On Pursuing Discoveries in the Neighbourhood of the South Pole, by Means of Steam-Navigation.


To the Editor of the Nautical Magazine.

SIR,—I addressed you some time since on the subject of a new passage to India, which might be greatly aided by means of steam-navigation.

Although, in the limits or the space I then felt myself justified in occupying of your work, I could do little more than open the scheme, I felt that the subject was highly entitled to general attention.

Allow me now, through the same intelligent medium, viz. the pages of “The Nautical,” to suggest some thoughts upon another point of navigation connected with scientific discovery, which might be prosecuted in a distant region of the globe, by means of the same agent. I now allude to a plan, the practicability of which will not perhaps be questioned—since a steam-boat may live in a rough sea—for endeavouring to reach high latitudes in the Antarctic circle, and clear up a point which has often been discussed respecting an Australian continent.

It may be asked, perhaps, what is the use of prosecuting discoveries in regions where no great or immediate object seems to present itself; such as the magnetic polarity of the needle, or the western passage? It is true that neither of these objects can stimulate the mariner.

But the important question, whether the Antarctic circle is equally beset with ice as the Arctic; whether the same obstacles obstruct the passage to the first, as we know from long-protracted experiments closes the avenues to our nautical discoveries in the other, has not yet been fully decided. The Antarctic regions have, from their remoteness from Europe, seldom engaged the attention of her maritime adventurers, while the Arctic seas have, especially of late, been the theatre of frequent and minute investigation.

Until within a few years previous to the celebrated epochs of Gama and Columbus, the maritime expeditions of mankind were confined within the inland seas which bordered their own and the adjacent countries, for a few hundred miles beyond their own coast. Coasting voyages in the Mediterranean, in the Caspian and Black Seas, circumscribed for the most part the nautical skill of the ancients; for we proceed upon the assumption, that the grand expedition round Africa, performed by Hanno, the Carthaginian, mentioned by Pliny, is fiction and fable. Europe, which, since the first records of authentic history, has ever been the seat of arts and science, was, during the Greek and Roman periods, and for a thousand years after the desolation of the western empire, profoundly ignorant of any navigation but that of inland seas.

In the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, the great maritime republics of Italy engrossed for the most part the commerce of Europe that was carried on by sea. They were the common carriers of the great powers engaged in the crusades, to and from the various ports of the Mediterranean, and certainly had attained considerable skill in the tactics which were simply requisite on these waters. The Venetians and Genoese, rival powers, emulated at once the industry with which they each endeavoured to absorb the riches from other countries, and the naval prowess and superiority with which they mutually eclipsed all other contemporary nations. From the last of these famous republics sprung a giant, whose intrepid genius in nautical discovery future ages will probably never emulate. The pomp and grandeur of Genoa had already begun to decline, through the diversion of the trade into other channels, when she matured and sent forth the man who was to add a new hemisphere to the operations of science and mankind.

On the discovery of the mariner’s compass, a new epoch arose in the world. Civilized nations were, by means of its wonderful properties, quickly introduced to lands, and hordes of savages, of which the human imagination had never, until then, formed a conception.

From the time of Sebastian Cabot, England has been foremost in nautical discoveries; and the enterprise of Elizabeth’s reign fully justified her pretensions in this respect.

Commodore Anson did much for the honour of his country, and for its progress in naval tactics ; but it was reserved for the intrepid Cook—a man whose restless and sustained exertions in the work of carrying forward the maritime discoveries of mankind, has scarcely yet been sufficiently appreciated and honoured—to place the ascendancy of England on a yet higher basis.

Since the date of these celebrated expeditions, the importance of which to the cause of geographical science needs no comment of mine, the work of exploring the high seas in unknown latitudes has chiefly been confined to the Arctic regions. A few exceptions have occurred, in which the southern hemisphere has been the theatre of scientific research; and very recently Weddell and Foster have respectively added many important facts connected with natural science, to the stock of already ascertained phenomena. But our chief researches have always been lavished on the frozen climes of Greenland, Labrador, and its propinquities.  

