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Subject: ‘Geography’

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The completed survey of India owed much to Roderick Macdonald

Posted in Geography, Historical articles, History on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about India first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 584 published on 24 March 1973.

Map of India,  picture, image, illustration
Map of India

It loomed over them, a great altar crowned with blue fire. Halfway up the slope they hesitated, as they had hesitated many times since they had set out. But their leader urged them on. If the Power was to be overthrown, it must be tonight: they would never again muster the courage to try; they clambered on up the stony slope, groping in the dark for foot- and handholds, fearful lest a cascade of rattling stones would record their presence.

When they reached the summit they huddled behind a rock until a cloud obscured the moon. Then they rushed forward. Some pulled down the loose blocks of masonry, others hewed at the wooden superstructure. The altar began to disintegrate and at last the blue flame crashed to the ground, flickered and went out. They looked in awe at their handiwork until their leader shouldered his pick and led them home, noisily confident that at last their crops would grow.

Twenty miles away, a junior assistant of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India looked up from his theodolite and rubbed his eyes. The Gwalee landmark, a blue light on a high platform, which had been in his sights a moment ago, had vanished. He ran to tell his superior, Roderick Macdonald.

Early in the 19th century, when British rule in India was secure, a scheme was introduced for mapping the entire country. This was the Great Trigonometrical Survey. In addition to providing the first accurate maps of vast tracts of land, it contributed essential information to the geodetic survey of the earth, that is, the measurement of the slope and dimensions of the planet. The survey owed much to George Everest, who became surveyor-general in India in 1830 and who insisted that the work should be carried out by the most accurate and advanced methods.

Everest’s men worked on the system known as triangulation, later used by the Ordnance Survey in Britain. It was based on the facts, which any schoolboy knows, that a triangle has six parts, three sides and three angles; and given any three of these including one side, the remaining parts can be calculated without measurement. The surveyors covered India with land-marks on a pattern of triangles; sometimes they used piles of stones, sometimes brick and timber platforms supporting blue reflecter lamps. They took their readings with theodolites and perambulators. All over India, on the plains, deep in the jungle and high on the mountain ranges, small groups of men measured and calculated and charted.

One of these men was Roderick Macdonald. In November, 1832, he had been sent from Calcutta to a remote area in the north of India with two assistants and some Indian helpers known as flag-men. Macdonald was a sick man when he started; the Indian climate had sapped his strength and his eyes were failing. But he was a dour, patient Scot and, despite his sickness, he steadily pushed forward the work in his section. Until he encountered the villagers of Gwalee.

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Tenzing became the world’s most famous mountain porter

Posted in Adventure, Famous news stories, Geography, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about Tenzing Norkay first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 578 published on 10 February 1973.

Tenzing and Hillary,  picture, image, illustration
Tenzing and Hillary on top of Everest

Tenzing Norkay, a Sherpa tribesman of Nepal, was thirteen years old when he first ran away from his home two miles up in the Himalayan mountains. He was tired of tending his peasant father’s flock of goats and yaks. Although he could neither read nor write, he was determined to go to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, where he hoped to be taken on as a mountain porter.

The young Sherpa was used to climbing the hills near his parents’ small stone house, but he had no idea that the journey to Kathmandu would prove so arduous. There were no roads linking Norkay’s village of Thami with the rest of the country, and not even the hardiest of mountain mules could negotiate the jagged rocks and swift-flowing rivers. Travellers to and from Thami had to walk for two weeks through the mountains. They crossed the rivers by bridges made of chains and rope, and there was the danger that they might lose their way and never be seen again.

Despite these hazards, the runaway managed to reach the capital, but when he got there his hopes of becoming a porter were crushed because of a misunderstanding.

For years, Norkay – who was born in 1914 – had listened to the older sherpas’ stories of the attempts by Europeans to climb nearby Mount Everest. The Sherpa tribesmen are acknowledged as the world’s finest mountain porters, and their services were used on the three unsuccessful British expeditions made in the 1920s.

In his innocence, Norkay had imagined that these expeditions started from Kathmandu, and he was dismayed to learn that the mountaineers all made their headquarters at Darjeeling, the hill-resort over the border, in India. Sadly disappointed, he returned to his father’s house.

