On the Risk and General Policy of our recent Arctic Expeditions


The first announcement of Captain Ross’s return in the newspapers was followed up by a paragraph, expressing an earnest hope that this would be the last of such useless, rash, and unprofitable expeditions.

We have long been aware that such were the prevailing sentiments of three several classes in society, viz: 1st, Those who, from religious motives, consider any risk of life as an unwarrantable temptation of Providence. 2d, Those who look to the effect of measures through the sole medium of pounds, shillings, and pence. And 3d, A numerous assemblage of minor objectors, who, without giving themselves much trouble in sifting the real merits or demerits of the case, cut the Gordian knot by that most vague and di heartening of all answers Cui bono? an answer which has, in every age, done its best to paralyze genius, and close the door of inquiry upon every subject and object, the immediate effects of which do not come within the sphere of the most ordinary comprehension. But, in addition to these three classes, it is with pain and sorrow that we have now to add the recorded sentiments of the public press: this last, though by no means least influential portion of the community, thus laying its fatal axe to the root of a chivalrous spirit, which has heretofore had so large a share in exalting the British character among the nations of the civilized and enlightened world.

To suppose that the arguments of unknown individuals can weigh aught in opposition to the verdicts of so formidable a coalition, would be vain presumption; but, under a deep and abiding conviction, that, with the encouragement of British enterprise, much of what may yet remain of Britain’s future glory is identified, we would fain offer a contributory mite to the “audi alteram partem” side of this important question.

First, then, How does the case stand with respect to the actual expenditure of human life? We have facts before us, and to them be the appeal.

From an accurate investigation of the deaths occurring in the district wherein we reside, they appear to be in the proportion of about 1 in 38. From the statistical reports of the metropolis, they are in the proportion of 1 in 40: but there is good reason for concluding that the number is far greater, there being prodigious omissions in the records of burials.[1] In Liverpool, in 1830, the proportion was nearly 1 in 38: but, as its returns are liable to the inaccuracies existing in London, the number of deaths may fairly be computed as exceeding this ratio. We will, however, take them as 1 in 40.

With these data, let us now refer to the actual mortality during a period of fifteen years, from 1818 to 1833, which will comprise the expeditions of Ross, Parry, Franklin, Lyon, and Weddell.

Ross, 1818, absent seven months.

Isabella, 57 + Alexander, 37 > Total, 94 men.

Not an officer or man on sick list.

Ross, 1829 to 1833, absent four years and a half.

Victory, 23 men.—Of whom three only died, though exposed to every degree of privation and hardship; and, to use Captain Ross’s words, “as two out of these three were cut off early in the voyage, by diseases not peculiar to the climate, only one man can be said to have perished.”

Parry, 1819, 1820absent two years.

Hecla, 58 + Griper, 36 > Total, 94 men.

Of these, one only died, and his lungs were diseased before he embarked.

Parry, 1821, 1822, 1823—absent three years.

Hecla, 60 + Fury, 58 > Total, 118.

Five deaths occurred: of which, one was by an accident; one consumption; one pulmonary affection, increased by intemperate habits; one would not take proper medicines.

Parry, 1824, 1825—absent two years.

Hecla, 62 + Fury, 60 > Total, 122.

One death only, and that hastened by an accident.

Parry, 1827—absent seven months.

Hecla,[2] 34 + Fury, 60 > Total, 122.

One death on board the ship, where there were no privations. The individual had been in every one of the previous expeditions.

Franklinabsent two years.

We cannot speak with similar accuracy respecting this land expedition, the actual number of followers not being stated; and as they varied according to circumstances occasionally, it might be impossible to come at the exact truth, but we are probably not far wrong in computing them at about twenty; of whom four died—two of them from gun-shot wounds. As, however, it is not improbable that the deaths of these two were more or less connected with the peculiar hardships to which they were exposed, we will consider the whole four to have died of privation.

Lyon, 1824—absent five months.

Griper, 41 men. No deaths.

That the vessel was exposed to dreadful weather, and that the crew suffered in consequence, is well known; but so far from affecting their spirits, Captain Lyon closes his interesting narrative thus: “I may with truth assert, that there never was a happier little community than that assembled in the Griper; each succeeding day, and each escape from difficulties, seemed to bind us more strongly together; and I am proud to say, that during the whole of our voyage, neither punishment, complaint, nor even a dispute of any kind, occurred amongst us.”

