|“The failure of John Franklin eventually led to the achievement of the expedition’s original aim. Those seeking him and the expeditions set up under cover of seeking him were interested in finding the answer to three questions: why and how did Franklin’s expedition perish, and where could the Northwest Passage be found?”
Matti Lainema and Juha Nurminen in “Ultima Thule”
The history of Irish explorers in the Arctic is interwoven with the quest to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Sir John Franklin, who had set out to find the North West Passage.
As was the case with many of those who set out to find the lost Franklin expedition, Henry Kellet on the Herald made his own discoveries. In 1849 as he sailed in the Chukotsky Sea he discovered land on the 17th of August 1849 – the first a fairly small island and the other a vast mountainous land. The island upon which he embarked, he named Herald Island after his frigate.
The German Botanist Berthold Carl Seemann (1825-1871) has left us a detailed account of Henry Kellett’s discovery of Herald and Wrangel Islands. Seemann was the naturalist carrying out a detailed study of the American west coast and the Pacific on board the exploratory voyage on the Herald with Henry Kellett, when they were ordered to join the search for Franklin. His Germanic reaction to what he clearly considered a British idée fixe is extremely amusing to read to this day:
“The discovery of the North-west Passage, always a favourite project with the British nation, lay dormant some time subsequent to the French Revolution, but when, in 1815, peace had been established and the agitation had abated, the solution of the great problem was resumed. In order to explore the Arctic Regions the Government despatched several expeditions, both by sea and land. In 1826 Captain Beechey, in H.M.S. Blossom, entered Behring's Strait, the principal object of his mission being to co-operate with Sir John Franklin, who was then exploring the shores of the Arctic Sea; Beechey failed to accomplish his design, but he made an accurate survey of the coast from Point Barrow to Grantley Harbour. During both summers in which he visited the Polar Sea, the extension of the ice was traced, the first year in lat. 71 10', the second in lat. 70 50'.
Although the numerous attempts to effect the North west Passage had proved abortive, yet the Government still entertained hopes of ultimate success. In May 1845, the Terror and Erebus, under the command of Sir John Franklin, left England, accompanied by r. store ship, from which they separated on the 26th of July. As since that date no intelligence respecting their fate has been received, the Admiralty, after allowing a reasonable period to elapse, deemed it necessary to take steps for their relief. In 1848 the Enterprise and Investigator, under the command of Sir James Clark Ross, were despatched to the eastern, the Herald, Captain Henry Kellett, and Plover, Commander T. E. L. Moore, to the western side, while Sir John Richardson penetrated overland to the shores of the Polar Sea.”
Seemann then gives us a detailed description of the excitement of discovery on that August day 1849.
On the 17th, at three A.M., the temperature of the sea suddenly fell from 40 to 36; the wind became light, and excessively cold. We shortened sail, supposing that we were near the ice. At five A.M. the wind shifted from the northwest in a sharp squall, with heavy snow. Shortly after eight, when one of these snowstorms cleared off, the packed ice was seen from the masthead from south-
south-west to north-north-west five miles distant. The weather was so bad that we bore up for Cape Lisburne; but as it suddenly cleared up we hauled our wind for the northwestern extreme of the ice that had been seen.
At 9.40 the exciting report of " Land ho!" was made from the mast-head. In running a course along the pack towards our first discovery, a small group of islands was reported on our port beam, a considerable distance within the outer margin of the ice. The pack here was not so close as we had found it in other places; lanes of water could be seen, reaching almost up to the group, but too narrow to enter unless the ship had been sufficiently fortified to force a hole for herself. These small islands at intervals were very distinct, and were not considered at the time far off. Still more distant than this group (from the deck), an extensive and high land was reported, "which," says Captain Kellett, " I had been watching for some time, and anxiously awaited a report from some one else.” There was a fine clear atmosphere (such a one as can only be seen in this climate), except in the direction of this extended land, where the clouds rolled in numerous immense masses, occasionally leaving the lofty peaks uncapped, where could be distinctly seen columns, pillars, and very broken summits, which are characteristic of the higher headlands in this sea, East Cape and Cape Lisburne for example. With the exception of the north-east and south-west extremes, none of the lower land could be discerned, unless indeed what I took at first for a small group of islands within the pack-edge was a point of this Great Land. This island, or point, was distant twenty-five miles from the ship's track; higher parts of the land seen not less, I consider, than sixty miles. When we hove-to off the first land observed, the northern extreme of the Great Land showed out to the eastward for a moment, and so clear as to cause some who had doubts before to cry out, 'There, Sir, is the land, quite plain.' '
From the time land was reported, until we hove-to under it, we ran twenty-five miles directly for it. At first we could not see that the pack joined the island, but as we approached it we found the pack to rest on its shores, and to extend from them as far as the eye could reach to the east south east. The weather, which had been fine all day, now changed suddenly to dense clouds and snow-showers, blowing fresh from the south, with so much sea that we could not anchor as we intended. Captain Kellett left the ships with two boats: Mr. Maguire, Mr. Collinson, and I in one; Mr. Goodridge, Mr. Pakenham, and the Captain in the other. The ship kept off and on outside the thickest part of the loose ice, through which the boats were obliged to be very careful in picking their way on the southeast side, where we thought we might have ascended. We reached the island, and found running on it a very heavy sea. The First Lieutenant however landed, having backed his boat in until he got foothold (without swimming), and then jumped overboard.
The Captain followed his example, hoisted the Jack, and took possession of the island with the usual ceremonies, in the name of her most gracious Majesty Queen Victoria.
After the unfortunate mistake in the Antarctic regions, it becomes a nervous affair to report a discovery of land in high latitudes, but in this case there can be no doubt that we had found an unknown country, and that the high peaks we observed were a continuation of the range of mountains seen by the natives off Cape Jackan, as mentioned by Wrangel in his Polar Voyages. That land, according to a belief current in Siberia, quoted by Cochrane, is inhabited by a people of whom we are at present entirely ignorant.
The high peaks we saw were afterwards called Plover Island, a misnomer, or rather a compliment to the Plover, considering that that vessel did not assist in finding the group, while the island of which possession was taken received the name of Herald Island. The latter is four miles and a half in extent east and west, and about two and a half north and south, of triangular shape, the western end being the apex. It lies in lat. 71 17' 45" north, long. 175 24' west, is about 900 feet height, and chiefly composed of granite. The rocks rise almost perpendicularly, rendering the island nearly inaccessible. Innumerable black and white divers find there a safe place for depositing their eggs and bringing up their young.
Human beings, or any traces of them, we did not find, and all the plants collected amounted to seven species, common to these regions: a scurvy-grass (Cochlearia oblongifolia, DC.), a saxifrage (Saxifraga rivularis, Linn.), a wormwort (Artemisia borealis, Pall.), a grass (Poa angustata, R. Br.), two mosses (Polytrichum sexangidare, Hopp., and Bryum lacustre, Brid.), and a Confervacea (Ulva crispa, Lightf.).
We returned to the ship at seven P.M., and reluctantly made all the sail we could carry from this interesting neighbourhood to the south-east, the wind at the time allowing us to be just clear of the pack.