From the times of Commodore Phipps to those of Captain Ross, comprising a period of half a century, scarcely a solitary adventurer, except Cook, has sailed to a much higher latitude than Cape Horn; but from the epoch of the first voyage of the last-mentioned navigator, the anticipations and gaze of the British public have been fixed with intense interest on the operations of our northern adventurers. And the results which they accomplished were certainly very important, although the grand desideratum, the north-west passage, seems as far from being accomplished as ever. Many facts connected with the magnetic pole have been ascertained and elucidated, many phenomena observed, the existence of which bad never entered the calculations of the human mind. It had, for instance, previously been imagined that the polarity of the magnetic needle received its impulse from an object situated at the axis of the earth, or the point round which it centres. But, from various phenomena connected with the dip and variation of the needle observed by our late northern navigators, they think they have sufficient grounds for ascertaining that this wonderful and hidden property, whatever it be, lies within the 60th and 70th degrees of latitude. This new hypothesis, however, so completely overturns all the previously imagined theories of men upon this subject, opposes in the very teeth what was before considered a settled point, that very strong repeated evidence is requisite to establish its truth. It is possible, nay, it is more than possible, that some circumstances connected with other departments in physiology, may have contributed in some degree to operate on the needle, and to produce this phenomenon. Thus much is certain, that the causes which occasion the dip and variation which so constantly, but so unequally, disturb the polarity of the needle, are as mysterious as the polarity itself. It was, I recollect, some years since remarked in the course of conversation, by my late friend Col. Macdonel, of Summerlands, near Exeter, that if a navigator, in any given latitude of the north, were, at any given period, to note the variation, and, after some years of interval, return again to the same latitude, he would find the variation of the needle by no means the same. If such be the case, it would strongly indicate the influence of atmosphere upon the needle, and the properties which characterize it might perhaps be sometimes explained by attending more strictly to these phenomena. This opinion indeed has been confirmed by actual observation. The signal and invariable effects which, in the Arctic regions, the aurora borealis has upon the magnetic needle, was almost nightly observed by Captain Franklin, and the intelligent men who accompanied his expedition.

From the narrative, and accurate experiments, of that indefatigable and lamented young officer, Lieut. Hood, corroborated by those of Dr. Richardson, the aurora, whose fires played with greater brilliancy before the gaze of our arctic travellers, than has been observed or spoken of by any former, had a very remarkable effect on the variation of the compass. This singularity likewise seemed generally to attend it, that its influences were the greatest in thick hazy weather. From a variety of observations made upon the subject by Captain Franklin, and his coadjutors, whose patient and minute investigation of the economy and order of this phenomenon do them honour, it appeared that the magnetic needle was disturbed by the aurora whenever it approached the zenith. “It moved,” says Lieut. Hood, “slowly by the east or west of the magnetic meridian, and seldom recovered its original direction in less than eight or nine hours. The greatest extent of its variation, or of its alteration, was 45’.”

Again, the direction or position of the aurora has a very perceptible, not to say powerful, influence in operating upon the needle. We will hear Captain Franklin while at Fort Enterprize. “The arches of the aurora most commonly traversed the sky nearly at right angles to the magnetic meridian, but the deviations from this inclined direction were not rare, and I am inclined to consider that these different positions of the aurora have considerable influence upon the direction of the needle. When an arch was nearly at right angles to the magnetic meridian, the motion of the needle was towards the west; this westward motion was still where one extremity of an arch bore 301°, that is, when the extremity of an arch approached from the west towards the magnetic north. A westerly motion also took place when the extremity of an arch was in the true north, or about 36° to the west of the magnetic north. A contrary effect was produced when the same end of an arch originated to the southward of the magnetic west; and of course when its opposite extremity approached nearer to the magnetic north. In these cases, I repeat, the needle was invariably towards the east.”

Captain Franklin appears to be decidedly of opinion, that the direction or the aberration of the needle was sometimes produced by other atmospherical phenomena, even, he thinks, by clouds, which were seen to assume the appearance of the aurora. From all these appearances, and from other observations made in the course of the long sojourn of Captain Franklin in the western hemisphere of the Arctic circle, we are warranted in concluding that the magnetic needle is operated upon by causes but very imperfectly known.

The observations and experiments of Captain Parry likewise sufficiently prove that the magnetic needle is often operated upon in ways we cannot account for. The dip and variation are found sometimes capriciously to aberrate as the latter occasionally shifted from west to east, within trifling degrees of longitude. In chap. 4th, p. 112, of his first voyage, he expresses an opinion on this subject similar to that of Captain Franklin. The latitude of the place of observation was 79° 09’ 23”, and the longitude 103° 44’ 37”. The dip of the magnetic needle was 88° 35’’58”, and the variation was now found to have changed from 28° 58’ in the long, of 91° 48’, where our last observation was taken, to 65° 50’ 09” ; so that we had, in sailing over the space included between these two meridians, crossed immediately to the northward of the magnetic pole, and had undoubtedly passed over one of those spots upon the globe where the needle would have been found to vary 180°, or, in other words, where the north pole would have pointed due south.

