Story Lives of Great Scientists - F. J. Rowbotham

Sir James Clark Ross



James Clark Ross, the hero of Antarctic scientific exploration, was born in the April of 1800—the son of George Ross, of Balsarroch, Wigtownshire, and the nephew of the Arctic navigator, Rear-Admiral Sir John Ross, who was to endeavour, in 1818, to make the North-West passage through Davis' Strait.

No doubt, like the boys in the storybooks, he longed "to go to sea", from his earliest years, and probably it was largely due to his uncle's stories of dangers and discoveries that, when he was twelve years old, James Clark Ross entered the Navy. Henceforth the sea was his education—one might almost say his home, and during the next six years, on his uncle's ship Briseis, and afterwards on the Actaeon  and Driver, he must have learnt, not only mathematics, but navigation, and the elements of that mysterious science, terrestrial magnetism.

Before the year 1800 there had been no delicate instruments for measuring the forces, light, heat, electricity, and magnetism, included under one head—"transformations of energy." The earth, it was generally accepted, was a great magnet, and Benjamin Franklin had declared that in all iron bodies there existed a magnetic fluid, equally attracted by all their parts, and equally diffused—unless the equilibrium was disturbed by "a power superior to the attraction of the iron". This was "the fluid theory of magnetism", but the "molecular theory" declared that the atoms of a bar of iron are small magnets, which, when the bar is unmagnetized, point indiscriminately in all directions, but when it is magnetized "a certain number of these little magnets point in a different direction". The discovery of electrons, however, has shown us how  each atom of iron acts as a minute magnet; the electric charges rotating round the atoms of iron (which we call electrons) constitute the electric current of each atom, and act like magnets.

In order to determine the magnetic force acting in every point of the earth's surface, three co-ordinates must be given: the declination  of the force (or the deviation of the magnetic needle from the true north), the dip  or inclination of the horizon, and the total intensity. As these magnetic constants differ in every place, and vary from hour to hour, from day to day, it is important that their "experimental determination" should be made at as many stations as possible; this was the object which scientific explorers kept in view. They were seeking, not merely excitement and novelty, but at every step there were charts and records to be made, and the search for knowledge led them further and further, studying the ever-varying conditions of Life. In the case of James Clark Ross, science and adventure seem always to have gone hand in hand, and in 1818 he was appointed to the Isabella, sailing from England in April, and following the route of Baffin's voyage in 1616. Besides the Isabella, a hired whaler, commanded by Captain James Ross, there was the Alexander, commanded by Lieutenant Edward Parry, and the chief importance of the expedition was that it vindicated Baffin's accuracy as a discoverer. Also, as a practical result, it showed the way to a valuable fishery in the North Water of Baffin's Bay, but whilst Captain Ross was of opinion that the inlets reported by Baffin were merely bays, Parry believed that to the westward there was a wide opening through Lancaster Sound of Baffin. Ross, attempting to proceed westward through this Sound, was deceived, presumably by a mirage, and on his return to England described the passage as barred by mountains, which he named Croker Mountains. Before he heard the last of those mountains, however, he must have been heartily sick of the name; at first his report was accepted as conclusive, he was promoted to post-rank, and in 1819 published A Voyage of Discovery made under the orders of the Admiralty in His Majesty's ships 'Isabella' and 'Alexander', for the purpose of exploring Baffin's Bay and inquiring into the possibility of a North-West passage.

Next year the Admiralty, learning that there were some doubts about the reality of the Croker Mountains, sent Parry in command of a new expedition, and James Clark Ross sailed with him. The two ships, Hecla  and Griper, passed through Lancaster Sound, advancing westwards, with an archipelago on the starboard, since known as the Parry Islands. Parry was unfortunately hindered however, by "that impenetrable polar pack of vast thickness which appears to surround the archipelago to the north of the American continent", and was compelled to spend the winter on the south coast of Melville Island. Throughout the winter, Parry's sanitary precautions were admirable, and in 82o the expedition returned safely to England, bringing proof that Ross had judged too hastily. This proof led to an undue disparagement of Ross's work, and he was naturally anxious to make another attempt. In the meantime his nephew accompanied Parry's next expedition in the Fury, passing the first winter again on the Melville Peninsula, and the second among the Eskimo at Igloo-like, in 69 20' N.; Parry also discovered a channel leading from the head of Hudson's Bay, which he called, after the two ships of his expedition, "Fury and Hecla Strait."

