Posts Tagged ‘Exploration’

Arctic exploitation stopped in Nunavut!

August 11, 2010

Arctic exploration stopped

By BRIAN LILLEY, Parliamentary Bureau

OTTAWA – Attempts to explore the contents of the earth below Canada’s Arctic waters near Lancaster Sound have been put on hold by a Nunavut judge.

The joint project of the federal government’s natural resources department and the German Alfred Wegner Institute for Polar and Marine Research was supposed to begin as early as this week.

The plan was to use seismic testing, which involves blasting sound waves off of the earth below the sea to map out what lies below the waters.

Two agencies of the Nunavut government had signed off on the testing but not everyone was happy. Some Inuit groups and environmentalists opposed the testing, claiming it could damage wildlife in the area.

In a ruling issued Sunday, Justice Sue Cooper agreed and granted an injunction.

Cooper sided with those seeking the injunction who argued that the air guns used to blast sound waves through the water would damage the hearing of marine mammals.

Cooper’s decision notes that there are protocols in place to lessen the impact of hearing loss, with the judge saying the fact that such protocols exist means there could be an impact on wildlife and the food supply of the Inuit communities near the testing.

“On the whole of the evidence presented, I am satisfied that Inuit in the five affected communities will suffer irreparable harm if an injunction is not granted,” the decision reads.

Primus in Antarctica – passages from Roland Huntfords “Scott and Amundsen”

February 20, 2010

27-01-10 11:14 AM – Post#142031

Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford
Hodder & Stoughton 1979

Also published in 1985 and thereafter under the name “The Last Place on Earth” after the title of the series produced for Central TV. Currently available in the original title in soft cover via…

p 307

There was on board a seaman called Ludvig Hansen, who had been selected for his skill as a tinsmith. A fortnight out of Funchal, he started making paraffin tanks for the sledging journeys.

On the North-West Passage, Amundsen had observed that paraffin has a capacity to “creep”. Tins left in depots were inexplicably depleted after a few weeks, something to do with the behaviour of petroleum products at low temperatures. Then it had merely been an annoyance, but in the sterile fastnesses of the south, it might be a matter of life and death. Thus warned, Amundsen decided to have tanks specially made up from galvanised iron sheet. To make them absolutely tight, all seams were to be brazed, and the contents eventually sealed in by soldering the spout. Hansen made ten tanks in all, holding fifteen litres each.

Amundsen refused to entrust his work to a commercial enterprise. He could only trust the workmanship, if it was in the hands of someone spurred on by the knowledge that on his skill and conscientiousness depended the lives of his companions. The faith in detail; the knowledge that every little item of equipment can be trusted absolutely, is an essential part of the psychological armour in a hostile environment. Doubt is a dangerous travelling companion.

On the heaving deck, Nodtvedt, the second engineer, a skilled blacksmith, set up his forge and, off watch, produced countless gadgets, like patent shackles for the dog harnesses.
There was a reason for this uncharacteristic flurry. For his original Polar drift, Amundsen intended having much of his sledging equipment made on board during the long winters in the ice. He could not alter this without giving himself away. Instead of pleasant immobility in the pack, his craftsmen now had to work on a ship that everlastingly lurched and rolled in the ocean swell. But at least the voyage was now filled with useful work, creating a mood of urgency and purpose from the start.

P 352

Amundsen had viewed the way Scott and Shackleton marked their depots as verging on criminal negligence. That, too, he pro¬posed to avoid. The problem was an awkward and vital one in a featureless desert. The method he adopted was a line of black pennants on short sticks running east-west across the course. Twenty were laid out half a mile apart; ten on each side of the depot, making a transverse marking often miles in all. This was well within any conceivable instrumental error, so that even in thick weather, the chances of missing a pennant were small. Each pennant was numbered, giving the distance and bearing of the depot.

Onwards from the 80th parallel the temperature dropped to 30-40 degrees (C.) of frost. The difficulty, as in most skiing, was not freezing, but sweating. Running with the dogs, they were kept all too warm. In deep cold, sweat condenses in its passage through the clothing, forming a deposit of rime, which then melts with horrible discomfort. Amundsen had to sit up late, drying his Netsilik reindeer fur kamikks over the Primus stove. But there are no complaints of feeling cold, which suggests that food (especially the supply of Vitamin C) was in order.

