top of page

 Peter Takes on History 

December 13, 1911

Searching for the Northwest Passage

A piece of furniture called “The Resolute Desk” sits in the Oval Office. The president's desk. I've always assumed that “resolute” was a reference to the work done at that desk. You know, a president should be bold, determined, decisive and resolute. Nope. So let me backup a bit …

Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Magellan and Balboa; all explorers, right? All heading south, looking for a western route to the Orient. Why? Because the Orientals had the good stuff! Porcelain, silk, jade, tea but especially spices! Pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg; light, compact, lucrative! Worth more than printer ink! So, why not “take your horse to the old silk road and ride ‘til you can’t no more?” Because Europeans didn’t want to pay retail. They wanted to cut out the middle man, and for four centuries, that middle man was the Ottoman Empire.

OK, so Cabot, Frobisher, Davis, Franklin, Ross and McClure. Also explorers. Same thing, looking for a shortcut to Asia! But this bunch of losers headed north; explorers looking for a shortcut to Asia via the fabled Northwest Passage.

John Cabot was the first to try it in 1497. He failed. For 400 years they all failed. The first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage wasn’t until 1906 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. By the way, a little This Day in History two-fer, on this day, December 13th, 1911 Amundsen also became the first explorer to reach the South Pole. Them crazy Vikings, right?

So for four centuries they searched in vain for the Northwest Passage but one of the worst failures was in 1847. Sir John Franklin took two ships - the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus - over the top of Canada toward the North Pole.

OK, first - HMS Terror? And HMS Erebus; named after the mythological guardian at the gates of hell? How do you laugh that off when you’re passing around the sign up sheet? So, guess what? Barely west of Baffin Bay, they disappear. Two ships, 129 crew, vanished!

After two years of speculation in the press the British government finally says, “OK, OK! We’ll go look for them.” Over the next seven years, though most of the searchers survived, at least seven more ships were lost to the ice! But from interviews with Inuit people and forensic investigation of graves and artifacts the various expeditions pieced together Franklin’s story. Turns out the crews of Terror and Erebus died of hypothermia, pneumonia, starvation, lead poisoning, tuberculosis, zinc deficiency, scurvy and/or exposure. And though the British Navy doesn’t like to talk about it, they documented a pinch of cannibalism mixed into that miserable stew.

Most of the seven rescue ships that were abandoned were crushed by sea ice and sunk but one was not. For a year this single ghost ship rode an ice flow 1200 miles, west to east, nearly back to the Atlantic where in 1855 an American whaler spotted it, boarded it and found it seaworthy! They sailed it to Connecticut where, thanks to an Act of Congress, the ship was refitted and sailed back to England where, on this day in history, December 13th 1856, the ship was presented, as a diplomatic gift, to Queen Victoria. The ship rejoined the Royal Navy and served for 23 more years.

When it was finally retired, it was salvaged for timber and Queen Victoria ordered a few pieces of furniture built. You see where this is going? One piece of furniture was a massive partner’s deck that was given to US President Rutherford B Hayes by the Queen in 1879 and has been used by every president since.

Want to guess the name of the ghost ship from which the desk was made?

The HMS Resolute. Thus “The Resolute Desk.” I suppose at times the HMS Terror might have been more appropriate but, mostly, Resolute is probably better, huh?

More stories ...

bottom of page