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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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William Edward Parry (1790 - 1855)

William Edward Parry was born in Bath, England. In 1803, at the age of 13, he entered the Royal Navy and became a sublieutenant the same year. He served in the English Channel and in the Baltic Sea during the Napoleonic Wars and, promoted to lieutenant in 1810, was sent to protect whalers in the Spitzbergen Archipelago. After having spent the War of 1812-1814 on the east coast of North America, Parry had only one wish -- to go in search of the Northwest Passage. He requested authorization from the Admiralty to participate in the polar expeditions that it was organizing. The Admiralty agreed and supported his four Arctic voyages.

His first expedition was with John Ross. He commanded the brig Alexander, second ship of the expedition, smaller than Ross' sloop, the Isabella. Travelling more slowly than Ross, Parry arrived in Lancaster Sound second, where he noted that "... the swell comes from the north-west compass (that is, south-south-west true), and continues just as it does in the ocean. It is impossible to remark this circumstance, without feeling a hope that it may be caused by this inlet being a passage into a sea to the westward of it." The controversy raised by his observation, which was contrary to Ross's, who had seen mountains at the end of what he thought was an inlet, led the Admiralty to entrust Parry with a new expedition the following year.

Parry left in May 1819 to try to meet Franklin coming over land, and confirmed that there were no mountains such as Ross had seen. He went on to Prince Regent Inlet (which was ice-bound), Barrow Strait, and then a group of islands, which he called North Georgian (now the Parry Islands). For the first time, European ships had entered the Arctic Archipelago. Continuing west, Parry was the first to reach 110º west longitude, off Melville Island, but the ice prevented his going further and he put in at Winter Harbour, on Melville Island, where the freeze-up kept him until August 1, 1820. He then continued west to around Cape Dundas. After having discovered a new land to the south, Banks Island, he had to give up his research because of ice conditions and return to England.

This voyage, one of the most important in the history of Arctic exploration, showed that Lancaster Sound opened a passage to the west, and revealed the complex labyrinth of islands through which the sea route to the west would have to be sought. Parry also proved that it was possible to spend the winter inside the Arctic Circle without being in grave danger. Back in England, in November 1820, he was named Commander and unanimously elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

At the end of April 1821, the explorer again left England for the Arctic. This time, he was to go through Hudson Strait and explore the territory west of Baffin Island. Passing north of Southampton Island, he entered Repulse Bay, then looked for a passage in the bays and inlets west of Foxe Basin, but found nothing. Forced to stop, he wintered close to the coast.

Because of previous experience, Parry had set his ships up to improve living conditions in the north. First, he modified the heating to reduce humidity in the cabins and replaced the sailors' cots with hammocks to allow for better air circulation. Like Champlain in Acadia in the 17th century, Parry became aware of the importance of entertainment to the crew's morale, especially in the perpetual dark of northern winters. Thus, every two weeks, the Royal Arctic Theatre put on a play with costumes and lighting, which the crews of both ships attended. A class was set up for the men to learn to read and write. Others had to go ashore to the observatory every day to take magnetic readings and make other scientific observations. The arrival of a group of Inuit in February created interest for the crew and led to a friendly relationship.

These Inuit told Parry of a strait that led to the sea in the west. When he was able to sail again, Parry got to the strait but found it blocked by ice. He crossed it on foot and got as far as the Gulf of Boothia. He named this strait "Fury and Hecla", after his ships. Hoping to cross it with his ships the following year, he spent another winter in the far north, close to Igloolik Island. But the ice remained and, the following summer, Parry put an end to this expedition. This voyage uncovered a little known sector of the Arctic and provided them with a wealth of information on the culture and way of life of the Inuit.

In 1824, Parry led another expedition, again on the Hecla and the Fury. He wanted to get to Prince Regent Inlet to look for a passage to the southwest. Held up all summer by strong accumulations of ice at the entrance to Baffin Bay, he entered Lancaster Sound only on September 10. Having reached Bowen Harbour, in Prince Regent Inlet, with great difficulty, he stopped there for the winter. In July of the following year, the shifting of the ice made crossing the inlet particularly difficult and dangerous. The Fury was pushed on shore and sustained serious damage. Unable to make repairs, Parry abandoned it and took the crew aboard his ship. Faced with poor sailing conditions, he opted to return to England. Nevertheless, he had collected important information on the probable location of the magnetic pole and on arctic fauna. In 1830, John Ross's expedition would be saved thanks to the Fury's shipwreck, and it would find the location of the magnetic pole.

"The more leisure we obtained to consider the state of the Fury, the more apparent became the absolute, however unfortunate, necessity of heaving her down. Four pumps were required to be at work without intermission to keep her free, and this in perfectly smooth water, showing that she was, in fact, so materially injured as to be very far from seaworthy. One third of her working men were constantly employed, as before remarked, in this laborious operation, and some of their hands had become so sore from the constant friction of the ropes, that they could hardly handle them any longer without the use of mittens, assisted by the unlaying of the ropes to make them soft."

(Sir W.E. Parry 1840, II: 144)

Parry conducted a last voyage in 1827 to reach the North Pole by crossing the ice in the Spitzbergen archipelago. He was the first to reach 82º45' N but he did not reach the North Pole. He was knighted on April 29, 1829 at the same time as John Franklin. He then occupied several executive positions at the Admiralty. After a long illness, he died at Bad Ems, near Koblenz, Germany, on July 8 or 9, 1855. For his contribution to furthering knowledge on the Arctic, as a navigator and explorer, Parry is considered comparable to James Cook and to James Clark Ross.

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