Rescue of HMS Investigator's men


26 February 2021: To do otherwise McClure’s fiction would fall…McClure was an ambitious man. He had engineered his solo entrance into the Arctic by ignoring Kellett and pretending he really thought his superior officer, Collinson on HMS Enterprise, who led their two ship Franklin search expedition, was already ahead of him. His whole situation, which was now endangering and killing his men, was based on pretending. He couldn’t stop pretending now, or it would all be for naught. To be facing rescue from the man he had dismissed in 1850 just added irony to the mix.

McClure left first for Resolute with a small party, then Pim set off on the morning of 8 April. The Investigator’s surgeon, Armstrong, intercepted him out of earshot of his traveling party, and engaged him in a long conversation. Then Pim headed for Domville’s camp at Cape Dundas, arriving on the 14th. After he told Domville about the abysmal conditions onboard Investigator Pim sent Domville back to Resolute alone to make the quickest time. Unbeknownst to him Domville would catch up with McClure and they would arrive at Resolute together. Back at Investigator the weakest men set out on the 15th, instead of McClure’s original intended route to the eastern Arctic, he kindly let them instead sledge to Resolute. This would still be a phenomenally difficult trek.

From my manuscript:
“…the weakest Investigators departed under Cresswell’s command on 15 April…All 29 suffered from advanced scurvy, including assistant surgeon Piers…When two Investigators collapsed, Cresswell ordered them walk alongside their sledge instead of pulling it. Everyone had to double up on their drag-ropes when they encountered hummocks, being too weak to pull their sledges over. On 22 April, just as they sighted Melville Island, they discovered one of their number was missing:

[From Cresswell:] ‘It was a poor fellow who showed symptoms of mental imbecility…[They] sent back to search for him, and found him in a pond of melted snow. From that time great difficulty was experienced in getting him along; he was always throwing himself on the snow to lie down; they dared not put him in one of the sledges, as already the weight was great enough for their enfeebled party, with one man totally unable to walk…’

During extremely fine weather and visibility, the men back at Dealy Island camp saw their own black dots moving in the distance, which [were] Domville and McClure’s party. Eager to hear their news, the officers hurried out to them…The rest of the Investigator group arrived throughout the afternoon, and the Resolutes and Intrepids were grateful at least now their efforts hadn’t been in vain. They’d saved a full ship’s compliment from a torturous death. To mark this, Kellett used red ink for this section in his letter to Barrow:

‘This is really a Red-letter day in my voyage and shall be kept as a Holy Day by my Heirs and Successors for Ever. At 9 o’clock of this day our lookout man made the signal for a Party coming in from the Westward. All went out to meet them and assist them in…Dr. Domville was the first person I met. I cannot describe to you my feelings when he told me that Captain McClure was amongst the next party. I was not long in meeting him and giving him many hearty [hand] shakes.’

At 18:00 the Investigators sat down to their first full meal in years. Though impatient to hear their stories Kellett allowed no one to pester them until they’d eaten their fill.”

-To be continued on Monday 1 March 2021-

By 30 April 1853 the sledging party of Investigators, whom McClure had originally ordered to cross the entire Arctic, were still en route to HMS Resolute. On this day, to their great surprise, they saw two men headed their way. They turned out to be Pim and another Resolute. They helped them sledge the final miles, arriving at Resolute on 3 May. The difficulty the Investigators had managing this 160 mile trek proved, if proof was needed, that most of them would not have survived a death march to Beechey Island.

Despite having had his men on starvation rations for a long time, McClure continued to claim to Kellett that he did not need rescuing.
From my manuscript: “Although McClure continued asserting he needed no rescue, Kellett knew his true measure, and listened with his eyes instead of McClure’s words. Within only a day or two Kellett had to put several Investigators onto Resolute’s sick list due to their continued deterioration, graphically contradicting McClure’s written answers to Kellett’s queries…Wisely, Kellett put little trust in McClure’s report, and sent Domville back to Investigator to do a detailed medical survey of the remaining men. As Armstrong noted later in his journal, referring to McClure’s distain for Kellett’s advice to wait for Collinson, Kellett had already had a…
‘…specimen of our diplomatic skill in Behring’s [sic] Strait, in 1850 – the remembrance of which, may, doubtless, have influenced him, in receiving Captain McClure’s verbal report of our state of health and efficiency with great caution, as he had ample reason to distrust us. (Dr. Armstrong’s emphasis) 

Kellett knew three ships’ companies would have to vie for space onboard Resolute and Intrepid if he ordered McClure to abandon Investigator, and that the bitterly disappointed captain would be living cheek-by-jowl with the object of his distain. But these considerations didn’t dissuade Kellett, whose only object was to preserve the lives of as many men as he could. Kellett told McClure that if Domville found 20 men fit enough to stay on Investigator, and only if they volunteered to stay, would he refrain from ordering McClure to abandon the ship. McClure was now nothing more than a supernumerary onboard Resolute, and this time he would have to obey Kellett, who said:

‘To make the Passage [via sailing] would be highly creditable, and redound to the national honour. It is only, in my opinion, now that the existence of the Passage is actually known, a second consideration to that of the safety of your crew.

On 21 May Domville and McClure arrived back at Investigator. During divisions the following morning Domville read aloud Kellett’s orders concerning the medical survey and call for any volunteers to stay. Unfortunately, there were only four such volunteers, and McClure didn’t take this well. Carpenter George Ford recorded in his journal what McClure said, then did: 

‘every man had done his duty, and if he wouldn’t volunteer we were to bear it in mind it would be thought no disgrace whatever as we had done all that was expected of us but as it would contribute to the honour of our country to get the ship home, if  20 men on the examination from the doctor of the Resolute [were] found fit to stop they may volunteer, if not it would be no dishonour…[When I] told him that under the present circumstances [I] would rather go home, he told me in a harsh tone I had deceived him & ‘you can go, Sir. I’ll not keep you’…On leaving the ship he addressed all hands saying that what they had done was barely their duty & that barely, as they were going to desert their ship & captain & [he] repeated several times that all hands had barely, barely done their duty…a pretty yarn to tell people about to undertake to travel [to the Resolute] & half-starved.’

When Domville began his survey, on Monday 23 May, he found the men were suffering from scurvy, some in its most advanced stages. In his medical judgement he felt no one would be capable of sailing Investigator within a year if they stayed. Domville confirmed the abandonment. The crew prepared their ship by reducing the standing and running rigging, battening down all hatches: leaving her a fit refuge for Collinson, should he find or need her.”

2 March 2021 Blog Post
Today I am ending my review of Kellett’s rescue of McClure and the men from HMS Investigator with the following short passage from my manuscript. Then tomorrow I will resume recounting the Resolutes’ and Intrepids’ spring searches for the Franklin Expedition (HMS Erebus and Terror) and Collinson and his men (HMS Enterprise).

“When determining who should receive the reward for finding the Northwest Passage, McClure lied to the Select Committee saying his men were in perfect health, and he had sufficient food onboard to maintain them for another year. At least Kellett acted honourably and selflessly with the health and wellbeing of the Investigators uppermost in his mind. McClure’s later account of his ‘discovery’ of the Northwest Passage, all on his own, amounts to nothing more than a whitewash of the true story of Investigator. And, of course, he completely omitted the role Kellett played in keeping almost all of the Investigators alive, thereby enabling them to complete the passage.”

By Elizabeth Matthews

Leading authority on HMS Resolute

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