Polar Profiles: William Parry, Pt. 1

Good grief, it’s been too long.

So, last time I posted here, (two years ago!!) I promised that I’d share William Parry’s 1819 expedition with you. Let’s get right into it.

First, a bit about the man and the circumstances leading up to his most famous expedition.

William Edward Parry was born in Bath, England in 1790. His parents were Dr. Caleb Hillier Parry, remembered for being the first doctor to describe Parry-Romberg Syndrome (a disease of the tissue that mainly effects the face), and Sarah Rigby, the daughter of a gunsmith.

At the age of 13, Parry volunteered to serve aboard Admiral Cornwallis’ flagship in the Channel Fleet. This marked the beginning of a lifetime of service within the Royal Navy. He had his first experience with the Arctic as lieutenant aboard the Alexander in the waters around Svalbard, a wintry Norwegian island just within the Arctic Circle  .


[An engraving of a young Parry. I wonder how he was supposed to breathe in that collar.]

Now, Parry is perhaps best remembered for two things: being in command of one of the most successful attempts at finding and navigating the long-sought Northwest Passage, and for heading a 1827 expedition that reached as far north as 82°45’N, a record for furthest north that he held for nearly 50 years.

The seeds for Parry’s 1819 expedition were planted the previous year, when he had commander of the Alexander in an expedition sponsored by the Admiralty to explore Baffin Bay for potential westward outlets. Parry and his superior, John Ross, in command of the Isabella, sailed up the eastern coast of Greenland, where they spent a month waiting for the pack ice in Baffin Bay to break up. While they waited, the crews of the ships engaged in tentative trade with the native Greenlanders. Ross’s chronicle of the expedition, concisely named A Voyage of Discovery Made Under The Orders of the Admiralty, in His Majesty’s ships Isabella and Alexander, for the Purpose of Exploring Baffin Bay, and inquiring into the probability of a North-West Passage, provides a great account of these dealings. I’ll cover it, along with other accounts of of indigenous people, in a separate post soon.

In July, the ice broke up enough for the Isabella and Alexander to sail safely through it. Ross and Parry skirted the eastern coast of Baffin Bay, battling nearly continually adverse conditions in search of a western exit into a possible Northwest Passage. It wasn’t until August that they sailed into Lancaster Sound. A heavy fog obscured any view of the Sound’s interior, and it was initially impossible to determine whether Lancaster Sound had an outlet.

The fog lifted for a brief period, and Ross wrote that:

“I distinctly saw land round the bottom of the bay, forming a chain of mountains connected with those which extend along the north and south sides. This land appeared to be at the distance of eight leagues; and Mr. Lewis , the master, and James Haig, leading man, being sent for, they took it’s bearings, which were inserted in the log…”


[Lancaster Sound, with Baffin Bay to the right. Observe the lack of mountains closing the Sound in.]

He named these fog-shrouded peaks the Croker Mountains, after an influential member of the Admiralty, and ordered that both ships turn around and return to England at once. Of importance to note is that neither the majority of Ross’s officers, let alone anyone aboard Parry’s Alexander saw the Croker Mountains. And with good reason, because they don’t exist.

What Ross saw can mostly likely be classified as a Fata Morgana, a complex mirage that heavily distorts a person’s view of a narrow band directly above the horizon. Fata Morgana are produced when rays of light are bent as they pass through air layers of differing temperatures.


[a Fata Morgana as seen on Lake Superior. Note the characteristic stacking of inverted images.]

The ships returned to England over Parry’s protests, and indeed, Parry testified to Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, that he had not observed any such impediment to further westward progress.

More investigation was needed, and the Admiralty picked William Parry over the now at-issue Ross to lead a new expedition to reexamine Lancaster Sound and the phantasmic Croker Mountains. With two new ships, the Hecla and the Griper, and a crew of 86 under his command, Parry was ready to cement his place in history.

I leave you with a question that is, I swear, totally unrelated to my next installment:

If you were trapped aboard a ship, surrounded on all sides with pack-ice and faced with, at minimum, three months of darkness, inhumane temperatures, cramped quarters, and laborious tedium, how would you stay sane?


[this, but much darker. and with less land.]

Until next time!


  • The North Pole: A Narrative Journey, Anthony Brandt
  • A Voyage of Discovery Made Under The Orders of the Admiralty…1819, Sir John Ross
  • Photo credits to that old workhorse, Google Images.

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