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Sir John Ross
The Arctic Voyager


The death of this celebrated voyager on the 31st August last, at 43, Gillingham-street, Pimlico, reminds us that his name was, some twenty-three years ago, in everybody’s mouth, and the interest excited, in recent times, concerning Sir John Franklin, was never so great or so absorbing as was that created by the long absence of Captain Ross in the Polar regions. From the 27th day of July, 1829, when he left the port of Wideford, in Greenland, where he had been obliged to refit his vessel, the Victory, having lost her mainmast, till he and his crew were picked up in a most miserable condition, in August, 1833, by Captain R. W. Humphreys, of the Isabella, of Hull, his own old ship, no information that could be relied upon, had been received at home of his expedition, and most people bad given him up for lost. That expedition was undertaken chiefly through the liberal pecuniary aid of a private individual. The person who came forward to further the renewed search for a north-west passage was Sir Felix Booth, the eminent distiller, then Sheriff of London; and this gentleman received his Baronetcy in 1834, for the assistance he had so munificently rendered to Captain Ross on that occasion.

With the history of Arctic discovery, the name of Sir John Ross is indissolubly linked. Like many other Scotsmen who have acquired distinction, he was reared in a manse. He was the fourth son of the Rev. Andrew Ross, minister of Inch, a parish in the western division of Wigtownshire, where he was born in 1777. His mother, Elizabeth Corsan, was a descendant of the Corsans of Mickleknox, who, for seventeen generations, were provosts of Dumfries, and at one period possessed a third part of that loyal burgh, celebrated for its “siller gun,” and for being the place where Burns spent the latter unhappy years of his life, and where stands his mausoleum:—

The homage of earth's proudest isle,
To that bard-peasant given.

The name of Corsan, or, as it is now altered, into Carson, is very prevalent in Dumfriesshire. The late learned Dr. Aglionby Ross Carson, rector of the High School, Edinburgh, who died on the 4th November, 1850, was a native of that county.

The Corsans came from Italy. The first of them in Scotland was a gentleman of the Corsini family, who, about the year 1280, accompanied an abbot of New Abbey, to Kirkcudbrightshire, and settled in Galloway. This abbey, then called New, was founded by Devorgilla, the mother of John Baliol, and, after her death, it was known by the name of Dulcecor, that is, Sweetheart Abbey, from the heart of the husband of the foundress, John Baliol, of Bernard Castle, embalmed, and placed in a box of ivory, being buried with herself, near the high altar.

The parish of Inch, the birthplace of Sir John Ross, forms part of an isthmus between Loch Ryan and Luce Bay, and was at one period, in very ancient times, covered by the sea. At intervals throughout its extent, there are curious hollows, of various sizes, locally called “pots,” which are supposed to have been scooped out by an eddying motion of the retiring billows. The name Inch is derived from the British Jay, or the Gaelic Inis, and signifies an island. There are three or four parishes of the name in Scotland, as well as numerous places having the word for an adjunct, such as Inchaffray, Inchcolm, &c. It is also used to denote level ground near a river, as the North and 8outh Inches at Perth.

The future Arctic voyager entered the Navy in 1786, and, after being a midshipman for fifteen years, he was promoted to be lieutenant, in 1801. In 1806, when lieutenant of the Surinam, he was wounded in cutting out a Spanish vessel from under the batteries of Bilboa. In 1812, he was appointed commander of the Briseia, on the Baltic station. With his lieutenant, a midshipman, and eighteen men, he gallantly attacked and recaptured an English merchant ship, armed with six guns and four swivels, aud defended by a party of French troops. Subsequently, he captured also a French privateer, and drove on shore three other vessels of the same description. In 1814, Captain Ross was appointed to the Actaeon, 16 guns, and in 1815, to the Driver sloop.

