Transcriber's Note: In the line
"We sailed by Fairlēe, by Beachēy, and Dungĕness,"
ē represents the letter "e" with a macron above it and ĕ represents an "e" with a breve above it.
The symbol "^" in y^e indicates that the "e" is printed as a superscript.
AN ARCTIC JOURNAL;
Eighteen Months in the Polar Regions,
IN SEARCH OF
SIR JOHN FRANKLIN'S EXPEDITION,
IN THE YEARS 1850-51.
BY LIEUT. SHERARD OSBORN,
COMMANDING H.M.S. VESSEL, "PIONEER."
DEDICATED TO LADY FRANKLIN.
GEORGE P. PUTNAM, 10 PARK PLACE
M. DCCC. LII.
Accept, my dear Lady Franklin, these few pages, as the warm and honest tribute of deserved admiration for yourself and estimable niece, Miss Sophia Cracroft—admiration, which I delight in, in common with thousands, that such as you are Englishwomen; and pride, that a sailor's wife should so nobly have fulfilled her duty; for, if, on the one hand, the name of Sir John Franklin, that chief "sans peur et sans reproche," is dearly associated with our recollections of the honours won in the ice-bound regions of the Pole, your names are not the less so, with the noble efforts made to rescue, or solve the fate of our missing countrymen.
That those sacrifices, those untiring exertions, that zeal which has never wavered, that hope so steadfast, since it is that of an Englishwoman for her husband, that patience under misconstruction, that forgiveness for the sneer of jealousy, and that pity for the malicious, which you have so pre-eminently displayed, may yet, by God's help, one day reap its reward in the accomplishment of your wishes, is the fervent prayer of
I fear with the many of my cloth, my crime in writing a book will be an unpardonable one; the more so, that I cannot conscientiously declare, that it has been at the urgent desire of my friends, &c., that I have thus made my debut.
My motive is twofold: to tell of the doings of a screw steam-vessel, the first ever tried in the Polar regions, and by a light, readable description of incidents in the late search for Sir John Franklin, to interest the general reader and the community at large upon that subject. Without fear, favour, or affection, I have told facts as they have occurred; and I trust have, in doing so, injured no man. A journal must necessarily be, for the most, a dry narration of facts; I have, therefore, thrown in here and there general observations and remarks founded upon such facts, rather than a dry repetition of them.
To the officers and men serving under my command, I can offer no higher compliment than in having thus placed their severe and zealous labours before the public; and no professional reader who reads these "Stray Leaves," can fail, I am certain, to perceive how heavily must have fallen the labours here recounted upon the men and officers of the steam tenders, and how deep an obligation I their commander must be under to them for their untiring exertions, by which this, the first and severe trial of steam in the Arctic regions, was brought to a successful issue.
The "Resolutes," no doubt, will object to the round terms in which I have growled at the bluff-bowed vessel it was my fate and now my pride to have towed so many miles in the Frozen Zone; but on second thoughts, I doubt not they will acquit me, for they will remember the joke was once on their side; and if I do not love their ship, at any rate I liked them.
To Lieutenant W. May and Mr. M'Dougal, I am much indebted for their faithful sketches. I fear my letter-press is unworthy of the companionship.
To those who may accuse me of egotism in confining my remarks so much to the achievements of my own vessel, I have merely to say, that in doing so, I was best able to be truthful; but that I am fully aware that to the other screw steamer, the "Intrepid," and my gallant friend and colleague, Commander J. B. Cator, there fell an equal amount of labour; and that to all, ships as well as screws, there was an equal proportion of hardship, danger, and privation. I should indeed be forgetful as well as ungrateful, did I here fail to acknowledge the more than kindness and assistance I have ever experienced from my friend Mr. Barrow, a name past and present inseparably connected with our Arctic discoveries; so likewise I have to offer my thanks, heartfelt as they are sincere, to those who, like Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort and Captain Hamilton of the Admiralty, bade me speed, when sincerity and zeal was all I had to boast, and who dared to overlook the crime of youth, and granted to "seven-and-twenty" the deference which "five-and-fifty" alone can claim.
RICHMOND, Feb. 15, 1852.
STRAY LEAVES FROM AN ARCTIC JOURNAL.
The evils attendant on a hurried outfit and departure, as is the usual man-of-war custom, were in no wise mitigated in the case of the Royal Naval Expedition, fitted out at Woolwich, in 1850, to search for Sir John Franklin's Squadron; and a general feeling of joy at our departure prevailed amongst us, when, one fine morning, we broke ground from Greenhithe.
The "Resolute" and "Assistance" had a couple of steamers to attend upon them; whilst we, the "Pioneer" and "Intrepid," screwed and sailed, as requisite to keep company. By dark of the 4th of May, 1850, we all reached an anchorage near Yarmouth; and the first stage of our outward journey was over.
No better proof of the good feeling which animated our crews can be adduced than the unusual fact of not a man being missing amongst those who had originally entered,—not a desertion had taken place,—not a soul had attempted to quit the vessels, after six months' advance had been paid.
Here and there amongst the seamen a half-sleepy indifference to their work was observable. This I imputed to the reaction after highly sentimental "farewells" in which, like other excesses, Jack delights; the women having, as usual, done all they could, by crying alongside, to make the men believe they were running greater risks than had ever been before undergone by Arctic navigators.
The old seamen's ditty of—
"We sailed by Fairlēe, by Beachēy, and Dungĕness, Until the North Foreland light we did see"—
gives a very good idea of our progress from beacon to lighthouse, and lighthouse to headland, until the lofty coast of Yorkshire sunk under the lee; and by the 8th of May the squadron was making slow progress across the mouth of the Firth of Forth. Hitherto, "all had been pleasant as a marriage bell;" the weather had been fine; and we already calculated our days of arrival at different points, as if the calm was to last for ever. The Cheviot Hills glittered in the west; it was the kind good-bye of our own dear England. Hundreds of white sails dotted a summer sea: all was joyous and sparkling. Scotland greeted us with a rough "nor'wester,"—and away we went. "Not all the king's horses" could have kept the expedition together.
The "Resolute" and "Assistance," hauled dead on a wind, under close-reefed topsails, performed a stationary movement, called "pile-driving" by sailors, which, as the pilot suggested, would, if the breeze lasted, carry them to the coast of Holland. The two steam vessels, under fore-and-aft canvas, drew away rapidly to windward and ahead, and in spite of all we could do, a few hours of darkness effectually succeeded in dispersing us. Accident again brought the "Pioneer" in sight of the vessels for a few hours; but the "Intrepid" found herself in Stromness Harbour, with a degree of celerity which gave rise to a racing disposition on the part of my gallant colleague, "Intrepid," versus "Pioneer," which it took a great many days of competition to decide.
They who want excitement had better go and beat a vessel up the Pentland Firth, against both wind and tide. I tried it, but shall not repeat the experiment; and, after a thorough good shaking in the North Sea, was not sorry to find myself at anchor in Stromness.
The very proper and triste Sabbath of the North was followed by a busy Monday. The arrival of so many gold cap-bands, and profusion of gilt buttons, interfered, I fear materially, with the proper delivery of the morning milk and butter by sundry maidens with golden locks; and the purser's wholesale order for beef threatened to create a famine in the Orkneys. The cheapness of whiskey appeared likely to be the cause of our going to sea with a crew in a lamentable state of drunkenness, and rather prejudiced me against Stromness; but if it had no other redeeming quality, all its faults would be forgotten in the astounding fact that there may be found a landlady with moderate prices and really fresh eggs.
As a description of this part of the world is no part of my task, I will pass over our long and crooked walk about Stromness; and the failure of the good folk there to induce us to trust ourselves on their ponies for a ride to Kirkwall, naturally limited our knowledge of the neighbourhood.
Above the town of Stromness rises a conical-shaped hill; it has, I believe, been immortalized by Scott in his "Pirate:" it had yet deeper interest for me, for I was told that up it had toiled dear friends now missing with Franklin. I and a kind shipmate walked out one evening to make our pilgrimage to a spot hallowed by the visit of the gallant and true-hearted that had gone before us—and, as amid wind and drizzle we scrambled up the hill, I pictured to myself how, five short years before, those we were now in search of had done the same. Good and gallant Gore! chivalrous Fitz-James! enterprising Fairholme! lion-hearted Hodgson! dear De Vaux!—Oh! that ye knew help was nigh!
We surmounted the hill—the Atlantic was before us, fierce and troubled; afar to seaward the breakers broke and lashed themselves against the firm foundation of the old Head of Hay, which loomed through mist and squall, whilst overhead the scream of sea-fowl, flying for shelter, told that the west wind would hold wild revelry that night.
