Letters from High Latitudes

Author: Frederick Temple Blackwood

Letter IX.


I have received a copy of the "Moniteur" of the 31st July, containing so graphic an account of the voyage of the "Reine Hortense" towards Jan Mayen, and of the catastrophe to her tender the "Saxon,"—in consequence of which the corvette was compelled to abandon her voyage to the Northward,—that I must forward it to you.


"Voyage of Discovery along the Banquise, north of Iceland,

"It fell to the lot of an officer of the French navy, M. Jules de Blosseville, to attempt to explore those distant parts, and to shed an interest over them, both by his discoveries and by his tragical and premature end.

In the spring of 1833, on the breaking up of a frost, ’La Lilloise,’ under the command of that brave officer, succeeded in passing through the Banquise, nearly up to latitude 69 degrees, and in surveying about thirty leagues of coast to the south of that latitude. After having returned to her anchorage off the coast of Iceland, he sailed again in July for a second attempt. From that time nothing has been heard of ’La Lillouse.’

The following year the ’Bordelaise’ was sent to look for the ’Lilloise,’ but found the whole north of Iceland blocked up by ice-fields; and returned, having been stopped in the latitude of the North Cape.

As a voyage to the Danish colonies on the western coast of Greenland formed part of the scheme of our arctic navigation, we were aware at our departure from Paris, that it was our business to make ourselves well acquainted with the southern part of the ice-field, from Reykjavik to Cape Farewell. But while we were touching at Peterhead, the principal port for the fitting of vessels destined for the seal fishery, the Prince, and M. de la Ronciere, Commander of ’La Reine Hortense,’ gathered—from conversations with the fishermen just returned from their spring expedition—some important information on the actual state of the ice. They learnt from them that navigation was completely free this year round the whole of Iceland; that the ice-field resting on Jan Mayen Island, and surrounding it to a distance of about twenty leagues, extended down the south-west along the coast of Greenland, but without blocking up the channel which separates that coast from that of Iceland. These unhoped-for circumstances opened a new field to our explorations, by allowing us to survey all that part of the Banquise which extends to the north of Iceland, thus forming a continuation to the observations made by the ’Recherche,’ and to those which we ourselves intended to make during our voyage to Greenland. The temptation was too great for the Prince; and Commander de la Ronciere was not a man to allow an opportunity to escape for executing a project which presented itself to him with the character of daring and novelty.

But the difficulties of the enterprise were serious, and of such a nature that no one but a sailor experienced in navigation is capable of appreciating. The ’Reine Hortense’ is a charming pleasure-boat, but she offers very few of the requisites for a long voyage, and she was destitute of all the special equipment indispensable for a long sojourn in the ice. There was room but for six days’ coals, and for three weeks’ water: As to the sails, one may say the masts of the corvette are merely for show, and that without steam it would be impossible to reckon on her making any way regularly and uninterruptedly. Add to this, that she is built of iron,—that is to say, an iron sheet of about two centimbtres thick constitutes all her planking,—and that her deck—divided into twelve great panels, is so weak that it has been thought incapable of carrying guns proportioned to her tonnage. Those who have seen the massive vessels of the fishermen of Peterhead, their enormous outside planking, their bracings and fastenings in wood and in iron, and their internal knees and stancheons, may form an idea from such precautions—imposed by long experience of the nature of the dangers that the shock—or even the pressure of the ice—may cause to a ship in the latitudes that we were going to explore.

The ’Cocyte’ had also been placed at the disposal of H.I.H. Prince Napoleon. This vessel which arrived at Reykjavik the same day that we did, the 30th of June—is a steam schooner, with paddles, standing the sea well, carying coals for twelve days, but with a deplorably slow rate of speed.

We found besides at Reykjavik the war transport ’La Perdrix’ and two English merchant steamers, the ’Tasmania and the ’Saxon,’ freighted by the Admiralty to take to Iceland coals necessary for our voyage to Greenland. These five vessels, with the frigate ’Artemise,’ which performed he duties of guardship, formed the largest squadron which had ever assembled in the harbour of the capital of Iceland.

Unfortunately, these varied and numerous elements had nothing in common, and Commodore de la Ronciere soon saw that extraneous help would afford us no additional security; and, in short, that the ’Refine Bortense’— obliged to go fast—as her short supplies would not allow long voyages, had to reckon on herself alone. However, the [English] captain of the ’Saxon’ expressing a great desire to visit these northern parts, and displaying on this subject a sort of national vanity, besides promising an average speed of seven knots an hour, it was decided that—at all events, that vessel should start alone with the ’Refine Hortense,’ whose supply of coals it would be able to replenish, in the event—a doubtful one, it is true—of our making the coast of Jan Mayen’s Island, and finding a good anchorage. The ’Reine Hortense’ had—by the help of a supplementary load on deck—a supply of coals for eight days; and immediately on starting, the crew as well as the passengers, were to be put on a measured allowance of water.

