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Book of the Month

September 2006

John Ross

Narrative of a second voyage in search of a north-west passage

 London: 1835
Sp Coll Hunterian Bq.2.6

Our September book is a remarkable tale of Arctic exploration, an account of a five year expedition in search of the Northwest passage made by the Scottish explorer Sir John Ross (1777-1856). Published in 1835, the Narrative of a second voyage in search of a north-west passage and of a residence in the Arctic regions during the years 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833: including the reports of James Clark Ross and the discovery of the northern magnetic pole relates a story of incredible courage and endurance. Although the voyage ultimately failed, Ross is now acknowledged to be one of the major figures of nineteenth century polar exploration.

detail of the Victory (page 32)

The search for a Northwest Passage - a navigable channel connecting the North Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans through the Arctic regions of North America - intensified at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the British Government opted to employ the country's large navy in a series of expeditions aimed at the discovery, being interested in a quick route into the Pacific, and also the economic benefits of the resulting trade. The impetus for these ventures came largely from John Barrow (Second Secretary of the Admiralty from 1804 to 1845), who also believed that Russian exploration posed a threat to British North America.

John Ross was the son of the Reverend Andrew Ross, Minister of Inch, near Stranraer in Scotland. He joined the navy as a nine year old apprentice in 1786 and served in the Mediterranean and the English Channel. By 1808 he was a captain in the Swedish Navy, and in 1812 became a commander. Six years later, in 1818, he received command of the first of a series of expeditions sent out under Barrow's Admiralty to explore the polar regions in search of a Northwest passage. His nephew, James Clark Ross, sailed with him, and among his officers were William Parry and John Franklin, both of whom became famous Arctic explorers, responsible for numerous expeditions. These would progress with increasing drama, eventually culminating in the Franklin catastrophe in the 1840s in which 138 men lost their lives.

On this first venture, Ross set out from London in April 1818 with two British Navy ships. The expedition rediscovered Baffin Bay and entered Lancaster Sound on August 31st. After some brief exploration, Ross believed he saw the way to the west entirely blocked by a mountain range which he named the Croker Range. Although apparently a mirage, he decided to sail for home, allegedly against the advice of his subordinate officers. It was to be a decision that almost destroyed his reputation.

Sir John Barrow was furious that Ross's expedition had failed. He commissioned William Parry, Ross's second in command, to make a further two attempts at finding the passage in 1819 and 1824. Although these too were unsuccessful, Parry's 1819 expedition reached as far as Melville Island.

Meanwhile, the criticism directed at Ross by Barrow, and the very public disagreement between Ross and Parry over the existence of the Croker Range, probably had a significant effect on Ross's future conduct in the Arctic. Portions of Ross's Narrative of a second voyage amount to an attempt to justify the miscalculations of the earlier voyage, and play down the idea of disagreement with his subordinates. The mutual dislike between Ross and Barrow, a man with a vested interest in the successful navigation of the Northwest passage, probably encouraged Ross to subsequently claim that further voyages of discovery in the area were 'utterly useless' and may have encouraged his creative geography and often inaccurate science. However, these factors do not detract from what is essentially a remarkable story of survival under extreme conditions.


detail showing the Victory under sail for the last time (page 595)

In spite of his somewhat tarnished reputation, Ross pushed ahead with plans for a second voyage. When an 1827 proposal to fit out an expedition was turned down by the government, his wealthy friend Felix Booth, a gin magnate, agreed to finance the expedition to the tune of 18,000. Ross himself contributed a further 3,000. A paddle based steam ship, The Victory, was purchased; with a crew of nineteen men, she sailed in May 1829. As well as having the novelty of using a steam vessel, this voyage - of which our book is the account - was the first major privately funded expedition. 

The journey across the Atlantic was not without event. A storm destroyed the fore-mast while the ship was still in British waters, and constant problems with the steam engines hindered progress. The ship was required to refit in Greenland, but eventually on August 13th 1829, reached the beach where stores from The Fury - an abandoned ship from an earlier expedition by Parry - had been landed.

