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Northwest Passage: Voyages of delusion, a historical account

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In 1670 the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) had been founded as a commercial enterprise to obtain furs with trading rights over the vast region named Rupert's Land, but the Company was in its early years unwilling to undertake costly and dangerous discovery ventures. Nevertheless it was Company veteran and former governor, James Knight, who in his seventies in 1719 made the next attempt to find a passage to the East. Knight's expedition in the Albany and Discovery sailed from Gravesend accompanied by two HBC supply ships, but after the latter left for their Company posts in Hudson Bay, Knight's two ships vanished into oblivion.

However, the idea that there was a passage did not vanish, and throughout the 18th century there were a number of "voyages of delusion" (so described by Glyn Williams in his Voyages of delusion: the Northwest Passage in the Age of Reason, 2002 – BL: YC.2002.a.7400) in search of one. Among these were the voyages of Christopher Middleton and of William Moor and Frances Smith. The instigator of both of these expeditions was the indefatigable Irish MP Arthur Dobbs who was one of the main publicists for the Northwest Passage. Dobbs fell out with Middleton after the latter failed to find a passage and a pamphlet war between the two ensued. Moor and Smith fell out with each other and were questioned by a Parliamentary Committee on their return home. Despite these setbacks Dobbs continued to believe in the existence of a passage until his death.

Other expeditions in the 18th century seemed to prove that there was no such passage through the continent despite the publicists and speculative geographers. Samuel Hearne was chosen by the HBC to search for a western passage across the barren lands of northern Canada. He travelled in the 1770s along the Coppermine River to the Arctic Ocean. His glimpse from the Coppermine of a possible ice-free sea would revive hopes for a passage, and four years after his return a new attempt would be made by way of the Pacific. In July 1776, James Cook, the greatest navigator of the age, began his third circumnavigation with the intention of searching for the Northwest Passage. He reached the Pacific coast in 1778 and sailed north to Alaska and then through Bering Strait only to find his way blocked by a great mass of ice. Cook turned back to meet his tragic death in Hawaii on 14 February 1779 although his ships under the command of Charles Clerke resumed the fruitless Arctic search until Clerke in turn died of consumption.

Cook had discovered a river (Cook Inlet) on his voyage that fur trader Peter Pond believed was the mouth of a large river flowing westward from the Great Slave Lake. In 1789 Alexander Mackenzie set out from Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca to test Pond's theory. But he found that the river (the Mackenzie) led to the Arctic not the Pacific. George Vancouver, who was on Cook's second and third expeditions, completed Cook's work on the Northwest coast, exploring it in detail over three summers in the 1790s. In his journal, which he published in 1798, he claimed he had removed "every doubt" about the existence of a passage "between the North Pacific, and the interior of the American continent, within the limit of our researches".

The Northwest passage The Northwest passage
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Voyages of delusion
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The search for Franklin and the discovery of the Passage The search for Franklin and the discovery of the passage
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The Northwest passage The Northwest passage
Early approaches Early approaches
Voyages of delusion
The Admiralty takes over The Admiralty takes over
The search for Franklin and the discovery of the Passage The search for Franklin and the discovery of the passage
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