A few hours before getting under way, the expedition was completed by the junction of a new companion, quite unexpected. We found in Reykjavik harbour a yacht belonging to Lord Dufferin. The Prince, seeing his great desire to visit the neighbourhood of Jan Mayen, offered to take his schooner in tow of the ’Reine Hortense.’ It was a fortunate accident for a seeker of maritime adventures; and an hour afterwards, the proposition having been eagerly accepted, the Englishman was attached by two long cables to the stern of our corvette.

On the 7th of July, 1856, at two o’clock in the morning, after a ball given by Commander de Mas on board the ’Artemise,’—the ’Reine Hortense,’ with the English schooner in tow, left Reykjavik harbour, directing her course along the west coast of Iceland, towards Onundarfiord, where we were to join the ’Saxon’ which had left a few hours before us. At nine o’clock, the three vessels, steering east-north-east, doubled the point of Cape North. At noon our observation of the latitude placed us about 67 degrees. We had just crossed the Arctic circle. The temperature was that of a fine spring day, 10 degrees centigrade (50 degrees Farenh.).

The ’Reine Hortense’ diminished her speed. A rope thrown across one of the towing-ropes enabled Lord Dufferin to haul one of his boats to our corvette. He himself came to dine with us, and to be present at the ceremony of crossing the polar circle. As to the ’Saxon,’ M. de la Ronciere perceived by this time that the worthy Englishman had presumed too much on his power. The ’Saxon’ was evidently incapable of following us. The captain, therefore, made her a signal that she was to take her own course, to try and reach Jan Mayen; and if she could not succeed, to direct her course on Onundarfiord, and there to wait for us. The English vessel fell rapidly astern, her hull disappeared, then her sails, and in the evening every trace of her smoke had faded from the horizon.

In the evening, the temperature grew gradually colder; that of the water underwent a more rapid and significant change. At twelve at night it was only three degrees centig. (about 37 degrees Fahr.). At that moment the vessel plunged into a bank of fog, the intensity of which we were enabled to ascertain, from the continuance of daylight in these latitudes at this time of the year. There are tokens that leave no room to doubt that we are approaching the solid ice. True enough:—at two o’clock in the morning the officer on watch sees close to the ship a herd of seals, inhabitants of the field ice. A few minutes later the fog clears up suddenly; a ray of sunshine gilds the surface of the sea; lighting up millions of patches of sparkling white, extending to the farthest limit of the horizon. These are the detached hummocks which precede and announce the field ice; they increase in size and in number as we proceed. At three o’clock in the afternoon we find ourselves in front of a large pack which blocks up the sea before us. We are obliged to change our course to extricate ourselves from the ice that surrounds us. This is an evolution requiring on the part of the commander the greatest precision of eye, and a perfect knowledge of his ship. The ’Reine Hortense,’ going half speed, with all the officers and the crew on deck, glides along between the blocks of ice, some of which she seems almost to touch, and the smallest of which would sink her instantly if a collision took place. Another danger, which it is almost impossible to guard against, threatens a vessel in those trying moments. If a piece of ice gets under the screw, it will be inevitably smashed like glass, and the consequences of such an accident might be fatal.

The little English schooner follows us bravely; bounding in our track, and avoiding only by a constant watchfulness and incessant attention to the helm the icebergs that we have cleared.

But the difficulties of this navigation are nothing in clear weather, as compared to what they are in a fog. Then, notwithstanding the slowness of the speed, it requires as much luck as skill to avoid collisions. Thus it happened that after having escaped the ice a first time, and having steered E.N.E., we found ourselves suddenly, towards two o’clock of that same day (the 9th), not further than a quarter of a mile from the field ice which the fog had hidden from us. Generally speaking, the Banquise that we coasted along for three days, and that we traced with the greatest care for nearly a hundred leagues, presented to us an irregular line of margin, running from W.S.W. to E.N.E., and thrusting forward toward the south-capes and promontories of various sizes, and serrated like the teeth of a saw. Every time that we bore up for E.N.E., we soon found ourselves in one of the gulfs of ice formed by the indentations of the Banquise. It was only by steering to the S.W. that we got free from the floating icebergs, to resume our former course as soon as the sea was clear.

The further we advanced to the northward, the thicker became the fog and more intense the cold (two degrees centig, below zero); and snow whirled round in squalls of wind, and fell in large flakes on the deck. The ice began to present a new aspect, and to assume those fantastic and terrible forms and colours, which painters have made familiar to us. At one time it assumed the appearance of mountain-peaks covered with snow, furrowed with valleys of green and blue; more frequently they appeared like a wide flat plateau, as high as the ship’s deck, against which the sea rolled with fury, hollowing its edges into gulfs, or breaking them into perpendicular cliffs or caverns, into which the sea rushed in clouds of foam.

