Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ross, John (1777-1856)

ROSS, Sir JOHN (1777–1856), rear-admiral and Arctic navigator, born on 24 June 1777, was fourth son of Andrew Ross of Balsarroch in Wigtonshire, and minister of Inch, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Corsane, provost of Dumfries, as his direct ancestors of the same name had been for seventeen successive generations. Andrew Ross [q. v.] was an elder brother. From November 1786 to 1789 Ross was borne on the books of the Pearl in the Mediterranean, and in 1790 he joined the Impregnable at Portsmouth. His captain, Sir Thomas Byard, advised him to go to sea in the merchant service, promising to keep his name on the ship's books. He accordingly went to Greenock, and was bound apprentice for four years, during which time he made three voyages to the West Indies and three to the Baltic. In 1794 he entered the service of the East India Company. In September 1799 he returned to the navy as a midshipman of the Weasel in the North Sea and on the coast of Holland; he was afterwards in the Clyde frigate with Captain Charles Cunningham [q. v.]; and on the renewal of the war in 1803 joined the Grampus, bearing the flag of Sir James Saumarez (afterwards Lord de Saumarez) [q. v.] With few and short intervals he continued with Saumarez in different ships, as midshipman or mate, and, after his promotion on 13 March 1805, as lieutenant, till 1812. In 1805, while serving as lieutenant of the Surinam, he was severely wounded in cutting out a Spanish vessel from under the batteries of Bilbao. For this he was granted a pension of 5s. a day, which was afterwards increased to 150l. a year. In his old age, it was stated in his presence, and without contradiction, that he had been wounded thirteen times, and had been three times ‘immured in a French prison’ (Galloway Advertiser, 20 Nov. 1851). It must have been about this date, but the details have not been recorded. In September 1808, being then in the Victory, he was for a short time attached to the staff of the Swedish admiral, a service for which he was well qualified by a familiar knowledge of Swedish. In August 1809 he was created a knight of the order of the Sword, and Saumarez was requested to send him again to the Swedish admiral; but as he was then away, in acting command of the Ariel, the request could not be complied with.

On 1 Feb. 1812 Ross was promoted to the rank of commander, and in March was appointed to the Briseis sloop, which he commanded in the Baltic, North Sea, and the Downs. In 1814–15 he commanded the sloop Actæon in the North Sea, and for a short time in the White Sea, where he surveyed part of the coast, and determined the longitude of Archangel by observing the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites. In 1815–17 he had command of the Driver on the coast of Scotland, and in January 1818 he was appointed to the Isabella, a hired whaler, as commander of an expedition, which with the Alexander, commanded by Lieutenant William Edward Parry [q. v.] sailed in April, to endeavour to make the North-West Passage through Davis' Strait. It was the renewal of the search which had been laid on one side during the long war, and resulted in the rediscovery of Baffin's Bay [see Baffin, William] and the identification of the several points named in Baffin's map. Ross then attempted to proceed westward through Lancaster Sound, but being deceived, presumably by a mirage, he described the passage as barred by a range of mountains, which he named the Croker Mountains, and returned to England. The report was, in the first instance, accepted as conclusive, and Ross was promoted to post rank on 7 Dec. 1818. In the following year he published ‘A Voyage of Discovery made under the orders of the Admiralty, in His Majesty's Ships Isabell and Alexander, for the purpose of exploring Baffin's Bay, and inquiring into the probability of a North-West Passage’ (1819, 4to).

The admiralty had already learned that there were some doubts as to the reality of the Croker Mountains, and had despatched another expedition, under the command of Parry; but the issue of the semi-official account of the voyage brought the question before the public, and Captain (afterwards Sir Edward) Sabine, who had been one of the scientific staff of the expedition, published ‘Remarks on the Account of the late Voyage,’ &c., severely controverting the statement, which led to a reply by Ross, entitled ‘Explanation of Captain Sabine's Remarks,’ &c. (1819, 8vo). The matter, as one of conflicting evidence and opinion, could not be decided till Parry's return in October 1820 brought proof that Ross had judged too hastily, and led to an undue disparagement of his work. He was naturally anxious to make another attempt, but the admiralty declined his services; and it was not till 1829 that he was offered the command of the Victory, a small vessel, fitted out mainly at the expense of Felix Booth [q. v.], Ross himself contributing 3,000l. towards it. In searching for a passage south from Regent's Inlet, the Victory was stopped by the ice, and spent the winter of 1829–30 in Felix Harbour. In the summer of 1830 she got a few miles further south and wintered in Victoria Harbour. But there she remained, fast held by the ice, and in May 1832 was abandoned, Ross and his men making their way to Fury Beach, where they passed a fourth winter in a hut built from the wreck of the Fury. In the summer of 1833 they succeeded in reaching a whaler—Ross's old ship, the Isabella—in Lancaster Sound, and in her returned to England in October.