On March 3rd, they reached the 81st parallel, or to be precise, 81° 1′. There they put up the next depot, containing half a ton of dog pemmican. Hassel, Bjaaland and Stubberud then turned home. Amundsen, Prestrud, Helmer Hanssen, Wisting and Johansen continued south to try to get to 83°.

Until 81°, the going had been reasonable. The animals were tired and hungry, but willing. The only casualty was Odin, one of Amundsen’s dogs, chafed by an ill-fitting harness. He was put on a sledge and sent home tale. Johansen’s diary for March 6th sums it up: with the returning party.

P 383

There, in a snow cave, with a few boards laid on a snow shelf for a workbench, Bjaaland turned out his little masterpieces of the ski and sledge-maker’s art. The wood he used was hickory; tough, pliable, well seasoned; the same hickory that Amundsen had so prudently bought in Pensacola a decade before* With primus stoves and tin plate from old paraffin tins, Bjaaland made the steaming chamber to bend the runners. In another workshop, Wisting and Helmer Hanssen assembled the sledges with rawhide lashings. This is a little craft in itself; upon it depends the elasticity of the sledge, and hence the ease of running. Helmer Hanssen, who had driven sledges for thousands of miles had the particular touch for this work; he knew how a sledge ought to behave.

The old Fram sledges were adapted to difficult ice, Bjaaland’s for speed on level snow. The former were intended for the glaciers leading to the Polar plateau. Once that climb was over and mobility was at a premium, they would be depoted, and Bjaaland’s light¬weight models would continue. These weighed twenty-four kilos to the renovated Fram models’ thirty-five, and Hagen’s seventy-five. Bjaaland also prepared two pairs of skis for each man, one for running, and one in reserve, to be stowed on the sledges. The work was finished by July 20th.

In deep cold, Amundsen wrote with his wry humour, “if one is not properly shod, one can soon be without feet, and then, you see, it’s too late to shoe yourself properly”.
For the third time the ski boots, having still proved too small, were eviscerated and enlarged with a wedge in the toecap – each man his own cobbler – emerging big enough for two Eskimo reindeer fur socks, plenty of sennegrass, a thick woollen sock with space to move the feet inside, essential to avoid freezing. The original stiff canvas uppers were now replaced with thinner material. After almost two years, the original concept appeared finally to have been realised, and a boot emerged that was rigid enough to control the skis and be used with crampons, but flexible enough not to impede the raising of the heel or (it was hoped) to constrict the circulation.

Because of all the work, recreation was necessarily limited. Prestrud gave an optional English course to a few of the men, teaching in the kitchen to avoid disturbing the others. Bjaaland started making a violin, but found that he did not have enough free time to finish it in the course of the winter. In the end, he took it back to Norway, where it was finished by a professional craftsman, and turned out to be a very good instrument.

For the rest, there was a little reading – mostly Polar literature, of which a small but comprehensive library had been brought – some desultory card playing and, craze of the early winter, darts. This game was new to most of them; a present from Malfred, Gustav Amundsen’s wife. Amundsen organised a competition, presenting a pocket chronometer as prize.

To prevent ennui, Amundsen broke the weekly routine with little occasions to look forward to. On weekdays, there was no drinking with meals, but every Saturday there was hot brandy toddy, every Sunday, holiday and birthday, aquavit for dinner. The idea was partly to nip quarrels in the bud: among Scandinavians there is a ritual significance in drinking spirits. The skdl is a pledge of friend¬ship.

Saturday was sauna night. That, too, was a kind of ritual; a ceremonial cleansing of body and spirit. A small sauna had been rigged up in an igloo, heat and steam provided by two Primus stoves under a metal tray. A naked sprint through an icy communication tunnel in the Barrier to the hut did duty for the obligatory rolling in the snow.

