Sir George Back, H.M.S. Terror, and Polar Ice on Valentine's Day 1837

February 13, 2014 | Richard

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Consider this passage written by Sir George Back on Valentine's Day - 177 years ago - quoted from the Narrative of an expedition in H.M.S. Terror, undertaken with a view to geographical discovery on the Arctic shores, in the years 1836-7. (1)

All notes are located at the bottom of the page


"The 14th February, Valentines's day! By universal consent in the temperate regions of Europe, the harbinger of spring, the day when hope revives and the future begins to triumph over the past!  Even with us, fast locked in the dreary wilderness of ice, amidst driving sleet and fog, the time was not without its influence, and I mark this day as the boundary from which we began to look forward to our final release. "How short the past, how long the future appears", is the trite and universal reflection; yet in my case the reality was exactly the reverse. When I looked back on the past, (and it was the first time that I remember to have experience such a feeling), the time since we left England, though but eight months, seemed longer than three years of my former not unadventurous life. Days were weeks,  weeks months, months almost years.  As objects seen through a haze appear more distant, so to me the past had a dim and shadowy indistinctness which magnified its proportions. There were no marks to separate one day from another, no rule whereby to measure time; all was one dull and cheerless uniformity of dark and cold. But from this date, on the contrary, the successive days being occupied in active exciting employment, with continual novelties of situation, and expectation of something to come, seemed to fly with accelerated speed as each brought us nearer to the termination of our imprisonment. But I return to my narrative . . . "

Flourish Now read the passage again, only this time, imagine Russell Crowe delivering these opening lines in the PortraitofBackrole of George Back (2)  . . . Back stands in his Georgian Study overlooking a busy London street . . .  cut to flashbacks . .  the ship locked in ice creaking under enormous pressure - sounds answered by echoing ship radiator pipes - views of the Royal Geographical Society offices, encounters with a polar bear, losing crew, a listing H.M.S. Terror in 'sinking condition', childhood memories of the Napolonic wars. . . then Back in London, returning to his narrative.  See The DCB for a full entry on Back

Writing such as Back's illustrates why nineteenth century travel literature retains its interest.  Back wrote for an audience that expected more than a bare narrative of fact and he had at his command a literary style capable of varied effects. While he could be light, humorous, and even 'painterly' in his prose, he was also concerned to establish a note of high seriousness appropriate to the story of an adventure which included challenges calling upon the resources of the human spirit.

The passage conveys an impression of the trials endured by an adventurer in the high arctic almost 200 years ago, and yet reading it one is very aware of its deliberate art. Back is clearly penning this travelogue from the comfort of his armchair in London, but he begins the account as if he were in the middle of the experience which he is recording.  Opening the chapter, the passage starts in the present tense and looks with hope to the future. As the account continues, however, Valentine's Day slides back into the past where it belongs.  Troubling the time scheme even further, however, is Back's memory that on that day in February he found himself thinking of the past and recalling the lost world of England, which through the intervening eight months had come to appear indistict and distorted.


Now Back proceeds to philosophical reflection about the subjectivity of time, noting that time can only be recongnized and measured by change.  In this way he catches the mood of suspended animation which was experienced by these travellers during their long imprisonment.  Time now seems to have taken on the qualities of the Arctic space around them: "all was one cheerless uniformity of dark and cold".  This moment of reflection ends with a lively and flowing sentence that catches the realease of time in the spring breakup and brings us back firmly to the on-going narrative.

TerrorpointHis observations anticipate the kind of lofty introspection which was perfected by Joseph Conrad in his  tales of the sea at the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, 'Terror' and her sister ship 'Erebus' are actually mentioned in Conrad's novella  Heart of Darkness, written in 1899, published in 1902, and mostly set in the Belgian Congo. The tale's opening narrator ponders on the Thames . . . "it had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled - the great knights-errant of the sea".  Musing further, the narrator concludes "what greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth? . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires". (3)

A preternatural darkness decends upon Terror at mid-day.


One might wonder at times whether Back's account is actually drawing on detailed notes or simply on memory.  Did Back really have such a sense of psychic renewal on Valentine's Day? The map below casts some doubt on the the actual location of H.M.S. Terror on the 14th of February.

Terror is 'wintered' in.


 Terror encounters all manner of circumstance.


The influence of convention upon travel literature is an important one, although in the end, there is probably no satisfactory way to separate the facts from the forms and modes through which the facts are apprehended.  Time, for example, is a recurrent preoccupation on the literature of the nineteenth century, and Back was writing in a period in which Wordsworth's poetry had given literary prominence to the significance of memory.

