The Northwest Passage, Sought by Europeans for 400 Years, Is Found and Traversed by Ship by Roald Amundsen

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The Northwest Passage, Sought by Europeans for 400 Years, Is Found and Traversed by Ship by Roald Amundsen


Europeans searched for 400 years for a passage through North America that would take them to the fabled lands of the Orient. Their searches met with little success. The first man to take a sailing ship from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through this fabled passage was Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) of Norway in 1903-06. By then, Europeans had found other ways to get to China and southeast Asia, and entrepreneurs and traders were no longer interested in this passage. Nonetheless, Amundsen's voyage was a culmination of human effort as well as a signal of the new understanding of the lands at the northern end of the earth.


The 1492 discovery by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) of new land masses unknown to the Europeans created a problem that was not solved for over 400 years. Columbus refused to admit that he had not reached India, and he thought that China was just on the other side of the land he did find. Subsequent explorers tried to find a way through or around these two massive continents that lay between Europe and the Orient.

It is ironic that America was discovered by accident and, when found, a great deal of effort was expended to find a way through or around it. Europeans wanted to reach India and China to trade for the gold, silver, spices, brocades, and silks that the nations of the Orient were reputed to have. Columbus's fourth voyage in 1502 focused on finding a way through the continent. He did not find it. The Spanish claimed much of the southern continent, but English and French merchants were more interested in passing through or around this obstacle. Explorations fanned out north and south with the hopes of finding a bay, a river, or an inlet that would take them all the way through the continent and shorten the trip to the Orient. Riches awaited the person who found it.

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475-1519) was part of a Spanish expedition to Venezuela in 1501. He eventually helped found the new settlement of Darièn on the isthmus of what is now Panama, and became its governor. In 1513 he crossed the isthmus, climbed to the top of a mountain, and discovered a huge ocean, which he called the Mar del Sur (South Sea) which he claimed for Spain. (Seven years later it was renamed the Pacific Ocean by Ferdinand Magellan.) This exciting discovery, however, did nothing to help ships get from the Atlantic to the newly discovered Pacific, even though the land was only 130 miles wide. Voyages of discovery were soon sent out to find a new way to the Orient. Among these were Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521), sent by Portugal in 1520. He found a southern, very difficult passage through South America, now called the Straits of Magellan. It was the only way around the continent for centuries. Magellan was the first to sail across the Pacific Ocean and around the world. Sir Francis Drake (1540?-1596) of England was looking for a western outlet for the Northwest Passage in 1577 when he also traversed the Pacific Ocean and went around the world.

During these and subsequent voyages to South America, sailors realized that there was no easy way through the huge land mass. That left North America to explore in the hopes of finding a Northwest Passage. In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazzano (1485-1528), sailing for France, followed the North American coast as far north as Maine. In 1535 Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), also of France, reached Canada and thought he had found the passage. He sailed a thousand miles up the St. Lawrence River before he decided that it was not the passage. In 1576 Martin Frobisher (1535?-1594) of England got as far north as Baffin island without finding a passage. In 1609 Henry Hudson (1565?-1611) discovered the Hudson River in New York, and Hudson Bay in northern Canada. Both had possibilities but were disappointing. The weather and ice were often so bad, especially in the high northern latitudes that taking sailing ships into the area was hazardous and sometimes fatal.

Soon Russia, the Netherlands, and Denmark joined the frantic search for a way through the North American continent to the Pacific. While no passage was found, a great deal of territory was mapped, charted, and claimed for European countries.

Explorers continued to look for a Northwest Passage in the eighteenth century, but it was seldom the major purpose of these voyages and hopes for its discovery became more symbolic than practical. Captain James Cook (1728-1779) of England made several trips in the 1770s to look for it, but his main focus was the South Pacific. In the 1790s English sea captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) made a number of trips into the Pacific Ocean. Appended to these voyages were several trips to North America to look for the passage. While there he also discovered the Canadian island that still bears his name, as well as the Puget Sound.

