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Detailed World Map Showing the Discovery of the Northwest Passage

Scarce, fine world map with polar insets by the notable mapmaker John Arrowsmith. The map shows the recent discovery of the Northwest Passage by McClure in good detail, as well as the earlier voyages of Parry and Franklin.

On a Mercator projection, the map is centered on the Pacific. To ensure that the viewer correctly understands geographic relationships between the continents, and so as not to lose any information at the edge of the projection, the eastern edge of Greenland, with Iceland, and the westernmost coast of Africa are repeated at either end of the map.

Characteristic of Arrowsmiths’ style, the map is thickly covered in place names and geographic features. However, it is not adorned with imagery or ornaments, a reflection of the shift in map style in the early- and mid-nineteenth century.

The Discovery of the Northwest Passage

By the time this map was published, the major area of exploratory interest to Europeans and Americans was the Arctic. This was because they wanted to find a navigable Northwest Passage, allowing trade to pass quickly from Europe and eastern North America to Asia. The polar inset at the top of the map shows several of the expeditions of recent decades, including the very current discovery of a passage by McClure. This edition of the map is an early depiction of the passage, and one that is remarkably detailed.

Robert McClure had set off not necessarily to find the Northwest Passage, but to find John Franklin. Franklin is noted elsewhere on this map, most notably on the inset on the north coast of North America where it says, “Coast Explored by Franklin.” The expeditions referenced in that remark are Franklins’ overland expeditions of 1819-1822 and 1825-27. While the first voyage was marked by privation, the second saw Franklin and his men chart over 1,000 miles of Arctic coastline.

Franklin’s most famous voyage was also his last. In May 1845 Franklin set out in the Erebus and the Terror. He wanted to sail farther up Lancaster Sound, which had been established by Parry as a possible site of the Passage (see below for more on Parry). However, Franklin’s ships became lodged in the ice and lost. The disappearance of the crews and the ships was the worst disaster in British Arctic history.

However, Franklin’s fate was not immediately known. Led by the Admiralty and encouraged, and sometimes funded by the efforts of, Franklin’s wife, Lady Franklin, no less than 39 missions were sent to find out what had happened to Franklin. One of these was that of the Investigator, commanded by Robert McClure.

Separated from his accompanying vessel, McClure passed through the Barrow Strait. He then discovered the Prince of Wales Strait, where his ship was frozen in the ice. While his ship was stuck fast, McClure continued with sledges overland. They crested a hill and saw land and a body of water previously discovered by Parry (see below)—they had found the passage at last.

McClure eventually spent four consecutive winters in the Arctic. He transferred to the Resolute after the Investigator was abandoned in the ice. However, the Resolute also got stuck and McClure eventually traveled by sledge and another ship back to England in April 1854. However, news of his achievement had reached England years before him, as this map shows.

The North Polar inset

Another, earlier expedition noted here is that of William Scoresby, who is noted on the east coast of Greenland. The son of a whaler, Scoresby went to sea at a young age. In his father’s ship, the Resolution, Scoresby performed many experiments while hunting whales, such as gathering temperature data in polar waters. In 1822, he went on a voyage to Greenland, when he surveyed the 400 miles of coast shown here.

Another name noted on the map is that of William Edward Parry. Parry went to the Arctic several times, with the first voyage in 1819-20. On this voyage, Parry discovered a route out of Baffin Bay through Lancaster Sound, which is marked on the main map and the inset. He also charted many of the North Georgian Islands noted on the main map. On his second voyage, 1821-23, he probed the far north reaches of Hudson Bay. One his third voyage, of 1824-25, he searched for the Northwest Passage in the Prince Regent Inlet.

The other Parry expedition included here is his 1827 attempt to reach the North Pole; it can be seen in a boat’s track north of Spitzbergen. On this expedition, Parry reached farther north than any previously recorded explorer. His record, 82 degrees and 45 minutes north, would stand for 49 years.

The South Polar inset

The other polar inset, showing the Antarctic South Pole, also includes recent exploratory information. James Cook’s track is included, which is from his second voyage (1772-1775) when he crossed the Antarctic Circle three times and sailed farther south than any expedition had to that time. The other voyages mentioned are those of James Weddell, John Biscoe, and Peter Kemp.  

James Weddell was a seal hunter who commanded three Antarctic voyages. In 1822 he visited and named the South Orkney Islands, labeled here as New Orkney. On his third voyage (1822-4), Weddell turned south of the Shetlands and Orkneys to see if he could sight land. He reached just over 74 degrees south, a new record.

A more recent voyage cited on this map is that of John Biscoe. Biscoe served in the Royal Navy in his early career and then went into the employ of the Enderby firm. The firm organized a voyage to the far southern latitudes and placed Biscoe in charge. In the Tula, and accompanied by the Lively, Biscoe circumnavigated Antarctica and found and named Enderby Land, which is included here.

Peter Kemp was a sealer employed by the firm of Daniel Bennett & Sons. Hired to lead a voyage of reconnaissance in the Magnet, Kemp spotted land in the far south (just to the left of the Antarctic inset on this map). It is now known to be part of the continent of Antarctica.

This lively map includes the latest voyages, including the all-important Northwest Passage discovery, and shows the skill and style of the Arrowsmith mapmaking family.

Glyndwr Williams, Voyages of Delusion: The Quest for the Northwest Passage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). KAP
John Arrowsmith Biography

John (1790-1873) operated his own independent business after his uncle, Aaron Arrowsmith, died. After 1839, John moved into the Soho premises of his uncle and cousins. John enjoyed considerable recognition in the geography and exploration community. Like Aaron, John was a founder member of the RGS and would serve as its unofficial cartographer for 43 years. Several geographical features in Australia and Canada are named after him. He died in 1873 and the majority of his stock was eventually bought by Edward Stanford, who co-founded the Stanford’s map shop that is still open in Covent Garden, London today.