Published Fitzjames Letters

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James Fitzjames to John Barrow Jr. (1845)

Also contains a continuing letter started on the 10th of July. This letter is not the first, but a later one in a long standing line of communication. The earlier ones are sadly not in the public domain.


H.M. ship Erebus, Lat. 68° N.,
11 p.m., 1st July 1845.

My dear Barrow1, You don’t often get a letter from this side of the Arctic circle; you have never had one from any body who has a more sincere regard for you.

We expect to get into Disco to-morrow, and I shall have so much work on my hands that I may not have time to write, so I shall have this letter written, ready before hand.

The fair wind which blew us from our friends the steamers, did not last long, and we had one continued succession of westerly and north-westerly winds, (relieved now and then by a fair wind for a day) till the 21st June, when we found ourselves 134 miles due east of Cape Farewell. Here we had a calm, with a most tremendous heavy swell, in which we did roll. During our voyage thus far, we passed within sixty or seventy miles of your old friend Iceland, but it was too cloudy to see Mount Hecla. We were not within seventy miles of Cape Farewell, but rounded it with a gale right aft, which followed us with a heavy sea. We kept close reefed top-sails, and reefed fore-sail, and made the old craft go eight knots through it, losing no time. I can assure you. The only difficulty I had was to get Sir John to shorten sail, when it was wanted. He is full of life and energy, with good judgement, and a capital memory—one of the best I know. His conversation is delightful and most instructive, and of all men he is the most fitted for the command of an enterprise requiring sound sense and great perseverance. I have learnt much from him and consider myself most fortunate in being with such a man—and he is full of benevolence and kindness withal.

We had the usual allowance of rain, squalls, (and heavy ones too) shipped a few seas, one or two down in our mess, but satisfied ourselves that the Erebus is very easy, though now and then we did kick and plunge most terribly. We took it all in good humour; in fact that is incessant fun of some sort from morning to night. We are most comfortable and happy—plenty to do, observing all sorts of things all day, and eating good dinners into the bargain.

On Sunday the 22nd, we were due south of Farewell. On the 24th we flattered ourselves we were in Davis Strait, being in lat. 69° 36’, for a bright gleam of sunshine enabled us to get this observation, and to dry our clothes and selves too. We worked for Cape Desolation which sounds Polar enough, and we bounded along merrily, shaking hands with ourselves, and making imaginary short cuts through America to the Pacific, the thermometer had scarcely ever varied 3° for three weeks, being about 43°.

On the 25th, we saw our first iceberg in shore, the beautiful sharp craggy snowy coast of Greenland appeared, an immense distance off, and a thing like a rock sticking up like a barn ten or twelve miles off, which might have been an iceberg for aught I could tell. This was at two in the morning, the sun just rising, the sea smooth, air clear. Read2, our ice-master, always told us we should see no ice down here “barring the bergs”—which are nothing. Since then we have had delightful smooth seas—sometimes calm, sometimes a foul wind light, and much fair wind. For the last few days we have been nearer the land, and yesterday were catching cod near the most glorious assemblage of ice, rock snow and clouds—being about thirty miles from the coasts about Lichtenfel. To-day we have had a splendid breeze right aft, with a strong current in our favour. A most splendid semi-circle of icebergs appear ahead, and under the land we count sixty-five from the “crow’s nest,” but we don’t care for we know they are all aground. I always fancies an iceberg was a great transparent looking lump of ice, instead of a white beautiful twelfth-cake looking-thing as it is—odd shapes enough however, have some of them. I have just been on deck looking at one about 200 feet high, which came down with a crash and raised a mist like an avalanche. It is now twelve o’clock, though the sun is up, so I shall go to bed and finish this to-morrow, though it is a pity to sleep on such a fine clear sunshiny night.

2nd July.—Soon after going to bed last night it came on to rain very hard and the breeze freshened. We were in amongst the icebergs and saw about 180 before morning, when we stood in and found ourselves in the forenoon close under the rugged high land of Disco, covered with masses of cloud and its ravines covered with white snow. We were in fact close to the settlement called Lievely, and shewed our colours to a Danish flag hoisted on a low point. The day has been tolerably miserable, raining hard; thermometer up to 42°; smooth water; and we have had to beat up towards the Whale-fish Islands, which are in the bay to the south-east of Disco.

