Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure

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Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure


Irish Explorer

The name of Sir Robert McClure is inextricably linked with the Northwest Passage because of his determination to find the elusive waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Born in Wexford, County Wexford, Ireland, on January 28, 1807, Robert McClure completed his apprenticeships and training to become an Irish naval officer. He later settled in England and was given command of the Investigator.

For many centuries, seafaring nations have tried to overcome what is probably the world's severest seagoing challenge: the navigable crossing of a series of deep, treacherous channels that pass through Canada's Arctic Islands. Reaching the passage from the Atlantic side meant threading a watery way between, around, and past about 50,000 giant icebergs (many up to 300 ft [91 m] high), with a constant drift toward the south between Greenland and Baffin Island. The alternate approach from the Pacific coast is no less daunting because of the masses of ice that are funneled into the Bering Strait. Despite the dangers, many explorers have tried to find the entrance to the Northwest Passage.

Beginning in the late 1400s, there are records of explorers attempting to find this route. Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), Vasco da Gama (1460?-1524), and Ferdinand Magellan (1480?-1521) laid the groundwork for some of the Dutch captains who later attempted to reach the passage around Russia. However, the discovery that intrigued many prominent explorers during the 1500-1600s was the possibility of a northwest route through the icy waters of northern Canada. This intrepid group included Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), Sir Francis Drake (1540?-1596), Sir Martin Frobisher (1535?-1594), and Captain James Cook (1728-1779). None of them succeeded and several lost their lives in this discouraging pursuit. Even Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539?-1583), who wrote a rosy treatise of this endeavor, which inspired others to set sail, was lost at sea when he attempted the voyage in 1583. Later, in 1611, Gilbert's young son, Henry Hudson (1565?-1611; for whom the famous Bay is named), took his own shot at "the prize" but when the waters of the bay turned into an icy trap, his crew became mutinous and set Hudson and seven crew members adrift to their eventual demise.

In 1845, two sailing vessels named the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror disappeared in the North American Arctic. Captain John Franklin (1786-1847) and 128 crew members were lost at sea. McClure was sent to find Franklin. Starting from the Pacific entryway, McClure found his way into the Bering Strait and eventually found two entrances to the Northwest Passage. They were both near Banks Island, which became part of the Northwest Territories of Canada. His ship fell victim to the ice floes in Mercy Bay, and, after nearly two years in the ice, he was forced to abandon the vessel. Fortunately, he and his men were rescued by Captain Henry Kellett, but the Kellett ship was also icebound for an additional year before being rescued by a third expedition. McClure died in England on October 17, 1873, after a long, illustrious career in the British Navy.


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Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure

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