In the northwest coast of the now mythical King William island, not far from the northernmost corner of the triangle shape wich it forms, a two meters high cairn was built the 29th may 1830 by James Clark Ross. That was the first time this island was visited by explorers. The next visitors would be Thomas Simpson and Warren Dease who, in 1839, would build another cairn in the south coast.
Ross, accompanied by some men and eight dogs, left on may 1830 their ship Victory in Felix Harbour to lead a sledge party which intention was to ascertain if there was any passage connecting Prince Regent Inlet with Point Turnagain. That was the furthest point reached by John Franklin in the north coast of the American continent during his expedition of 1819-21.
The party crossed Boothia peninsula and the channel which separates it from King William Island, James Ross strait, to end landing in its northeast shore. They hadn´t found the navigable connection they were looking for, but had discovered a new piece of land in the very heart of the arctic archipielago.
Ross´s reflections, right after landing on the island which was destined to be remembered forever as the scenary of the biggest polar tragedy of all times, look to me somehow premonitory:
"No one will be surprised to hear how often during all these years we have formed the idle wish that men could live without food; a wish, idle and nonsensical as we felt it, that has ever intruding, since the necessity of eating was the ever-recurring obstacle to all our endeavours"
If these "idle and nonsensical" wishes had become true, Franklin´s expedition´s fate would have been a very different one.
Once in these new land, they walked northwestward and reached Cape Felix, the northern tip of King William Island. From there, they carried out to the southwest following its shores. Ross was happy to see how now the coastline was leading him towards his target, Point Turnagain but Ross´s provisions were scarce. They were meant to last just twenty one days, a great contrast with the provisions carried by fututre parties which could travel for as long as three months, so the expedition had came to its end.
Thomas Abernethy and James Ross separated from the party and continued southward some miles more till they decided to stop north of Back´s bay. This was the place where they decided to turn around and where they built the cairn which would become years after the recipient of the only (*) written message coming from the Franklin expedition. Ross describes the moment this way:
"We now therefore unfurled our flag for the usual ceremony, and took possession of what we saw as far as the distant point, while that on which we stood was named Victory point; being the " ne plus ultra " of our labour, as it afterwards proved, while it will remain a standing record of the exertions of that ship's crew. The point to the south-west was also named Cape Franklin: and if that be a name which has now been conferred on more places than one, these honours, not in fact very solid when so widely shared, are beyond all thought less than the merits of that oflicer deserve.
On Victory point we erected a cairn of stones six feet high, and we enclosed in it a canister containing a brief account of the proceedings of the expedition since its departure from England. Such has been the custom, and to that it was our business to conform ; though I must say, that we did not entertain the most remote hope that our little history would ever meet an European's eye, even had it escaped the accident of falling into the hands of the Esquimaux.
Yet we should have gone about our work with something like hope, if not confidence, had we then known that we were reputed as lost men, if even still alive, and that our ancient and tried friend Back was about to seek for us, and to restore us once more to society and home. And if it is not impossible that the course of his present investigations from Cape Turnagain east-ward may lead him to this very spot, that he may find the record and proof of our own "turnagain," we have known what it is for the wanderer in these solitudes to alight upon such traces of friends and of home, and can almost envy him the imagined happiness; while we shall rejoice to hear that he has done that in which we failed, and perhaps not less than if we had ourselves succeeded in completing this long pursued and perilous work."
The Victory point cairn was born. It was elegantly crowned with the Union Jack and stood proud looking defiantly to the icy waters which laid to its west. "More explorers will come to put an end to this war", it looked to be saying..., and they actually did, but to fight a hopeless battle instead.
As we have read above, Ross seemed to have some sort of prophetic powers. Apart from the aforementioned appropiated reflection about the ´so human´ necessity of food (specially in this barren lands), he named the farthest piece of land at sight as Cape Franklin. Apparently, after being christened, the cape started to intone an inaudible syren´s chant which attracted the Franklin expedition to its perdition. The crews from Erebus and Terror landed close to this point in april of 1848. Their target now wasn´t to continue the exploration, but to run towards safety in a desperate race to survive.
It would had been a coincidence that Franklin, who died in june of 1847, had been buried in the cape which bears his name. A coincidence similar to that of the watery grave, Terror bay, in which was found HMS Terror shipwreck not long time ago. But however prophetical Ross could be, he was wrong this time about the fate of the record he left in the cairn. He failed to foreseen that the paper he had left would be indeed taken by european hands seventeen years later in 1847, or at least that is what I think it should have happened.
It was by chance, while consulting the detailed map of John Ross narrative of his voyage of 1829-33, that I found this interesting drawing of the landscape as it was seen from Victory point placed in the down left corner upside down.
I am not completely sure if I had seen this before. The drawing sounds very familiar to me, but I can´t remember where or when I have seen this. The sight of the Union Jack waving happily at Victory point years before it would become the monument of a tragedy looks very dramatic to me. It was built to take possesion of a land and also to indicate from where future expeditions should resume the exploration of the Northwest passage but now it is only reminded as the bearer of bad news.
The next visitors to this region, Simpson and Dease, mentioned above, drew in the maps part of the south coast of the island and discovered the strait which separates the mainland from King William island.