Five years later, in 1932, Norkay again said goodbye to his parents and his many brothers and sisters. He had no money, and owned nothing except a single blanket and the clothes he stood up in. This time he was bound for Darjeeling, and he vowed that he would not return home until he had become a porter.

But once more his plans were thwarted. On reaching Darjeeling, he found the town crowded out with would-be porters. He was forced to take a job on an outlying farm, where he resumed his old work as a shepherd.

To make matters worse, the Indian boys laughed at the pigtail he wore. It was a Sherpa tradition to sport a pigtail, but in spite of this Norkay had his hair cut short.

At the time this seemed to be a good idea – but a few months later, he bitterly regretted his action. When he applied to the English mountaineer Hugh Ruttledge, who would only employ Sherpas, Mr Ruttledge took him to be an Indian and refused him a job.

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Britain’s tiny foothold in the Latin stronghold of South America

Posted in Geography, Historical articles, History, Trade on Monday, 17 February 2014

This edited article about South America first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 555 published on 2 September 1972.

Georgetown in Demerara,  picture, image, illustration
The "Public Buildings", Georgetown, Demerara, British Guiana

Although Britain governed practically all the North American continent at one time, she never gained more than a foothold in the South. South America was the prized possession of Spain and Portugal, whose languages, religion and customs took such deep root there that even today, the whole continent, from Mexico to Cape Horn, is usually referred to as “Latin” America, because the Latin language is the basis of those spoken by the Spanish and Portuguese.

Three European countries harassed the Portuguese and Spanish in their occupation of South America, but the raiders were rewarded only with three meagre slices of neighbouring territory between Brazil and the Caribbean sea. The countries were Britain, France and Holland, who founded the colonies of British, French and Dutch Guiana. From these, only Britain has completely withdrawn, leaving Guyana, as it is now called, as a self-governing member of the Commonwealth. The parts colonised by the French and Dutch are still closely linked to their mother-countries, and depend heavily on them for the way in which they are run. But the strange thing is that the part which is today under Dutch influence was first colonised by the British, while that formerly ruled by the British was at first a Dutch settlement!

It was in 1630 that the first British settlers landed there, and in the next 30 years they set up about 50 “plantations” or settlements for the growing of sugar and maize. But the war which was being waged so hotly between the British and the Dutch in the North Sea and the Channel spread even to these distant parts, and in 1667 the Dutch landed in the capital, Paramaribo, and claimed the country for themselves, naming it Surinam.

This capture was, however, a poor exchange for New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island, which the British had seized from the Dutch in 1664. Today scarcely anyone has heard of Paramaribo, but the city which the British captured has become one of the largest and most prosperous in the world. They gave it a new name, by which it is still known – New York! The Dutch gave the name of New Amsterdam to a small settlement in Surinam, which still exists.

With the Dutch in control, many settlers of British origin left Surinam, and went to Trinidad or other islands of the West Indies. But they were always ready to return and take a hand in Surinam’s affairs, and when the Dutch were faced with a large-scale revolt of slaves, between 1772 and 1777, it was a British Officer, Captain Stedman, who led the forces which crushed it.

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Edward Eyre – the overlander who helped map a continent

Posted in Australia, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, History, Travel on Friday, 31 January 2014

This edited article about Australia first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 535 published on 15 April 1972.

Edward Eyre,  picture, image, illustration
Edward Eyre and his aboriginal companion by Ron Embleton

Edward Eyre lay back in his tent and forced his tired brain to think back over his expedition which was fast becoming a disaster. Where had he gone wrong? There had to be a route between South Australia and the rich, virgin pastureland in the west. Rumours abounded of the fortunes that could be made by stock farmers but none of these dreams would come true unless a way could be found of driving the animals there. He had started from Adelaide in June 1840, determined to push inland, then strike due west.

The choice of route was a disaster. Forcing their way inland Eyre, his overseer and their three aboriginal guides came to the area now known as Lake Torrens. At that time, anything less like a lake would have been difficult to imagine. Flat desolate countryside with a curious dried crust that was firm enough for a man to walk on but which was treacherous for the horses. In less than a minute the horses had sunk over their knees in hot, salt mud. As they struggled, so they sank further until it seemed as if they must drown in the quagmire. Eyre and his companions eventually managed to calm the animals but it was hours before they could be half-dragged out of the mud. Heads, backs, saddles were covered with blue mud, their eyes and mouths filled with salt and mud also. Baffled, Eyre looked for an alternative route and then started a sorrowful retreat.

