George Back

Birth: 1796


Sir George Back (1796–1878) was an English admiral and Arctic navigator. He was born at Stockport, in Cheshire, and entered the navy as midshipman of the Arethusa in 1808. He was present at the destruction of the batteries at Lequeitio, in the north of Spain, and after being repeatedly under fire was, in 1809, taken prisoner by the French at Deba, while on a cutting-out expedition with the Arethusa's boats. The prisoners were sent to St. Sebastian, and Back was small enough to be carried in one of the panniers of a sumpter mule across the Pyrenees.

While a prisoner at Verdun, he occupied himself in the study of mathematics, French, and drawing. In the winter of 1813-14 he travelled on foot through a large part of France, and on reaching England was appointed midshipman to the Akbar, and in her served against the French on the North American station. The Akbar was dismasted in a hurricane off Cape Hatteras, and nearly foundered. In 1816 she was paid off, and in 1817 Back was appointed admiralty mate of the Bulwark.

Next year he volunteered for service in the Trent, under Franklin, who was then entering on the first modern voyage of discovery in the Spitzbergen seas. Of that voyage his friend - afterwards Admiral - Beechey is the graphic historian. On his return he rejoined the Bulwark, but in the very next year set out with Franklin on his expedition by land to the Coppermine river, the object of which was to determine the latitude and longitude of the northern coast of North America, and the trend of the coast east of the Coppermine. In that terrible expedition it was to Back's dauntless determination that the safety of the survivors was to a great extent due.

At Fort Enterprise Franklin sent him back to Fort Providence, and he was in imminent danger of starvation on the way. In five months he travelled 1,204 miles on snow shoes, with no other covering at night in the woods but a blanket and a deerskin, when the thermometer was frequently at 48 deg. and once at 67 deg. below zero, and sometimes without tasting food for two or three days at a time. Later on, when Franklin was in dire straits, he again sent Back to get help from the Indians, and after incredible exertions and sufferings, and after seeing one of his companions die on the road, he succeeded in his mission just in time to save Franklin's life. On coming back to England he was made lieutenant in 1822.

In 1823 he was appointed to the Superb, and sailed to the West Indies. Next year, while at Lisbon, he was invited to join Franklin's expedition to the Mackenzie river, and hastened to do so. In that memorable expedition he rendered Franklin signal service, especially in his dealings with the Esquimaux, and on coming home in 1827 found himself promoted to the rank of commander. His repeated applications for a ship met with no response, and he went to Italy to improve himself in the arts. At Naples he heard of the supposed loss of Captain Ross in the Arctic regions, and offered the Royal Geographical Society to go in search of him.

He had been informed by Copper Indians on his previous journey of the existence of a river rising in the neighbourhood of the Great Slave Lake, and debouching on the Polar Sea, and by tracing this river to its mouth he hoped to make his way to Regent's Inlet, where he thought Captain Ross might be beset. The council accepted his offer, and a grant from government, supplemented by a public subscription, supplied the funds for the expedition, on which he set out with only one companion of his own rank. Dr. Richard King, as surgeon and naturalist, in February 1833. His instructions were, in brief, first to make for the sea by the aforesaid river and, if possible, aid Captain Ross, and, secondly, to survey the sea-coast as far as possible. The first winter was spent by him at Fort Reliance - a house which he constructed near the Great Slave Lake, when himself half starved and amid starving Indians. The cold was so extreme that while washing his face close to a fire his hair froze before he could dry it.

In April he received news of Captain Ross's arrival in England, but he was ordered to push on to the river and survey the coast thence to Cape Turnagain. His first difficulty was to discover where the river lay, and to avoid embarking on the wrong one. The name of it was Thlew-ee-choh-deeseth, or Great Fish River, and how doggedly he traced it to the sea, amid perils from the ice and the rapids, managing the Indians, and making friends with the Esquimaux, he has vividly recounted in his 'Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition to the Mouth of the Great Fish River, in 1834 and 1835.' The narrative is beautifully illustrated by sketches made by himself. Some falls on the river Ah-hel-Dessy, which he named Parry Falls, he describes as far surpassing the Falls of Niagara in splendor of effect.

