Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Hunters on the Track

Hunters on the track: William Penny and the search for Franklin

By W. Gillies Ross

Montreal & Kingston; McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019

Reviewed by Willam Barr

Gil Ross has published extensively on the history of whaling, both in Hudson Bay and inn Davis Strait/Baffin Bay. In this, his latest book, he focusses on one of the most successful Scottish whaling captains, William Penny Jr., and on his crucial role in one of the most complex searches for the missing Franklin expedition, that of 1850-51.

Born in Peterhead on 12 July 1809, the son of whaling captain William Penny Sr., William Jr. subsequently moved with his family to Aberdeen.  At the age of 12 he made his first whaling voyage on board his father’s ship Alert, to the Greenland Sea. By 1829 he was serving as mate on board a whaling ship bound for Davis Strait and by 1835 had his first command, the Neptune of Aberdeen. Thus by 1845 he was a very experienced (and very successful) whaling captain.  It was in that year that Captain Sir John Franklin sailed from the Thames with two ships, HMS Erebus and Terror bound for what is now the Canadian Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. With an initial complement of 134 men, after five had been invalided back to England from Greenland the final tally of the crews of the  two ships was 129. They were encountered by two whaling vessels in Baffin Bay, whose men were the last Europeans to see the ships and their crews alive.

At first sight Franklin’s task was quite a simple one.  He was to link up the major west-channel of Parry Channel (Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Viscount Melville Sound, M’Clure Strait) discovered by William Edward Parry in 1819-1820, with the waterway paralleling the mainland coast, which he explored in 1821, followed by Dr. John Richardson in 1826 and by Peter Warren Dease and Thomas Simpson in 1838-39. Franklin was instructed to proceed to Cape Walker, sighted by Parry (then thought to be the northeastern cape of Prince of Wales Island, but in fact that of Russell Island) and “to penetrate to the southward and westward in a course as direct towards Behring’s Strait as the position and extent of the ice, or the existence of land, at present unknown, may admit." In fact a route due south from Cape Walker would intersect with Dease and Simpson’s route at Cape Herschel in just 580 km.  Franklin’s instructions also suggested, however,  that if a southerly route were impracticable he should  attempt to penetrate north via Wellington Channel between Devon and Cornwallis Islands.

Given the known provisioning of Franklin’s ships, no particular concern was felt in England when there was no word from them in 1846.  But by the spring of 1847 some degree of anxiety had started to be felt. On his own initiative William Penny, by then in command of St. Andrew, made an attempt to penetrate into Lancaster Sound in the hope of searching for Franklin but was foiled by foul winds and heavy seas and was unable to penetrate beyond 78° W. i.e.  just off the entrance to Lancaster Sound. His was the first known attempt at making contact with the missing expedition, and led naturally to Penny’s subsequent  role in the massive search  in 1850-51  which represents the major theme of Gil Ross’s book.

In 1848 the first of the Admiralty’s expeditions in search of Franklin was dispatched to Baffin Bay, commanded by Captain Sir James Clark Ross in HMS Enterprise and Investigator. Seriously delayed by ice in Baffin Bay, heavy ice prevented them from penetrating far into Lancaster Sound, and they wintered at Port Leopold on northeastern Somerset Island.  In the spring of 1849 sledging parties travelling around parts of Somerset Island found no traces of the Franklin expedition.

Soon after William Penny’s return to his home port of  Dundee in the autumn of 1849, he received a visit from Lady Franklin, Franklin’s wife (or by then , in fact, widow). She asked Penny if he would be interested in commanding a search expedition, either a naval expedition or one sponsored by herself. Penny enthusiastically agreed in principle.

As a result Penny became an important player in a remarkable concentration of ships and effort in the search for Franklin which headed for Davis Strait and Baffin Bay in the spring of 1850.   Penny was in charge of two vessels, the brigs Lady Franklin and Sophia (the latter commanded by Alexander Stewart).  The Admiralty dispatched four vessels: the sailing vessels Resolute and Assistance and the steam tenders, Intrepid and Pioneer, under the overall command of Captain Horatio Austin, the other commanders being Erasmus Ommanney (Assistance), John Cator (Intrepid) and Sherard Osborn (Pioneer); a further vessel sponsored by Lady Franklin – Prince Albert, commanded by Charles Forsyth; the brig Felix, commanded by the septuagenarian Sir John Ross,  and  towing a small yacht, Mary; and finally  an American contribution, the USS Advance and Rescue (Edwin De Haven and Samuel Griffin, respectively) sponsored by the New York merchant and ship owner Henry Grinnell.

