Thursday, April 21, 2016

Writing Arctic Disaster

Writing Arctic Disaster: Authorship and Exploration

by Adriana Craciun


Cambridge: Cambridge UP, $120 (hardcover); $70 (Kindle)


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter



In the wake of the renewed interest in the history of the Franklin expedition and those who searched for it, we are beginning to see two different  -- yet complementary -- phenomena: First, a fresh effort to better understand what went wrong, and with it why the search still inspires such passionate feeling; and second, an emerging body of scholarship that points the way to a more critical consideration of the larger mythos of Franklin, and of Arctic exploration generally. Adriana Craciun's Writing Arctic Disaster is, as it were, the flagship of this second fleet, gathering together recent scholarly work and using it as the foundation for a reconsideration of the old myths and counter-myths that have, at times, trapped scholarly perspectives in an icy tomb just as unchanging and sterile as the graves of Franklin's men on Beechey Island. Sartain's engraving of these graves, based on a watercolor by James Hamilton (based in turn on a sketch by Dr. Elisha Kent Kane), fittingly appears on the cover of this new study.

Craciun opens her book with a reference to Nietzsche's (in)famous consideration of historiography, in which he distinguishes three sorts of history: the monumental, the archaeological, and the critical. Each, in its extremes, has its flaws: the monumental 'leaps from mountain-top to mountain-top,' often missing the complexities of the valleys in its urge to hammer out a race of heroes; the archaeological can get lost in minutiæ, becoming only the 'restless raking-together of everything that has been thought and said.' It's the last sort -- the critical -- 'history which judges, and condemns' -- that Craciun seeks to pursue, though not to such an extent that it damages the previous two (Nietzsche's prescription, after all, was for a balance of all three forms).

Craciun argues that, for too long, we have experienced the Franklin story, along with others of explorers in extremis, in a manner rather too similar to that of our Victorian forebears. Like them, we read the explorers' original narratives, letting the woodcuts and engravings with which they were illustrated carry us north on imaginary wings; like them, we dote over relics, seeking amidst spoons and eyeglasses the vital clues which might solve it all; like them, we take it for granted that exploration is a vital human impulse, as old as time, and dating back to the first moment that the earliest women and men wondered what was over the next hill.

She's right, of course. And so, as a remedy to this head-ache of anachronistic proportions, she alternately applies the salve of the archaeological and the sharp astringency of the critical, both to good effect. The enmeshment of exploration in the culture of print, and in the nineteenth-century's vast expansions of literacy and utility, is aptly observed; drawing here upon work such as Janice Cavell's Tracing the Connected Narrative, as well as upon the theoretical work of de Certeau and Foucault, she gives us, as it were, a genealogy of the fascination with Arctic disaster.

Her first chapter, "Arctic Archives: Victorian Relics, Sites, Collections," is the most exemplary of these; where others have seen the Franklin relics mainly as clues in a detective story about loss, she emphasizes their ambiguity, uncertainty, and hybridity:
Beginning with the earliest collections of Franklin disaster debris, not only the message but the relics themselves were indistinct and unstable artifacts verging on ecofacts, further losing ontological cohesion and categorical integrity as searches proliferated more objects and they in turn more questions.
As instances of this, she notes the many items that had been repurposed by Inuit, some still showing the maker's marks of their British manufacturers; here was the Empire not merely ended, but mended, turned to native purposes and verging on the sort of anthropological artifaction that might attend a Kwakiutl mask or a Samoan spear. Each new search, of course, added to this store, but this accumulation of relics failed to clear up the mystery, offering instead only a "broken syntax" that could never be assembled into a coherent sentence.

The chapter following takes a step further back in time, to Franklin's first land expedition, which -- with its resulting narrative, published as were to be nearly all others, in a quarto edition by John Murray -- she sees as the cornerstone of what she calls 'polar print culture.' She includes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein among these texts, and demonstrates how, in one sense, Franklin's failure in his first foray was shadowed by his "perpetual disappointment with the land's bewildering resistance to [his] aesthetic expectations." And yet, in the end, the illustrated edition of his narrative reiterated those expectations, omitting to depict those incidents of starvation and cannibalism beside which boot-eating was merely a minor sin.