The “straight” route was just not possible then, with bogs, waterless deserts, and fierce aboriginals waiting for the unwary traveller. Eyre decided that following the coastline was the only feasible way across and his disconsolate party re-traced their steps and started the long drag round the Great Australian Bight. Not only was this uninhabited country but it was and still remains, one of the most desolate areas in the world.

They were still engaged in crossing the Great Nullarbor Plain – a 400 mile stretch of land that is treeless, waterless and so level that the railway which now crosses it has the longest straight track in the world – 300 miles. Edward Eyre was uncomfortably aware that there was just as bad country to cross, but at this stage he was too exhausted to worry about the following day. He slipped quietly into sleep until suddenly the absolute peace of the outback was spectacularly shattered.

Shouts, oaths, pistol shots and the frightened cries of the horses were rising to a crescendo as Eyre crawled to the door of the tent. Then . . . nothing but the sound of horses’ hooves. Eyre found his overseer murdered and two of his aboriginals gone. Most of his supplies had disappeared too, and somewhere in the night were two frightened, angry natives who now had an interest in seeing that Eyre did not reach safety. To go on was now doubly dangerous; to stay suicidal. But to go back was unthinkable. He crawled back into the tent and postponed all his decisions to the morrow.

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The Red Army attacked Berlin with ruthless force

Posted in Communism, Famous battles, Famous landmarks, Geography, Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Friday, 31 January 2014

This edited article about Berlin first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 535 published on 15 April 1972.

Russians attack Berlin,  picture, image, illustration
The Russian assault on Berlin towards the end of World War Two by Severino Baraldi

Day after day, night after night the battle raged, closer and closer to the heart of the great, war-torn city. It was the deadliest kind of fighting, from one ruined street to another, from one shattered house to the next, with always the danger of booby-traps, or of coming face to face with the enemy round the next corner.

By day the sky above the city was thick with clouds of dust and smoke, while at night it was stained a lurid blood-red by the hundreds of fires burning below. Still the defenders fought on, and as their numbers decreased, their resistance became even more desperate. There was fighting now not only on the ground but below it, in the tunnels of the underground railway, even in the sewers.

But the end was inevitable. After a final fierce struggle in the part of the city where the conquered country’s leader and his closest colleagues had taken refuge in a subterranean fortress, the defenders surrendered unconditionally. And not long after that the leader – the F√ºhrer, as he was known to his people – escaped from his enemies in the only way now left to him, by committing suicide.

This happened in the spring of the year 1945. The conquered country was Germany, the city was Berlin, and the man who committed suicide was Adolf Hitler, the hysterical dictator whose mad schemes for making Germany the greatest nation in the world had brought ruin to his country and death and untold suffering to millions of innocent people. The invaders, who came from the east and who reached Berlin before their allies could get there from the west, were the Russians. The fall of Berlin marked, for all practical purposes, the end of the Second World War in Europe.

Russia had been a latecomer to the war. When it broke out, in September 1939, following Germany’s unprovoked and bullying attack on Poland, she had stood aside. She had even signed an agreement with Germany not to interfere.

Russia didn’t do this out of friendliness towards Germany, but merely to keep herself out of trouble at least for the time being. However, her action caused much anti-Russian feeling in the countries that were fighting against Germany, notably Britain and France. This was so strong that, for a time, there was even a possibility that Britain and her allies would go to war with Russia too Luckily, this never happened.

It was the Germans themselves, and Adolf Hitler in particular, who brought Russia into the war by attacking her. They had two reasons for doing so. Firstly, they did not trust the Russians, seeing them as a threat to their eastern borders. If they could get rid of that threat, they would be able to concentrate all their forces on the war in the west. Secondly, with an arrogance typical of them at that time, they completely underestimated the Russians’ ability to withstand them.

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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

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.

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Alexander Mackenzie opened up Canada for business

Posted in Adventure, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, History, Trade on Wednesday, 29 January 2014

This edited article about Canada first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 532 published on 25 March 1972.

