'Nobody likes him': Historian says Arctic explorer Robert M'Clure overlooked

Robert M'Clure, who advertised himself as the first to get through the Northwest Passage, is not remembered in history as a very nice person. But a historian suggests he should get more credit.

Explorer set out in search of Franklin's lost expedition as captain of HMS Investigator in 1850

In this file photo, a Parks Canada archaeologist swims across the bow of HMS Investigator during an Arctic archaeological survey of the Northwest Passage. Robert M'Clure, who said he was the first to get through the Northwest Passage, should get a little more credit, says a historian. (Parks Canada)

He double-crossed his boss. He berated his sailors. Robert M'Clure, who advertised himself as the first through the Northwest Passage, is not remembered in history as a very nice person.

But in the September issue of Arctic Journal, Arctic historian Janice Cavell advocates for M'Clure — sometimes spelled as McClure — to receive a bit more recognition for his work charting the North.

"People wrote him off," Cavell, an adjunct professor of history at Carleton University, told CBC.

Cavell hopes M'Clure's role in charting new information about the North will add nuance to the way Canadians think about history.

"There's a tendency to want heroes," said Cavell.

"When you come to someone like M'Clure — nobody likes him. It would be impossible to make a hero out of him, and so there's a bit of a tendency to look away from his achievements."

Cavell thinks if people separated achievements from the character, people may see M'Clure in a different light.

Who found what first?

The very question of who "discovered" the Northwest Passage is rooted in expansionist history.

Inuit occupation once extended throughout the archipelago, and they still lived on Baffin, Victoria and King William islands in the 19th century.

In this file photo, a Parks Canada archeologist dives on the wreck of HMS Investigator in 2011. (Parks Canada)

Bernadette Dean, an Inuit traditional knowledge keeper in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, who has collaborated with the Smithsonian, says her people knew many features of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and used its waterways for a long time.

She added she's seen markers in Inuktut (dialects of the Inuit languages) and sod house ruins on a High Arctic island.

"It tells me our ancestors lived and walked on the land," said Dean.

But British explorers were looking for something else — throughways for their ships.

The British government offered up to 20,000 pounds for the first shipping company to find and sail through a northern channel from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean, also offering rewards for portions of the Passage.

Sir John Franklin is known for his disastrous attempt to find the Northwest Passage. He ended up dying near a Nunavut island in 1847. None of his men survived.

That's where Sir Robert M'Clure comes in. M'Clure and his senior officer, Richard Collinson, went on an expedition from the West to search for Franklin. Each on their own separate ships, they set out in 1850.

HMS Investigator, left, is trapped in ice with HMS Enterprise in a painting by Lt. W.H. Brown of the Royal Navy. The ship was eventually abandoned and its crew rescued by a Royal Navy sledge team a few years later. ((National Maritime Museum))

But M'Clure quickly shook off his boss and sailed ahead to the Arctic with his crew.

He went up the Prince of Wales Strait and travelled on foot up to the entrance, and confirmed that it did connect with Viscount Melville Sound — but his boat couldn't get through.

So, "after wintering there he did a very daring thing," said Cavell, who has published two books on Arctic history.

M'Clure went around Banks Island to a strait that would later be named after him. He sought refuge in a nearby bay that he would later name Bay of Mercy (now Mercy Bay).

"They thought they would die there," Cavell said. After nearly three years in the Arctic, the group was found in the spring of 1853 by another expedition that had come in from the east.

M'Clure did not appreciate their offer to save him.

"He didn't want to leave, even though his men were in very, very bad shape," said Cavell. "He was quite callous to his men."

M'Clure was convinced to abandon his ship, HMS Investigator. The ship was later found in 2010 by archeologists' sonar scan of the bay where his men took refuge. Divers found artifacts from the ship the following year.

M'Clure goes to Parliament

When M'Clure finally got back to England, he told the British Parliament that because his men had sledged through the Arctic and were rescued, they should be considered the first to travel the Northwest Passage fully.

A parliamentary committee agreed, saying that his men had "completed a last link in a chain of discovery."

While M'Clure did not sail through his entire voyage, he found new waterways other British explorers had not, Cavell said.

But M'Clure's legacy would quickly be tainted.

Franklin's widow pushed back, saying her late husband made key discoveries that he was not alive to be honoured for, and that he had discovered a Northwest Passage before he died.

Now, Franklin is famous — sometimes infamous — for his failed attempt. But today, few remember the ambitious Robert M'Clure who put M'Clure Strait on the map.

M'Clure unappreciated?​

Cavell suggests that because of M'Clure's dodgy character, he was "a little overlooked" despite his accomplishments.

But Arctic exploration historian John McCannon is not so sure.

"There's always a limit to how many people and events can be crammed into the popular understanding of any historical topic, and dozens of polar explorers who were important in the 19th century have faded from public awareness," said McCannon, associate professor of history at Southern New Hampshire University, in an email.

"M'Clure doesn't stand out as having been unusually disrespected by historians, either in terms of being neglected or overly criticized," said McCannon. 

"That's the sort of debate and reassessment that historians routinely put important people [through] —​ whether they're explorers, generals, kings, or what have you."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Richard Collinson as John Collinson.
    Dec 04, 2018 2:32 PM CT