When European explorers set off from Europe, many of them chased things that didn’t exist. The Fountain of Youth, the City of El Dorado, and Prester John were all things they pursued but came up empty-handed.
However, there was one thing that these European explorers searched for that actually did exist, but not in the way they had hoped.
While it was never historically relevant, it could play a much bigger role in the future.
Learn more about the Northwest Passage, its discovery, and its future on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The story of the Northwest Passage actually begins not in the courts of European monarchs but in the Ottoman Empire.
In the 15th century, the Ottomans had established a monopoly on all trade between Europe and Asia. All of the spices, silks, and other goods that went from east to west or vice versa, whether by land or by sea, had to go through the Ottoman Empire.
Like any good monopolist, the Ottomans used this control of trade routes to their advantage. This resulted in goods either increasing in price dramatically or being completely eliminated.
As I’ve said in previous episodes, this Ottoman control of trade routes, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, ended up becoming one of the most important events in world history.
The monopoly of trade annoyed the Europeans, who sought a way to get around the Ottoman monopoly.
The first attempt to get around it was the most obvious. Portuguese explorers set out to sail around the southern tip of Africa to get to Asia.
In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias became the first known person to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. He never went all the way around Africa. He just got far enough to realize the coast was starting to turn north, declared victory, and headed back.
With the knowledge that it was possible to sail around Africa, In 1498, Vasco de Gama managed to go all the way, becoming the first person to sail directly from Europe to India.
The route around Africa worked, but it was far from ideal. It was a really long trip.
Another group of explorers thought that there might be a shortcut. They figured that if they sailed west, they could go around the world and arrive in Asia without taking the long route around Africa.
Christopher Columbus, as you are well aware, tried this and wound up running into a massive landmass that we know as the Americas.
Despite the fact that the European powers went on to colonize the Americas, it didn’t stop the desire to find a sea route to Asia.
In 1520, a Spanish expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan managed to find a route through the archipelago at the bottom of South America, which allowed them to sail around the Americas to Asia.
This became the most common route to sail to the Pacific for most European expeditions.
However, it, too, was fraught with difficulty. It was an even longer route than sailing around Africa, and passing through the Strait of Magellan was extremely dangerous.
There were people thought that there might yet be an even quicker route to Asia. This route would be north of the Americas rather than south.
This idea was actually hatched before the idea of sailing around South America. Europe has a coast on the North Atlantic, so if there were a direct route, something in the north would actually be the quickest route.
This hypothetical route became known as the Northwest Passage.
The first person to try to lead an expedition to find the Northwest Passage was the Venetian navigator, sailing under an English flag, John Cabot. He set out to find the Northwest Passage in 1497, just five years after Columbus arrived on the shores of the Americas.
Cabot, with only a small crew of 18, managed to make it across the Atlantic and thought that he had made it to Asia. In reality, he probably ended up in Newfoundland. There has been a great deal of debate as to where exactly he made land, but it would have been somewhere along the coast from Maine to Labrador.
In 1498, Cabot led an even larger expedition with five ships and 200 men. They set off from England….and were never heard from again.
In 1534, the King of France, Francis I, sponsored an expedition to find a route to Asia that Jaques Cartier would lead. Cartier ended up making three voyages, which took him to Newfoundland and up the Saint Lawrence River.
Cartier managed to capture an Iriquoi chief, who he brought back to France. He spoke of a great river to the west which would lead to riches, which the French assumed meant Asia.
In the early 17th century, the Dutch East India Company hired the English explorer Henry Hudson to make another attempt at finding the Northwest Passage.
In 1609, Hudson tried to find a southern route that would be free of ice. He sailed around Long Island and sailed up the Hudson River that bears his name.
In 1610, he had another voyage that went further north, and he managed to sail into another body of water that bears his name, Hudson Bay.
Unfortunately, the ship got stuck in ice, the crew mutinied, and they sent Henry Hudson adrift in a rowboat.….and he was never heard from again.
Despite the failures, people kept trying because every expedition seemed to show a bit more progress.
In 1612, Sir Thomas Button went to try and find Hudson but just ended up exploring the west coast of Hudson Bay.
In 1614, William Gibbon tried and failed to find a passage. In 1615, Robert Bylot, who was on the Hudson expedition, tried to find a passage but failed.
In 1616, Bylot and William Baffin managed to sail to the northernmost tip of Baffin Island, which was the farthest north anyone would sail for another 236 years.
In 1619, the Danish threw their hat into the ring. Jens Munk sailed into Hudson Bay with 65 men and two ships. They became stuck in ice like everyone else, and most of his crew died from starvation and scurvy. Munk and only two other crew managed to survive and sail back.
In the late 17th century, the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, tried to find the Northwest Passage through the Great Lakes and ended up traveling down the Mississippi River, but he too didn’t find a route to the Pacific.
By the early 18th century, explorers were trying a different tactic.
In 1728, Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator employed by the Russian Navy, discovered that Russia and North America were, in fact, separate and not one contiguous land mass. He discovered the strait, which today bears his name.
