Rear-Admiral Sir John Ross, naval officer, polar explorer and author, died on the 30th of August, 1856.
Sir John Ross got some ‘bad press’ during his lifetime and, like many famous men of yesteryear, has suffered from successive interpretations of his life and career by later historians, each with his own motives or perspective. The facts are that Ross was not a superhero, but neither was he a duffer or a wimp. He had an exemplary early career in the Royal Navy, which many seem to overlook, and he was entitled to his self belief. Ross was a good navigator who was skilled at surveying land and he was also the inventor of a new type of sextant, known as the Royal William. He did not discover the Magnetic North Pole as that honour and achievement was gained by his nephew, James Clark Ross. However, in truth, had it not been for Sir John Ross’ vision and determination, his nephew would not have been on that voyage in the Arctic and given the opportunity to make his discovery.
Ross’ reputation was tarnished after he returned from the first of his three Arctic voyages. His unfortunate and erroneous conclusions that various ‘Sounds’ were all closed in by land were criticised and, to make matters worse, he insisted he had seen a mountain range, which he named Croker’s Mountains. Unfortunately, that had been a mirage, which only he had seen. His detractors should have suggested they be called ‘Choker’s Mountains’, because his other mistake, viewed in hindsight, was that after having led that expedition into Lancaster Sound from Baffin Bay, he inexplicably turned back. Certainly, Ross’s instructions were to attempt to find an open passage round the northeast corner of North America and to proceed westward to the Pacific through Bering Strait. He was also told to collect natural history specimens, and to make observations on ice conditions and magnetism. In the end, he got as far as he could and reached waters that no other European had visited since William Baffin and Robert Bylot in 1616. It is reasonable to argue that he turned back because of the lateness of the season. He was criticised for not persevering by John Barrow, Second Secretary of the Admiralty, who might have been peeved at his name not having been given to the mysterious mountains, and by one of his men, Lieutenant (later Sir) William Edward Parry. Parry deserves credit for a subsequent voyage, which proved that Lancaster Sound did lead west, however, his record as an explorer wasn’t exemplary. Parry’s shipwreck on North Somerset Island benefitted Ross on his second voyage, when he managed to reach land two hundred and fifty miles farther than his critical subordinate, by providing a source of much needed supplies. I wonder how vocal Barrow and Parry would have been had Ross’s expedition suffered the same fate as the 1845 expedition of the tragic Captain Sir John Franklin.
Ross was a visionary ahead of his time in recognising the potential of steam in warships and, in 1828, he had published ‘A treatise on navigation by steam’. He had urged the Admiralty to send a steam vessel on an Arctic voyage, but there was a great prejudice against steam in the Royal Navy and so Ross persuaded Sir Felix Booth, of Booth’s Gin fame, to sponsor his second Arctic expedition. That private voyage was made in a rickety, three-masted, steam-driven side-wheeler out of Liverpool called the ‘Victory’, during which he discovered Boothia Peninsula, the Gulf of Boothia, and King William Island. Ross surely redeemed his reputation during that second voyage, made between 1829 and 1833, yet the detractors seem reluctant to grant him credit. Those gainsayers focus on his personality traits and attitude towards his men, and to the native Inuits his expedition encountered on its travels. However, none of those opinions are given with any attention paid to the motives of the men making the comments that are quoted in support of the allegations. In contrast to the ghost-written reminiscences of a Steward, William Light, who described Ross as “haughty, unsociable, and almost hermit-like” and “[who] treated his men with iron authority but little compassion,” Ross kept his men occupied by giving lectures and teaching lessons. And despite viewing them as barbarians, Ross did encourage contact with the Inuit, whom he named ‘Arctic Highlanders’ and from whom his men learned to build the sledges that his nephew used to reach the Magnetic Pole.
One interesting fact from his first voyage was that Ross disproved the existence of the ‘Sunken land of Buss’. When his ships passed over its supposed location, charted since 1578, he found no bottom at 180 fathoms. The many geographical and scientific contributions made during his second trip are generally attributed to his nephew, but that is to ignore who led the expedition. Nevertheless, the very survival of his second mission was a considerable achievement. Ross was thought to have perished, but his company, which spent four winters in the Arctic, had established an impressive record for survival. Ross brought his men though with very few losses, certainly compared to other such voyages. In contrast with Franklin, throughout the entire four years of polar exploration in the Arctic, one man lost his sight and just three crew members died. On the 24th of December, 1834, Ross was given the recognition he felt he deserved when he was knighted.
John Ross was born in Balsarroch House, near Stranraer on the 24th of June, 1777. On the 11th of November, 1786, at the age of nine, he joined the Royal Navy. He fought during the Napoleonic wars and by 1816, at the age of thirty-nine, Ross had been at sea almost constantly for thirty years. On Ross having been chosen to lead the 1818 Royal Society supported expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, Pierre Barton (Breton) wrote in ‘The Arctic Grail’, his history of polar explorers, that “This stocky, red-haired Scot … seemed the best choice for an Arctic adventure.” Ross, whom the future polar explorer, Elisha Kane, described as being “scarred from head to foot” was undeniably brave, having been wounded no fewer than thirteen times in battle. At the age of seventy-two, Ross made his third voyage into Arctic waters on a Hudson’s Bay Company sponsored expedition in search of Franklin, who by that time had been gone for five years. Ross died in London on the 30th of August, 1856 and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.
Of the grandeur of the world of ice, Ross once 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.”