On the Expediency of a Settlement on the Western Shore of Davis Straits. By Captain James Ross, R.N.


Westbourne Green, Harrow Road, 18th Feb. 1837.

DEAR SIR,—In compliance with your wish, I lose no time in giving you my opinions as to the expediency of a settlement on the western shore of Davis Straits, which might not only serve as a depôt for oil, but as a port of refuge for whale-ships. I feel quite assured that much good would result from such an establishment, if judiciously planned, and prudently conducted; but I think that Ponds Bay, or Coutts Inlet, both of which situations have been suggested, would be found much too far to the northward, because it not unfrequently happens in unfavourable seasons, that no passage to the west land can be effected to the northward of Cape Walsingham, which forms the narrowest part of the straits, while to the southward of that cape the passage, at every period of the season, is much less difficult. There is no doubt that a good harbour, and an eligible situation for a settlement, might be easily selected on the deeply-indented northern shore of Cumberland Strait, or in about 64° N., or between that and Cape Walsingham.

There are many other reasons why a southerly position would be desirable, of which I may mention—1st. The natives to the southward are far more numerous than to the north; the merchantable products would be therefore proportionally greater, and at the same time the benefit to the inhabitants, arising from the introduction of European clothing, and other comforts of civilized life, more extended.

2nd. The rise and fall of tide to the south is sufficiently great for facilitating the repair of any of the whale-ships that might sustain injury amongst the ice; but to the northward it is too inconsiderable for that purpose.

3rd. The greater facility of communication with the settlements already established upon the coast of Labrador and Hudsons Bay, even when the approach of ships might be prevented by the annual accumulation of ice, similar to that which has occurred there the last two summers.

4th. Perhaps the most important reason for placing the first and principal settlement to the southward, is the greater probability of its being useful to whale-ships which may be beset and frozen in the pack in unusually severe autumns. If the settlement were at Ponds Bay or Coutts Inlet, it would probably occasion the abandonment of many ships that might otherwise be extricated; for, as it generally happens that they are at first beset in about the latitude of those places, the crew would immediately leave their vessel, and make for the settlement, well knowing that if they are once driven to the southward of it, any attempt to reach it in the vessel would be useless; whereas, if it were well to the southward of Cape Walsingham, the people would continue their exertions to get the ship out until after they had drifted with the pack to the southward of that cape, where, from the shores on both sides greatly receding, the ice in general becomes more open, and the greatest chance of escape occurs. If, however, the ice should still remain too closely packed for the vessel to get to the east-water, and that she begins then to drift still more rapidly to the southward, the danger of shipwreck becomes so great from the number of icebergs, from the strength of the tides, from the heavy pressure at times of the rapidly-moving pack, and from the heavy sea which keeps the whole mass in motion for many miles within its margin, that the increasing chances of destruction will fully justify the crew in their abandoning their ship, and just at that period when she has reached nearest to the spot where the settlement ought to be placed. Thus, then, they would be encouraged in their efforts to save their vessel, by the assurance of a place of refuge, in case their endeavours should eventually fail, and they would be prevented from abandoning her till all other means of escape had vanished.

The importance of settlements on the west side of Davis Straits, in a commercial point of view, has not escaped the notice of the Danes in the colonies of Greenland; for, while I was at Holsteinberg during my late voyage in the Cove, a gentleman of the name of Kahl, who had been many years a governor of one of the Danish colonies, arrived there in a sloop, for the express purpose of visiting the west-land, with the view of forming a small settlement upon some part of it, and wholly for mercantile purpose.

It is not easy to conceive the vast quantities of eider down, furs of land and sea animals, oil, and ivory, that are annually collected by, and purchased for a mere trifle, from the Esquimaux of Greenland; and there can be no doubt that these articles might be obtained in much larger quantities on the west side of the straits, than at Greenland, owing to its proximity to the continent of America; indeed many furs of considerable value might be obtained there, which are but rarely found in Greenland.

There are several other reasons which could be advanced for the establishment of a settlement between Cumberland Strait and Cape Walsingham, in preference to any other part of the western coast of Davis Straits, and much more might be said to prove, that, if well conducted, it would very shortly not only repay its first expense, but even produce immediate profit, besides being, in all probability, the means of saving many valuable lives. Reserving these considerations, however, for another occasion, I would here express my belief, that it is essential to the complete success of this project, that Government should commence it; for the landing a number of sailors, without a sufficient authority to control them, would assuredly be productive of much mischief, and inevitably lead to serious misunderstandings with the native inhabitants.

If a vessel of two or three hundred tons were to sail from England by the 1st of July next, she would get to the straits at the best period of the year for crossing to the west-land, just to the southward of Cape Walsingham. As soon as a suitable and convenient situation for the purpose was found, the party, consisting in all of ten or twelve persons, together with the stores and provisions, might be landed, and the ship return to England; but I think it would be more advisable for her to remain there during the first winter, so that the disposition of the natives might be ascertained, and their friendship secured. Early the following season she would return to England, bringing home the fine oil, and other merchandize which had been procured, and which would at once repay much of the expense. As the whaleships at the fall of the year generally fish in about the latitude of Cape Walsingham, some of them would every year communicate with the settlement; and such as had been unsuccessful in the fishery might be employed for the above purpose, or, if necessary, a vessel might be sent out from time to time for that express purpose.

I will not enter further into detail just now; but, if either the Government, or a company of merchants, should undertake to form such an establishment, there are many points connected with the subject which ought to be very fully discussed. For my own part, I consider it to be a subject of quite sufficient importance to the country to engage the consideration of the Government; for the whale fishery, in these regions, on an average of twenty years, has yielded annually between seven and eight hundred thousand pounds, and has given employment to between six and seven thousand of our best and most enterprizing seamen, although it has greatly declined of late years, owing to the increasing difficulties and dangers which attend its prosecution. Unless, therefore, some measure calculated to give new encouragement to the pursuit, and to afford protection to the lives and property of those engaged in it, as well as to prevent the recurrence of the dreadful misery and suffering which have now repeatedly taken place, be speedily adopted, this best nursery for our seamen, and this important source of national wealth, will inevitably be lost to this country.

I am, &c.
James Ross.

To Captain F. Beaufort, R. N. Hydrographer to the Admiralty.