For over 300 years explorers searched for a passage through the Arctic, hoping to shorten the time and cost of sailing to and from markets such as China. By the 19th century, explorers had found their way into the Canadian Archipelago, and were looking for a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – the North-West Passage.
Read about all the expeditions below.
The greatest challenge to explorers was sea-ice, which blocked the channels between the islands during winter and remained frozen in bad summers. It could damage or crush ships. Explorers could die of starvation or vitamin deficiency if their ships were stuck in ice for several years. An expedition led by John and James Clarke Ross in 1829 survived an incredible four years trapped in freezing conditions.
In the early 20th century Roald Amundsen finally navigated a passage over the course of three years and in a tiny boat. His achievement was the culmination of one of the most extraordinary quests in the history of maritime exploration. However, as a route for commercial shipping the passage has remained a pipe-dream – until now.
In October 2007 BBC journalist David Shukman joined a large Canadian Coast Guard research vessel which took 8 days to make the journey. Read his diary account on the BBC website.
Read a short overview of all of the expeditions in search of the North-West Passage below. Follow the links to view maps and read more about each expedition.
Short description 1576-
The English search for the North-West Passage began in earnest with this expedition… Read more 1585-
Davis travelled deep into Cumberland Sound but could not find the Passage. He returned twice… Read more 1610-
Hudson's crew became the first Europeans to winter in the Canadian Arctic. The crew later mutinied… Read more 1612-
Button’s expedition charted much of the west coast of Hudson Bay, wintering at Port Nelson. Button discovered an opening in the north-west corner of the bay, but decided it was not the entrance to the Passage… Read more 1615-
William Baffin, Robert Bylot
After an unsuccessful first attempt, Baffin guessed that the passage would be found up Davis Strait and tried agian in 1616… Read more 1619-
Danish captain Jens Munk was frozen in for a disastrous winter on the west coast of Hudson Bay. All but three of the crew died of scurvy… Read more 1631
Foxe traversed almost the entire western shore of Hudson Bay but did not discover a route through the Passage… Read more 1631-
Fearing his ship would be ruined by ice and storms, James sank her and the crew built cabins on Charlton Island. Four died… Read more 1715-
Knight’s expedition never returned. The two ships reached Marble Island; their wrecks were found at the bottom in 1991–92… Read more 1741-
Middleton discovered Wager Bay but concluded it was not part of the North-West Passage… Read more 1746-
Moor’s expedition bore out Middleton’s conclusion that Wager Bay was not part of the Passage… Read more 1770-
Hearne became the first European to arrive at the Arctic Ocean overland, and concluded that any passage must lie much further north… Read more 1776-
In mid-August the expedition was halted by ice and had to turn back. An argument with Hawaiian natives led to his death… Read more 1818
Ross entered Lancaster Sound but turned back, claiming he had seen a ridge of mountains enclosing the inlet… Read more 1819-
William Edward Parry
Parry’s first voyage entered Lancaster Sound and sailed through the mountains Ross had said enclosed the inlet. He returned twice more… Read more 1819-
Franklin’s first overland journey hit difficulties and there were accusations of murder and cannibalism. His second land expedition was more successful… Read more 1829-
John and James Clarke Ross
Ross and his nephew's ship became permanently stuck in the ice. They found the magnetic North Pole and finally abandoned ship in 1832… Read more 1845
Franklin's ships became stuck in the ice, on the brink of success of navigating the North-West Passage. All perished… Read more 1850-
From a high point on the north coast of Banks Island, they saw Melville Island and the waters of Melville Sound reached by Parry. The North-West Passage had finally been found… Read more 1903-
When Amundsen met a whaling ship from San Francisco coming in the opposite direction he knew he would complete the North-West Passage… Read more