Alexander Mackenzie,  picture, image, illustration
Mackenzie and his party setting off to find a route due West to the Pacific Ocean, crossing rocks and rapids by Graham Coton

To the twelve year old who stood bewildered on the quayside at New York the noise, the confusion, the shouts of dockers and the hoarse cries of seagulls were a frightening introduction to the New World. Behind him lay a stormy uncomfortable 3,000 mile sea trip from his native Scotland. Ahead lay a similar amount of land, but this was 1767 and by far the greatest amount of it was uncharted and unvisited by any white man. An immense continent, waiting to be explored and developed was a challenge that most young men would thrill to, but Alexander Mackenzie was feeling lost, alone and anything but excited.

Seconds later a rough hand was laid on his shoulder and, as he heard a voice say, “Follow me, lad,” so he saw some of his parents’ luggage disappear ahead on a pair of burly shoulders. With the feeling that his great adventure was really starting, his fears receded and he too shouldered his way through the crowd.

Life in the American colonies was often hard but never dull, and Alexander was able to develop a toughness and resilience that would stand him in good stead later on. By the time he had reached his early twenties he was in Canada, working for a trading company in Toronto. This was not the comfortable commercial life of a clerk or salesman however, for the company who employed him were engaged in a cut-throat battle for survival. The great Hudson’s Bay Company was being challenged by those who disliked its monopoly, and it was not afraid to fight back.

Alexander found this out the hard way when, in 1784, he was sent by his company on a 200 mile trip to Detroit with a small supply of goods. To all intents this was an easy task, but a condition was added to the effect that, instead of returning directly he should penetrate the “back settlements” or Indian territory on the way.

It was just this kind of half-trading, half-exploring venture that the existing traders hated. Alexander and his partners started happily enough, but others had been at work before them. They found the Indians sullen, unhelpful, and then openly hostile. Finally a party of Indians, brandishing ancient firearms, ambushed them as they struck camp one morning and one partner was killed. Alexander was more than grateful to get back to Toronto alive, but his experience and the knowledge that he had touched only the fringe of the vast inland area kept nagging away.

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Amsterdam is a picturesque city poised in a unique waterscape

Posted in Geography, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 29 January 2014

This edited article about Amsterdam first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 531 published on 18 March 1972.

Amsterdam,  picture, image, illustration
Photographic view on the Chief Canal in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam

It is impossible to think of Holland without thinking of water. The old Dutch saying “God made the oceans, man makes the shore” is no joke. For centuries the Dutch have been changing the outline of their country, pushing back the sea, strengthening the swampy edges of the land, building dikes and bridges. Where the water could not be conquered completely, they disciplined it into canals.

Nowhere is the proverb truer than in the capital, Amsterdam. Even today she has well over 400 bridges, connecting a hundred islands. Back in the 16th century the great Dutch scholar Erasmus called her “the city where people live like crows on the tops of trees,” for the entire town was built on piles driven into a sandy marsh. Much of the land round about was actually below sea-level.

Out of this unpromising material the Dutch built one of the most attractive, as well as one of the most prosperous, cities in Europe.

She stands now within a stone’s throw of the Ijsselmeer, a sizeable arm of the North Sea. It was not always so. The Ijsselmeer is the youngest “sea” in the world. It was formed only about 600 years ago, when the water finally burst over the “lip” of Holland on to the low-lying plain to the north-east of Amsterdam. It swept away whole villages, drowned whole farms and the people living and working on them. It came almost to the doorsteps of Amsterdam herself.

Ever since, the stubborn Dutch have been planning and working to push it all back where it came from. In some places they have already succeeded.

In a curious way the disaster may have been the making of Amsterdam, for in the middle of the 13th century the local lord, Gisbertus, threw a dam across the mouth of the river Amstel (which split the stripling city in two) to keep the water back. On that dam, today, stands the city’s main square: Dam Square. The name Amsterdam itself commemorates the event.

Her prosperity as a commercial city began a century later, when she joined the Hanseatic League. This was a trading-union of northern-European towns. It began in the 12th century, when the Crusades set people moving restlessly over Europe, carrying trade with them. Groups of shrewd merchants, anxious to “cash in” on the new business, formed hansa (associations) to secure its control.

As time went on individual hansa united. By the 14th century the League was equal in power, and more than equal in wealth, to many European states. It even had its own army.

From the time she joined it, Amsterdam began to flourish. By the 15th century she was one of the most important trading centres of Europe. She profited from other people’s tribulations. Her own people were tolerant, and compassionate. So, when religious or racial prejudice threatened, refugees flocked to her protecting arms.