He became a Post-Captain in 1818, the year which was distinguished as the commencement of his Arctic career. The extraordinary changes reported to have taken place in the state of the Polar Sea, determined the Government to send out an expedition for Arctic discovery, the command of which was given to Captain Ross, who was directed to explore Baffin's Bay, and search for a north-west passage from it into the Frozen Ocean, and thence into the Pacific. Parliament offered a premium of twenty thousands sterling to the first vessel which should reach the North Pole, and pass it. The vessels employed were the Isabella, of 368 tons, commanded by Ross himself, and the brig Alexander, of 252 tons, under Lieutenant, afterwards Sir Edward Parry. The chief geographical result of his voyage was the more accurate determination of the situation of Baffin’s Bay, which, until then, was believed to extend ten degrees farther to the east than it actually does, and the re-discovery of Lancaster Sound, up which, however, he did not continue his progress far enough to find that it was open. He was obliged to leave the coast on account of danger from the ice, and on his return, he published an account of his expedition under the title of "Voyage of Discovery for the purpose of Exploring Baffin’s Bay.” London, 1819, quarto.

In this expedition, Captain Ross but cleared the way for his more fortunate successor, Sir Edward Parry. His discoveries and adventures had excited a strong desire in the public mind to know more of those bleak and inhospitable regions where perpetual winter reigns. He had stated his belief that Lancaster Sound was closed by a chain of mountains, and anxious to show that no such mountains existed, Sir Edward Parry, his second in command, made such representations to the Admiralty as induced the Government to send another expedition to the same place. Of this expedition, Parry was appointed the chief, his vessels being the Hecla and the Griper. On this occasion Government offered prizes of from £5,000 to £15,000 to those vessels which should reach certain points in the Arctic Seas. Having penetrated to past the meridian of 110 degrees west longitude, within the Arctic Circle, Parry and his companions became entitled to £5,000 of the sum offered by Government for the encouragement of Arctic enterprize. Of this award one thousand pounds fell to the commander’s share. He was subsequently in command of three other expeditions to the frozen North, and for his services was knighted in 1829.

It was in that year that Captain Ross was enabled, through the munificent aid of his friend, Mr. Felix Booth, to undertake another expedition into the Arctic seas, with a view to determine the practicability of a new passage which had been confidently said to exist, particularly by Prince Regent’s Inlet. In May of the year mentioned he set sail from London in the Victory steamer, with his nephew, Commander Ross, as second in command. This intrepid officer, afterwards Captain Sir James Clark Ross, had accompanied his uncle in his first expedition. He had also been engaged, under Sir Edward Parry, in all his voyages to the Polar Seas.

Captain Ross fixed 1832 as the period of his return, but as that year came and passed and nothing was heard from him, a public subscription was set on foot for fitting out an expedition to go to search of him. The sum of £7,000 was raised, the Treasuary contributing liberally, and Captain Back, whose experience eminently qualified him for the service, was appointed to conduct it. He sailed in the spring of 1833, but received intelligence of Captain Ross’s return in time to prevent him from encountering any dangers in the prosecution of the search.

The sufferings of Captain Ross and his men during their protracted stay in the Arctic region were of the severest description. After passing three winters of unparalleled rigour, their provisions being consumed, they were obliged to abandon the Victory, which they did in May, 1833, and, after a journey over the ice, of uncommon labour and hardship, extending to nearly three hundred miles, they reached Fury Beach, in the month of July. "During this journey we are told," they had not only to carry their provisions and also a supply of fuel; without melting and could not procure even a drink of water.” Whinter set in, and no choice was left but to retrace their steps, and spend another inclement season in canvas, covered with snow. In August, 1833, they fell in with the Isabella, and were taken on board, “after having been four years lost to the civilized world." Well do we remember the general feeling of satisfaction which was expressed throughout the kingdom on Captain Ross's return.

The narrative of this second expedition was published in 1835, in a quarto volume of 350 pages. Its great results were the discovery of Boothia Felix, a country larger than Great Britain, and so called after Mr., afterwards Sir Felix, Booth, who had assisted Captain Ross in fitting out the expedition; and the true position of the North Magnetic Pole. The latter was discovered by Captain Ross's nephew, who had the honour of placing thereon the British flag. He had the departments of astronomy, natural history, and surveying in the expedition.