It has been said that the Northwest Passage was not found until the idea of reaching gold and spices in the Orient was replaced by the passion for discovery for its own sake. A more likely answer is that more thorough exploration could not be made until ships and equipment were available to stand the bitter cold in the north and until men and supplies were prepared for it. One man came close to finding the passage but turned back. John Davis (c. 1550-1605) of England got to northern Canada in 1616. He eliminated one dead end and found another bay that was a possibility. He reached Lancaster Sound between Devon Island and the north end of the huge land mass called Baffin Island. The strait to the east, now called Davis Strait, leads into a viable passage, but Davis could go no further and did not find it. This turns out to be the eastern end and the actual beginning of a viable Northwest Passage.

In the nineteenth century expeditions were no longer sponsored by merchants, and it was government-sponsored naval expeditions that continued the search for the fabled passage. John Franklin (1786-1847) of England came close to finding the passage, but all members of his expedition perished when the ship was caught and crushed in the ice. While searching for Franklin's crew, Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure (1807-1873) discovered two entrances to the passage. After his ship became icebound, McClure abandoned it and began to travel over land by sledge. He was eventually rescued by Henry Kellet; when the two men made their way on foot to Beechey Island, they became the first men to completely traverse the Northwest Passage.

The passage had still not been traversed by sea, however. Credit for that feat goes to a Norwegian. Roald Amundsen grew up determined to become a Polar explorer. He wanted to be the first to reach both the North Pole and the South Pole. He also wanted to answer many questions about the magnetic position of the poles and whether they were movable or fixed. In 1906, at the age of 29, he obtained a ship called Gjoa, also 29 years old. With a crew of six, he was the first to make his way by water from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. A few years later, he became the first to reach the South Pole, just a few days ahead of Robert F. Scott (1868-1912). He was acclaimed a hero, the first Norwegian to achieve fame since Norway gained her independence in 1906.


Despite the centuries of effort that had been expended to find the Northwest Passage, Amundsen's achievement was not of great economic importance. There was no cheering and no rush to use the passage. No countries lined up to follow it into the Pacific. In the years of the search, European nations had made other accommodations. They had set up trading centers and colonies near the source of spices and gold and created regular shipping routes to bring the material back to Europe. This was one of the reasons that no trade routes ever traveled through the Northwest Passage. Another was the weather. At 75° north latitude, 1,000 miles (1,609 km) from the North Pole, snow, ice, and fog make the route impractical for any regular operation.

As we look back on the centuries of effort to find such a passage, the significant thing is that the effort led to genuine scientific advancement and knowledge. During the search, the configuration of Earth was made clear, giving educated men an idea of its real size and shape. The search also led to the mapping of a great deal of North and South America. To reach this goal, ships, sails, and equipment had to be improved to stand the rigors of long voyages and severe weather and ice in the north. The explorers were able to test the correctness of charts and the correct positions on the globe of islands, straits, and mountains. Correct readings of longitude and latitude were taken, and new instruments, especially the new chronometer for finding longitude, were put into use. These explorers discovered the poles and their position. And they uncovered many new peoples and places that would not have come to light were it not for the need to get through this continent.

In 1942 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police vessel St. Roch steamed through the Northwest Passage west to east and back again. It was a symbolic voyage, still fraught with danger and hardship. After that, the passage was seldom used. In 1960 an atomic submarine traversed the passage, but this time under the ice. These later voyages are of import because it took so long to find the passage and absorbed so much energy. They represented a symbolic end to the effort and celebrated the conquest of this most difficult and elusive passage.


Further Reading

Delgado, James P. Across the Top of the World. New York: Checkmark Books, 1999.

Huntford, Roland. Scott & Amundsen: The Race to the Pole. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1979.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Wilson, Derek. The Circumnavigators. New York: M. Evans & Co., 1989.

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The Northwest Passage, Sought by Europeans for 400 Years, Is Found and Traversed by Ship by Roald Amundsen

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