Chapters 3 & 4 take us further back still, to the era prior to Barrow's flurry of Naval expeditions, when gentleman adventurers (the latter a word which originally referred to the venturing of capital, not lives) first sailed into uncharted waters. The central section of this chapter offers a critical account of James Knight's prior Arctic disaster. Knight, of course, was looking for copper, and so his demise pre-dates the ideology of the disinterested scientific 'explorer,' but it certainly laid some of the foundation. These chapters also feature some quite remarkable images, both of the elaborate manuscripts that the Hudson's Bay men prepared, and their inscriptions upon stone, each of which with their bold serifs seemed almost willing to claim pre-eminence by letterform alone.

Of more particular interest to those who approach this book with a Franklin fascination, Chapter 5 offers a fresh consideration of Frobisher's voyages, along with Hall's recovery of relics from sites identified by the Baffin Island Inuit. Many have dismissed Hall's discoveries there, and as Craciun notes, the items he brought back had "none of the photogenic and affective power of the personal effects and scientific instruments found by the Franklin searches." Nevertheless, they formed an important connection, what she calls the 'rediscovery' of early modern voyages, that dovetailed perfectly with the emergent interest in writing the backstory of exploration, and of establishments such as the Hakluyt Society.

The book concludes with an epilogue in which Craciun turns her critical faculties upon what she calls the "twenty-first century reinvention of Franklin's legacy." Much of it, including the support of the former Harper government and petrochemical companies, she views dimly, seeing a sad admixture of "Imperial nostalgia" and a return to a new, yet no less false monumental sense of history. There's certainly some truth to this, but I don't agree with her that the Franklin story is, ultimately, a distraction (though if so, 'tis a pleasant one). As an embodiment of the ultimate question of why we explore -- past, present, and future -- Franklin's disaster seems to me to offer a stark reminder of risk, rather than a rear-view mirror of lionization. And it's that element of willing risk -- of lives, of time, of materiel -- that is, in the end, the vital part of discovery. Still, Craciun is right to remind us that that word -- discovery -- along with (ad)venture -- is always in danger of being collapsed back into a merely capitalistic exercise. In both senses, it's a cautionary tale.

NB: The book is printed in a large octavo format, on moderately high-surface paper, which shows the numerous well-reproduced illustrations to good effect. Cambridge University Press, so far, has made this book available only as a hardcover priced for the library market at $120, with a Kindle version available for $70. While the academic language of the book may initially pose a challenge for some readers, the book is nevertheless of broad interest, and it's to be hoped that, before too long, an affordable trade paperback will be made available, or the price of the e-book reduced.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Life Among the Qallunaat

LIFE AMONG THE QALLUNAAT by Mini Aodla Freeman


Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.   2015


Reviewed by Lawrence Millman



Mini Aodla Freeman is the granddaughter of Weetalltuk, a legendary Inuit boat-builder, guide, and map-maker who remained a healthy member of his own culture despite hanging out for lengthy periods of time with qallunaat (white people). Whatever genes Weetalltuk possessed that allowed him to inhabit two dramatically different ways of life, he seems to have passed them along to his granddaughter.  Her book Life Among the Qallunaat could just as readily been called Life Among Both the Qallunaat and My Fellow Inuit.

Mini, whose surname comes from her marriage to Canadian anthropologist Milton Freeman, was born in 1936 on Cape Hope Island in James Bay. She grew up thinking of qallunaat as being no less exotic than those qallunaat regarded the Inuit. The first portion of the book describes her experiences in Ottawa, where she’d been sent as a translator. A man she meets tells her that he’d just learned how to drive.  She think that’s odd, because she knew how to hitch a dog team when she was five years old.  Restaurants astonish her: why do their occupants eat with cutlery rather than with their hands, as her people do?  She loves riding street cars, but doesn’t know how to request a stop, so she often ends up at the end of the line. Asked what she thought about the Vietnam War, she writes: “I did not know what to say because I had never known war.”

Her backstory comes next. Her two grandfathers, her wisdom-filled grandmother, her nose-rubbing father, her occasionally naughty brother — all are put within the seasonal context that defined Inuit life for millennia. Hardly more than a toddler, she fetches water and firewood (Cape Hope Island is below the tree line); she also sews and chews skins. In the mornings, her grandmother will often say to her, “Mini, you will bear unhealthy children if you stay in bed any longer. Get out and look at the world.”

Her way of life changed when she was sent to a residential school in Old Factory, Quebec, and then to another one in Moose Factory, Ontario. Both of these schools were included in the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, whereby thousands of former students were compensated for the indignities that they had suffered at these schools. A few examples of indignities: girls were sexually abused; boys were forced to masturbate in front of a priest or minister; and children were required to eat their own vomit.

When Life Among the Qallunaat was first published in 1978, half of its print run was seized by the Canada’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs on the  assumption that the author had badmouthed residential schools. Yet her account of her experiences in these schools is surprisingly mild. Yes, she was obliged to attend early morning religious services as well as wash vast amounts of laundry, but her ability to regard such activities as examples of qallunaat exoticism probably saved her from suffering more than she did. Her inherent sense of whimsy may have saved her as well.  Consider what she refers to as “my novelty.”  This is her first menstrual period, and since no one had given her advance notice of it, she seems to delight in imagining what it might be.

Apparently, Mini wrote Life Among the Qallunaat directly on her typewriter, with no early, middle, or late drafts.   Thus her memoir has a quite spontaneous feel to it. But her spontaneity is of the quiet sort. Rather than pointing an accustory finger at, for example, a haughty nun, she steps back and regards that nun as a highly unusual species. The result is a significant addition to Canadian indigenous literature and, what’s more, a splendid read.  

Friday, March 11, 2016

Heroic Failure and the British

Heroic Failure and the British

by Stephanie Barczewski

New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


When it comes to 'heroic failure,' the phrase today seems somehow already associated with Britain -- or, at least, with popular notions about British history and attitudes. And yet the phrase rings American, and indeed among its earliest uses is in reference to John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry. Since then, it's come to be used more in sarcasm than in seriousness, casting aspersions upon those who seem to fit its mold, as well as sealing off any consideration of what impulses or values might lie behind it.

That is, until now. Stephanie Barczewski's new volume collects and considers many of the most iconic moments to which this seemingly oxymoronic phrase has been applied, and does so with gusto. In an age when we trade other peoples' "epic fail" moments on Facebook, and take shelter in schadenfreude, we are perhaps in need of a refresher course in the higher stakes for which humans were, once upon a time, willing to find admiration in disaster.

Ms. Barczewski offers us a sort of 'greatest hits' of such events -- the Battle of Chillianwallah, the Charge of the Light Brigade, General Gordon's occupation of Khartoum, and the 'last stand' at Isandlwana in the Zulu War. And, extending the stakes of war into the peaceful endeavors of explorers, she adds Sir John Franklin, David Livingstone, and Robert Falcon Scott to her list. It's a complex, widely historically-spaced series of stories to tell, and a less energetic writer might not have managed it; Barczewski's success is due in large part to her skill at seizing the essentials of each story, while building on the general resonance of her theme until it reaches 1812-overture proportions.

But this energy also has its drawbacks. Taking just her account of Sir John Franklin's final Arctic voyage, the chapter is sprinkled with sundry errors of detail, from describing the area into which he ventured in 1845 as "Canada" (which only came into being in 1867), to mis-numbering his men (130, rather than 129), to representing a conjectural account of Francis Crozier's actions in the expedition's final months as though it were settled fact. The account is not helped by the fact that a portrait of James Clark Ross is misidentified as Franklin's, or that the Franklin memorial in the chapel at Greenwich is repeatedly stated to be in the Painted Hall instead. And yet, despite these issues (which will probably not trouble non-specialist readers), she gets the essential feel of the expedition right, noting how, as the mystery of its disappearance deepened, the quest for the Northwest Passage was moved to the back burner, until its heroic, yet fatal completion by Franklin came to serve the larger myth. Along the way, she illustrates her account with some lovely lesser-known bits of Frankliniana, including the execrable poem in his memory penned by Owen Alexander Vidal, whose prize from Oxford can only be explained by the fervor felt by the public for some immediate gratification of their warm spirits.

And it's these warm spirits, in the end, that Barczewski's main explanation -- that the British deployed their heroic failures to offset their imperialistic ambitions in the public eye -- can't quite find a way to grasp. For instance, in a connection that goes oddly unmentioned in this book, Lord Tennyson's poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was -- at the request of Lady Franklin! -- printed and distributed in great numbers to British troops in the Crimea, including those in hospital. What earthly reason, we might wonder today, would anyone conceive of such a poem as warming the spirits of soldiers still embroiled in a conflict in which "some one had blundered" to such a degree? The answer can only be that, whatever offset such accounts may seem to offer against the perceived sins of Britain, in the time in which they were penned, they served quite the opposite function: that men, "theirs not to reason why," would follow an erroneous order to their deaths, was not a cover for shame, but a cause of pride, however politically incorrect some might feel such pride to be today.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Ukkusiksalik: The People's Story

Ukkusiksalik: The People's Story

By David F. Pelly

Toronto: Dundurn, $21.50

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter



When I was in Gjoa Haven for ten days in 2004, I remember a local Inuk who, though he was happy to answer my newcomer's questions, regarded my interest in his community as a short-term one, despite my protestations to the contrary. When I asked him why, he put it plainly: many Qallunaaat say the same thing -- but then that's the last you see of them -- they never come back.