When Belgium fell into Spanish hands, merchants flooded in from Antwerp, bringing their own trading skills. Huguenots came from France. Jews came from everywhere, with their financial expertise. Amsterdam became the banking centre of the world. In her workshops a fortune in diamonds flashed and sparkled under the hands of skilled cutters.

To protect her growing wealth walls, moats, bastions and towers girdled the city. Inside them the affluent merchants planned, and built, much of the “old” Amsterdam we see today.

On a street map it looks as though someone jabbed the point of a pair of compasses into the place where the Central Station now stands, and drew a series of ever-increasing semi-circles. These are the canals. Lines, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel, radiate across them. These are the streets.

The canals are spanned by bridges carrying the roads and lanes. No other city, anywhere in the world, has so many. Bridges with evocative names: Narrow Bridge and High Lock; and tantalising names: Milkmaid’s Bridge, Ogre’s Lock, Biscuit Bridge and Tasty Lock, which suggest stories long forgotten.

The cobbled banks of the main canals (“Gentlemen’s”, “Emperor’s” and “Prince’s”) are shaded by long rows of elm and linden trees. Set back from the water’s edge are Amsterdam’s pride, the merchants’ houses.

These were also their warehouses and offices. Set high in each gable is a huge hook. On these the valuable merchandise was hauled to the upper storey for safety, guarded by the merchant’s family who lived on the lower floors.

Only a few of them are private houses still. Some are museums, like the house where Rembrandt lived and painted. Even those turned into offices though are protected, their lovely painted walls, carved staircases, panelled rooms and plastered ceilings carefully preserved.

As the port became busier, and wealthier, the city gradually spread outwards, fanwise. Dignified municipal buildings, and churches with tall, bell-hung towers, grew beside the patrician houses. There were little churches too. One of them, which sheltered “illegal” Roman Catholics at the time of the Reformation, was simply the attic floor of an ordinary house. Its pet name was “Our Lord in the Garret.”

Life was not always peaceful. The Low Countries: Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, clamped as they are between France and Germany, all had their share of invasions and domination. Amsterdam saw more than one foreign army, and more than one foreign ruler, in her quiet squares and on her bustling waterways. But nothing seemed seriously to threaten her onward progress.

The tolerance and adaptability of her people were probably partly the reason. They were clever, too, in manipulating the water which was at once their enemy, and their friend. Twice in the 17th century they opened their dikes to keep out unwelcome visitors.

Only once was Amsterdam’s prosperity really threatened, by the progressive silting up of the Ijsselmeer channels. Three big new canals, two to the North Sea, one to the River Rhine, all built in the 19th century, solved that problem.

Until the Second World War the Amsterdammers had not known true oppression for centuries. They even managed to remain neutral during World War One. But the years 1940-45 were dark. Out of a pre-war total of 100,000 Jews barely a tenth of that number remain today. The rest were deported to concentration camps. Many were hidden by friends, for a time at least, and loyally cared for, sometimes for years.

In the last half-century Amsterdam has grown enormously, spreading far outside the medieval boundaries. An “Amsterdam School of Architecture” carefully planned the garden-cities which stand on the outskirts. A forest-park of 2,000 acres where Amsterdammers can escape into the peace of the countryside gave construction work to hundreds during the pre-war Depression. It has 34 miles of bicycle paths, 91 miles of footpaths, an open-air theatre, 37 acres for water-sports, a huge land-sports ground and, in its woodlands, hundreds of different birds and butterflies. The astonishing thing is that all this land lies 12 feet below sea-level.

Amsterdam has sometimes, foolishly, been called “the Venice of the North.” She is nothing of the sort. Amsterdam is herself; a city with a strong, proud character all her own. She is like nowhere else on earth.

Finding the North-West Passage was a matchless prize

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, History, Ships, Trade on Wednesday, 29 January 2014

This edited article about exploration first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 530 published on 11 March 1972.

The North-West Passage,  picture, image, illustration
‘The North-West Passage’ was painted by John Everett Millais in 1874, and the grim-faced sailor, with his clenched fist and open chart, represents Britain's frustration at her failure to find the sea route

On Sunday, 20th October, 1821, Captain John Franklin and his companions allowed themselves a rare treat. They singed the hair off an old buffalo robe and boiled the garment for soup. The result was consumed hungrily, for they needed all the strength they could muster. Fort Enterprise, to which they were struggling, was bleak enough, situated as it was in the desolate vastness between Canada’s Hudson Bay and the Beaufort Sea. But it meant life to the little party.

