Despite the cost of fighting the rebellious American colonies, the British Admiralty still could find money in its purse to offer prizes for Arctic exploration. Besides the reward for discovery of the passage, an additional
twenty thousand pounds would go to the first to reach the North Pole and five thousand pounds to anyone who came within one degree of the magnetic pole. What once was a matter of commercial interest now evolved into one of national pride, involving the honor of the Royal Navy.
Enter one William Scoresby. While an enterprising and imaginative sailor, Scoresby did not have the privilege of naval rank. He made his living hunting whales. In the summer of 1806, he found himself facing a strange occurrence. The preceding winter had been unusually dry and warm. So had the spring. As a result the Greenland ice pack, which stands like a silent guardian, impeding all northern progress and preventing passage up both sides of Greenland, receded north instead of advancing across the open waters as it usually did.
Suddenly Scoresby found himself facing open water. Instead of lying to to await the southern migration of their quarry like the others in the whaling fleet, Scoresby loosed his canvas and sailed north. Soon he encountered the deadly ice, but due to the warm weather and light snow, areas of the pack ice proved thin enough to navigate. With consummate skill, Scoresby threaded his fragile ship through the icy eye of the needle. Using only the power of wind, battling currents reaching three knots, and fighting his doubts, the whaler slipped between icebergs that could easily have crushed his vessel. To his amazement and his crew’s relief, Scoresby broke past the barrier and emerged into “a great openness or sea of water.” On he sailed, making careful notes, measuring the seawater’s temperature, and filling in the blank portions of his charts.
Miraculously the whaler pressed onward to the latitude of 81°30′ N, farther north than anyone save Henry Hudson had ever sailed. As the apogee of the earth, the North Pole is at 90° N;consequently Scoresby rested less than six hundred nautical miles from the top of the world.
Undaunted by the physical and fiscal dangers of the enterprise, Scoresby indulged his scientific bent as he sailed, mapping the coast of Greenland, studying the effects on his compass as the magnetic core of the earth pulled the instrument’s needle farther and farther to the west the farther he traveled north, and documenting the varied animals he encountered. One lowly whaler performed the work of an entire scientific expedition.
Ten years later similar changes in the ice pack recurred. Scoresby, now a veteran of fifteen voyages to that cold region and author of numerous papers on his findings, called this favorable event to the attention of the Admiralty. Now was the time to mount an attack on the North Pole, he urged. He offered his services, and if a few whales were struck along the way, he added, it might help to defray his expenses.
The navy was outraged. To the lords of the Admiralty, Scoresby’s prodding only rubbed salt in their wounds. Here this commercial sailor had achieved success where the Royal Navy had not. The greatest sea power in the world, fresh from defeating the combined Spanish and French fleets, rankled at its failure. Now this whaler presumed to tell the navy its businessand suggest pulling a profit as well. Scoresby’s scientific achievements also alienated the Royal Society, whose chair-bound members resented his careful work. Without letters behind his name, the whaler’s work simply could not be taken seriously, they protested.
This division between academics and lay scientists laid the foundation for trouble for every future expedition into the Arctic. The rugged demands of Arctic travel required a robust, hardy, and adventurous nature, one not usually found in the scholarly men who frequented universities. An ever-widening gulf would develop between those with formal education and those with knowledge gained from enthusiastic, on-site experience. On the one hand, you had the academics with impeccable credentials who were ill suited for the rigors and stress of Arctic travel. On the other hand, you had the explorers, able to withstand the extremes of cold, hunger, and darkness the North held, men whose findings were not accepted in the centers of learning because they lacked formal education. The gap was never resolved in the nineteenth century.
This same chasm would plague Charles Francis Hall to his dying day.
The Admiralty did mount an expedition, but it was to be wholly a naval operation, commanded, crewed, and run like a military operation. Scoresby was snubbed. Even though he was best qualified to lead, Scoresby was refused command of the expedition; however, their lords did offer him a minor position. Of course, the proud captain refused. Academe went along to complete his humiliation, refusing to acknowledge him by name, referring to Captain Scoresby only as “this whaler” or one of the “Greenland captains.”
The Admiralty foray, led by Capt. James Ross, fell afoul of the same optical illusions that had baffled Baffin as he explored Lancaster Sound. The shimmering peaks of Somerset Island merged with the haze from the frigid waters to convince him that the sound was a bay. Turning back, he missed his golden opportunity to discover the passage into the Arctic Ocean. Once again the Arctic had conspired to mask its inner secrets. Men had not yet paid a high enough price for that knowledge. More lives and tears in tribute would be needed. And more would come.
[Author Richard Parry. The book is “Trial by Ice” about the polaris expedition.]
See also this account of Jack Lammiman’s voyage to Jan Mayen Island to erect a plaque in Scoresby’s memory