History Archive > A Voyage of Discovery (1819)

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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 probability of a North-West Passage.


Date: 1819



Sir John Ross (1777-1856) was a famous British rear-admiral and Arctic explorer who was given the command of an Arctic expedition fitted out by the Admiralty, the first of a new series of attempts to solve the question of a North-West passage. As his lieutenants, Ross had aboard William Parry, James Clark Ross, and Edward Sabine, all of future fame as explorers. Ross attempted to proceed westward through Lancaster Sound, but being deceived, presumably by a mirage, he described the passage as barred by a range of mountains, which he named the Croker Mountains, despite the disbelief of his colleagues.

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On returning to England in November, the report was, at first, accepted as conclusive, and Ross was promoted to post rank in December, 1818. In the following year he published this volume. A controversy soon arose which called Ross' courage into question and opened a life-long quarrel between him and Sir John Barrow" (Hill I:261).

The voyage of John Ross into Baffin's Bay in 1818 was a pioneering effort in high Arctic exploration, and his narrative, published the following year, was the finest series of Arctic views then published. One of the most striking plates was based not on the work of an English officer but of the expedition's Inuit interpreter, John Sackheouse, depicting the successful meeting between the expedition and Inuits at Prince Regent's Bay, certainly the earliest representational work by a native American artist to be so reproduced. (Beinecke Library).


Arctic Highlander / Ervick, a Native of Prince Regents Bay. Lat. 76.12. N. Long. 65. W.

Several Inuit were invited aboard the ships in August, 1818.

A Remarkable Iceberg. Lat. 70' 45 N. June 17, 1818.

Ross notes that just north of this point his ships and 45 others in the whaling business were stopped by icebergs too numerous to pass through.

Cape Melville and Melvilles Monument.

Ross named this cape and "monument" for Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty. A man-made monument to Melville was constructed in Edinburgh ca. 1821.

Cape Byam Martin, Possession Mount, and Cape Fanshawe. Discovered Septr. 1st, 1818 by H.M.S. Isabella.

Sir Thomas Byam Martin was Comptroller of His Majesty's Navy. Ross called this the most magnificent chain of mountains he had ever seen. The area is in the eastern part of Baffin Bay.

Crimson Cliffs. A View of the Coloured Snow in Lat. 76. 25 N. & Long. 68. W.

These cliffs were found in Baffin Bay west of Cape York. When their color was noted, Ross sent some of the crew to investigate the cause of it. The snow was colored to a depth of 10-12 feet. Samples were taken and examined on board ship. It was concluded that the red matter was of vegetable origin and may have come from some plants that grew at the tops of the cliffs.

Coburg Bay, Cape Leopold & Princess Charlottes Monument.

Coburg Bay was at the northwest of Baffin Bay. The rock was named for Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796-1817). Her husband was Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1790-1865), who became first king of the Belgians in 1831.

A Remarkable Iceberg. July, 1818. Lat. 74. & Long 65. W.

This iceberg must have been observed on the eastern side of Baffin Bay. Large amounts of ice prevented the expedition from moving forward for many days in July of 1818.

A Bear Plunging into the Sea.

The crew attempted to shoot the bear, but failed. The polar bear is Ursus maritimus.

Crews of the Isabella and Alexander, Sawing a passage through the Ice.

Large amounts of ice prevented the expedition from moving forward for many days in July of 1818. As soon as the crew could saw an opening in the ice, it would close around the ships again.

Perilous Situation of the Isabella and Alexander, Augt. 7th, 1818.

In August the Isabella and Alexander were pushed by sea ice so that their sterns crashed together, crushing a boat that had been between them. Their cables and anchors broke, but the ice ceased to push against the ships, making it possible for them to pass by each other with little more damage except that the bower anchors were torn from the bows and remained hooked together until the Alexander's gave way.

Petoowack. Formation of an Iceberg.

Text describes this iceberg as taking up about four square miles, extending a mile into the sea, and being one thousand feet high. The settlement nearby was called Petowack or Petoowack.


Probably the Arctic fork-tailed gull, Xeme sabini or Sabine's Gull.

Island of Disco and Icebergs.

Skene was the Admiralty Midshipman.

[left] Marshuik. [right] Meigack. Arctic Highlanders, Natives of Lat. 77 North Long. 65 West.

Several Inuit were invited aboard the ships in August, 1818. Skene was the Admiralty Midshipman.

First Communications with the Natives of Prince Regents Bay, as Drawn by John Sackheouse, and Presented to Capt. Ross, Augt. 10, 1818.

Prince Regent's Bay was really an inlet in Baffin Bay. John Sackheouse was the native interpreter for the expedition. Here the British and Inuit exchange gifts on meeting for the first time.

View of the Islands in Wolstenholme Sound.

Ross named a large rock here Dalrymple Rock, the south cape for the Duke of Athol, and the north cape for the Earl of Stair. Sir John Wolstenholme (1562?1639) had been one of the sponsors of William Baffin's search for a northwest passage in 1615, when the sound was discovered and named for him. Skene was the Admiralty Midshipman.

A Bone Sled, Dog Whip, Spear, & Knife, of the Arctic Highlanders.

The spear and sledge or sled were gifts from the Inuit to Captain Ross. The spear was made of narwhal tusk. The sled was made of seal bones and sealskin, with the runners made of narwhal tusk.

Kallie, a Woman of Greenland. Native of Oppernivick. Lat. 73 N. an inhabitant of N.E. Bay.

The expedition invited several of the Inuit aboard its boats while they were trading for a sledge. Ross notes that some of the native people were the offspring of Inuit and Danish parents.

[top] A Sledge Dog of the Arctic Highlander of Lat. 77. N. [bottom] Head of a White Bear.

The polar bear is Ursus maritimus. The dog may be related to the breed Canadian Eskimo Dog or Canadian Inuit Dog known in Inuit as the Qimmiq (dog), although that breed is now black and white, not brown as shown here. Skene was the Admiralty Midshipman.


[1] An Outline to shew the Connected Discoveries of Captains Ross, Parry & Franklin, in the years 1818, 19, 20 and 21.

Map and chart of the territory explored by John Ross, William Edward Parry, and John Franklin. Map shows from the Bering Strait to the Greenland Sea and from Baffin Bay to Hudson Bay. Cartographic elements include lines of latitude and longitude, names of topographical features and bodies of water, and soundings.

[2] A General Chart Shewing the Track and Discoveries of H.M. Ships Isabella & Alexander to Davis's Straits & Baffin's Bay.

Chart of part of the Arctic including Greenland, Iceland, and Baffin's Bay. Cartographic elements include lines of latitude and longitude, Names of geographical locations, route of the expedition's ships, and soundings.

[3] Plan of the Part of Baffins Bay which was found to be Inhabited.

Map of part of Baffin Bay. Cartographic elements include lines of latitude and longitude, route of the expedition's ships, topographical details, names of islands, sounds, and bays, and notations about landings and magnetic variations.


Abbey Travel 634. Cooke & Holland, 139. Arctic Bibliography 14873. Hill 1488. Sabin 73376. Prideaux, 255, 350.

1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 23 pg. 740

John Carter Brown Library

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