The Royal Navy’s First Arctic Expeditions 1773 and 1818

This essay was originally written for a course in the MA Naval History at the University of Portsmouth, 24 April 2023.

Image: The ships ‘Race-horse’ and ‘Carcass’ of Captain Phipps’ expedition embedded in ice in the Polar Regions by John Cleveley (1774)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

After the Napoleonic Wars had ended victoriously for Britain in 1815, there followed almost a century of relative peace between the major powers, the Pax Britannica. During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 1789 until 1815 the Navy had expanded and during the height of the wars doubled or even tripled in size compared to before, depending on what numbers you consult.[1] Now that the wars were over, the size and budget of the Navy were severely reduced.[2] The Navy started focusing its resources and manpower on maintaining and expanding its international trade and power.[3] Despite the Pax Britannica, the Royal Navy was still involved in foreign conflicts and wars. While all this afforded some employment, the Navy’s decreased budget made promotion and employment more difficult to find.[4] However, peacetime meant that the Navy could be deployed for discovery service. These were voyages with geographic and scientific purposes. These discovery voyages proved to be an opportunity for naval officers to find employment, fame, and for some even a Knighthood.[5] Many of these voyages were to the Arctic in search of a Northwest Passage.
                It is interesting to observe that polar exploration by the Royal Navy is predominantly studied by English and Literature scholars instead of (naval) historians. This can be explained by the fact that polar exploration is a popular subject in literature and art, and its study can therefore easily be from a literary and cultural angle. Multidisciplinary research is very valuable and it can help reach new conclusions. But with many of the early nineteenth century expeditions being ordered and paid for by the Admiralty, it would make sense for naval historians to take more of an interest. As naval historian Andrew Lambert says: “Nineteenth-century naval history was very much the province of the [memoir]. Most focused on travel stories, minor actions, and curious lands, dismissing time ashore as a distraction.” [6] Perhaps because of this, polar exploration is an undesirable research topic for the present-day naval historian who would rather concern themselves with warfare, strategy, and policy. Even the very course this essay was written for went almost straight from 1815 to 1860, from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the transition from wooden sailing ships to steam-powered ironclads with no attention to polar exploration. While the polar expeditions had nothing to do with epic sea battles a la Trafalgar or major strategic advances, polar exploration was of naval significance for different reasons as this essay will show.

