Irving, John to Catherine Irving (née Caddell) (1845/07/10)

H.M.S. “Terror,”
Whalefish Island, Greenland,
Probably 10th July 1845.

My dear Kate,—I sit down at last to take a long farewell of you, for it will be probably a couple of years, if not more, before I have another opportunity to write. I wrote you from Orkney, where we stopped three days. We left there on the 2d of June, and had a voyage of a month, with the usual variety of fair and foul weather. We made the coast of Greenland on the 25th, and arrived at the Whalefish Islands on the 4th instant. We have been very busy shifting our stores and provisions from the transport, which has convoyed us so far. We have now cleared her of everything, and we all sail tomorrow,—she on her voyage back to England, and we, in the first place, for Barrow’s Strait, and after, as we best can. Only three of the cattle on board the transport have survived the voyage; however, we leave this with three complete years’ provisions, so, even should we not cast up for so long, you need not think we have been eating our shoes. About the last week of September we shall fix our ships somewhere for the winter. We shall be frozen up for ten months, several of which in total darkness. At present we have constant daylight, and for the last fortnight we have had sunshine all night. There is plenty of ice floating about and scraping our sides, and we have sometimes a little snow. All very well for July.

I have every cause to be pleased with my shipmates, and barring the want of all communication, I ought to enjoy myself very much, as everything is new, and, after all, there is nothing like variety—at least it is so at sea.

The Whalefish Islands, where we now are, consist of four or five barren rocky islands like Inchkeith, and the openings betwixt some of the islands are choked up with ice. We have passed many icebergs, which are huge piles of ice and snow floating about. Some are 200 feet high. These are formed by avalanches from the Greenland mountains, which are very high and precipitous, and one sheet of snow to the water’s edge. There are some families of Esquimaux living here—most wretched people, half-starved, living on seals (when they can catch them); but they seem happy, and they can read their own language, and have Bibles sent from Denmark, printed in Esquimaux, and they have been taught to read by a Danish missionary who was here some years ago. They are dressed in sealskin jackets, etc., women and all alike, and their children, of which there are great numbers, are very curious-looking creatures, more like seals than anything else. They have rosy cheeks, and round, good-humoured faces though rather greasy. Their canoes are just long enough to sit in, and the sealskin frock is tied round the edge of the hole they sit in, to keep the water out; so they can go right under water without taking any in. They are made of sealskins covering a frame made of bones, and are so light that a man can carry them. You will see all these things far better described in the Polar voyages of Parry, Ross, and Back, which perhaps you may now have a little interest in looking at, as they describe exactly what will be our difficulties; and you will, I daresay, like to know a little what I may be about for so long; at least, I am sure you have no friend that takes a greater interest in you than I do. I send you a little Polar chart, and I have put the track of the Expedition in red, and proposed route dotted red. We hope to reach Melville Island before the end of September, and pass the winter there, and try to reach Behring’s Straits the following summer.

Should the ice not clear away enough, or should we meet land instead of water, we shall have to pass another winter and try again, and either to go on or come back in the third summer.   The former Expeditions were stopped by a barrier of ice so thick and solid that the summer, which is only ten weeks long, passed away without dissolving it. However, I trust we may have a warmer summer, either this or the next, or find some channel which they overlooked. We have the advantage of all their experience, and will save much valuable time in not looking uselessly for a passage where land has been laid down in their charts, which we have with us. We have a library of the best books of all kinds, consisting of 1200 volumes, and shall be able to pass the time very well, as there shall be some exploring parties sent out on foot while the ships are frozen in; and we will eke out our provisions with all the game our guns can procure. We shall be very busy sawing the ice and working the ships on, whenever a single mile can be gained. I have written my father a letter which is very much to the same effect as this. You might send him the little chart, as our proposed route is shown in it, and he is much interested in geography generally; I daresay you may see my letter to him. And now you are in possession of all I can tell you.

The sudden change from summer back to winter has caused us all to suffer from chilblains. Some are so bad that they cannot put on their shoes. I have had my hands much swollen; but they say that in two or three weeks all this will go away. There are many tons of ice within five or six yards of me now; but it is not cold, and the sun shining all night, we don’t think of going to bed, but go shooting after working hours are over, and it is supposed to be night. We shall have it dark for a long time by and by. I must now finish, my dear Katie. May every good attend you and yours. My kindest love to my dear father and Lewis.—Yours ever affectionately,

John Irving.

P.S.—I have been making sketches; but you will see all of them when I next come to Falkirk. I have eight hours’ watch out of the twenty-four to keep on deck, and I have charge of our chronometers, which are little clocks. I have to wind them up and compare them, and write an account of their goings on—there are ten of them in each ship,—and also various astronomical observations to make, and calculations. All this is much more interesting than the dull routine in a regular man-of-war, which is like a barrack or a workhouse. Now, good-bye. God bless you.

We are going to have a school for the men. Our Captain reads prayers on Sundays. We are exempt from many of the temptations of the world, and I hope we shall have grace to find that it has been good for us to have been separated from the world, and that God has been with us in all our wanderings. May we submit ourselves to His pleasure in all things.

I send you a small piece of the Tripe de Roche, a sort of lichen growing on the rocks, which was the food of Sir John Franklin in his Expedition. I send you a sketch of our ships at this place. The “Erebus” is alongside of the transport getting her provisions, and the “Terror” is a little to the left. The Danish house is in front, and two Esquimaux sealskin tents, which they live in during summer.

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