Victory dismasted in a storm (page 32)

The following morning the Victory rounded Cape Garry and from here a number of new discoveries commenced as they followed the coast south west into Prince Regent Inlet towards the continental North American mainland. Progress south was eventually halted on October 1st by an impenetrable barrier of ice. Ross wrote that he believed there to be land stretching at the distance of 40 miles to southward extending east and west.

A good harbour was found (it was named Felix Harbour after the expedition patron) where the ship was frozen into the ice.

Victory stopped by ice (Page 175)

Felix Harbour in summer (Page 194) Felix Harbour in winter (Page 232)
The images above show the location of the expedition's first winter in the Arctic. On the left, Felix Harbour as it looked at the beginning of October, the ship facing an ice field to the south. On the right, the coloured plate shows the Victory frozen into the ice field in the winter of 1830.

In January 1830, first communication was made with some native Inuit. Ross wrote: '... we had the good fortune to establish a friendly intercourse with a most interesting consociation of natives, who, being insulated by nature, had never before communicated with strangers; from them we gradually obtained the important information that we had already seen the continent of America.'

These Inuit were part of a tribe whose winter hunting grounds fell very close to Felix Harbour and the Victory. Initially, they approached cautiously, sending an elder whom the community had judged expendable. Ross and his men threw down their weapons in the traditional form of greeting and uttered the few words in Inuit they had gained from previous voyages. They were greeted with elation by the relieved locals. An exchange of gifts soon followed, with Ross offering metal barrel-hoops from his ship in exchange for fresh fish and meat as well as furs and other supplies.

First communication (page 243)

Ikmallik and Apelagliu in Captain Ross's cabin (page 260)

The ship's carpenter, Chimham Thomas, was able to create a custom-made wooden leg for one hunter, called Tulluachiu, who had lost his in a fight with a polar bear. This allowed him to attend the seal hunt once more and the gesture earned a great deal of respect for the entire crew. Presumably the sight of a musk-ox shot at close quarters by James Ross (the nephew of John Ross) would have added an element of fear as well.

Commander James Ross shoots a musk-ox (page 350)

During 1830 a number of overland expeditions were organised by James Ross. This exploration with dog and sled, and with the company and guidance of the local Inuit, was made in an effort to gain some more knowledge of the topography of the area. Of particular interest was an apparent strait curving round to the south west of Felix Harbour; its strong east flowing current suggested that it might be the route into the western sea that they were looking for. This was never established, however, and James himself expressed doubts about his surroundings: 'The question with me was, whether we were really skirting a continent, or whether all this irregular land might not be a chain of islands.' 

Although the existence of this strait was later proven, John Ross was quick to dismiss it at this time. The fold out map bound in to the Narrative indicates that he believed this area to be merely an inlet rather than a passage to the west. After the return of the expedition Ross would defend his position by arguing that it was barely navigable anyway, even in the summer months.

Tulluachiu and family (page 272)

John Ross described the summer of 1830 as being 'uncommonly fine'. He did not foresee any problem in retracing their route and exiting through Lancaster Sound on the journey home. However, as the months rolled on, it became evident that the ice was failing to break up. It was not until the beginning of August that the pack had thawed sufficiently to free the Victory from the ice, and then they were beset by a period of six weeks of northerly winds, bringing further ice floes down from the pole. Throughout the months of September and October the crew were put to the laborious task of cutting a channel through the ice to allow the ship to make progress. Finally, on October 31st, Ross put an end to their labours. The ship had travelled only a matter of a few miles to another bay. Naming it Sheriffs Bay, preparations were made for another winter in the ice.

Sheriffs harbour and Copeland Islands (page 518)

North Hendon snow cottages (page 249)

Ross describes the winter as setting in 'with a degree of violence hitherto beyond record', but, on the whole, the crew of the Victory did not suffer as severely as the sailors from many previous expeditions. John Ross was ahead of his time in recognising the benefits in copying survival techniques adopted by the native 'esquimaux'. Large banks of snow were built up around the ship to provide insulation. The trade and extensive contact with the local tribe had equipped many with animal skins in addition to stocks of fish.

