Sir Edward Parry Opinion to Lord Haddington [Regarding the Arctic Expedition] (1845 January 18)


18th January 1845

My Lord

In reply to the questions which your Lordship did use the honor to put to me on the subject of the North-West passage between the Atlantic and Pacific. I beg leave to offer the following observations.

With respect to the practicability of effecting this long-desired object, I am of opinion that the probability of success is much greater now than it ever has been in any former attempt.

When in the year 1818, the question, after lying dormant during a long interval was once more resumed, and the attempt renewed, it was common to hear doubts expressed as to the existence of such a passage. It was a matter of speculation, even among well-informed persons, whether in a geographical point of view, we might not be disappointed, by finding that there was no outlet by Hudson's Strait, or through Baffin's Bay, into the Polar Sea upon the Northern Coast of America – whether that Continent might not be found to stretch far to the northward in some part of the great space then left vacant upon the maps – and, lastly, whether it might not turn out that there was no outlet at all into the Pacific through the opening called Behring's Strait.

The successive Expeditions by sea under my command, and that of Sir John Franklin and of the Hudson's Bay Company's Servants by land, and along the Coast in canoes, combined with the explorations of Sir John and Sir James Ross to the East & the efforts of Capn Beechey and his officers in the direction of Behring's Strait have gradually, but completely, set it out the geographical question ; and a mere glance at a map of this part of the globe, according to our present information, is sufficient to shew that there is no more doubt of the existence of the passage in question than there is of a passage round Cape Horn.

But former efforts have done more than this, to encourage another attempt. They have recorded the negative, but not unimportant, service of pointing out in what directions any future effort is not to be made with any hope of success, and, therefore, of greatly narrowing the question as to whose it is to be attempted. The laborious investigations to which I have alluded have so far completed the geography of the North-Eastern part of the American Continent, as to shew, beyond all doubt, that no future attempt must be made up Hudson's Strait, or in Prince Regent's Inlet; while they have opened to us a splendid and navigable channel through Lancaster's Sound and Barrow's Strait, into the Polar Sea, have proved that, as far Westward at least as the 120th degree of West longitude, no obstruction from land is to be apprehended. We are thus in possession of the important fact that it is somewhere in the space between Cape Walker and Bank's Land, that any future attempt should at once be made without losing a single hour of the short and precarious season of Arctic Navigation in seeking the proper point for making the effort. It is to this space that I should recommend the attention of any officer charged with the Enterprise to be at once directed; and I think that, taking into account the information of those who have coasted the American Shore, and the very remarkable analogy there seems to be between their Coast and that of Asia in the same latitude, where Baron Wrangel's efforts to penetrate Northward were frustrated by the quantity of open water, there does seem a very strong probability that this Enterprise might now be crowned with complete success, and the distance of only 900 miles not yet traversed, between Melville Island & Behring's Strait, finally accomplished.

Independently, however, of the advantage to be thus derived from our former labours, and even from our former failures, I conceive that an advantage scarcely less important will now be gained from the adoption of a small steam-power (equal to the production of a speed of 3 or 4 knots) in each of the Ships employed on this service – perhaps a pair of small locomotive engines of 50 horse power, with a moveable screw-propeller, all which might be placed in a very small space, and completely secured from injury by the ice; and no fuel to be used except for pushing through the narrow and ever-varying channels between the masses of ice, when there are no other means of doing so. It would be useless to speculate on what might have been accomplished in former Expeditions by such an Auxiliary as this ; but I could quote a hundred instances in which, during calm weather or light contrary winds, the power of thus taking advantage of occasional temporary openings might have gone very far towards giving us complete success. In fact, the making of a single mile at the right moment would often in this peculiar navigation, be the means of effecting many leagues of distance without obstruction or difficulty.

Of the Scientific Objects to be attained by prosecuting this enterprise, I will only remark that a series of magnetic observations along the North Coast of America in a high latitude, in connection with those now making on so magnificent a scale throughout the globe, would. I apprehend, constitute in itself an object not unworthy of such an Expedition. And as I understand that the funds for prosecuting this great series of observations will cease after the current year, this seems to be a strong reason why the present season should not be lost.

I may also add, as another reason against delay, that success would greatly depend on securing the services of such Officers as have had experience of Polar Navigation; which they are able, as will be willing to be implored again in their attempts.

In conclusion, My Lord, permit me to express an earnest hope that an Enterprise which has for Centuries engaged the attention of the Civilised World, and which may be considered as the birth-right of Great Britain pray such be left to be accomplished at best by any other Nation which taking advantage of our former labours, might thus reap, at a comparatively cheap & easy rate, are however privately due to our own Country.

I will only further suggest to your Lordship that if an Expedition is to be fitted out during this season not a day should in my opinion be lost in commencing the assignment.

I have the honour to be


W.E. Parry

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About this document ...

  • Written by: British Admiralty
  • Archive: British National Archives
  • Collection: Admiralty 7/187 Admiralty: Miscellanea. Arctic and Antarctic explorations. Documents relating to Arctic Expeditions
  • Date: 1845 January 18
  • Page(s): 1-8
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