Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure (or M'Clure) (28 January 1807 – 17 October 1873) was an Irish explorer of the Arctic. In 1854, he was the first to transit the Northwest Passage (by boat and sledge), as well as the first to circumnavigate the Americas.
Early life and career
He was born at Wexford, in Ireland, the posthumous son of one of Abercrombie's captains, and spent his childhood under the care of his godfather, General Le Mesurier, governor of Alderney, by whom he was educated for the army. The McClures are of Highland Scots ancestry, being a sept of Clan MacLeod of Harris. He entered the navy, however, in 1824, and twelve years later gained his first experience of Arctic exploration as mate of HMS Terror in the expedition (1836–1837) commanded by Captain (afterwards Sir) George Back.
On his return he obtained his commission as lieutenant, and from 1838 to 1839 served on the Canadian lakes, being subsequently attached to the North American and West Indian naval stations, where he remained till 1846. Two years later he joined the Franklin search expedition (1848–1849) under James Clark Ross as first lieutenant of Enterprise.
Across the Northwest Passage
After he returned from the first Franklin search expedition, a new search expedition was launched in 1850, with Richard Collinson commanding the Enterprise and McClure, as his subordinate, given the command of Investigator. The two ships set out from England, sailed south on the Atlantic, navigated through the Strait of Magellan to the Pacific Ocean with the assistance of steam-sloop HMS Gorgon, where they became separated and had no further contact for the rest of their respective journeys.
The Investigator sailed north through the Pacific and entered the Arctic Ocean by way of Bering Strait, and sailing eastward past Point Barrow, Alaska to eventually link up with another British expedition from the north-west. Although the Investigator was abandoned to the pack ice in the spring of 1853, McClure and his crew were rescued by a party from the HMS Resolute (one of the ships under the command of Sir Edward Belcher that were sailing from the East) after a journey over the ice by sledge. Subsequently he completed his journey across the Northwest Passage. Resolute itself did not make it out of the Arctic that year; it was abandoned in ice, but later recovered. The wood from that ship became quite famous later.
Thus, McClure and his crew were the first both to circumnavigate the Americas, and to transit the Northwest Passage - considerable feats at that time. The Enterprise, meanwhile, having arrived at Point Barrow in 1850 a fortnight later than the Investigator, had found its passage blocked by winter ice and had had to turn back and return the following year; it conducted its own Arctic explorations, but credit for the Northwest Passage already belonged to McClure.
On his return to England, in 1854, McClure was court martialed for the loss of the Investigator (this was automatic when a captain lost his ship), but following an honourable acquittal, was knighted and promoted to post-rank, his commission being dated back four years in recognition of his special services. McClure and his crew shared a great monetary reward (for that time) of £10,000 awarded them by the British Parliament. He subsequently was also awarded gold medals by the English and French geographical societies.
McClure's account of this voyage, Discovery of the north-west passage, consists of excerpts of his journals from that time as edited by Captain Sherard Osborn. As this account significantly glosses over several elements of the cruise which cast McClure in a somewhat unfavourable light, historians generally prefer the straightforward account rendered by the Investigator's surgeon, Sir Alexander Armstrong.
From 1856 to 1861 he served in Eastern waters, commanding the division of the Naval Brigade before Canton in 1858, for which he received a CB in the following year. His latter years were spent in a quiet country life; he attained the rank of rear-admiral in 1867, and of vice-admiral in 1873. He died in that year, and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.
On 29 October 2009 a special service of thanksgiving was held in the chapel at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, to accompany the rededication of the national monument to Sir John Franklin there. The service also included the solemn re-interment of the remains of Lieutenant Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, the only remains ever repatriated to England, entombed within the monument in 1873. The event brought together members of the international polar community and invited guests included polar travellers, photographers and authors and many descendants of Sir John Franklin and his men and the families of those who went to search for him, including Admiral Sir Francis Leopold McClintock, Rear Admiral Sir John Ross and Vice Admiral Sir Robert McClure among many others. This gala event, directed by the Rev Jeremy Frost and polar historian Dr Huw Lewis-Jones, celebrated the contributions made by the United Kingdom in the charting of the Canadian North and honoured the loss of life in the pursuit of geographical discovery. The Navy was represented by Admiral Nick Wilkinson, prayers were led by the Bishop of Woolwich and among the readings were eloquent tributes from Duncan Wilson, chief executive of the Greenwich Foundation and H.E. James Wright, the Canadian High Commissioner. At a private drinks reception in the Painted Hall which followed this Arctic service, Chief Marine Archaeologist for Parks Canada Robert Grenier spoke of his ongoing search for the missing expedition ships. The following day a group of polar authors went to London's Kensal Green Cemetery to pay their respects to the Arctic explorers buried there. After some difficulty, McClure's gravestone was located. It is hoped that his memorial may be conserved in the future.
- McClure, Robert (1856). Osborn, Sherard, ed. The Discovery of the North-West Passage. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts.
- The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration From Frobisher to Ross, E C Coleman 2006 ISBN 0-7524-3660-0
- The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration From Franklin to Scott, E C Coleman 2006
- Biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
- Library and Archives Canada page on McClure, with pictures