter. Even if there were mountains, that didn't prove there was no way around them. But Ross, for whatever reason, had had enough. He not only headed home, he turned around so quickly, piling on all sail (Williams, p. 178) that Parry in the Alexander never even got to see Ross's mountains. And didn't believe they were there. No other officer every said he believed it, either.
Neither did the Admiralty (Delgado, p. 58). They wanted another try at Lancaster Sound. But the chance would not go to Ross. He was back on half pay for the rest of his career (Edinger, p. xvii; Bertens, p. 34). It was Parry who got command of the next expedition (Williams, p. 181).
It was a better expedition, too. Parry, instead of a whaler, got an actual Navy ship, the HMS Hecla, a "bomb" ship -- meaning that it was designed to throw very heavy shells, so, although slow, it was solid enough to deal with ice (Delgado, p. 58. On at least one occasion in 1825, Hecla's heavy construction let her survive an ice "nip" that would have sunk any other type of vessel; Delgado, p. 84). He also got stuck with a much less effective ship, the Griper, commanded by Matthew Liddon (Williams, p. 182), but still, it was clear the Navy was more committed than it had been to Ross. And Parry got results.
Parry headed back up Lancaster Sound, and quickly proved Ross wrong -- though Ross never really admitted it; even after Parry's voyage, he insisted on claiming that Lancaster Sound was blocked (he more or less said that what he had thought was mountains was in fact ice). This doesn't chance the fact that there were no Croker Mountains; Lancaster Sound was deep and wide and long, and led deep into what we now call the Arctic Archipelago. Indeed, although the name changes, there a sea path leading from Lancaster Sound essentially due west to the Bering Sea. Were it not for the ice, Parry could have made it all the way through the passage.
But the ice was there, and there was no usable Northwest Passage that way. Parry made it more than halfway through, but ended up stopped near Melville Island. He spent the winter of 1819-1820 there and headed home. He hadn't found the passage -- but he had made a valiant attempt, and made the existence of a passage seem very likely. Un-navigable, at least until global warming came along, but a path that was all water and ice as opposed to land.
He had also found, but not explored, several side inlets that might prove alternative routes if the straight westward waterway failed. One of these was Prince Regent Inlet (Williams, pp. 184-185), the first major unexplored body of water south of Lancaster Sound, between Baffin Island on the east and what we now know as Somerset Island on the west. Parry went only a short distance down the inlet, but it was noted for future exploration.
After returning home to great acclaim, Parry would make two more expeditions. His second expedition, ordered at the end of 1820 and setting sail in 1821 (Williams, p. 253) once again included the Hecla but this time with a sister ship, the Fury, as the second vessel (Berton, pp. 46). It was an attempt to reach the Passage via Hudson's Bay (Berton, p. 47). Everyone should have known better; although the maps of the Bay were somewhat imperfect, it had been explored enough that it should have been clear that there was no passage that way. But many doubted the earlier reports (Williams, p. 213).
This second expedition produced little. Parry spent two winters in the northern Hudson Bay area, but found no way to the west except a tiny channel between the mainland and Baffin Island that he named "Fury and Hecla Strait." Ice-clogged, it was clearly impassable (Williams, pp. 218-220). But exploring the area had given Parry an idea. To the west of Fury and Hecla Strait, he had seen what appeared to be ocean stretching to the west -- at about the longitude of Prince Regent Inlet that Parry had spotted on his first expedition.. And other explorers, notably John Franklin, had shown that there was ocean to the north of Canada at about the latitude where Parry was exploring. So, although Hudson Bay did not lead to the Northwest Passage, might it not be possible to head through Lancaster Sound, down Prince Regent Inlet, and then turn west along the north coast of Canada and complete the passage?
That was the basis for Parry's third expedition: He would go down Prince Regent Inlet and see if it led to the northern coast of Canada. So, in 1824, Parry set out again, once again in the Hecla and Fury, to try the Prince Regent Inlet route (Williams, pp. 222-223). Three other expeditions set out at the same time (Delgado, p. 79) to explore more of the coast of Canada. A land expedition was led by John Franklin, which succeeded in mapping much but not all of Canada's northern shore; Frederick Beechey took a ship through the Bering Strait to enter the passage from the west (this expedition accomplished relatively little); and George Lyon was sent to poke around in Hudson Bay again (this expedition also accomplished little; the Griper, Lyon's ship, was still a disastrously poor sailor and limited what he could do. The Griper barely survived, and Lyon was never given another command, but it clearly wasn't his fault; Williams, pp. 226-227).
