“Proposed Settlement of Davis Strait” (p. 319-23)

We are glad to perceive by the following letters that the proposal of Captain James Ross, R.N., conveyed in his letter to Captain Beaufort, appears to have attracted attention in a quarter, from which the best information may be looked for. Our correspondents, whose letters are annexed, seem to take different views of the subject; but agreeing, as we do, with the latter, that a fair discussion will assuredly either show that advantages will arise from the formation of one or more such settlements, or that any such measure would not be advisable, we shall be glad of those opinions which experience may dictate, and will give them that immediate attention to which the importance of the subject entitles them.—Ed. N. M.

To the Editor of the Nautical Magazine.

Hull, 31st March, 1837. 

Sir,—A letter having appeared in your useful publication, written by Captain James Ross, and addressed to Captain Beaufort, on “The expediency of a Settlement on the Western Coast of Davis Strait;” and this communication having doubtless been published for the purpose of inviting a fair discussion on this interesting subject, I take leave to state my observations to you on the reasons given by that experienced officer, for his conclusions in favour of the undertaking, having no doubt, however, that he has been actuated by those motives of humanity to which every “sailor’s friend” should do justice. 

The first reason given is “The natives to the southward are more numerous than to the northward.”

The Captain seems not to have taken into consideration, that, in proportion to that number, a greater establishment would be necessary for the security of the settlement, and that, by all accounts about the latitude of 64° the natives are by no means a harmless race. But if he imagines that because the inhabitants are more numerous, “the merchantable products would be greater,” he is very much mistaken; for the fact is, that where the inhabitants are numerous, the animals they hunt are always scarce, if not extirpated, which they would soon be, if the demand became greater; and as the captain must know from experience, that skin clothing is best for that climate, he will admit it to be probable, that that very article would be most suitable to take from England for the use of the natives, instead of taking it from them; and I can moreover inform you, that the reason why Mr. Kahl could not succeed in establishing himself on the west coast, was because it was too numerously inhabited; his friend Mr. Owen, a respectable merchant of Copenhagen, having tried both in England and there, to raise a joint stock company; but in vain, because it was evident that it must be an unprofitable concern. The second reason given is, “the great fall and rise of tide.” This advantage is equally applicable to the Greenland side, as we know that at Baal’s river there are eighteen feet; and a ship damaged off Cape Walsingham, if even near to it, could, generally speaking, more easily get to the east than to the west side of Davis’ strait, because the wind is, five days out of six, westerly; besides, the harbours in the east side are then sure to be clear of ice, and are already inhabited by a friendly people. Every captain of a whaler in this town, knows it is a common thing when their ships receive damage, to run over to the east side, and find the harbours open, while those on the west are entirely shut by ice. Captain Ross’s third reason, requires no other observation, than that the known “accumulation of ice,: may, as it has done before, continue and occasion another “long lost colony.”

I come now to the fourth and “most important reason:” “The great probability of being useful to whale ships which may be beset and frozen in the pack in unusually severe autumns.”