We often passed close by a herd of seals, which-stretched on these floating islands, followed the ship with a stupid and puzzled look. We were forcibly struck with the contrast between the fictitious world in which we lived on board the ship, and the terrible realities of nature that surrounded us. Lounging in an elegant saloon, at the corner of a clear and sparkling fire, amidst a thousand objects of the arts and luxuries of home, we might have believed that we had not changed our residence, or our habits, or our enjoyments. One of Strauss’s waltzes, or Schubert’s melodies—played on the piano by the band-master—completed the illusion; and yet we had only to rub off the thin incrustation of frozen vapour that covered the panes of the windows, to look out upon the gigantic and terrible forms of the icebergs dashed against each other by a black and broken sea, and the whole panorama of Polar nature, its awful risks, and its sinister splendours.

Meanwhile, we progressed but very slowly. On the 10th of July we were still far from the meridian of Jan Mayen, when we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a fog, and at the bottom of one of the bays formed by the field ice. We tacked immediately, and put the ship about, but the wind had accumulated the ice behind us. At a distance the circle that enclosed us seemed compact and without egress. We considered this as the most critical moment of our expedition. Having tried this icy barrier at several points, we found a narrow and tortuous channel, into which we ventured; and it was not till after an hour of anxieties that we got a view of the open sea, and of a passage into it. From this moment we were able to coast along the Banquise without interruption.

On the 11th of July at 6 A.M. we reached, at last, the meridian of Jan Mayen, at about eighteen leagues’ distance [Footnote: I think there must be some mistake here; when we parted company with the "Reine Hortense," we were still upwards of 100 miles distant from the southern extremity of Jan Mayen.] from the southern part of that island, but we saw the ice-field stretching out before us as far as the eye could reach; hence it became evident that Jan Mayen was blocked up by the ice, at least along its south coast. To ascertain whether it might still be accessible from the north, it would have been necessary to have attempted a circuit to the eastward, the possible extent of which could not be estimated; moreover, we had consumed half our coals, and had lost all hope of being rejoined by the ’Saxon.’ Thus forced to give up any further attempts in that direction, Commodore de la Ronciere, having got the ship clear of the floating ice, took a W.S.W. course, in the direction of Reykjavik.

The instant the ’Reine Hortense’ assumed this new course, a telegraphic signal—as had been previously arranged— acquainted Lord Dufferin with our determinations. Almost immediately, the young Lord sent on board us a tin box, with two letters, one for his mother, and one for our commander. In the latter he stated that—finding himself clear of the ice, and master of his own movements—he preferred continuing his voyage alone, uncertain whether he should at once push for Norway, or return to Scotland. [Footnote: I was purposely vague as to my plans, lest you might learn we still intended to go on.] The two ropes that united the vessels were then cast off, a farewell hurrah was given, and in a moment the English schooner was lost in the fog.

Our return to Reykjavik afforded no incident worth notice; the ’Reine Hortense,’ keeping her course outside the ice, encountered no impediment, except from the intense fogs, which forced her—from the impossibility of ascertaining her position—to lie to, and anchor off the cape during part of the day and night of the 13th.

On the morning of the 14th, as we were getting out at the Dyre Fiord, where we had anchored, we met—to our great astonishment—the ’Cocyte’ proceeding northward. Her commander, Sonnart, informed us that on the evening of the 12th, the ’Saxon’—in consequence of the injuries she had received, had been forced back to Reykjavik. She had hardly reached the ice on the 9th, when she came into collision with it; five of her timbers had been stove in, and an enormous leak had followed. Becoming water-logged, she was run ashore, the first tine at Onundarfiord, and again in Reykjavik roads, whither she had been brought with the greatest difficulty."


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Chicago: Frederick Temple Blackwood, "Letter IX.," Letters from High Latitudes, ed. F. N. Maude and trans. Vom Kriege, J. J. Graham in Letters from High Latitudes Original Sources, accessed October 18, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9T1ZPVKDZV52HV.

MLA: Blackwood, Frederick Temple. "Letter IX." Letters from High Latitudes, edited by F. N. Maude, and translated by Vom Kriege, J. J. Graham, in Letters from High Latitudes, Original Sources. 18 Oct. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9T1ZPVKDZV52HV.

Harvard: Blackwood, FT, 'Letter IX.' in Letters from High Latitudes, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, Letters from High Latitudes. Original Sources, retrieved 18 October 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9T1ZPVKDZV52HV.