Time is also important for locating, and it is amazing to think that with the use of an Sextant, Back and his crew attempted to plot such an accurate chart of their course through the polar seas, including for the period that they drifted along in the pack ice (5).

The Narrative includes a folded map and chart.


Twenty seven years ago I pored over a copy of the Narrative chart in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library with a magnifying glass looking for the date of Feb 14th which begins the 5th chapter of Back's account.  I discovered two things. First, Valentine's Day - the 14th - is conspicuously absent from the chart!  and Second, and perhaps more surprising, the course of the ship does not match the dates given!!! It appears that the ship is on a course going from the 12th, to the 18th, to the 16th of February.

How could this be? Is it noteworthy to mention that these dates are incredibly difficult to read? That is, compared with the other dates on the chart, these are 'super faint'.

What's going on here?  Deliberate obfuscation, or simple etcher's error? Technical errors in instrument reading or recording? Such small differences in distance, hardly worth noting? Or perhaps a small bay of water opened and his ship was not actually locked in ice on Valentine's Day but dancing from point to point?  None of these seem to satisfy, so details like this beg for interpretations; I suggest a film treatment might offer a most interesting conjecture.

Below, the first image shows the north shore of Southampton Island. All February dates are highlighted and magnified at 4 times.  Even at that, it is difficult to tell that the first highlight on the very far left says "1st FEB":


Below, some dates magnified even further - note the abscence of Valentine's Day and the strange course of the H.M.S. Terror:


The mystery of the absent February 14th is intriguing because the date is given such prominence in the Narrative.

Crew of Terror keeping busy.


Terror in radiant light!


Terror nearly capsizes.


Terror experiences Keel and Rudder damage.


The National Maritime Museum in the U.K. offers various prints for sale, including drawings like this one:


So now . . .

Can someone please petition Mr. Crowe to make another ocean motion picture?

It could be another sensational blockbuster, like Titanic, but without a depiction of catastrophic loss of life.



(1)  Back's Narrative is available through the TPL Digital Archive in pdf format. The Toronto Reference Library holds two physical copies of this work in the  newly constructed and soon to be opened Marilyn & Baillie Special Collections Centre on the 5th Floor (6). Most of the images H.M.S. Terror are photographs taken from one of our copies using a Canon PowerShot A2600 camera.


(2) George Back, arctic explorer and artist, accompanied Sir John Franklin on 5 expeditions throughout his career. In the spring of 1836 the Royal Geographical Society applied for and obtained support from the government to let Back captain the 325-ton HMS Terror bomb. The plan involved sailing to Wager River or Repulse Bay at the northwestern end of Hudson's Bay, where the expedition would settle for the winter, and then in the following spring proceed overland hauling small boats to the Arctic shores where the exploration to Point Turnagain could be made and the coast surveyed.  In June of 1836 the Terror and her crew of 60 men set sail from England.  However, the Arctic that year was especially bad for ice and in August (4), upon entering Frozen Strait, the ship was beset and the rest of the winter drifted with the pack ice beside Southhampton Island until July of the following year. Plans to survey the Arctic coast were aborted and the return voyage was difficult because of damage sustained to the ship, which was termed to be in "sinking condition" and if the portraits above and below are accurate, this would not be difficult to believe. Back was born in Stockport England on November 6th, 1796 and died in London at the age of 81 on June 23rd, 1878.


(3)  Of course, not everyone is enamoured with Heart of Darkness and its depiction of the imperial ambitions of European powers.   As TPL celebrates Black History Month this February (3a), it is worth noting a dissenting judgement to Conrad's firmly established reputation. Chinua Achebe, Nigerian writer, poet, professor,  Man Booker International Prize winner  and author of Things Fall Apart , found Conrad's work offensive and deeply racist.  In a Norton edition Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism of the work, Achebe writes of the opening of Heart of Darkeness (circ 1974):

"The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully "at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks." But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that "Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world."  For Achebe the two rivers become personified (cf. the ancient Roman Thames as a third & earlier verson of itself) and then he asserts that if the Thames "were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings".