I perfectly agree that a settlement to the northward, at Ponds bay, or Coutts inlet, might occasion the abandonment of many ships by the crews that might otherwise be extricated; but I must contend that any settlement to the southward of Cape Walsingham would be useless; for, if a ship beset is once carried to the southward of that latitude where the strait opens wider, she is sure of getting out altogether. Again, if wrecked by the collision of the ice in that position, it would be impossible for the crew to reach the land to the westward, over broken and hummocky ice; they must therefore trust to the boats, and it would certainly be easier to reach Greenland in boats, than a settlement between Cape Walsingham and Cumberland strait. Yea, even if a ship, (as in the case of the Active,) was frozen in, or blocked up in a bay between these places, the nature of the ice is so rough, and the land so mountainous, that the crew could never get ten miles from the spot, and therefore a ship might be wrecked or blocked up at a very short distance from the settlement, and yet the crew would inevitably perish, because they could not reach it. In short, a station there would in all probability be useless, while it would induce parsimonious owners to send on board a lesser quantity of provisions for the crew. Captain Ross says, that “vast quantities of Eider-down, furs of land and sea animals, oil, and ivory, might be obtained there. Now, if he has never been on shore there, (which is probably the case,) that can only be a conjecture; but I can positively assure you that the quantities which he says “it is not easy to conceive” of these articles collected in Greenland, have been for many years a losing concern to the Danish Government, who go to work very economically, if we may believe Captain Parry, who says that the Governor General of the whole colony had no more pay than one of the Hecla’s seamen; and I am sure that the King of Denmark would be happy if any respectable company of merchants would take the whole settlement off his hands. Should our Government commence the undertaking recommended by Captain James Ross, (for no wise company of merchants will do so) they must make up their minds to send out two ships every year, (in case one should be lost) to supply the settlers with farinaceous food. But alas! should two or three unfavourable seasons prevent the arrival of the necessary supply, adieu, for ever, to the unfortunate colonists!—But, admitting complete success to this enterprize, or mercantile speculation, a question of policy and expediency has yet to be considered: and here it cannot be successfully argued that it would increase the number of seamen, or even give them additional employment; but on the contrary, for if whale and seal oil could be obtained by employing the natives, and common merchant ships sent (as would be the case) with few hands to bring it from the depôt, there would be no use for fifty or sixty seamen on board a whaler;—in other words, if settlements were established on the west coast which could obtain oil and whale-bone, there would be no use for whale ships at all, and consequently no annual employment for six or seven thousand seamen. The only sure way to encourage the whale fishery, and secure the safety of men employed in it, is to re-establish the bounty, and by an act of parliament oblige every ship to carry twelve months’ provisions for her crew; this would effectually prevent all the calamities attendant on a severe season. All other schemes that I have heard of, and particularly that recommended, (with all due deference to Captain James Ross be it said,) would, in my humble opinion, only add the misery of a few more unhappy individuals to that which has been already suffered in that dreary and forbidding climate.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
A.     B.

Hull, 5th April, 1837. 

Sir,—In your valuable periodical for last month, I read with much satisfaction the letter of Capt. James Ross, addressed to Capt. Beaufort “on the expediency of establishing a settlement on the west side of Davis Straits,” to serve as a depot for merchandise, and a port of refuge for whalers. Truly, Sir, it is high time that some such energetic measure be adopted by the government in order to secure to our country those important advantages which result from the north whale fishery, and to prevent the recurrence of such distressing and disastrous events, as those which have lately attended its prosecution. Every humane and generous mind must rejoice that the subject has at length been seriously taken up; and now that so practicable a scheme has been set fairly before the public, I sincerely hope that it will be followed up with energy and spirit to its successful accomplishment.

Being myself deeply interested in the success of the whale fishery, and having been, on several occasions, to Davis Straits, I trust that I shall not be considered presumptuous in offering a few remarks on the important subject under consideration, which I am chiefly induced to do from a belief, that by fair and open discussion, much information may be elicited as to the most proper position and character to be adopted by the proposed settlements.

Captain Ross recommends that the settlement be placed “between Cumberland Strait and Cape Walsingham,” and in this opinion I most cordially concur, if it be determined that only one settlement is to be established; but surely Captain Ross does not consider that one such establishment would be adequate to the purposes in view. In order to obtain the most extensive good, both in a philanthropic as well as a commercial point of view, it would be necessary to have settlements at some other places along that coast, and not too far distant from each other, so that on whatever part a ship may chance to be wrecked, the crew might, without any great difficulty, reach some one of the following places, which appear to me most suitable for the contemplated purposes:—

  1. Ponds Bay.
  2. Coutts Inlet, or River Clyde.
  3. Home Bay.

These three are to the northward of the principal station as proposed by Captain Ross; but if a good harbour can be found either in Resolution Island to the southward, or in any of the intermediate islands, I consider that would also prove a most desirable situation, as well for the advantage of the whalers as for the Hudson Bay Company’s ships.