Parry's expedition was the lynchpin. The ends of the Passage were known: Lancaster Sound and Alaska. The middle was not. Franklin and Beechey and Lyon, especially Franklin, might clarify some parts of the route, but only Parry was in position to locate the link in the middle.
Unfortunately for Parry, the weather -- which had been wonderful (by Arctic standards) for his 1819 voyage, and which hadn't been such a factor in his second because he sailed so much farther south, was a big problem in 1824. The ice was much heavier than in 1819, making it much harder to reach Lancaster Sound; they barely had time to reach Prince Regent Inlet before the ice shut them down (Williams, p. 223; Berton, pp. 84-85). They spent the winter at a place they called Port Bowen, at the extreme northwest end of Baffin Island (Delgado, p. 84), accomplishing nothing there except to demonstrate with absolute certainty that the North Magnetic Pole moved (Williams, p. 224); it was a much bleaker place than Parry's earlier wintering sites (Berton, p. 85). They would not escape until July 1825.
They then set out down Prince Regent Inlet. But before they could go more than about sixty miles, the wind came up so hard that it pushed Parry's ships into a trap between Somerset Island (the western boundary of the inlet) and the ice. Hecla survived, but Fury crashed into the shore so hard that it broke her keel and shattered her hull (Williams, p. 225). They put her ashore to try to fix the damage, but she was beyond repair (Delgado, p. 85).
With only one ship intact, Parry had no choice but to turn for home. Prince Regent Inlet was still unexplored; no one knew whether it could lead to the Passage or not.
Not even losing one of his ships ruined Parry's reputation with the Admiralty. They set the Passage aside, but authorized Parry to make an attempt at the North Pole. Like the Buchan/Franklin expedition, that didn't even make it close. Parry decided he had had enough of exploring; he never led another expedition. The Admiralty, for the moment, decided to stop messing around in the Arctic.
Which left an opening for John Ross to re-emerge. If the Navy wasn't going to try any more, he'd stage a commercial expedition that would let him do things his own way. He managed to convince Felix Booth, distiller of Booth's Gin, to fund most of his expedition (Delgado, p. 88; in what follows, note how many of the places Ross visited were given names that were variants on "Booth" or "Felix"). Ross thought he had a bright idea: A small ship, able to get through narrow passages -- and with a steam engine to power it when the wind did not cooperate (Edinger, p. 7).
In concept, Ross had a good idea. When the Passage was finally navigated by Roald Amundsen, he used a small boat with an engine. In practice, there were problems. Ross's steam engine would prove impossibly troublesome -- it used paddlewheels, not a screw propeller, and the lack of a flue meant that it didn't draw properly (two facts which, in combination, meant that it didn't have enough power to do any good), plus it regularly broke down (Edinger, pp. 8-9; according to Williams, p. 248, Ross and the designers eventually had such a pamphlet war about it that they almost fought a duel).
Worse, the ship Ross decided to use, the Victory, was so small that she could not carry enough provisions for an exploratory voyage, even for his small crew of just 23. But Ross had an answer for that, too. When the Fury had grounded in Parry's expedition, the crew had unloaded the Fury as they tried to lighten ship. All the supplies for dozens of men -- sails, ropes, clothes, guns, and most especially, non-perishable food -- were sitting there, waiting on the beach. For a small crew like Ross's, it would be a bounty that would last years. He would sail to Prince Regent Inlet, find the wreck of the Fury, and re-supply from the provisions she had left behind. (Edinger, p. 7. There was actually a lot more to his plan than that, involving a third ship, but the above is the essential part.)
There was some drama as Ross set out, including a mutiny on his supply ship and the permanent maiming of one of his engineers by the steam engine, but he got to Prince Regent Inlet as expected, and found Fury Beach. The wrecked hull was gone, but the food and supplies were there, and the Victory was able to fill her storage bins without even making much of a dent in the quantity of food (Williams, p. 230; Edinger, pp. 16-17; who adds that Ross blew up the remaining gunpowder lest it hurt visiting Inuit). Despite the cantankerous steam engine, Ross's voyage seemed to be off to a great start.
But although Prince Regent Inlet was south of Lancaster Sound, its entrance was still four hundred-odd miles north of the Arctic Circle. Ross had hardly started on his voyage down the Inlet before he started to have trouble with ice. Ross made it some two hundred miles farther south than Parry had (Edinger, p. 27; Delgado, p. 91, says 150 miles; Bertens, claims 300; I think the discrepancy is that the first is shoreline distance, the second north-south, and the third the total distance Ross travelled). Despite that, Ross didn't find any route west (there was a tiny passage, Bellot Strait, between Somerset Island and what Ross called Boothia Felix, now the Boothia Peninsula, but Ross missed it; Williams, p. 231. In any case, it wasn't navigable back then). In October, he was frozen in to a place he called Felix Harbour (off the body of water he called the Gulf of Boothia; Ross sure knew how to butter up the paymaster).