Chinua-AchebeWhat is most grating to Achebe is Conrad's portrayal of the people of Africa. Using Conrad's writing as a kind of lens leaves Achebe no other option but to call Conrad a "thoroughgoing racist" . . . "It might be contended, of course, that the attitude to the African in Heart of Darkness is not Conrad's but that of his fictional narrator, Marlow, and that far from endorsing it Conrad might indeed be holding it up to irony and criticism. Certainly Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his history. He has, for example, a narrator behind a narrator. The primary narrator is Marlow but his account is given to us through the filter of a second, shadowy person. But if Conrad's intention is to draw a cordon sanitaire between himself and the moral and psychological malaise of his narrator his care seems to me totally wasted because he neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters. It would not have been beyond Conrad's power to make that provision if he had thought it necessary. Marlow seems to me to enjoy Conrad's complete confidence -- a feeling reinforced by the close similarities between their two careers . . . The kind of liberalism espoused here by Marlow/Conrad touched all the best minds of the age in England, Europe and America . . . Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth."

Exacting criticism like this throws light and casts long shadows on the loaded and difficult Conradian line "the appalling face of a glimpsed truth".

The anniverary of Achebe's death is next week: click here for the BBC Obituary.

    (3a) The first British person of African origin said to have sailed in Arctic waters was born circa Olaudah_Equiano1750, a hundred years before Conrad's birthday.  Olaudah Equaiano who was born Nigerian, was captured, and was sold into slavery at age 12. He was taken to the West Indies where he received some education before being freed. Like Conrad, he became a British subject.

Equiano became a staunch abolitionist and wrote a very popular autobiography entitled,  The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, in which he recounts his progress to 80 degrees latitude north, through waters off the east coast of Greenland. His ship, the Racehorse, like H.M.S. Terror, got locked in ice and the crew bolted to the open water of the sea: "We then began to drag the boats as well as we could towards the sea, but after two or three days' labour we made very little progress, so that some of our hearts totally failed us and I really began to give up myself for lost when I saw our surrounding calamities.  While we were at this hard labour I once fell into a pond we had made amongst some loose ice and was very near being drowned, but providentially some people were near who gave me immediate assistance and thereby I escaped drowning Heartr2 . . . I had the fears of death hourly upon me, and shuddered at the thoughts of meeting the grim king of terrors in the 'natural' state I then was in, and was exceedingly doubtful of a happy eternity if I should die in it." After eleven days locked in ice, and four days since launching the boats, the Racehorse regained its freedom and sailed back into Deptford in the Fall of 1773, "after being absent for four months' (H.M.S. Terror was gone for over a year). 

The Racehorse and Carcass locked in ice with crew hauling boats to open waters.


 See BBC Article on The First Black Britons.

(4) Back's account includes information that underscores the drastic changes to climate and Arctic sea ice extent as witnessed in modern times. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are estimated to have risen dramatically from 280 ppm, in the early 1800s, to over 400 ppm today. As we learn that there may have been glaciers in Scotland only 400 years ago, it is easy to imagine that our Northern regions were dramatically colder than now, inspite of our concerns over the "Polar Vortex".

Consider the approximate route of Back's early 19th century journey. With the help of Google Maps, I've approximated the position of H.M.S. Terror from August 1836 to August 1837:


Back got locked in polar ice at the end of August 1837 just south of 66 degrees latitude north.

Last August 2013, Arctic waters were more or less ice free to the end of Baffin Bay (Smith Sound), roughly 77 degrees latitude north.

AugusticeMag4 AugustIce2013Sat

Back's route area in Foxe Channel is marked in red on a NOAA image map that indicates ice free conditions in Arctic waters in 2013. Above right, another Google created map, with an approximate line starting at the first point Back got suck in ice going north to sea ice extent last August 2013, a distance >1400 kms, almost directly north.

 (5) Arctic ice is not static.  View some of the extraordinary videos produced by James Balog for the Extreme Ice Survey.  "Ice is alive!", so to speak, and It is not difficult to imagine how the H.M.S. Terror could move so erratically and extensively in the ice pack - something the crew must have known since their changing location was worth reporting. And just imagine your ship getting involved in one of these 'cascades' . . . . cut in film treatment.

(6)  The Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre

A 'spectacular' 2-storey Rotunda has been constructed on the library's 5th Floor as a new home for the library's 1.9 million item Special Collections. The Centre will be opening soon.

TRL's Special Collections will now be held in one place:

  • Providing more opportunities for students, artists and historians to explore, uncover and rediscover Canada's and Toronto's historical and cultural records.
  • Increasing the prominence Special Collections, this revitalization will triple the number of works on permanent display.
  • Enhanced conservation features, including specialized lighting, climate controls and custom building materials, ensure preservation of the collection for future generations.
  • Creation of a new Arthur Conan Doyle Room


This last image of Terror appears to be of crew scouting ice conditions, planning an escape route, and waiting for the much anticipated spring break up. 


If you are feeling stuck on ice this winter . . . think on these intrepid Arctic travelers thousands of miles away from home!




V3b Capture