In the following summer, James Ross undertook what was hailed as the greatest achievement of the expedition, the location of the north magnetic pole. A party travelled out from the ship to an area that had been named Cape Felix, a few miles distant from an area that had been explored the previous summer. After a number of measurements, 'amidst mutual congratulations, we fixed the British flag on the spot, and took possession of the north magnetic pole and its adjoining territory, in the name of Great Britain and King William the fourth.'

This was done in the full knowledge that the magnetic poles were not fixed points and would have moved by the time future explorers came along!

Graham's Valley (page 401)

Victory under sail for the last time (page 595)

The next spring thaw brought a repeat of the previous season, and the Victory, finally freed from its icy prison late in the season, again found herself trapped in the ice in a shallow bay only a few miles beyond its earlier harbour. Having set sail to the north westward on the 28th of August, they had soon run aground on an iceberg and suffered a damaged rudder. With the ice closing in, it became apparent to Ross that the remarkably mild summer season of 1829 in which the Victory had sailed clear into Prince Regent Inlet, had been an anomaly. With the supplies of fish soon exhausted, scurvy made its first serious appearance among the crew, and the usual diversions that were a characteristic of the first winter (Ross had copied Parry's example by setting up reading and writing lessons for the men) were only undertaken half heartedly. 

detail of Somerset House (page 687)

It became apparent early in 1832 that preparations would have to be made for abandoning the ship. Provisions were running dangerously low and it was estimated that they would not last until the late summer thaw. On the evidence of the previous winters, it seemed unlikely that the Victory would ever get clear of the ice at any rate. The aim was to get back to Fury beach (named after the abandoned ship from Parry's expedition a decade earlier) where stores could be picked up and the Fury's whaleboats rigged with sails in order to attempt an escape north through the Lancaster sound.

The crew, with as many sledges and supplies as they could carry, completed the 150 mile journey on the 1st of July 1832 'worn out completely with hunger and fatigue'. 

Despite the hope that they might reach Baffin Bay before the departure of the whaling ships in late August, Ross was aware that they may have to spend yet another winter in the ice. With the worsening condition of the men, it became essential to create adequate shelter. A hut was therefore built from the wreck of the Fury named 'Somerset House'.

Somerset House is illustrated in the Narrative and described by Ross as follows: 'The upper or transverse section shows two persons sitting at a table in the shaded part, the divisions of which show the frame, first and second roof, and the bed cabins; the blue parts represent the ice which covered the house, the passage into it, an addition which was made to keep out the cold. The lower or longitudinal section, shows the men and officers sitting at their mess table, the fireplace, oven and funnel and part of the ice wall which formed an enclosure for exercise. The tube projecting through the roof is the valve to let off the foul air or vapour'.

At the beginning of August, with clear water offshore, three small boats left for the north. With provisions until the beginning of October, the plan was to follow the coastline north and then hope for a break up of the ice field for long enough to allow the boats to make the forty mile journey across the open water of Prince Regent Inlet. After enduring weeks of rain, sleet and falling rocks, the party was forced to journey back to Fury beach. To the dismay of Ross and the crew, Lancaster Sound and Prince Regent Inlet had remained entirely frozen over throughout the summer.

detail of Somerset House (Page 687)

Somerset House (Page 689)

Ross writes very little after the party returned to Somerset House. He complains at times of cold, painful hands and remarks on the poor quality of his penmanship. At one point over the winter of 1832-33 he wrote of his own health, 'I had now, some reason to suppose that I might now not be able to surmount all the present circumstances'. Serious illness affected much of the crew. In January, the carpenter Chimham Thomas died, presumably of scurvy. He was the last of three crew members who died on the voyage. Others lost fingers and toes to frostbite, and in all only about half of the crew were able enough to load and carry supplies.