But, whatever may be the conclusions of scientific men upon a point so new, and so discrepant to old hypotheses, the fact of the polar regions of the north being beset with ice impenetrable by any human skill or activity, seems on all hands established. Then, why not approach the south pole?

A voyage of discovery has been recently made to the southern ocean by Captain Foster, in which many new facts and interesting theories are elicited. As bearing upon the point we are endeavouring to establish, we shall quote a passage from the journal of Mr. Webster, author of the narrative of the expedition performed by this lamented commander :—“None of the little bays or ports,” he remarks, “which abound in the neighbourhood of Cape Horn, or Staten Island, are ever frozen up. The sailing vessels which frequent this island have scarcely ever found the brooks of fresh water, so numerous there, in a frozen state for many hours together, and the snow rarely lies for two or three days at a time on the ground. Not only does the thermometer shew the fact, that the southern regions are absolutely milder than the northern, but nature herself asserts it. The Fuegian Indians are perfectly naked; they care for no dress, and seldom use it. Where this is the case, the cold cannot be very intense. How is it in the corresponding northern latitudes? The Canadian, the North American Indian, the Esquimaux, the Russian, the native of Kamschatka, sufficiently attest, by their warm clothing, the peculiar severity of their respective climates. Again, vegetation, that peculiar and unerring index to the severity of climate in all parts of the world, proclaims the winter of these southern regions to be mild and temperate. Here, in the latter end of May (answering to our November) the face of nature abounded with luxuriance; many of the vegetable tribe were in flower, and every thing wore its cheerful summer aspect.” This testimony, both with regard to the north and the south, is certainly cogent, not to say convincing; the facts, perhaps, will hardly be disputed. It is worthy of remark, however, that, as it concerns the south, Captain Foster seems directly at issue with Captain Cook. This last celebrated navigator, whose restless and indefatigable spirit in the prosecution of discovery, whose devotedness to the cause of science, and whose actual services, which were second to no man’s, should long ere this have been crowned with a splendid national memorial; has uniformly declared it as his opinion, that the southern parallels of latitude exceed the northern in severity. His description of the isle of Georgia, for instance, situated in the 54th degree of south latitude and the 35th of west longitude, abundantly proves this. “Who would have thought,” he says, (vol. iv. p. 199,) “that an island situated between the latitude of 54° and 55° should, in the very height of summer, be in a manner wholly covered with frozen snow, many fathoms deep, but especially on the south-west coast? The very sides and craggy summits of the mountains were cased with snow and ice; but the quantity which lay in the valleys is incredible; and at the bottom of the bays, the coast was terminated by a wall of ice of considerable thickness.” “It can hardly be doubted,” he further remarks, “that a great deal of ice is formed here in the winter, which in the spring is broken off, and dispersed over the sea; but this island cannot produce the ten thousandth part of what we saw; so that either there must be more land, or the ice is formed without it. I therefore,” he concludes, (and he uniformly cherishes this idea,) “had great hopes of discovering a continent.”

If the northern parallels of latitude are colder, which indeed seems to be the subject of conflicting testimony, it seems indubitable that the lands which lie so thickly round the north pole, within the arctic circle, are greatly auxiliary of the intensity of cold in these regions. And Captain Parry and Captain Franklin, together with their experiments on the dip and variation of the magnetic needle, for which they merit the thanks of all admirers of science, have likewise proved the impracticability of approaching the north pole.

But are there in truth no lands in the immediate vicinity of the south pole? The general impression of recent navigators has been that none exist; although much has been occasionally said of an Australian continent. Captain Cook explored the antarctic circle as high as the latitude 71° 10, and fell in with a frightful and appalling accumulation of ice islands, and closely packed field-ice. He could go no further.

Mr. Weddell, whose bold and perilous exploits some years back, (in not only traversing the north and south Atlantic, but likewise in encountering the icebergs and islands of latitudes a thousand miles in extent, in two small barks,) must ever challenge the highest admiration, penetrated to the latitude of 74° 15’, the highest latitude ever attained in the history of navigation within the Antarctic regions. He decidedly discourages the hypothesis of an Antarctic continent, or of many lands existing in the neighbourhood of the South Pole; though it is observable that he saw unknown coasts to the south of the Shetlands, trending southerly about lat. 64°. But it is also certain that from thence to the highest point to which he or any other navigator ever sailed, 74° 15’, he fell in with no other land whatever, which is certainly some proof that it differs very materially from the Arctic regions in this respect. It is well known that navigators generally attribute the formation of very extensive and compact field-ice to the not very remote propinquity of islands. Now, although Captain Cook fell in with extensive and impenetrable fields of close-packed ice, in latitudes 70° and 71°, it is certain from the report of Weddell, that much higher latitudes are totally free from it. This exhibits a very extraordinary phenomenon in natural philosophy, which should be investigated.

