Perhaps the fondest dream of early mariners was to discover an all-water passage that would link Europe with the Orient. The existing routes, either around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa or by way of Cape Horn at the tip of South America, were exceedingly long and dangerous. The peril was in part because of severe weather conditions at the capes and in part thanks to the presence of typically hostile Spanish and Portuguese fleets.
Shortly after the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, European navigators began to seek a western route. Prominent in this search were such names as Jacques Cartier, Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real, Sir Martin Frobisher, John Davis, Henry Hudson, and William Baffin.
It was not until the 1850s that Sir Robert McClure discovered a route through the Canadian Arctic. McClure was searching for an earlier lost party and became ice-bound - the relief party searching for him also became trapped.
Urgency behind the search for the passage was tempered by completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, and later by the Panama Canal, in 1914.
Not until 1903-06 did a single ship make the entire trip through the passage. This was accomplished under the leadership of the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. The first successful commercial voyage was made by the ice-breaking tanker SS Manhattan in 1969. This voyage followed the discovery of large oil deposits in Alaska, which influenced the opening of a shorter route to the east coast of the United States.