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Fine Maps

All the Presidents’ Desk

Resolute and the other eastern search ships returned to Britain in 1851, but another massive search attempt was mounted the next year, with five ships, including the Resolute, under the command of Edward Belcher, who turned out to be one of the most inept of all British naval officers. Belcher was an excellent navigator and surveyor, but a poor commander of men. His ships combed the Arctic, sending out sledge parties to cover the land. In typical British naval fashion, even the sledges were grandiosely named: HMS Discovery, for example, only here the “HMS” stood for “Her Majesty’s Sledge” rather than the usual “Her Majesty’s Ship.” There are numerous fine so-called “sledge maps” of parts of the Arctic which reveal these explorations and reveal hitherto unmapped lands, then unknown even to Inuit peoples.

Detail of a sledge map by George Frederick Mecham showing the position of Resolute at Dealy Island.

One of the five exploratory ships, Robert M’Clure’s Investigator, found a safe harbor in September 1851 at Mercy Bay, on the northern tip of Banks Island, now the westernmost of the major Canadian Arctic Islands. Here was the western entrance to the principal Northwest Passage. But the harbor proved too safe, for ice would not allow the ship to leave. In 1852 M’Clure sledged across the strait to Winter Harbour—the westernmost point reached by the first 19th-century British Arctic expedition under Edward Parry. M’Clure left a note, describing his position, under a cairn. This note was found many months later by Lieutenant George Frederick Mecham, commander of a sledge sent out by Henry Kellett, captain of the Resolute. The following spring, as soon as he could, Kellett sent sledges to the location described on M’Clure’s note, and found the Investigator just as M’Clure was reluctantly preparing to abandon her.

Having hung on so long, M’Clure did not want to abandon ship, but he was overruled by the more senior Kellett. All of Investigator’s men were transferred by sledge to Resolute and her partner ship HMS Intrepid. Sick and invalid men were then transferred, also by sledge, to a supply ship, HMS Phoenix, which was anchored at Beechey Island, some 300 miles to the east. Phoenix sailed for Britain, in consort with Belcher’s supply ship North Star. And so, in that roundabout way, some of the original Investigator crew became the first to transit the Northwest Passage.

Maps may best tell the story of the Resolute desk.

M’Clure and the rest of his men followed the next year, feted as the first conquerors of the Northwest Passage. Of the five-ship fleet of Edward Belcher only one sailed back to Britain: Belcher made a decision, which has never been properly explained, to abandon four of his five ships—including Resolute —when they were still trapped in the ice in the fall of 1853. Belcher was in fact court-martialed for his decision, but acquitted because he was technically allowed to make that decision as commander of the fleet.

And, as we have heard, Resolute refused to be abandoned, working her solitary hulk eastwards into Davis Strait in a stunning indictment of Belcher’s decision. A crew from the American whaling ship George Henry sailed Resolute back to New London, Connecticut. After restoration and refurbishment, right down to the books in the officers’ libraries, the ship was presented to Queen Victoria in December 1856. The gift was warmly received, though the ship never went back into naval service.  Instead, the timbers were used to make a President’s desk, and the desk became an emblem of the friendship between Britain and the United States. You might say the Resolute proves that in relationships between world powers, even one that starts out very badly can end well.

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Derek HayesDerek Hayes is the author of a new book titled the Historical Atlas of the American West, which will be published by the University of California Press this fall.