Distant Dominion: Britain and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1579-1809

By Barry M. Gough | Go to book overview

3
Cook's Reconnaissance

Whereas the Earl of Sandwich has signified to us His Majesty's pleasure that an attempt should be made to find out a Northern Passage by sea from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, and whereas we have in pursuance thereof caused His Majesty's sloops Resolution and Discovery to be fitted in all respects to proceed upon a voyage for the purpose above mentioned, and from the experience we have had of your abilities and good conduct in your late voyages, have thought fit to entrust you with the conduct of the present intended voyage ....

FROM COOK'S INSTRUCTIONS, 6 JULY 1776

In the 1770's the vexing problem of the Northwest Passage remained unsolved. The munificent reward of £ 20,000, offered by the British parliament after 1745 for merchant ships finding a sea route through Hudson Strait and the rumoured great "sea of the west" to the Pacific, was still unclaimed. As a further inducement, the British government, on pressure from the Royal Society, decided to extend the reward to include ships of the Royal Navy; and in 1775, the government authorized payment of a £ 20,000 reward for discovering a passage north of 52° and £5,000 to the crew of the first ship sailing within one degree of the North Pole, as "such approaches may greatly tend to the discovery of a communication between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans." The government reasoned that such a discovery would have "many advantages to commerce and science." 1

The shift to include science as a motive for Arctic discovery reflects the influence of the Royal Society on government. 2 Already instrumental in sending Captain James Cook, R.N., on his first voyage to the Pacific and involved in various endeavours related to exploration, the Society, through its leaders, was close to the seats of power in Whitehall. Daines Barrington, a member of the Society's council and a jurist, naturalist, antiquarian, and geographer, influenced by his Swiss scientific correspondent Samuel Engel, declared that the north polar sea was ice-free and in 1775 and 1776 wrote several pamphlets expounding this peculiar belief. At the same time he appealed to his friend the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, to send British warships to find a passage to the East Indies via the North Pole. These pressures were successful, for in 1773 the Admiralty dispatched the Racehorse and Carcass to investigate, under command of Captain Constantine Phipps, F.R.S. Assisted by ice pilots from the Greenland whaling fleet, Phipps found the ice barrier north of Spitzbergen impassable, and he returned to London full of pessimism. Strangely, Barrington remained full of

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Distant Dominion: Britain and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1579-1809
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Distant Dominion - Britain and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1579-1809 *
  • Contents *
  • Photographic Credits *
  • Illustrations *
  • Preface *
  • 1: Tyranny of Distance *
  • 2: Pacific Probes *
  • 3: Cook's Reconnaissance *
  • 4: Spanning the Pacific *
  • 5: The Fortune Seekers *
  • 6: Beachhead of Empire *
  • 7: Imperial Dreams and False Starts *
  • 8: Conflicts of Ambition *
  • 9: Dealing with the Dons *
  • 10: The Surveyor-Diplomats *
  • 11: The Overlanders *
  • Epilogue *
  • Abbreviations *
  • Notes *
  • Note on Sources *
  • Select Bibliography *
  • Index *
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