John Ross's first expedition, 1818

Dates Explorer Ships Outcomes
1818 John Ross Isabella,
Ross abandons the exploration of Lancaster Sound believing it to be enclosed by mountains. It later turns out that it is in fact part of the North-West Passage.

Background to the voyage

In the 19th century the British government, under the guidance of John Barrow, second secretary of the Admiralty, renewed its efforts to find the North-West Passage. There were two contributing factors. First Barrow had heard that whaling ships were reporting a breaking up of ice to the east of Greenland. This led to speculation that a general reduction of the Arctic ice barrier might have occurred. If this was the case perhaps shipping might yet find a passage, albeit at higher latitudes than had previously been thought navigable. The second factor was that with the end of the Napoleonic wars Britain had a large navy that needed something to do.

Ross's controversial voyage

John Ross's expedition, 1818John Ross's expedition, 1818 - click to enlarge In 1818 Captain John Ross took Naval ships the Isabella and the Alexander (captained by William Edward Parry) under instructions to go northward in Davis Strait and Baffin Bay and attempt to find an open passage round the north-east corner of North America, and in due course reach the Pacific through Bering Strait.

His voyage became dogged with controversy. Ross did indeed explore Baffin Bay, rediscovering much of what Baffin himself had found. This included Lancaster Sound. Ross entered the sound but concluded it could form no part of the passage after claiming he twice observed a ridge of high mountains enclosing the inlet. He decided to turn back and head for home, thus avoiding a winter in the Arctic. His decision was not welcomed by some of his officers, including Parry. As had often been the case during the expedition, the Alexander, being a much smaller vessel, had fallen behind the Isabella and Parry had not seen the mountains that Ross claimed to have sighted.

War of words

Upon his return to England Ross’s abandonment of Lancaster Sound (which did indeed turn out later to form part of the passage) was publicly challenged by key crew members on the voyage, and a war of published words was soon in circulation.

John Barrow later remarked that Ross’s subsequent promotion to captain was ill-deserved. ‘His promotion to that rank on his return was easily acquired, being obtained by a few months’ voyage of pleasure, a voyage which any two of the Yacht Club would easily accomplish’.

With little faith in Ross’ findings the Admiralty almost immediately sent another expedition with much the same instructions, but this time commanded by Parry.

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