Posts Tagged ‘The Northwest Passage’

Beaufort Sea commercial fishing banned

April 21, 2011

CBC News Posted: Apr 15, 2011 5:32 PM CT – Original article here

Commercial fishing is off-limits in the Beaufort Sea, according to a new agreement between the federal government and the Inuvialuit people of the western Arctic.

An ulu, a traditional Inuit cutting tool, is seen on a table with Arctic char in Iqaluit in this 2009 photo. Like in the eastern Arctic, char is fished by the Inuvialuit people in the Beaufort Sea.

An ulu, a traditional Inuit cutting tool, is seen on a table with Arctic char in Iqaluit in this 2009 photo. Like in the eastern Arctic, char is fished by the Inuvialuit people in the Beaufort Sea. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The memorandum of understanding, which both parties signed Friday in Inuvik, N.W.T., is the first step towards a comprehensive ocean management plan in the Beaufort Sea.

The agreement prohibits any new licences from being issued for commercial fishing in the Beaufort Sea at least until the management plan is developed and implemented — a process that could take years.

Commercial fishing does not usually happen in the Beaufort Sea, but melting sea ice have opened up Arctic waterways to more fishing and commercial traffic.

Preventing a fishing rush

For many years, Arctic char and other fish species in the Beaufort Sea and other northern waterways had been protected by thick layers of sea ice that were dangerous for fishing and other marine vessels.

‘We don’t want to wake up some morning … and find a big, rusty Korean fishing boat offshore.’—Burton Ayles

But the Northwest Passage has become more ice-free recently, which has led to more cruise ships, sailboats and commercial shipping and fishing vessels coming north.

The Beaufort Sea fishing ban is being put in place before there is a rush to create a new commercial fishery, according to federal and Inuvialuit officials.

“We don’t want to wake up some morning in [Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.] and find a big, rusty Korean fishing boat offshore,” said fisheries scientist Burton Ayles, a member of the Fisheries Joint Management Committee, which consists of federal and Inuvialuit representatives.

With fish stocks in steep decline around the world, Ayles said Inuvialuit and others living near the Beaufort Sea do not want the region to be overfished.

Temporary commercial fishing permits that were issued in the Beaufort Sea over the past 10 years have not worked out well, Ayles said.

“They didn’t always report back properly on what they were harvesting,” he said.

Fragile ecosystem

Nellie Cournoyea, chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corp., said the Beaufort Sea ecosystem is too fragile to accommodate large boats with fishing nets.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent makes its way through the ice in Baffin Bay in 2008. Arctic waterways have increasingly become ice-free in recent years, opening them up to more marine traffic.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent makes its way through the ice in Baffin Bay in 2008. Arctic waterways have increasingly become ice-free in recent years, opening them up to more marine traffic. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Cournoyea said not much is known about fish populations in the area, but people in the area do know that fish is a vital food source for other marine species.

“There’s a cautionary approach to this because it all has to come into balance,” she said.

“You wouldn’t want to create a fishery that would take away from that food stock of the whales or the seals or the other species that live offshore.”

Frank Pokiak of the Inuvialuit Game Council said people in the region would rather see Inuvialuit people participating in small-scale traditional fisheries than large-scale commercial fisheries.

“They’re willing to keep the doors open for Inuvialuit beneficiaries to do small-scale fisheries,” he said. “I know some people, at this time right now, they do harvest some of the fish species for selling … dry fish and things like that.”

Dispute over Hans Island nears resolution. Now for the Beaufort Sea

February 6, 2011

JILL MAHONEY
From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011

Original article here

Negotiators are now confident that Canada and Denmark will resolve their dispute over Hans Island, and sooner rather than later.

Relations between the two countries have grown irritable at times in recent years because of their competing claims to the barren bit of rock perched halfway between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Also in dispute is a patch of the Lincoln Sea even farther north.

But the two countries are in negotiations and have embarked on a joint mapping exercise, and both Canadian and Danish officials, speaking on background, said they were confident of reaching an agreement before Canada deposits its claim over the Arctic seabed to the United Nations in 2013.

Shared jurisdiction of the island is one possibility; another is running the border down the middle of the uninhabited, 1.3-square-kilometre knoll, which would give Canada a land border with Denmark.

In a recent poll, a large majority of Canadians said that asserting and protecting Arctic sovereignty should be Canada’s foremost foreign policy priority. In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon insisted that it was.

“We continue to exercise our sovereignty in the Arctic while also making progress on outstanding boundary issues,” Mr. Cannon said.

In fact, negotiations are beginning to bear fruit after years in which Canada refused to discuss competing claims. The United States and Canada have long disagreed over where the border between Alaska and Yukon should be drawn, as it projects into the Beaufort Sea. While the Americans have sought a negotiated settlement, Canada preferred to agree to disagree.

But there is oil under the seabed, and petroleum companies are anxious to get at it. Last year, the Conservative government declared its willingness to reach a deal. The two countries have embarked on a joint mapping expedition of the ocean floor.

That exercise may not be completed until 2013, because the ice is too thick for much of the year, and a Canadian government official speaking on background said it might not be possible to complete an agreement until after then. In the meantime, a bilateral “dialogue of experts” is underway, with the next meeting scheduled for Washington in the spring.

Some Arctic-watchers believe the slow pace of the talks over the Beaufort is frustrating an impatient Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“The people at Foreign Affairs already have very full plates,” said Michael Byers, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia who specializes in Arctic issues. “They don’t see the urgency of negotiations now when a solution probably isn’t doable this year or even next year. So you have this tension between the Prime Minister’s Office, which wants to see progress, and the department, which doesn’t see it as a top priority.”

But Canadians officials maintained the pace had been agreed to with the American government. The Americans and Canadians “are committed to a win-win” agreement that satisfies both sides that their interests have been protected, one official said.

The U.S. government agrees. “Our technical teams have held productive meetings on the Beaufort boundary in the past,” the embassy said in a statement. “We look forward to continued discussions in the future.”

The nations that encircle the Arctic have agreed, under the Law of the Sea convention, to submit their claims over what they believe is their fair share of the Arctic seabed to the United Nations for arbitration. Canada’s deadline is 2013.

The UN will not arbitrate in areas where there is a border dispute, and an agreement over the Beaufort border is unlikely before 2014. But officials say this is only a minor impediment, especially since the U.S. hasn’t ratified the treaty anyway.

As for the biggest dispute of all, who controls the Northwest Passage, none of the players has even agreed to talk about it, and no resolution to the question of whether it is in Canadian or international waters is expected in the foreseeable future.

Amundsen honoured in Gjoa Haven

August 29, 2010

(CBC News, 25 August 2010) — Residents of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, held a special flag-raising ceremony with Norwegian officials this week to honour Roald Amundsen, who spent two years in the community during his famed quest through the Northwest Passage. The Norwegian ambassador attended Monday’s ceremony, in which the Canadian and Norwegian flags were raised near the Amundsen Centenary Cairn in Gjoa Haven. Also in attendance was Gier Klover, the director of the Fram Museum in Oslo, Norway. “I’ve been interested in polar histories since I was a kid, so Gjoa Haven, that’s the place I’ve read about for 30 years,” Klover told CBC News on Tuesday. “Just to be here, and the incredible friendliness and hospitality of the community, is very touching.” Klover said his museum is dedicated to polar explorers like Amundsen, who set sail for the Northwest Passage in 1903 in his ship, Gjoa. The museum is building an extension to house the Gjoa, he added. Amundsen spent two winters near King William Island, in what is now Gjoa Haven, learning from local Inuit as he prepared for his expedition. “He perfected the skills, making him the ultimate polar explorer,” Klover said. “He had huge respect for local learnings and local knowledge, and he spent every day trying to learn as much as possible there, as opposed to many other explorers.” Amundsen made history when he completed the east-to-west voyage across the passage in 1906. Klover said Monday’s ceremony commemorates the growing partnership between his museum and the community of Gjoa Haven. He said he brought some photographs that were taken by Amundsen, as a gift to the community.

Via the excellent polar newsring Circumpolar Musings
Original article here

‘Man Who Ate His Boots’ An Arctic Tragedy (NPR)

April 22, 2010

April 17, 2010

Listen to the show here

Sir John FranklinThe Man Who Ate His Boots is the tragic tale of British explorers and their numerous failed attempts to find an Arctic sea passage connecting Europe to Asia. The search for the Northwest Passage captivated the British imagination and sent many men to their deaths. Host Guy Raz speaks with author Anthony Brandt about his new book as well as its most famous character, Sir John Franklin, whose final disastrous expedition ended in cannibalism.

Copyright © 2010 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GUY RAZ, host:

If you’ve ever read Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” you’ll recall that early scene when Captain Walton’s ship becomes trapped in Arctic Sea ice. The crew had been trying to reach the North Pole when a mysterious ghost-like monster appears in the distance.

Well, Ms. Shelly was writing during a period in British history when the country was gripped by the race to find Northwest Passage. Napoleon had just been defeated:

Mr. ANTHONY BRANDT (Author, “The Man Who Ate His Boots”): The world was England’s to conquer. If the ice was impenetrable, if the odds were impossible, no matter. They were Englishmen, members of a superior race, the children of destiny.

RAZ: That’s Anthony Brandt reading from his new book, “The Man Who Ate His Boots.” It’s about Britain’s obsessive search to find a sea passage through the Arctic that could connect Europe to Asia.

The most famous and tragic expedition was led by Sir John Franklin. In 1845, he led two ships and 129 men through the ice-covered waterways above the Canadian mainland. Not one man survived.

For that story, we’re joined by Anthony Brandt. He’s in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BRANDT: Well, thank you.

RAZ: Before we talk about the famous Franklin expedition of 1845, set the scene for us. I mean, how much did this quest to find a northwest passage capture the imagination of the British public in the early 19th century?

Mr. BRANDT: Well, it was an old quest that had been going on for 300 years, or nearly 300 years by that time. And the public was very enthusiastic that it was being renewed after the Napoleonic wars. The country was feeling good about itself. This had been a historic mission that the English had assigned themselves to do many centuries before. They felt it was their time and that nothing could stop them.

RAZ: There were a series of these expeditions, and about at least 15 of them until 1845 when Britain’s admiralty decides to sponsor a new expedition, again, to find the Northwest Passage. John Franklin is tapped to lead this expedition but he was the last choice, right?

Mr. BRANDT: He was the last choice. He was 59 years old. He had no business doing this again but he was trying to save his reputation.

RAZ: I mean, he had already been on a few of these expeditions before.

Mr. BRANDT: Right.

RAZ: And he wasn’t sort of a hero out of central casting. He was described as, quote, “looking something like a stuffed bear.”

Mr. BRANDT: Yes. He was pudgy. He said if he had to walk around on the ice, he probably wasn’t the person to do it. But all he had to do was stay on ship and direct things.

RAZ: So, the journey starts out okay but what happens sort of a few weeks in?

Mr. BRANDT: They left Baffin Bay in August, I think, of 1845. They headed into Lancaster Sound and nobody saw them after that. Not a word came out. They disappeared for three years. And in 1848, the admiral team got worried and said we got to look for them and find them. Eleven years they searched for them.

What they found eventually was a single piece of paper describing up to a certain point what had happened. They had gotten trapped in the ice after their first year unable to move. The ice was slowly taking them, drifting them south at the rate of about 14, 15 miles a month, maybe not even that fast. And it was clearly polar ice, thick ice, and there was no way out. They had been trapped there for two years.

RAZ: And most of the crew survives for these two years. The survivors do abandon the ships and eventually, everybody died. They had plenty of food. Why didn’t they survive?

Mr. BRANDT: It’s not fresh food and scurvy was the scourge of all sea voyages at the time. You need vitamin C on a daily basis. It only comes in fresh food, and they took enormous quantities of lemon juice. But after six months, nine months a year, lemon juice loses the vitamin C. It’s a fragile chemical and it kind of disintegrates.

So, by the end of two years, usually 18 months, scurvy will appear. And unless you have fresh meat or fresh vegetables, it will very rapidly start killing people.

RAZ: And there’s evidence that suggests that the crewmembers who eventually left the ship actually had to eat the others who died.

Mr. BRANDT: Well, what they did when they left the ships was they did some peculiar things. They dragged boats with them filled with their silverware and with odd – with tons of clothing that they didn’t need. You wonder if they had sort of lost their reason at some point. But the evidence of cannibalism is irrefutable. At some point, they started eating their dead. There are many, many bones that survive with saw marks on them. And the only reason you cut into a bone with a saw is so that you can put the limb or whatever it is into a pot and cook it.

And there was a huge controversy when evidence came back that they had resorted to cannibalism. The English were very, very upset about that.

RAZ: Anthony Brandt, the Passage wasn’t navigated until 1903 when the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, did it. Now, of course, you can do it as a tourist in an icebreaker. And in fact, in 2007, for the first time in recorded history, there was almost no sea ice in the Passage at all, which seems like a kind of a fitting epilogue to the story that you tell.

Mr. BRANDT: You have to imagine ice that’s 40 feet thick. That’s as thick as a four-story building is tall. That’s thick. And if you had seen it, you would never believe that it would never melt. Now, it melts.

RAZ: That’s Anthony Brandt. His new book is called “The Man Who Ate His Boots.” It charts the history of the search for the famed Northwest Passage.

Anthony Brandt, thank you so much.

Mr. BRANDT: It’s my pleasure.

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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
FRANKLIN
Tragic hero of polar exploration
405pp. Faber. £20.
978 0 571 23160 7
Glyn Williams
ARCTIC LABYRINTH
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.