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In his post as Second Secretary to the Admiralty, Sir John Barrow proved to be an excellent bureaucrat capable of reading and answering up to 40,000 letters per year. Behind his unassuming exterior lurked a man of ambition, intellect and remorseless application. He was determined to make a name for himself and following his highly praised success in South Africa he chose exploration as the means to do so.
The Royal Navy, which had swelled to massive proportions during the Napoleonic Wars, was now in a state of disarmament. Ships were laid up, ordinary seamen were thrown back on to the streets and the organisation was left with thousands of unemployed officers on half pay.
In 1816 Sir John Barrow wrote: ‘To what purpose could a portion of our naval force be, at any time, but more especially in time of profound peace, more honourably or more usefully employed than in completing those details of geographical and hydrographical science of which the grand outlines have been boldly and broadly sketched by Cook, Vancouver and Flinders and others of our countrymen?’
A period of global discovery
The atlas of the time was still littered with blanks. Questions as to what lay at the heart of Africa and at the Poles and whether there was a Northwest Passage remained unanswered. Sir John Barrow was determined that it should be Britain who found out. From the Board Room of Admiralty House in Whitehall he launched the most ambitious programme of exploration the world had ever seen.
Between 1816 and 1845 he despatched volleys of expeditions to every blank on the map. He oversaw major expeditions which would achieve, amongst other landmark discoveries, the first crossing of the Sahara by a European, the discovery of Antarctica and most famously the mapping of the Arctic in pursuit of the elusive Northwest Passage.
Under his jurisdiction, many brave and intrepid explorers made their names. An esteemed list including: Hugh Clapperton, Dixon Denham, Walter Oudney, Gordon Laing and Richard Lander, who journeyed into Africa and John and James Ross, William Parry, George Lyon and most famous of all, Lord John Franklin who battled the Arctic.
Expanding the known world
Many suffered unimaginable hardships, endured with unflinching courage and devotion to duty. In Africa, they encountered unendurable heat, tropical diseases and savage natives. In the Arctic, ships were at risk of being trapped in ice for months, sometimes years and starvation and sub zero temperatures were vicious opponents. The tales of icebergs and tribes of savages, which returned, appealed to the romanticism of the age and Sir John Barrow’s pioneering spirit and thirst for discovery was in tune with the times.
Some expeditions triumphed and some ended in tragedy. What is certain is that Sir John Barrow instigated a period of remarkable exploration, discovering unknown areas of the globe and stretching the known world to limits that would be unsurpassed for half a century. He set a benchmark for exploration and inspired many of those who followed.
Chronology of Major Expeditions
1816 James Tuckey sails to the Congo. None of his officers survive and few of the crew return alive.
1818 John Ross sails to Baffin Bay. He turns back at Lancaster Sound without finding an entrance to the Northwest Passage.
1818 David Buchan attempts to find a sea route to the North Pole via Spitsberg.
1818-20 George Lyon and Joseph Richie try to find the Niger by crossing the Sahara. After Richie’s death Lyon is forced to return without success.
1819-20 William Edward Parry sails through Lancaster Sound and overwinters at Melrose Island.
1819-22 John Franklin tries to link up with Parry’s ships travelling overland to Canada’s northern coastline. Half the party starve to death.
1821-23 Parry’s second attempt at the Northwest Passage reaches Fury and Hecla Strait.
1822-24 Hugh Clapperton, Dixon Denham and Walter Oudney journey through the Sahara. They discover Lake Chad but fail to reach the Niger.
1824 Lyon leads an expedition to Repulse Bay.
1824-25 Parry’s final attempt at the Northwest Passage is abandoned at Prince Regent Inlet.
1825-26 Gordon Laing becomes the first European to reach Timbuctu. He is murdered before he can come home.
1825-27 Franklin leads a second overland mission, which captures more than 1,000 miles of new coastline.
1825-28 Clapperton attempts to reach the Niger from the south. He and his accompanying officers all die but his servant, John Lander, survives.
1827 Parry attempts to cross the polar ice cap and reach the North Pole but is forced to turn back.
1829-33 John Ross takes travels to Prince Regent Inlet and is beset for four winters. His nephew James Ross discovers the North Magnetic Pole.
1830-31 Richard Lander and his brother John successfully trace the Niger to its mouth.
1833-35 George Back attempts to rescue John Ross but is aborted.
1836-37 Back sails disastrously to Wager Bay.
1839-43 James Ross journeys to Antarctica and discovers Mount Erebus.
1845-47 John Franklin takes the Erebus and Terror in search of the Northwest Passage. He and the crew of both ships perish and remain undiscovered for ten years.
Sir John Barrow was responsible for commissioning many voyages of exploration. Discovery of a new sea passage through the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of North America via waterways in the Canadian Arctic archipelago would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This route was considered a potentially important trade route but it wasn’t discovered until 1903. Sir John Barrow sent the experienced explorer Captain Sir John Franklin to find the route in 1845. The ships became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island in the Canadian Artic. Franklin and 128 men were lost. Climate change has now made the passage more easily navigable.