As connected with the temperature of the two frigid zones, it will strike their respective readers that Weddell and Foster are in their testimony somewhat at issue with each other. Although from the unprecedently high latitude which Weddell attained, it may seem that his own discoveries are a little at variance with his opinions upon this point, yet he evidently favours the prevailing opinion of the superior cold of the Antarctic regions. He traversed, by his account, a thousand miles of ocean, part of which was beset with stupendous icebergs, and, although sometimes in imminent peril, yet his ships do not appear, at any time, to have been beset as the ships of our northern navigators, for the last two centuries and upwards, generally have been in the same latitudes. In the very high latitude of 74° 15’, Weddell notices the very important fact, that no field-ice whatever was to be seen, but flights of innumerable birds; and also the very extraordinary circumstance, that in 72° 38’ not a single particle of ice of any description was to be seen, and the temperature was mild and serene. These facts, so unlike any circumstances ever observed in the northern parallels, are certainly encouraging to the promoters of Australian discoveries, while at the same time they oppose, with some degree of collision, the opinion to which Weddell also subscribed, of the coldness of the southern parallels. The cupola of ice suggested by St. Pierre as surrounding the South Pole, is here exploded; as also is the question, so far as Weddell had the opportunity of doing it, of lands existing near it. Because in the neighbourhood of the South Shetlands, in the latitude 62° or 63°, very much field-ice was invariably found, and in 72°38’ and all above, as in 74° 15’, no compact ice of this description hemmed in his ships, it amounts to a very strong presumption, to say no more, that the seas in high Antarctic latitudes are by no means intersected with lands like the Arctic parallels. The intense cold which prevails for many degrees in the neighbourhood of the Shetlands, doubtless proceeds from this vast accumulation: but the clear seas and comparatively mild temperature which exist ten or twelve degrees higher towards the Pole, (as only three ice-islands were in sight at this point,) certainly favours the anticipations of Weddell, that “an open field of discovery, even to the South Pole, may crown the endeavours of navigators.”

Under these circumstances, is it not, Sir, much to be regretted, that upwards of ten years should have elapsed from the date of Mr. Weddell’s unprecedented enterprise, and that no further attempt, officially authorized by the government of a great maritime people, should have been made. Is the field of discovery, so auspiciously opened by a private adventurer of our own country to be left to the science and the skill of other countries? Profiting from our example, other maritime powers nearer to the southern latitudes, may, through the means of steam navigation, endeavour to snatch those laurels which seem to lie within our grasp.

Why not then apply the agency of steam to the high purposes of science, as well as to those of commerce? That it is capable of being so applied, and in certain circumstances with very considerable effect, will strike those who think much on the subject.

A vessel propelled by steam is not encumbered by rigging and sails, which, in steering amongst the stupendous icebergs of the southern frigid zone, is sometimes calculated to impede and delay it in its required course. A steam-ship is worked with precision and facility, whether the wind be favourable or adverse; is arrested without the operose process of anchors; and in all respects she may be thought more manageable in circumstances of peril and difficulty than when loaded with masts and rigging.[1]

But it may be asked, probably, what are the great advantages to to be attained by prosecuting discoveries in these regions? If there exist Australian lands, they are probably destitute of inhabitants, and Cook himself declared his opinion, even while engaged in their discovery, that they were lands scarcely worth searching for.

It is indubitably true, that none of the marvels with which the mouths of travellers were filled in the middle ages, could be recounted by our nautical adventurers. Even were there inhabitants farther south, would not their character be still more degraded than that of the wretched wanderers of Tierra del Fuego? The narratives, it may be said, with which Benjamin de Tudela, Marco Paulo, and Ferdinand Mendez Pinto amused listening crowds, and often practised on the credulity of civilized, or rather half-civilized Europe, of splendid Oriental cities, amazing displays of treasure, and customs diverse from any thing previously known among mankind, in Tartary, China, and India, were told in other times: but the age of the marvellous is gone by. Then what again will result from penetrating to very high latitudes in the Antarctic circle? It will neither establish the mysterious point as to the causes of the polarity of the needle, nor will it open a short passage to new commercial marts. But if it will assuredly not do this, is there nothing else that it can accomplish in ascertaining whether the phenomena of high Arctic latitudes reign in the Antarctic. “The aurora borealis,” says Weddell, “I particularly looked for during the time the sun was below the horizon, but nothing of the kind was observable.” The polarity of the needle likewise, in these latitudes, seems but faintly visible, from some unknown cause. “It appeared evident,” says the same navigator,” that the magnetic energy of the earth upon the needle was much diminished when far to the southward, partly, no doubt, arising from the increased dip or diminution of horizontal action in the needle, which must be attracted in an increased degree by the objects immediately about it.”

