Return of Her Majesty’s Ship Terror, Captain Back.—


We have the gratification of announcing to our readers the safe return of Captain Back, after a most perilous detention in the ice in Hudson’s Strait for nearly twelve months.[1] It will be remembered that the Terror sailed from England in June, 1836, (fortunately for her crew,) strengthened and fortified in every possible way to encounter the ice in order to make the best of her way to Wager River or Repulse Bay. The object, as we have already stated, to trace the southern shores of the Gulf of Boothia; and thence, by determining the N.E. extreme of America, to complete the whole northern coast line of that continent. Unhappily, for the present, this object has been defeated by circumstances which no human power could control, and which are best described in the following letter of Captain Back to the secretary of the Geographical Society.

“To the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society.

“September 11th, 1837.

“Sir,—As the expedition from which I have just returned originated with the Geographical Society, and, at its recommendation, was most liberally carried into effect by his Majesty’s government, I feel it incumbent on me to offer to the society an outline of the principal events which occurred from the time of my quitting England in June, 1836, till my return to Lough Swilly on the night of Sunday, the 3rd instant.

“In a statement of this description it would be impossible to enter into the detail of all the extraordinary, and, I may say, unparalleled circumstances which have marked the course of the whole of our proceedings: such details I trust I may shortly be enabled to offer to the society and to the public in a more complete form; but, in the mean time, it is due to those who took so warm an interest in the expedition to furnish them with an authentic narrative of the voyage, which must, however, necessarily be very brief, and will consist of extracts selected from my daily journal, as better calculated to convey a correct impression of the singular occurrences to which we were witnesses.

“We took our departure from Papa Westra, and steered across the Atlantic: the weather stormy. July 29.—We fell in with the ice, and on the following day we first saw the coast of Labrador, near Cape Chudleigh. Aug. 1.—Passed through Hudson’s Straits, and on the 5th saw some of the Company’s ships, apparently beset with ice, off the North Bluff. By keeping close in with the land we got ahead, and lost sight of them; and on the following day we were ourselves hampered. The ice was compact, and covered the horizon towards Hudson’s Bay, as far as could be seen from the mast head, while to the north-west it presented a favourable appearance; I had, therefore, no hesitation in proceeding in that direction. Aug. 16.—We got a run of forty miles from Trinity Isles, yet did not get sight of Baffin Island till the 23rd, when we also saw Southampton Island to the south-west.

“Two days of westerly wind at this crisis would have enabled us to reach Repulse Bay; but easterly winds prevailed, and packed the whole body of ice in such a manner that all hope of retracing our steps to pass to the southward of Southampton Island, and up Sir Thomas Roe’s Welcome, was out of the question.

“On the 29th we were drifted by the ice to lat. 65° 50′ N., long. 82° 7′ W. This was our extreme north point, and here we were within forty miles of Winter Island, where the Hecla and Fury passed the winter of 1821-2. By dint of boring, the ship was worked to the southward towards Southampton Island, whither we were attracted by the flattering appearance of lanes of open water. Sept. 4.—We were only 136 miles from Repulse Bay, and two days of strong breeze would have led through Frozen Strait to our destination. During the next fortnight we continued drifting slowly to the westward, passing within three miles of Cape Comfort, a bluff headland, rising about a thousand feet above the sea. Sept. 20.—We were seriously nipped by the ice; so much so as to start some of the ship’s fastenings. On the 22nd, being within twenty-five miles of the Duke of York’s Bay, we tried to cut through the ice, but found it impracticable, as it closed immediately. From this date, the ship was no longer under our own guidance; but, being closely beset, was carried to and fro according to the wind and tide. Sept. 26.—We were drifted into lat. 65° 48′, long. 83° 40′, our extreme western point, and ninety miles from Repulse Bay. Sept. 27. —A rush of ice from the eastward lifted the ship’s stern seven feet and a half out of the water: constant easterly winds. Oct. 9.—A clear channel in shore as far as Cape Bylot for the space of twelve hours, and again on the 27th; but we were so completely frozen up we could not take advantage of it, although to effect so important an object the ice-saws, axes, and every other implement, so liberally supplied by government, were put in requisition, and all the energies of both officers and crew were strained to the utmost, but in vain.

“Oct. 17.—The thermometer fell to 9° below Fahrenheit. In the beginning of November the ship was housed in, and every arrangement made for meeting the rigour of winter: snow walls were raised round the ship, and in this manner we drifted to and fro off the high land of Cape Comfort; at times carried so close to the rocks as to excite alarm for the safety of the ship.

“Dec. 21.—A furious gale from the westward drove us off shore fourteen miles to the eastward of Cape Comfort, from which point the coast not before laid down in our charts was surveyed, as we drifted to the south-eastward for the distance of about 120 miles, as far as Sea-horse Point, the eastern extremity of Southampton Island. The general character of the coast, barren hills and cliffs, varying from 750 to 1,000 feet above the sea.

