Fury Beach: The Four-Year Odyssey of Captain John Ross and the Victory

By Ray Edinger

NY: Berkley, $22.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


Captain Sir John Ross stands almost alone among nineteenth-century British Arctic explorers. He was there at the beginning, sailing in 1818 in command of one of the first exploratory voyages sent out under Barrow's Admiralty, and he was there at the end, when the three lonely graves of Sir John Franklin's men were first discovered on Beechey Island in 1851. And, despite a great deal of harsh and unwarranted criticism by Barrow, and with the exception of his embarrassing about-face in Lancaster Sound in 1818, his career was among the most successful, discovering and interacting peacefully with hitherto unknown Inuit cultures, producing highly accurate charts, and rarely losing a man under his command either to disease or misfortune.

Which is not to say that Ross's career was without its difficult episodes. Ray Edinger's eminently readable new book centers around the most difficult of all -- Ross's private expedition, underwritten in 1829 by London gin magnate Felix Booth, which endured not just one but four winters in the remotest regions of the inland Arctic -- a record never equaled in its era. It was also the only significant Arctic expedition ever launched under private sponsorship, and resulted in what may well be the largest land-mass on earth to take its name from an alcoholic beverage -- "Boothia." In our own age, when corporate sponsors often figure as prominently in exploratory missions as crewmembers, it's fascinating to observe the curious "product placement" which caused Ross's ship the Victory to be christened with Booth's Gin, as well as -- according to Edinger -- its regular consumption by the ship's captain. Ross hoped no doubt to vindicate his reputation, tarnished in 1818 when he mistakenly believed Lancaster Sound to be blocked by a range of mountains, and turned his ships back homeward even though many of his officers dearly wished to press on. Parry's passing of Ross's furthest to win the Parliamentary prize for reaching 90 degrees of longitude, combined with John Barrow's savaging of Ross's reputation in the pages of the Quarterly Review, left him with few hopes of ever commanding a Royal Navy expedition in the future, and it was this frustration that led him to seek private sponsorship.

In the meantime, Ross's young nephew James Clark Ross, who had served his apprenticeship in Arctic service under Parry's command, was as eager as his uncle to return to the region to further pursue the dream of a Northwest Passage. Accounts vary, but it seems clear that the elder Ross's desire to have his nephew accompany him did something to help advance their cause, as did their ability to put together a small hand-picked crew replete with a number of other Arctic veterans. John Ross, a keen advocate of steam power throughout the 1820's, was also anxious to pursue his belief that a steam-powered vessel would be far better able to deal with the contrary winds and crooked ice-walled leads that had turned back so many wind-powered vessels. The ship that they procured was accordingly refitted with a steam boiler which powered a large side-wheel, a means of motive power that was greatly regretted later, and in May of 1829, having securing the tacit blessing of the powers-that-were, the two Rosses sailed forth with high hopes and an enthusiastic escort of smaller vessels.

Their joy was to be short-lived. Even in the initial weeks of the journey, which took them up the western coasts of the British Isles, the steam boiler proved balky and uncooperative. Despite continual repairs, it was never to give satisfactory service, and Captain Ross was so incensed with its performance that he eventually ordered it disassembled and removed from the ship. And, though Ross could not have known it, the route which he had chosen southward through Prince Regent Inlet was a dead-end, one from which the Victory, despite years of heroic efforts by her officers and crew, was destined never to return. Without realizing it, Ross had sailed past the strait later to be known as Bellot's, and directed his vessel into an icy cul-de-sac he dubbed the "Gulph of Boothia" after his sponsor. There, in a harbor whose safety from the ravages of ice was guaranteed by the same shallowness which rendered it a prison at low tide, Ross and his crew settled in for the winter with the practiced habits of men who knew what to expect. Following the example of Parry, ship-board schools were organized for the men, including everything from celestial navigation to the rudiments of literacy; regular activities included taking observations, caulking the boards, and testing the speed of sound at frigid temperatures by firing a cannon and timing the arrival of its report.