In many ways, circumstances favoured Amundsen in his concern for morale. Although most of his men lived in towns, they were still Northern country-dwellers under the imperfectly urbanised surface; men of simple tastes, adapted to isolated habitation and, indeed, without being recluses seeking isolation as relaxation and uplift. In their separate workshops under the snow, they were alone for much of the day, so that by evening they were positively glad to see the old, familiar faces. And the dogs were always there as a diversion, as they banished monotony on the march.

Each man had fourteen or fifteen dogs to tend and feed- seal meat (and blubber) and stockfish on alternate days. By midwinter they were fed up with stockfish.

p 415

The party swinging southwards into the drift, slowly rising and falling as they followed the undulations of the Barrier, like a squad¬ron of warships speeding over the swell, represented the culmination of an era. The men were clad in Eskimo garments, the dogs tearing away with them over the snow were harnessed in Eskimo fashion; but the sledges, the skis, the food waiting at 80° South, the sextants and Primus stoves, tents and all the impedimenta, were the products of Western ingenuity. It was the marriage of civilisation and a primitive culture. The technique was already on the point of obsolescence. Aircraft and tractors were waiting in the wings. This was the last classic journey in the old style; and it was to end the era of terrestrial exploration that began with the explosion of the human spirit during the Renaissance.
Everything turned on the personal quality of the men riding placidly on their sledges towards the south. They were the best of their kind; embodying a formidable combination of physical and mental qualities. They were tough, resourceful, inured to cold. But, beyond that, they had been through their trial; weaknesses had been ruthlessly eliminated. They now unreservedly accepted Amundsen’s leadership, since he had shown himself in command. Once their dogs had been hitched to the sledges and fanned out in full cry, the
dismal atmosphere of Framheim was swept away by a gale of action and self-confidence. It was a small, cohesive undivided party now speeding over the snow, hurrying to the attack, this time with an indefinable sense that the gods were with them. They were soon required to put this confidence to the test.

P 436
Forty-five dogs were now left, pulling just under eighty pounds each. They scampered off, the sledges coming away easily; and hour after hour they moved in their tireless trot, tails in an upward curve, and accompanied by the nostalgic sounds of panting breath, paws pattering, the quiet creak of the sledge and the silk-like rustle of skis on powder snow.

Amundsen deliberately selected the intervals between the cairns to rest his animals every hour. Dogs need frequent rests to preserve stamina; they work best in a succession of sprints. So do their drivers, at least if they happen to have the Norwegian temperament. Amundsen had got his animals and his men working in tune.

They followed a routine devised for economy of effort. When they stopped for the day, the tent was first unloaded. Amundsen would then crawl inside, erect it with the single pole and while his companions drove in the pegs and arranged the guys outside, he got the Primus going and started supper. Getting the food was a matter of opening the small lid of a provision case like a tea canister; the sledges were left permanently lashed and loaded.* The dogs were unhitched, fed with their pound of pemmican and allowed to roam free until harnessed the next day — the best for their comfort. Bjaaland then detached the ski bindings, bringing them into the tent for the night to avoid their disappearing into the dogs’ stomachs: the Eskimo dog will devour anything. A low snow wall was thrown up to stop the dogs urinating on the fabric of the tent. In an hour, camp was made, men and animals fed.

Under Amundsen, each sledge-driver was responsible for the supplies he was carrying, keeping a precise tally in a combined provision and navigation book as each meal was served. This meticulous accounting was absent from the British expedition, with fateful results.

In their tent at night, the Norwegians were silent, not from surliness, but because it was their nature. The evening meal was eaten quietly; the roar of the Primus, the dull clink of pemmican being scooped out of the saucepan, broken only by an occasional remark.
Bjaaland was the chatterbox; as in the dark days at Framheim; he brought a touch of humour to the tent.
“It’ll be Dad himself who first sees the mountains!” he said, in his idiosyncratic way, the day after leaving 82 degrees.
“Why do you think that?” asked Amundsen, with a glint in his eye. “Because you are so ridiculously tall”.