As they struggled towards the fort in the days that followed it seemed increasingly less likely that they would reach it. Michel, their Indian guide, who should have been tracking food for the party was in fact trailing Franklin’s men. Not only had he succeeded in killing one of the party, but it had become only too apparent to the horrified Britons that their one-time friend had turned cannibal.

Franklin got through, but with his ambition still unrealised. The North-West Passage was still there, somewhere among the passages and inlets only the seabirds knew. A secret locked in the ice.

One day he would have to look for it again.

Captain John Franklin was not the first man to have that dangerous dream. Ever since man had learnt of the wealth to be had in the East, the gold, jewels and spices to be had for the asking, men had stared at their globes and wondered. But the journey itself was enough to discourage any but the most dedicated adventurer. A short route to the Orient! The ultimate prize!

The earth has never been a convenient place for travellers making the journey between the great oceans. The mighty land masses stretch almost unbroken from north to south. The Americas alone make a vast natural barricade almost from Arctic to Antarctic, and Europe and Africa provide a block of land almost as formidable. To sail from Europe to the Pacific in the days before men knew how to build great canals meant an interminable voyage round the top of South America, a storm-wracked, perilous undertaking that was so dangerous and so long that it had virtually no commercial value. But northwards was something again.

Ever since John Cabot had accidentally touched either Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island in 1497, an achievement for which a grateful king Henry VII gave him no less than ten pounds, men had pushed up to the northern seas in search of the unbelievable wealth of fish of which Cabot has spoken. They sailed their leaky little cockleshells through the cold seas, fishing and probing in the hope that they would come across the magic seaway that would make their fortunes – but in vain.

Martin Frobisher actually reached Labrador in Elizabethan times, setting off into the unknown in three ships, the largest of which weighed only 20 tons. He was fascinated with the Eskimos, who in turn were so convinced that his ship was a kind of fish that they tried to catch it with hooks baited with seal meat. Frobisher even brought one of these strange new people home to good Queen Bess, who accepted the gesture gracefully, even though she would have preferred gold.

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Rounding Cape Horn was the summit of any sailor’s life

Posted in Adventure, Geography, Historical articles, History, Ships, Trade, Travel on Tuesday, 28 January 2014

This edited article about sailing first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 528 published on 26 February 1972.

Rounding the Horn,  picture, image, illustration
Rounding the Horn

There was nothing wrong with the Criccieth Castle as she rounded Cape Horn on July 14th, 1912. She was a full rigged sailing ship, classed A.1 at Lloyds, and her master, Captain Robert Thomas had spent his life in sail. When the wind rose to gale force, Captain Thomas reduced sail, but nothing could lessen the sudden appalling surge of a mountainous sea. When the first wave struck the Criccieth Castle the shock was so tremendous that even the hardened crew took it for granted that they had collided with either an iceberg or a submerged wreck. The pounding mass of water tore the huge rudder clean away, beat in the steel plates around what was left of the stern post and surged into the doomed ship. The crew took to two frail boats, little knowing at the time that a pitifully small number of them were to make history as some of the toughest survivors ever to live through a wreck at sea.

Nothing was ever found of the Criccieth Castle. She had hit nothing, her cargo had not shifted and none ever suggested that there had been the slightest negligence on the part of officers or crew. She had simply run into a gale that had smashed her to pieces as though she had been a paper boat. No seaman who read the account of what happened doubted it for a moment. There was no reason to. It was a tragedy that had occurred in no ordinary sea.

It had happened off Cape Horn, the legendary place where sailors met higher winds, more mountainous seas than anywhere else on earth. “He sailed round the Horn” was another way of saying that a man had sailed to the very world’s end. But was it, is it, as frightening a place as all that?

Cape Horn is an island, or rather the tip of an island, a vast cliff, some 1,400 feet high that stands at the southern end of the South American continent, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet. Before the days of the Suez or Panama canals, it was the fastest route for ships sailing from the Orient to the West. The fastest, and the one that exacted the heaviest price.

It was a natural barrier, as though nature had done her best to keep the two sides of the world apart.

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