"H.M.S. North Star," carved on the turf, showed where some of her people had chosen this spot for a record of their visit to Orkney; we did likewise, in honour of our own bonnie craft; and then, strolling homeward, discussed the probable chances of the existence of the said "North Star;" the conclusion arrived at being that there was more cause for anxiety on her account than for Franklin's Expedition, she having gone out totally unprepared for wintering, and with strict injunctions not to be detained: "l'homme propose, et Dieu dispose."
I could have hugged the snuffy old postmaster for a packet of letters he gave me. I rushed on board to a cabin which proved, as the First Lord had sagaciously remarked, into how small a space a Lieutenant Commanding could be packed; and, in spite of an unpaid tailor's bill, revelled in sweet and pleasant dreams.
[Headnote: PLAN OF SEARCH.]
The "Intrepid" and "Pioneer" rejoined the ships at Long-Hope; and my gallant comrade and I made a neck-and-neck race of it, showing that in steaming, at any rate, there would be little to choose between us; and, on May 15th, the Arctic squadron weighed, and, passing out of the Pentland Firth, the "Dasher" and "Lightning" cheered us, took our letters,—and the Searching Expedition was alone steering for Greenland. Night threw her mantle around us; the lonely light of Cape Wrath alone indicating where lay our homes. I like losing sight of Old England by night. It is pleasant to go to rest with a sweet recollection of some quiet scene you have just dwelt upon with delight, the spirit yearning for the excitement and novelty ahead. You rise in the morning, old Ocean is around you: there is, to the seamen, a lullaby, say what they may, in his hoarse song; and they of the middle watch tell how the friendly light of some distant cape glimmered and danced in the east, until lost in some passing squall.
Now for the Northwest! we exclaimed,—its much talked of dangers,—its chapter of horrors! As gallant Frobisher says, "it is still the only thing left undone, whereby a notable mind might be made famous and remarkable." As it was in Frobisher's day, so it is now, unless Franklin has accomplished it, and lies beset off Cape Jakan—and why may it not be so?
Whilst the squadron progresses slowly towards Cape Farewell, the ships under topsails, and the steamers under jury-masts and sails, we will take a retrospective view of what is now—1850—going to be done for the relief of Franklin.
Capt. Collinson, with two ships, has gone to Behring's Straits with the "Plover" as a depot, in Kotzebue Sound, to fall back upon in case of disaster. He steers direct for Melville Island, along the coast of North America. Capt. Pullen, having successfully searched the coast from Point Barrow to the Mackenzie River, is endeavouring now to push from thence, in a northerly direction, for Bank's Land. Dr. Rae is to do the same from the Coppermine River. Capt. Penny, a first-rate whaling captain, with two fast brigs, is now ahead of us, hoping to make an early passage across the middle ice of Baffin's Bay. He goes to Jones's Sound and Wellington Channel, to reach the Parry Isles by a northern route.
We go with two sailing ships and two steam vessels, so as to form separate divisions of two vessels each, to examine Barrow's Straits south-westerly to Cape Walker, westerly towards Melville Island, and north-westerly up Wellington Channel. Thus no less than eight fine ships flying the pendant, and two land parties are directed, by different routes, on Melville Island. Besides these, an American expedition, fitted out by that prince of merchants, Mr. Grinnell, leaves shortly for the same destination; and in Lady Franklin's own vessel, the "Prince Albert," as well as a craft under Sir John Ross, we find two more assistants in the plan of search.
And yet, gentle reader, if you turn to the papers of the fall of 1849, you will find some asserting that Sir John Franklin had perished in Baffin's Bay, because Sir James Ross had found nothing of him in Lancaster Sound! Happily the majority of Englishmen have, however, decided otherwise; and behold, this noble equipment! this magnificent outlay of men and material!
We will not dwell on the pleasures or annoyances of the cruise across the Atlantic, beyond stating the fact that our bluff-bowed worse-halfs, the sailing ships, nigh broke our hearts, as well as our hawsers, in dragging their breakwater frames along in the calms; and that we of the screws found our steam vessels all we could wish, somewhat o'er lively, mayhap,—a frisky tendency to break every breakable article on board. But there was a saucy swagger in them, as they bowled along the hollow of a western sea, which showed they had good blood in them; and we soon felt confident of disappointing those Polar seers, who had foretold shipwreck and disaster as their fate.
[Headnote: THE ATLANTIC.—GREENLAND.]
The appearance of numerous sea-birds,—the Tern especially, which do not fly far from land,—warned us, on Sunday 26th May, of our fast approach to Greenland, and on the morrow we espied the picturesque shores about Cape Farewell. Which of all the numerous headlands we saw was the identical cape, I do not pretend to say; but we chose, as our Cape Farewell, a remarkable-looking peak, with a mass of rock perched like a pillar upon its crest. The temperature began to fall as we advanced, and warmer coats quickly replaced our English clothing.
Distant as we were from Greenland, our view of its southern extremity was fleeting, but sufficient to show that it fully realized in appearance the most striking accumulation of ice and land that the mind could picture,—a land of gaunt famine and misery; but which nevertheless, for some good purpose, it had pleased Providence in a measure to people.
Had we not had an urgent duty to perform, I should have regretted thus hurrying past the land; for there is much to see there. True, Greenland has no deep historical interest, but the North has always had its charm for me. Scandinavia, and her deeds,—the skill and intrepidity of her bold Vikings,—their colonies in Snaeland, our Iceland,—their discovery of Greenland,—and the legend of the pirate Biarni, who forestalled even the great Columbus in his discovery,—were all associated with the region through which we were now sailing.
Without compass, without chart, full three centuries before the Genoese crossed the Atlantic, the Norsemen, in frail and open barks, braved the dark and angry sea (which was so sorely tossing even our proud vessels); and, unchecked by tempest, by ice, or hardship, penetrated probably as far as we could in the present day. This, and much more, throws a halo of ancient renown around this lonely land; moreover, I had long loved Nature's handiworks, and here assuredly her wonders reward the traveller. Here, methought me of the mighty glacier, creeping on like Time, silently, yet ceaselessly; the deep and picturesque fiord pent up between precipices, huge, bleak, and barren; the iceberg! alone a miracle; then the great central desert of black lava and glittering ice, gloomy and unknown but to the fleet rein-deer, who seeks for shelter in a region at whose horrors the hardy natives tremble; and last, but not least, the ruins of the Scandinavian inhabitants, and the present fast disappearing race of "the Innuit," or Esquimaux. Dullard must he be who sees not abundance here to interest him.
Flirting with the first ice we saw, it soon appeared that the training of the uninitiated, like puppies, was to be a very formal and lengthy piece of business. Thanks to an immense deal of water, and very little ice, the steamers eventually towed the "Resolute" and the transport (a lively specimen of the genus), into the Whale-Fish Islands,—a group of rocky islets, some twenty miles distant from the excellent Danish harbour of Godhaab on the Island of Disco.
[Headnote: WHALE-FISH ISLANDS.]
We did as our forefathers in anchoring at the Whale-Fish Islands, but would strongly recommend those who visit this neighborhood to go to Godhaab rather. Its anchorage is good, communication with Europe a certainty, and the hospitality of the Danish residents, few though they be, cheering and pleasant to ship-sick wanderers.
Having thus expressed my total dissent from those who, with steam vessels, go to Whale-Fish Isles, it will be but fair for me to stay, that I arrived at this our first stage in the journey to the Nor'-West, in far from good humour. We had been twenty-four days from Greenhithe to Cape Farewell, and sixteen days from the latter point to our anchorage; hurry being out of the question when a thing like the "Emma Eugenia" was pounding the water in a trial of speed with perfect snuff-boxes, like the "Resolute" and "Assistance." Patience and a four-day tow had at last finished the work: and to all our anxious inquiries about the prospect of the season, as to where Penny was, and whether any intelligence had reached the settlements? not an answer was to be obtained from a besotted Danish carpenter, whose knowledge appeared to be limited to a keen idea of changing, under a system he called "Trock," sundries (with which the Danske Koeing had intrusted him) into blubber and seal-oil.
