The Return Of The Resolute

Many have been the occasions when the two English-speaking peoples on opposite sides of the Atlantic have expressed their mutual friendship through some dramatic gesture. But one of the most unusual took place a little over one hundred years ago, when the United States presented to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, in perfect condition, a fully rigged British man-of war. This ship was the H.M.S. Resolute, and the story of how she came into American hands—and why it was decided to return her to England—is a curious one.

Its origins lay in the famous but ill-starred Arctic expedition that sailed from Britain in May, 1845, under the command of Sir John Franklin. His two ships were the Erebus and the Terror, and their object, as laid down by the British Admiralty, was to discover “the best prospect ol accomplishing the [Northwest] Passage to the Pacific.”

By July of that year the ships had reached the entrance to Lancaster Sound in the Arctic and were observed by a whaler to enter it. From that time on, not a man of the expedition—which numbered well over one hundred—was ever seen again, and fourteen years were to pass before their tragedy amid the ice off King William Island became known.

But if the solution to this greatest of Arctic mysteries was long delayed, expeditions in search of it were not. From both sides of the Atlantic, ships and, indeed, squadrons went north in search of Franklin. And even though they failed in their main purpose, the mapping of vast areas of hitherto unknown territory made these searches immensely valuable.

One of the busiest “rescue seasons” was that of 1850–51, when ten search vessels—two of them American—were sent out. But by 1852 the British government was reaching the end of its willingness to underwrite further rescue operations. One last effort was decided upon. Five ships were equipped, and equipped well. They were the Assistance, Pioneer, Resolute (Captain Henry Kellett, R.N.), the steam tender Intrepid, and the North Star. Each was commanded by an experienced captain, the only weakness lying in the person of the commander in chief, Sir Edward Belcher, of “no Arctic experience and the reputation of being the most unpopular man in the navy.”

For a time the Belcher expedition fared well enough. Reaching the western end of Lancaster Sound it divided: Belcher himself took the Assistance and the Pioneer northward to search for Franklin in the Wellington Channel; the Resolute and the Intrepid sailed farther west to Melville Island, where they wintered. The North Star remained at Beechey Island as a depot ship. Thereafter followed an incredible series of mischances, blunders, and losses.

During their second winter (1853–54) the two Melville Island ships, immobilized by the ice, were “snugged down” to await spring. Stores were plentiful, however, and nobody was in any danger. It was to their astonishment and disgust, therefore, that the captains of the Resolute and the Intrepid received orders from Belcher to abandon their ships and proceed, over hundreds of miles of ice, to the depot ship.

Unwillingly they did so, knowing that their vessels, though ice-locked, were likely to be perfectly seaworthy when the thaw set in. And their distrust of Belcher’s leadership was only increased when, arriving at the North Star, they found Sir Edward awaiting them, having likewise abandoned his two ships, similarly trapped in the ice of Wellington Channel. So the expedition returned to England in the North Star and two other transports sent out at the last moment.

Sir Edward Belcher’s men were safe but disgusted, four entirely sound ships were abandoned in the Arctic, and for Sir Edward himself, a court martial was awaiting. True, it acquitted the commander in chief on the ground of his right to exercise his own discretion. But the frigid atmosphere in which the court returned him his sword more than hinted at a very different verdict, and he was never again commissioned in naval service. Captain Kellett received his sword back with a compliment; he had acted under orders.

Time now moves to September 10, 1855, when, thirty miles off Cape Mercy in Davis Strait, the American whaling vessel George Henrydrifting with the ice floes—began to overtake a warship whose crew made no reply to the whaler’s signals. Overtaking was not difficult, for the warship was proceeding under bare poles and listing badly. Eventually, Captain Buddington, the whaler’s master, sent two mates and two men across the ice pack to board her. By right of salvage, he now found himself owner of the derelict—but otherwise complete and sound—H.M.S. Resolute!