P 450

But the sheer scale of things discouraged scouting. Even with dogs, it would have taken days to move from the mouth of one glacier to another. The contours were so broken that, from where Amundsen stood, all directions seemed equally impenetrable. He could afford to look neither to right nor left. He had no guarantee that another route existed. The only realistic alternative was forwards.
“Men are the doubtful quantities in the Antarctic”, Amundsen liked to say. The Norwegian character is not adapted to defence or holding ground; it must attack or give way. Amundsen took a risk going up the Axel Heiberg Glacier. He would have taken a bigger risk not to, because he might have demoralised his men. They were not made to linger in uncertainty. They had to ride on their momen¬tum or they were lost. They were happier carrying the ice falls by storm. And, in the event, the Axel Heiberg, with its short, concentrated strain, matched the Norwegian temperament. Amundsen had surmounted his chief obstacle in the style that became him best.
He was in no doubt to whom the credit was due. “It was a sheer marvel, . . that the dogs accomplished today,” he wrote in his diary on the evening of November 21st, at the edge of the Plateau, “17 miles, with 5,000 ft. climb. Come and say that dogs cannot be used here.”
As soon as they arrived, the dogs were put down. Each man shot his own – that had been agreed. Amundsen, having no team of his own, was excused. As usual, being cook, he was first into the tent. But
what went faster that evening than usual was to get the Primus going and pump it to high pressure. I hoped in that way to make the most noise possible and avoid hearing the many shots that soon would sound . . .
It was hard, but it had to be. We had agreed to stop at nothing to reach our goal . . . There went the first shot. I am not nervous, but I admit, that I started. Shot now followed shot – it sounded gruesome over the wastes. A faithful servant lost his life for each shot . . . The festive mood which should have reigned in the tent that evening – the first on the plateau – did not come. There was something oppressive, miserable in the air; we had grown so fond of our dogs. The place was called “The Butcher’s Shop”.37
At least Amundsen made no attempt at self-delusion, nor did he resort to sentimental cant. He faced the fact that, for his own ambitions, certain creatures had to pay the price. He could also truthfully say that, from the moment they arrived at Kristiansand from Greenland, eighteen months ago, his “faithful servants” had lived a good life. They had eaten, slept, made love and drunk to their hearts content.

P 457

The next day, December 2nd, Amundsen described how
the plateau over which we are now travelling resembles a frozen sea – a domed cupola of ice … excellent going for a skater, but unfortunately unsuitable for our dogs and ourselves. I drag myself with my sticks ahead on skis. It is not easy. The dog drivers are without skis, at the side of their sledges, ready to help the animals.

Bjaaland solemnly headed his diary that day, “The Devil’s Nameday”. Besides the assortment of other miseries, they were travelling in the teeth of a Force 7 gale, with thick snow and drift so that
we couldn’t see in front of our nose tips, and our faces were white and hard as wax candles . . . Wisting’s jaw looks like the snout of a Jersey cow. Helmer [Hanssen] has thick scabs [from frostbite] and skin as rough as a file. It was a damned hard day, the hounds slid on the ice, and stopped when the sledges hit a sastrugi, but we forced our way 13 miles against the . . . wind which burned like a flame, oh, oh what a life.46
Looking back, Amundsen chose “The Devil’s Nameday” to por¬tray a typical picture of tent life:
“It was a Saturday evening. . . Outside the Sou’Easter howled [but inside] it looks cosy enough. The innermost half is occupied by 3 sleeping bags. The respective owners have found it most conve¬nient … to go to bed . . . nearest the entrance . . . Wisting and Hanssen are still up. Hanssen is cook . . . Wisting is his sworn friend and helper . . . Hanssen appears to be a careful cook. He doesn’t like to scorch the food. The spoon goes round uninterruptedly in the contents of the saucepan . . . cups are filled with [piping hot] pemmican [which] disappears with amazing speed [and then] everyone clamours for ice cold water [which] disappears in vast quantities . . . the Primus roars gently during the whole meal, and the temperature in the tent is quite pleasant. After the meal . . . the polar travellers are observed to tidy themselves for the coming Sunday. Beards are cut short with clippers every Saturday evening . . . Lumps of ice easily form on a beard. For me, a beard on such a journey seems quite as impractical and uncomfortable as, for example, to walk with top hats on your legs.47