After a day of coal-dust, I landed with some others to see what was to be seen, and to load, as we were taught to believe, a boat with wild fowl. The principal settlement having been pointed out, we landed on the slope of one of the islands, on which a coarse rank vegetation existed amongst the numerous relics of departed seals, sacrificed to the appetites of the Esquimaux and the trocking of the Governor, as he was facetiously styled. The said individual soon appeared, and in spite of copious libations of Her Britannic Majesty's "Pure Jamaica," of which he had partaken, was most polite and hospitable. From him I discovered that he and a cooper were the only Danes residing here, and they, together with a cross-breed who did the double duty of priest and schoolmaster, constituted the officials of Cron-Prin's Islands. The native population amounted perhaps to one hundred souls: and it was in supplying their wants, and in affording a market for their superfluous skins and blubber, that the Danes derived a profit, under a strict system of monopoly; no foreigners being allowed to trade with the Esquimaux, and they, on the other hand, having strict injunctions to lodge every thing they do not require for private use, in the public store. The quantity of seal-blubber in store, which was equal to as much oil, amounted to nigh upon 100 tons; the number of seals annually destroyed must be enormous: this says much for the industry of the natives.
The Esquimaux appeared all comfortable and well to do, well clad, cleanly, and fat. Most of them had moved for a while into their summer lodges, which consist of little else than a seal-skin tent, clumsily supported with sticks. They were more than sufficiently warm; and the number of souls inhabiting one of these lodges appeared only to be limited by the circle of friends and connections forming a family. The winter abode—formed almost underground—appeared decidedly well adapted to afford warmth, and some degree of pure ventilation, in so severe a climate, where fuel can be spared only for culinary purposes; and I was glad to see that, although necessity obliges the Esquimaux to eat of the oil and flesh of the seal and naorwhal, yet, when they could procure it, they seemed fully alive to the gastronomic pleasures of a good wholesome meal of fish, birds' eggs, bread, sugar, tea, and coffee.
Their canoes are perfect models of beauty and lightness; in no part of the world do we see them excelled in speed and portability—two very important qualities in the craft of a savage; and in ornamental workmanship, the skill of both men and women is tastefully displayed.
The clothing of the natives is vastly superior to any thing we could produce, both in lightness of material, and wind and water-tight qualities;—the material, seal and deer skin, and entrails, manufactured by the women; their needles of Danish manufacture; their thread, the delicate sinews of animals. We gladly purchased all we could obtain of their clothing.
[Headnote: THE ESQUIMAUX.]
Every one has heard of the horrors of an Esquimaux existence,—sucking blubber instead of roast beef, train-oil their usual beverage, and a seal their bonne-bouche; the long gloomy winter spent in pestiferous hovels, lighted and warmed with whale-oil lamps; the narrow gallery for an entrance, along which the occupant creeps for ingress and egress. This and much more has been told us; yet, now that I have seen it all,—the Esquimaux's home, the Esquimaux's mode of living, and the Esquimaux himself,—I see nothing so horrible in one or the other.
The whaler, from bonnie Scotia, or busy Hull, fresh from the recollection of his land and home, no doubt shudders at the comparative misery and barbarity of these poor people; but those who have seen the degraded Bushmen or Hottentots of South Africa, the miserable Patanies of Malayia, the Fuegians or Australians of our southern hemisphere, and remember the comparative blessings afforded by nature to those melancholy specimens of the human family, will, I think, exclaim with me, that the Esquimaux of Greenland are as superior to them in mental capacity, manual dexterity, physical enterprise, and social virtues, as the Englishman is to the Esquimaux.
The strongest—indeed, I am assured, the only—symptom of the advantage of religious instruction perceptible in the Greenlander, over his North American brethren, is in the respect they show for the marriage tie, and strong affection for their children. The missionary, with this race, appears to have few difficulties to contend with: naturally gentle, and without any strong superstitious prejudices, they receive without resistance the simple creed of Reformed religion, which he has spread amongst them; and the poor Esquimaux child sends up its prayers and thanksgiving, in the words taught us by our Saviour, as earnestly and confidently as the educated offspring of Englishmen.
An old man, whom I pressed to accompany me as pilot to the Island of Disco, declined, under the plea that his wife was very ill, and that there was no one but himself to take care of the "piccaninny." Interested from such proper feeling in the man, Dr. P—— and I entered his winter abode, which he apologized for taking us to,—the illness of his "cara sposa" having prevented him changing his residence for the usual summer tent. Crawling on all fours through a narrow passage, on either side of which a dog-kennel and a cook-house had been constructed, we found ourselves in an apartment, the highest side of which faced us, the roof gradually sloping down to the ground.
The above section will give some idea of the place. Along one side of the abode a sort of bed-place extended for its whole length, forming evidently the family couch; for on one end of it, with her head close to a large seal-oil lamp, was the sick woman. She was at the usual Esquimaux female's employment of feeding the flame with a little stick from a supply of oil, which would not rise of its own accord up the coarse and ill-constructed wick; over the flame was a compound, which the sufferer told us was medicine for her complaint,—the rheumatism, a very prevalent one amongst these people. Leaving the kind Doctor to do the part of a good Samaritan, I amused myself with looking over the strange home into which I had got. The man took much pride in showing me his family,—consisting of a girl and three fine boys. His wife, he assured me, was only twenty-eight years of age: she looked at least six-and-thirty; and he likewise, though only thirty-four, had the appearance of being at least ten years older. They had married when she was twenty,—the usual age for marriage, as he told me. His daughter, rather a pretty and slight-made girl, was very busy making shoes for her brothers out of cured skin. I rewarded the youthful sempstress by giving her one of a number of dolls kindly sent me for the purpose by Mrs. W. of Woolwich; and could that kind friend have seen the joyful countenance of the Esquimaux child, she would indeed have been richly remunerated for her thoughtful little addition to my stock of presents. To finish my Esquimaux tale, I was next day not a little surprised at the father coming on board, and giving me a small pouch which his child had sewn for me in return for my present. This proved at least that Esquimaux children can appreciate kindness as well as others.
The Whale-Fish group consist of a congery of islets, of various shapes and sizes, with deep water channels between; the whole of granitic formation, with broad veins of quartz and masses of gneiss overlaying in various directions. Those I visited exhibited proof of constant and, I might say, rapid destruction from the action of water and frost. The southern and south-west sides of the larger islands were of, may be, 300 or 400 feet elevation, with a gradual dip to the north-east, as if their creation had been brought about by some submarine agency upheaving the primary rock, with an irregular force from the north-east.
The tallest cliffs were rent from crown to base, and frost-cracks intersected one another in such a perfect labyrinth, that the whole mass appeared as if merely hanging together from its stupendous weight. The narrow bays and bights with a southern aspect, where the concussion of a heavy sea had had its effect, were strewn with the wreck of the adjacent precipices, and progress for sportsmen along the shore, in pursuit of wild fowl, was extremely difficult. On the northern sides, these islands showed other features quite as peculiar to the glacial region upon which we were wandering: there the low projecting ledges of granite were polished by the constant attrition of oceanic ice and icebergs, until walking over them became barely possible.
June 18th, 1850.—I am much amused at the ease with which we assimilate ourselves to new climates and new habits. Yesterday, my friend Dr. P—— and I bathed within fifty yards of an iceberg, the water only two degrees above freezing point; candour must acknowledge that we did not stay long; and to-night, though no Highlander in love of hardship, I found myself at midnight in the water groping for lost gun-gear, an experiment which, having escaped from without rheumatism, I promise not to repeat. One of my crew slept last night on deck with his arm for a pillow, although the temperature was below freezing point, and every one complains of heat and throws aside jacket and cap when making the slightest exertion.
[Headnote: AN ARCTIC NIGHT.]
Coal-dust every where and on every thing. Incessant work from 4, A.M., to 8 or 9 o'clock, P.M., one would have supposed, would have induced rational beings to go quietly to bed when the day's work was over. It was far otherwise.
The novelty of constant daylight, and the effect which it always has upon the system, until accustomed to it, of depriving one of the inclination to go to roost at regular hours, told upon us, and often have I found myself returning from five hours' work, chasing, shooting, and pulling a boat, just as the boatswain's mates were piping "stow hammocks!" That I was not singular, a constant discharge of guns throughout the night well proved, and unhappy nights must the ducks and dovekies have spent during our stay.
Not to shoot became, in the Arctic squadron, tantamount to folly, although the proceeds of great consumption of powder were but small; nevertheless, stout men, who had not buttoned a gaiter since their youth, were to be seen rivalling chamois-hunters in the activity with which they stalked down the lady ducks on their nests. Apoplexy was forgotten, the tender wife's last injunction on the subject of dry feet pitched to the winds, and rash men of five-and-forty pulled and shot little birds, in leaky punts, with all the energy of boys of fifteen.
