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Letters Written during the Late Voyage of Discovery


Baffin's Bay, 1st September, 1820.

{109} AT last, my dear Thomas, we have closed the multiplied dangers of the narrow seas: we are now again in a branch of the great northern ocean, and on our way for Old England. Of the various and contradictory feelings by which all on board were agitated, before the resolution to relinquish the attempt to prosecute our intended voyage to the westward was adopted, it would be idle in me to give you a statement. If a due consideration of the situation in which we were placed, previously to our coming to that mortifying determination, be insufficient to convince you and other friends at home not only of its propriety but of its absolute necessity, for me to imagine that any thing in my power to say could have a greater effect would be the height of {110} presumption. I now therefore return to the details of our proceedings during the month just elapsed.

My last letter stated that having taken on board all the instruments employed on shore, for astronomical or other purposes, and the ice being sufficiently open, at one P.M. of Tuesday 1st August, we weighed anchor and stood out of Winter Harbour. We entered it on Friday, the 24th of September last year: we consequently passed in that desolate and dreary station upwards of ten long months. Our proper discovery-voyage was of still longer duration; for the very day of our deliverance from imprisonment in Melville Island was the anniversary of our passing from Baffin's Bay into Sir James Lancaster's Sound, of which little more than the entrance had been formerly explored.

Having cleared the points of Winter Harbour and the ice-hummocks off Cape Hearne, in 6 1/2 fathoms of water, we had the gratification to observe the coast of Melville Island to the southwestward, the direction of our course, much clearer of ice that had been expected, and than it was a month later when we were here last year. The late winds off the land from W. and NW. had driven the ice four or five miles out from the shore; and the small fragments floating in the channel were not of such a size or weight as to give much interruption to our navigation; for the fair-way was in breadth from 1 to 2 1/2 miles, as far as could be discovered to the westward from the mast-head. On rounding Cape Hearne the wind drew more to the westward than in Winter Harbour, which, with the necessary operations to keep clear of floating ice, rendered our navigation slow and tedious. We had also to contend with a current or tide to the eastward, which, as it stopped about 7 P.M. was supposed to be the flood-tide; for high-water in Winter-Harbour would be about 7 1/2 P.M.

During our preparations for sea on board the Griper, the commander adopted and introduced every improvement which was practicable, to correct the known defects of the ship in sailing. But the original defects in her construction and rigging were, in our circumstances, incurable. The consequence was that, when we got out of the harbour, she sailed and worked in some respects worse than before, although we had a fine working breeze and smooth water, just the situation in which she used to make the best way. From this it happened that at midnight the Hecla, which had got eight miles to the westward of us was obliged to ly-to; for the weather becoming hazy and the open channel wider than before, there was danger of our parting company. At three A.M. of the 2d, having joined the Hecla, both proceeded to the westward. In the morning our commander received a letter from Captain Parry, desiring to have a particular account of the state of the Griper, that if found incurable, the ship's company, provisions, {111} &c. should be removed into the Hecla, and the voyage be prosecuted in that ship alone.

About noon the wind coming away from the SSW. a heavy floe of ice closed in on the shore, and the ships found a convenient spot behind some heavy grounded ice, our ship touching the beach, that the Hecla might have room to lie without us. Soon after we had made fast a bear was heard growling near our ship, but we did not get sight of him. This was the second animal of that kind that came near us since we arrived on the coast of Melville island; the first was on the 1st of October, soon after our entrance into Winter Harbour. In this place the men of both ships went shore to gather sorrel, which was found in abundance, but rather too old for use, having lost its acid juices.

At noon of the 4th, the wind having come round to the eastward of N. the heavy ice moved off from the land, and near midnight we gained to the westward to Cape Providence, the place where our Greenland master and his party were restored on board from their very dangerous situation on shore, on the 13th September last year. The coast here being lofty and precipitous, the water was deep, and notice could take the ground to afford any shelter amongst it, in the case of the outward floes closing in on the land. We were therefore anxious to push on westward, and had just got far enough to see the channel quite clear at the supposed extreme point of the island, when the wind failed, and we could make little or no way. Here again we had sight of what had been so often taken for land to the southward, still under the same appearance as before. As the ice never moved off above five or six miles from the shore, this seemed to strengthen the notion that its motion was stopped only by bearing on some land to the southward.