True British seamen
               What if there was a way to beat the Spanish and Portuguese at trading with Asia by finding an alternative, faster trade route from the West to Asia? In 1504 King Henry VII sent Genoese explorer and navigator Giovanni Caboto (anglicised John Cabot) to find a Northwest Passage. Later English seaman and privateer Martin Frobisher sailed out from Greenwich in June 1576 with the blessing of Queen Elizabeth I.[7] Not having succeeded, voyages by William Baffin (who gave his name to Baffin Island and Bay) and John Hudson (who gave his name to Hudson’s Bay and the river in New York) followed in the early seventeenth century. None of these expeditions had been able to penetrate the Arctic ice.[8]  While not finding a Northwest passage, these voyages were important because they explored and mapped new land. The ultimate prize, the passage, was however still very much sought after. It was not until 1773 that the Royal Navy organised its first polar expedition. The objective was to reach the North Pole and find a Northeast Passage over Russia. After reading about an Open Polar Sea, the Vice-President of the Royal Society approached the Admiralty through the First Lord, Lord Sandwich about an expedition to the North Pole. The latter laid the proposal before King George III who pledged his every encouragement and assistance.[9] Two refitted and reinforced bomb vessels were sent out under the command of Commander Constantine John Phipps in Racehorse, and his second Commander Skeffington Lutwidge in Carcass. Phipps had volunteered for the expedition as soon he heard of it. The newspapers did not report about the expedition in a patriotic fashion, but did explain the immense advantage it could bring if successful: “The principal design of the voyage is to examine the countries and seas near the pole, and to endeavour to find a passage this way to Japan, which is now a voyage of about ten months; whereas if a passage could be found by the North, it might be performed in seven weeks.”[10]
                In the account published a mere month after his return, Phipps gives a brief history of British attempts at finding the North Pole before concluding that despite not finding it the efforts alone are proof of a decided British superiority in naval affairs.[11] Thus continuing in that superior fashion, the Phipps expedition went on to not find the North Pole nor a Passage but they did discover a new species of bird and provided the first scientific description of the polar bear.[12] On the topic of polar bears: one of the primary reasons this Arctic voyage is remembered is that a young lad by name of Horatio Nelson joined the expedition as Midshipman. In Nelson’s 1809 biography by Clarke & M’Arthur an incident concerning Nelson and a polar bear is recounted, and the authors had even commissioned the scene to be painted by Richard Westall. An engraving of the painting is included in the book. With the biography meaning to present Nelson as a hero, the authors included an anecdote of which Commander Lutwidge is the only source. Lutwidge apparently personally told the authors, because no written source exists, that one night, as the ships were stuck in the ice, Nelson and another Midshipman secretly left the ship to go and hunt a polar bear for its fur. The two boys however got into trouble when the polar bear attacked them back, and Nelson’s musket flashed in the pan. A chasm in the ice separated them from the bear, and a gunshot being fired from the ships scared off the bear and saved their lives. It is curious that this story is included in Nelson’s biography, because leaving the ship without orders and putting yourself in harm’s way is not behaviour befitting a Midshipman of the Royal Navy. Evidently, the authors saw it as an example of Nelson being heroic in fighting a polar bear, all because he wanted to present the fur as a gift to his father. The incident was not noted down in the ship’s log, and Peter Goodwin suggests that this was so as not to cause embarrassment to Lutwidge as a leader.[13] In my opinion, a more plausible explanation would be that Lutwidge left no written trace of the incident to protect Nelson’s reputation and allow him to come away without punishment. Lutwidge had served under Nelson’s uncle Captain Maurice Suckling a number of times and had agreed to take Nelson on this expedition upon the latter’s request.[14] Lutwidge’s response to Nelson’s insubordination was to cover it with the cloak of nepotism. Clarke & M’Arthur say that Lutwidge shared his recollection of the polar bear incident to demonstrate the “gallant” Nelson’s “filial attention”.[15] Lutwidge was still alive when the biography was published thus fabricating his testimony would have been awkward. However, it sounds implausible that a Royal Navy Captain would look affectionately upon his Midshipman’s insubordination because he thought it was so attentive of the lad to want to risk his life to get his father a fur coat.
                The painting later made by Westall in 1809 [Image 1] shows Nelson in a heroic and defiant stance about to hit the polar bear with the butt of his musket.

[Image 1: Richard Westall Nelson and the bear (1809) ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection (BHC2907)]

His companion the other Mid has been erased from the narrative, to make Nelson seem even more isolated and heroic. In a later illustration [Image 2] commissioned for the 1854 edition of Robert Southey’s Life of Nelson biography the other Mid is visible in the background. However, Lutwidge had testified that the two young Mids were fighting the polar bear together when Lutwidge spotted them from the ship and fired a gun to scare off the bear. Another difference between the two depictions is the demeanor of the polar bear.

[Image 2: Myles Birket Foster Nelson encountering a bear (1854) ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London (PAE5378)]

In the 1809 version, the bear is a formidable opponent, head held high and bearing its teeth. The 1854 version shows the bear with its head down as if intimidated by the ‘imposing’ figure of the small Midshipman with a gun. The art is evidently a propaganda piece designed to show that a solitary Royal Navy hero could hold his own against beasts in the inhospitable landscape of the Arctic. When the two ships could not advance and became beset in the ice, Nelson was placed in command of one of the boats that the ship’s company was going to haul to open water to escape. In his memoirs, Nelson described this operation in a patriotic fashion: “The men behaved excellently well, like true British seamen: they seemed reconciled to the thought of leaving the ships, and had full confidence in their officers.”[16] The message was that true British seamen would never forget to perform their duty even under the harsh conditions of the Arctic.

