The British and the Northwest Passage

As we discussed in class, the Franklin Expedition was sent on their harrowing and dangerous journey to discover a Northwest Passage through the arctic to the Pacific Ocean. In this era of exploration, the primary form of travel and trade was by ship. Air travel was far from being invented, and travel over land was slow and difficult. With their well-perfected ships and vast nautical experience, sea travel was natural and easy for the sailors aboard the HMS Erebus and Terror. However, like countless others before them, these sailors were not able to complete their mission, and in the end died trying to find this new trade route to the north of Canada. Finally giving up the dream of finding the Northwest passage after the loss of the Franklin Expedition, what took the British so many years of great human and financial loss to finally realize that finding the passage was too difficult with their limited technology? Why were they so fixated on finding it that they were wiling to risk hundreds of lives, again and again, in pursuit of this discovery?

The first ever voyage in search of the Northwest Passage was made in the 15th century by John and Sebastian Cabot who described that a passage through or around America would be necessary if the British wanted a short trade route to the Orient. Many British seamen sailed in search of the passage in the 16th century, for whom many sections of the arctic were named. More and more expeditions were sent there, including the Hudson expedition in the early 1600s, and each voyage discovered and mapped more of the arctic, but no explorer ever came close to sailing through the arctic to the Pacific. Expeditions continued through the 18th and 19th centuries, gradually moving farther and farther north into the arctic ice. All of these expeditions experienced some loss, whether only a few crewman died or entire ships sank and every member of the voyage perished. Nevertheless, the British continued their search.

It seems very illogical that the British would continue these voyages over such a long period of time with no conclusive results. As discussed in class, the difficulties the Franklin expedition’s crew faced with things like lead poisoning and sickness, must have been experienced by countless other voyages and crews. It is surprising that the British did not deem the voyages “not worth it” until the loss of the Franklin expedition. The seamen who faced these journeys firmly believed that the passage existed and that they were doing a great service to their country by completing such a harrowing task. It was pride in their country and their expertise in sailing that pushed the British onward into the arctic. Their efforts, though not actually discovering the Northwest Passage, gave the world valuable insight and maps of the arctic and northern North America.


I read more about the British Voyages in the Northwest Passage here:

One thought on “The British and the Northwest Passage

  1. I found the question of “why on earth would the British use so many resources in such a dangerous way?” to be extremely interesting as well! It’s fascinating to me because the British already had connections with the far east through the mainland and throughout Africa, so it seemed to me that it was kind of a bad idea to waste so much effort on something that would only be useable (if ever found) for a couple months of the year!

    I also think it’s fascinating because in only forty years, the British would move in to Africa and start colonizing (the Berlin Conference, where the European powers gathered to decide how they would split Africa between themselves, was in 1884 and 1885), giving them access to trade routes and resources that they never had before… but maybe it was partially their failure to find a Northwest Passage that inspired them to colonize Africa? Was it really that much shorter to find the Northwest Passage though- and with all the dangerous conditions, was it really worth it?

    It seems to me that, by the end, it was more a matter of pride than anything else. Finding the Northwest Passage would grant your country and your name a high level of prestige, even if the passage itself wasn’t going to be very useful. It feels like the British could have put their resources into something more useful though- as I’m sure that there were plenty of other social problems they could have been dealing with at the time!

Comments are closed.