At noon of the 5th, Captain Parry and some gentlemen of the Hecla landed near one of the deep and broad ravines with which the western part of Melville Island is broken down. The height of the cliffs was measured, nearly 850 feet, composed of sandstone and clay ironstone. While they were on shore a breeze from the eastward brought us up with the Hecla, and her party returning on board, both ships stood again to the westward. In a short time, however, the ice was found to be close in with the land at Cape Hay: the Hecla therefore chose a position in seven fathoms water, not more than 20 yards from the beach, which was lined all round the point with masses of ice of great size and weight, forced upon the ground by the prodigious pressure of the floes out at sea. We were considerably to the eastward at this time, and by signal from the Hecla, also made fast at a point two or three miles from her.

In sailing along the shore this evening the cliffs presented the {112} appearance of a high artificial wall, the resort of vast flocks of birds. On going ashore to collect some specimens of them, the apparent wall was found to consist of horizontal beds of sandstone, in all about thirty feet high, of which the more solid parts had resisted the weather, while the softer parts had been consumed, thus forming the appearance of a decayed wall. Here prodigious numbers of gulls and other sea-fowl lodged secure from every enemy but man; and so firmly it was not safe to approach their seats.

On the morning of the 7th a black whale appeared close by the Hecla, the only fish of that sort since the 22d of last August. An officer who went on shore to have a view of the ice to the westward brought a very discouraging report, for not a single opening or hole was to be seen in the ice for many miles to the westward. Land was however discovered with the glass in the shape of three capes between WSW. and SSW: but the loom or faint appearance of land extended to SE. The distance of the capes was supposed to be from 40 to 50 miles. Here a fawn was shot, yielding nearly 40 pounds of venison, and plenty of sorrel, fine and well grown, and retaining much more acid than any lately gathered.

On the 8th, Captain Parry went ashore to have a view of the ice and of the land beyond it, which he estimated to be from 50 to 55 miles off. The three capes, or perhaps three hills, seemed to be situated in W. long. 117° or more, being the westernmost land yet discovered in the sea on the north of the American continent: this extensive tract of country was named Bank's Land, from respect to the President of the Royal Society.

Wednesday, 9th August -- The ice has been almost constantly in motion for some days, in opposite directions, but never so clear as to allow the ships to proceed westward. Two pieces of ice came in contact with one another near the ships, about 10 P.M., and one of them, above 40 feet in thickness, and three times as much in length and breadth, was forced quite up on its edge on the other piece. What, then, must be the fate of a ship, were she as strong as wood and iron can make her, if brought into such a situation between two floes, or between a floe and the shore! This last consideration rendered the position of our ships by no means secure or comfortable.

This same day our hunters have been particularly fortunate, for they have at last seen and shot a musk-ox. He was going along shore eastwards, and so confined, by the nature of the ground, that he passed within shot from the ships. It did not appear, however, that he was wounded, for on hearing the report he galloped off much more quickly than could have been expected from his make. Coming at last to a spot where he must either have taken to the ice on the beach, or made his way up the steep {113} cliff, and seeing himself attacked so closely that he could not escape, he placed himself in front of a large rock, where no other animal could annoy him. There facing his pursuers, he prepared for defence; but against our sportsmen he had no security; he therefore soon fell into our hands. His length from the snout to the tail, was six feet seven inches, and the tail three inches. Height from the fore-hoof to the top of the shoulder, four feet eight inches. Fore-legs two feet three inches; hind-leg two feet nine inches. From hind hoof to top of the back, four feet two inches. End of snout to fore shoulder, two feet five inches. Distance between tips of horns, which are curiously bent down like hooks, on each side of the head, two feet. Circumference of neck, close to the head, three feet eight inches. Weight of the whole estimated above 700 pounds: but that of the eatable carcase 420 pounds. When brought on board, the carcase smelled very strongly of musk, as did the whole of the meat more or less, especially the heart. The meat was remarkably fat, and, when hung up in quarters, looked as well as any English beef. It was served out to both ships in the place of salt provisions, and, notwithstanding the musky flavour, much relished by almost every one on board: as was the flesh of a young seal, killed by the people of our ship, which was tender and very palatable, although not very pleasing to the eye, being of a dirty red colour. The musk-ox had a thick mane, reaching from the head to the bunch on the shoulders, of a pale russet colour. Behind the man was a saddle of whitish short hair, extending a foot and a half along the ridge of the back. The legs to the knees whitish, and the hair like that of the English ox. Under the long hair was a very fine sort of an ash-colour, capable of making cloth equal to that of English wool. From certain appearances it is probable that the animal casts this wool every year. The hair on his brow, and the roots of the horns, were covered and matted with earth, from his practice, of which we witnessed, of tearing up the ground with his head when attacked. All things considered, the musk-ox must be a very formidable antagonist, even to the polar bear himself.