Weddellabsent nearly two years.

Jane, brig, 160 tons, 22 +  Beaufoy, cutter, 65 tons. 13 > Total, 35.

With the exception of this last, these expeditions were sanctioned by Government; but Mr. Weddell, who, we are proud to add, was a Master in the Royal Navy, ventured in a private capacity with the two little vessels above named, one almost a cock-boat, to explore the southern regions, “as full of peril and adventurous spirit,” as those of ” thrice-ribbed ice, “in breaking whose frozen barriers, his gallant messmates had so nobly distinguished themselves. And, during so long an absence, with such limited means and accommodations, we hear only of the loss of one man, who had been for many months in a consumption. Mr. Weddell, too, had no martial law to enforce discipline; but true British spirit rendered its absence of no moment; for, “never, during my experience at sea,” he observes, “have I seen an equal degree of patience and firmness, as was exhibited by these seamen. No dastardly request to reach a better climate was ever hinted at; but they continued in the strictest obedience and determination to make light of difficulties.”

We might, in addition to the above, mention the expedition under Captain King, in the Adventure and Beagle, who was absent about four years, and chiefly occupied in surveying the cheerless shores of Terra del Fuego; but we omit it, as his volume is yet to appear, and we have therefore at present no certain data for reference; though we have reason to believe that his deaths were limited to a boat’s crew, upset in a squall in the Straits of Magellan, and a man who fell from the foretop-sailyard, when the vessel was getting under way in Gravesend Reach, preparatory to coming to her final anchorage at Woolwich the same evening.

The following is a summary made out from the above details:

Year in which the Expedition SailedUnder the Command ofNo. of Men on ExpeditionAbsent. Y / MDeaths by Causes or Disorders unconnected with the ExpeditionDeaths occasioned directly or indirectly by the ExpeditionRate of Deaths at average of 1 in 40
1818Ross940 / 7001 ¼
1829Ross234 / 6213
1819Parry942 / 0105
1821Parry1183 / 0329
1824Parry1222 / 0106
1827Parry620 / 7101
1819Franklin202 / 0041
1824Lyon410 / 5000 ½
1822Weddell352 / 0101
Total9727 ¾
= 16

Here, then, we find, that, according to statistical calculations, the deaths in these several expeditions ought to have amounted to twenty-seven and three-quarters, whereas they did not much exceed half that number; and, moreover, that of these, seven only were fairly to be laid to the account of sickness, or other causes directly connected with the peculiar risks and hardships of the service in which the individuals were engaged. It may indeed be said, that our average is unfair, inasmuch as the crews of such vessels are generally picked men, in the prime of life, and that the majority of deaths occur at an earlier age. But, in addition to the allowance already made for this in the average taken, viz. 1 in 40 which, as we have shewn, would probably be nearer the truth if taken at the least in about 1 in 38, it should be borne in mind as a well-ascertained fact, that mortality materially increases among the poor, and diminishes among the affluent; and, therefore that, had the above number of individuals (the great majority of whom were not only of the poorer class, but of the proverbially most reckless, improvident, and irregular of that class[3]) been living on shore, under no control, following their usual course of life at least double, if not treble the number, would have died. Here then, instead of an expenditure, we have a most decided and a very considerable saving of human life.

But further, respecting, as we do, those who from religious motives are hostile to these expeditions, we would suggest for their consideration, whether, had the mortality been equal to, or even exceeded, the average which “flesh is heir to” by the usual laws of nature, those who might have yielded up their lives in this their country’s service, would not, in all likelihood, have been far better prepared for that awful change, than had they perished in the purlieus of the metropolis, or imbibed the seeds of their fate amidst the vices and iniquities so common in our sea-port towns. To say nothing of the moral and social order inherent in our naval discipline, is there nothing, we would further ask, of a moral or religious tendency incident to the peculiar situation in which such men were placed? Little, indeed, do these persons know of Franklin or of Parry, if they are ignorant of the devotional spirit which hallowed their exertions, and of the eternal benefit which may have accrued to those whose privilege it was to be one of their gallant followers.