The results of the voyage, remarkable for the length of time spent in the ice, were the survey of the peninsula since known as Boothia, of a great part of King William Land, of the Gulf of Boothia, and the presumptive determination that the sought-for passage did not lie in that direction; and also the discovery of the magnetic pole by Ross's nephew, Lieutenant James Clark Ross [q. v.], while carrying out a series of extensive sledge journeys. In 1834 Ross was knighted; the Geographical Societies of London and Paris awarded him their gold medals, and on 24 Dec. 1834 he was nominated a C.B. In 1835 he published ‘Narrative of a Second Voyage in search of a North-West Passage, and of a Residence in the Arctic Regions during the years 1829–1833, with Appendix’ (2 vols. 4to).

In March 1839 Ross was appointed consul at Stockholm, and held that post till the autumn of 1846. He had returned to England on leave in February 1845, on hearing of the proposed expedition to the Arctic under the command of Sir John Franklin, but found, much to his annoyance, that his opinion was not asked, and when offered, was rejected with scant courtesy. Between himself and Sir John Barrow [q. v.] there was a quarrel of long standing, and all the men of Arctic experience, including Parry, Richardson, and especially Ross's nephew, Sir James Clark Ross, followed Barrow's lead. In 1846 Barrow published his ‘Voyages of Discovery and Research,’ in which he devoted two chapters to a virulent attack on Ross. Ross replied with ‘Observations on a Work entitled “Voyages of Discovery, &c.,” by Sir John Barrow’ (1846, 8vo), in which he fairly met his adversary's criticisms, but with a degree of rancour which deprived his pamphlet of much of its effect. In 1847 he urged on the admiralty the advisability of at once despatching an expedition for the relief of Franklin. His letter was referred to Parry, Richardson, and James Clark Ross, who agreed that any such expedition would be premature. Ross's age certainly unfitted him for the service, but Ross ascribed the rejection of his proposal to the personal ill-will of Barrow, who was still at the Admiralty.

In 1849, by a grant from the Hudson's Bay Company, supplemented by 1,000l. from Sir Felix Booth and by public subscription, Ross was able to fit out a small vessel named the Felix, which sailed from Stranraer on 23 May 1850, under the flag of the Northern Yacht Club. In this he went into Lancaster Sound, and returned the following year. He was still anxious to prosecute the search, but the admiralty declined to entrust the task to a man of seventy-five. Ross revenged himself by publishing ‘Rear-admiral Sir John Franklin: a Narrative of the Circumstances and Causes which led to the Failure of the Searching Expeditions sent by Government and others for the Rescue of Sir John Franklin’ (8vo, 1855), a work of considerable interest, but marred by the strong personal feeling. He died in London on 30 Aug. 1856. He was twice married and left issue one son, in the civil service of the East India Company.

Besides the works already mentioned and some unimportant pamphlets, Ross wrote: 1. ‘A Treatise on Navigation by Steam,’ 4to, 1828. 2. ‘Memoirs and Correspondence of Admiral Lord de Saumarez,’ 2 vols. 8vo, 1838. 3. ‘On Steam Communication to India,’ 8vo, 1838. 4. ‘A Short Treatise on the Deviation of the Mariner's Compass,’ 8vo, 1849. 5. ‘On Intemperance in the Royal Navy,’ 8vo, 1852 (a pamphlet with some interesting autobiographic reminiscences.).

A portrait, by Benjamin Rawlinson Faulkner [q. v.], is in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh; it has been lithographed by R. J. Lane. Another portrait, painted by James Green in 1833, in which he is wearing the Swedish order of the Sword, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London; and a third belongs to the Royal Geographical Society.

[O'Byrne's Nav. Biogr. Dict.; Journal of the Royal Geogr. Soc. vol. xxviii. p. cxxx; his own works and others referred to in the text; information from Mr. Andrew Ross, his nephew.]

J. K. L.