James Clark Ross

James Clark Ross, born in 1800, entered the Navy at 11 years of age. During his first years of service he was tutored and watched over by his uncle, Sir John Ross. In 1818 he joined his uncle on a controversial voyage in search of the Northwest Passage. Between 1819 and 1827 he joined Edward Parry in four more expeditions to the Arctic. Between 1829 and 1833 Ross spent another four and one half years exploring the Arctic, achieving the rank of commander. On May 31, 1831, Ross located the position of the north magnetic pole on Boothia Peninsula in northern Canada.

On April 8, 1839, Ross took command of the 370-ton EREBUS with his friend Francis Crozier assuming command of the 340-ton TERROR. Antarctica was the new challenge and a voyage was planned. Both ships were strengthened from bow to stern for the tough voyage ahead. The three-masted ships were ruggedly constructed warships used for carrying mortars. The TERROR had already seen service in Arctic waters during 1836.

Due to Ross' extensive experience in the Arctic voyages, substantial supplies of preserved meat was loaded aboard to head off the risk of scurvy. In addition, extraordinary amounts of soups, vegetables, cranberries, pickles and other foodstuffs were included. Ross knew that a happy crew was a well-fed, comfortable crew so extensive work was also done to the ships' interiors. Senior representatives of the Admiralty inspected the ships on September 2, 1839 and approval was granted. The crew was paid three month's salary in advance and on October 5, 1839, EREBUS and TERROR left England on their southern voyage.

Ross was instructed to sail to Tasmania where they were supposed to set up a permanent station for making magnetic observations. Along the way they were to set up similar observatories at St. Helena Island and the Cape of Good Hope. For two months EREBUS and TERROR stayed at Îles Kerguelen where a team of officers made hourly magnetometric observations while Ross made astronomical and tidal observations.

EREBUS and TERROR encountered a hurricane only two days after leaving the islands and became separated from each other. It was at this point that the expedition experienced its first fatality when the EREBUS'S boatswain fell overboard and drowned. The voyage to Tasmania became filled with excitement as icebergs made the trip quite hazardous. Ross and the EREBUS landed in Hobart on August 16, 1840; the TERROR had landed the day before. While there, the magnetic observatory was built with the help of 200 convicts brought in by the Lieutenant Governor of Tasmania, Sir John Franklin. While in Hobart, Ross read newspaper accounts of the French and American searches for the magnetic south pole. Both Dumont d'Urville and Charles Wilkes were doing research in an area that Ross felt was his expertise and his alone. Wilkes was kind enough to leave Ross charts of his course and discoveries, although Ross never truly acknowledged the gesture. Ross made the decision to take a more easterly course for his search of the south magnetic pole rather than follow in Wilkes' footsteps. At daybreak, on November 12, 1840, EREBUS and TERROR pulled up their anchors, sailed down the Derwent River, and said good-bye to Sir John Franklin as they left Hobart for the Antarctic.

One week later, they came upon the Auckland Islands. Approaching the islands, they noticed two boards erected on tall poles. On one board was a hand-painted sign recognizing American Charles Wilkes visiting the island on March 10 of the same year while the other painted sign was a notice from Dumont d'Urville recognizing his visit on the following day, March 11! Some magnetic observations and survey work was accomplished and the ships then sailed on to Campbell Island. On December 17 the two ships left Campbell Island and on December 27 they encountered the first icebergs and whales. On December 30 they crossed Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen's path and on New Year's Day, 1841, they crossed the Antarctic Circle.

