Captain Robert (Bob) Abram Bartlett captained famous but dangerous and controversial exploratory expeditions in the Arctic for more than 50 years. He traveled to the North Pole more times than any other person of his time. He was shipwrecked at least 12 times. Survived the uninhabitable Arctic for months after sea ice crushed his ship. He traveled hundreds of miles by dog sled to reach safety to save his life. Despite severe discomfort, Bartlett returned to the Arctic whenever conditions permitted and almost always returned with photographs, film reels and scientific data that greatly contributed to understanding the inaccessible world of the north.
Born and Raised in Newfoundland:
Bob Bartlett was born on August 15, 1875 to William and Mary (Lemon) Bartlett. The family lived in Briggs, Newfoundland and Labrador, where Bartlett’s ancestors operated cod and seal fishing vessels for generations. Despite the family’s seafaring heritage, Mary Bartlett wanted her eldest son, Bob, to “grow up, even be a minister”. So in 1891 he was sent to St. John’s Methodist College.
But Bartlett enjoyed going to the ocean and spent every summer vacation fishing with his father. After his second year at school in St. John’s, he returned from the Labrador fishery with a lucrative cargo of cod, operating a fishing vessel called the Osprey. Realizing a career at sea, the 17-year-old left school and took a job as a common seaman on the merchant ship Corisande, which was sailing from St. John’s to Brazil with a shipment of fish. That voyage was Bartlett’s first step towards becoming a Master Mariner, as Master Mariner fame can only be achieved after accumulating considerable experience at sea.
Bartlett spent the next six years on commercial vessels in the fall and winter and on cod/seal fishing vessels in the spring and summer. By the age of 22, he had traveled to Latin America, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean with ships carrying bananas, salt fish, seal oil, coal, and other cargo. After accumulating sufficient experience at sea, Bartlett successfully completed the Master Mariner’s examinations at Halifax in 1898. During this time he was offered a job as a commander on a commercial fishing vessel, but instead accepted an offer from his uncle John Bartlett to work on the ‘Windward’. Which was the lead ship of Robert Peer’s first (North Pole) North Pole expedition. Uncle Bartlett was captain of the Windward and Bob Bartlett became his first mate.
North Pole Expedition:
Bartlett took part in three separate attempts to reach the North Pole over the next 10 years, first with Robert Peary (the discoverer of the North Pole) as his uncle’s companion in the ship Windward in 1898 and then twice in the steel-hulled ship ‘Roosevelt’ (1906-07 and 1908- 09) as captain. The first two expeditions ended in failure due to storms, lack of supplies, and severe ice damage. Even Peary, in an 1898 attempt, lost eight toes to an avalanche.
Undeterred by this disaster, Peary, Bartlett and the other members of the expedition left New York again in July 1908 for a third voyage. They arrived at Ellesmere Island, northwest of Greenland, on September 5 and set off for the Pole by dog sled. Favorable weather aided their progress and by the end of March the team had set up camp just 150 miles from the North Pole.
After arriving at this camp, Peary ordered Bartlett to return south on the first of April. Bartlet broke down mentally at this instruction. He expected to be associated with Peary for the last leg of the journey to the North Pole. But instead, after weeks of dog sledding through the cold and snow, Bartlett had to turn back. “It was a bitter disappointment, I don’t know, maybe I cried a little,” he later told the New York Herald. Peary took fellow explorer Matthew Henson to Bartlett’s place, as Henson was a good sled driver. Peary mentioned in his 1909 publication The North Pole.
This time the party continued north without Bartlett and reported reaching The Pole on April 6. Peary’s declaration caused much skepticism in the scientific community because he did not produce any data (scientific facts) to support his claims. Many criticized Peary for not taking a navigator like Bartlett to the Pole, who would have been able to provide scientific evidence for his claims. Because Bartlett kept a log all the time and was adept at collecting all kinds of scientific data. Bartlett, on the other hand, was always on Peary’s side, and in his 1928 ‘Log of Bob Bartlett’ stated that “Pierre’s arguments were sound; and I never contradicted him” (Bartlett’s Log 163).
