For over 400 years explorers risked their lives to search the Arctic for a northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.

Explorers searching for the Passage were hoping to establish a lucrative trading route between Europe and Asia. The aim was to shorten the time and cost of sailing to and from markets such as India and China.

Trapped by ice

By the 19th century, explorers had found their way into the Canadian Archipelago, the island-strewn waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific.

The greatest challenge 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 if their ships were stuck in ice for several years.

Scurvy, consumption and cannibalism were just some of the risks of going in search of a northwest Passage.

Nevertheless, the quest successfully to navigate the Northwest Passage attracted a number of explorers. The tales of these men are of hardship and tragedy but also triumph, endurance, and ultimately success, after four centuries of exploration.

Notable expeditions

  • Martin Frobisher was the first Englishman to go in search of the Northwest Passage in 1576. Five of his men were kidnapped on the voyage and were never seen again.

  • Captain James Cook's final exploratory expedition was in search of the Northwest Passage. It was to be his last-ever voyage as he was killed in Hawaii before returning home. 

  • On John Franklin’s first expedition to search for the passage (1819–22), one of his men was accused of cannibalism as they travelled overland to look for supplies. His third and final attempt would claim the lives of all 129 crewmen.

  • Robert McClure is credited as being the first explorer to navigate the Northwest Passage by sea and ice, after surviving four perilous winters in the Arctic. 

  • Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first person successfully to navigate the Northwest Passage by small boat in 1905. 

The explorers’ legacy

Until recently the discoveries of the Northwest Passage explorers seemed of no commercial value and heroes of Antarctica, like Scott and Shackleton, overshadowed their reputations. While the search for the passage was celebrated at the time of the expeditions, the fame of many voyagers has since faded.

Today, global warming means the Northwest Passage is now sufficiently ice-free for ships to pass through. Although the route still remains hazardous, owing to shifting ice, it is accessible to commercial shipping, shaving hundreds of miles off sailing routes between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The fact that the route is still perilous today puts into perspective just how heroic the original Northwest Passage explorers were.

Read through 400 years of searches