As Gil Ross has presented in detail, all of these vessels encountered heavy ice in Baffin Bay and especially Melville Bay, and while there was some collaboration between the different expeditions (e.g. the steam tenders towing various of the other expeditions’ vessels), there was absolutely no cohesive plan. Significantly, at Upernavik Penny was able to recruit the Dane Johan Christian Petersen, who joined Lady Franklin, complete with a team of sledge dogs. All the ships reached the North Water safely then swung west, south, then west into Lancaster Sound – a total of 10 ships and over 300 men. Assistance and Intrepid were the first to reach Beechey Island a small island joined to the southeast coast of Devon Island by a tombolo, partially submerged at high tides.  At Cape Riley, across Erebus and Terror Bay from Beechey Island Ommanney and Cator found clear evidence of a European tented camp, and then a large cairn on the summit of Beechey Island. When they dismantled it they were puzzled and disappointed to find no messages.   Ommanney and Cator then continued west across Wellington Channel to Cornwallis Island without noticing the graves of three members of the Franklin expedition and a wide scatter of  various clear signs that Erebus and Terror had wintered here. These were later discovered by  parties from Penny’s, Stewart’s, Ross’s and De Haven’s and Griffin’s ships, anchored in Union Bay, on the west side of Beechey Island. But once again no message was found to indicate where Erebus and Terror had headed after wintering here.

Austin’s four ships, Penny’s two vessels, the two American ships  and Ross’s Felix then headed across Wellington Channel and along the south coast of Cornwallis Island.  Subsequently Austin’s ships went into winter quarters off the northeast corner of Griffith Island while Penny’s vessels and Ross’s Felix found more secure winter quarters in Assistance Bay on the south coast of Cornwallis  Island. Rescue and Advance, which were not equipped or provisioned for wintering, started back east towards Baffin Bay.

After a relatively  uneventful wintering, Austin and Penny agreed that in the spring that while  Ommanney searched both coasts of Prince of Wales Island as far south as possible and McClintock sledged westwards along Parry Channel, Penny would head northwards along Wellington Channel. On 17 April 1851 Penny’s and Stewart’s men hauling six sledges set off eastwards to Cape Hotham then north along the western shore of Wellington Channel, followed by Penny and Petersen with the latter’s dog team next day.  Just over a week later, having covered 45 miles, on finding that stoves and kettles were inadequate, that some of the sledges needed to be altered, and that the fuel supply would not last much longer, Penny decided to turn back.  While some of the men were suffering from snow-blindness, frostbite had not caused any serious problems.

After resting for ten days on 6 May Penny and his men set off again. Petersen and Penny again drove dog sledges. While three sledges turned east across Wellington Chanel to search the west coast of Devon Island, Penny and Petersen, with two man-hauled sledges continued north. From the northern tip of Cornwallis Island they crossed on the ice to an island which Penny named Hamilton Island (now Baillie-Hamilton Island). Beyond its northern tip, which Penny named Point Surprise, he discovered a wide area of open water, which he named Queen Victoria  Channel. Starting back south on 17 May the two dog teams reached the ships on the 20th and the man-hauled sledges somewhat later. Penny was determined to haul a boat north on a sledge to explore the open water he had discovered. Visiting Griffith Island to inform Austin of his discoveries and to ask him for the loan of some men to help haul a boat north, Penny was infuriated when Austin refused this request.

On 4 June a party of 15 men set off hauling a whaleboat on a specially-designed sledge.  Although the melt was well under way, which meant slush or pools of melt-water on the sea ice, on 18 June the sledge haulers reached open water. Penny launched the boat and loaded it with provisions and gear. With seven men he put to sea, continuing north along the east coast of Cornwallis Island. Beyond Hamilton Island Penny discovered several more islands, including  Baring Island and Dundas Island and, to the north, land which Penny named Prince Albert Land, in fact part of Devon island. A strait which was later named Penny Strait extended to the horizon to the northwest.  This wide expanse of open water stretching north reinforced Penny’s belief in the existence of an Open Polar Sea – a belief which ws widely held at the time, and would not be abandoned until Fridtjof Nansen’s trans-Arctic ice-drift in Fram in 1893-96. Despite a lack of  solid evidence, apart from a small piece of elm wood which he found, Penny was now convinced that this was the route which had been taken by Franklin’s ships.  Returning south to where they had launched the boat, Penny abandoned boat and sledge and he and his men walked back to Assistance Bay.

