Friday 1 August 2014

Return to Poctes Bay

In his book the Voyage of the Fox, McClintock suggests that Franklin steered to the West of King William Island, resulting in the permanent besetment of his ships, because he was supplied with charts showing 'King William Land' as a peninsula connected to the mainland - thus giving the appearance that there was only one course open to him. I don't really agree with this reasoning: Franklin's mission was to sail West - he will surely only have learned the true nature of the ice conditions in Victoria channel once it was too late.

When Sir John Ross published his Narrative of a second voyage in search of a North-west passage the map at the end of volume one shows what we now know to be the navigable Rae Strait closed with a dotted line to make a Bay, known to history as Poctes Bay. I have long wondered who Mr, or perhaps Señor, Poctes was and why he deserved such an honour. Who were Landon, Rowley, and Sheridan whose names are given to three entirely imaginary capes within the bay. Were they delighted to see their names immortalised in geography only to be crestfallen when the whole coastline proved to be a fantasy?

A close look at the map from Ross' Narrative (above) shows the bay in question actually labelled Poctes's Bay - a somewhat ungrammatical construction which hints at a mistake.

The Royal Geographical Society read it as Poetess Bay (also independently suggested by a commentator on my earlier post). The Society's journal article after the return of George Back's expedition down the Great Fish River tentatively concluded on the balance of presumption that the land which Captain Ross had explored was an island.

The Hydrographic Office's chart of 1847 has dotted lines connecting King William Island to the Boothia Peninsula by a spindly isthmus but without naming the bay. The 1849 chart (above) includes the title Poctes Bay but dispenses with the dotted lines. The fact that some of the geographical features have different names to those in Sir John Ross' map (top) is a good story in it's own right.

John Arrowsmith's early charts of the region also use Poctes but later editions, including the above, from 1850, use Poets Bay.

So what is the correct name for this imaginary bay - Poctes's, Poetess, Poctes, or Poets? What did Sir John Ross intend?

A hint may be found in the fact that opposite the imaginary bay on Ross' chart can be found Artists Bay. Three capes within that bay are named Lawrence, Shee, and Landseer. Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) and Sir Martin Archer Shee (1769-1850) were among the most notable portrait painters of the day while young Edwin Landseer (1802 - 1873) would make his own contribution to Arctic history in 1864.

Returning to the capes in 'Poctes Bay', and taking Poets as our clue:

Sheridan is easily recognised as the playwright and poet Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751 – 1816)

Landon is surely Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802 – 1838), often referred to by the initials L.E.L., one of the most popular and well-known poets of the 1820s and 1830s.

Rowley may be Thomas Rowley, the pseudonym of Thomas Chatterton (1752 – 1770) forger of pseudo-medieval poetry, the authenticity of which was still debated at the time of The Ross' voyage.

How appropriate then, that an imaginary geographical feature should bear the name of an imaginary poet.


  1. All very interesting, Peter. I can well relate how difficult it can be to deal with geographical place names in the polar regions. In fact, for this very reason, I felt compelled to create a separate appendix in my forthcoming book on the 1850-54 voyage of HMS "Investigator" with some notes on map features.

  2. This all makes sense -- surely "Poets Bay" is a very reasonable conjecture, with much to support it. "Poctes," so far as I have been able to find, is almost nowhere known at the time outside of this chart; as a surname it's extraordinarily scarce, with only three persons -- all Hungarians -- with the name in the entire LDS genealogical database.

    That said, it would be better still if we could have some authority -- some manuscript reference by JC Ross would be ideal! -- I've checked everything I can find, with no luck so far. Some of Ross's journals, but not the detailed one of his westward journey to Victory Point, have been published; the map left by the Rosses at Fury Beach has been published, but has no detailed names.

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  4. Peter, here's a link to an 1859 magazine article which names the place directly y as "Poet's Bay"

  5. Great to hear from you Glenn, and I can't wait to see your new work.

  6. I was wondering how the Beaufort Islands became the Clarence Islands. Thanks for the link. Interesting that Sir John Ross, who never saw the islands turned the three islands mapped by John Clark Ross into eight for political reasons by adding five imaginary ones. Oddly, there actually are more than three Clarence Islands; perhaps as many as eleven, depending on how one defines what is an island and what is a sand bank.

  7. I know that it would be more congruent with the pattern followed if Poctes were another name of a poet, but, it is tempting to think that if the name given to that bay was actually "Poet´s bay" that could be the name of a bay of Italy very well known in England by that time. The place is described in the link below this lines in this way:

    "The land, situated on the coastline between two blue crystal clear bays, had already sparked the attention of the romantic English writers back at the beginning of the 1800's for the intense blue color of its waters and its pink colored sand."

    Perhaps something in the pristine waters of that area inspired some of the Rosses to christen this bay as Poet´s Bay.

    Anyway I don´t know any direct relation between Poet´s bay and any of the Rosses, at least not phisically, who knows if any close acquaintance or relationship of any of both could bring any further clue.

  8. Randall Osczevski28 October 2022 at 14:00

    The 1850 map in John Rae's narrative renders the name as "Poets Bay", not singular, not possessive.


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