[Image 3: detail of Constantine John Phipps, 2nd Baron Mulgrave by Unknown artist, formerly attributed to Johan Joseph Zoffany (c. 1775) ©National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 1094)]

In a painting made circa 1775 [Image 3], Phipps is shown in his dress uniform commanding the crew hauling the boats. In reality, he was dressed in more climate-appropriate clothes, as the expedition had sensibly been provided with “clothing adapted to that rigor of climate, which from the relations of former navigators we were taught to expect”[17]. For his portrait, the spectator was made to believe that his British superiority was keeping him warm. Again, this depiction of a Royal Navy man in the ice regions has a touch of heroism about it. Upon the return of the expedition, the newspapers were not impressed and they all shared the same succinct article: “Capt. Phipps and Lutwidge in their expedition to the North Pole, only penetrated to 81.29 when they found the ice too thick, that they could not proceed any further. For 14 days they were entirely surrounded, and began to think that their situation was so thoroughly closed, that they must abandon their ships; they, therefore, prepared to drag their boats cross the ice, and direct their course for Spitsbergen; in this dilemma the ice broke, and they proceeded southward. We are informed that government will not fit out any more vessels on these northward expeditions.”[18]

A matter of honour
                Besides the Government’s disinterest in sending out any more North Pole or Northwest passage expeditions, Arctic exploration had to be put on ice due to the commencement of the French and subsequent Napoleonic Wars. The first Polar expedition to be sent out after the Wars was a two-pronged effort and according to the account published afterwards it had been ordered by the Prince Regent George (later King George IV) himself. He “signified his pleasure to Viscount Melville [First Lord of the Admiralty], that an attempt should be made to discover a Northern Passage, by sea, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean”[19] In actuality it had again been the Royal Society that had again approached the King. The Morning Chronicle reports on 22 November 1817[20] that they have heard that a vessel is to be fitted out by the Government to attempt again the Northwest passage. The Royal Society learnt from Greenland Whalers that the West coast of Greenland was curiously ice-free and that vessels would have been able to make it as far as the North Pole “if it had consisted with their duty to their employers to make the attempt”.  While the Royal Society applied to the Government for a Royal Navy expedition to be sent out, they also requested that fishing vessels should be encouraged to see how far North they could go, with rewards being divided into portions according to how far they went. Several newspapers[21] circulated the call to “merchants engaged in the Greenland Whale Fishery to not postpone the sailing of their ships to the usual season, but expedite them at once” to take advantage of the “temporary state of things”. In the meantime then Commander John Ross had received a letter on the 11th of December 1817 “dated the 4th,  from Sir  George Hope, one of the Lords of the Admiralty, acquainting me,  that two ships were to be sent out,  to ascertain the existence or non-existence of a north-west passage;[…]”[22] and whether he wished to undertake it, to which he replied in the affirmative. In Parliament, on March 18th 1818 the upcoming Arctic expeditions were presented as being of importance to the world in their attempt to solve a problem that is “most interesting to maritime science”. If anybody could do this, it would surely be British sailors who were distinguished by their “courage, skill, and persevering spirit of enterprise”. The navy was described by the government as “the bulwark of the nation—the great source of its glory”.[23] On March 6th, the First Secretary to the Admiralty John Croker called finding a Northwest Passage a matter of honour for the country.[24] With the Admiralty considering finding a Northwest Passage as a great source of pride and glory for Britain, did the newspapers echo the same sentiment?
                On December 3rd the London Chronicle published a piece on their front cover about the upcoming Northwest Passage expedition.[25] It starts with a history of Arctic exploration by order of English Kings starting with Alfred in the year 901, which cannot be correct since Alfred died in 899[26]. The article later makes another mistake by saying that the Phipps expedition took place in 1775. Even though the paper calls the matter of a passage “interesting both politically and geographically”, the end of the article concedes that even if a passage was found that the “uncertainty which would still hang over a navigation in the Arctic Regions, would prevent the newly discovered passage from being of general use.” They know however that with human curiosity and love of fame and money “motives will not be wanting to prompt men to the hazardous, yet honourable, archievement […] Should they succeed, those employed in it will have will have added largely to our knowledge of the globe we inhabit, and therefore become the living benefactors of their fellow-creatures: and should they fail in the attempt, they will share the death and immortality of a Perouse [Commodore Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse] and a [Captain James] Cook.” (Cook and Lapérouse both died while exploring the Pacific, after having made important contributions to mapping the world.)  While recognising that without explorers many important discoveries would not have been made, the London Chronicle seems to not think very highly of the pursuit of a Northwest Passage and certainly does not see it as a matter of honour for Britain. Another newspaper, London’s Morning Herald [27] published a discouraging piece written by Danish-French geographer Malte Brun. In it Brun wants to warn the upcoming expeditions of the “immense obstacles against which they have to contend” and that there is no such thing as an Open Polar Sea. “The Polar Seas will never afford a commercial route”, Brun concluded. Despite these discouraging sounds in the news, the two expeditions left England in May 1818 and they were organised as follows:
Captain David Buchan (HMS Dorothea) and Lieutenant John Franklin (HMS Trent) were to go to Spitsbergen, then the North Pole, and from there to the Bering Strait. Commander John Ross (HMS Isabella) and Lieutenant William Edward Parry (HMS Alexander) were to find a Northwest Passage by way of Baffin Bay.

