William Scoresby, Jr. (1789-1857) and the Open Polar Sea - Myth and Reality


  • Constance Martin




Crystals, Exploration, Explorers, History, Mirages, Natural history, Scoresby, William, Jr., 1789-1857, Sea ice, Snow, Whaling, Arctic regions, Baffin Bay-Davis Strait, Nordgrønland, Northwest Passage


William Scoresby, Jr., whaler and eminent natural scientist, was denied a role in the British Government's renewal of polar exploration in 1818. Befriended by Sir Joseph Banks and a member of the most respected learned societies in Scotland, England and the Continent, Scoresby made detailed observations of ice conditions in the Arctic over a period of 17 years, aiding the government's decision to search for new polar routes. However, Scoresby and Sir John Barrow, Second Secretary of the Admiralty, the main organizer of arctic exploration, had opposing perceptions of the nature of the northern regions. Barrow, until the end of his life, believed the polar regions harbored a warm water sea, while Scoresby considered the theory a ludicrous chimera. This is believed to be the source of Barrow's illogical rejection of Scoresby. To support this thesis the author has contrasted Scoresby's two major works, An Account of the Arctic Regions and Voyage to the Whale Fishery, with Barrow's arctic writings, A Chronological History of Voyages into the Arctic Regions and Voyage in the Arctic Regions from 1818 to the Present Time, as well as looking at other literary visions of the Arctic contemporary to the period. Scoresby's ability as a mariner, his years of arctic experience, his scientific education at the University of Edinburgh, his meticulous records and acute and sensitive observations in both prose and drawing, all provide a sound basis for perceiving the Admiralty's autocratic rejection of Scoresby as a loss to arctic science in the 19th century. It also points up the underlying romantic vision of the northern regions in the mind of society at the time: a place harboring an earthly paradise. To Scoresby, the Arctic was nature's laboratory, not a "playground for the imagination".

Key words: William Scoresby, Jr., John Barrow, open polar sea, arctic exploration, perceptions of the Arctic