In consequence of his Arctic voyages, Captain Ross received numerous marks of public approbation. In 1834 he was knighted and made a Companion of the Order of the Bath. The freedom of the cities of London, Liverpool, Bristol, Hull, and other towns, was bestowed upon him. He was presented with gold medals from the Geographical Society of London, the Geographical Institute of Paris, the Royal Societies of Sweden, Austria, Denmark, &c. Foreign powers also marked their sense of his discoveries. He was appointed a Commander of the Sword of Sweden; a Knight of the Second Class of St. Anne of Russia (in diamonds) ; the Second Class of the Legion of Honour of France; the Second class of the Red Eagle of Prussia; and the Second Class of Leopold of Belgium. He also got six gold snuff-boxes from Russia, Holland, Denmark, Austria, London, and Baden; a sword, of the value of one hundred pounds, from the Patriotic Fund; and one, of the value of two hundred pounds, from the King of Sweden, for service in the Baltic and White Seas, and various other acknowledgments.

Iu 1838, Sir John Ross was appointed British Consul at Stockholm, and he held that office till 1844. When Sir John Franklin went out on his last fatal expedition, his friend, Sir John Ross, made him a promise that if he should be lost he would sail for the Arctic regions and look for him. This promise he kept. In 1850, at the age of seventy-three, Sir John went out in the Felix, a small vessel of no more than ninety tons. He remained a winter in the ice, and would have stayed a second year, had his means allowed. He relinquished his half pay and his pensions for the cause he had so much at heart, yet the Admiralty refused to contribute even a portion of the necessary stores. Though the first of our Arctic voyagers, he was excluded from the Arctic councils, at which his experience and advice would have been very valuable. In the spring of 1855, he published a pamphlet on his ill-treatment. He was likewise the author of “Letters to Young Sea Officers," “Memoirs of Lord de Saumarez; "A Treatise on Steam Navigation," &c. At the time of his death he was a Rear-Admiral.

We cannot better conclude this brief and altogether inadequate sketch of the late Sir John Ross than by quoting the following passage, relative to the results and benefits which have accrued from the prosecution of Arctic discovery, from an address delivered by Rear-Admiral F. W. Beechey, to the Royal Geographical Society, at its last anniversary meeting:—

“It is now nearly forty years,” he said, “since the re-viral of our Polar voyages, during which period they have been prosecuted with more or less success, until, at length, the great problem has been solved. Besides this grand solution of the question, these voyages have, in various ways, been beneficial, and science, at least, has reaped her harvest. They have brought us acquainted with a portion of the globe before unknown. They have acquired for us a vast addition to our stores of knowledge, in magnetism, so important an element in the safe conduct of our ships; in meteorology, in geography, natural and physical; and which has led to the prosecution of like discoveries in the regions of the Antarctic Pole. They have shown us what the human frame is capable of undergoing and of accomplishing, under great severity of climate and privation. They have opened out various sources of curious inquiry as to the existence, at some remote period, of tropical plants and tropical animals in those now icy regions, and of other matters interesting and useful to man. They have, in short, expunged the blot of obscurity which would otherwise have hung over and disfigured the page of the history of this enlightened age, and, if we except the lamentable fate which befell the expedition under Sir John Franklin, we shall find that they have been attended with as little, if not less, average loss of life than that of the ordinary course of mankind. And if any one should be disposed to weigh their advantages in the scale of pecuniary profit, they will find that there also they have yielded fruit, if not to us, at least to a sister nation in whose welfare we are greatly interested, and whose generous sympathy in the fate of our countrymen endears her to us, and would render it impossible that we should begrudge her this portion of the advantage of our labours. I need hardly remind you of the report from the Secretary of the United States Navy to the Senate, to the effect that, in consequence of information derived from one of our Arctic expeditions to Behring’s Straits, a trade had sprung up in America by the capture of whales, to the North of that Strait, of more value to the States than all the commerce with what is called the Bast; and that in two yean, there had been added to the national wealth of America, from this source alone, more than eight millions of dollars!”

Thus, whilst Sir John Ross saw the honours and the rewards of active discovery bestowed on others, and but a small portion of them niggardly and grudgingly awarded to himself, Great Britain sees the profit of it seized and enjoyed by America. Eight millions of dollars in two years! It is a great sum, and this country, satisfied with the glory of having opened up this new field of enterprise, by the skill, and daring, and unparalleled suffering of her sons, is content to leave to Brother Jonathan the entire benefit of it, so far as trade and the whale fishery are concerned. Does not this fact, it has been asked, involve a grave reflection on the spirit and enterprise of our mercantile mariners?


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