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What is the Northwest Passage?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 23 March 2014
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Roald Amundsen first navigated the Northwest Passage in the early 20th century. It is a sea route in the Arctic Ocean that connects the North Atlantic with the North Pacific Ocean. Prior to Amundsen’s navigation of this route, explorers had dreamed about finding the passage for centuries. When the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts were first explored, explorers theorized there had to be a way to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific by sea. They didn't realize how daunting the task would be, and as Amundsen discovered, how currently useless the sea route is for commercial purposes.

Part of the motivation behind finding the Northwest Passage was to find a way, not owned by a few European countries to Asia. Trade with Asia was lucrative, and importing some of the valuable things like spices and tea meant high costs for those without trade agreements with Asian countries. Early on, Italy controlled much of European trade with Asia. When the New World was discovered, the still strong Catholic presence in Europe prompted the pope to split the New World into ownership between Spain and Portugal. It should also be remembered that early explorers like Columbus set out in search of an Atlantic route to Asia, and Columbus thought he’d found India when he reached the Caribbean.

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Other countries were strongly motivated to find a route to Asia that the pope did not control, in order to save money and make profits on Asian imports that were becoming so prized. Especially England, France, and the Netherlands were fired up with the concept of the Northwest Passage, leading to numerous exploration attempts. Early explorers had considerable naivety when considering an Arctic passage; many didn’t believe that seawater could freeze, so consideration of frozen ocean waters wasn’t a factor.

Early attempts to find the Northwest Passage include explorations dating as far back as the late 1490s. John Cabot, who may have been Italian by birth, was commissioned by English King Henry VII to look for it. Cabot may have reached Newfoundland, and came back reporting that he had found Asia. Sir Francis Drake attempted to find the passage east from the Pacific Ocean, in 1579. Through the 1500s others attempting to find the passage include Jacques Cartier, Martin Frobisher, John Davis and Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

In the early 17th century, Henry Hudson led several expeditions for the Dutch and English. His crew, however, particularly on his last voyage in 1610-1611 was infuriated with him for the delays caused by ice. Hudson planned to continue to sail west once reaching what is now called Hudson Bay, but his crew, upon discovering the plans, abandoned Hudson and his son in the icy waters near Newfoundland. In an earlier expedition, Hudson had tried to find the passage by traveling up the Hudson River, which he actually considered a Southwest passage.

Expeditions and search for the Northwest Passage continued throughout the early history of colonized America and Canada, but it was not until Amundsen’s trip that the passage was successfully navigated. His discovery of the passage made all realize that it wasn’t wide enough or stable enough to create shipping lanes. Further it was only navigable during certain times of the year.

Given the rate of ice melting in the Arctic, many wonder whether the Northwest Passage might become a viable shipping lane at a later point. Such a thought has led to considerable debate about which countries could claim ownership to the passage. Though closest to Canada, both the European Union and the United States have suggested that the passage, if ever passable, should be considered an international strait. To date, the easier route is the Southwest Passage, made viably crossable by the building of the Panama Canal.

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