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James Ross made great Antarctic voyages of discovery

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, History, Ships on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about Antarctic exploration first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Ross claims the Antarctic,  picture, image, illustration

James Clark Ross planting the Union Jack into the Antarctic ice in 1840 in the name of Queen Victoria and the British Empire, by Graham Coton

The sudden reports that shattered the silence of the Antarctic twilight sounded like shots fired from a gigantic pistol and the men aboard the great sailing ship knew that this was the beginning of the end. After running in front of a violent storm and being driven off course by the never-ending westerly gale, they had been blown further and further south through fog and waters clogged with floating ice. Without their being able to stop it, the cold, clammy hand of Antarctica had reached out and they were imprisoned in a monstrous sea of pack ice.

As the giant grip of the ice closed in, timbers snapped like matchsticks. In temperature well below freezing men worked desperately for hours, then days at the hand pumps, trying to keep the water level down. With the galley flooded and neither hot food nor drink to sustain them, seamen fell down exhausted caring little if they died of exposure. Then, as if laughing at their puny efforts, the ice moved in again and the sounds which broke the silence meant that the vice was finally tightened.

Within minutes it was clear that all their efforts were in vain. More timbers had been shattered and the great ship began to list. At last the Captain had to concede defeat and soon afterwards men, looking like black ants against the immensity of the landscape around them, were dragging lifeboats, stores, and tarpaulins on to the ice. There they took what shelter they could and watched grimly as the ice crushed their ship out of existence.

Each man knew that death from exposure was now only days away. For this was 1820 when no one but the hardiest of seal hunters ventured into Antarctic waters. With their ship, the “Lady Trowbridge” gone they were left alone on one of the largest blank areas on the map of the world. The highest, coldest, windiest and most fearful of all the earth’s continents had claimed yet more victims in the chill reign of terror which it had waged on unwary seafarers and explorers who dared to try and unlock its secrets.

* * *

At the other end of the world a young man of 20 was thinking about the mysteries which the Antarctic still held at much the same time as the “Lady Trowbridge” sank into an icy grave. James Clark Ross was no stranger to the cold ends of the earth and despite his youth this was his second major voyage to the Arctic. He strode up and down the deck watching the snow freezing to rigging and sails as they edged cautiously north, thinking less of this expedition than another which he secretly hoped would be his in later years.

Many explorers of half a dozen nations had penetrated deep into the Arctic and although there was still much to be done a good part of that map had been completed. But below 66 degrees south, into the great Antarctic sea few had ventured and fewer returned. Captain James Cook had probably been the first man to cross the Antarctic Circle on purpose (others, like the “Lady Trowbridge” had been blown there involuntarily). But Cook had taken a cursory look at the bleak, forbidding continent and been thankful to return, saying that it was of no use to anyone.

Now, increasingly, sealers and others were visiting the shores of the continent and Ross was impatient to meet the challenge that this vast, untamed land still presented. He was certainly equipping himself well to do so. He was born in London in 1800, the nephew of Sir John Ross (himself a Polar explorer) and it was to his uncle that his family entrusted him when, at the age of 12, he entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman.

The shy boy of 12 soon found that the hardships and dangers had to be faced, despite his uncle’s protection and interest. For two pounds five shillings a month he would learn, as a trainee officer, the arts of seamanship and navigation but would also share the harsh discipline, the uncomfortable quarters and the incredibly bad food which were also the hallmarks of life in the Royal Navy. As a fellow midshipman wrote:

“We live on beef which has been ten or eleven years in the cask and on biscuit which makes your throat cold in eating it owing to the maggots which are very cold when you eat them! We drink wine which is exactly like bullocks’ blood and sawdust mixed together.”

James was 18 when he made his first Arctic voyage and by this time the transformation was complete. A tall, assured young man, skilled at his craft and sure of the respect of his seamen, he was now more than ready for anything that the Lords of the Admiralty cared to ask of him.

There followed long years of preparation. More trips to the Arctic, magnetic surveys there and in Britain and then, finally, in 1839 his ambition was realised. He was chosen to command two ships on a comprehensive exploration of the Antarctic; to map and chart the land he saw and to locate, if possible, the position of the South Magnetic Pole. It was the start of a four-year voyage which ranks as one of the greatest in the history of the white South.

It is difficult, even now, to appreciate the immensity of his task. The Antarctic seas are notoriously the stormiest in the world and with nothing to break the force of the persistent west winds they had guarded the continent well. The sheer size of the land mass was not yet known, nor was the mass of snow and ice which permanently covers it. Antarctica has nine times as much snow and ice as the rest of the world put together and its glaciers have more water locked up in them than exists at present in all the rivers and lakes in the world. Into this wilderness, larger than the USA and Mexico combined James Ross proposed to venture.

He was well equipped for the voyage and his ships, the “Erebus” (370 tons) and “Terror” (340 tons) had been specially strengthened for the pressures in store. The expedition went first to Hobart, in Tasmania and there took on supplies while Ross checked and double checked to assure himself that nothing had been overlooked before they faced the dangers ahead.

By Christmas 1840 they had survived the fog and the storms and were cautiously edging through the pack ice in an attempt to penetrate further south than any man had gone before. Even in this Antarctic summer the huge icebergs towered above the masts of the little ships and they seemed at times to be looking for cracks in a gigantic cliff of ice. At last, on January 10, 1841 a cry of triumph from the lookout told Ross that they had penetrated the ice and reached the clear water beyond.

Soon afterwards they sighted land, and a bleak inhospitable land it was, too. Towering mountains above a snow covered shore, but still Ross claimed it for Britain and named it Victoria Land. He also discovered two volcanic islands and named them after his ships. (Mount Erebus is still the only known, continually active volcano in Antarctica.)

Still they pressed on and soon they reached 78 degrees 10′ south – by far the farthest point south that man had reached. It was as far as they could go, however. Blocking their progress was a huge ice shelf, a unique, “floating” mass of ice held fast to the continent by glaciers. A huge area the size of France, and with the ice anything from 50′ to 200′ high, it now forms the easiest access to the South Pole, just 300 miles away.

It was important to find somewhere to shelter with the Antarctic winter now on its way. Ross searched and searched but found no haven in this bleak land so he returned to New Zealand. The next year he was back and there followed two years of careful exploration and charting as he edged round the continent to Graham Land. On the return journey to Britain, Ross tried to find Bouvet Island – the loneliest patch of land in the world – but as with so many attempts to locate it, the wild Atlantic kept its secret.

The results of Ross’s four year journey were spectacular in terms of our knowledge of the Antarctic. He left his mark and modern maps acknowledge his skill and bravery. The Ross Ice Shelf, the Ross Sea, and Ross Island all exist as monuments to this first great voyage of discovery within the Antarctic Circle. Later explorers who named these places well knew the debt they owed Ross, and his voyage helped to pave the way for others to reach the last great goal. The “Erebus” and “Terror” went on to become the ships used by Sir John Franklin in his ill-fated expedition to find the North-West Passage. But the record established by Ross in his journey south was to last another 58 years until the big drive to reach the South Pole began.

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