The Leading Characters

  • Martin Frobisher - Sailor and explorer, Frobisher lead a concerted assault in the late 16th Century, beginning a long British obsession with the Passage.
  • John Franklin - Perhaps the most famous of the Northwest Passage explorers, his distinguished polar career came to a tragic end with his lost 1845 Expedition.
  • James Clark Ross - The most experience Polar explorer of 19th Century, he would spend more time in the Northwest Passage than any of his contemporaries.
  • Robert McClure - After becoming stuck in the ice entering from the East, he completed the first recorded transit of the Northwest Passage with the remainder of his expedition.
  • Ronald Amundsen - Norwegian conqueror of the North and South Pole, his first great success was becoming the first man to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage by sea.

History of the Passage

The Early Explorers

Martin Frobisher arguably made the first attempted discovery of the Northwest Passage in 1576, however, he was famously misled by fools gold.  Then the British mariner James Knight, hoping to conclusively determine the existence of a navigable Northwest Passage, mysteriously disappeared during his voyage in 1721. A sinister prelude to Franklin’s Expedition a century later.

In 1778, Captain Cook was tasked with finally answering the question of the Passage by attempting to discover an Eastern entrance. Forced back by pack ice, Cook turned back to Hawaii where he would be met by a gruesome fate.

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Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration

By the beginning of the 19th Century, there was still no conclusive answer to the question of a Northwest Passage. Following the defeat of Napoleon, the Royal Navy sought a new challenge and conquering the Northwest Passage would prove to be it’s greatest. The officers selected to partake in this great enterprise would go on to define a new age of Arctic exploration: John Ross, William Edward Parry, John Franklin and James Clark Ross.

Despite their heroic attempts, all of these great explorers failed to complete the Passage. However, their efforts filled in the many blanks of the North American Arctic and revolutionised our understanding of the Polar Regions.

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Franklin’s Lost Expedition

Franklin’s 1845 scientific expedition was set to be the last great hurrah to navigate the Northwest Passage. Venturing into the American Arctic, none of the 129 crew would ever be seen again. The men of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror would suffer a fate so horrific that the truth was too shocking for Victorian society to accept.

Much remains a mystery, but the presence of lead in a recent toxicology report of two of Franklin's men found at Beechey Island in 1981, and the final discovery of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror by 2016, have helped to unravel one of the world's greatest mysteries.  But the question still remains, what really happened to Franklin’s Lost Expedition?

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Conquering the Passage

The first Transit of the Northwest Passage was, ironically, by accident. Royal Naval officer Robert McClure, hoping to discover Franklin and his lost expedition, sailed into the Passage from the East and became trapped in the ice. He was finally rescued by a relief sledding party in 1853, who had entered the passage from the West.

However, it wasn't until fifty years later that the legendary Norwegian Polar explorer, Ronald Amundsen, finally completed the journey from the Atlantic to Pacific onboard the same vessel, the Gjøa, (1903-1906). Hundreds of lives had been lost in the pursuit of this goal and the route through the ice had finally been discovered.

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The Passage Today

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The Greenlandic anthropologist Knud Rasmussen completed the first crossing by Dog Sled during the Fifth Thule Expedition (1921-1924) whilst exploring the Inuit communities of the Canadian Arctic. Henry Larsen led the second successful (but not without adversity) expedition to sail through the Northwest Passage onboard St Roch in October 1942.

In 1981, as part of the Transglobe Expedition, Ranulph Fiennes and Charles Burton completed the first transit in an open boat from West to East. Three years later and 140 years after Franklin’s fateful voyage, the M/S Quest became the first commercial passenger vessel to successfully complete the Northwest Passage.

Today, there are still not many ships that attempt the transit and it is by no means guaranteed that the ice will let them through.

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