Phipps’ and Parry’s expeditions

The small islands in the group called Sjuøyane, in northernmost Svalbard, were named in connection with two English expeditions. The area around the fjord Sorgfjorden also has place names linked to one of the expeditions. Though the objective of both expeditions was the North Pole, they also involved scientific collection and observation.

Phipps’ expedition to the north was a result of Englishmen’s wish to know how far north it was possible to sail. Was it possible to reach the North Pole? Was it possible to sail across it? This was the first of several expeditions which aimed to discover the geography of the Arctic. John Phipps, who later became Lord Mulgrave, was expedition leader for the ships Carcass and Racehorse. The expedition left England early in June 1773.

In late June/early July, the ships reached Svalbard, where they encountered the problem they were to contend with for the rest of the expedition – the ice. In terms of ice conditions, the summer of 1773 was later remembered by whalers as one of the worst they had seen in Svalbard. The ice completely covered the north and made it impossible to advance in any direction. The goal of Phipps’ expedition was not Svalbard or whaling. It was always further north – the archipelago of Svalbard was but a stop on the way to the final goal, the North Pole. But the ice stopped all attempts to advance northwards. The Carcass and Racehorse were stuck in the ice by Sjuøyane, but fortuitously the ice broke up and Phipps avoided evacuating the ships and using small boats to reach open waters. The ships immediately set sail for England.

In 1827 England sent out yet another expedition to reach the North Pole. Captain Parry was in charge of the ship Hecla and led the expedition. This time the North Pole was to be reached with the help of “sleigh boats” that were to tow the ship over the ice, using tame reindeer. The crew ended up having to use their own muscle power. Other tasks included carrying out all types of scientific observations and collections “…as may contribute to the benefit of general Science…” (Conway 1906).

Parry saw the coast of Svalbard in the middle of May. The expedition followed the coast eastwards on the northern side of Svalbard looking for a good port for the main ship. Parry’s choice was a good port in Sorgfjorden, later named Heclahamna, after the ship. The choice could easily have been fatal, which the old whalers from previous centuries could have told him. Drift ice enters Sorgfjorden quickly from Hinlopenstretet and closes the passageway in and out of the fjord. One must keep a constant lookout to avoid an involuntary overwintering on a ship that is stuck in the ice. No whaler would have left the ship unattended for two months in Heclahamna. Parry was lucky. The summer of 1827 was unusually free of ice.

However, Parry was not quite so lucky in his attempt to reach the North Pole. After 48 hours they reached Sjuøyane without having seen any ice. Finally encountering the ice edge at 81 degrees north, Parry had to give up after 48 days in the ice. They had not made it very far north since the strong currents carried them back southwards almost as soon as they had advanced. However, Parry was the first person to carry out a planned walk over the ice. Hecla returned to England in the beginning of October. The expedition had been a success: they had been further north than anyone had ever been, and had made good observations. The North Pole, however, remained unseen.

Phipps’ and Parry’s expeditions left many place names in north-eastern Svalbard. Several of the Sjuøyane islands were named after the leaders of the expeditions, second-in-commands and other participants, such as Phippsøya, Parryøya, Rossøya and Nelsonøya. The ship Hecla has given name to both Heclahamna and Heclahuken in Sorgfjorden. Kapp Fanshawe was named after Parry’s firstmate, while Beverlysundet in Nordaustlandet was named after the doctor on Parry’s expedition. Places like Fosterøyane in Hinlopenstretet and Crozierpynten in Sorgfjorden also got their names from Parry’s expedition.

Updated April 2009

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