However we may respect the prejudices, if so they may be called, of those to whom we have just appealed, with the money-calculating class who here unite with them, we have but little sympathy, and feel but little inclination in wasting time to convince such reasoners, that some ingredients there are in the formation of character, and exaltation of a people, of more worth and excellence than gold, or the incessant contemplation of profit and loss. But even on their own grounds, we fear not to meet these Shylocks, who look to nothing but the interest of their bond. For we have heard capitalists in the whale trade speak in the highest and most grateful terms of these expeditions, as calculated to open new sources of wealth to those who are engaged in this department of commerce;[4] and we believe that the enterprising and pioneering spirit of our Arctic voyagers has induced many whaling captains to follow their footsteps, with ample remuneration for their pains. Looking, then, upon these expeditions in the light of mere money-making concerns, surely it is worth being at some charge, as a stimulus to a branch of commerce which, in the gross value of articles imported from the Arctic regions, “in five years, free of first cost, amounted to near three millions sterling,[5]” and which, in the article of oil alone, occasions an annual average importation to the amount of upwards of twenty-five thousand tons.

Again, we would ask these wary guardians of our financial honour, whether some little hazard and speculation is not, after all, worth consideration on other accounts. Was it so completely out of the question, that these exploring vessels might have opened new communications with tribes connected with an increased produce in the fur trade? Was it quite visionary to suppose, that, in regions hitherto untrodden by the foot of intelligence, mines and minerals might have been made our own, of countless value as sources of profit? We throw out these hints on legitimate foundations; for it will be remembered, that, in Captain Ross’s expedition in 1818, a mountainous tract was pointed out by the natives, as abundant in an ore, or virgin metal, which, from the specimen exhibited, there was reason to suppose were, in part at least, composed of meteoric iron! If one new combination of a valuable metal, then, was thus placed within our grasp, why not other varieties of new and curious compounds? But, to discuss this argument to a tithe of its merited extent, would occupy a volume. Suffice it to say, (we give but one instance, where twenty present themselves,) that, had the Phoenicians and Romans chilled the spirit of enterprise in their days, as those our money-loving countrymen wish to do in these our days, on the ground of improvident expenditure, tin would never have been discovered, and the many arts and manufactures connected with it must have perished for lack of such knowledge.

Lastly, come we to those, who, as a receipt in full of all demands, give CUI BONO as the sum and substance of their objection. It is hopeless, we fear, to suggest to them the importance of minute, and apparently insignificant discoveries, however remotely connected with science; that in the pursuit of knowledge, no fact, however trifling, is either useless or insulated; that a passing hint even, may become valuable, like the unit in arithmetic, simply by taking its proper place. Why remind them of the great discoveries, for which we are indebted to mere accident? That from the fall of an apple to the ground, the attention of Newton was successfully directed to the motion of the planetary system; that the glance of a sunbeam through a glass globe of water, led to the solution of the previous mysterious problem of the formation of the rain- bow, and the laws connected with the refrangibility and divisibility of light ? Why tell them, that curious observations, more or less akin to these, depend upon accident, speculation, and enterprize? That in these expeditions new facts have been established, and others may still be verified, respecting magnetism; that the relative proportions of land and water, in an interesting part of the globe, have been in a great degree ascertained; that the set of currents in particular directions have been made known. To all and each of these, and the host of others that might be advanced, the answer is one and the same, cui bono? and conclusive indeed it is to those who, either know not, or, knowing, heed not, the advantages of scientific discovery.

 “Whats Hecuba to them, or they to Hecuba?”

It is in vain for those who, by patient and deep research, have fathomed the depths of science, and, speculating in sound philosophy, have learned how, more than the ignorant are aware of, man is nearly or remotely interested in the furtherance of such pursuits, to appeal to the many who pride themselves in not being “over curious in these unnecessary matters.’’

If an appeal is made in vain, with such arguments in our favour, how, indeed, can we hope to obtain a hearing? when, casting aside all other reasonings, we would rest our approval of these and similar expeditions on the sole and simple grounds of their utility, in exciting a spirit of enterprise, of which, till these degenerate days, England was justly proud.

But, although our country’s glory may be on the wane, still, we trust and believe there are some, (and we would gladly hope not a few they be,) who, on this ground alone, would patronise and uphold them. Men with British feeling, who would rue the hour when the flag of any other nation was hoisted on any hitherto unknown or inaccessible point or pinnacle of the wide world, where, had it not been checked and discouraged, the red cross of England might have waved triumphant, and borne testimony to the gallantry and perseverance of those who were her standard-bearers.

