While there were certainly marine activities in the approaches to the NW Passages in the pre-Colombian ages, the true search for a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, north around Canada was stimulated by the Treat of Tordesillas in 1494, two years after Columbus first "discovered" the Americas. In this treaty, Pope Alexander VI, divided the world beyond Europe between Spain and Portugal, effectively cutting off northern European access to China and the Spice Islands.
Almost immediately the King of England funded exploration of alternative routes and in 1497-98, John Cabot made voyages of discovery to the East Coast of N. America and Greenland. He is credited with the discovery of Newfoundland on one of these voyages.
Cabot was followed by a long line of others who explored for the NW passage and who have left their names in the geography of the north. Frobisher, Davis, Hudson, Baffin, Franklin, M’Clintock, and M’Clure all attempted to find a sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Further, Drake and Cook centuries apart attempted to find the Pacific end of the Passage without success. The passage was not successfully transited until Amundsen did so over a three-year period completing his transit in 1906, in his ship GJOA, but Larsen in the RCM schooner ST. ROCH made the first true non-stop voyage.
Today the idea of using the NW Passage as a commercial route between the Atlantic and the Pacific basins is unattractive, but increasing ship traffic in these waters is being seen with cruise ships, polar research ships, government resupply ships and ships carrying cargo from mining sites in the north.
This paper will give some history of the ships that have been used over the last six centuries of exploration for and navigation in the NW Passages, and will suggest that some of the hard-won experiences gained are still relevant today.