It was the sound of that cannon which brought about the most unexpected and felicitous development of the expedition -- a visit by a substantial community of the Netsilingmiut, whose winter hunting grounds were within earshot of the Victory. Like the Polar Eskimos who approached Ross with such tremendous caution in 1818, this band of Inuit came forward a few at a time, the way led by an elderly Inuk whom the community had judged expendable should the visitors prove hostile. Ross and his men threw down their weapons and minced such phrases of garbled Inuktitut as they could muster, and were greeted with elation by the relieved leaders of the party. An exchange of gifts soon followed, with Ross offering metal barrel-hoops from his ship -- which might, for the value they held to the Inuit, as well have been hoops of gold. Social exchanges of all kinds soon followed, with a party of Inuit visiting the ship almost daily, trading food and supplies, and assisting parties from the ship in their hunts.

Relations were not always ideal, and Ross's various stratagems to prevent pilfering were not universally understood or respected, but on the whole the interaction between the Inuit and the ships crew was mutually beneficial. The Rosses gained invaluable geographic knowledge from several of the Inuit, particularly "Ikmallik," whom they dubbed the "Hydrographer"; the Inuit gained much valued raw materials, and the ship's carpenter even fashioned a custom-made wooden leg for one hunter, "Tulluahiu," who had lost his in a fight with a polar bear some time previous. This gesture in particular earned a great deal of respect for the entire crew, though the sight of a musk-ox brought down by gunshots added a significant element of fear as well. There was some resentment on both sides as well, particularly with the smaller number of Inuit who were given special liberty on board ship. One man, "Poowutyook." was found asleep in a barrel of flour in the hold after having absconded with a plate of food meant for the Captain's table; Ross ordered him flogged and banned from the ship (missing from Edinger's account is Poowutyook's reaction, retold years later -- he thought the kindly captain was merely dusting him off!).

With the exception of this and a few other incidents, Captain Ross was generally on good terms with the Inuit, and indeed in his private journals he expressed great admiration for their ingenuity and generous spirit, as Edinger approvingly notes. Yet there was at the same time little doubt in John Ross's mind that the Inuit were an inferior race:

"Is it not the fate of the savage and the uncivilized on this earth to give way to the more cunning and the better informed, to knowledge and civilization? It is the order of the world; and the right one."

Ross was, in this respect, a not untypical man of his era, and indeed his confidence of superiority informed what he saw as his tolerance of alien ways. How different a character was evidenced by James Clark Ross, whose frequently threatening and hot-headed treatment of the Inuit earned him fear but little trust. When, on an early sledging trip, his Inuit guides recommended they stop for shelter in a blinding blizzard after their sledge became damaged, he seized their spears and broke them in two, ordering them to repair the sledge with the pieces. The younger Ross was not much kinder to his own crew, though it should be admitted that he never demanded anything from them which he was unwilling to undertake himself. Edinger recounts Commander Ross's actions dispassionately, and lets his readers form their own judgment, a fair enough approach, but one which may leave some readers wondering where he stands.

The coming of the first spring brought a gradual end to contacts with the Inuit, as they prepared to move to their summer hunting grounds; the Rosses wisely used this time to stock up on fresh food, particularly fish. Captain Ross was far ahead of his contemporaries in realizing the value of fresh meat and fish to prevent scurvy, a lesson underscored during that first winter, as none of the men showed signs of the dread disease. He persevered with his conviction despite some resistance from many of the crew, such as his ever-complaining steward William Light, who condemned fish as "a weak and watery aliment" hardly suitable for human consumption. The coming of warmer weather also enabled Commander Ross to undertake further sledging expeditions, including one in which he reached the western coast of what he dubbed "King William's Land" -- having crossed over without realizing it what would later be known as the Rae Strait, which made an island of his newfound "land." It was here, a decade and a half later, where the survivors of Sir John Franklin's expedition would come ashore after having abandoned their ships, to march overland to their various dooms.