Cold fingers, and a load of Flushing cloth on one's back, are vile realities; otherwise I could have given fancy her swing, and spent many an hour in the "blest ideal," at the beautiful and novel scene which lay around me on a lovely morning at one o'clock. I had just crossed to the north side of an island which faces Greenland, and passed a quiet and secluded bay, at whose head the remains of a deserted ruin told of the by-gone location of some Esquimaux fishermen, whose present home was shown by here and there a grave carefully piled over with stones to ward off dog and bear. All was silent, except the plaintive mew of the Arctic sea-swallow as it wheeled over my head, or the gentle echo made by mother ocean as she rippled under some projecting ledge of ice. The snow, as it melted amongst the rocks behind, stole quietly on to the sea through a mass of dark-coloured moss; whilst a scanty distribution of pale or delicately-tinted flowers showed the humble flora of the north. The sun, sweeping along the heavens opposite, at a very low altitude, gilded as it rose the snowy crests of the mountains of Disco, and served to show, more grim and picturesque, the naturally dark face of the "Black Land of Lively." From thence round to the east, in the far horizon, swept the shores of Greenland, its glaciers, peaks, and headlands, all tortured by mirage into a thousand fantastic shapes, as if Dame Nature had risen from her couch in frolicsome mood. Between this scene and my feet, icebergs of every size and shape, rich with fretting of silvery icicle, and showing the deepest azure tint or richest emerald, strewed a mirror-like sea, glowing with the pale pink of morning.
The awful silence was impressive: unwilling to break it I sat me down.
"I felt her presence by its spell of might, Stoop o'er me from above— The calm majestic presence of the night, As of the one I love."
Suddenly a distant roar boomed along the water and echoed amongst the rocks: again and again I heard it, when, to my astonishment, several huge icebergs in the offing commenced to break up. A fearful plunge of some large mass would clothe the spot in spray and foam; a dull reverberating echo pealed on; and then, merely from the concussion of the still air, piece after piece detached itself from icebergs far and near, and the work of demolition was most rapid: truly did Baffin boast, that he had laid open one of Nature's most wonderful laboratories; and I thought with Longfellow, in his Hyperion,—
"The vast cathedral of nature is full of holy scriptures and shapes of deep mysterious meaning: all is solitary and silent there. Into this vast cathedral comes the human soul seeking its Creator, and the universal silence is changed to sound, and the sound is harmonious and has a meaning, and is comprehended and felt."
After many difficulties, which called for some obstinacy on my part to master, I was allowed to go to Disco, and Captain Ommaney, hearing of my intention, kindly made up a party. Taking one of our boats, we shipped an Esquimaux pilot, called "Frederick," and started on June 21st, at 2 o'clock in the morning. To all our inquiries about Disco, Frederick had but one reply,—"by and by you see." He liked rum and biscuit, and was only to be animated by the conversation turning upon seals, or poussies, as the natives call them. Then indeed Frederick's face was wreathed in smiles, or rather its oleaginous coat of dirt cracked in divers directions, his tiny eyes twinkled, and he descanted, in his broken jargon, upon the delight of poussey with far more unction than an alderman would upon turtle. After threading the islets we struck to north-east by compass, from the northernmost rock of the group, which our guide assured us would sink below the horizon the moment of our arrival off Godhaab. He was perfectly right, for after four hours' pulling and sailing we found ourselves under a small look-out house, and the islets of our departure had dipped.
Entering a long and secure harbour, we reached a perfectly landlocked basin: in it rode a couple of Danish brigs, just arrived from Copenhagen, with stores for the settlement; and on the shores of this basin, the Danish settlement of Godhaab was situated, a few stores, and the residence of two or three officials,—gentlemen who superintended the commercial monopoly to which I have before referred: a flag-staff and some half-dozen guns formed the sum total.
Landing at a narrow wooden quay, close to which natives and sailors were busy unladening boats, we found ourselves amongst a rambling collection of wooden houses, built in Dano-Esquimaux style, with some twenty native lodges intermixed. Very few persons were to be seen moving about: we heard afterwards that the body of natives were seal-catching to the northward. A troop of half-caste boys and girls served, however, to represent the population, and in them the odd mixture of the Mongolian with the Scandinavian race was advantageously seen.
A Danish seaman conducted Captain O——, Dr. D——, and self, to the residence of the chief official, and, at the early hour of six, we made a formal visit.
His mansion was of wood, painted black, with a red border to the windows and roof: no doubt, so decorated for a good purpose; but the effect was more striking than pleasing. A low porch with double doors, two sharp turns in a narrow dark passage,—to baffle draughts, no doubt,—and we found ourselves in a comfortable room with Herr Agar smoking a cigar, and gaily attired to receive us. The "Herr" spoke but little English; we no Danish: however, the quiet and reserved manner of the good northern did not conceal a certain kindness of which he soon gave us hospitable proof; for, on acceding to his offer of a little coffee, we were surprised to see a nice tidy lady—his wife, as he informed us—spread a breakfast fit for a Viking, and then with gentle grace she ably did the honours of her board. Hang me, when I looked at the snow-white linen, the home-made cleanly cheer, the sweet wife all kindness and anxiety, I half envied the worthy Dane the peace and contentment of his secluded lot, and it needed not a glass of excellent Copenhagen schiedam to throw a "couleur de rose" about this Ultima Thule of dear woman's dominion.
[Headnote: HERR AGAR.]
The morning pull had given a keenness to our appetites, and I have a general recollection of rye bread, Danish cake, excellent Zetland butter, Dutch cheese, luscious ham, boiled potatoes, and Greenland trout fresh from the stream. Could sailors ask for or need more? I can only say that we all felt that, if Herr Agar and Madame Agar (I hate that horrid word Frau) would only borrow our last shilling, we were ready to lend it.
A broken conversation ensued, a little English and much Danish, when Dr. D—— fortunately produced Captain Washington's Esquimaux vocabulary, and, aided by the little son of our host, we soon twisted out all the news Herr Agar had to give.
Captain Penny had only stayed a short time. He arrived on May the 4th. The prospect of an early season was most cheering, and then the worthy Herr produced a piece of paper directed to myself by my gallant friend Penny. He wrote in haste to say his squadron had arrived, all well, after a splendid run from Aberdeen: he was again off, and sent kind remembrances, dated May 4th.
This, at any rate, was joyful intelligence, and worth my journey to Disco; my heart leaped with joy, and I thought, at any rate, if we were late, he was full early.
After a long chat, we went for a stroll, in which a tree—yes! as I live, a tree—was discovered. Be not envious, ye men of Orkney, it stood full thirteen inches high, and was indigenous, being the dwarf birch-tree, the monarch of an arctic forest! Stumbling upon the churchyard I should have indulged my taste for old tombstones, had not the musquitoes forbidden it; and, with a hurried glance at the names of old hunters of fish and departed Danes and Dutchmen, I ran for the beach, remarking that, whereas we in Europe evince respect for those who have preceded us to that bourne—
"Where life's long journey turns to sleep, Nor weary pilgrim wakes to weep—"
by placing stones around their last homes, in Greenland pieces of soft and ugly wood are substituted, although nature has strewn on every side masses of granite fit to form mausoleums for Pharaohs. Bad taste! I exclaimed; but that's not confined to Disco.
Having promised to return to say good-bye, we kept our word most willingly, and found "Herr Agar" had a circle of friends to meet us; and my astonishment was great at the sight of two more petticoats. One was the wife of a Moravian missionary, and the other the wife of a gentleman at Jacob's Sound. They looked perfectly happy, and at least appeared as well at home in the dreary region which had become their adopted country, as we could expect, or their husbands desire. Conversation soon flagged; the missionary gave it up in despair; the "Herr" smoked in silence; and but for the ladies we should have been soon dumb. Happily for me (for I wanted to purchase some seal-skins), a captain of one of the brigs came in at the moment, and, understanding both English and Danish, conversation became quite animated. Watching my opportunity, I told him of my desire to purchase seal-skins for trowsers for my men; he immediately informed Herr Agar, who gave him a yah! and walked me off by the arm to his storerooms, followed by his good lady; lifting a bundle of beautiful seal-skins, the Herr made me an offer of them. I commenced fumbling for my purse, and at last produced some gold, making signs that various officers intended to have seal-skin trowsers. Nay! nay! exclaimed the good lady, thrusting back my money, whilst the Herr began loading me with skins. Oh! the horror of that moment: I felt as if I had been begging, and must have looked very like it, for Mrs. Agar, with a look of sudden inspiration, as if she perfectly understood me, ran off to her husband's wardrobe, and produced a pair of trowsers, of perfect Dutch dimensions, and, with the most innocent smile, made signs of how I should pull them on. I smiled, for they would have made a suit of clothes for me.
[Headnote: LEAVE DISCO.]
Seeing no way of getting out of the scrape my ignorance of Danish and their generosity had led me into, I determined to take as little as possible, and with a thousand thanks walked back to the drawing-room, with Herr Agar's "whisperables" on one arm and a couple of seal-skins on the other, my face burning, and my conscience smiting.
