List Of Contents | Contents of Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin
< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

he adopted the bolder and more northerly courses which
brought him to Bear Island. Thence, plunging into the
mists of the frozen sea, he ultimately sighted the western
mountains of Spitzbergen. Unable to proceed further in
that direction, Barentz retraced his steps, and again
passing in sight of Bear Island, proceeded in a south-east
direction to Nova Zembla, where his ships got entangled
in the ice, and he subsequently perished.

Towards the close of the sixteenth century, in spite of
repeated failures, one endeavour after another was made
to penetrate to India across these fatal waters.

The first English vessel that sailed on the disastrous
quest was the "Bona Esperanza." in the last year of King
Edward VI. Her commander was Sir Hugh Willoughby, and we
have still extant a copy of the instructions drawn up by
Sebastian Cabot--the Grand Pilot of England, for his
guidance. Nothing can be more pious than the spirit in
which this ancient document is conceived; expressly
enjoining that morning and evening prayers should be
offered on board every ship attached to the expedition,
and that neither dicing, carding, tabling, nor other
devilish devices--were to be permitted. Here and there
were clauses of a more questionable morality,--recommending
that natives of strange lands be "enticed on board, and
made drunk with your beer and wine; for then you shall
know the secrets of their hearts." The whole concluding
with an exhortation to all on board to take especial heed
to the devices of "certain creatures, with men's heads,
and the tails of fishes, who swim with bows and arrows
about the fiords and bays, and live on human flesh."

On the 11th of May the ill-starred expedition got under
way from Deptford, and saluting the king, who was then
lying sick at Greenwich, put to sea. By the 30th of July
the little fleet--three vessels in all--had come up
abreast of the Loffoden islands, but a gale coming on,
the "Esperanza" was separated from the consorts.
Ward-huus--a little harbour to the east of the North
Cape-had been appointed as the place of rendezvous in
case of such an event, but unfortunately, Sir Hugh overshot
the mark, and wasted all the precious autumn time in
blundering amid the ice to the eastward. At last, winter
set in, and they were obliged to run for a port in Lapland.
Here, removed from all human aid, they were frozen to
death. A year afterwards, the ill-fated ships were
discovered by some Russian sailors, and an unfinished
journal proved that Sir Hugh and many of his companions
were still alive in January, 1554.

The next voyage of discovery in a north-east direction
was sent out by Sir Francis Cherie, alderman of London,
in 1603. After proceeding as far east as Ward-huus and
Kela, the "Godspeed" pushed north into the ocean, and on
the 16th of August fell in with Bear Island. Unaware of
its previous discovery by Barentz, Stephen Bennet--who
commanded the expedition--christened the island Cherie
Island, in honour of his patron, and to this day the two
names are used almost indiscriminately.

In 1607, Henry Hudson was despatched by the Muscovy
Company, with orders to sail, if possible, right across
the pole. Although perpetually baffled by the ice, Hudson
at last succeeded in reaching the north-west extremity
of Spitzbergen, but finding his further progress arrested
by an impenetrable barrier of fixed ice, he was forced
to return.  A few years later, Jonas Poole--having been
sent in the same direction, instead of prosecuting any
discoveries, wisely set himself to killing the sea-horses
that frequent the Arctic ice-fields, and in lieu of
tidings of new lands--brought back a valuable cargo of
walrus tusks. In 1615, Fotherby started with the intention
of renewing the attempt to sail across the north pole,
but after encountering many dangers he also was forced
to return. It was during the course of his homeward voyage
that he fell in with the island of Jan Mayen. Soon
afterwards, the discovery by Hudson and Davis, of the
seas and straits to which they have given their names,
diverted the attention of the public from all thoughts
of a north-east passage, and the Spitzbergen waters were
only frequented by ships engaged in the fisheries. The
gradual disappearance of the whale, and the discovery of
more profitable fishing stations on the west coast of
Greenland, subsequently abolished the sole attraction
for human being which this inhospitable region ever
possessed, and of late years, I understand, the Spitzbergen
seas have remained as lonely and unvisited as they were
before the first adventurer invaded their solitude.