A hunting trip:
Bartlett received many honors and awards for his third trip to the North Arctic, including the prestigious Hubbard Medal for Arctic Exploration, named after ‘Gardiner Greene Hubbard’, who was the first president of the National Geographic Society. Bartlett spent most of 1910 on a speaking tour of Europe, where he accepted an offer from billionaires Harry Whitney and Paul Rainey to lead a fourth expedition to the Arctic. Unlike previous voyages, this was not a scientific or exploratory expedition—it was a hunting trip.
Harry Whitney and Paul Rainey brought over 100,000 rounds of ammunition with them on their journey to the Arctic, and in one summer 59 polar bears and even more musk oxen, walruses and caribou. (large deer of polar region) killed. Bartlett’s biographer Harold Horwood complained that the expedition “helped the herds of that part of the Arctic to decline and probably did permanent damage to nature.”
Although Bartlet did his best to keep the hunters at bay as much as possible, he seemed to appreciate their approach. “I don’t know if you would exactly call it a hunt, but the two hunters were certainly busy,” Bartlett wrote of A Shooting Spree in his 1928 log. “The hunters wasted no time in taking photographs or keeping diaries. They were on deck all day and night with their guns pointed. They fired at whatever animal’s legs or fins came in sight” (Bartlett Log 251).
In the summer of 1913, Bartlett returned to the Arctic as part of a scientific expedition when explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson asked him to lead the Karluk, the flagship of the government-sponsored Canadian Arctic Expedition, with 10 Canadian scientists also on board. (This campaign was written extensively in Banglamail last week.)
After World War I:
After returning to North America after the war, Bartlett successfully applied for US citizenship, hoping that it would be easier to obtain funding for an Arctic expedition from wealthy American supporters. For the rest of his life, Bartlett intended to divide most of his time between New York City, Newfoundland, and the Arctic.
During World War I he worked for the United States Army Transport Command, transporting troops and supplies by ship and ferry between American ports. He also served briefly as a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. where he helps rescue an American ship stuck in ice in the St. Lawrence River. However, Bartlett did not feel happy about his military service, and expressed frustration that there was much more he could have done. “I regret to say that I was not one of the thousands of brave Newfoundlanders who died in the trenches,” he wrote in his log (Bartlett, Log 263).
After the war Bartlett spent days in a depression when he was unable to secure sufficient funding for another Arctic expedition. Although a self-proclaimed teetotaler, he began drinking heavily during this period and led, in his own words, a haphazard life, moving from party to party, his adventures in the Arctic in return for free dinners and stories. took alcohol. The aimless life continued until 1924, when Bartlett was fatally struck by a laundry wagon on the streets of New York City, spending three months in the hospital. After recovering, Bartlet never drank again.
The following year Bartlett’s wealthy friend James B. Ford ships him to Effie. M. Morris bought and from 1926 until the start of World War II, Bartlett made 14 trips to the Arctic. Apart from the 1932 voyage to erect a monument to Peary in Greenland, all of Bartlett’s voyages were for scientific purposes and funded by organizations such as the Smithsonian Institute, the American Museum of Natural History, and the New York Botanical Garden.
In recognition of the special educational potential of the material obtained from his expeditions, Bartlett donated millions of Arctic photographs, specimens to various universities, scientific institutions and museums. These include whale skeletons, water quality samples and a variety of flora and fauna. He arranged for a photographer to accompany him on most Arctic voyages. He built up an invaluable collection of stills and film reels of the Arctic.
Nothing so satisfying as the sea : Bartlett
Bartlett’s ship Morris was used by the American government for work in the Arctic during World War II. Although Bartlett was 65, he considered retirement, but volunteered to serve as the ship’s captain until the end of the war. From 1940 to 1945, he navigated Greenland and Hudson Bay aboard the ship Morris, securing supplies to various bases in the Arctic and making routes through ice fields for rapid communication with larger ships.
After the war ended, however, the American government relieved Morris of his military duties and Bartlett returned to New York. By then he was 70 years old and had visited the Arctic more than 20 times and won various international awards and honors. He published numerous articles in National Geographic and other periodicals, as well as writing three books: The Carluke’s Last Voyage (1916), The Log of Bob Bartlett (1928) and Sail Over Ice (1934). He also starred in director Varick Frisell’s 1931 film The Viking.