P 502

Reaching the depot, they loaded the contents on to the sledge, after first giving their dogs a double ration of pemmican, and eating a little chocolate themselves. Without delay, they then began the return journey which, as Bjaaland said, “went like a bomb. . . .After 10 hours on the march we were back at the camp [and] now we are rich in provisions.”
Amundsen stayed up the whole time waiting for them, restlessly prowling up and down in the snow, watching the weather anxiously, searching the distance with his telescope, unable to rest. When, at last, he saw them reappear on the crest of a frozen wave he rushed into the tent to wake Hassel and Wisting, who had prudently turned in. “They must have found the depot,” he said, unusually excited, “for neither is sitting on the sledge. They’ve got something else to carry on it.” He immediately started the Primus in order to melt snow, so that there was plenty of water ready to slake their thirst, and then to boil up the pemmican, for they would surely be ravenous. He was beaming when they arrived, and insisted on taking care of their dogs.

Bjaaland and Helmer Hanssen, he recorded, had done forty-two miles with no rest and very little food “at an average speed of 3 miles an hour! Come and say that dogs are useless in this terrain.”

Now it was about five days to the next depot, and Amundsen had ten days’ food for men and dogs, besides emergency reserves. He was, as he put it, “on the right footing” again.

He now discovered why he had been lost. Through some error of navigation, he had been one and a half points (17 degrees) off course. But that had been a blessing in disguise, since it had steered him away from land, and led him to the easy crossing of the Devil’s Glacier. With a rational explanation, Amundsen was calm again.

He now had to make for the Butcher’s Shop, and find the start of his route down the Axel Heiberg Glacier. He had an urgent desire to see around him when he did so. Since the weather now was fine, he logically made a dash while the going was good.

Posted by user “Snowgoose” on Classic Camp Stoves -online resource for the stove collector & enthusiast

Interactive map of the Antarctic: browse and download recent satellite images

February 15, 2010

British Antarctic Survey

As the Antarctic field season continues with the usual mix of exciting research programmes new enhancements to the online satellite image system that improves ship safety and efficiency are launched.
The Polar View sea ice service, coordinated by the British Antarctic Survey, has greatly improved the service for the 2009/2010 Antarctic season. A combination of easier access through the new website and a significant increase in the number of images available means more real time sea ice information. The range of users of this service continues to expand, encompassing everything from science vessels to tour ships to those coordinating rescue efforts.

The new website ( now provides an interactive map displaying the latest imagery and sea ice information. Simple tools allow users to zoom into their area of interest and see recent cloud free satellite imagery from the European Space Agency. In combination with other information provided by partners in Denmark and Germany, anyone can access an up to date picture of current sea ice conditions, even on ships with limited internet access.

Thanks to the frequent satellite images being acquired for the European MyOcean project, users of the Polar View service benefit from refreshed sea ice information at least every three days. Keep an eye on the website for updates about new services in the pipeline. As well as easier access to sea ice drift information and iceberg locations, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute will shortly begin delivery of interpreted ice charts. All of which make for a more comprehensive sea ice service. British Antarctic Survey   5:26 AM Wed 10 Feb 2010 GMT

Original article here

The Arctic heart of darkness: How heroic lies replaced hideous reality after the grim death of John Franklin

January 18, 2010

November 11, 2009 Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
On November 15, 1866, a statue of the explorer Sir John Franklin was unveiled in Waterloo Place before a large crowd of well-wishers. When they heard that “to all future times the name of Franklin would be treasured among the greatest and bravest of those naval heroes of whose glory and memories England was so justly proud”, there was enthusiastic applause.
From The Times Literary Supplement

