The Voyage of the Whale Ship Esk in 1816

ESKebookFor several years now I’ve been researching the life and work of William Scoresby Jr., an early nineteenth-century whaler and Arctic explorer who sailed from Whitby, and Liverpool. Of course this has on the whole been a spare time project, and one that is quite a departure from my academic background in American literature, and crime fiction. It has taken quite a while to reach the point where I feel confident about publishing on the subject. I’m working on a full-length book about Scoresby, but in the mean time I have written and self-published a short (~10,000 words) book-let on his once famous voyage of 1816, a voyage which could very easily have ended in tragedy and disaster.

This booklet is available as a print copy from Amazon and in due course as an ebook from all the usual outlets and in all the usual formats. In the mean time your one stop shop for the ebook in the right format for you is Smashwords. The cover image is by mixed media artist Caroline Hack, from an original illustration by Scoresby himself.

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A Grand Tour Amongst the Icebergs: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Arctic Adventure

Whaleship Hope of Peterhead

On November 13th (6.30-8pm) I’m going to be giving a talk at the University of Liverpool about Arthur Conan Doyle and his 1880 voyage to the Arctic on the Peterhead whale ship, the S.S. Hope. Doyle’s journal of his voyage, during which he acted as ship’s surgeon, was published by the British Library in 2012. He would later draw on his experiences in the Arctic in stories and in a factual article in Strand magazine in 1897. Doyle was one of many young doctors who had visited the Arctic on whale ships over the previous century or so, but at a time when Arctic tourism was growing in popularity, his voyage can also be seen as an alternative grand tour for adventurous young men who preferred frozen seas to the Mediterranean.

You can book a place though the university’s online shop here.


Sir John Franklin and the Hull Whalers

I don’t usually respond to news reports here, but I have to note that today the Canadian government announced the discovery of one of the two ships Sir John Franklin took to the Arctic in 1845, and which has been lost ever since. The discovery confirms Inuit oral histories of ships in the same area and marks the end of 160 years of searching. Both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, had seen service in Antarctic exploration under the command of James Clark Ross and were used in surveying the newly-discovered Ross Ice Shelf. Mount Erebus was named after Ross’s flagship. The Antarctic expedition, which lasted several years, had spent the southern winters in Tasmania and at the Falkland Islands. The Franklin expedition of 1845 was more challenging, however, because it involved overwintering amongst the ice. Erebus and Terror had been clad in iron and fitted with steam engines to improve their chances of survival.

By the Autumn of 1847 it was already clear that something was wrong. Besides government bounties that eventually reached £20,000 Lady Franklin said she would give up her whole fortune of £10,000 in searching for her husband, and in 1848 she put forward £2000 as an incentive for whalers in Baffin Bay to look for the explorers. It was not enough to persuade them, but by February 1849 several expeditions were ready to go looking for her husband, including a second private attempt by Sir James Ross. Realising that Arctic whalers knew the region best, Lady Franklin travelled to Hull with William Scoresby Jr, where she met with whale ship owners and captains. On February 16th the Times reported this visit, during which Lady Franklin offered the whalers even more money, and concludes that “We shall be joined, we are sure, by all, in wishing success to these affectionate and earnest efforts, of Lady Franklin on behalf of her husband and her imperilled companions.”

CBC has released footage of the wreck, which could be Erebus or Terror:

Incidentally, Sinead O’Connor’s recording of “Lady Franklin’s Lament” a folk song about the Franklin expedition, is worth a listen:


Scoresby’s Map of Greenland, 1822

In 1822 William Scoresby Jr., commander of the ship Baffin of Liverpool, spent the summer months in the Arctic, catching whales and mapping the coast of Greenland. It is sometimes difficult, looking back from the twenty-first century, to remember where to leave gaps when making sense of history, to remember what wasn’t known. This map, which you can click to see in more detail, is a good example. Scoresby’s voyage of 1822 came in the wake of two significant voyages of discovery funded by the Admiralty under John Barrow. As a mere whaler Scoresby had been passed over in the search for the North West Passage in favour of Captain John Ross, whose failed expedition of 1818 met with widespread public ridicule, and William Parry, who was more successful in his expedition of 1820.

Scoresby was not a man to harbour grudges, but he must have felt wounded by the rejection, given that he was widely acknowledged at the time to be the foremost expert on the Arctic region. His voyage in 1822, commanding the ship he had designed and had built for the purpose in Liverpool three seasons earlier, was primarily to catch whales. Without government assistance, Scoresby had to make his voyage pay. And pay it did: despite sailing outside the usual fishing grounds around Spitzbergen, and despite narrowly avoiding shipwreck, Scoresby brought back a full ship.

More importantly, Scoresby’s map of the Eastern coast of Greenland, as well as his examinations of the ‘mineralogy’ and botany of the region, were a significant advance on what had existed before. In the section of the map shown here the gaps are obvous. Huge areas of the land back from the coast are uncharted; the assumption was that rather than being a single large landmass, Greenland was in fact a series of small islands joined together by ice. At the end of his 1822 journal, published in 1823 as A Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery in 1822, Scoresby quotes a letter from Sir Charles Giseiké on ‘the Structure of Greenland’:

It is past doubt, that the whole coast of Greenland formerly consisted of Large islands, which are now, as it were, glued together by immense masses of ice.

Such inlets, or rather firths (fiords), which once formed sounds or passages, terminate always, according to my observations, with glaciers filling up the valleys at each end. Such is (to confine myself to the more northern latitudes), the ice-firth, or ice-bay, of Disco Bay, in 68° 40′. Such, also, is Cornelius Bay (North-east Bay, or Omenak’s Fiord), 71½°, the north-eastern arm of which is blocked up at both ends with ice running through a valley, and bending rather towards the ENE.

Scoresby named many of the headlands and islands he discovered after his friends and acquaintances back in Liverpool. If you look closely at the map you will see ‘Scoresbys Sound’ (named after his father) and ‘Jameson Land’ after his mentor Professor Jameson of Edinburgh University, but this section of coastline he names the ‘Liverpool Coast’: names such as Holloway Bay (after a Liverpool minister) and Rathbone Island (after the famous Liverpool shipping family who were close friends) betray Scoresby’s affection for the city. Many of these names did not make it onto the official Admiralty maps or were replaced by later navigators.


Reasons For Self-Publishing: Lessons from History

… Owing to my having been my own publisher and thereby displeasing all London bookseller/proprieters of reviews I am to be most severely handled in the Quarterly, Westminster, Monthly Lit. Gazette &c–but how Edin. will treat me I do not know. You will, however, be glad to learn that I have the consolation that I have 7,000 subscribers amounting to no less than £7,000!–My first object in being my own publisher was to get the book up so as to be a credit to the nation and all concerned, my 2nd object was to give it to the public cheaper, and to show thereby how the booksellers impose on both the authors and the public–and lastly that I might keep the property in my own hands.

–From a letter by Sir John Ross to William Scoresby, 28th April 1835. Quoted in Tom and Cordelia Stamp, William Scoresby, Arctic Scientist (1976).