It was August of 1833 when the opportunity came to make another attempt at crossing Prince Regent Inlet. This time, remarkably, a lane of water opened up as far as the eye could see. With favourable winds and a widening channel of water in which to sail, the three boats sailed almost unimpeded out through Lancaster Sound. Finally, on August 23rd 1833, the crew of the Victory were picked up by the whaler Isabella, the same ship Ross had captained to the Arctic on his previous expedition of 1818. They reached England in October.

Folded map located before the main text
Click on these images to see larger versions

The Gulf of Boothia

Although Ross had failed to find the Northwest passage, his expedition was valuable in surveying the Gulf of Boothia and a great part of King William's Land; it was also extraordinary for the inordinate length of time spent in ice. 

The fold out map found in the book shows the terrain of the voyage. The right-hand image shown here illustrates the full extent of the Gulf of Boothia, with Prince Regent Inlet. This leads north east to Lancaster Sound and out into the Atlantic ocean. The left-hand image shows the new discoveries made by the expedition. The three harbours in which the Victory wintered (Felix, Sheriff and Victoria) are all marked. King William's Land is actually the northern extent of mainland north America. The area on the western shore of Boothia Felix shows where Commander James Ross explored on foot. John Ross's greatest error was his assumption that no strait existed in this area. The part of the map he calls Boothia Isthmus is actually a passage into the western sea. However it's navigability is questionable and when the journey through the northwest passage was finally completed in 1905 by Roald Amundsen, his route took him north of Boothia Felix and not through what is now known as the Bellot Strait.


Ross was knighted in 1834. The geographical societies of London and Paris awarded him their gold medals, and on 24th December 1834 he was nominated a CB. The Narrative was published in April 1835, eighteen months after the return of the expedition. This large volume consists of 740 pages with plates and a large fold out map. It was self published by Ross, initially for 7,000 subscribers, and can be found in two forms. The cheaper version, at the time costing 2 2s did not have any coloured plates. It was also available with some plates coloured for 2 12s 6d.

An apology from Ross to his subscribers after the title-page

The volume held by Special Collections, purchased to augment the Hunterian Library in 1835, contains these coloured plates. Although the condition of the volume is fairly poor (with a damaged spine and detached front cover) many of the pages are still unopened, suggesting that the volume has never been read through in its entirety.

When the Norwegian Roald Amundsen at last successfully navigated the Northwest Passage in 1903-06, he acknowledged that his feat had been made possible due to the earlier explorations of British seamen.

'let them imagine, if they can, these mountains of crystal hurled through a narrow straight by a rapid tide; meeting, as mountains in motion would meet, with the noise of thunder, breaking from each other's precipices huge fragments, or rending each other asunder, till, losing their former equilibrium, they fall over headlong, lifting the sea around in breakers and whirling in the eddies' (page 152)

Of related interest:

John Braithwaite Supplement to Captain Sir John Ross's Narrative of a second voyage in the Victory in search of a North-West Passage : containing the suppressed facts necessary to a proper understanding of the causes of the failure of the steam machinery of the Victory, and a just appreciation of Captain Sir John Ross's character as an officer and a man of science. London : Chapman and Hall, 1835. Y7-a.17   

Captain William Parry Journals of the first, second and third voyages for the discovery of a north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, in 1819-20-21-22-23-24-25, in His Majesty's ships Hecla, Griper and Fury London, 1828-29 Sp Coll BG52-l.1-6 

John Joseph Shillinglaw A narrative of Arctic discovery, from the earliest period to the present time : with the details of the measures adopted by Her Majesty's government for the relief of the expedition under Sir John Franklin London : W. Shoberl, 1850  T7-f.3 

Ann Savours The north west passage in the nineteenth century : perils and pastimes of a winter in the ice / Ann Savours London : Hakluyt Society, 2003 History BC10 HAK3 2002      


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David Hewitson (Graduate Trainee on placement in Special Collections) September 2006