For many of those present, a statue would have seemed like a natural choice to commemorate someone who had died in the Arctic. It was popularly assumed that being frozen to death was a gentle way to go, swaddled by snow and glazed over by ice, and that it left the corpse majestically unchanged by time, to become one of the “statues sculptured in the icy rock” Dickens refers to in his 1857 prologue to The Frozen Deep. For Franklin’s grieving widow, however, the ceremony represented a monumental full stop. After two decades of campaigning, first to rescue her husband, after his ships Terror and Erebus disappeared in 1845 while attempting to discover a navigable route over the top of North America, and then to rescue his reputation once it became clear that he was dead, here at last was tangible proof of Franklin’s heroic stature. In life a podgy, balding man of middling height, in death he was transformed into a firm-jawed figure eight feet tall, perched on top of an imposing granite plinth, and surrounded by railings to protect him from the sticky fingers of “mischievous boys and others”.
The statue put Franklin at the heart of those restless, rummaging Victorian attempts to subdue the wild edges of the world to some kind of order. On the base of the plinth, his men are depicted in a relief panel standing in pious, disciplined rows as he is buried, and a motto asserts their claim to have discovered the final piece in the navigational jigsaw puzzle of the Northwest Passage: “They Forged the Last Link with their Lives”. That was at best wishful thinking, but their status as national heroes relied less on what they had achieved than on what they had come to represent. In discovering man’s physical limits, they had also demonstrated that no environment was hostile enough to destroy the toughest fibres of his moral being, such as courage, duty and loving fellowship. In sacrificing themselves for the greater good, they had discovered a greater idea of goodness.
The problem with this heart-warming version of Franklin’s last expedition is that it bears little relation to what really happened. “From concept to motto”, argues Andrew Lambert in his revisionist biography, “the monument was a lie”. The truth was far nastier. According to a scribbled note left in a cairn on the remote northwest corner of King William Island, Franklin had died on June 11, 1847, after his ships had been frozen in the pack ice for nine months. On April 22, 1848, with no prospect of a thaw, the surviving officers decided to abandon their icy wooden coffins and lead more than a hundred men on a march towards the distant Great Fish River. Weakened by hunger and scurvy, they may have known that there was no realistic prospect of reaching it. Even dragging sledges weighing up to 1,400 pounds, they could only carry enough supplies for around forty days, less than half of what they needed to survive. It was a death march.
As they inched their way across a bleached landscape of thrusting cliffs and greedy crevasses, Franklin’s men dropped dozens of small memorials: watches, cutlery, books, still-loaded guns. For Captain Francis McClintock, one of the many would-be rescuers encouraged by the indefatigable Lady Franklin, they were at once clues and relics. However, as he quickly discovered, any attempt to retrieve some kind of meaning from this scattered trail was complicated by the other objects that studded the landscape: the men’s corpses. Some had simply been abandoned, like the skeleton still dressed in a neckerchief neatly tied in a “loose bow-knot”, who had “fallen on his face in the position in which we found him”. Others had not been entirely left behind. Near two skeletons found in a boat was a scattering of human bones that had been cut with steel knives. Despite some nervous attempts to blame the local Inuit population, not least by Dickens in a shrilly racist article published in Household Words, the evidence was clear: whether through choice or necessity, the survivors had turned to cannibalism.
“These men were hungry”, Lambert writes with some relish, “and they did not waste anything.” The fingers were defleshed, the larger bones were cracked open to get at the marrow, and the skulls of the skeletons in the boat were missing, indicating that they had been carried off so that the nutritious brains could be consumed later, a grotesque form of takeaway. Lambert estimates that forty or fifty sailors were eaten by their comrades. As he points out, “We do not know if they killed the living, picking out the weak, the young and the expendable, or whether they confined their attentions to the dead”. Either way, such scenes are far removed from those shown on the base of Franklin’s statue. If anything they are closer to another artwork inspired by the expedition, Edwin Landseer’s painting “Man Proposes, God Disposes”, which depicts the fragments of civilization surrounding an icy wreck (a tattered uniform here, a battered telescope there) and a polar bear crunching contentedly on a human ribcage. The only difference between this scene and the real events is that the savage side of nature turned out to be inside Franklin’s men all along. Their voyage into the sunless Arctic winter had become a real-life version of Heart of Darkness.
