Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Carcass and the Polar Bear

In June 1773, a 14-year-old Horatio Nelson joined a ship named HMS Carcass, bound for the Arctic.  Launched in 1759, the Carcass was an 8-gun bomb vessel which, in the year she was launched, took part in a bombardment of Le Havre, a French town on the Channel coast where boats and supplies had been preparing for an invasion of England.  In 1773, an expedition to the Arctic was planned, to see if there was a way to get to the West Indies from the north.  The Carcass, along with another bomb vessel, the Racehorse, were to carry a team including naturalists and astronomers, and were chosen because bomb vessels had particularly strong hulls in order to withstand the recoil from their massive guns (used to bombard ports and buildings rather than fight other ships) so were better able to withstand the pressure of the ice.  Captain Constantine Phipps commanded the expedition from the Racehorse, and Nelson, with help from the influence of his uncle Maurice Suckling, joined the Carcass as coxswain to Captain Skeffington Lutwidge (a fabulous name!)
The Carcass with the Racehorse trapped in the ice.
However, the expedition didn't get very far before the ships got trapped in ice.  With the help of rowboats, they were pulled free, but got stuck again.  Eventually they made it to Spitsbergen (near Greenland), and while scientific work was carried out, the crew hunted and had a chance to carry out maintenance on the ships.  The environment was beautiful - the rays of the setting sun and the stars were bright, and there was plenty of wildlife including whales, seals, and polar bears.
At one point, Nelson decided it would be a good idea to kill one of these bears, and take the skin home as a present for his father.  He set off with a companion, but when they encountered a bear, his musket misfired.  Luckily for him, the bear was on the other side of a chasm but even so, though his companion tried to pull him back, he still started to climb across with the intention of hitting the bear with the butt end of his gun.  Fortunately for him, a gun was fired from one of the ships, and scared the bear away.
This is one of the more famous incidents in Nelson's life, but he didn't mention it in his Sketch of my Life, and it wasn't as heroic as this picture makes it seem!

Nelson attacking the polar bear.  In reality, though, he never got this close to it.

Nelson was given command of one of the boats, with four oars and twelve men and, according to his later mini autobiography, A Sketch of my Life, "I prided myself in fancying I could navigate her better than any other boat in the ship."  It was good practice for his confidence, leadership and seamanship skills.

In August the ships got stuck again, and this time it looked as if they would be stuck for the winter.  The crews began to prepare to abandon ship, and put supplies in the boats.  The boats were then pulled by the men across the ice towards the open sea.  But, fortunately, a couple of days later the ice loosened enough for the Carcass and Racehorse to cut through the ice and reach the open sea themselves.  They made it back to England in late September, and Nelson left the Carcass for the Seahorse.

The Carcass didn't have a very long career after that.  In 1778 she was part of an escort of a convoy carrying troops to the West Indies, and she was sold in 1784.


  1. Great post, very intresting reading thx, Nelson was the man even at 14 !!!

  2. Thankyou for your comment, that's very kind :) And yes he was, wasn't he!