Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic September 03, 2011 - 2:13 pm

Taissumani, Sept. 2, 2011

The Mythical Voyage of the Octavius

NUNATSIAQ NEWS

Sir John Franklin and the mystery of his disappearance with over 100 British officers and seaman over a century and a half ago never seems to stray far from the public imagination.

This summer the hapless explorer has been very much in the news as researchers searched again for his lost ships, the Erebus and Terror.
But public credulity was unnecessarily put to the test with an article that appeared in a Canadian newspaper earlier this month. It started with the bold assertion that Roald Amundsen, the first man to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage, was not really the first, but that he had been beaten by an unknown captain 143 years earlier.

The article then launched into an account of the incredible voyage of the Octavius. I had long known the story of this phantom ship, but I had never expected to see this fabulous fiction passed off as unassailable fact.  Here is the story.

On August 12, 1775, the Herald, an American ship, was whaling in ice-choked waters west of Greenland.  It was an unproductive day.

Eventually the lookout in the crow’s nest spotted another ship at some distance, slowly making her way toward the Herald. As it neared, the crew realized that the mysterious ship was simply drifting their way with the current, her sails in tatters and her masts caked with ice. Capt. Warren did not recognize the ship but hailed her nonetheless. But there was no response.

Warren took a whaling boat crewed by eight men to the strange vessel, and drew alongside. But still, there was no sign of life. Before going aboard, he discerned the name Octavius on the ice-battered hull. Accompanied by four sailors, Warren went aboard. They saw no one.

Descending into the crew quarters, they saw a horrifying sight. Twenty-eight crew members were wrapped in blankets in their bunks. In the captain’s cabin, they found the captain dead at his desk, his pen beside him.

A woman’s body was found frozen solid in his bed. A frozen sailor sat cross-legged on the cabin floor. Holding a flint and steel in his hands, he had evidently been trying to strike a fire — there was a small pile of wood shavings in front of him.

Capt Warren retrieved the log book from the captain’s cabin. As he studied it, his incredulity grew. The last entry had been made more than 12 years earlier, on the eleventh of November 1762! On that day the ship had been beset by ice for 17 days.

But what strained the captain’s belief even further was the last position recorded in that log book – 160 degrees West longitude, 75 degrees North latitude. That position was north of Point Barrow, Alaska!

There was only one conclusion that Captain Warren could draw – that the Octavius had drifted for over a decade, with the ice and currents of the Arctic Ocean, into and through the Northwest Passage, until she came out into Baffin Bay and continued her aimless drift through the ice-choked waters of Davis Strait.

The Octavius had left England for Asia in 1761 and reached its destination the following year. For some reason, the captain decided to return to England through the Northwest Passage, which had never been traversed but which allegedly lay north of North America. He became trapped in the ice and his ship, with a crew of dead men, had conquered the Northwest Passage.

And that’s where the recent report conveniently ended. But there is more.

Of course, the ship was never seen again after it left the sight of Capt. Warren of the Herald. And its logbook, conveniently, has never surfaced either and so has never been subject to scrutiny. In fact, it seems the origin of this entire story is recent. It first turns up in a book by Vincent Gaddis called “Invisible Horizons: True Mysteries of the Sea,” published in 1965.

Gaddis provides no sources. And he was not free from controversy himself – he was the man who coined the sensational term, Bermuda Triangle, in a 1964 article for Argosy magazine.

Gaddis was not averse to taking an item – true or not – and embellishing it into a mystery. Where he got the idea for the Octavius story is unknown. Likely, he made it up.

The Octavius has taken its dubious place in maritime lore alongside other phantom ships. But the ghost of Roald Amundsen need not fear for the posthumous removal of his claim as first to navigate the Northwest Passage.

The Octavius is a myth. And shame on the reporter who earlier this month resurrected this unfounded tale and tried to pass it off as fact.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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