Twice only, since the time of Fotherby, has any attempt
been made to reach the pole on a north-east course. In
1773, Captain Phipps, afterwards Lord Mulgrave, sailed
in the "Carcass" towards Spitzbergen, but he never reached
a higher latitude than 81 degrees. It was in this expedition
that Nelson made his first voyage, and had that famous
encounter with the bear. The next and last endeavour was
undertaken by Parry, in 1827. Unable to get his ship even
as far north as Phipps had gone, he determined to leave
her in a harbour in Spitzbergen, and push across the sea
in boats and sledges.  The uneven nature of the surface
over which they had to travel, caused their progress
northward to be very slow, and very laborious. The ice
too, beneath their feet, was not itself immovable, and
at last they perceived they were making the kind of
progress a criminal makes upon the treadmill,--the floes
over which they were journeying drifting to the southward
faster than they walked north; so that at the end of a
long day's march of ten miles, they found themselves four
miles further from their destination than at its
commencement. Disgusted with so Irish a manoeuvre, Parry
determined to return, though not until he had almost
reached the 83rd parallel, a higher latitude than any to
which man is known to have penetrated. Arctic authorities
are still of opinion, that Parry's plan for reaching the
pole might prove successful, if the expedition were to
set out earlier in the season, ere the intervening field
of ice is cast adrift by the approach of summer.

Our own run to Bear Island was very rapid. On getting
outside the islands, a fair fresh wind sprung up, and we
went spinning along for two nights and two days as merrily
as possible, under a double-reefed mainsail and staysail,
on a due north course. On the third day we began to see
some land birds, and a few hours afterwards, the loom of
the island itself; but it had already begun to get
fearfully cold, and our thermometer, which I consulted
every two hours, plainly indicated that we were approaching
ice. My only hope was that, at all events, the southern
extremity of the island might be disengaged; for I was
very anxious to land, in order to examine some coal-beds
which are said to exist in the upper strata of the
sandstone formation. This expectation was doomed to
complete disappointment. Before we had got within six
miles of the shore, it became evident that the report of
the Hammerfest Sea-horseman was too true.

Between us and the land there extended an impenetrable
barrier of packed ice, running due east and west, as far
as the eye could reach.

[Figure: fig-p162.gif]

What was now to be done? If a continuous field of ice
lay 150 miles off the southern coast of Spitzbergen, what
would be the chance of getting to the land by going
further north? Now that we had received ocular proof of
the veracity of the Hammerfest skipper in this first
particular, was it likely that we should have the luck
to find the remainder of his story untrue? According to
the track he had jotted down for me on the chart, the
ice in front stretched right away west in an unbroken
line, to the wall of ice which we had seen running to
the north, from the upper end of Jan Mayen. Only a week
had elapsed since he had actually ascertained the
impracticability of reaching a higher latitude,--what
likelihood could there be of a channel having been opened
up to the northward during so short an interval? Such
was the series of insoluble problems by which I posed
myself, as we stood vainly smacking our lips at the
island, which lay so tantalizingly beyond our reach.

Still, unpromising as the aspect of things might appear,
it would not do to throw a chance away; so I determined
to put the schooner round on the other tack, and run
westwards along the edge of the ice, until we found
ourselves again in the Greenland sea. Bidding, therefore,
a last adieu to Mount Misery, as its first discoverers
very appropriately christened one of the higher hills in
Bear Island, we suffered it to melt back into a fog,--out
of which, indeed, no part of the land had ever more than
partially emerged,--and with no very sanguine expectations
as to the result, sailed west away towards Greenland.
During the next four-and-twenty hours we ran along the
edge of the ice, in nearly a due westerly direction,
without observing the slightest indication of anything
approaching to an opening towards the North. It was weary
work, scanning that seemingly interminable barrier, and
listening to the melancholy roar of waters on its icy

At last, after having come about 140 miles since leaving
Bear Island,--the long, white, wave-lashed line suddenly
ran down into a low point, and then trended back with a
decided inclination to the North. Here, at all events,
was an improvement; instead of our continuing to steer
W. by S., or at most W. by N., the schooner would often
lay as high up as N.W., and even N.W. by N. Evidently
the action of the Gulf Stream was beginning to tell, and
our spirits rose in proportion. In a few more hours,
however, this cheering prospect was interrupted by a
fresh line of ice being reported, not only ahead, but as
far as the eye could reach on the port bow; so again the
schooner's head was put to the westward, and the old
story recommenced. And now the flank of the second barrier
was turned, and we were able to edge up a few hours to
the northward; but only to be again confronted by another

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: