Manitoba History: Review: William Barr and Glyndwr Williams (editors), Voyages in Search of a Northwest Passage 1741-1747: Volume 1, The Voyage of Christopher Middleton 1741-1742

by Michael Payne
Alberta Community Development, Edmonton

Number 29, Spring 1995

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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William Barr and Glyndwr Williams (eds.) Voyages in Search of a Northwest Passage 1741-1747: Volume 1, The Voyage of Christopher Middleton 1741-1742. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1994. xii pp., 333 pp., 11 plates and maps. ISBN 0904180 360. £30.

The Hakluyt Society has been publishing carefully edited and annotated editions of travel and exploration documents and journals since 1846. This particular volume is number 177 in the Society’s second series of books: an impressive achievement for any publisher, let alone a voluntary society supported by members’ subscriptions. Clearly over the years the Society has mastered the genre, and this volume is no exception.

Although Captain Christopher Middleton’s name appears on the title of this book, in many respects the central character is Arthur Dobbs. Dobbs is a truly fascinating character. It is easy to dismiss him as an armchair explorer and scientific crank, but he was also a very effective political lobbyist, colonial promoter, and polemical author. He also managed to preserve Henry Kelsey’s journal for which historians owe him a large and ongoing debt. A staunch mercantilist, Dobbs became interested in the trade and settlement potential of a Northwest Passage in the 1730s after convincing himself that this passage was to be found in Hudson Bay north of Churchill. Dobbs initially sought to work with the Hudson’s Bay Company in the search for such a passage but quickly became disillusioned by the Company’s failure to pursue a vigourous policy of northern exploration.

Arthur Dobbs
Source: Duke University Library

Dobbs then became a fierce critic of the Company, and the story of his political campaign against the Company and its chartered prerogatives is covered in some detail in the works of A. S. Morton, E. E. Rich and other fur trade historians. The editors of this book, William Barr and Glyndwr Williams, have chosen to concentrate less on Dobbs and the Company and more on Dobbs and the causes, course, and consequences of Middleton’s voyage. The book is divided into four sections covering the genesis of the voyage, preparations for the voyage, the journal of the voyage itself, and a sampling of the eight books and pamphlets Dobbs and Middleton published after the voyage between 1743 and 1745. These publications actually add little to the accounts of the voyage consisting only of recriminations and justifications. William Coats, a Hudson’s Bay Company captain, called them an “abundance of rubbage and impertinence”, and the editors offer only a small sample to give the flavour of this “rubbage”.

Overall the editors have done an excellent job of piecing together a narrative from disparate primary documents. They have also managed to do this with minimal editorial intrusions. Footnotes are mainly explanatory rather than discursive, and the introductions to the four sections of the volume are admirably succinct. This is not a volume that stands as a monument to editorial ego. It seems almost unfair then to suggest that some parts of the book might have been improved by more intrusive editors. For example, the opening selection of Dobbs 1731 “Memorial on the Northwest Passage” is daunting reading for anyone who does not possess a vast interest in 18th century speculative geography. Dobbs constructed his case for a Northwest Passage through Hudson Bay from bits and pieces of observations on tides, whales and ice conditions found in earlier exploration journals without ever having set foot in Hudson Bay himself. The result could be seen as a cautionary tale of the perils of theory based on faulty evidence and vicarious experience, but even so it is ponderous reading.

Other sections of the book, however, contain material of great interest. The journal entries of the actual voyage remind us just how hard and dangerous the work was sailing a ship in Arctic waters in the mid 18th century. For example, Lieutenant Rankin and his party’s adventures among the ice floes of Wager Bay are recounted with appropriate reserve, but being carried by tide and ice out of Wager Bay onto Hudson Bay in an open boat must have been terrifying. Similarly Middleton’s account of getting his ships, the Furnace and Discovery, into Sloop’s Cove at Churchill for the winter and then literally cutting it out of the ice in Spring should dispel any reader’s illusions about the romance of the days of sail. The editors also provide a very balanced account of relations between Middleton and his men and employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Churchill. They do not take sides, but do note how utterly inadequate preparations for the voyage were. Middleton seems to have lacked all kinds of crucial supplies like warm clothing, though the expedition was well-stocked with brandy.

In the final analysis, Middleton was able to sail north, despite sick and depleted crews, into Roe’s Welcome and Repulse Bay in the far northwestern corner of Hudson Bay and thereby show that this area was not an entrance to the Northwest Passage. Barr and Williams rightly describe this as a “creditable” bit of seamanship “under extremely trying conditions”. Subsequent explorers like Captain Parry found Middleton’s maps and observations “accurate” and “faithful” in most respects, but Middleton never really got credit for the expedition’s achievements. The final section of the book outlines how Middleton lost the pamphlet war to Dobbs, who seized on Middleton’s failure to sail close along the coast between Wager Bay and Marble Island to argue that the expedition had not proven that a Northwest Passage did not exist through Hudson Bay. Dobbs then exploited this oversight to challenge virtually every aspect of Middleton’s command. Barr and Williams describe Dobb’s very personal attack on Middleton as a “cynical exercise”, though in fairness they note Dobb may actually have believed a passage could still be found in Hudson Bay. Nevertheless, Middleton’s career was ruined—though he probably did not die in poverty as romantic myth would have it—while Dobbs continued to flourish. In the court of public opinion being right is sometimes less important than being persuasive and having well-placed friends.

Page revised: 11 April 2010