Polar propaganda
Like all the previous expeditions before them, the four ships did not achieve their goal and found neither Pole nor Passage. Upon their return, the Globe attempted to report the failure in a nicely worded and patriotic manner: “It undoubtedly belongs to a great naval and mercantile power such as Great Britain is, to make every fair and rational effort to extend the limits of nautical and geographical science, and to attempt the achievement of an object so universally desired; but considering the unsuccessful experiments that have been repeatedly made, and particularly the last, which was undertaken with every advantage that could be afforded by enthusiasm, skill, and intrepidity, we cannot entertain the remotest hope of ever seeing a similar enterprise crowned with success.”[28]
How come that after the failure of the 1818 expeditions, and the media openly reporting this, there would be even more Arctic expeditions sent out by the Admiralty only until the disastrous 1845 Franklin Expedition that resulted in the deaths of the entire crew put a temporary stop to them? The answer is generally given as Sir John Barrow, the Second Secretary of the Admiralty from 1804 until 1845. Barrow used his power at the Admiralty to promote Arctic exploration and had a big say in choosing the naval officers who would join the expeditions. Officers who shared his belief in a Northwest passage were favoured, and those who opposed him were scorned.[29] We have seen that the Royal Society was a great promotor of and petitioner for Arctic exploration, but Barrow had an important patron in its then President Sir Joseph Banks who would make sure to respond favourably whenever Barrow applied to the First Lord of the Admiralty, who would always ask the Society’s advice.[30] The dedication in Captain Frederick William Beechey’s (who had been to the Arctic three times) 1843 book reads: “To Sir John Barrow, the Originator and Promotor of Modern Arctic Discovery”.[31]
                It had become customary for an expedition’s leader to publish an account as soon as possible after their return. The Admiralty wanted to control the narrative, by demanding that all officers hand in their logs and journals on arrival in England.[32] With Arctic exploration accounts of the first half of the nineteenth century, there is one thing almost all of them have in common: they are published by John Murray who happened to be a good friend of… Sir John Barrow.[33] History and Literature Professor I.S. MacLaren went through the John Murray archive and found correspondence indicating Barrow’s intimate involvement in the writing and publishing of Arctic expedition accounts.[34] Barrow also spread his Polar propaganda through the Quarterly Review, a literary and political periodical founded by John Murray. The article announcing the 1818 Arctic expeditions was written under the guise of a book review of Lieutenant Edward Chappell’s Narrative of a Voyage to Hudson’s Bay. After summarising, condemning, and dismissing the book in the first paragraph, Barrow set out to inform the public about the open polar sea. Over 12.000 copies were sold, giving Barrow a large audience to promote his polar passion. [35]

Claiming in my introduction that polar exploration is a significant element of Naval History and then proceeding to detail only its failure might not seem to provide proof of said claim. But it is precisely because of this continued failure and expeditions being sent out again and again by the Admiralty that makes it significant. Thanks to the numerous expeditions new land was mapped and scientific research was being done. These expeditions were manned by Naval officers whose desire to serve and explore was fanned by the expedition accounts that Sir John Barrow so carefully crafted into propaganda. By recounting Britain’s history of searching for a Northwest Passage and the North Pole, it was being turned into a tradition and the duty of Great Britain to achieve what their ancestors could not. It was political because it strengthened the sense of British naval superiority and the fear that another country might discover the Passage or the Pole first. While Sir John Barrow is sometimes blamed for needlessly sending men into dangerous territories, one must not forget that these men had agency and chose to go for reasons such as prospective promotion and fame.
               Yours truly believes that more historical research should be carried out by reading and transcribing the personal correspondence and journals of Royal Naval Arctic explorers, to create a more complete picture besides the official accounts and authors endlessly repeating quotes without giving sources. There is still plenty of work to do in the archives, and naval historians should be a part of it.


