Francis Drake and the North-West Passage

Franklin’s Lost Expedition

A few years ago, in one of the galleries of the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich there was exhibited a life-size model of a boat trapped in pack ice, with a suitably gruesome frozen hand protruding from under frozen canvas: a striking illustration of the fate of Captain Sir John Franklin and his crew for the younger visitors. Franklin’s expedition set out in 1845 with 129 men on board of two ships to search for the North-West Passage – a route from the Atlantic into the Pacific through the islands of Northern Canada – and was never heard of again. Despite repeated search missions in the following years and decades, the exact fate of the lost expedition remained unknown until 2014 when a Canadian research team finally located one of Franklin’s ships, the HMS Erebus.

On Monday morning, when I started to write this post, of course I couldn’t have imagined the news that broke in the media that same afternoon: that Franklin’s second ship, HMS Terror, has now also been found – the last piece of the puzzle falling into place? But although Franklin’s expedition is without doubt the most famous among all the attempts to navigate the North-West Passage, I wanted to write about another sailor who searched for the passage nearly three hundred years earlier and from the opposite direction: Francis Drake on the Golden Hind in 1579.

The Short Way Home? Drake & the North-West Passage

That Drake searched for the North-West Passage is a very little known fact among the general public (this being a euphemism for ‘I didn’t know it’). The reason for this might be, possibly, that he never found it and was forced to return home instead across the Pacific Ocean and round the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, thus becoming only the second man to circumnavigate the world. (The first, contrary to what you think, wasn’t Magellan but one of his officers, Juan Sebastián Elcano. Magellan died en route.)

In The World Encompassed, the somewhat facetious account of his round-the-world voyage, Drake relates how, after raiding the various Spanish towns on the Pacific coast of America and capturing the treasure galleon Nuestra Señora de la Concepción (better known by its picturesque nickname as Cacafuego, the ‘fire-s***ter’), he started to look for the North-West Passage to get home.

In what follows, you’ll have to forgive Drake his somewhat archaic and erratic spelling:

…the time of the yeare now drew on wherein we must attempt, or of necessitie wholly giue ouer… the discouery of what passage there was to be found about the Northerne parts of America, from the South Sea, into our owne Ocean (which being once discouered and made knowne to be nauigable, we should not onely do our countrie a good and notable seruice, but we also ourselues should haue a nearer cut and passage home; where otherwise, we were to make a very long and tedious voyage of it…

Although Drake learned from the Spanish that frequent calms as well as sudden and violent winds made navigation further north near the coast difficult, this information understandably didn’t deter him from seeking the northern passage; it’s not like the alternative routes back to England were considered easier. Besides, there was of course the possibility of being able to claim new lands for his queen north of the Spanish possessions.

The ‘Most Vile, Thick and Stinking Fogs’

After leaving the Mexican town of Guatulco, Drake narrates very little about the journey up the coast – until he describes the sudden drop in the temperature once the Golden Hind reached 42 degrees north, on 3 June:

…the very roapes of our ship were stiffe, and the raine which fell was an vnnatural congealed and frozen substance, so that we seemed rather to be in the frozen Zone then any way so neere vnto the sun, or these hotter climates… our meate, as soone as it was remooued from the fire, would presently in a manner be frozen vp…

The Golden Hind continued north for another two weeks, sailing up to the 48 parallel (just north of Seattle but south of Vancouver). The narrative describes “the many extreme gusts and flawes” of the contrary winds which, whenever they ceased, were immediately followed by the “most uile, thicke, and stinking fogges” and the prevailing cold weather in considerable length (especially when you compare it to some of his earlier descriptions like the capture of the Cacafuego, dismissed in a miserly paragraph). No-one can accuse Drake of being a soft-touch and only a few months earlier he had rounded the Horn: if he went on about the weather, it really must have been ‘stinking’.

Some of our mariners at this voyage had formerly beene at Wardhouse, in 72 deg. of North latitude, who yet affirmed that they felt no such nipping cold there at the end of summer when they departed thence, as they did here in the hottest moneths of June and July.

No wonder then that the Spanish, despite having what Drake describes as “good” ships, did not explore that far north and preferred to transport their treasure across the isthmus of Panama on the back of pack mules instead.

But the weather wasn’t the only problem:

…though we searched the coast diligently, euen vnto the 48 deg., yet found we not the land to trend so much as one point in any place towards the East, but rather running on continually North-west, as if it went directly to meet with Asia…

By the second half of June Drake duly concluded that there either wasn’t a North-West Passage or, if there was one, it would be impassable on account of the cold:

And also from these reasons we coniecture, that either there is no passage at all through these Northerne coasts (which is most likely), or if there be, that yet it is vnnauigable.

A conclusion that pretty much stood correct until the 21st century.

The Polar Bears Lose Out

The search for the North-West Passage lasted for centuries, as sailors and governments persisted in the hope that they can replace the infamously stormy route round Cape Horn into the Pacific; Franklin’s lost expedition was just one of many. In the beginning of the 20th century, they ended by cutting a canal through the isthmus of Panama instead, pretty much admitting defeat. Any modern map of Canada of course will show you that there is in fact a route – several routes – through the Arctic archipelago north of the American mainland but the routes remained impassable due to pack ice until recently. Although Amundsen managed to navigate through the archipelago in 1906, it took global warning, no less, to make the North-West Passage navigable: the first cargo ship went through in 2013. The polar bears’ loss is the shipping companies’ gain.

Drake’s circumnavigation of the world was a feat that, not surprisingly, made his unsuccessful search for the northern passage fade into insignificance. And yet, suppose he found and attempted the North-West Passage? In view of Franklin’s fate nearly three centuries later, it’s safe to hazard the guess that Drake and the Golden Hind wouldn’t have lived to bring home the Cacafuego‘s treasure and tell the tale. He wouldn’t have singed the King of Spain’s beard and perhaps the Invincible Armada would have never set sail…

In response to the Daily Post prompt: Inspired by a Map.

⇒ Breaking news: The Canadian research ship Martin Bergmann located the sunken HMS Terror, the second ship of the lost Franklin expedition (including video).
⇒ We all know Magellan's name, even though he never made it round the world. So here's a short biography of Juan Sebastián Elcano, who did. Y su biografía en español. :)
⇒ Before Drake left North-America to cross the Pacific, he looked for a place to make repairs to the Golden Hind. Spectacularly missing the bay of San Francisco, one of the great natural harbours of the world, he instead spent a month at Drake's Bay.

Comment is free...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s