Time pressed, and we bid our kind friends good-bye. Herr Agar fired a salute of three guns, which we returned with three cheers; and, after taking a stirrup cup on board the "Peru," started for Whale-Fish Islands, which we reached at eleven o'clock at night, much pleased with our excursion.
Every one likes a souvenir of some pleasant by-gone scene or event: these souvenirs are often odd ones. A messmate of mine used to tell of Greece, her temples and ruins: "he had had many a pleasant snooze amongst them!" Another dwelt on the scenes of Montezuma's sorrows, for it was there he had partaken of most savoury wild fowl,—and yet another hero knew but of Peru and Pizarro's triumphs, by the markets producing very good prawns; whilst I must plead guilty to associating Greenland and the deeds of Scandinavian heroes with Herr Agar's seal-skin trowsers.
Amidst a last flourish of coals and dust, which left us filled to repletion,—indeed we were just awash,—we were ordered to take the ships in tow, and start. This being done, I came to a virtuous resolution in my own mind, after what I was going through in dragging my "fat friend," the "Resolute," about, to think twice ere I laughed at those whom fate had shackled to a mountain of flesh. When I had time to ask the day and date, it was Sunday, 28th June, 1850, and we had turned our back on the last trace of civilized man. Vogue-la-galere.
The night was serenely calm. We skirted the Black Land of Lively, making an average speed of three miles per hour, so that our fearful load of coal—full three hundred tons—did not diminish the speed nearly as much as I at first anticipated. Although I could not but feel from our staggering motion and bad steerage that the poor "Pioneer" was severely taxed in carrying her own dead weight of about five hundred tons, and towing a clumsy craft, which fully equalled another seven hundred tons, all this receiving vitality from two little engines of thirty-horse power each.
Whilst a sudden and rattling breeze from the south caused us to make sail and run merrily past the striking clifts of the Waigat and Jacob's Sound, I will briefly refer to the character of the vessels composing our squadron, their equipment, and general efficiency.
[Headnote: THE SHIPS.]
The "Resolute" and "Assistance" were sailing ships rigged as barks; their hulls strengthened according to the most orthodox arctic rules, until, instead of presenting the appearances of a body intended for progress through the water, they resembled nothing so much as very ungainly snuff-boxes; and their bows formed a buttress which rather pushed the water before it than passed through it. The remark made by an old seaman who had grown gray amongst the ice was often recalled to my mind, as with an aching heart for many a long mile I dragged the clumsy "Resolute" about. "Lord, sir! you would think by the quantity of wood they are putting into them ships, that the dock-yard maties believed they could stop the Almighty from moving the floes in Baffin's Bay! Every pound of African oak they put into them the less likely they are to rise to pressure; and you must in the ice either rise or sink. If the floe cannot pass through the ship it will go over it."
Internally the fittings of the ships were most perfect: nothing had been spared to render them the most comfortable vessels that ever went out avowedly to winter in the Polar ice. Hot air was distributed by means of an ingenious apparatus throughout lower deck and cabins. Double bulkheads and doors prevented the ingress of unnecessary cold air. A cooking battery, as the French say, promised abundance of room for roasting, boiling, baking, and thawing snow to make water for daily consumption. The mess places of the crew were neatly fitted in man-of-war style; and the well-laden shelves of crockery and hardware showed that Jack, as well as jolly marine, had spent a portion of his money in securing his comfort in the long voyage before them. A long tier of cabins on either side showed how large a proportion of officers these vessels carried; but it was so far satisfactory, as it proved that the division of labour, consequent upon numbers, would make arctic labours comparatively light.
A large captain's cabin, with a gunroom capable of containing all the officers when met together for their meals, completed the accommodation. The crews consisted of sixty souls each, of which a fourth were officers.
The vessels chosen to be the first to carry the novel agent, steam, into hyperborean climes, were the "Pioneer" and "Intrepid," sister vessels, belonging, originally, to the cattle conveyance company; they were propelled by screws, and were of sixty-horse power each, about 150 feet long, of 400 tons burden, and rigged as three-masted schooners. Over the whole of their original frames, tough planking called doubling was placed, varying from three to six inches in thickness. The decks were likewise doubled; and, as may be supposed, from such numerous fastenings passing through the original timbers of a merchantman, every timber was perforated with so many holes as to be weakened and rendered useless; indeed, the vessels may have at last been considered as what is termed "bread-and-butter built," the two layers of planking constituting with the decks the actual strength of the vessels. At the bow, the fine form had happily been retained, the timber strengthenings being thrown into them at that point within, and not without; they were, therefore, at the fore end somewhat like a strong wedge. Many an oracle had shaken his head at this novelty; and when I talked of cutting and breaking ice with an iron stem, the lip curled in derision and pity, and I saw that they thought of me as Joe Stag, the Plymouth boatman, did of the Brazilian frigate when she ran the breakwater down in a fog,—"Happy beggar, he knows nothing, and he fears nothing."
[Headnote: THE SCREWS.]
A few catastrophe-lovers in England having consigned Franklin to death because he had steam-engines and screws, every precaution was taken to secure the "Pioneer" and "Intrepid" in such a way that screw, rudder, and sternpost might be torn off by the much-talked-of bogie!—the ice,—and the vessels still be left fit to swim. In the internal arrangements for meeting an arctic climate, we were on somewhat a similar plan to the ships,—some difficulties being presented by the large mass of cold iron machinery, which, of course, acted as a rapid refrigerator. For the voyage out, the men were confined to a little place in the bows of the vessel, and from thence to the cabins of the officers, all was coal: a dead weight of 260 tons being originally carried from England, which we increased to 300 tons at the Whale Islands. This, at an average consumption of seven tons per diem, would enable us to tow the ships 3000 miles, or, steam alone, full 5000 miles, carrying twelve or eighteen months' provision. The crew consisted of thirty souls, all told, of which five were officers,—namely, a lieutenant in command and a second master, as executive officers; an assistant surgeon, who zealously undertook the superintendence of the commissariat, both public and private, and two engineers, to look after the steam department. These occupied the smallest conceivable space in the after-end of the steamers; and, with separate cabins, had a common mess-place.
Such were the arctic screws: it only remains for me to say, that they were very handsome, smart-sailing vessels, and those embarked in them partook of none of the anxieties and croakings, which declared opponents and doubtful allies entertained as to their success in what was styled a great experiment. They had but one wish ungratified, which was, that they had been sent alone and fully provisioned, instead of carrying an inadequate proportion of food, so that, in the event of being separated from the ships by accident, they might have wintered without suffering and hardship.
All the crews had been carefully chosen for health and efficiency; and they, as well as the officers, were actuated by the loftiest feelings of enterprise and humanity; and that feeling was fostered and strengthened by the knowledge they had, of the high confidence placed in the squadron by their country, speaking through the press. In fact, we were called heroes long before we had earned our laurels. Lastly, the Admiralty put into the hands of the officers the orders they had given the leader of this noble squadron; and there was but one opinion as to these orders, that more liberal, discretionary ones never were penned!—and with such power to act as circumstances might render necessary, we felt confident of deserving, if we could not demand, success.
June 24th, Baffin's Bay.—The squadron was flying north, in an open sea, over which bergs of every size and shape floated in wild magnificence. The excitement, as we dashed through the storm, in steering clear of them, was delightful from its novelty. Hard a starboard! Steady! Port! Port! you may!—and we flew past some huge mass, over which the green seas were fruitlessly trying to dash themselves. Coleridge describes the scene around us too well for me to degrade it with my prose. I will give his version:—
"And now there came both mist and snow, And it grew wondrous cold, And ice, mast high, came floating by As green as emerald. Through the drifts, the snowy clifts Did send a dismal sheen; Nor shapes of men, or beasts we ken, The ice was all between. With sloping masts, and dipping prow, As who pursued with yell and blow, Still treads the shadow of his foe, And forward bends his head. The ship drove fast—loud roared the blast, And northward aye we fled"—
Until we all suddenly hauled-in for the land of Greenland, in order to visit the settlement of Uppernavik. Passing into a channel, some four miles in width, we found ourselves running past the remarkable and lofty cliffs of "Sanderson his Hope," a quaint name given to this point by the "righte worthie Master Davis," in honour of his patron, a merchant of Bristol. Well worthy was it of one whose liberality had tended to increase our geographical knowledge; and the Hope's lofty crest pierced through the clouds which drove athwart its breast, and looked afar to see "whether the Lord of the Earth came not."