The summer of 1830 brought deceptive signs of a thaw, and Ross ordered the ship prepared for sailing, a task which the men took up with jubilant expectation. Contrary winds, heavy ice, and a severe storm all combined forces to delay and deter all attempts to make substantial progress, and in the end the crew of the Victory were fortunate to find safe harbor a scant three miles from where they had first wintered. It was a discouraging development, but thanks to the fresh and preserved meat in their diet, nearly all hands were fit and able, and both Rosses held out hope that something good might come from their extended sojourn, especially if contact with the Inuit were renewed.

In the ship's second season , the younger Ross undertook what was to be hailed as the most significant achievement of the entire expedition, the location of the North Magnetic Pole. The approximate location of the pole had been ascertained by observations of the deviation of the compass, and it was already clear from these that the pole was continually in motion. By means of a vertical "dipping" needle, Ross hoped to fix its then-present location, which he succeeded in doing with little difficulty, planting a ship's jackstaff on the mysterious point and checking and re-checking his magnetic observations to make certain they would sustain any challenges. Of course, this was not the geographic pole, and its transitory status was held by some against it, but in an age where mapping the earth's magnetic field was a project as revered as mapping its surface topography, it was a fitting feat -- and doubtless to many back home, any pole was a pole worth celebrating.

To the disappointment of all, the Inuit were not seen all winter, until a chance meeting with a hunting party late in the season. A celebratory dinner and dance were held aboard ship, and Inuk and Englishman greeted each other as old friends; once more, metal knives were traded for caches of fish and meat. It was with genuine regret that the Rosses bid adieu to this party, and in fact they were never to meet again. The next spring thaw brought a repeat of the previous season, and despite heroic efforts, the Victory found herself trapped in the ice in a shallow bay only a few miles beyond its earlier harbor. The ice quickly closed in, and it soon became clear that the season in which the expedition had sailed from Barrow's straits clear south to the gulf of Boothia had been an anomaly. With the supplies of fish soon exhausted, scurvy made its first serious appearance among the crew, and the usual winter diversions were only half-heartedly undertaken, if at all.

The rancor between the elder and younger Rosses, which had erupted at many times during the previous years, was thankfully absent here -- it was clear that the ship would have to be abandoned, and some means found to transport men and supplied further north. The intermediate goal was Fury Beach, where the stores left behind when Parry's ship HMS Fury had been wrecked years before had been cached, along with boats and other supplies. The hope was that, with the aid of these stores, the entire party might manage to take to the boats, sail eastward through Barrow's straits, and eventually reach waters in which whaling or other vessels might be found. This optimistic prospect, however, required tremendous labor, as the already scurvy-ridden and exhausted sailors would have to man-haul their supplies by sledge, leaving behind caches for those who would follow, then doubling back to haul again (there were scarcely enough healthy men to haul one well-loaded sledge).

Despite the great odds, their goal was eventually reached, and against all hope the stores at Fury Beach were largely intact, and the crew were elated; even Light admitted that they "could not have felt much happier, had they set foot on their native land." A capacious tent was soon erected, and the men warmed themselves by the stoves as they contemplated what they hoped would be their soon relief. The summer thaw was not far away, and the boats were quickly prepared, only for their crews to meet the most crushing disappointment, as the lone lead in the ice closed about them, leaving them no recourse but to retreat to Fury Beach for another interminable winter.

By this time, of course, friends back in England were greatly concerned, and despite the indifference of influential men such as Barrow, a rescue mission was eventually organized and dispatched under the command of George Back, who had served under Franklin in his overland expeditions. Quite understandably, he expected to find little more than frozen corpses, but prepared to do his duty. Yet even as he sailed, the Rosses and their crew were preparing for one final foray with the coming of the spring. The boats were readied, and this year the ice retreated, enabling them to make 112 miles in a single day, easily ten times the distance they'd traversed in any of the past four years. A sail on the horizon roused almost impossible hopes -- could it really be that rescue was at hand? But whatever ship it was, it soon tacked away, as did a second sail sighted shortly after. The men strained at their oars as they pursued the latter of the vessels, and at last were met by a whaleboat sent away, whose mate inquired from what ship they came. On John Ross's answering that he was Captain Ross of the Victory, he was coldly answered that "Captain Ross has been dead these two years" -- a reply which shares with "Dewey Defeats Truman" the retrospective patina of a colossal error.