“On Christmas-day the first symptoms of scurvy showed themselves, which gradually extended to all hands. At one time twenty-five men were suffering severely from it, but eventually only three persons fell victims to this dreadful disease, namely, the gunner and two seamen. In the beginning of January, during a calm, our floe of ice split with a fearful crash; and this was the commencement of a series of shocks that nothing but the great strength of the mass of timber and iron employed in fortifying the ship could have withstood; as it was, the vessel strained in every direction. Feb. 18.—Early in the morning (thermometer at 33° below zero) a disruption of the ice took place, and waves of ice thirty feet high were rolled towards the ship, which complained much; the decks were separated, the beams raised off the shelf-pieces, lashings and stores used for supporters gave way, iron bolts partially drawn, and the whole frame of the ship trembled so violently as to throw some of the men down. Yet this was not our worst disaster. On the 15th of March, while drifting to the south-eastward off a low point, since appropriately named Terror Point, a tremendous rush of ice from the north-west took the ship astern, and, although buried to the flukes of the anchor in a dock of ice, such was the pressure that she was forced upon it, and at the same time thrown over to starboard: the stern-post was carried away, and the stern lifted seven feet out of the water. The same night a second rush of ice tore up the remnants of our floe, and forced the ship on the ice, so that her forefoot was quite out of water; her sunken stern was threatened by an overhanging wave of ice, full thirty feet high, but which, providentially, stopped as it touched the quarter of the ship; the water poured in through the stern-frame, and the ship creaked and strained in every direction; provisions were got on deck, the boats lowered, and every preparation made for the worst extremity; and, in the darkness and silence of night, we calmly awaited the anticipated coming of another shock, which, to all human appearances, must have been the last.

“Heaven ordained it otherwise; and in this novel cradle of ice we were drifted without further injury to Sea-horse Point. The ice that bore us was ascertained to be seventy feet thick, and it was not until we had sawed through long lines of twenty-five feet thick, at a future day, that the ship was freed from this situation. The position of Sea-horse Point was determined to be 63° 43’ long. 80° 10’ west, variation 49° westerly; the lowest temperature was 53° below zero, when both mercury and brandy were frozen.

“On the 1st of May the ship, still on the ice, was drifted near Mill Island, thence to the Southward of Nottingham Island, between it and Cape Wolstenholme, a perpendicular cliff of 1,000 feet high, thence to the northward of Charles Island, which we reached on the 21st of June. The ice now showed symptoms of disruption, and we set all hands to work with a thirty-five foot ice-saw worked by shears; and on the 11th of July, having sawed to within three feet, the floe split in a fore and aft direction and liberated the larboard side; we immediately made sail on the ship, but found we could not extricate her from an iceberg between the fore and main chains, we again had recourse to saws and purchases, when the lump of ice still fast to the ship rose to the surface of the water, and threw the vessel on her beam ends, the water rushing in with frightful rapidity. All hands were instantly set to work again, and laboured day and night unremittingly at the fatiguing but indispensable operation of sawing, till, exhausted by their exertions, I was obliged to call them in from the ice for rest and refreshment. Not a quarter of an hour had elapsed from quitting the work when a sudden disruption of the ice took place, and the mass crashed with terrific violence against the ship’s side, snapping, apparently without effort, the lashings and spars that had been placed, fearing this occurrence; and but for the merciful interposition of Providence all would inevitably have been crushed by the mass of ice on which they had just been labouring.

“As the ice separated, the ship righted and drifted along. Finding it impossible to hang the old rudder, a spare one was fitted and sail made on the ship. It was an anxious moment as we waited to see if she would answer her helm; and as she bore up before the wind, with her head towards England, a cheer of gratitude burst from all on board.

“I had cherished, to the last moment, the hope that the damages sustained might not be so great as to prevent my pushing for Wager Inlet by Sir Thomas Roe’s Welcome, and there to beach the ship and repair damages, while some in boats carried into effect the object of our expedition; but when I found that she required two pumps constantly going to keep her free, that both outer and inner stern-posts were gone, the keel seriously damaged, besides various other casualties, I felt it became my duty, however reluctantly, to make the best of our way homewards. Fortunately, the early part of our passage across the Atlantic was favourable, but subsequently the weather became boisterous, and the ship’s leaks increased very much, so that we could barely keep her free with incessant pumping; to secure the ship also we were obliged to strap her together with the stream-chain cable.

“On the 6th of August we again passed through Hudson’s Straits, and on the 3rd of September arrived in Lough Swilly, not having let go our anchor since June, 1836.

“To speculate on what might have been the result of this expedition, had I reached either Repulse Bay or Wager river, would now be idle; but I cannot resist the opportunity of recording my unaltered opinion as to the practicability of the service when once a party should have reached either of the before-mentioned starting-places.

“The north-eastern shore of Southampton Island has been now surveyed for the first time by Lieut. Owen Stanley, who has also made various views of the coast, and a chart showing the track of the ship, the remarkable position in whichthe ship was placed among the ice, is admirably illustrated by Lieut. Smyth, in a series of spirited and characteristic drawings.

“I cannot conclude this brief account without bearing testimony to the great assistance I have invariably received from Lieut. Smyth, and all the officers and crew employed under my command in this expedition, to the cheerful obedience with which all orders were obeyed, and to the steadiness of behaviour evinced in circumstances of no common trial.

“I have the honour to be, &c.,
“George Back.”

“To Captain Washington, R.N., Secretary R.G.S.”

[1] See page 435 of our vol. for 1836, (vol. V. of former series,) in which appears a full account of the objects of this voyage.