British explorer Sir John Ross (1777-1856) joined the Royal Navy at the age of nine and spent much of the rest of his life at sea. In the early nineteenth century, he made three expeditions to the Arctic, looking for the Northwest Passage, exploring King William Island and the Boothia Peninsula, and searching for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin.
Ross was the fifth son of Andrew Ross and his wife, Elizabeth. He was born in Balsarroch, Wigtonshire in Scotland on June 24, 1777. While still a boy, he joined the crew of a ship called the Pearl and spent the next three years in the Mediterranean. In 1790 he sailed on the Impregnable, whose captain, Sir Thomas Byard, advised him to join the merchant marine. He did so and became an apprentice to Byard for four years, sailing to the West Indies and the Baltic. After that he sailed on a number of ships as midshipman or mate and in 1805 became a lieutenant. In 1809 he was made a Swedish knight for a brief period of service to the Swedish admiral.
Ross was a good navigator, skilled at surveying land, and the inventor of a new type of sextant known as the Royal William. A sextant is an instrument that measures angular distances and is often used by navigators to determine latitude and longitude. He was also a believer in phrenology, a popular pseudoscience of the time that deduced a person's character from the shape of the skull.
In 1812 he was promoted to a naval commander and took the helm of a series of ships in the Baltic, North Sea, and the White Sea. In January 1818 he was appointed commander of the ship Isabella, which joined with the ship Alexander, commanded by Lieutenant Edward Parry, to explore the Northwest Passage through Davis Strait.
In The Arctic Grail, Pierre Barton wrote, "This stocky, red-haired Scot … seemed the best choice for an Arctic adventure. Not yet forty-three, he had three decades of sea experience. He was undeniably brave, having been wounded no fewer than thirteen times in battle—'scarred from head to foot' in the words of a future polar explorer, Elisha Kane."
The two ships were merely refitted transports not specially built for the rigors of the Arctic. By mid-June they were in the Davis Strait between Baffin Island and Greenland, where the amazing extent and grandiosity of the world of ice astonished them. According to Barton, Ross wrote in his journal, "It is hardly possible to imagine anything more exquisite … by night as by day they glitter with a vividness of colour beyond the power of art to represent."
In early July, on the coast of Greenland, they met a group of native people who had never seen outsiders; even John Sacheuse, their native interpreter, had never heard of these people and could barely understand their dialect. These people had never seen boats or trees, and so they were baffled when Parry, trying to show peaceful intentions, sent out an officer carrying a flag with an olive branch on it. Ross, who was more practical, put up a flag on a pole and tied a bag of presents to it. The natives understood that as a gesture of peace. Communications were severely limited, and the Europeans, underestimating these seemingly naive people, never thought to learn some of their techniques for surviving in such difficult terrain.
The expedition eventually reached the top of Baffin Bay, where no Europeans had been for two centuries. Ross then sailed west to the southern tip of what is now known as Ellesmere Island, then went south, looking for a channel that might enter into the fabled Northwest Passage. At the end of August he found a long inlet that led to the west. This had been named Lancaster Sound, but no one knew whether it led to the Pacific Ocean.
After sailing thirty miles into the sound, Ross became convinced that it was a dead end. In fact, he thought he saw a mountain range in the distance, blocking all passage. He was the only one who saw the mountains, but he turned his ship around and headed back the way he had come with no explanation to Parry, who was enraged by his actions. Ross named the imaginary range the Croker Mountains and returned to England, claiming the range blocked the Northwest Passage. He was promoted to post rank in recognition of his discovery, and in 1819 he published his book, A Voyage of Discovery, Made Under the Orders of the Admiralty, in His Majesty's Ships Isabella and Alexander, for the Purpose of Exploring Baffin's Bay and Inquiring into the Probability of a North-West Passage, about the trip. In it, he claimed that in addition to the mountains, the passage had been completely choked by ice. This was a lie; Parry and others had not seen any ice. Barton noted, "It was almost as if the doughty seaman didn't believe in the existence of the North West Passage and had seized on the first opportunity to confirm that opinion"—whether it was true or not. Some members of the admiralty doubted the reality of the Croker Mountains, and they dispatched another expedition, under Parry's command, to verify Ross's claims. Meanwhile, the existence or nonexistence of the mountains became a public controversy, which was not put to rest until Parry returned in October 1820 with the news that Ross had been wrong.
