The Royal Navy, Ruler of the Seas

Arctic Exploration

Renewed Search for the Northwest Passage

Another facet of Royal Navy activities during the long period of peace in the first half of the nineteenth century took place in the Arctic, with a renewed interest in discovering a Northwest Passage and in making reliable maps.

In 1818 an initial expedition, led by Captain John Ross, explored the coast of Baffin Island. The following year Lieutenant William Edward Parry, commanding the HMS Hecla and the HMS Griper, sailed westward into the Arctic Ocean with two objectives in mind: to go as far west as possible beyond Lancaster Sound and to spend the winter in the Arctic. The latter objective was unprecedented. Parry's expedition had gone some 1,300 kilometres into the Sound and lay between Banks Island and Melville Island when the two ships were locked into the ice in October 1819. Temporary roofs were built on the bridges, and the interiors of the ships were heated by a kind of central heating system, the pipes generating heat from the kitchen ovens. Ten months later they were able to free themselves, and the members of the expedition were given a triumphant welcome when they returned to England; they were even awarded £5,000 for having reached 110° longitude west. Parry had failed by only a small margin. The Beaufort Sea and the Pacific Ocean lay west of Melville Island, but no one knew it yet.