In 1823 the expedition returned; James Clark Ross was now a lieutenant, and no sooner was he safely on shore, than the thought of the straining ships, the ice and the snow, and the unknown northern lands, called him once more to the sea. Parry's friend, Franklin (afterwards Sir John Franklin, the greatest of Arctic explorers), had meantime made strenuous efforts to reach the northern shores of America by land; he had proceeded to the Great Slave Lake, and from the mouth of the Coppermine River explored 550 miles of coastline, enduring the greatest of hardships, from cold and hunger, on the return journey. It was now thought desirable that an attempt should be made to connect Cape Turnagain, the furthest point which Franklin had reached, with Parry's discoveries, but Captain Lyon, sailing in the Griper, was compelled to return unsuccessfully to England.

In 1824 three expeditions were organized, and James Clark Ross once more sailed with Parry to Lancaster Sound in the Fury, and was in her when she was wrecked down a great opening to the south, named Prince Regent's Inlet; Captain Beechey, however, succeeded in entering Behring's Strait, and Franklin, making a second journey to Arctic America, descended the Mackenzie River, exploring the coast for 374 miles to the westward, and finally returned in 1826.



In the following year James Ross was again with Parry, this time on the Hecla, in an expedition to Spitzbergen, with the object of reaching the North Pole by travelling over ice, in sledge-boats. With twenty-four men Parry dragged two flat-bottomed boats as far as the latitude 82 45' N., the experiment proving the futility of leaving the land and trusting to drifting pack. On his return James was made a commander, and in the meantime his uncle had not forgotten the affair of the Croker Mountains; he was extremely anxious to try his fortune once more, and in the Felix Booth expedition of 1829–33 Captain Ross the younger accompanied his uncle in the little Victory, on a private voyage of discovery, the funds being provided by Felix Booth, a wealthy distiller. They proceeded down Prince Regent's Inlet to the Gulf of Bothia, wintering on the eastern side of a land, named—obviously out of compliment to the distiller—Boothia Felix. During the many exploring expeditions of the summer months, James Clark Ross crossed this land, actually discovering, on June 1, 1831, the position of the North magnetic pole. (The magnetic needle, or the light bar of the mariner's compass, being magnetized, points always to the north; therefore the magnetic north is that point of the horizon which is indicated by the direction of the magnetic needle, and the magnetic poles are two points, nearly opposite, where the "dip" of the needle is 90.)

He also discovered a land to the westward of Boothia, which was named King William Land, and reached the most northerly point, Cape Felix, on May 29, 1830. Unfortunately, the uncle and nephew could not get their ship out of its winter quarters; during the fourth winter, they were obliged to fall back on the stores left at Fury, Beach, and eventually were picked up, with their crew, by a whaler in Barrow Strait. In the meanwhile Sir George Back had been sent in search of them, but after wintering at the Great Slave Lake, and descending the Great Fish River, which is obstructed by many falls in the course of a rapid and tortuous course of 530 miles, he was obliged, for lack of supplies, to return, and in his absence Ross had already come safely to England.

The main principles of Polar exploration have been thus summed up—they are a sufficient commentary on the work of James Clark Ross, before the year 1839, when he commanded the English Antarctic Expedition:

  1. Arctic research is of the highest importance for a knowledge of nature's laws;
  2. geographical research is valuable in proportion as it opens the field of scientific research generally;
  3. the north pole has, for science, no greater significance than any other point in the higher latitudes, and is not in itself the object to be sought, but the exploration of the unknown area with a view to scientific results.

