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The Northwest Passage

SS Manhattan - The Northwest Passage

The tanker SS Manhattan was the first commercial ship to cross the Northwest Passage in 1969. [Photo: I digitized this photo from the 35mm slide on 10/5/2020, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

When he arrived in America, Christopher Columbus set out to find a communication route with the Indies faster than the circumnavigation of Africa. The discovery, in the middle of the ocean, of such a large area of ​​land opened up an unsuspected horizon for Spanish colonization and, in a certain sense, changed the history of the world. From the point of view of the problem that Columbus had raised, there is no doubt that the existence of the American continent was an enormous hindrance. For this reason, almost the day after the arrival on American soil, attempts began to discover a sea passage between the Atlantic and the other great ocean, the Pacific, which was on the other side of the New World.

The first precise revelation in this sense was due to Vasco Núñez de Balboa who, in 1513, crossed the Isthmus of Panama. Balboa's expedition proved that, at least in that place, the continent was very narrow, and also that, despite its narrowness, it was continuous and did not leave the possibility of going by boat from one side of it to the other.  In 1520, sailing south, Ferdinand Magellan discovered the strait that bears his name and managed to reach the Pacific. Magellan's voyage showed that navigation was long and very dangerous through that strait.

Given that there was no passage in the center, and that there was one in the south, but it was very uncomfortable, some began to wonder if it would not be convenient to turn from the continent to the north. For this reason, since the end of the 16th century orientation attempts and trips were made. Among other things, a series of geological and biological considerations gradually confirmed the theory of a greater relative proximity of the three continents (Europe, Asia and America) in the Nordic region. Many coincidences in the characteristics of the fauna and the conformation of the soil, and also of the traits of the human groups established in the north of Europe, Asia and America, allowed to suppose that those lands had been more contiguous in remote times, or that at least, the passage of animals and humans from one side to another could be carried out.

Inhospitable to Humans, a Paradise for Fauna and Ephemeral Flora

But the venture seemed difficult, apart from the fact that there had been a long time without a clear notion of the structure of the Arctic, and that there was a notable divergence of opinion between those who imagined an expanse of frozen sea waters and those who believed in the existence, at least in some places, of dry land under the ice. The fragmented and tormented lands that expand around the polar cap, if in the short summer they are covered with a thick but ephemeral vegetation and are inhabited by a fairly rich fauna (seals, polar bears, musk oxen in America, reindeer in Europe, foxes, wolves, polar hares, birds), are extremely inhospitable, and offered a miserable base of departure before entering the Arctic Ocean.

For these reasons, in the voyages that the Dutch and English made in the 16th and 17th centuries, islands, inlets, straits, etc., were discovered, but no definitive result was given regarding the discovery of the desired passage: Martin Frobisher came to Baffin land and explored it for gold (1576); John Davis, on one of his trips, bordered for about 1,500 km. the coast of Greenland (1587), and Henry Hudson surveyed, in 1609, the strait and the bay that today bear his name, and perished in a mutiny of the crew, exasperated by the effort.

Northwest Passage with its main route and variants.

As it may be seen, westward travels allow for extensive reconnaissance and discovery. But at the end of the 17th century they seem to invite two types of considerations: first, the practical use of the new routes, admitting that they exist, is too dangerous; second, due to the difficulties and the length of the road ahead, the motives of economic convenience that had inspired the explorations and encouraged governments, companies and capitalists to finance them fail.

In the 18th century, the great venture of James Cook, who having explored the American coast along the Pacific as far as the Bering Strait (1773), certified the existence of the Arctic Ocean, which many had set out to reach, insisting on their pilgrimages along Baffin Bay.

The Erebus and the Terror Tragedy

The more pressing utilitarian interests having subsided, it was a long time before strictly scientific goals gave impetus to new pursuits of the passage. Observations of the weather, sea currents, and iceberg movements continued, and ships and instruments were built to better meet the needs, so that in the early 19th century there was a vigorous resumption of exploration in the Arctic. Among the main ones are those of the Englishman John Ross, who, following in the footsteps of Cook, arrived in 1829 to discover the Land of Boothia; that of his lieutenant William Edward Parry, who entered the labyrinth of the Canadian islands and in 1827 even tried to reach the pole; and that of the British captain John Franklin, who, after making an extensive exploration of the mouth of the Mackenzie River, was sent in 1845 by the English government with the ships Erebus and Terror to King William Island. Arrived at it, the ice blocked the expedition and, after three winters of hardship, it succumbed completely. The tragedy of the Franklin mission, instead of discouraging further undertakings, aroused great emotion throughout the world and was the starting point of a series of generous attempts to bring succor to the imprisoned explorers of the ice, of whom it was believed imprecise news.

Erebus - Paso del Noreste
HMS 'Erebus' in the Ice, 1846. [Image: François Musin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
None of the 130 men could be saved and it was only in 1857 that Francis Leopold McClintock managed to reach the site of the tragedy and rescue some remains of the expedition. Meanwhile, precisely during various expeditions encouraged by the disappearance of Franklin, the Northwest Passage had been opened, although the journey was not only made by sea, but partially by land with the help of sledges. Note that the voyage was made, for the first time, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and not vice versa. Who established the communication between the Bering Strait and Greenland, which meant the culmination of many previous attempts, was the Englishman Robert Mac Clure. Setting out in 1850 from the Bering Strait on the ship Investigator, he touched Banks Land and Prince Albert Land, and traversed the strait that today bears his name. Then, on foot, he reached the Melville Sound on October 26, which Parry had reached 30 years earlier.

Amundsen, in Search of the Magnetic Pole

After being forced to spend two winters in ice-bound snow, on April 6, 1853, MacClure's expedition was overtaken by a platoon of Captain Kellet's men, sent from England to Melville Island. Mac Clure and his men joined them and thus traversed the entire Northwest Passage. This brilliant result caused the investigation of the polar region to continue almost without rest. New islands were located and devoted in particular to the reconnaissance of Greenland. Swedes, Russians, Norwegians and Italians also participated in this type of exploration. Not until 1903, objectively if not practically, did an effective avenue of communication open up. Credit went to the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who, wanting to clarify the situation of the magnetic pole, in addition to achieving this goal on King William Island, he managed to reach the Bering Strait on his ship Gjöa.

In later times, among the most significant stages of this race to establish itineraries in the Arctic zone, the expedition of the Canadian icebreaker Labrador stands out, which in about two months traveled in 1954 the path that at the beginning of the century was carried out in several years, and the immersion trip of the Nautilus atomic submarine of the US Navy, which in 1958, in nine days, saved the route from Alaska to Greenland, passing under the ice. Finally, note that the oil tanker SS Manhattan was the first commercial ship to cross the Northwest Passage in 1969.


[Sorce: Vv.Aa (1978). The Northwest Pasage. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor didáctico (Tome III, pp. 40-43). Milan, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]