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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Robert John Le Mesurier McClure (1807 - 1873)

Born in Wexford, Ireland, Robert McClure never knew his army captain father, who died five months before his birth on January 28, 1807. However, he was lucky to have as guardian his father's comrade in arms, John Le Mesurier, who sent him to study at Eton and Sandhurst. McClure went into the navy in 1824, and his first voyage to the Arctic, in 1836, was as mate on the Terror, a ship commanded by George Back. The expedition got as far as Foxe Channel, where the ship was ice-bound. The damage to the ship was sufficient to force the crew to re-cross the Atlantic, barely reaching the Irish coast. For the following twelve years, McClure worked on the Great Lakes and then in the West Indies.

In 1848, the first expedition to find John Franklin left London. McClure was First Lieutenant aboard the Enterprise, one of the two ships of the expedition led by Sir James Clark Ross, who was sailing aboard the Investigator. The ships were caught in the ice in Lancaster Sound. Ross then took sledges and went in search of Franklin but McClure, who was ill, did not go with him. Without knowing it, Ross was on the right track by going south into Prince Regent Inlet but he did not go far enough. After having spent the winter in Lancaster Sound, the two ships got as far as Baffin Bay. The expedition finally returned to England without any information on Franklin.

In 1850, McClure's third expedition had to get to the Arctic by sailing east after crossing Bering Strait. Richard Collinson, head of the expedition, was on the Enterprise this time, and McClure was in command of the Investigator. The two ships were to meet in Honolulu but Collinson left there before McClure arrived. Intending to meet him, McClure took a shortcut through the Aleutian Islands and arrived at Bering Strait, where Collinson had not been seen. Still thinking that the Enterprise was ahead of him, McClure continued northeast. He reached Banks Island and almost immediately found Prince of Wales Strait between Banks Island and Victoria Island. He sailed into the strait before becoming caught in the ice. During the winter, eager to learn where this strait led, he explored by sledge and discovered that it led to a strait later called Viscount Melville. "Can it be possible that this water communicates with Barrow's Strait, and shall prove to be the long-sought North-west Passage?" he wrote in his journal. The following spring, before leaving this strait, he left an account of his exploits, dated April 21, 1851, on Banks Island. This account would be found in 1917 by Vilhjalmur Stefansson. When daylight returned, the crew searched Banks and Victoria islands for Franklin.

When he could finally extricate himself from the ice, McClure retraced his steps and went up the west coast of Banks Island to double-check what he had found. He entered the strait that bears his name today. The shifting ice again forced him to winter in a bay, which he called Mercy because it allowed him to escape ice pressure. He would never get his ship out of Mercy Bay, however.

In the spring of 1852, McClure reached Winter Harbour, on Melville Island, by sledge. He found the writing that Parry had carved on a stone in 1819. McClure left a message giving his ship's location. One year later, Henry Kellett, commander of the Resolute, one of the ships in Sir Edward Belcher's expedition, read this message and sent one of his lieutenants, Bedford Pim, on foot across the ice to look for this ship. Pim found the Investigator as well as McClure and his men, who were suffering from malnutrition and scurvy.

Image: Title page of McClure's account of his 1850-1854 voyage   Image: Page from McClure's account of his 1850-1854 voyage Image: Page from McClure's account of his 1850-1854 voyage

McClure was walking on the ice with an officer, close to the ship, "[w]hen within about two hundred yards of us, this strange figure threw up his arms, and made gesticulations ressembling those used by Esquimaux, besides shouting, at the top of his voice, words which, from the wind and intense excitement of the moment, sounded like a wild screech; and this brought us both fairly to a stand-still. The stranger came quietly on, and we saw that his face was black as ebony, and really at the moment we might be pardoned for wondering whether he was a denizen of this or the other world, [...] as it was, we gallantly stood our ground, and had the skies fallen upon us, we could hardly have been more astonished than when the dark faced stranger called out, 'I'm Lieutenant Pim, late of the "Herald", and now in the "Resolute". Captain Kellett is in her at Dealy Island!,'

"To rush at and seize him by the hand was the first impulse, for the heart was too full for the tongue to speak. The announcement of relief being close at hand, when none was suppposed to be even within the Arctic Circle, was too sudden, unexpected, and joyous for our minds to comprehend it at once."

(McClure 1857, 290-1)

In its turn, the Resolute became caught in the ice, and Kellett and his crew had to spend a fourth winter in the Arctic. When the chance came to return to England the following year, McClure wanted to wait longer in the hope of bringing his ship back to England. Kellett, however, who would later pay strong homage to McClure, ordered him to leave it. All returned to England in September 1854. Belcher's disastrous expedition left the rest of its five ships in the Arctic.

After this expedition, McClure was promoted to captain and knighted. Parliament voted to give a sum of £ 10 000 to the officers and men of his ship for having discovered the Northwest Passage. McClure did not return to the Arctic but spent five years in the Pacific. He was made Rear-Admiral when he took his retirement in 1873 and died the same year.

McClure was not wrong. He had found the Northwest Passage and made it known. Though Franklin's crew had discovered another passage four years earlier, they were unable to tell anyone, having all perished on the expedition.

McClure left the writing of his discovery to his comrade, captain Sherard Osborn, using his personal journal and notes. Besides the account of his important findings, McClure left information on his comings and goings, appropriate locations for building supply caches, all to make the Arctic better known. McClure's expedition proved the existence of a Northwest Passage, but it took another 55 years before a navigator would sail it.

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