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Arctic Hell-Ship

The Voyage of HMS Enterprise 1850-1855

In 1850, Richard Collinson captained the HMS Enterprise on a voyage to the Arctic via the Bering Strait in search of the missing Franklin expedition. Arctic Hell-Ship describes the daily progress of this little-known Arctic expedition, and examines the steadily worsening relations between Collinson and his officers. William Barr has based his research on a wide range of original archival documents, and the book is illustrated with a selection of vivid paintings by the ship's assistant surgeon, Edward Adams.

About the Author

William Barr is professor emeritus of Geography, University of Saskatchewan, and a research associate with the Arctic Institute of North America. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.


"I glanced at a couple of pages of Arctic Hell-Ship and became so engrossed in it that I started to read parts of it. What I thought would be an erudite analysis of the journey was, instead, a story 'brought to life'. What a fabulous adventure!" Mr. David Karpeles, Karpeles Manuscript Library

"[A] vivid memoir of Arctic conditions, exploration, and struggles to survive." August, California Bookwatch

"William Barr has brought together official and unofficial accounts of the voyage for the first time. For example, he has the ship's log and other records, officers' diaries and Collinson's own accounts. These together give us a view of life on a 'Hell-Ship' in the Arctic, held together only by Royal Navy discipline. The book is worth reading for this alone. In addition, it contains glimpses of Russian Alaska, of the Inuit and Indians of Alaska and Western Canada and of the orderly and efficient way in which Royal Navy ships were prepared and managed for voyages, lasting years, to any part of the globe....I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Arctic or the Navy." Peter Adams, Peterborough Examiner, Aug 18, 2007.

"Lifetime Achievement Award-winning Canadian historian William Barr presents Arctic Hell-Ship, the story of Richard Collinson's sea voyage to the Arctic in search of the missing Franklin expedition. Collinson and his crew approached the Northwest Passage from the west, hoping to find and rescue the Franklin expedition; yet as time passed, relations between Collinson and his officers deteriorated so badly that three of them spent much of the voyage under arrest, though they were later exonerated of wrongful charges in the UK. A handful of color paintings by the ship's assistant surgeon, Edward Adams, illustrate this absorbing true story of bitter and unpredictable survival on the harsh arctic seas." Wisconsin Bookwatch, October 2007

"Three parts northern exploration and one part The Shining, William Barr's Arctic Hell-Ship tells the astonishing story of the HMS Enterprise..... Barr's compelling account shows a captain who was an oblivious explorer, a lucky navigator, and an unbalanced man....The real strengths of Arctic Hell-Ship are the depth and meticulousness of Barr's research. His judicious inclusion of primary source material, most of it previously unpublished, gives the narrative additional colour and urgency." Jared Bland, The Walrus, November 2007

"The title of this work clues the reader immediately to the author's judgment of Enterprise's captain. Collinson, an officer largely overmatched by his assignment, is revealed as an indecisive martinet....The excellent nature of the primary source scholarship mirrors the care and expense taken to add colour plates of Assistant Surgeon Edward Adams' painting to the volume....The author is an exemplary polar historian.... As for Richard Collinson, he should never have been taken away from his chart table to be put in charge of men on a desperate mission in a remote and hostile landscape." P.J. Capelotti, The Northern Mariner, April 2007

"[T]he book is a useful reminder of the special importance of good leadership under extreme conditions, and -because Barr's sources include unpublished journals and other materials scattered around libraries and private collections-fills a gap in the history of polar exploration and the search for Franklin." Peter Suedfeld, Meridian, Spring, 2008

"Collinson appears to have been a skilled sailor and navigator, as well as being extremely cautious...However, and this is what makes the book particularly interesting (and what made the Enterprise a 'hellship'), Collinson had a personality quirk, to put it mildly, the full extent of which had never come to light until William Barr looked into the unpublished records in Britain. Collinson's journals, which he published in 1889, give a highly sanitized account of his expedition, and in particular his relationship with the officers under his command. Collinson was sensitive to the point of paranoia about criticism or complaint from his officers. Thus, the book is more than a simple tale of Arctic adventure, encounters with Inuit, and dangers from ice and weather: it is a kind of thriller, with Collinson the rigid martinet pushing his officers to the brink of mutiny, the tension building as the reader waits to see whether someone will defuse the situation by pushing the man through a convenient hole in the ice. As with Barr's other books, this one is impeccably edited, tightly written and furnished with useful maps." William R. Morrison, The International History Review, June 2008