They soon came upon the Antarctic pack of ice that had yet to be penetrated by man. Encountering bad weather, the ice stretched before them "motionless and menacing". Poor weather continued but on January 5 Ross decided to "make the attempt on the ice and push the ships as far into it as we could get them". They forced their way slowly through the pack until after "about an hour's hard thumping" they came to lighter, scattered ice. They continued on "at times sustaining violent shocks, which nothing but ships so strengthened could have withstood". At 5 am on January 9 they broke into an open sea. Ross had discovered the Ross Sea and he now set his sights on the south magnetic pole. On January 11 land was reported straight ahead. Ross first thought it to be an ice-blink (a whiteness in the sky caused by the reflection of ice ahead) but as they approached they realized the ice-blink was actually a mountainous, snow-covered land. Ross was actually disappointed to find land between him and his search for the south magnetic pole but, nevertheless, quickly determined the sighting to be a "way of restoring to England the honor of the discovery of the southernmost land, which had been nobly won by the intrepid Bellingshausen, and for more than twenty years retained by Russia". They next saw a range of mountains, rising to 8000 feet, which he named the Admiralty Range. He named as many of the peaks as he could see. His compass needle was behaving oddly; Ross determined he was within 500 miles of the magnetic pole. Taking a westerly course, they sailed through the Ross Sea and on January 12 Ross and Crozier planted a flag on newly discovered Possession Island, one of two islands located just off the mainland. A toast was offered to "Her Majesty and His Royal Highness Prince Albert" with the region claimed as Victoria Land.

On January 22 Ross calculated that they had reached a higher latitude than James Weddell had in 1823. On January 27 Franklin Island was formally possessed and on January 28 there was another surprise.

Beaufort Island and Mt. Erebus

Robert McCormick, EREBUS'S surgeon, described the discovery as "a stupendous volcanic mountain in a high state of activity". Dr. Hooker ran to grab his notebook and quickly wrote down his reaction: "All the coast one mass of dazzling beautiful peaks of snow which, when the sun approached the horizon, reflected the most brilliant tints of golden yellow and scarlet; and then to see the dark cloud of smoke, tinged with flame, rising from the volcano in a perfectly unbroken column, one side jet-black, the other giving back the colors of the sun....This was a sight so surpassing everything that can be imagined...that it really caused a feeling of awe to steal over us at the consideration of our own comparative insignificance and helplessness, and at the same time, an indescribable feeling of the greatness of the Creator in the works of His hand". The peak was 12,400 feet above sea level and was belching flame and smoke. Ross named it Mount Erebus and the smaller extinct volcano to the east, Mount Terror.

As the ships sailed south, Ross saw a low white line "extending from its eastern extreme point as far as the eye could discern to the eastward. It presented an extraordinary appearance, gradually increasing in height, as we got nearer to it, and proving at length to be a perpendicular cliff of ice, between one hundred and fifty feet and two hundred feet above the level of the sea, perfectly flat and level at the top, and without any fissures or promontories on its even seaward face". Ross realized there was no possible penetration further as Ross stated that "we might with equal chance of success try to sail through the cliffs of Dover, as to penetrate such a mass". Naming it the Victoria Barrier, it was later changed to the Ross Ice Shelf. By the middle of February, after sailing eastwards along the shelf for 200 miles, Ross decided to abandon his search for an entrance until the next season. The expedition arrived at Derwent River on April 6, 1841. Ross was delighted and took pleasure in the fact that their efforts had been "unattended by casualty, calamity, or sickness of any kind, and that every individual on both ships had been permitted to return in perfect health and safety to this southern home".

EREBUS and TERROR at Victoria Land

On November 23, the expedition once again left Hobart, Tasmania for Antarctica. In three weeks they were among the ice bergs and on December 17 they entered the ice pack. By January 19, 1842, EREBUS and TERROR were in "an ocean of rolling fragments of ice, hard as floating rocks of granite, which were dashed against them by the waves with such violence that their masts quivered". TERROR'S rudder was smashed by the ice and the EREBUS'S didn't fare much better. Ross wrote: "There seemed to be but little probability of our ships holding together much longer, so frequent and violent were the shocks they sustained". Miraculously they did survive and, after repairs, continued south on February 4. By the end of February the Ross Ice Shelf was in sight again. It was so cold that while the crewmen were chipping ice from the bows of TERROR, a small fish was found frozen in place where it had been thrown against the ship's side. TERROR'S surgeon and naturalist, Dr. Robertson, tried to retrieve it for analysis but the ship's cat was a little quicker.