I already mentioned that a mass of ice forced up on another piece, was above forty feet in thickness. An immense floe, which chiefly opposed our passage to the westward, was about seven feet above the water; and, taking this to be one-seventh part of the whole, its thickness must have been above fifty feet. The surface was, besides, covered with many eminences, giving it the appearance of hill and dale, and of them some were at least twenty feet above the surface of the floe; the thickness in those places about seventy feet, was much greater than that of any ice we had before seen. According to our Greenlandmen on board, {114} this ice greatly resembled that on the coasts of Spitzbergen and East Greenland, but much more solid: on the Spitzbergen ice the snow was said to be much deeper than with us.

From every thing we could observe, the sea at the W. end of Melville Island seemed to have something particular in its nature; for this year in August, and last year in September, we found it to be equally obstructed by ice, and wholly inaccessible for shipping. The winds off the land, which farther eastward used to drive off the ice for several miles from the shore, in this western part had no effect on it. The easterly winds had blown fresh for the best part of two days, and yet the ice, now of prodigious thickness and compactness, had not moved a foot. Hence it appeared that still farther to the westward, in the sea beyond Melville Island, no open clear spaces existed, into which the ice, where we lay, could be driven. Here, therefore, all navigation westward became impracticable.

Friday 11th, some officers of the Hecla ascended a hill over the beach, where the ships were made fast to the grounded ice: but they could descry no opening of any kind in the ice, or between it and the shore. The height of this hill was about 800 feet, and the nearest hills behind it may be 200 feet more; making the highest land in the western portion of Melville Island, about 1000 feet in perpendicular height.

Monday 14th, Mr. Fisher, one of the surgeons of the Hecla, made an experiment to ascertain the specific gravity of the ice round the ship. Forming a cube out of a solid piece of floe, of 14.7 inches a side, and placing it in a vessel of salt-water, at the temperature of 34°, and of the gravity of 1.0105, 1.8 inch remained above the water, and 12.9 inches below it; that is, very nearly one-eighth part of the whole mass. Experiments on the ice to the eastward showed, that in general one-seventh of the whole remained above the surface; in ice there was, of course, less solid than that to the westward.

For these several days past the masses of ice had been close upon the ships, in consequence of very fresh gales from the eastward; and, as the ships were wholly exposed to the floes, preparations were made for both taking the beach in the most advantageous manner, that, if possible, the largest vessel might be preserved. Our principal defence was from the loose pieces of thick ice, which drew so much water as to ground before they touched us, and so served as excellent fenders to keep off the otherwise irresistible shock of the external floes.

At 11 P.M. of Saturday the 12th, the ice closed in so much on our ship, as to force her against a tongue of ice projecting from the land under the surface, and to raise her stern two feet out of the water. By this force she cracked a good deal, and must have {115} received a twist, but no bad effects were observed to follow it. At first she heeled or leant over towards the land, but, on being forced higher up on the tongue, she fell over outwards to the deep water. In this situation our commander ordered all journals and other papers of importance to be secured, and prepared every thing for saving the provisions and stores, and, in fact, whatever articles were of value in the prospect of shipwreck, which we now hourly expected. Here we were sensible of the judiciousness of Captain Parry's instruction for keeping the vessels at some distance from one another, as the best security we could have for preserving at least one of them. The Hecla, which was separated from us by a point of land, as we found afterwards, was in the near prospect of being driven into a similar situation; and her preservation as the largest, the stoutest, and the best sailer of the two, became the object of the chief consideration with the people of both. In the afternoon the ice having slackened, the Griper righted, having received no other injury than splitting her rudder. Early in the morning of the 14th, the ice pressed on the Hecla so hard, as to give her a heel or inclination of a foot and a half; but in a few hours the pressure diminished, and she righted without any perceptible injury.

The view from the neighbouring heights displayed nothing in our track to the westward but one continued compact immense extent of ice. This, combined with the state of the winds, confirmed more and more the opinion of the commander and the principal officers of the expedition, that to procure a passage along the southern coast of Melville Island was wholly impossible. The next resource was to stand out to sea, and endeavour to discover a passage by the southward. In consequence of this resolution, and the wind coming off the land, the Griper at 2 A.M. of Tuesday the 15th, was able to make sail for the eastward. But we were soon re-called by signal from the Hecla, the water appearing much clearer of ice than before along shore to the westward. The Hecla, therefore, got under sail in that direction, running along not more than from 100 to 150 yards from the land, in soundings from ten to seventeen fathoms. Proceeding in this way nearly two miles to the northward of W., the ice closed in upon us so fast, that we found it impossible to make up with the Hecla, and were obliged to put in to the shore in very deep water, where, had the ice set in upon us, it would have been beyond our power to save the vessel. The Hecla, which was a considerable distance ahead, drew within a number of heavy masses of grounded ice, where she might not only be tolerably secure herself, but have it in her power to afford us assistance along shore if necessary. Captain Parry walked round to consult with our commander on the means to be adopted to save the provisions and stores, should {116} the Griper be wrecked or abandoned, informing him of the measures recommended by the officers of the Hecla.

