Sir George Strong Nares: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

Author Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Sir George Strong Nares

EA-Biography (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, Hartfordshire.
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

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– ous 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

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

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 necessary.
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.

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,

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– iencies.

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.

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

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 Fjord.

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