Under its lee, the water was a sheet of foam and spray, from the fierce gusts which swept down ravine and over headland; and against the base of the rocks, flights of wild fowl marked a spot famous amongst arctic voyagers as abounding in fresh food,—a charming variety to salt horse and Hambro' pork.
On rounding an inner islet of the Women's Group, as it is called, a straggling assemblage of Esquimaux huts, with a black and red storehouse or two, as at Disco, denoted the northernmost of the present Danish settlements, as well as the site of an ancient Scandinavian port,—a fact assured by the recent discovery of a stone pillar on one of the adjacent islands bearing the following inscription:—
"Elling Sigvatson, Bjame Thordason, and Endride Oddson, erected these memorial stones and cleared this place on Saturday before Gagndag (25th April), in the year 1135."
Exactly four hundred and fifty-two years before the place was rediscovered by our countryman, Davis.
The "Intrepid" having the honour of carrying-in the two post-captains, we box-hauled about in the offing until she returned with the disagreeable intelligence that all the English whalers were blocked up by ice, some thirty miles to the northward. Capt. Penny had been unable to advance, and the season was far from a promising one! Squaring our yards, we again bore up for the northward. In a few hours, a strong reflected light to the westward and northward showed we were fast approaching the ice-fields or floes of Baffin's Bay. A whaler, cruising about, shortly showed herself.
June 26th, 1850.—My rough notes are as follows:—A.M. Standing in for the land, northward of "Women's Isles," saw several whalers fast to the ice, inshore. Observe one of them standing out. H.M.S. "Assistance" is ordered to communicate. We haul to the wind. I visit the "Resolute." Learn that we altered course last night because the floes were seen extending across ahead. The whaler turns out to be the "Abram," Captain Gravill. He reports:—"Fourteen whalers stopped by the ice; Captain Penny, with his ships, after incurring great risk, and going through much severe labour, was watching the floes with the hope of slipping past them into the north water."
Mr. Gravill had lately ranged along the Pack edge as far south as Disco, and found not a single opening except the bight, up which we had been steering last night. He said, furthermore, "that there would be no passage across the bay, this year, for the whalers, because the water would not make sufficiently early to enable them to reach the fishing-ground in Pond's Bay by the first week in August; after which date, the whales travel southward towards Labrador." The report wound up with the discouraging statement that the whale-men agreed that the floes, this season, were unusually extensive, that the leads or cracks of water were few, and icebergs more numerous than they had been for some years.
It appears that a northerly gale has been blowing, with but slight intermission, for the last month; and that, in consequence, there is a large body of water to the north, the ice from which has been forced into the throat of Davis' Straits. All we have to pray for is, a continuation of the same breeze, for otherwise southerly winds will jam the whole body of it up in Melville Bay, and make what is called a "closed season."
[Headnote: A CHECK.]
Mr. G—— (though not a friend of Penny's) told us that Penny was working day and night to get ahead, and had already run no small risk, and undergone extraordinary labour. Poor Penny! I felt that fate had been against him! He deserved better than to be overtaken by us, after the energy displayed in the equipment of his squadron.
In the first watch the brigs "Lady Franklin" and "Sophia" were seen by us, fast between loose floe pieces, to seaward of which we continued to flirt. The "Intrepid" and "Pioneer" were now to be seen slyly trying their bows upon every bit of ice we could get near, without getting into a scrape with the commodore; and, from the ease with which they cut through the rotten stuff around our position, I already foresaw a fresh era in arctic history, and that the fine bows would soon beat the antediluvian "bluffs" out of the field.
Thursday, 27th June, 1850, found us still cruising about under canvas; northward and westward a body of dirty ice, fast decaying under a fierce sunlight, bergs in hundreds in every direction; and, dotted along the Greenland shore, a number of whalers fast in what is called "Land water," ready to take the first opening. The barometer falling, we were ordered to make fast to icebergs, every one choosing his own. This operation is a very useful one in arctic regions, and saves much unnecessary wear and tear of men and vessel, when progress in the required direction is no longer possible.
The bergs, from their enormous depth, are usually aground, except at spring-tides, and the seaman thus succeeds in anchoring his vessel in 200 fm. water, without any other trouble than digging a hole in the iceberg, placing an anchor in it called an ice-anchor, which one man can lift, and, with a whale-line, his ship rides out under the lee of this natural breakwater, in severe gales, and often escapes being beset in a lee pack.
Fastening to a berg has its risks and dangers; sometimes the first stroke of the man setting the ice-anchor, by its concussion causes the iceberg to break up, and the people so employed run great risk of being injured; at another time, vessels obliged to make fast under the steep side of a berg, have had pieces detach themselves from overhead, and injure materially the vessel and spars; and, again, the projecting masses, called tongues (which form under water the base of the berg), have been known to break off, and strike a vessel so severely as to sink her: all these risks are duly detailed by every arctic navigator, and the object always is, in fastening to an iceberg, to look for a side which is low and sloping, without any tongues under water. To such an one the Intrepid and Pioneer made fast, although the boat's crew that first reached it, in making a hole, were wetted by a projecting mass detaching itself with the first blow of the seaman's crowbar. A gale sprang up almost immediately, and during the night the Assistance blew adrift. Next day it abated, and the ice to the northward looked open.
In the evening one of Penny's vessels, the Sophia, joined us, and from her commander we soon heard of their hopes and disappointment. Directly after leaving Disco they fell in with the ice, and had fought their way the whole distance to their present position. The season was not promising, but forty-eight hours of a N.E. wind would do wonders, and I cordially partook of his opinion, that "keeping the vessel's nose to the crack" was the only way to get ahead in the arctic regions. The crews of the brigs were in rattling health and spirits. Having delivered him some letters and a number of parcels which, by great good luck, had not been landed at Uppernavik, Capt. Stewart returned to his chief, some eight miles northward of us, and we remained to watch progress.
[Headnote: TOWING THE SHIPS.]
Saturday, June 29th, 1850.—
Monday, July 1st, 1850.—At last the hoped-for signal, "take ships in tow," was made; and, with a leaping heart, we entered the lead, having the "Resolute" fast by the nose with a six-inch hawser. What looked impassable at ten miles' distance was an open lead when close to. Difficulties vanish when they are faced; and the very calm which rendered the whalers unable to take advantage of a loose pack, was just the thing for steamers. Away we went! past berg, past floe, winding in and out quietly, yet steadily!—and the whalers were soon astern. Penny, indefatigable, was seen struggling along the shore, with his boats ahead, towing, and every stitch of sail set to catch the lightest cat's paw: him too, however, we soon passed. The water ahead increased as we advanced, and we found, as is well known to be the case, that the pack-edge is always the tightest part of it.
Several whale-boats from the vessels astern were busy taking ducks' eggs from the islands, which seem to abound along the coast. When passing one of these islands that appeared remarkably steep, I was disagreeably surprised to feel the "Pioneer" strike against a sunken rock with some violence; she slipped off it, and then the "Resolute" gave herself a blow, which seemed to make every thing quiver again. Capt. Penny had a signal up warning us of the danger; but we were too busy to see it until afterwards, and then the want of wind prevented our ascertaining what was meant. After this accident we went very cautiously until the evening hour, when, having neared Cape Shackleton, and some thin ice showing itself, through which, at reduced speed, we could not tow the broad-bowed "Resolute," she was cast off, and made fast to some land ice, and I proceeded on alone in the "Pioneer" to see what the prospect was further on.
Cutting through some rotten ice of about six inches in thickness, we reached water beyond it, and saw a belt of water, of no great width, extending along shore as far as the next headland, called Horse's-head. Picking up a boat belonging to the "Chieftain" whaler, which had been shooting and egging, I returned towards the "Resolute" with my intelligence, giving Cape Shackleton a close shave to avoid the ice which was setting against it from the westward, the whalemen whom I had on board expressing no small astonishment and delight at the way in which we screwed through the broken ice of nine-inch thickness. On reaching the squadron, I found it made fast for the night, and parties of officers preparing to start in different directions to shoot, and see what was to be seen, for, of course, our night was as light as the day of any other region.
To the "Chieftain's" doctor I, with others of the "Pioneer," consigned what we flattered ourselves were our last letters, thinking that, now the steamers had got ahead, it was not likely the whalers would again be given an opportunity of communicating or overtaking us.
There is something in last letters painful and choking; and I remember that I hardly knew which feeling most predominated in my breast,—sorrow and regret for those friends I had left behind me, or hope and joyful anticipation of meeting those before us in the "Erebus and Terror."
[Headnote: CAPE SHACKLETON.]
At any rate, I gave vent to them by climbing the rocky summit of Cape Shackleton, and throwing off my jacket, let the cold breeze allay the excitement of my mind.