The ice prevented his proposed survey of the coast, and after again wintering at Fort Reliance he reached La Chêne, the Hudson's Bay station, whence he had started over two years before, in August 1835, having since he quitted it travelled 7,500 miles, including 1,200 of discovery. Besides his discovery of a river, over 440 miles long, he had made important observations of the Aurora Borealis, and had given the name of Montreal to an island, afterwards to be so sadly familiar in connection with the fate of Franklin. In October he reached England, was awarded the Geographical Society's gold medal, and was promoted by the admiralty to the rank of captain, by order in council - an honor which no other officer in the navy had received except William IV.

In the following year he was, at his own proposal, appointed to the command of an expedition, the object of which was to complete the coast line between Regent's Inlet and Cape Turnagain. On his return home he published a narrative of his voyage, and a terrible story it is. Off Cape Comfort the ship was frozen in, and then drifted up Frozen Channel. From December to March she was driven about, and floated powerless till 10 July, and for three days was on her beam ends, but on the 14th suddenly righted. When 'it wanted but one day to complete four months since the ship had been thrown upon the ice,' she was 'once more in her own element, and subject to the will of man.'

But the crazy vessel nearly sank in a gale as she crossed the Atlantic, and it was not till 3 Sept., 'fifteen months since the pleasing sound of a falling anchor had greeted' his ears, that she anchored in Lough Swilly. Two extracts from Back's account of this voyage will illustrate the perils which he encountered, and the style in which he narrated them. 'The ship was still setting fast along shore and much too close to the fixed ice, but it was not till 8 p.m. that any suspicious movement was noticed near us. Then, however, a continually increasing rush was heard, which at 10.45 p.m. came on with a heavy roar towards the larboard quarter, upturning in its progress, and rolling onward with it, an immense wall of ice.

This advanced so fast that though all hands were immediately called they had barely time, with the greatest exertion, to extricate three of the boats, one of them, in fact, being hoisted up when only a few feet from the crest of the solid wave, which held a steady course direct for the quarter, almost over-topping it, and continuing to elevate itself until about twenty-five feet high.' 'On 14 July they beheld the strange and appalling spectacle of what may be fitly termed a submerged berg, fixed low down, with one end to the ship's side, while the other, with the purchase of a long lever advantageously placed at a right angle with the keel, was slowly rising towards the surface. Meantime, those who happened to be below, finding everything falling, rushed or clambered on deck, where they saw the ship on her beam ends, with the lee boats touching the water, and felt that a few moments only trembled between them and eternity. Yet in that awful crisis there was no confusion.'

It may be safely said that few sailors ever survived more terrible perils and hardships than Back did in the two expeditions under Franklin, and the two which he commanded himself. 'Arctic work,' as Lord Brougham said of Franklin, 'had got into his blood,' and he could not help going again and again if he had the chance. But the exposure and anxiety of eleven years' service in the northern seas at last told even on his iron frame. For six years he was more or less an invalid, and was never sufficiently restored to resume the ordinary duties of his profession afloat.

In 1837 he received from the Geographical Society both its medals. In 1839 he was knighted. He also received the gold medal of the Geographical Society of Paris, and was presented with a service of plate by the subscribers to the Arctic Land Expedition. He was employed by government to report on the harbor of Holyhead, but afterwards lived in retirement on half-pay. He was a vice-president and long on the council of the Geographical Society, and contributed many reports. He was made admiral in 1857, and was also D.C.L. and F.R.S. Of all these honors he was indeed worthy, for in bravery, intelligence, and love of adventure he was the very model of an English sailor. Sir George died 23 June 1878.

[Information given by the Rev. Henry Back; Narrative of an Expedition in H.M.'s ship Terror, in the years 1836-7; Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition to the mouth of the Great Fish River in 1833-5, both by Back; Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, and Second Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, by Franklin.]


Augustus Henry Beesly, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 02. pgs. 318-320.

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