Commander William Edward Parry and the exploration of Baffin Bay


Present-day Canada and the Arctic territories of Greenland are separated by a vast expanse of sea which is ice-bound for the greater part of each year. So what could possibly have enticed navigators to a place so hostile from the 16th century onwards?

The answer? A passage through the Pacific Ocean and the west coast of North America, which would open up trade routes that ship owners could but dream of. William Baffin began exploring the region in 1616 and gave his name to the enormous bay that stretches from the Labrador Sea in the east to the islands of Devon and Ellesmere in the west.

Two centuries later, in 1818, Captain John Ross was awarded the command of a new expedition to explore the bay and attempt to discover this famous Northwest Passage. He left London on 25 April 1818 with two ships; the Isabella, which he commanded, and the Alexander, which was entrusted to young lieutenant William Edward Parry.

After four months spent following in the wake of William Baffin, the expedition reached longitude 81° west on 31 August 1818. There, Captain Ross was misled by a mirage, which appeared to be a remote mountain range to the west. He named it the Crocker Mountains and assumed it to be a natural barrier to any northwest passage. The next day, despite the protests of several of his officers, he decided to return to London. Parry fulminated: "Attempts were relinquished just at a time when there was the greatest chance of succeeding!"

It goes without saying that Ross carried marine chronometers on board. Despite the gales and extreme conditions, two of these, made by Arnold, worked perfectly: Arnold's chronometer No. 369 advanced by just five seconds and five-tenths of a second each day, and, as Captain Ross noted in his logbook:

"Arnold's No. 25, when compared with Earnshaw's two chronometers, and the means of the rest, and also with the result of lunar observations, was found to have preserved a steady rate of 4'' per day."

In 1819, Parry was entrusted with the responsibility of leading a second expedition to Baffin Bay. He returned with two ships, the HMS Griper and HMS Hecla. After over a year's exploration, he reached longitude 111°46' west, then the farthest western point reached by man, in June 1820. This lay to the west of Melville Island, proving that John Ross had been mistaken. It also established that the western horizon was comprised of a string of islands and that the famous Northwest Passage certainly existed. He was promoted to the rank of commander upon his return.

Both the Griper and the Hecla were equipped with marine chronometers made by Arnold, six in all, two of which featured an eight-day reserve indicator complication, and a pocket chronometer, No. 2109. This last found favour with Parry. Here is what he recorded in his logbook on 2 June 1820:

"These and the rest of our observations for latitude and longitude, obtained during this journey, were made with a sextant and artificial horizon, and the longitudes are by the chronometer, No. 2109 of Arnold, which I carried in my pocket."

Commander Parry was an indefatigable explorer. He attempted to cross the Northwest Passage twice more, in 1821 and 1824, and reached latitude 82°45' north for the first time in 1827, during an expedition to the North Pole. This record stood for almost five decades. It would be 1906 before Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen completed the traverse from one ocean to the other, and the North Pole was not reached until 1908 by Frederick Albert Cook and in 1909 by Captain Robert Peary.



Parry, William Edward, Captain,Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific(London, 1821).

Parry, William Edward, Captain,Narrative of an Attempt to Reach the North Pole(London, 1827).

Ross, John, Captain, AVoyage of Discovery for the Purpose of Exploring Baffin's Bay(London, 1819).

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