John Ross's Folly

Taissumani: 2008-08-01

By Kenn Harper

Interest in a Northwest Passage to the far east was rekindled in 1818 under the leadership of the second secretary of the Admiralty, Sir John Barrow.

Two ships left England, bound for Davis Strait and the hoped-for passage. The commander of the expedition was John Ross, in charge of the Isabella; the second ship was the Alexander under William Edward Parry.

After reaching northern Greenland and being the first white man to encounter the small group of Inuit living there, the ships continued to the northwest and made a brief examination of Smith Sound. Ross named capes on both sides of it after his two ships. Late in the evening of Aug. 20, they "abandoned the search for a passage in this quarter, from a thorough conviction… that not any such passage exists here."

For John Ross, the rest of the voyage was of the utmost importance. The results of it – his detractors would say the lack of results – would put his career on hold for some years to come.

Turning southwest, Ross entered Jones Sound and discovered Coburg Island near its entrance. He did not explore this sound, thinking that it was nothing more than a small inlet enclosed by mountains. This was not quite correct. It was in fact a large inlet with a narrow channel at its northwestern end leading westward, but it would not have led to the sought-after Northwest Passage. Ross did right in leaving it quickly.

Continuing south he directed his ships into a wide body of water separating Devon Island from Bylot and Baffin islands. He estimated its entrance to be 45 miles in width. This was Lancaster Sound.

After venturing some distance into this wide waterway, Ross came to the same conclusion as he had in Jones Sound – that it was an inlet enclosed by mountains. He saw them in the distance closing off the end of the inlet. He sketched them and later published the sketch. He even gave them a name – the Croker Mountains. They blocked the inlet and made any further progress westward pointless.

About 30 miles into Lancaster Sound, John Ross turned back. He had in fact been in the entrance to the Northwest Passage. The Croker Mountains don't exist. Ross had been deceived by a mirage, an optical phenomenon resulting from a temperature inversion.

On Aug. 30, the officers had much discussion on whether the body of water in which they stood was a strait or an inlet. Their vision was often obscured by dense banks of fog.

The following day, at three in the afternoon, the officer on watch summoned Ross from his dinner – the sky was clearing at the bottom of the bay. Ross wrote unequivocally, "I distinctly saw the land, round the bottom of the bay, forming a connected chain of mountains with those which extended along the north and south sides." He named them after the Secretary of the Admiralty, John Wilson Croker.

John Ross gave the order for the Isabella and Alexander to turn back. Making his way out of Lancaster Sound, Ross made landings on Bylot Island and on Baffin Island, then followed the east coast of Baffin southward before returning to England and controversy.

Ross's voyage confirmed the findings Robert Bylot and William Baffin had made in 1616, and opened the way for whalers to follow his route to the North Water and the Baffin coast.

But he had failed to explore Lancaster Sound, the most promising inlet he had found. In England a storm awaited him, more damaging than any Arctic storm he had encountered. William Edward Parry and Edward Sabine failed to corroborate Ross's reported sighting of the Croker Mountains.

John Barrow criticized him mercilessly in print, declaring him unqualified to command a voyage of discovery. Ross had turned back, Barrow claimed, "at the very moment which afforded the brightest prospect of success."

Barrow's influence prevented Ross from getting command of another ship for many years. The decision to turn back in Lancaster Sound haunted Ross for the rest of his long life.

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 ke********@ho*****.com.

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