Every thing, sir, on the other hand, which can reasonably be expected to be done in the work of discovery in the Arctic regions, seems to have been done. Captain Ross, Captain Parry, and Captain Franklin have, with unwearied patience and skill, explored these seas. The climates, coasts, and all the various phenomena connected with those bleak, inhospitable regions, have been ascertained, and carefully noted, by the science and the adventure of these commanders; the first of whom, however, in his late voyage, very narrowly escaped the untimely fate of Sir John Willoughby and his crew, who were frozen up in the Bay of Archangel. No one can read the narratives of their respective expeditions, without being struck at once with the capacity of painful endurance with which humanity is endowed, and the cool and cheerful intrepidity with which they combated evils, which, to more ordinary minds, would have been absolutely invincible. Increased facilities, then, we contend, are offered, through the agency of steam, of exploring the southern regions to higher latitudes even than those attained by Weddell.

If it should be objected that the very remote locality of England from the scene of discovery here suggested, furnishes a serious impediment to its prosecution, it may be rejoined, that a sort of depôt might be formed on an eligible part of the southern coast of Tierra del Fuego, sheltered from the stormy and impetuous gusts, and mountainous swell, which at certain periods sweep round the neighbourhood of Cape Horn. Several positions or stations offer themselves for purposes of this kind, but none more secure or commodious perhaps than Indian Cove in New Year’s Sound. A sumpter ship from England might accompany the steam vessels with necessary freightage and stores. A three years’ expedition, from leaving the shores of England, would, perhaps, be necessary; but if a farther time were requisite, there would be no difficulty in arranging it. These stores might be disembarked on the Fuegian coast, which spot might form an excellent victualling port for the Australian adventurers.

The South Shetlands, indeed, would be ten degrees, or thereabouts, nearer to the South Pole: but its drear and frozen character—(a country destitute of animal or of vegetable life,—without soil, but reared in columns of impenetrable rock, enclosing and producing large masses of ice—shorn even of the comforts of inhospitable Greenland,) is utterly unfit even for this purpose.

In times of profound peace, is it too much, sir, to expect that the first naval power on the globe should traverse the globe in pursuit of science as well as of commerce?

Like Tyre of old, she holds the reins of universal commerce in her hands, and covers the ocean with her ships. Like her, England, rich in the spoils or in the productions of distant climes of the earth, sends her fleets to colonize remote lands, and plant her standard, her arts, her language, her religion, among people diverse from her own, to whom she extends the blessings of her laws, and the panoply of her protection.

Enlightened by a policy of superior growth, her zeal in the cause of science is more universal. In more than solitary instances, she has proved, and that recently, that the sentiment uttered by Lord Byron is not always true,

“Tho’ commerce fills the purse, she clogs the brain,”

by turning her naval and commercial power and riches to purposes of high scientific research. Her star is yet in the ascendant, while that of her great maritime rival, Holland, has been on the wane. Will she not make use of that ascendancy in turning the advantages of steam-navigation to the ascertainment of truths in philosophy, as well as to the facilitating commercial intercourse?

The papers of the day, sir, have of late teemed with projected schemes of railways. Nothing seems, in the estimation of some projectors, and of many capitalists, who are often their dupes, so prolific in anticipated gains, or to give such promise of such valuable benefit to the community at large. The South Sea mania, and the mining mania, has been followed by the railroad mania. It is not by any means impossible that the air-balloon, or the steam-balloon, (for rapid travelling seems the order of the day,) may in its turn drive out the present mania.

Cannot we, sir, amidst the profusion of our wealth, devote a portion of it to the purposes of science, even if no pecuniary reward should appear likely to follow it?

I am, Sir, yours, &c.

Melksham, Oct. 15th, 1835.

[1] The author would not, however, here be mistaken. Between a steamer of the largest size and a frigate, rigged and equipped for sea, there exists not the slightest comparison in point of majesty or beauty. The structure and proportion of the last constitutes her among the finest objects of art, but the first assumes in appearance a very ordinary junk. The only point in question, now, is, which is the most available, under these circumstances, for the purposes of discovery.