In the evening, a party from the Hecla returned from a hunting expedition, bringing in nine hares, for the birds had already, in a great measure, deserted us.

In the morning of the 16th, Captain Parry, with some gentlemen of the Hecla, the weather being clear, and the wind having blown for a whole day from the westward, walked for a couple of miles along the high land in that direction: but they had the mortification to find, that the ice out to sea continued entire and wholly inaccessible. The only opening visible was a narrow channel close to the shore, on to a bold point bearing N. 52° W., distant above two miles, apparently the western extremity of Melville Island, and which was, therefore, named Cape Dundas. From the inequalities of the surface of the ice, as far as could be discovered to the westward, it really resembled an extent of low land. The trending of the island to the north westward, and the uniformly compact appearance of the ice in that direction, showed that all navigation, in the course proposed, was impracticable: it was, therefore, again resolved to attempt a passage by standing farther to the southward. The station of the ships, at this time, was the farthest westward of our whole voyage, in latitude 74° 26' 25'', and longitude, by the chronometer, 113° 46' 44''. But Cape Dundas, the westernmost visible point of Melville Island, was in lat. 74° 27' 50'', and long. 103° 57' 35''. Thus, the known extent of the island must be about 135 miles, from E.N.E. to W.S.W., and the breadth north from Winter Harbour between forty and fifty miles. Getting again under sail at 2 P.M., we turned our heads to the eastward along the shore, in the hope of finding some opening to allow us to stand to the southward; but the ice closing in fast to the land, it was with no little difficulty that, about midnight, we turned a point on which were several large masses of ice aground, to which the ships were made fast. The Hecla got into a situation tolerably secure among the bergs, as we called them, in ten to twelve fathoms of water; but our ship was much more exposed. The ice now began to form near the ships in the evenings, and the sun had not power to dissolve it in the day. On the 17th our sportsmen brought on board nine hares, still mostly white, and two dozen of ptarmigans. The sorrel was now become quite insipid.

Arriving at Cape Providence on the 23d, where we had been on the 13th September last year, the ships became quite unmanageable, being inclosed among broken bodies of ice which drew more water than either of them. In this course we received shocks heavier than any we had hitherto encountered; and, at last, we made fast about three miles to the eastward of the Cape {117} in four fathoms water, half a mile to the westward of the Hecla, which got into from eighteen to twenty feet of water, both close to beach. In this situation, the state of the ice and the seas, and the lateness of the season being considered, it was the unanimous opinion of the officers of both ships, that to attempt to prosecute our voyage to the westward, would be only to expose both ships and ships' companies to certain detention in the midst of the ice, for another period certainly of not less duration than that passed in Winter Harbour.

On examining our stock of provisions it appeared that, even on our present reduced rate of two-thirds of the full allowance, we could not make them serve beyond the end of November of the in-coming year. Our stock of fuel could only last to the same period, even by adopting the method, injurious to the health, of having both crews on board the Hecla. The ships were, indeed, still in good order, and the officers and men nearly as healthy as when we left England. The commander of the expedition therefore applied, by letter, to all the principal officers, surgeons, &c. of the ships, requesting within six-and-thirty hours their opinions of what was best to be done. The unanimous answer was, that the first thing would be to try to get more to the southward; and, in the case that no opening in that direction should be discovered, that then they should make the best of their way to England. This resolution being adopted, we availed ourselves of a wind from the north-westward, which opened a channel along Melville Island, and at 3 P.M. of Saturday the 26th, we were off Cape Hearne, the western point of the bay of Winter Harbour. Running, therefore, eastward along the edge of the ice, and watching every opening which seemed to lead through it to the southward, but all in vain. On the 30th we came to longitude 90° off Prince Leopold's Isles, in the entrance of Prince Regent's Inlet, and keeping nearer to the south shore of Lancaster's Sound than in our outward voyage, we last night got fairly out of the sound and entered Baffin's Bay. It is intended, as I understand, to run to the southward along the western coast of this bay and of Davis's Strait: but our observations on that tract must be reserved for another occasion.

Farewell, &c. &c.

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