Scan reproduction of original sketch by S.G. Creswell, courtesy Wolfgang Opel.

Adapted from the original manuscript by Mechtild Opel
It is April 1853. An icy wind whips the faces of the men who are struggling over jagged, erratic, some seeming near mountainous pack-ice ridges. Sometimes the only way forward is for them to move on all fours. After a year and a half of starvation rations on their icebound ship, the HMS Investigator, the men suffer from scurvy and starvation, and the trek from Banks Island to Melville Island demands extreme strength and energy. But it is their only hope of survival. Staying with their ship is no longer an option if they are to live.

1850: Setting Sail in Search of Franklin
The fateful voyage into the Arctic begins in London, England, in January 1850. The Royal Navy assembles a search party to find the Franklin Expedition that had left England in 1845. In a hopeful attempt to gather information from Inuit about the possible fate of Franklin, an interpreter from Germany, 32-year-old Johann August Miertsching, is engaged. Miertsching had become fluent in the Inuit language while serving as a Moravian missionary in Labrador. Joining Captain McClure and the seamen on board the HMS Investigator, Miertsching sails around South America and on to the Bering Sea. There the ship turns east, hugging the coastline. Heavy sea ice prevents the expedition from taking a more northerly route.

Investigator’s easterly heading comes to a full halt in September 1850, when she is beset by heavy pack ice between two islands. McClure mounts an expedition and determines that the ship is, in fact, stranded in a strait (today’s Prince of Wales Strait) leading to Melville Sound; on record at the time as the furthest west achieved by Sir William Parry’s 1819 Northwest Passage Expedition. Quite by fortuitous fate, his expedition uncovers the navigational secret — the very key — to the here-to-fore missing link to the centuries long search for the Northwest Passage!

“The Northwest Passage that we have been seeking for over 300 years has now been found by the 26th of October 1850,” as McClure declared on his return, and to celebrate “a hearty dinner with extra grog was served that evening” Miertsching writes in his diary.

After that first long winter, the Investigator is finally freed from the ice in August 1851. However, the pack remains unruly and dense, preventing the expedition from sailing any further into what they now know to be the Northwest Passage. While looking to find a more navigable route around Banks Island, the ship is under dangerous pressure by heavy pack ice and chooses to take shelter in an inlet that McClure calls the “Bay of God’s Mercy”. But here too, once again, the ship and crew are locked in tight by heavy ice.

1851 – 1853: Stuck in the Ice

Johann August Miertsching, 1854 daguerreotype image.
Johann August Miertsching, 1854 daguerreotype image.

The Investigator lies motionless, firmly locked in and stranded in Mercy Bay. After an inventory of the ship’s supplies, McClure orders a drastic cut to daily rations. His men reluctantly crawl into their damp quarters at night, their stomachs growling in hunger. The supply of candles is also limited on board, rendering any thoughts of reading or writing virtually impossible.

“Hunger grows with the small portions provided, until it is quite painful,” Miertsching writes in his diary “…much of our time is spent in darkness” “…wolves howl outside the ship and their cries make the dark, cold, dead night even more desolate and dreary.”

In the spring of 1852, McClure and seven men set out on a four-week reconnaissance mission. On foot, pulling a sledge laden with provisions, they struggle across the rough ice to Melville Island. There, at a cairn bearing an inscription left previously by Parry’s expedition, McClure and his men leave behind an account of their plight and position of their ship. They, of course, have no idea then how important this information would become in the future.

The first cases of scurvy break out with the late advent of summer. During a hunting expedition Miertsching discovers outcrops of Mountain Sorrel. The men gather as much of this as they can forage over the following weeks to help combat their increasing nutritional deficiencies. Their respite is short-lived, however, when the first snows of the coming winter return to cover the ground at the end of August. The ice has not opened the entire summer. The starvation experienced during the winter that followed would bring these already much weakened, near-starved men to the very brink of despair.

By mid-April their situation is dire. McClure wants the strongest to remain with the ship to attempt to sail the Northwest Passage once the HMS Investigator is freed; the others would have to set out on foot in still freezing weather to cover hundreds of kilometres in search of a rescue.

“In the spring of this year 1853 it became absolutely necessary that some of us should leave the ship to save the others from starving,” ship’s officer, Cresswell, writes in his report.

An understandably less optimistic Miertsching writes, “When I contemplate this planned journey and think about our reduced strength, I have to conclude that it’s humanly impossible that even one of us will ever reach England.”

Unexpected Developments: What news!
It is that April in 1853, and shortly before the desperate men were to set out on a trek to near certain death, that a dark spot appears on the far horizon. It keeps getting closer and closer. At first the apparition is thought to be musk oxen; then comes speculation on the chance that it might be a group of Inuit, and then:

“A voice called out to us in the English language: ‘I am Lieutenant Pim from the ship the Resolute, Captain Kellett, in Winter Harbour.’…. what news. I thought I was dreaming, the joy and elation, I was stunned,” Miertsching’s notes. One need know little more of their plight to appreciate the absolute joy, the indescribable lifting of spirits and renewed hope beyond hope, that yes, perhaps they would survive.

The HMS Resolute—as part of its own search for the Franklin expedition—had come through the Arctic waters from the east (just as Parry had in 1819) and overwintered off Dealy Island. On a trek from there to Melville Island, the note McClure had left at Parry’s cairn is found. The discovery prompts Resolute’s captain Kellett to launch a manned sledge expedition to head out to find the Investigator and her crew.

Once sufficiently over their initial jubilation to effect travel, Investigator’s crew sets off for the Resolute in small groups. It takes Miertsching’s cadre of weak and weary men two weeks to reach her. Safe on board, the rescued men are at last able to eat full rations and recover their strength in the ship’s warmand dry quarters over several weeks. Sadly, for three of the men on the Investigator the glorious rescue comes too late. They perish before being able to set out for Kellett’s ship and lie buried on the shores of Mercy Bay.

The ship, in total, is eventually abandoned; and supplies including tools, lumber, boats, coal, canned foods and containers are cached on shore for use by other Arctic explorers — possibly even by the Franklin expedition, still not considered lost at that time. The Resolute and Intrepid remain frozen in ice for yet another winter; their crews and McClure’s men all must walk for hundreds of miles to reach Beechey Island (not far from today’s Resolute Bay) in the Eastern Arctic.

The men of the Investigator eventually do return safely to England where they are celebrated as the first expedition to have identified the Northwest Passage; and, in 1855, in Germany, the “Reise-Tagebuch des Missionars Joh. Aug. Miertsching, welcher als Dolmetscher die Nordpol-Expedition zur Aufsuchung Sir John Franklins auf dem Schiff Investigator begleitete” (Diary of the missionary Joh. Aug. Miertsching, who served as interpreter on the ship the Investigator on its North Pole Expedition in the Search for Sir John Franklin) is published.

A religious man, Miertsching was the only civilian serving along side what were tough and rowdy seamen at the outset of the expedition. That pegged him as the obvious outsider. His English was also not the best. Still, Miertsching would, over the course of the journey, gain the respect of most of the seamen and officers, not only as interpreter and adviser, but also as a practical, decent man; even his experience as a hunter helped the men to survive.

“Miertsching… was the most useful man on board, for not only did he set an excellent moral example to those around him, but, by his knowledge of mechanical arts, he proved of the greatest value to his shipmates, especially as a boot maker, and besides taught both officers and men other useful Arctic accomplishments, without they would have indeed fared badly.”
(Source: Dottings on the roadside in Panama, Nicaragua and Mosquito, Bedford Pim, Berthold Seemann, 1868.)

Miertsching’s travel journals remain a valuable source for Arctic researchers today. Of particular interest to naturalists, polar historians and anthropologists are not only his observations of life on board, of Arctic nature and his detailed weather reports, but also his descriptions of encounters with the Inuit ranging from the coast of Alaska to Cape Bathurst. It is also quite likely that Miertsching was the first qallunaaq to have had long conversations with the Copper Inuit of Victoria Island in their language. He understood their language quite well. The Inuit, on request, even drew an accurate map of the coastline on a large fold of paper for him and his captain.

When the captain orders his crew to return to the ship, Miertsching parts from that Inuit group in warm friendship. Uniquely, and unusual for his time, he uses the term “Inuit” interchangeably with the more common “Eskimo” in his journal. Perhaps he is one of the first to do so.

Miertsching would remain a proud but modest man, turning down an offer by the Admiralty for another stint as interpreter in the Arctic. The Moravian Mission sent him instead to South Africa where he served for 13 years, performing various duties and serving primarily as keeper of the Mission store. He retired to Kleinwelka, near Bautzen (Saxony/Germany), where he died in 1875, at the age of 57.

In Canada, Miertsching was honoured when a lake in Nunavut received his name. Two species of Arctic plants are also named after him. It would appear that, oddly, it is only in Germany that Johann August Miertsching became as good as forgotten.