The weather remained a constant problem. Ross spent much of the summer frustrated by his hopeless efforts to find a route through the pack. He sailed eastward and a little further south than the previous season but, up against the wall, he decided to give it up as winter was rapidly approaching. They recrossed the Antarctic Circle and set a course for Cape Horn. The expedition progressed uneventfully for several hundred miles. In the darkness on March 12 a massive iceberg loomed directly ahead and "the ship was immediately hauled to the wind on the port tack with the expectation of being able to weather it. But just at this moment the TERROR was observed running down upon us, under her top-sails and foresail; and as it was impossible for her to clear both the berg and the EREBUS, collision was inevitable. We instantly hove all aback to diminish the violence of the shock, but the concussion when she struck us was such as to throw almost everyone off his feet. Our bowsprit, foretopmast, and other smaller spars, were carried away, and the ships hanging together, entangled by their rigging, and dashing against each other with fearful violence, were falling down upon the weather face of the lofty berg under our lee, against which the waves were breaking and foaming to near the summit of its perpendicular cliffs. Sometimes she rose high above us, almost exposing her keel to view, and again descended as we in our turn rose to the top of the wave, threatening to bury her beneath us, whilst the crashing of the breaking upperworks and boats increased the horror of the scene". The ships were able to separate but the EREBUS was completely disabled and drifting on to the berg "so close that the waves, when they struck against it, threw back their sprays into the ship". It was a very serious moment but, as the EREBUS'S surgeon wrote, "Captain Ross was quite equal to the emergency, and, folding his arms across his breast, as he stood like a statue on the afterpart of the quarter-deck, calmly gave the order to loose the sail". Ross then ordered the use of a stern-board, a hazardous three-point turn that "perhaps had never before been resorted to by seamen in such weather". It took forty-five minutes to execute but "In a few minutes, after getting before the wind, she dashed through the narrow channel between two perpendicular walls of ice, and the foaming breakers which stretched across it, and the next moment we were in smooth water under its lee". There was a huge amount of damage to the EREBUS but repairs were quickly made and by March 15 they resumed their voyage. The expedition finally arrived at the Falkland Islands, after a brief stay at Cape Horn, where they remained for nearly five months.

Ross departed the Falklands on December 17, 1842, for his third and final season in the Antarctic. His desire was to penetrate the Weddell Sea and add to the research done by Weddell in 1822. Unfortunately, he met with "dense, impenetrable, pack ice". Abandoning his plan, Ross crossed the Antarctic Circle on March 5, 1843, and the TERROR sailed for home. Ross wrote: "The shores of Old England came into view at 5h 20m A.M. on the 2nd of September, and we anchored off Folkestone at midnight of the 4th". The voyage was completed after four years and five months at sea.

From Ross's departure in 1843 until the last decade of the 19th century, Antarctica was almost solely the domain of the sealer. There were a few exceptions. In 1844-45 the Admiralty sent out Lieutenant T.E.L. Moore in the barque PAGODA to carry out magnetic work in the south Atlantic and southern Indian Oceans. The Challenger Expedition of the British Admiralty in 1872-75 cruised through the south Indian Ocean in January and February 1874, mapping Prince Edward Island, Îles Crozet, Îles Kerguelen, and Heard Island. Reasons for the lack of further exploration were varied. America was involved with the Civil War and there was an extreme interest in the Arctic by both the Americans and Europeans. It was a resolution, passed by the Sixth International Geographical Congress in London in 1895, that ushered in the "Heroic Era". Before World War I halted the scientific research, some 16 exploring expeditions were launched from Australia, Belgium, England, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Scotland, and Sweden.


Beyond the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica, 1699-1839

by Alan Gurney.

Polar Pioneers: John Ross and James Clark Ross, by M.J. Ross.

The Polar Rosses: John and James Clark Ross and Their Explorations, by M.J. Ross.

Ross in the Antarctic: the Voyages of James Clark Ross in Her Majesty's Ships Erebus & Terror, 1839-43, by M.J. Ross.

Antarctica, the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, Second Edition by Reader's Digest.

The Loneliest Continent. The Story of Antarctic Discovery, by Walker Chapman.

Antarctic Conquest. The Great Explorers in Their Own Words, by Walker Chapman.


Ross in the Antarctic, by M.J. Ross.

Antarctica, the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, Second Edition by Reader's Digest.

The Loneliest Continent. The Story of Antarctic Discovery, by Walker Chapman.

Americans in Antarctica 1775-1948, by Kenneth J. Bertrand.

Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events, by Robert K. Headland.