Baffin Bay – The Isabella, Sir John Ross and the Search for the Northwest Passage

One Hull whaler, the Isabella, had a remarkable relationship with Captain, later Sir John, Ross. The Isabella was chartered by the Admiralty as the flag ship for an expedition in search of the North West Passage in 1818. Captain Ross commanded the Isabella whilst his subordinate, William Parry, took charge of the consort vessel, the Alexander. Ross’s mission was to take his ships round the extreme northeast coast of America and through to the Bering Straits, in other words he was to find his way through the legendary Northwest Passage. The vessels worked their way up north and a considerable section of the British whaling fleet, including several Hull vessels, followed in their wake. Soon after reaching Melville Bay the last of the whaling fleet bade them farewell and the Isabella and Alexander worked their way onwards, passing within sight of the Cary Islands. On reaching the Lancaster Sound, Ross was deceived by arctic mirage and wrongly concluded that the way was blocked by mountains. He decided not to proceed any further, despite a disagreement about this decision with Matthew Parry and other subordinates. Parry, convinced his commander was mistaken, was to return on later expeditions with the Hull-built HMS Hecla and prove Ross wrong.

Captain Ross searching for the Northwest Passage in the Isabella
Source: B. Lubbock, Arctic Whalers (1937)

In 1829, Ross, who by now felt he had drawn somewhat hasty conclusions on the voyage, took another expedition to the Arctic on an early steamship, Victory. The Victory sailed south into the Prince Regent Inlet, eventually passing beyond the place that Parry reached on his 1825 expedition but the ship soon became stuck in the ice. Ross and his men were forced to spend the next four years in the Arctic. They were the first such explorers to survive for so long and lost only three men throughout their ordeal. With the aid of Inuit they learned to live off what the harsh land and waters offered and explored regions to the west and north and identified the location of Magnetic North Pole on the west coast of the Boothia Peninsula in June 1831.

The following spring they abandoned the Victory and walked to Somerset Island, reaching the remains of the Fury, a ship lost by Parry on an earlier expedition. There, they built a shelter – named Somerset House – repaired the wrecked ship’s longboats and set off in search of whaling vessels. In August 1833 they finally made it through the ice. Exhausted by weeks of rowing they were resting in tents on the beach by a small river to the east of Navy Board Inlet when they spotted a sail, but on putting to sea in pursuit, they failed to make contact. This ship later turned out to be the Hull whaler, William Lee.

Hope had turned to despair, and then suddenly another sail was seen. Against all odds it turned out to be Ross’s old flagship the Isabella. The whaler hove to and the mate set off in command of a boat to investigate but, on approaching the survivors, he took some convincing that the gaunt, grim bearded man who hailed him was in fact Captain Ross, who been given up for dead for more than two years. The Isabella completed her whaling trip, before bringing Ross and his companions back to the Humber in October 1833. On landing in Hull they were surrounded by a cheering crowd then feted by the Mayor, Corporation and Wardens of Trinity House at the Vittoria Hotel which stood near to the mouth of the River Hull, almost opposite where The Deep is today. The rescue caught the imagination of the country at the time and attracted world-wide attention. Ross was subsequently knighted for his achievements. A few months later Captain Humphreys of the Isabella was presented with a silver cup at the Vittoria Hotel by a number of Hull gentlemen. The meeting was chaired by Dr George Dixon Longstaff whose son, Lllewellyn Longstaff, was to be the prominent patron of early twentieth century Antarctic exploration.

The Ross family’s links with the Isabella and the Hull whaling fleets were not quite at an end. The year 1835 turned out to be one of the most disastrous on record for the whaling fleets working up the Davis Straits and Baffin Bay and the old Isabella was wrecked very early in the season off the Whalefish Islands and some of the crew suffered bad frostbite before being picked up by another whaler. Weather conditions were often atrocious that year and a number of whaling ships found it impossible to break out of the ice and make for home. By Christmas eight British whaling ships were still unaccounted for and the Hull merchants offered to equip a relief vessel. Captain James Clark Ross, a nephew of Sir John who had already explored the Arctic waters on previous expeditions and had been rescued with his uncle by the Isabella, volunteered to command the vessel and sailed on the rescue mission on the Hull ship Cove in January 1836 and assisted several vessels and crews after they broke free of the ice.

Select Bibliography

Derek Hayes, Historic Atlas of the Arctic (Canada: Douglas & McIntyre, 2003)

Fergus Fleming, Barrow’s Boys (UK: Grove Press, 1999)

Trevor H Levere, Science and the Canadian Arctic 1818 – 1918 (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Basil. Lubbock, The Arctic Whalers (UK: Brown, Son & Ferguson, 1937)

John Ross, A Voyage of Discovery Made Under the Orders of the Admiralty in His Majesty’s Ships Isabella and Alexander (UK: London 1819)

Sir John Ross, Narrative of a second voyage in search of a North-West Passage and of a residence in the Arctic Regions during the years 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832 1833 (UK: London 1835)

Ann Savours, The North-West Passage in the Nineteenth Century: perils and pastimes of a winter in the ice (UK: Hakluyt Society, 2003)

On line references
Dictionary of Canadian Biography On Line (DCB)