If Franklin’s lost expedition was the most spectacular failure in the quest for a shortcut over North America, it capped what had been centuries-long catalog of doomed voyages into the unknown. Lured by the riches of the “East” and unaware of that a proper continent stood in their way, the Passage beckoned centuries’ worth of European explorers to an icy end.
Some of the earliest expeditions were the wretched voyages of the Englishman Martin Frobisher, who did just about everything wrong in pursuit of the Passage. After reaching the Arctic in 1576 and losing five of his men under mysterious circumstances, he suspected the local Inuit in their disappearance. Frobisher’s improvisational response, which included kidnapping Inuit and—in later expeditions—killing them, made for increasingly dark jaunts to the North. But despite his misadventures, Frobisher kept returning to the high latitudes, having secured funding by discovering what he thought was gold on Canada’s Baffin Island. Frobisher’s final trip in search of the Passage was a catastrophe, with the fleet encountering “such peril that it was wonderful to behold,” and the ships “so fast shut up” by the ice “that they were fain to submit themselves ... to the mercy of the unmerciful ice.” The expedition hobbled back to England where Frobisher’s gold was eventually revealed to be fool’s gold, and Frobisher the fool.
Then there was the 16th century voyage of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, which claimed more than 100 lives, but left the legacy of Gilbert’s memorable, if gnomic, last words before he was swallowed by the ocean: “We are as near to heaven by sea as by land!”
In 1611, Henry Hudson led an especially miserable voyage over Canada in search of the Northwest Passage. It was so miserable, in fact, a mutiny ensued. As one crewmember explained, “he would rather be hanged at home than starved abroad.” Hudson was forced by the crew into a dinghy, in which he floated away into the arctic wastes, never to be seen again. It was small consolation that the enormous bay in which he drifted to his death, the Hudson, would later be named after him.
In 1719, the Hudson Bay Company director and British senior citizen James Knight pushed off in search of the Northwest Passage. Like Hudson, he too was never heard from again.
Perhaps no journey epitomized the hardship of Arctic exploration more than the “black winter” of Danish explorer Jens Munk. As recounted in Farley Mowat’s classic on the subject, Ordeal by Ice, the expedition stands out for its gloom, even by the gruesome standards of the genre. Munk left Europe with 64 men to find a route through the arctic. After enduring a scorbutic winter in Hudson Bay in 1619, he came back with three men. As Munk describes his personal hell:
“On Easter Day, died Anders Aroust and Jens the cooper ... I was myself quite miserable and abandoned by all the world. And in the night died Hans Bendtsen. The next day died my servant Olluff Andersen who during seven years had served me faithfully and well, and after him died Peter Amundsen ... May 4th. By this day many others had died ... And on this day died Anders Marstrand and Morten Marstrand who had both been long ill ... On [May 11th] died Jens Jorgensen the carpenter, and Suend Marstrand. And God knows what misery we suffered before we got their bodies buried ... On the 16th died the new skipper Jens Hendrichsen, and on the 19th died Erich Hansen Li ... He had dug many graves for others, but now there was nobody who could dig his, and he had to remain unburied ... During these days when we were lying in bed, so altogether bad, there died Peder Nyborg, carpenter, Knud Lauritzen Skudenes, and Jorgen, the cook’s boy, all of whom remained on the steerage, for there was nobody that could bury their bodies or throw them overboard.”
The modern equivalent of the search for the Northwest Passage would be an international space program in which ships routinely exploded upon reaching space, or disappeared into the heavens altogether, taking with them the lives of hundreds of explorers. And it was a program that lasted for centuries.