Ross's first wintertime activity was breaking down the steam engine he hated so much and dumping it on the beach (Williams, p. 231; Delgado, p. 91, has a modern photo of some of the abandoned parts still rusting away in Felix Harbor, although, with the Northwest Passage opening, I suspect many of them have since quietly vanished). More noteworthy was the arrival a tribe of Inuit, with whom Victory's men had interesting and profitable relations (Edinger, p. 62 and following; Williams, p. 234 and following -- one suspects that they brought the men of the Victory enough fresh food to help stave off scurvy). And James Clark Ross led a series of exploratory trips. One of these took him to the region, mentioned above, that he would dub "King Williams Land" (Delgado, p. 93). We now know it as King William Island. Had Ross known it, he had found the key link in the Northwest Passage -- but he didn't know it, and lack of supplies meant that he couldn't go on and connect his findings with other known territories (Berton, p. 114. He had hoped to make it to the point where Franklin had had to turn back, but they hadn't been able to properly cache supplied because a man on the sledge trip had suffered from snow blindness; Edinger, p. 107). So even though James Clark Ross's explorations helped fill in the middle in the gap in the maps, he hadn't filled in all of the gap; there were blank spots on both sides of what he had found. Or, rather, there should have been blank spots that should have been blank. John Ross's map (reproduced on p. 238 of Williams) showed King William Island as attached to the mainland, and the Franklin Expedition probably died as a result. In any case, John Ross had no way of getting across the Boothia Peninsula to the passage his nephew had (sort of) discovered. (And he might not have tried. John Ross, an imperious man, was not on good terms with either his sailors or his nephew by this time; Berton, p. 114.)
James Clark Ross named the place where he had to turn back "Victory Point," after this ship (Edinger, p. 109); in one of life's small ironies, it was on this point (although not at Ross's cairn) that the Franklin Expedition would leave their only written record.
James Clark Ross would also eventually prove that Prince Regent Inlet, and the bay it led to (which John Ross named the Gulf of Boothia) were just that: a bay, which did not lead to the Passage (Berton, p. 113).
The Inuit eventually left to return to their hunting. It took Ross a lot longer to break free. Not until July 1830 was it possible to move the ship at all -- and then only for a few miles. When the ice closed in again later that summer, Ross was still stuck in the vicinity of Felix Harbour (Berton, p. 111); he named this particular spot 'Sheriff's Harbour" (Felix Booth had been Sheriff of London, so this was another tribute to his patron; Edinger, p. 128)..
The second winter, the Inuit did not show up until April (Delgado, p. 95). It was a dull winter. But it was during this winter, on June 1, 1831, that one of James Clark Ross's journeys took him to the exact site of the North Magnetic Pole. (Naturally, Ross officially took possession in the name of Great Britain.) It took him most of two days to be sure of the location -- partly because the pole's position fluctuated somewhat and partly because, in the cold, it was difficult to handle metal instruments and hard to keep them operating properly; they wanted to stick (Edinger, p. 153). Ross and his party went a little further and built another cairn (Edinger, p. 154); this presumably was the cairn the Franklin Expedition was looking for in their last known message, but that was later....
On August 15, 1831, the Inuit left for what proved to be the last time (Edinger, p. 165). It was, as it turned out, an important moment -- because, from then on, the men of the Victory would get little fresh food. So far, the diet John Ross had offered to his men had kept them free from scurvy, though many of them hadn't liked it much. Starting from the time the Inuit left, they were subject to dietary diseases, which would get worse and worse for the rest of the expedition.
The Victory finally worked its way free on August 28, 1831 -- and made it only about ten miles before getting stuck yet again, in a place Ross named "Victory Harbour" (Delgado, p. 95; it was later changed to Victoria Harbor). That was the end. Ross realized that he simply could not free the Victory (Edinger, p. 171). He had no choice; he would have to abandon ship, and try to head back to Fury Beach on foot, then try for rescue by taking the ship's boats into Baffin Bay. He spent the next few months setting up supply dumps between Victory Harbor and Fury Beach (Williams, p. 242). When they left the ship, each man was allowed just ten pounds personal belongings -- which included the clothes he demanded they take (Edinger, p. 184). In late May, 1832, they nailed Victory's flag to her mast, drank a toast and left her for the last time (Edinger, p. 185). For a while, they tried hauling boats with them, until James Clark Ross reported that they could use the Fury's boats (Williams, p. 243; Delgado, p. 97; Edinger, p 190). It was still a hard haul; since they needed most of the crew to haul each sledge, and required several sledges, most of the ground had to be covered three times or more.