Captain Ross expresses an apprehension that a settlement placed far to the northward of Cape Walsingham might be the occasion of the crews of the whalers abandoning their ships without making any adequate exertions to extricate them; and with this view of the case he very judiciously proposes to place the establishment just to the southward of what we must all admit to be the most probable place of escape, if escape be at all possible, and to the south of which position the probability of destruction becomes so great as to justify the abandonment of the ship.

But I have no hesitation in stating my belief that Captain Ross’s apprehensions on this point are perfectly groundless. The sailors employed in the whale fishery are individually far more deeply interested in the preservation of their ship than those of any other vessel, for reasons which I need not now enter on; and are, therefore, not likely to desert her so long as the smallest hope of saving her can be entertained.

But if there were to be only one establishment, and that placed far to the northward, it might certainly prove an inducement, if a ship were to be beset at a very late period of the season, and the chance of escape appeared hopeless; and, on the contrary, if settlements were formed at several points along the coast, the crew would be encouraged to persevere in their exertions to the last, even, in some cases, until they were driven down to the southernmost settlement. 

It is well known to all who have been to that country, that the whole of the western shore of Baffin’s Bay and Davis Straits is an archipelago of islands, and that to the end of August the whales usually make their way up the numerous large inlets and fiords, which doubtless lead to some extensive beach, where, undisturbed by the persecutions of the whalers, they bring up their young; and it not unfrequently happens, when the ships have been late in crossing to the western shore, that not a whale is to be found; so that I am pretty certain, that before many years shall have passed away, it will become necessary to follow the whales up these inlets, or else to abandon the pursuit entirely. Indeed nothing has prevented our adopting that measure on many occasions, but our total ignorance of the nature and extent of the inlets, the set of the tides and currents, and the likelihood or otherwise of getting hampered therein by ice. Now, Sir, in addition to the reasons that Captain Ross has advanced for the establishment of settlements on that coast, it appears to me that no more effectual means could be adopted for the survey of these intricate places, and arriving at a proper knowledge of the tides, &c., than the plan proposed; because, in the frequent communications that would necessarily take place between the several establishments, as well as the various excursions in boats and sledges, for the purpose of collecting fins, oil, and other products, from the natives, much valuable geographical information would assuredly be obtained, and eventually the whole extent of an (at present) almost unknown coast accurately surveyed.

Permit me, further, to remark that a correct survey of a coast upon which so many of our ships are annually employed, is a desideratum of much importance, and ought to be immediately commenced, whether the establishments be formed or not. A surveying vessel (properly fortified) ought to be stationed there during the summer months, with powers to act as a kind of commodore to the whaling fleet, compelling the ships to sail for England at a proper period of the season, under penalty of losing their insurance if subsequently wrecked, and to afford relief to any ship that might be unavoidably detained in the ice, the cost of the supplies to be paid by the owners.

The wise policy of our naval administration in so considerably extending the surveying department under the present indefatigable hydrographer, has already been productive of much benefit, and the approbation of this by parliament is echoed in every part of the kingdom. To such objects, which tend so materially to the preservation of life and property, the people, of every political party, are ever ready to contribute, and justly to consider them the most permanently beneficial application of the public money.

This, is, however, only one of many collateral benefits likely to result from the proposed establishments; and if you consider this communication worthy of a place in your magazine, I may, perhaps, on a future occasion, trouble you with some further remarks on this most interesting subject.

Captain Ross’s letter has been copied into some of our newspapers, and has occasioned much conversation amongst the merchants of this place. His plan is highly approved of, so far as it goes, but the general opinion appears to be, that it is of too limited a character to be so extensively useful as it would become on a more enlarged scale, such as I have now ventured to propose.