In language more eloquent and forcible than we can pretend to, sanctioned by the practical experience of a professional advocate in the cause of national discoveries, we shall close our remarks with the words of Sir Edward Parry:—“May it still fall to England’s lot to accomplish undertakings like these, and may she ever continue to take the lead in enterprises intended to contribute to the advancement of science, and to promote, with her own, the welfare of mankind at large! Such enterprises, so disinterested as well as useful in their object, do honour to the country which undertakes them. Even when they fail, they cannot but excite the admiration and respect of every liberal and cultivated mind; and the page of future history will undoubtedly record them, as every way worthy of a powerful, virtuous, and enlightened nation.”

E. S. Y.   

We have copied, the following from the Times: The Isabella, of Hull, in which Captain Ross made his first voyage to the Arctic regions, and in which, by a singular coincidence, he has returned from what may be presumed will be his last, was launched at Hull in the year 1812, and named after the daughter of one of the owners, the late W. Moxon, Esq., for whom and J. White, Esq., of Cottingham, the vessel was built. She was then engaged in the transport service, and was at the taking of St. Sebastian with the troops, when several of the crew were killed. After the war, she was selected by the Government for the Polar expedition, and fitted up with double decks and other requisites to encounter the violence of the northern seas. After the return of that expedition she was paid off, and the vessel was then sold to the present owners, who have taken advantage of the capabilities secured by Government to engage in the whale fishery, in which she has been extremely fortunate, her strength and other advantages having enabled the captains to go further into the ice than other ships could venture. It was thus that Captain Ross enjoyed the singular gratification, at the time of obtaining a providential rescue from his hazardous situation, to find himself rescued by the very vessel in which he had first gone forth on his great adventure.—For a drawing and description of the manner in which this vessel was fitted for Captain Ross, see Nautical Magazine, No. 14.

[1] See Annals of Philosophy—Lubbock’s remarks on mortality.

[2] We have considered the Hecla’s complement to be the same as in 1824, viz. 62 men, as we are not aware that any addition was made in consequence of the boat establishment.

[3] Lord Nelson averaged the life of a sailor at forty years, on these considerations.

[4] We are happy to make one exception from our assertion against the public press, and have great pleasure in quoting the following from the columns of the Liverpool Times :—

There is every reason to believe, that if the recent Arctic voyages had not been undertaken, the whale fishery which employs a capital of upwards of a million, which is one of the best nurseries in the world for seamen, and on which Hull, Peterhead, Frazerburgh, and several other towns of the kingdom, mainly depend, would have been totally lost to the country. For many years, a great change has been taking place in the habits of those stupendous creatures, which draw the enterprise of the merchants and mariners of England and Scotland into the Arctic seas. When the fishery commenced, they were so tame that they were found floating in all the gulfs and bays of Spitzbergen, fearless of harm, and were taken by hundreds, and without an effort. In a few years, however, this dreadful destruction drove them into the more remote bays, from whence they were soon driven into the open sea, far away from land. But the trackless ocean afforded them no shelter from their enemies; they were pursued, and that with so much resolution, that the Dutch are calculated to have destroyed upwards of 50,000 in no very long course of years. Retiring before their ruthless pursuers, they next look refuge along the line of perpetual ice, which was their habitation when Scoresby wrote his celebrated work. Here, as many as 1400 of them were killed in one year. At last, worn out by perpetual persecution, they have plunged into the regions of eternal ice, where the boldest whaler dares not to pursue them. The consequence is, that the Greenland fishery, which was formerly carried on in the sea between Greenland and Spitsbergen, is nearly abandoned, and the whole trade would soon have been at an end, if Ross had not penetrated in his first voyage through the mass of ice which renders the entrance to Baffin’s Bay so hazardous, and opened to the whalers seas never before fished, and which the monsters of the deep are found to frequent in great numbers. The most northern parts of Baffin’s Bay, together with Lancaster Sound, Regent’s Inlet, &c., are now the great fishing stations; and all these regions have been discovered, or at least laid down with accuracy, by the recent navigators, who opened the route to less adventurous traders—shewed them that the seas abounded with whales—broke the icy barrier which had never been passed since the days of Baffin, and described the coasts and harbours so correctly as to deprive the voyage of the greater part of its perils. The mere pecuniary expense of the voyages of discovery has therefore already been paid many times, independent of the extension of geographical knowledge, and the great improvement of science.

[5] Scoresby, V. ii. 133.