The scenery of Disco is grand in the extreme and well worth the trouble of coming to see, and the beautiful icebergs in bold relief against the dark almost black looking coast, have very curious, and to us novel appearance. We shall not get into our berth among the Whale Islands before to-morrow.


Whale-fish Islands, 10th July, 1845.

We lost the whole of the 3rd by some extraordinary mistake. We mistook the locale of the Whale Island, (having two charts, one of which was wrong and the other not too right,) and we went right up the bay to mouth of the Waigaal, sailing in the most delightfully smooth water among icebergs of the largest size. The altitude at noon shewed us we were wrong, and we went back, reaching our anchorage at three on the morning of the 4th. Fortunately we had a breeze all round the bay, and as this is the only day we have lost since we sailed, we must set it down to unavoidable accidents and not care. The master of the transport says, “he never saw vessels carry so much sail as we did.” I shall give Mr. Griffiths (the Agent) a note to you as you desired, and I think he will amuse you with his account of us. He is very intelligent and well read man, so get hold of him. This is the snuggest of all possible harbours. We are lashed alongside the transport, moored head and stern, and the Terror close outside us.

They have the smallest possible canoes here, into one of which I was determined to go last night, so got my trousers off and paddle about for some time, but at last over I went head downwards where I remained till rescued.

Our observatories where I have passed most of my time are on Boa Island, and we have had the most heavenly weather here I ever saw clear and calm, with a hot sun and icebergs glistening in all directions. Fairholme, Hodgson, and I, counted 280 from the top of a hill the other night, and big mosquitoes biting us all the time. The work of clearing the transport has been a heavy one. We expected to do it in two or three days at most, but though we have worked from four A.M. to six P.M. hard, we shall only finish this evening, and I hope swing the ship to-morrow, and sail next morning, the 12th, rather late but we can’t help it; and if we have a good breeze and open sea to Lancaster Sound shall be there before the first of August. There will then be plenty of time, but we must remember that Parry was fifty-four days doing it on one occasion. We are very deep, and full as an egg, the Terror is fearfully deep and her deck is piled up with coals to the exclusion of all light below from her bulls’ eyes, which is a serious annoyance; however, we shall start with three years’ provisions and the Engine!

You have no conception how happy we all are. Sir John is delightful; I believe, however, I told you of him in a former part of this letter.

We hear that this is supposed to be a remarkably clear season, but have had as yet no good authentic intelligence. However, clear or not clear we must go ahead as the Yankees have it; and if we don’t get through it will not be our fault. I can see, however, that even if there be a good passage, that it is a perfect lottery what sort of season we have; and whether we happen to be at the particular spots at the most favourable moments. I like Crozier, he is a most indefatigable man and a good observer, just suited for his position, I should say.

And now you have us as far as Disco, and by the time you get this we shall, I trust, be well into our work, where we may be God knows. Give my kindest regards to Sir John and Lady Barrow. We intend to drink Sir John’s health on the day we go through Behring Straits. If we get through this year, we shall have to land somewhere or other to discharge some cargo, for it will not be safe to go into the Pacific laden as we are. And now good bye for the present; if there be an opportunity of writing by any of the whalers, I shall give you a line; in the meantime, believe me always,

Your sincere friend, JAMES FITZJAMES.

All your friends here (and you have many) desire to be remembered to you.

11th July.—The transport is only this day cleared at noon, the work has been very heavy, and we are fearfully deep, drawing 17 feet 4 inches forward and no false keel, but we have three years provisions in. Don’t you Admiralty people be saying—“What have those fellows been wasting their time at Disco for?” We have done all that was possible to do in the time, besides, the wind is north-east and we are better here. The weather heavenly, sun quite hot.—Adieu.


  1. The greeting is taken from the original letter at the RGS.
  2. (sic) Reid.