Arriving at Fury Beach on the night of July 1, 1832 (Edinger, p. 191), they built a shelter, grandly labelled "Somerset House," mostly from leftover parts from the Fury (Delgado, p. 99; according to Edinger, p. 192, Ross named it after North Somerset, the name Parry had given to the region). In August 1832, they sailed their small boats north in Prince Regent Inlet to try to break out into Baffin Bay (Edinger, pp. 192-193), but there was too much ice in Baffin Bay for them to reach the whaling grounds (Edinger, p. 197; Ross would use this ice to justify his claim that Lancaster Sound had been blocked in 1818, as if that were relevant). Back they went to Fury Beach to try to survive another winter and try again in 1833 (Berton, p. 118; Williams, p. 243). By this time, scurvy was starting to set in; their carpenter -- who was irreplaceable and vital to their survival -- died of it in February 1833, and others were too ill to be able to work (Williams, p. 244; Edinger, pp. 203-204). It was a hard winter in other ways; the food from the Fury, although still plentiful, was starting to spoil from years of exposure to frost and ice and wet (Edinger, p. 205), and Somerset House -- really a reinforced tent -- collapsed once (Edinger, p. 201).
In 1833, they were in luck -- they set out on August 15, and this time they found Lancaster Sound open, allowing them to head for Baffin Bay (Berton, p. 118; Edinger, p. 208). On August 26, they spotted whalers (Edinger, p. 209). The first one they saw, they failed to hail, but they managed to gain the attention of another (Edinger, pp. 209-210).
In an amazing coincidence, the ship they managed to reach was none other than the Isabella, Ross's ship from his failed expedition of 1818 (Berton, p. 119). When the Isabella's mate heard that Ross was aboard, he declared that Ross was two years dead. No doubt Ross took great satisfaction in proclaiming otherwise (Williams, p. 245; Edinger, p. 210).
It must have been deeply frustrating for Ross that the Isabella had not yet filled its holds with oil. The crew of the Victory could not head for home until a month later, when the Captain Humphreys of the Isabella decided the weather was too rough to stay (Edinger, pp. 211-212. Strangely, other whales had taken word of Ross's rescue to England; I've no idea why Ross and crew didn't transfer to one of the ships that went home earlier.)
The men came home to great acclaim, which no doubt explains why this piece was written: John Ross was knighted (although not until a year later; Edinger, p. 216) and given honors by foreign governments as well (Edinger, p. 220). James Clark Ross was promoted to Captain (as well as having two birds named after him; Edinger, pp. 220-221), and the men were given extra pay (Williams, p. 246; under navy regulations, their pay would ordinarily have been cut off when their ship sank -- and although they were civilians, Ross's budged hadn't included pay for four years, so either the navy paid them or no one did; Ross was broke -- Edinger, pp. 216-218). Both Rosses had a meeting with King William IV not long after their return home (Edinger, p. 215). John Ross received more than 4000 pieces of fan mail (Edinger, p. 219) -- and, at age 57, managed to gain a 23-year-old wife (Edinger, p. 220, though she would eventually walk out on him; Edinger, p. 243). The voyage became famous enough that a panorama of it was exhibited publicly (Williams, p. 249); there were other museum exhibits and the like as well (Edinger, p. 221).
Felix Booth, in addition to having half the Arctic named after him, earned a baronetcy (Edinger, p. 220).
Yet John Ross also managed, yet again, to get in trouble, with excessive boasts at the expense of his nephew, as well as refusal to admit several of his errors. The song is right that he was bold. He was also ahead of his time (e.g. in his advocacy of steam and other new technologies). I don't think that really makes him a good officer; he was wrong as often as he was right, and he was stubborn and a terrible commander of men. And this piece, naturally, tells the good without the bad.
As Williams says on p. 248, "John Ross is a difficult character to assess. Irascible, cross-grained, cantankerous are all terms that come to mind in describing him; yet on the voyage of the Victory he survived more than four years in the ice (no other expedition to this time had been out for more than two winters), and brought back most of the crew alive." That is, I think, about as balanced a verdict as we can give. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.4
- Berton: Pierre Berton, The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909, Viking, 1988
- Delgado: James P. Delgado, Across the Top of the World, Checkmark, 1999
- Edinger: Ray Edinger, Fury Beach: The Four-Year Odyssey of Captain John Ross and the Victory, Berkley, 2003
- Williams: Glyn Williams, Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage, 2009 (I use the 2010 University of California Press edition)
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.