Admiral Sir George Back

Admiral Sir George Back FRS, born November 6th of 1796 and died on June 23rd of 1878, was a British naval officer, naturalist, artist, and explorer of the Canadian Arctic.

He was born in Stockport. When he was a boy, he went to sea as a volunteer in the frigate HMS Arethusa in the year 1808 and participated in the destruction of batteries on the Spanish coast. In the following year he was involved in the fighting in the Bay of Biscay up until he was captured by the French. He remained a prisoner until the peace in early 1814 and during this time, practiced his skills as an artist which he later used in recording his travels through the arctic.

Following his release, he served on HMS Akbar and HMS Bulwark as a midshipman prior to volunteering to serve under John Franklin in his first expedition to the Arctic in the year 1818. He also served under Franklin in his two overland expeditions to survey the northern coast of North America, initially on the Coppermine Expedition of 1819-1822 – when Back was held responsible for all the surveying and chart making – and then a similar expedition by the MacKenzie River in 1824-1826, during which time he was promoted first to lieutenant and then to commander in the year 1825. As he lacked an appointment to a ship, he was unemployed on the half-pay list from 1827 to 1833.

By the year 1832, nothing had been heard of the Arctic explorer John Ross since 1829 and plans were made to locate him. He suggested to take fur trade routes to the Great Slave Lake and to follow the Great Fish River northeast to Ross’s probable location. No white man had ever seen this river but it was known from reports from the Indians. He left England in the month of February of 1833, reached the Great Slave Lake in August where George McLeod of the Hudson’s Bay Company had constructed winter quarters at Fort Reliance at the eastern portion of the lake. He found the river on the 29th of August and returned to the fort to spend the winter. In March of 1834 he received a packet of letters stating that Ross was back in England and encouraging him to explore the coast from Ross’s King William Land to Franklin’s Point Turnagain. This was the chief unknown area, in addition to a few hundred miles eastward from Point Barrow and the region around King William Island which was totally misunderstood. He set out on the 7th of June in 1834, passed Artillery Lake and Clinton-Coldon Lake and reached the river on the 28th of June. He ran eastwards down a river in the barren grounds with 83 rapids but only one portage. On the 23th of July he reached salt water at Chantry Inlet. He explored the inlet, saw King William Island towards the north and then wisely turned back around. He reached Fort Reliance on the 27th of September in 1834 and England on the 8th of September in 1835. The expedition’s naturalist was Richard King who donated supplements on meteorology and botany to Back’s accounts of the expedition; he also wrote his own two-volume account of the expedition.

In 1836 he was promoted to captain by Order in Council which is a very rare honor. The goal this time was the northern portion of the Hudson Bay at either Repulse Bay or Wager Inlet. From there, he would drag boats overland to seawater and sail the unknown coast westwards to the Back River and Franklin’s Point Turnagain. These were the two easternmost known points featured on the north coast westwards of Hudson Bay. The region between them and in between the Back River and the Hudson Bay was not known. He was granted command of the converted bomb vessel HMS Terror with a crew of 60 and supplies for 18 months. He departed June of 1836 which was late in the season and due to contrary winds having to be towed by steamship the whole way to the Orkney Islands. He reached the Hudson Strait on August 1st and by the end of August, the Terror was affected by ice someplace east of Frozen Strait. It stayed icebound for ten months: at one point, the Terror was pushed 40 feet up on the side of a cliff by the pressure of the ice. Many times preparations were made to desert the ship. Scurvy emerged in January and 3 men died from it. In the spring of 1837, a confrontation with an iceberg further harmed the ship. Occasionally the pressure of the ice was enough to force turpentine out of the planks. The ship flowed with the ice southwards along Southampton Island and then eastwards towards the Hudson Strait. It wasn’t until July that the ice withdrew adequately to permit the ship to head for home. Soon, a large mass of ice that was frozen to the vessel split off causing the ice that remained to tip the ship until the ice was hacked off. The ship was in a sinking state by the time he was capable to beach the ship on the Ireland coast at Lough Swilly. There wasn’t one on board who didn’t display surprise that we had ever floated across the Atlantic. Although numerous Arctic explorers permitted their ships to be frozen in the harbors during the winter, this appears to only be the case of a ship being trapped in offshore ice. Its survival is an homage to the strength of bomb vessels in Arctic service.

Bad health caused him to retire from his active service. He was made a Knight Bachelor on the 18th of March in 1839 and maintained curiosity in exploration of the Arctic for the remainder of his life. In the year 1859, he was chosen to be a rear-admiral. He served as an advisor to the Admiralty during the same time as the search for John Franklin’s lost expedition, and a vice-president of the Royal Geographical Society, having acquired its gold ad silver medal. Although he was supposedly retired, he remained on Admiralty List and, based on his seniority, he was promoted to vice-admiral I in 1863 and eventually admiral in 1876.

Despite the high regard in which he was held in Great Britain and the many respects that he received, he had a history of not being liked and not trusted by a lot of the people that he worked with in the Arctic, including Franklin. He was variously critiqued for being a weak leader, rude, sycophantic, selfish, and argumentative. Later in his life, he obtained a reputation for being a dandy and an adulterer. In the year 1846, he got married to the widow of Anthony Hammond. He was buried in the Kensal Green Cemetery in London.

He was a talented artist. A watercolor of an iceberg that is believed to have been painted by Back following his 1836-37 expedition, sold at auction on the 13th of September in 2011 for $59,600, in spite of it not being signed or dated. Experts at the respected London auction house Bonhams gave the credit from the watercolor to Back, stating that it had been presented by Back to his sister Katherine Pares and since then has descended through her family. The auction house pronounced that the scene surrounding the towering iceberg seems to match a description in Back’s Narrative of an Expedition in H.M.S. Terror when the Terror was in the Davis Strait.

Image Caption: Sir George Back. Credit: National Portrait Gallery/Wikpedia