Nothing strikes the traveller in the north more strongly than the perceptible repose of Nature, although the sun is still illumining the heavens, during those hours termed night. We, of course, who were unaccustomed to the constant light, were restless and unable to sleep; but the inhabitants of these regions, as well as the animals, retire to rest with as much regularity as is done in more southern climes; and the subdued tints of the heavens, as well as the heavy banking of clouds in the neighbourhood of the sun, gives to the arctic summer night a quietude as marked as it is pleasant. Across Baffin's Bay there was ice! ice! ice! on every side, small faint streaks of water here and there in the distance, with one cheering strip of it winding snake-like along the coast as far as eye could reach. "To-morrow!" I exclaimed, "we will be there." "Yes!" replied a friend, "but if the breeze freshens, Penny will reach it to-night!" And there, sure enough, were Penny's brigs sailing past our squadron, which showed no sign of vitality beyond that of the officer of the watch visiting the ice-anchors to see all was right. "That fellow, Penny, is no sluggard!" we muttered, "and will yet give the screws a hard tussle to beat him."
A couple of hours rest, and having taken the ship in tow, we again proceeded, and at about seven o'clock on the morning of the 2d of July passed the "Sophia," and shortly afterwards, the "Lady Franklin." Alas! poor Penny, he had a light contrary wind to work against.
I do not think my memory can recall in the course of my wanderings any thing more novel or striking than the scenes through which we steamed this forenoon. The land of Greenland, so bold, so steep, and in places so grim, with the long fields of white glittering ice floating about on the cold blue sea, and our little vessels (for we looked pigmies beside the huge objects around us, whether cliff, berg, or glacier) stealing on so silently and quickly; the leadsman's song or the flap of wild fowl the only sounds to break the general stillness. One of the cliffs we skirted along was actually teeming with birds called "loons:" they might have been shot in tens of hundreds had we required them or time not pressed: they are considered remarkably good eating, and about the size and weight of an ordinary duck: to naturalists they are known by the name of guillemot, and were christened "loons" by the early Dutch navigators, in consequence of their stupidity. Numerous seals lay on the ice in the offing, and their great size astonished us.
As we advanced, a peculiarly conical island, in a broad and ice-encumbered bay, showed itself: it was "the Sugar-Loaf Island" of the whalers; and told us that, on rounding the farther headland, we should see the far-famed Devil's Thumb, the boundary of Melville Bay.
A block of ice brought us up after a tow of some twenty-five or thirty miles, and, each vessel picking up a convenient iceberg, we made fast to await an opening.
I landed to obtain a view from a small islet close to the "Pioneer," and was rewarded by observing that the Duck Islands, a group some fifteen miles to seaward of us, had evidently a large space of open water around them, and broad lanes extended from these in divers directions towards us, although, without retracing our steps, there was at present no direct road for us into this water.
Captain Penny, however, being astern, had struck to seaward, and was fast passing our position.
On the islands there were recent traces of both reindeer and bears; and I amused myself picking some pretty arctic flowers, such as anemones, poppies, and saxifrage, which grew in sheltered nooks amongst the rocks.
[Headnote: A BEAR HUNT.]
Before leaving the vessel, a boat had been despatched to the headland where so many "loons" had been seen, to shoot for the ship's company's use: the other ships did likewise: they returned at about four o'clock next morning, and I was annoyed at being informed, without any birds, although all the powder and shot had been expended.
I sent for the captain of the forecastle, who had been away in charge of the sportsmen, and, with astonishment, asked how he had contrived to fire away one pound of powder and four of small shot, without bringing home some loons? Hanging his head, and looking uncommonly bashful, he answered, "If you please, sir, we fired it all into a bear!" "Into a bear?" I exclaimed, "what! shoot a bear with No. 4 shot?" "Yes, sir," replied Abbot; "and if it hadn't have been for two or three who were afeard of him, we would have brought him aboard, too." Sending my bear-hunting friend about his business for neglecting my orders to obtain fresh food for the crew, I afterward found out that on passing a small island between the "Pioneer" and the Loon Head, as the cliff was called, my boat's crew had observed a bear watching some seals, and it was voted immediately, that to be the first to bring a bear home, would immortalize the "Pioneer."
A determined onslaught was therefore made on Bruin: No. 4 shot being poured into him most ruthlessly, he growled and snapped his teeth, trotted round the island, and was still followed and fired at, until, finding the fun all on one side, the brute plunged into the water, and swam for some broken-up ice; my heroes followed, and, for lack of ball, fired at him a waistcoat button and the blade of a knife, which, by great ingenuity, they had contrived to cram down one of their muskets; this very naturally, as they described it, "made the beast jump again!" he reached the ice, however, bleeding all over, but not severely injured; and whilst the bear was endeavouring to get on the floe, a spirited contest ensued between him and Old Abbot, the latter trying to become possessor of a skin, which the former gallantly defended.
Ammunition expended, and nothing but boat-hooks and stretchers left as defensive weapons, there seemed some chance of the tables being reversed, and the boat's crew very properly obliged the captain of the forecastle to beat a retreat; the bear, equally well pleased to be rid of such visitors, made off. "Old Abbot," as he was styled, always, however, asserted, that if he had had his way, the bear would have been brought on board the "Pioneer," and tamed to do a good deal of the dragging work of the sledges; and whenever he heard, in the winter, any of the young hands growling at the labour of sledging away snow or ice, he created a roar of laughter, by muttering, "Ah! if you had taken my advice, we'd have had that 'ere bear to do this work for us!"
July 3d, 1850.—Penny, by taking another route, gave us the "go by," and in the afternoon we started, taking an in-shore lane of water. The wind, however, had freshened up from the westward, and as we advanced, the ice was rapidly closing, the points of the floe-pieces forming "bars," with holes of water between them. With the "Pioneer's" sharp bow, we broke through the first of these barriers, and carried the "Resolute" into "a hole of water," as it is called. The next bar being broader, I attempted to force it by charging with the steamer, and after breaking up a portion of it, backed astern to allow the broken pieces to be removed; this being the first time this operation was performed, and much having to be learnt upon the feasibility of the different modes of applying steam-power against ice.
[Headnote: ARCTIC SPORTING.]
We soon found ourselves surrounded with broken masses, which, owing to the want of men to remove it away into the open water astern, rendered advance or retreat, without injury to the propeller, almost impossible. Here, the paucity of men on board the steam vessels was severely felt: for until the "Resolute" was properly secured I could expect no assistance from her; and the "Pioneer," therefore, had to do her best with half the number of men, although she was fifty feet longer than the ship. Unable to move, the closing floes fast beset the steamer, and then the large parties of men that joined from the squadron to assist were useless, beyond some practice, which all seemed willing to undertake, in the use of ice-tools, consisting of chisels, poles with iron points, claws, lines, &c.
In a short time, the prospect of liberating the "Pioneer" was seen to be farcical, and all the officers and men from the "Resolute" returned to their ship, although parties of novices would walk down constantly to see the first vessel beset in the ice.
A few birds playing about induced myself and some others to go out shooting, a foggy night promising to be favourable to our larders. The ice, however, was full of holes, and very decayed; in addition to which it was in rapid motion in many places, from the action of wind and tide. The risk of such sporting was well evinced in my gallant friend M——'s case. He was on one side of a lane of water, and I on the other: a bird called a "Burgomaster" flew over his head to seaward, and he started in the direction it had gone. I and another shouted to warn him of the ice being in rapid motion and very thin; he halted for a moment, and then ran on, leaping from piece to piece. The fog at this moment lifted a little, and most providentially so, for suddenly I saw M—— make a leap and disappear—the ice had given way!—he soon rose, but without his gun, and I then saw him scramble upon a piece of ice, and on watching it, observed with a shudder that both he and it were drifting to the northward, and away from us. Leaving my remaining companion to keep sight of M——, and thus to point out the way on my return, I retraced my steps to the "Pioneer," and with a couple of men, a long hand-line, and boarding-pikes, started off in the direction M—— was in.
I could tell my route pretty well by my companion's voice, which in rich Milesian was giving utterance to encouraging exclamations of the most original nature—"Keep up your courage, my boy!—Why don't you come back?—Faith, I suppose it's water that won't let you!—There will be some one there directly!—Hoy! hoy! ahoy! don't be down-hearted anyway!" I laughed as I ran. My party placed themselves about ten yards apart, the last man carrying the line, ready to heave, in case of the leader breaking through. So weak was the ice that we had to keep at a sharp trot to prevent the weight of our own bodies resting long on any one spot; and when we sighted our friend M—— on his little piece of firm ice, the very natural exclamation of one of my men was, "I wonder how he ever reached it, sir?" M—— assisted us to approach him by pointing out his own route; and by extending our line, and holding on to it, we at last got near enough to take him off the piece of detached ice on which he had providentially scrambled. I never think of the occurrence without a sickening sensation, mixed with a comic recollection of K——'s ejaculations. Whilst walking back with my half-frozen friend, the ice showed itself to be easing off rapidly with the turn of tide. At 1 A.M. we were all free, and a lane of water extending itself ahead.