In 1838 James Clark Ross was employed by the Admiralty on a magnetic survey of the United Kingdom; and in the following year he was appointed to command an expedition fitted out for magnetic and geographical discovery in the Antarctic. Two old ships, the Erebus  and the Terror, were sent under the command of James Ross, with Captain Crozier in the Terror. Leaving Chatham in September, they proceeded first to the Cape, and thence southwards to Kerguelen Island, which they reached in May, 1840—and carefully surveyed. Three months later Ross established a magnetic observatory at Hobart Town, and the second season's cruise began in November, from Tasmania. First the Auckland Islands and Campbell Islands were visited and surveyed—and if, in imagination, you intend to "put a girdle round the earth" you must of course follow the voyage of the Erebus  on the map. On New Year's Day, 1841, the Antarctic Circle was crossed—in about 172 E. Soon afterwards the two ships were slowly and patiently grinding their way through the ice pack, and by January 1 they were clear of it, passing the highest latitude reached by Captain Cook, and sighting lofty peaks, covered with perennial snow.

Approaching nearer, there was a clear view of mountains rising to 10,000 feet, and "glaciers filling the intervening valleys and projecting into the sea". Ross had calculated that the South magnetic pole was in 76 S. and 145 20' E., or about 500 miles southwest from the ship's position. The land interposed an insuperable obstacle to any nearer approach to it. Ross landed, however, though with great difficulty, owing to the strong tide and dangerous drifting ice, on a small island, named Possession Island, inhabited by myriad's of penguins, but no vegetation could be seen. On the 23rd they were again sailing south, in an unexplored sea, and thus passed the most southerly latitude previously reached. Sailing along the newly discovered coast, Captain Ross landed with much difficulty on an island named after Sir John Franklin; four days later they came upon an active volcano, 12,400 feet above the sea, emitting smoke in great profusion, and this they named Mount Erebus, whilst an extinct volcano to the eastward was named Mount Terror.

As far as the eye could reach, there was a perpendicular cliff of ice to the east, "perfectly level at the top, and without any fissures and promontories on its smooth seaward face." Above it could be seen the summits of a range of mountains, to which the name of Parry was given, and for 450 miles Ross followed the cliff, till, in the spring, new ice formed, but luckily a strong breeze enabled the ship to force its way through. The whole of the great southern land which Ross discovered was named Victoria Land, and after studying the stories of recent Antarctic explorers the value of his work becomes increasingly apparent.



In November, 1841, the Erebus  and the Terror  again entered the ice pack, once more crossing the Antarctic Circle on New Year's Day. After very perilous navigation the Great Icy Barrier was sighted, and on February 23 the expedition reached a latitude of 78 11' S., and after "imminent dangers in navigating through chains of huge ice-bergs", Captain Ross turned northwards, and wintered at the Falkland Islands. In February, next year about 160 miles of the pack were examined, and on March 11 the Antarctic Circle was recrossed for the last time. In September the expedition returned to England, and thus after four years of most diligent work, this ably conducted and quite unparalleled voyage to the south polar regions came to an end.

In this year James Clark Ross married Anne, daughter of Thomas Coulman, of Whitgift Hall, near Beverley in Yorkshire. It was said that an agreement with her family prevented him from accepting the command of the Franklin Expedition, which was in the first instance offered to him. She died in 1857, leaving three sons and one daughter.

The success of the Antarctic expedition, and the completion of the northern coastline by the Hudson's Bay Company's servants, gave rise in 1845 to a fresh attempt to make the passage from Lancaster Sound to Behring Strait. Sir John Franklin—Ross having refused the command—sailed with an expedition consisting of the gallant Erebus  and Terror. In 1848 great anxiety was felt, and Ross was sent with two ships, the Enterprise  and the Investigator, by way of Lancaster Sound, but was compelled to return without news of Franklin, though it was not till long after that hope was abandoned. The Franklin catastrophe led to 7,000 miles of coastline being discovered, securing very considerable additions to geographical knowledge, including the discovery that King William Land was an island. The scientific results of the many search expeditions proved invaluable, and also it was now established, beyond doubt, that similar catastrophes could, to a very large extent, be avoided, by making careful arrangements for a retreat, and leaving a depot ship within reach of the advancing expedition. We know, however, that the utmost prudence and foresight is not always sufficient to protect Polar explorers from the tragic but glorious end which, a few years ago, awaited Captain Scott and his companions.

In 1844 Ross was given the honorary degree D.C.L., Oxford, four years later he was knighted, and in 1847 he published A Narrative of a Voyage in the Antarctic Regions. He died in 1862, and it has been well said that there is no man to whom Antarctic scientific exploration owes more than it owes to Sir James Clark Ross.