The Arctic voyages of William Scoresby

Posted: February 18, 2012 by tallbloke in climate, Ocean dynamics, Politics, weather

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

William Scoresby

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

  1. Brian H says:

    The desire for status (and its accompanying authority) is the over-riding human motivation. People will die or kill for it. As the wannabe Masters of Decarbonization are now displaying and acting out.

  2. I note that the Scoresby got almost 3° further north than the “Old Pulteney Row To The Pole but not the North Pole, the North Magnetic Pole, and not even that but where it was in 1996” team did last summer, and they got icebound several times and had to drag their boat over the ice for several days. Of course, we all know Scoresby must have faked it as there’s never been as little summer ice as at present. I wonder if anyone’s checked the metadata in Scoresby’s log? Perhaps he only wrote it 24 hours before he returned to port. Just asking.

    A wonderful story here of the triumph of ignorant authority over natural skill and ability.

    BTW I’m visiting here more frequently now that “Watt’s Up With Willis” seems to have lost its old sparkle and incisiveness.

  3. Nick Stokes says:

    There’s a suburb near me named after him.

  4. tallbloke says:

    Hi MH: Yes, that’s what I found attracted me to this book excerpt too. I forgot to cite the author Richard Parry. The book is “Trial by Ice” about the polaris expedition.

    [Since you are access challenged right now and I have proper access I’ve edited in a brief ack on the foot. Extracts like that are excellent promotion for a work. –Tim]

  5. TB, this is a delightful piece.

    I’ll email Tony Brown, he will be, I hope, hot on the trail of Scoresby’s diaries.

    There’s another book I have called 1421 by Gavin Menzies. He did research, as another non-academic, into Chinese history. Several academics set up a website to denounce Menzies – whose crime was to have found strong evidence that the Chinese had not only circumnavigated the planet, but had also sailed through the Arctic Ocean. MWP, just before LIA bit, I think.

    BTW, I’m fascinated with WMC (he doesn’t like being called Connolley) who actually does combine Arctic interests and spartan survival habits with academic abilities. He’s evidently reading your blog, see under “Predictions!”

  6. adolfogiurfa says:

    “during the summer of 1806” (during the Dalton minimum). Perhaps then it happened what we are witnessing now: A mild winter over north America and a harsh winter over Europe.
    Precisely 1806 was the winter that defeated Napoleon in Poland: but the winter campaign of 1806-1807 finds Napoleon’s exhausted Army unable to tie down and defeat an inferior Russian force.

    Click to access MURPHY.pdf

  7. Lucy

    Thanks for your email 🙂

    I can’t see the whole context but I wonder if there is some confusion here between William Scoresby senior-which this item seems to be about- and his son William Scoresby Junior (to whom the link from the article goes)

    I wrote about Scoresby Junior at great length three years ago in this piece

    Whilst his father was arguably snubbed (although there were understandable problems with the Admiralty as they were fighting several wars at the time ), the son was much celebrated as the first real arctic explorer and had a considerable friendship with Joseph Banks President of the Royal Society.

    Scoresby junior explored the Arctic for some 30 years or more, noting the great reduction of ice that had taken place. He is buried not 6 miles away from me and has a plaque on the Church wall noting his achievements. It is right next to a plaque commemorating a local casualty of the Titanic which of course marked the start of the next great melting of the arctic 1917-1940.

    I am currently gathering together some 500 papers in order to write the next article in the series, imaginatively entitled ‘Historic Variations in Arctic Ice Part two’ which covers the numerous episodes of melting ice through to the bronze age and beyond. Considerable melting of the Arctic Ice seems to take place every 100 years or so, with more sporadic larger episodes occurring every 500 years or more.

    I would place the current melting somewhere between the two extremes. I think modern scientists-who appear to have a lamentable knowledge of history-are unaware that modern peak ice appeared to coincide with the start of satellite measurements and there has been a decline ever since to levels that are not at all abnormal.

    As a foot note, although I didn’t know it at the time I wrote my article, a teacher at my wifes’ school had an ancestor who had been awarded a cash prize for technically navigating the North West passage during the early 1800’s but died during a second attempt a few years later

    As a final foot note I contacted Gavin Menzies about the warming he wrote about in his book. He was somewhat cagey about his material –I think some of it came from climate records of the Byzantine empire which was of course sacked in 1452. Much of this material remains-I have some myself – but it would be a mammoth task to piece it together coherently. I would not discount Menzies story, but I would want much more evidence than he showed me at the time.

    [managed to find the plaque for snr
    This links through to the actual plaque

  8. Lawrie says:

    tobyb has raised a problem that I have had for many years. I have been interested in history since I was at school but never studied it as a subject except for my time in the Army. We can learn a great deal from history particularly the earlier sources which don’t appear to have been modified too much. I can’t imagine the climate history of Australia being worth much since the BoM have been flag wavers for AGW. There is a huge disconnect also between various histories of the aboriginal people here, particularly concerning the taking into care of children. One side says it was to breed out aboriginality the other, backed up by legislative records, to save them from abuse, hunger or just to give them an education. The left prefer the former.

  9. James says:

    As Tom Jones would sing..It’s not unusual

    HMS Turbulent North Pole 1988

    USS SKate North Pole 1959

  10. tchannon says:

    The north east passage is of as much interest, also with attempted exploration.

    The problem is the same as today, whether one great big island has ice between there and Russia.

  11. TG McCoy says:

    My cousin’s Husband was a young torpedoman on the Skate on that trip…

  12. tallbloke says:

    Lots of excellent historical articles related to, and from, a climate perspective from Tony B here: