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    Sir George Strong Nares

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0532                                                                                                                  

    (Anne Frazer)


            Sir George Strong Nares (1831-1915), was born April 24, 1831, at Aberdeen,

    son of Commander William Nares, R.N. and Elizabeth Gould Dodd of Redbourn,


            Nares was the great-grandson of Sir George Nares, an eminent jurist and

    barrister, the great-nephew of James Nares, the composer, and nephew of Robert

    Nares, a well-known philologist. He was educated at the Royal Navy College,

    New Cross, and entered the Navy at the age of fourteen. He saw his first years

    of service in the Pacific, and in 1852 began his Arctic career as mate of the

    Resolute under Sir Edward Belcher, the last Admiralty expedition in search of

    Sir John Franklin.

            Upon the return of the expedition in 1854, Nares was promoted to lieutenant

    and detailed first to the Mediterranean and then to active service in the Black

    Sea during the Crimean War. After the close of the war he was assigned to the

    training ships. In 1852 he was promoted to commander and detailed to the Austral–

    ian station for five years. His next duties were in the fields of hydrographical

    work and oceanographical research, again in the Mediterranean, where he made spec–

    ial surveys of the Gibralter current and the Gulf of Suez. This experience quali–

    fied him for the command of H.M.S. Challenger , which was commissioned in 1872 for

    a voyage of exploration in the southern seas. The Challenger spent a year in the

    South Atlantic and made a short voyage into the Antarctic, being the first steam–

    ship to cross the Antarctic Circle. The deep-sea dredgings of this expedition

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    EA-Biography. Frazer: Sir George Strong Nares

    discovered glaciated fragments of continental rocks, indicating the existence

    of a land mass to the far south.

            The Challenger touched at Hong Kong in the autumn of 1874, and from there

    Nares was recalled to England to head a polar expedition. The success of the

    American expedition under Hall had reawakened British interest in arctic dis–

    covery, and the Government, hoping to stimulate maritime enterprise to the north–

    ward was in favor of a scientifically equipped expedition to explore the regions

    around the North Pole. The Admiralty, however, held other views and determined

    upon a limited objective — i.e., the discovery of the Pole.

            The sailing orders therefore read: "The scope and primary object . . .

    should be to attain the highest northern latitude and if possible reach the

    North Pole." Despite the narrowed scope of the venture, popular interest was

    so great that both financial and scientific backing were unstinted. The Alert

    and the Discovery were proposed for arctic service, and the paddle steamer Valor–

    was commissioned to accompany them to Disko Island on the west coast of

    Greenland to transship supplies. The ships were outfitted at the Portsmouth

    Dockyards: Sir Leopold McClintock, dean of arctic explorers, was Admiral Super–

    intendent of the Yards, and the sledge equipment was assembled under his expert

    guidance. The provisioning was in charge of Dr. Lyall and Mr. Leavis, who had

    supervised the dietary of the Assistance during her two years' Arctic sojourn.

    Both men and officers were the pick of the service. Albert Hastings Markham was

    appointed commander of Nares' ship and Captain Stephenson commanded the Discovery .

            The junior officers were: Aldrich, May, Parr, Giffard, Egerton, Archer,

    Rawson and Conybeare; the naturalists were Feilden and Hart; and the surgeons

    Colan, Moss, Ninnis and Coppinger.

            In order to assure the "scientific conduct of the voyage," the Admiralty

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    EA-Biography. Frazer: Sir George Strong Nares

    requested from the Royal Society a definitive collection of all available

    information on Greenland and its surroundings. A specially selected Committee

    of the Society "decided that it was desirable to prepare (1) a Manual of Scienti–

    fic Results already obtained in Arctic Expeditions, (2) Instructions for future

    observations." The best informed sciwntists of the day contributed to this

    volume, which was published under the title Manual of the Natural History. Geo–

    logy and Physics of Greenland and the Neighboring Regions: prepared for the use

    of the Arctic Expedition of 1875.... edited by Professor T. Rupert Jones....

    Together with Instructions Suggested by the Arctic Committee of the Royal Society

    for the Use of the Expedition
    . (London, 1875). The Manual filled 86 pages; the

    Instructions 783 pages. No previous expedition had left its home port with more

    substantial information concerning its goal, nor more lucid delineation of its

    activities once arrived there. Considering later developments, it is to be re–

    gretted that neither the Admiralty nor the Royal Society suggested an article

    on the diet of arctic explorers.

            So great was the public interest that an unparalleled demonstration attended

    the sailing. Great crowds blocked the jetties and piers of Portsmouth Harbor

    when the expedition set forth on May 29, 1875. The garrison troops paraded and

    the port was jammed with navy ships, yachts, steamers, and small craft to salute

    the expedition.

            Heavy gales impeded the Atlantic crossing and it was not until July 6th

    that the ships arrived at Disko. Here, tendered by the Valorous , they took on

    coal supplies and 55 Eskimo dogs, collected from various Greenland settlements.

    By mid-July Nares was again on his way north. Due to fortunate weather condi–

    tions, he was able to take a route through the Middle Ice direct to Cape York,

    avoiding Melville Bay, and to reach the North Water off the entrance to Smith

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    EA-Biography. Frazer: Sir George Strong Nares

    Sound in 34 hours. According to instructions, the Alert deposited her first

    depot of 3,600 rations and erected a cairn on the Cary Islands. From there a

    course was taken to Littleton Island, where a record of proceedings was left,

    and the ships crossed to the west coast of Smith Sound.

            At Cape Sabine the ships ran into heavy ice. After several days' delay

    a depot and cairn were established and the ships pushed slowly northward in a

    constant struggle against adverse ice conditions. Lady Franklin Bay was reached

    on August 25th, and close inside the entrance on the northern side of the Sun

    Peninsula and Bellot Island, Nares found a land-locked bay to which he was to

    give the name Discovery, and there he left his supporting ship to winter. The

    Alert continued northward up the west coast of Robeson Channel to latitude 82°

    28′ N., at that time the most northerly point ever reached by ship. There, off

    a beach which he named Floeberg, some 2 miles south-southeastward of Cape Sheri–

    dan on the north coast of Ellesmere Island, Nares went into winter quarters on

    the exposed shore of the Polar Sea.

            In September, traveling parties were sent out, led by Markham and Aldrich,

    but an unforeseen condition of soft, deep snow was encountered in which the dogs

    proved next to useless. Despite this handicap, Pelham Aldrich's party achieved

    a new record, reaching latitude 82° 48′ N., thus establishing a new "farthest

    north." Markham's party succeeded in establishing a depot at Cape Joseph Henry

    on the north coast of Ellesmere Island, but returned to the ship in bad condition,

    eight men suffering from frostbite, three to such an extent that amputations were


            The expedition then settled down to a winter routine; the weather was severe

    but no onshore gale was experienced and the Alert passed the winter safely in her

    exposed condition. Attempts to communicate with the Discovery began in mid-March.

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    EA-Biography. Frazer: Sir George Strong Nares

    Lieutenants Rawson and Egerton made the first attempt, with Christian Petersen

    in charge of the dogs, but Petersen became ill and had to be sledged back to

    the ship; badly frostbitten and suffering from shock. Petersen never recovered

    and died some three months later. Rawson and Egerton then made a successful

    trip to the Discovery and returned with the report that all were in good health.

    They arrived at the Alert on April 4th, when the main sledging parties from the

    ship had already departed.

            In view of the outbreak of scurvy that later wrecked the expedition, it is

    to be noted that neither on the Alert nor the Discovery had symptoms of the dis–

    ease been observed by the surgeons up to this time.

            His men seemed well, and Nares rested secure in assuming that they would

    keep so on their "balanced" diet. Great importance was attributed at that time

    to lime juice as a preventative of scurvy, and, even while crossing the Atlantic,

    officers and crew had been required to take their daily ration of juice on deck,

    under the supervision of an officer.

            Nares was therefore ignorant of the fact that, despite the apparent health

    of his men, the seeds of scurvy had taken root during the winter.

            Plans for the spring exploration parties and the major effort to reach the

    Pole were guided by the Admiralty orders: "In the absence of continuous land,

    sledge traveling has never yet been found practical over any considerable extent

    of frozen sea." Nares therefore decided to send out parties [ ?] to explore

    along the coast, east and west of the base, while the main party should head

    straight north over the frozen sea. Nares had no hope of this party reaching

    the Pole, but he did hope they might make a northern record and report on the

    condition of the pack ice in the polar sea.

            Complying with Admiralty instructions, the northern party under Markham,

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    EA-Biography. Frazer: Sir George Strong Nares

    Parr second in command, set out on April 3rd with a sledge heavily laden with

    provisions and two boats to be used in open water if the pack ice broke up.

            This heavy load forced the party to advance with divided loads, and 73

    miles gained from the ship represented 276 miles of travel back and forth. On

    the same date Lieutenants Aldrich and Giffard left to explore the northern coast

    of Ellesmere Island to the westward. Previous instructions to the Discovery ,

    relayed by Egerton and Parr, were to send a party to follow the Greenland coast

    northward. At this time, when the sledging parties left, they and the crews re–

    maining on the ships appeared to be in good health, but by mid-May nine men on

    board the Alert showed symptoms of scurvy.

            Nares believed that his men needed fresh meat and specifically instructed

    his hunting parties from the ship to bring back game for the casualties. On May

    21st he notes in his diary, "two ptarmigans for the invalids, who appear to make

    no progress toward recovery and evidently require a fresh meat diet." By June a

    number of other cases had broken out and Nares became seriously worried. "Con–

    sidering," he wrote, "the carefully selected provisions with which we were pro–

    vided, the outbreak was inexplicable." He varied the diet by all the means at

    his disposal, and adds, "With the exception of fresh meat, it was as good as

    could be desired."

            The failure to secure fresh meat would seem to have been due to insufficient

    knowledge as to its necessity and to methods of hunting and fishing, as musk-oxen

    were numerous in the vicinity of Discovery Harbor, and seals, hares, ptarmigans,

    Brent geese and eider ducks were relatively plentiful in the surrounding country.

            When the outbreak of scurvy appeared on board, Nares became concerned for

    the health of his sledging parties, but as they had been the pick of his crew, he

    hoped that their greater stamina would enable them to resist their dietary defic–


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    EA-Biography. Frazer: Sir George Strong Nares

            The return of one party after another with a high toll of disease and

    death apprised him of the extent of the scourge. On June 5th, Markham's party

    returned. They had reached latitude 83° 20′ N., 64° W. on May 12, 1876, a new

    northing, but the party had been disabled by disease before they turned back;

    one man had died on route, and eleven others of the original seventeen were

    carried on sledges.

            Aldrich's party returned after having traced 220 miles of coast line west–

    ward along the north shore of Ellesmere Island, but on his return trip his crew

    was attacked by Scurvy and only one man out of eight was able to haul. The parties

    from the Discovery fared little better. Beaumont, who was sent to explore the

    northwest coast of Greenland, reached a cape which he named Britannia, establish–

    ing a record at 82° 20′ N., 51° W. On his return trip his men were attacked by

    scurvy and only the arrival of Dr. Coppinger and Lieutenant Rawson, who had been

    dispatched to their relief, saved the party from being annihilated, so great had

    been the devastation caused by the disease.

            Alone, of all the sledging parties dispatched from the ships, a small unit

    under Archer returned in good health, after discovering a long fjord running south

    from Lady Franklin Bay, and also locating a coal deposit near the winter quarters

    of the Discovery . In late June, when the parties of Markham and Aldrich had re–

    turned to the Alert , Nares realized how seriously his expedition was crippled by

    scurvy and realized, too, that he must set out for England as soon as the ice

    should break.

            On July 31st a heavy gale freed the ice from Floeberg Beach, leaving a wide

    waterway, and the Alert moved southward to Discovery Bay. There it awaited the

    return of Beaumont's party, which arrived on August 15th after an absence of 132

    days. On August 20th a break in the ice permitted their departure.

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    EA-Biography. Frazer: Sir George Strong Nares

            The ships took their way southward through Kennedy Channel, Kane Basin,

    and Smith Sound to Cape Isabella on the west side of Smith Sound, and there in

    early September they picked up the papers and mail left by Sir Allen Young in

    the Pandora . From there the ships continued to Disko Island, being unable, on

    account of ice conditions, to stop at Cape Sabine, the Cary Islands, or Little–

    ton Island. On the return journey to England, through the ice in Davis Strait,

    Nares' navigation was considered exceptionally daring and skillful, and the home

    voyage was made successfully, despite the fact that the ships were undermanned

    due to the large quota of casualties.

            On November 2, 1876, the ships reached Portsmouth Harbor where a hearty

    welcome was tendered to them and Nares received the congratulations of Queen

    Victoria and a message of approval from the Admiralty.

            However, after the general excitement of the expedition's return died down, and

    the full extent of the disastrous epidemic of scurvy became known, an informal in–

    quiry was ordered to determine the cause of the outbreak. The results of the in–

    quiry were highly inconclusive; the findings of the tribunal criticized Nares for

    not having supplied his sledge crews with lime juice; this despite the fact that

    the disease had also broken out on the ships where the men had daily rations of

    the juice.

            This finding was strongly denounced by Admirals Sir George Richards and Sir

    Leopold McClintock. Richards wrote: "This is an opinion and unsusceptible of

    proof, opposed to former experience on similar service." Sir Leopold, citing his own

    extensive experience with lengthy sledging journeys, pointed out that his trips

    were accomplished with neither lime juice nor scurvy. "Briefly," he sums up, "we

    lived upon pemmican and enjoyed good health."

            The committee sitting on the inquiry consisted of three Admirals and two

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    EA-Biography. Frazer: Sir George Strong Nares

    medical men. In his Voyage to the Polar Sea , (London, 1878, 2 vol.) Nares

    says of their attitude in the lime juice controversy: "As two of the members

    of the committee... had personal experience in arctic travel, it is to be re–

    gretted that in their report they did not draw conclusions from the knowledge

    gained during the numerous sledge journeys which have been successfully under–

    taken in the arctic regions, on practically similar dietaries and without any

    lime juice whatever: such as those of Baron Von Wrangel, Parry, Franklin, Rich–

    ardson, Back, Rochards, McClintock, Clements Markham, Hayes, and many others.

            "On the other hand, Sir James Ross, in 1849... issued a daily ration of

    one ounce of lime juice to his sledge crews; nevertheless, in 37 days his men

    returned to the ships completely prostrated by what was said to be debility."

            Fortunately the censure of this semiformal hearing had little effect upon

    Nares' career. He was created K.C.B. the year of his return, made a Fellow of

    the Royal Society, and shortly after received the Founders' Medal of the Royal

    Geographical Society and the Gold Medal of the Geographical Society of Paris.

    In 1878 he again commanded the Alert on a survey of Magellan Strait, and from

    1879 to 1896 he was employed in the harbor department of the Board of Trade. In

    1887 he was made Rear Admiral and in 1892 Vice Admiral. From 1896 to 1910, the

    last active year of his life, he served as conservator of the Mersey River.

            Sir George died at Surbiton on January 15, 1915. Nares Harbor in the Admir–

    alty Islands is named for him, also Nares Deep in the North Atlantic, and Cape

    Nares on the north coast of Ellesmere Island; also Nares Land, a mainland ex–

    tension in northwest Greenland, lying between Victoria Fjord and Nordenskiold


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    EA-Biography. Frazer: Sir George Strong Nares


    Dictionary of National Biography

    Geographical Journal , March 1915.

    Greely, A. W. Handbook of Arctic Discoveries ,(5th edition), Boston, 1910.

    Markham, Clements R. The Lands of Silence . Cambridge, 1921.

    Nares, George S. A Voyage to the Polar Seas . London, 1877.

    Stefansson, V. Not By Bread Alone . New York, 1946.


    Anne Frazer

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