In the late 18th century, the Spanish tried sailing up the west coast of North America, looking for the Northwest Passage.
The British had a renewed interest and sent Captain James Cook up to what is today Alaska, but he had no luck.
It wasn’t until 1796, during an expedition led by George Vancouver, that the British finally concluded that there was no such passage that could be found south of the Bering Strait.
This was far from the end of it. In the early 19th century, there were overland expeditions to try and find routes and passages that could be used and also to map Northern Canada and Alaska.
Decades of improved mapping of the region led to an expedition led by Sir John Franklin, which began in 1845.
The expedition had very high hopes because there were all but 500 kilometers or 310 miles of unexplored coast in Northern Canada. If they could find a way through that unexplored gap, then they could finally have a northern passage from Europe to Asia.
The Franklin Expedition had two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, and a combined crew of 128 men.
After setting out with such high hopes……they were never heard from again.
There were rumors for years from local Inuit people about what happened. According to Inuit sources, the expedition was caught in the ice and then slowly starved to death, reverting to cannibalism.
Skeletons of some of the crew members were found in the 1990s, and both ships were found by divers in 2014.
In 1850, Commander Robert McClure and his crew set out in HMS Investigator to find the passage from the west. They sailed around Cape Horn and up the entire length of the Americas and passed through the Bering Strait.
They, too, got stuck in ice and were stranded for three consecutive winters. They were eventually discovered by a team from the HMS Resolute who were traveling by dog sled. The Resolute then became stuck in ice and was abandoned, and they were rescued by an American whaling ship.
McClure actually ended up making it back to London, having technically been the first person to circumnavigate the Americas, having traversed the Northwest Passage, albeit by both land and sea and having been rescued twice. He was awarded the prize originally set by the British Parliament for traversing the Northwest Passage.
The long-sought achievement of traveling the Northwest Passage by ship, something which had been attempted for over 400 years, finally took place in the early 20th century.
In 1903, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen set out with a crew of only six men to sail the passage. His ship was unique in that it was much smaller than all of the previous ships that had attempted the journey. This allowed him to get closer to the shore, where there would be less ice. It also allowed his crew to hunt and fish for food rather than rely on supplies.
It took them three years, but in 1906, they arrived by ship in Nome, Alaska.
Amundsen proved that there was a way to travel from Europe to Asia by sea via a northern route. However, it was nothing like anyone had hoped. Even though the route was shorter, the ice and conditions made the trip take far longer than any other option.
It wasn’t economically viable.
However, there still were attempts. The first person to sail the Northwest Passage in a single season was Canadian Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer Henry Larsen, who did it in 86 days in 1944. He sailed from Halifax to Vancouver.
In the 50s, more powerful and larger ships began to make the journey, usually for scientific purposes, mapping the depth of many of the channels.
In 1969, a specially built oil tanker made the trip as a test, but the route was still deemed to be economically unviable, and the Alaska Pipeline was built instead.
More and more ships were able to sail the Northwest Passages for a host of reasons.
The first was that ships were now faster. They could easily make the entire voyage during the brief window in the summer when the ice was out.
Navigation improved. GPS and a map of the ocean floor made it easier to navigate the channels between many of the islands in the Canadian archipelago. Up-to-date satellite imagery allows ships to see where sea ice was so they can sail around it.
Finally, there was just less ice. Sea ice in the Arctic has lessened over the last several decades, meaning the season for sailing the Northwest Passage has increased.
This has led more shipping companies to consider using the Northwest Passage as a legitimate route for sending things between Europe and Asia.
In 2010, a Japanese company proposed laying a fiber optic cable between Tokyo and London via the Northwest Passage.
In 2013, a specially designed freighter named the Nordic Orion sailed the passage.
In 2016, a full-blown cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, managed to sail the Northwest Passage with passengers.
One of the biggest problems in the future use of the passage will be legal. Canada considers all of the Northwest Passage to be their territorial waters. However, there are special exceptions in international law addressing such shipping straits, such as the Bosphorus and the Strait of Malaca, where international sea traffic is allowed, even though it would otherwise be in the territorial waters of a country.
Other countries, like the United States, believe that the Northwest Passage should be covered by such treaties which cover other international shipping routes.
As of the time of this recording, the issue remains unresolved.
The Northwest Passage was an almost legendary route for over four hundred years. When it was finally proved that it could be sailed, it was shown to have almost no practical value.
However, now in the 21st century, this once useless route between Europe and Asia may have finally had its day, and it only took 500 hundred years.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.
Today’s review comes from listener Littleguy473632 over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
I’m a HUGE fan of the rich and enlightening podcast, but I’m only 10 y.o and I’m not in the completionist club yet but I would like to say that you are doing a great job and I hope you keep on making entertaining and fun podcasts :)
Thanks, Littleguy! Just stick with it, and you will be in the completionist club in no time. When you are done, you will be way ahead of all the other kids in your class.
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