[1] Rodger, N.A.M. The command of the ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815, London: Penguin, 2006, 638-639.
Rodger gives two sets of figures from two different sources, there is a slight difference between the two.

[2] Grove, Eric The Royal Navy Since 1815: A New Short History, London: Bloomsbury, 2005, 1

[3] Lambert, Andrew ‘The Shield of Empire 1815-1895’. In The Oxford illustrated history of the Royal Navy edited by Hill, J. R; Ranft, Bryan,Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, 161

[4] Wilcox, M. ‘These peaceable times are the devil: Royal Navy officers in the post-war slump, 1815–1825.’ International Journal of Maritime History, 26(3), 2014, 478

[5] Wilcox, M, 2014, 279

[6] Lambert, Andrew ‘The Construction of Naval History 1815–1914’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 97:1, 210

[7] Goodwin, Peter Nelson’s Arctic Voyage. The Royal Navy’s First Polar Expedition 1773, London: Adlard Coles, 2019, 7-9

[8] Goodwin, 2019, 22

[9] Savours, Ann ‘ “A Very Interesting Point in Geography”: The 1773 Phipps Expedition towards the North Pole’ Arctic, Dec., 1984, Vol. 37, No. 4, Unveiling the Arctic (Dec., 1984), 403-404

[10] Oxford Journal – Saturday 29 May 1773

[11] Phipps, Constantine John A voyage towards the North Pole: undertaken by His Majesty’s command, 1773. London: J. Nourse, 1774, 9

[12] Savours, Ann, 1984, 413

[13] Goodwin, 2019, 217

[14] Goodwin, 2010, 129

[15] Clarke, James Stanier; M’Arthur, John The life of Admiral Lord Nelson, K.B., from his lordship’s manuscripts, Second Edition, London: T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1810, 7

[16] Southey, Robert The Life of Nelson, London: John Murray 1813, 17

[17] Phipps, Constantine John, 1774, 11

[18] Kentish Gazette – Wednesday 06 October 1773

[19] Ross, Sir John Voyage of discovery […], London: John Murray, 1819, 1

[20] Morning Chronicle – Saturday 22 November 1817

[21] Morning Chronicle – Saturday 22 November 1817, Aris’s Birmingham Gazette – Monday 01 December 1817, London Chronicle – Wednesday 03 December 1817, Liverpool Mercury – Friday 12 December 1817

[22] Ross, Sir John, 1819, iv

[23] Hansard, Volume 37: debated on Monday 16 March 1818, Column 1103 and 1104

[24] Hansard, Longitude Discovery Bill Volume 37: debated on Friday 6 March 1818

[25] London Chronicle – Wednesday 03 December 1817

[26] British Library, accessed 24-4-2023

[27] Morning Herald (London) – Saturday 28 March 1818

[28] Globe – Saturday 14 November 1818

[29] Regard, Frédéric, edited by, Arctic Exploration in the Nineteenth Century: Discovering the Northwest Passage, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015, 20

[30] Barrow, Sir John Voyages of Discovery and Research Within the Arctic Regions, from the Year 1818 to the Present Time, London: John Murray, 1846, 6-7

[31] Beechey, Frederick William A Voyage Of Discovery Towards The North Pole, Performed In His Majesty’s Ships Dorothea And Trent, Under The Command Of
Captain David Buchan, R. N., 1818
. London: Richard Bentley, 1843

[32] Ross, Sir John Voyage of discovery […], London: John Murray, 1819, 13

[33] MacLaren, I.S ‘From Exploration to Publication: The Evolution of a 19th-Century Arctic Narrative’, Arctic, Mar., 1994, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Mar., 1994), 45

[34] MacLaren, I.S, 1994, 46-47

[35] Cavell, Janice Tracing the Connected Narrative: Arctic Exploration in British Print Culture, 1818-1860, University of Toronto Press, 2008, 62