[Headnote: MELVILLE BAY.]
July 4th.—At 1 P.M. we started again, towing the ships, the whaling fleet from the southward under every stitch of canvas threatening to reach the Duck Islands before ourselves, and Captain Penny's squadron out of sight to the north-west. By dint of hard steaming we contrived to reach the islands before the whalers, and at midnight got orders to cast off and cruise about under sail, all the vessels rejoining us that we had passed some days ago off the Women's Isles.
The much talked of, by whalemen, "Devil's Thumb," was now open; it appears to be a huge mass of granite or basalt, which rears itself on a cliff of some 600 or 800 feet elevation, and is known as the southern boundary of Melville Bay, round whose dreary circuit, year after year, the fishermen work their way to reach the large body of water about the entrance of Lancaster Sound and Pond's Bay. Facing to the south-west, from whence the worst gales of wind at this season of the year arise, it is not to be wondered at that Melville Bay has been the grave of many a goodly craft, and in one disastrous year the whaling fleet was diminished by no less than twenty-eight sail (without the loss of life, however), a blow from which it never has recovered. No good reason was adduced for taking this route, beyond the argument, founded upon experience, that the earliest passages were always to be made by Melville Bay; this I perfectly understood, for early in the season, when northerly winds do prevail, the coast of Melville Bay is a weather-shore, and the ice, acted upon by wind and current, would detach itself and form between the land-ice and the pack-ice a safe high-road to the westward. It was far otherwise in 1850. The prospect of an early passage, viz., from the first to the third week of June, had long vanished. Southerly winds, after so long a prevalence of northerly ones (vide Captain Gravill's information), were to be expected. The whole weight of the Atlantic would be forced up Davis's Straits, and Melville Bay become "a dead lee-shore." I should therefore not have taken the ice, or attempted to work my way round Melville Bay, and would instead have gone to the westward and struck off sooner or later into the west water, in about the latitude of Uppernavik, 73 deg. 30' N.
However, this is what amongst the experienced is styled theory; and as any thing was better than standing still, I was heartily glad to see the "Chieftain," a bonnie Scotch whaler, show us the road by entering a lead of water, and away we all went, working to windward. The sailing qualities of the naval Arctic ships threatened to be sadly eclipsed by queer-looking craft, like the "Truelove" and others. But steam came to the rescue, and after twelve hours' hard struggle we got the pendants again ahead of our enterprising and energetic countrymen.
Saturday, July 6th.—By 6 A.M. we were alongside of Penny's squadron, which was placed at the head of the lane of water, up which we had also advanced; and so keen was he not to lose the post of honour, that as we closed, I smiled to see the Aberdonians move their vessels up into the very "nip." In the course of the day the whalers again caught us up, and a long line of masts and hulls dotted the floe-edge.
The ice was white and hard, affording good exercise for pedestrians, and to novices, of whom there were many amongst us, the idea of walking about on the frozen surface of the sea was not a little charming. In all directions groups of three and four persons were seen trudging about, and the constant puffs of smoke which rose in the clear atmosphere, showed that shooting for the table was kept carefully in view.
[Headnote: AN OLD WHALEMAN.]
A present of 170 duck-eggs from Captain Stewart of the "Joseph Green" whaler, showed in what profusion these birds breed, and I was told by Captain Penny that one of the islets passed by him on the 2d was literally alive with ducks, and that several boat-loads of eggs might have been taken off it,—interesting proofs of the extraordinary abundance of animal life in these northern regions. Our Saturday evening was passed listening to stirring tales of Melville Bay and the whale fishery, and several prophecies as to the chances of a very bad season, the number of icebergs and extent of the ice-fields, inducing many to believe that more than usual risk would be run in the bay this year. Sunday forenoon passed quietly and according to law, though a falling barometer made us watch anxiously a heavy bank of black clouds which rested in the southern heavens.
The dinner-bell however rang, and having a very intelligent gentleman who commands a whaler as a guest, we were much interested in listening to his description of the strange life led by men, like himself, engaged in the adventurous pursuit of the whale; Mr. S. assured us that he had not seen corn grow, or eaten fresh gooseberries for thirty years! although he had been at home every winter. Though now advanced in years, with a large family, one of whom was the commander of Her Majesty's brig the "Sophia," then in company, still he spoke with enthusiasm of the excitement and risks of his own profession; it had its charms for the old sailor, whose skill and enterprise had been excited for so many years in braving the dangers of ice-encumbered seas, whether around Spitzbergen or in Baffin's Bay: he evidently felt a pride and satisfaction in his past career, and it had still sweet reminiscences for him. I felt a pride in seeing such a man a brother-seaman,—one who loved the North because it had hardships—one who delighted to battle with a noble foe. "We are the only people," he said, "who follow the whale, and kill him in spite of the ice and cold." There was the true sportsman in such feelings. He and the whale were at war,—not even the ice could save his prey.
A report from deck, that the ice was coming in before a southerly gale, finished our dinner very abruptly, and the alteration that had taken place in a couple of hours was striking. A blue sky had changed to one of a dusky colour,—a moaning gale sent before it a low brown vapour, under which the ice gleamed fiercely,—the floes were rapidly pressing together. Two whalers were already nipped severely, and their people were getting the boats and clothing out ready for an accident.
[Headnote: DOCKING IN THE ICE.]
"The sooner we are all in dock the better," said Captain S., as he hurried away to get his own vessel into safety, and, almost as quickly as I can tell it, a scene of exciting interest commenced—that of cutting docks in the fixed ice, called land-floe, so as to avoid the pressure which would occur at its edge by the body of ice to seaward being forced against it by the fast rising gale. Smart things are done in the Navy, but I do not think any thing could excel the alacrity with which the floe was suddenly peopled by about 500 men, triangles rigged, and the long saws (called ice-saws) used for cutting the ice, were manned. A hundred songs from hoarse throats resounded through the gale; the sharp chipping of the saws told that the work was flying; and the loud laugh or broad witticisms of the crews mingled with the words of command and encouragement to exertion given by the officers.
The pencil of a Wilkie could hardly convey the characteristics of such a scene, and it is far beyond my humble pen to tell of the stirring animation exhibited by some twenty ships' companies, who knew that on their own exertions depended the safety of their vessels and the success of their voyage. The ice was of an average thickness of three feet, and to cut this saws of ten feet long were used, the length of stroke being about as far as the men directing the saw could reach up and down. A little powder was used to break up the pieces that were cut, so as to get them easily out of the mouth of the dock, an operation which the officers of our vessels performed whilst the men cut away with the saws. In a very short time all the vessels were in safety, the pressure of the pack expending itself on a chain of bergs some ten miles north of our present position. The unequal contest between floe and iceberg exhibited itself there in a fearful manner; for the former pressing onward against the huge grounded masses was torn into shreds, and thrown back piecemeal, layer on layer of many feet in elevation, as if mere shreds of some flimsy material, instead of solid, hard ice, every cubic yard of which weighed nearly a ton.
The smell of our numerous fires brought a bear in sight; Nimrods without number issued out to slay him, the weapons being as varied as the individuals were numerous. The chase would, however, have been a fruitless one, had not the bear in his retreat fallen in with and killed a seal; his voracity overcame his fears, and being driven into the water, he was shot from the boat of one of the whalers which had perseveringly followed him.
The brute was of no great size—not more than five feet in length. The coat, instead of being white, was turned to a dingy yellow, much resembling in colour decayed ice; a resemblance which enabled the animal, no doubt, to approach the seals with greater facility.
By midnight all fears for the safety of the vessels had ceased; indeed, as far as our searching ships had been concerned, there never had been much cause for fear, the operation of docking having been carried out by us more for the sake of practice than from necessity. We were tightly beset until the following evening, when the ice as suddenly moved off as it had come together; and then a scene of joyful excitement took place, such as is only to be seen in the arctic regions—every ship striving to be foremost in her escape from imprisonment, and to lead ahead. Want of wind obliged the whalers and Penny's brigs to be tracked along the floe-edge by the crews—a laborious operation, which is done on our English canals by horses; here, however, the powerful crews of fishermen, mustering from thirty-five to fifty hands, fastened on by their track-belts to a whale-line, and, with loud songs, made their vessels slip through the water at an astonishing pace.