By 11 August the ice had cleared out of Assistance Bay and on that date Lady Franklin, Sophia and Felix were joined by Resolute, Assistance, Pioneer and Intrepid. Having determined by an extensive series of man-hauled sledge journeys that there was no sign of Franklin’s ships to the south, southwest or west of Griffith Island, Austin wanted to head for home but needed Penny’s assurance that there ws no point in any further searches north via Wellington Channel. Relations between the two men had already become fraught and now Austin precipitated a bitter argument by demanding that Penny provide him with a statement to that effect in writing. All six ships, plus Ross’s Felix then started for home, although  their captains were leaving themselves open to criticism for returning after only one wintering. Penny reached Aberdeen on 10 September then travelled south by express train to London.

Starting on 22 October an official inquiry was now held  to investigate whether Austin and Penny had been justified in returning after only one wintering.  The two men had to face a committee consisting of five naval officers.   A crucial point at issue was whether or not Penny had asked Austin for the “loan” of one of his steamers towards the end of the season to investigate Wellington Channel, Queen Victoria Channel and Penny Strait further; this would have indicated that Penny felt that there might be justification for a further wintering. Austin had denied his request. But now he declared that Penny had made no such request.  Although Penny was supported by Stewart, and even by some of Austin’s officers who had heard of the exchange about the loan of a steamer, the members of the committee sided with Austin. Their final verdict was that both Austin and Penny had been justified in returning after only one winter.

This skeletal outline will provide some idea of the major topics covered in Ross’s book. But there are a number of wide-ranging sub-plots which I have not mentioned.  One of these, to which an entire chapter is devoted is the remarkable ice-drift of the American vessels, Advance and Rescue, totally unprepared for a wintering, over the winter of 1850-51.  In September they became beset in the ice and drifted north along Wellington Channel to within sight of land which they named Grinnell Land (later seen and named Prince Albert Land by Penny), then back south along Wellington Channel, east down Lancaster Sound and south for the full length of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait to beyond Cape Dyer before the ice broke up to release them. Other sub-plots covered in less detail include the belief in the Open Polar Sea, a history of the Royal Navy’s issue of a rum ration, the use (by Sir John Ross) of homing pigeons, and the use of balloons to try to contact the missing Franklin expedition.

With Hunters on the Track, Ross has crafted the first detailed, comprehensive account of one of the most far-reaching searches for the missing Franklin expedition, with particular emphasis on the crucial role played in it by whaling captain William Penny.  The list of at least 15 archival repositories in the Notes and Bibliography, gives some idea of the author’s thoroughness and dedication to his research. Ross’s style is very readable and entertaining and the text is sometimes leavened with a touch of humour. For example he quotes Cator’s description of the drunken progress of Ommanney and some of his officers staggering back to their own ship from the Intrepid on Christmas Eve, 1850, in nautical terms: “making tacks and stern boards and heaving-to, tumbling about the snow hummocks” (p. 281).

The book is enhanced by a small but important selection of illustrations. They include Stephen Pearce’s portrait of William Penny, an aerial photo which reveals wonderfully clearly  Beechey Island, Union Bay, Erebus and Terror Bay and Cape Riley, and also two paintings by of Canadian geologist and artist, Maurice Haycock, those of Penny’s abandoned boat (as seen in 1974) and the graves on Beechey Island.   Unfortunately, however the maps are frustratingly inadequate particularly in terms of the paucity of place names.  Some measure of the seriousness of the problem is that neither of the wintering sites (Griffith Island and Assistance Bay) is named on any of the maps. The mismatch between the high caliber of the research and writing and the  low quality of the cartography is baffling. 


  1. So, we had two explorers named Ross, and now two authors named Ross, but i guesss the latter ones are not related. Seems like a wondeful read.

    Well Russel, you have now condemmed me to start shifing non polar realted books and put an extra book cabinet to store all the polar stuff...

  2. I'm sorry to have to note that Gil Ross passed away this past October. I hope he had the chance to read your review, Bill!