"[Richard Collinson] was the man who took HMS Enterprise through Bering Strait, past Point Barrow, and a thousand miles east to Cambridge Bay; skilfully conned the deep-draught ship through the reef-filled and uncharted waters between Victoria Island and the mainland; wintered three times in the Arctic; and returned to England more than five years later, having sailed around the world. In 1889 Admiral Sir George Henry Richards, himself an Arctic veteran, wrote, 'My own view has always been that the voyage of the Enterprise was the most remarkable of all.'.... Barr has brought those mute testimonies to life [partial journals written by Collinson's second master, Francis Skead, and his gunroom steward, Richard Singleton] and used them, in conjunction with Admiralty records such as order books and letter books, to create a more balanced picture of the man and the voyage. What he has discovered is that Collinson carefully excluded a number of incidents from the supposedly complete day-to-day journal that would later become the [official published account of the expedition], so that he would appear in the best possible light.... In addition to the disciplinary incidents that Barr has brought to our attention, the book contains many interesting details about the expedition.... Arctic Hell-Ship is a noteworthy addition to the literature of the Franklin Search, one that provides new facts and insights." W. Gillies Ross, Bishop's University, Polar Record, Volume 44/4, 2008

"What makes this account especially valuable to students of Alaska history are the primary source references which are liberally quoted throughout the main text and make it a source for future researchers in this period....One of the highlights of the book is its illustrations. These include a series of quality paintings of St. Michael by Edward Adams, the ship's assistant surgeon; a view of the Enterprise under sail amid large ice flows off Point Barrow; the ship icebound at Camden Bay on the northern shore of Alaska; and a painting of Native Americans at the mouth of the Yukon....Barr's book is a valuable and well-researched contribution to the early history of Alaska." Michael Jay Mjelde, Alaska History, Spring 2009

"Barr has told a fascinating story here. Drawing on Collinson's writings, Skead's log, and the journal of ship's gunroom steward, Richard Shingleton, he's given us a vivid picture of what must have been a horrific experience. While the Enterprise's crew didn't suffer as severe depredations from the Arctic climate as many other voyagers of that era did, they endured a psychological blizzard at the hands of a tyrannical captain. It was, as the title indicates, a hell-ship." David A. James, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, May 23, 2010 [Full article at: http://tinyurl.com/23qoarc]

"The author has capably drawn together the threads that constitute this story of an expedition that set out with high hopes but ended in failure. He was fortunate that so many records, informal as well as official, have survived. Dr. Barr, an acknowledged authority on the Arctic, is not only a thorough researcher, he is also a skillful writer." Gordon Turner, Canadian Book Review Annual Online, 2007


9780888644725 : arctic-hell-ship-barr
Paperback / softback
332 Pages
$38.99 USD
9780888644824 : arctic-hell-ship-barr
332 Pages
$54.99 USD

Other Titles by William Barr

John Rae, Arctic Explorer

John Rae, edited by William Barr
Jan 2019 - Polynya Press, an imprint of University of Alberta Press
$65.99 USD - Hardback

Red Serge and Polar Bear Pants

William Barr
Dec 2004 - University of Alberta Press
$38.99 USD - Paperback / softback

Other Titles in HISTORY / Canada / Post-Confederation (1867-)

The Riel Problem

Albert Braz
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10 Days That Shaped Modern Canada

Aaron Hughes
Sep 2022 - University of Alberta Press
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The Fur Trader

Einar Odd Mortensen, with Gerd Kjustad Mortensen, edited by Ingrid Urberg, Daniel Sims
Aug 2022 - University of Alberta Press
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