Today’s guest post is by ST&B’s upcoming speaker Glenn “Marty” Stein, a maritime and polar historian who will be at the Library on October 29 to talk about his recent book “Discovering the North-West Passage: The Four-Year Arctic Odyssey of H.M.S. Investigator and the McClure Expedition” (McFarland & Co, 2015). Stein has researched maritime and polar history since 1975 and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS), Life Member of the American Polar Society (APS), member of the Orders and Medals Research Society (OMRS/UK), and of the Life Saving Awards Research Society (LSARS/UK).
The quest for the North-West Passage began in the sixteenth century because of Europe’s hunger for luxury goods such as spices, jewelry and textiles from the Far East. Since the British were always at the end of long trading routes, they paid the highest prices. Consequently, the British became obsessed with finding a shortcut to the Far East by discovering a maritime route from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic’s Holy Grail – the North-West Passage.
During the course of 350 years, the vast majority of expeditions pitted iron men and wooden ships against the Arctic. By 1818, nationalistic pride and scientific inquiry provided new fuels for Britain’s preoccupation with the search. Over the decades that followed, more and more layers of the Arctic were peeled away, but the Passage eluded explorers. Finally, in 1845, Sir John Franklin and 128 companions sailed in HMS Erebus and Terror to challenge the Arctic with the best of British technology. Franklin entered the Arctic and disappeared behind a veil of snow and ice.
By 1847, there was still no word from the expedition and uneasiness seeped into the government and society – turning to foreboding – and then alarm. The Admiralty launched a major rescue effort in 1848, but over the following two years, no trace of the lost explorers could be found. In 1850, HMS Enterprise (Captain Richard Collinson) and Investigator (Commander Robert McClure) embarked on a rescue mission to save Franklin and his men.
The plan was for Enterprise and Investigator to sail through the Bering Strait, and search the western Arctic. On their way to the strait, the ships were separated in a storm and never met again.
An ambitious man, McClure made genuine attempts to find the lost explorers, but they were not uppermost in his mind – instead, he took big risks with his ship and crew in order to grasp the Passage. The voyage was one of the most physically and mentally arduous journeys ever undertaken, pushing some men into the realm of insanity, and costing others their very lives. The Investigator’s surgeon was the strong-willed Donegal County native Alexander Armstrong, battled with McClure as he worked tirelessly to preserve the health of the sailors and Marines.
The threatening ice of the Beaufort Sea only allowed Investigator to creep along the northern coast of Russian America (Alaska). Eventually, McClure saw an opportunity to make a northerly dash through a ribbon of water he named the Prince of Wales Strait, and reach Viscount Melville Sound (the known western end of the Passage). But just when glory and fame seemed his for the taking, jumbled masses of white boulders blocked McClure’s path and nearly destroyed his command.
McClure wintered in the ice, hoping the summer break up might then allow he and his companions to complete a passage. In the spring of 1851, sledding parties set out to search for their missing countrymen…and found their destiny.
On October 29, 2015, 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.., Glenn Stein, FRGS, will speak on his recent book Discovering the North-West Passage: the Four-Year Arctic Odyssey of H.M.S. Investigator and the McClure Expedition (McFarland & Co, 2015). A special presentation will also be given by Parks Canada’s Senior Underwater Archaeologist Ryan Harris, who dove to the wreck of H.M.S. Investigator. The event will be held in the Library of Congress, Mumford Room, 6th Floor, James Madison Building, 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington D.C. The lecture is free and open to the public; tickets are not required. Copies of Stein’s book will be available for purchase and signing following the program.