HL Deb 18 July 1856 vol 143 cc1008-13

said, that the noble Earl (the Earl of Ellesmere) who had given notice of the question he (Lord Wrottesley) was about to put to Her Majesty's Government, was, unfortunately, obliged to absent himself through illness, and he had delegated his task to him. He had, therefore, to inquire whether Her Majesty's Government had returned an answer to a memorial relative to a further Arctic Expedition? He trusted he might be allowed to accompany this question with some remarks explanatory of the position in which the whole matter now stood, the rather that much misconception prevailed upon the subject. The tale of Arctic search and Arctic suffering was indeed a melancholy one, and awakened so many sad and painful recollections, that he greatly feared, lest in his sympathy for the sufferers he might exaggerate the merits of the case he had undertaken to plead. He should much regret such a result, for he was well aware that in taking this course he was incurring a grave responsibility. Through eight long dreary years the relatives and friends of those gallant men who had served their country only too well anxiously awaited, and awaited in vain, some tidings of their fate. During the first part of that distressing period, they expected with each returning summer or autumn to welcome those adventurous seamen returning home in triumph from a successful enterprise, crowned with civic laurels, and about to reap the well earned reward of their meritorious exertions. During the latter part of that period they hoped to receive some intelligence which might enlighten them as to the manner and the circumstances under which the little band of heroes had breathed their last—perhaps after much suffering removed, very far removed, from their cherished homes. Those who had experienced the misery of thus losing those who were near and dear to them in foreign lands, where the details of the calamity were necessarily imperfectly known, would remember how anxiously we desired to know all the particulars of the mournful event—the how, the when, and the where—each additional fact when learnt, added acutely to the sorrow; and yet there was a continual craving to know more and more; a thirst that could not be allayed. But in the case to which he alluded, to fill up the measure of sorrow, we had to add the agonies of suspense, since every day, every hour of each returning year might bring complete relief, or a confirmation of the worst anticipations. At last, in 1855, the crisis of the fate of these mariners arrived, and a cruel revelation was made, the particulars of which he should shortly detail:—Their Lordships were aware that, commencing with the year 1848, several expeditions, both by land and sea, were, with laudable zeal, sent out by the Admiralty, and even by our brothers on the other side of the Atlantic, to endeavour to ascertain the fate of Franklin and his companions. He would not weary their Lordships with the details of these exploits anterior to 1854; suffice it to say that, by some cruel fatality, they seemed all to have proceeded in every direction but the right one. Nothing was ascertained beyond the discovery, in 1851, of the graves on Beechy Island, the only effect of which was to send one of the best-appointed expeditions that ever left our shores in a wrong direction—to the north instead of to the south. He now came to the eventful year 1854; but before detailing the transactions of that year it was necessary, in order that their Lordships might comprehend his description of them and his comments upon them, that he should explain a few particulars relative to the configuration of the north coast of America. Three great rivers fell into the Polar Sea, flowing from the south. The Mackenzie River was that most to the west, the Coppermine River occupied the centre place, and the Great Fish, or Back River (the mouth of which was the scene of the events he was about to describe), flowing towards the northeast, occupied the most eastern position of the three. The general trending of the north coast of America was west and east, but opposite to the Coppermine River was situate, separated from the main by a narrow strait, a vast island extending through twenty degrees of longitude; similarly, opposite to the mouth of Back River, there was on the west a comparatively small island, very imperfectly explored, called King William's Land, and on the east there was a long tract of land consisting of a peninsula to the south and an island to the north. The peninsula and island were divided by a narrow strait, called after the gallant Frenchman who perished—Bellot's Strait. The peninsula was called Boothia, and the island was called North Somerset. Now, on each side of this long peninsula—and he begged their Lordships particularly to attend to this—there were two magnificent inlets or arms of the sea, running from north to south from Barrow's Strait; that to the west was called Peel Sound, and debouched on the south into Victoria Strait, at the southern extremity of which lay King William's Land and the estuary of the Back River; that to the east was called Prince Regent's Inlet, and it terminated in Boothia Gulf. In the year 1854, the Hudson's Bay Company sent Dr. Rae, one of their most intelligent and adventurous Arctic travellers to explore the west coast of Boothia Peninsula. When he arrived in Pelly Bay, which was near the bottom of Boothia Gulf, he obtained from various Esquimaux, whom he encountered there, certain particulars relative to the fate of Franklin and his companions. The story was to the effect that about 1850 a party of about forty gaunt and starving men ware seen dragging a boat over the ice to the north of King William's Land; that they went down the west coast of that island, and afterwards perished near a great river. Now, had not this story been confirmed by the circumstance that these Esquimaux were in possession of various relics of the expedition, which Dr. Rae brought home, it would have been placed, as it well deserved to have been placed, on a par with various other falsehoods told by these Esquimaux during the progress of