Ross became a laughingstock and was deeply embarrassed. In some quarters, according to Barton, anyone who was excessively vain was said to be suffering from "Rossism." Anxious to clear his name and prove that he was still a good sailor, navigator, and observer despite the mistake, Ross asked for another commission, but did not get one until 1829, when he was given command of a small vessel. A friend named Felix Booth, who was the distiller and sheriff of London, sponsored a new Arctic voyage and contributed 7,000 pounds. Ross put up 3,000 pounds of his own money.
Once in the Arctic, Ross sailed through Lancaster Sound and then searched for a passage south from Prince Regent Inlet, but was stopped by ice and trapped until the summer of 1830. In that summer, he made a few miles south, but once again became stuck in the ice until May 1832, when he and his men abandoned the ship and spent a fourth winter on Fury Beach, in a hut built from the remnants of a wrecked ship named the Fury, previously under Parry's command; they survived on provisions left by Parry.
The greatest hazards of this voyage were the boredom and depression endured by the men during the long immobile periods. Parry knew that these could easily lead to friction, fights, and mutiny, and made sure that his ships had music, sports, and other entertainment. Ross was not as lighthearted. William Light, a steward on the expedition, published his reminiscence of the voyage, and, according to Barton, summed up Ross as "a haughty, unsociable, and almost hermit-like officer who treated his men with iron authority but little compassion and kept to his cabin, sustaining himself on his sponsor's gin." He was the oldest man on the ship and came from a different era. In addition, his stubborn insistence that he was always right led to difficulty when he was wrong. However, his nephew, James Clark Ross, who was a member of the crew, was far more energetic and enthusiastic and actually made most of the expedition's notable discoveries.
Boredom was alleviated by the native people, who visited the Europeans in the winter. The sailors taught them to play leapfrog and soccer and in return learned how to survive through the winter. However, Ross continued to view them as barbarians and, once he had pumped them for information about the geography of the surrounding land and water, refused to allow them on the ship, even though they were unfailingly generous with their homes and personal possessions.
During this difficult voyage, Ross and his men were able to map the peninsula now known as Boothia, as well as the Gulf of Boothia. In addition, James Clark Ross was able to map the precise location of the magnetic North Pole.
In the summer of 1833 they were able to reach Ross's old ship, the Isabella, in Lancaster Sound, and they returned to England in October. As a result of his achievements, Ross was knighted in 1834 and received gold medals from the Geographical Societies of London and Paris. In 1835 he published a book about the expedition, Narrative of a Second Voyage in Search of a North-West Passage, and of a Residence in the Arctic Regions During the Years 1829-1833, with Appendix.
Ross served as consul to Stockholm from 1839 to 1846. In 1845 another expedition was preparing to leave for the Arctic, under the command of Sir John Franklin, and Ross's advice was snubbed. In addition, Sir John Barrow, another explorer, wrote a bitter attack on Ross, and the community of Arctic explorers, including Ross's nephew, sided with Barrow. Ross replied by writing a vitriolic pamphlet defending himself, and when Franklin's expedition did not return at the planned time, Ross urged the admiralty to send out a rescue ship with him in command. The admiralty, as well as the other explorers, replied that it was too early to send out a rescue expedition. Ross was probably too old to be captain of such an expedition, but he attributed the rejection to Barrow's influence.
Ross wrote another pamphlet presenting his theories about why the admiralty had refused to allow a rescue expedition, but his arguments were marred by his obvious personal anger toward Barrow and some members of the admiralty. By 1849, he had gathered enough money from Felix Booth, the Hudson's Bay Company, and other donations to finance a small ship, the Felix, which he sailed to Lancaster Sound. In the end, however, it turned out that no one had seen Franklin or any of his men after 1845; no one knows how they died, and their bodies were never found.
Ross died in London on August 30, 1856. During his life he had married twice, and he had one son, who was a civil servant in the East India Company. His nephew, James Clark Ross, became a famed and much more successful explorer of the Antarctic.
Barton, Pierre, Arctic Grail, Viking, 1988.
Dictionary of National Biography, Earliest Times to 1900, edited by Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, Oxford University Press, 1949-1950.
Langnas, I. A., Dictionary of Discoveries, Philosophical Library, 1959.
Ruby, Robert, Unknown Shore, Henry Holt & Co., 2001.
Wright, Noel, Quest for Franklin, Heinemann, 1959.