Franklin’s expedition was also one of the final chapters in a much longer story of the struggle to subdue that bleak corner of the world, not only by mapping it accurately – conquest through cartography – but also by filling it with meaning. For centuries the Arctic had been a blank sheet of paper on which different themes could be written. Its emptiness made it a good laboratory for testing imported cultural ideas of purity and the sublime, but it was most hospitable to stories that blurred where fact ended and fantasy began. The published accounts of explorers were especially susceptible to romance, even when they had spent months doing nothing more exciting than recording scientific data and eating dried biscuits. Perhaps appropriately for an environment where the boundary between ice and water was always shifting, even the most stolid of these accounts frequently came close to dissolving into myth.
The most persistent myth of all was the existence of the Northwest Passage, a trade route that it was hoped would act as a short cut between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, and lead to fame and fortune for whoever discovered it. In the end it turned out that there were several ways through an unpredictable maze of channels, although they were only navigable for a few weeks of the year, and so not commercially viable before the arrival of ice-breakers, which allowed sailors to smash their way through obstacles rather than carefully navigate around them. Until then the Northwest Passage was an invitation to dream and scheme, although the practical difficulties did not prevent earlier explorers from fighting their way north in wooden sailing vessels which, when they became trapped, proved to be as vulnerable as a walnut shell in a vice. Nor did it prevent them from peddling their own brand of wishful thinking, such as the theory that the further north one travelled, the warmer the sea became.
The nineteenth century was an especially rich period for such stories, as the Arctic settled into the public mind as a place that was both otherworldly and somehow strangely British, the natural home of the stiff upper lip. Franklin’s expedition alone produced such poetic responses as Chandos Abrahall’s Arctic Enterprise (1856), Erasmus Brodie’s Euthanasia (1857), Swinburne’s “The Death of Sir John Franklin” (1860), and an epitaph written by Tennyson for Franklin’s Westminster Abbey monument, which turned him into a contemporary Ulysses who had striven, sought, found, and still not yielded:
Not here! The white North has thy bones; and thou
Heroic sailor-soul,
Art passing on thine happier voyage now
Toward no earthly pole.
Some of these cultural responses were as artificial as Arctic Roll: the Franklin Gallery, for example, a central part of the Royal Naval Exhibition at Chelsea Hospital in 1891, featured a house-sized “iceberg” complete with fake polar bears and twinkling electric lights designed to replicate the aurora borealis. But even as cartographers continued to chip away at the map’s remaining blank spaces, few people were prepared to acknowledge that the real unknown lay closer to home. Franklin’s men did not have to eat each other to discover how whisper-thin the veneer of civilization was. (Darwin might have appreciated the name of the tug chosen to tow their transport ship out to sea: HMS Monkey.) Even expeditions that started off with the intention of bringing culture to this chilly wilderness – amateur dramatics for the officers, education for the ranks, and compulsory religious services for all – found themselves limping home, disfigured by frostbite and haunted by the screams of men driven mad by darkness and solitude.
The search for the Northwest Passage concentrated such disappointments, because as Glyn Williams points out in his superb history of the quest for this aquatic prize, “No episode in the history of oceanic enterprise offers a greater contrast between anticipation and disillusionment”. One explorer after another had his hopes raised and then dashed. During the 1570s, Martin Frobisher brought back 1,250 tons of rocks containing material that “altogether sparkled, and glister in the Sunne like Gold”. The result of this “madcap treasure hunt” was a series of expensive furnaces built at Dartford, and a large pile of iron pyrites, or “fool’s gold”, which was eventually used to build walls and repair roads. It can still be seen glinting mockingly in the Kent sun. Worse yet was to come. In 1716, James Knight examined some Chipewyan Indians, and convinced himself that they knew of a river on whose banks lay “Great Quantitys of pure Virgin Copper lumps of it so bigg that three or 4 Men cant lift it”. Instead, he and his crew ended up in a place the Inuit renamed “Dead Man’s Island”.
This was far from being the only disaster commemorated on the Arctic map. Terror Bay, Starvation Cove, Bloody Fall, Repulse Bay: rarely can such messy human stories have been squeezed into such a neat set of labels. Nor was the construction of this map at all straightforward. The title of Williams’s book compares the search for the Passage to being stuck in a labyrinth, but labyrinths have solid walls; the key problem with Arctic seas, as Williams notes, was that the ice unpredictably hardened or melted to slush. Within days a stretch of open water could become a dead end; a natural harbour could transform itself from a refuge into a trap.