Of course, the Rosses' return to their native shores was hailed with all the exultation due an expedition which had long been given up for dead, but which returned alive and rich with accomplishments. The Admiralty and the government soon ensured that the officers and crew would be amply recompensed. The most curious outcome of this outpouring of public and governmental support was their testimony before the Special Parliamentary Committee chosen to examine the expedition's record. Commander Ross, inexplicably, held forth that a kind of co-command existed with himself and his uncle, and when pressed went to far as to aver that he was the chief commander, and had served at the insistence of Felix Booth. Booth himself, called soon after, insisted that Captain John Ross had been appointed to sole command, free to choose whom he wished. Wisely, the committee decided not to make any definitive conclusions about the issue. But perhaps the most striking testimony at this hearing came from old John Ross himself, who, asked whether the discovery of the Northwest Passage would be of any material use, replied "I believe it would be utterly useless." Ross's honestly and forthrightness was certainly a beacon, as well as a blow to Barrow. Ross's honesty had cost him before, and he was bold enough to risk it again.

Fury Beach is a powerful, deeply significant book, and though in large part it is simply a dramatic recounting of Ross's narrative, Edinger has a deft touch for capturing the intrinsic drama of the story for a modern audience. He is not a professional historian, but rather an amateur in the very best sense of that word; his fascination with the Arctic grew out of his personal collection of the dusty folios in which the histories of nineteenth-century explorers were originally presented. As a writer, he's a passionate, engaging storyteller who quickly draws his readers into the ebb and flow of his narrative. As a historian, though, he at times places too much trust in his nineteenth-century sources. Despite the fact that Inuit oral tradition has preserved numerous accounts of the Inuit's own accounts of the Rosses' expedition, Edinger does not appear to have consulted them; Inuktiut words and phrases are given in the happenstance orthography of the explorers, with translations that often repeat historical errors. Edinger also cannot resist the urge to add a touch of demi-fictional frosting to his Arctic cake, placing John Ross in his cabin with a tumbler of Booth's Gin, quietly humming "The Sea," a poem which was not in fact set to music until 1832. These are, however, only minor flaws; Edinger makes every effort to give a balanced perspective, and recounts with frankness both the friendship and the prejudice with which the officers and crew of the Victory received their Inuit neighbors. It remains a compelling story, richly deserving of retelling, and one can only hope that Edinger's version is as widely read as Ross's original narrative was more than a century and a half ago.

Astonishingly, as Edinger recounts, the expedition of 1829-1832 was not to be John Ross's last. The old captain, now knighted and showered with honors by all the crowned heads of Europe, took temporarily to a sort of retirement. He wrote his book, endorsed Panoramas and Dioramas based on his Arctic watercolors, and busied himself answering his voluminous correspondence. A lifelong aficionado of phrenology, he felt the bumps of many a neighbor's head, charting up the results in a pocket-book (Edinger notes, somewhat frighteningly, that the head of one Inuk with whom Ross had visited, unhappily deceased, was stowed aboard the Victory for future phrenological analysis! ). Back home, Ross bided his time, but when his old compatriot Sir John Franklin sailed in 1845, expressed surprise that no arrangements had been made for his rescue should he fail to return. Ross promised that, should Franklin not be heard of by 1850, he himself would go in search of him, and he kept that promise. Though well into his seventies, Ross took his own private yacht, the "Mary," as far as Beechey Island in Barrow's straits, where he was present when the graves of Torrington, Hartnell, and Braine were discovered. Though he was unable to be of any help to his old friend, he was greatly celebrated by the colloquy of commanders who were encamped near the site, and on his return was at last promoted to Rear Admiral. It was a fitting conclusion to a most astonishing career as an Arctic explorer.


Continue to the interview with the author, Ray Edinger