this search. Not any one of these Esquimaux who told the story had seen any of the forty men. Dr. Rae was at one time within fifty miles of the scene of the alleged catastrophe; but being, as he states, then uninformed as to the precise locality, unhappily returned home without visiting it. Neither the Government nor public were satisfied, and it was an important point in the case that they were not satisfied. Another land expedition went out in 1855 under Anderson; they descended the Back River, but they could obtain no interpreter; they were only provided with birch-bark canoes, too frail to live in the open sea; and they were supported by no ship laden with supplies and able to overawe the natives. They returned with more relies, but with no additional information of importance, except that these forty men, with a large boat, had actually arrived within the estuary of the Back River and perished there. Such was the present state of the question, and since that time the Admiralty had been in vain importuned to finish the good work they had begun. Another expedition was advocated, upon arguments which seemed unanswerable to himself and others. It was said that the clue was now found of which we had been so long in search; that the danger was now slight, because the area of research was limited to a comparatively small district, situate between the 68th and 72nd degrees of parallel of latitude, and the meridians of 95 and 100 degrees west, a region almost wholly unexplored; that even now, late as it was, a ship might be got ready by the middle of August, which might be directed to enter either Peel Sound or Prince Regent's Inlet, according as the one or the other was most free from ice; and after she had penetrated as far south as possible, walking parties might be detached from her to the scene of the catastrophe, distant probably about 400 miles (and walks of 1,200 miles had been made); or that if the approach from the west was preferred, Captain Collinson had undertaken to take a ship within 150 miles of the spot by that route. It had been shown that only forty men out of 135 had been accounted for; that as the settlements of the Esquimaux were certainly reached, as evidenced by their possession of the relics, some of the men so unaccounted for might yet be living domesticated among these tribes; that nothing had been found but a few forks and spoons and other trifles; that the boat party had not been traced back to the ships; that the ships had not been found; that they remained possibly intact, frozen up and abandoned near King William's Land; but that, even if broken up, inasmuch as, by the invariable practice of Arctic voyagers, journals and scientific records were kept carefully in tin cases, at least some portion of these might be discovered. It was a great mistake to suppose that the interests of science were in no way concerned in sending out another expedition. In the first place, the scene of the catastrophe had been scarcely at all explored; and, in the next place, it was a great object to recover the magnetical records—for magnetical observations made within the Arctic and Antarctic circles were peculiarly valuable in reference to the theory of magnetism. Now, as a very perfect set of magnetical instruments was supplied to Sir John Franklin's expedition, and they were consigned to the charge of officers of high scientific attainments, who received a special training in their use, the observations made were likely to be very valuable. Then, supposing such an expedition on other grounds to be deemed expedient, what an opportunity it offered to some of those gallant members of the naval profession who had been thrown out of employment by the peace, and were disappointed that the war had yielded such few opportunities of distinction. In conclusion, the noble Lord said that a further expedition was recommended in a temperate memorial, signed by influential and well-informed men of almost every grade and profession, and advocated by distinguished Arctic navigators, who supported their opinions by facts and reasonings which carried conviction home to the minds of men accustomed to estimate the bearings of doubtful evidence—that such an expedition would furnish employment for gallant officers; that it might lead to the recovery of lost scientific records of great value; that it might gratify the longings of attached and mourning relatives, and especially of a widowed lady who had made great sacrifices on behalf of her heroic and lamented husband; and, above all, that it would carry out to its legitimate solution an important problem in which the honour of England was largely concerned, and which had excited the curiosity and interest of the whole civilised world.


said, although nothing was more natural than that such should be the strong desire of the friends of all engaged in the expedition, which reflected so much honour upon those of whom it was composed, and upon the English name, and also of persons interested in the scientific results which might be expected from the recovery of the documents supposed to have been left by that expedition, yet other considerations must be taken into account before another Arctic expedition was despatched. His right hon. Friend at the head of the Admiralty was of opinion, that, at all events, it was much too late to entertain hopes of organising an expedition this season with any chance of success. His right hon. Friend was, however, fully disposed to take into his most serious consideration in the recess whether it was desirable that any further expedition should be sent out. But he (Lord Stanley) would submit to the noble Lord whether they ought to incur the responsibility of risking the lives of brave men for such an object. As long as any hopes remained of rescuing our brave countrymen from those inhospitable regions many strong reasons might be urged for fitting out another expedition; but when the only object was the obtaining further details of the fate of these unfortunate men and some further scientific information, it was matter for grave consideration before the Government undertook such a responsibility.