Franklin might seem an unlikely person to have sought these dangers out. His first attempt at an overland Arctic expedition in 1819–22 had become a byword for horror, after he and his men were forced to eat rock lichen and their own shoe leather in order to survive; having written a bestselling account of his journey, he became known as “The man who ate his boots”. There were accusations of cannibalism then, too, although in this case the offender was shot. In fact, the spectre of cannibalism seems to have trailed Franklin like a shadow: in 1836 he became lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land in Australia, where in 1822 a party of convicts had escaped into the bush and ended up eating each other. (Two years later one of the convicts escaped again and ate his companion; this time he was hanged.) Clearly Franklin was made of strong stuff, but he was also sensitive, modest and religious – qualities that were not always shared by those around him. During one factory visit the female convicts showed how boring they found being preached at by turning their backs, lifting their skirts, and smacking their bare bottoms at the official party.
Lambert’s biography is good on these details of Franklin’s career, and generous in showing how they contributed to his public image before he took up his final, fatal command. In some ways he is too generous. To describe Franklin as a “Tragic Hero” suggests that he was something more than a man who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the book does not give strong grounds for thinking of him as a hero in the familiar tragic mould. “Franklin’s culture, science and humanity transformed the colony . . . . Franklin’s enlightened, benevolent and charismatic government . . . . Franklin’s businesslike work habits, insight and powers of expression”: all these examples come on the same page, but they speak of a good civil servant rather than a figure of tragic grandeur.
Of course, overstatement is a natural rhetorical mode for biography, particularly when the author is attempting to clean off the dust that has accumulated on his subject over the years, but too often here it leads to prose so pumped up that arguments are distended out of proportion to the evidence. Sometimes this is just a matter of slack editing, as when the scientist Edward Sabine is described as a savant who “was quite literally forced out of office”, or we are told that the Franklin story “retains the power to deprive grown men of their wits”, and then a few pages later that it “has the power to deprive grown men of their reason”. Some ideas are repeated so often that they take on a strangely self-scrutinizing quality, as if even the author wasn’t entirely convinced: “There can be no doubt that magnetic science was the key to the expedition . . . . the key ‘exploration’ task was linked to the magnetic pole . . . . Magnetic science dominated the genesis and direction of the Franklin expedition . . . . magnetic science dominated the mission”. Lambert’s stress on the scientific work that Franklin was asked to undertake is a valuable corrective to the Boy’s Own narrative that has come to dominate the explorer’s life, but by the time we reach his conclusion, which is that the heroic myth promoted by Lady Franklin “warped the mindset of an age” and “transformed the newly enfranchised working classes into willing cannon-fodder” for the Great War, the over-writing is sadly symptomatic of a book that has lost its way.
This is especially unfortunate given the book’s powerful opening, in which Lambert describes a research trip to the “cold hell” of King William Island (the word “cold” exhausts synonyms as it shivers through his account) during which he experiences the effort it takes merely to stay alive in such a desolate place. But for a sense of how other people have responded to the same environment, his book is far less successful than Glyn Williams’s wide-ranging and crisply written survey. Williams does not say if he has experienced the Arctic at first hand, but he is good at choosing passages that evoke its peculiar mixture of extravagance and dullness. The uniform whiteness, interrupted by moving human specks and the occasional splash of blood. The relentless silence, broken only by the creaking of snow and the howling of dogs. And just out of sight and hearing, the thin snap of ice as a cruise ship makes its way through a once solid sea, and the passengers gather on deck to wonder where the polar bears have gone.
Andrew Lambert
Tragic hero of polar exploration
405pp. Faber. £20.
978 0 571 23160 7
Glyn Williams
The quest for the Northwest Passage
413pp. Allen Lane. £25.
978 1 846 14138 6
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst teaches at Magdalen College, Oxford. His book Victorian Afterlives: The shaping of influence in literature was published in 2002. He is co-editor (with Seamus Perry) of Tennyson Among the Poets: Bicentenary essays, 2009.