One of the most persistent chimeras of nineteenth-century polar exploration, the belief in an “Open Polar Sea” was so widely-held that it was often taken as an article of faith. There is some evidence that the idea went back as far the the 16th century, but its modern history begins with a letter from whaling captain William Scoresby to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society. Scoresby described the unusual retreat of the ice off the coast of Greenland in the summer of 1817, suggesting that it offered an ideal chance for northward exploration; he did not credit the idea of open water beyond the ice, but Banks, along with John Barrow of the Admiralty, quickly seized upon the idea and held fast to it, despite Scoresby’s efforts to clarify his account. It was widely-circulated enough by 1818 that a teenaged Mary Shelley could put these words into the mouth of her fictional explorer, Captain Walton, in her novel Frankenstein.
I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight … there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe.
1818 saw the first two British Arctic expeditions of the era launched, commanded by William Buchan and John Ross. Many others followed, with varying degrees of success; William Edward Parry’s polar attempt in 1827 was called off when he realized the ice he was on was drifting south faster than he could march north. The idea of a polar sea faded until 1855, when the American explorer Dr. Elisha Kent Kane returned from his second expedition with the claim that his men had actually reached its shores. Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes, the medical officer on Kane’s expedition, returned himself in 1860-61 and also claimed to have seen this sea.
Alas, although Hayes and Kane may well have reached a polnya — a Russian word meaning a large area of open water in the midst of ice — there was no such sea. And yet, ironically, the continued retreat of polar sea ice is accelerating today at such a rate that the year 2013 may indeed actually be witness to an ice-free North Pole.
Russell A. Potter has been fascinated with the Arctic regions for many years, and has written and lectured extensively on many different aspects of its history. His book Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818-1875, is required reading for anyone interested in our Arctic Visions exhibit. In addition to contributing to this blog he is providing critical guidance as Curatorial Consultant, and has authored the Introduction to our re-publication of Arctic Regions.