David F. Pelly is one who came back -- again and again -- and so earned the trust and the friendship of the people he sojourned among. And these qualities are vital to the  project of Ukkusiksalik, which is no less than to provide a comprehensive oral history of this area from the earliest appearance of humans to the establishment of the national park that bears its name in 2003, and beyond. Indeed, Pelly opens with an account of the geological history of the area beginning with the last Ice Age. From there, he briefly notes the presence of the Dorset people in the area, a pre-Inuit group that just barely survived until modern times; the Inuit knew them as the Tuniit.

The book then moves into the  central section, the "People's Story," which takes the form of numerous individual accounts by elders who traversed, lived in, and hunted in the region in the pre-settlement era. The oldest of these were born early in the 20th century, while the youngest were born in the early 1950's and recalled the traditional life only as children. There are a few helpful footnotes, but not much more; it's unfortunate that Pelly presents these accounts with so little context. Of course most of the Inuit are anxious to tell their own families' stories, but the overall effect is rather like being trapped in the dining room of an old folks' home for several days -- you hear a lot of names, a lot of stories, but have no way to make collective sense of them.

The subsequent sections, each with a specific theme or focus, are more accessible; of particular value are those that describe the arrival of the powerful outside forces that would soon shape Inuit life here as elsewhere: missionaries, the HBC, and the RCMP. One section, "The Search for Franklin," is of special interest; here, as recalled by Tuinnaq Kanayk Bruce, is a persistent oral tradition about the Schwatka expedition, which passed near Ukkusiksalik in 1879. Alas, much like the stories collected by Dorothy Eber in her Encounters on the Passage, the story has clearly grown tattered over the ages; it's difficult to identify any of the Inuit mentioned in the story with those named by Schwatka or Gilder in their accounts of the journey. The account does, however, reveal something of the fear and potential hostility between Schwatka's group and some of the neighboring bands, an issue glossed over in most other sources. The one member of that party who made the strongest impression was "Henry" -- doubtless Heinrich Klutschak -- who was described as "always talking loudly." The party's discovery of remains is also mentioned, though garbled; thy were said to have found money and some papers, along with a human shoulder bone in a pot -- this may be a distorted recollection of the blank paper, math medal, and bones supposed to be those of John Irving, which the expedition did bring back.

The latter part of the book includes maps of traditional trade and travel routes, and a listing of the laconic journal entries made at the small Hudson's Bay post at the site. It's all valuable material, to be sure, but its arrangement is likely to make this book a daunting read for anyone who doesn't already know something of the history of this region. As an act of simple historical preservation, it is certainly praiseworthy -- but I would rather that the author had digested this material and given us a more coherent history within which the elders' stories would have made more sense. This approach, applied with memorable success in Dorothy Eber's earlier When the Whalers were Up North, is sadly missed here.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Discovering the North-West Passage

Discovering the North-West Passage: The Four-Year Arctic Odyssey of H.M.S. Investigator and the McClure Expedition

By Glenn M. Stein.

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-07864-77081

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore


In October 1853 the sensational news was announced in London that the captain and crew of HMS Investigator had discovered the last link with previously known routes in the Arctic to complete a maritime North-West Passage, finally proving its existence after some three centuries of uncertainty. Those who had brought the news, Lieutenant Samuel Cresswell and the Mate Robert Wyniatt, were almost certainly the first individuals ever to make a complete transit through the passage, but at the time of the announcement the captain and most of his crew were still in the Arctic, far from completing the passage and still far from safety—and it would be another year before they returned home. The discovery had actually taken place in the autumn of the voyage’s first year, 1850, when a sledging party had reached the northern end of Prince of Wales Strait and seen, some 75 miles to the north across Viscount Melville Strait, the looming bulk of Melville Island, reciprocating the view that Parry had had in the opposite direction thirty years before. With that connection made—by sight, if not on the ground—the route of a complete northern sea passage from Atlantic to Pacific was finally known, though the way the men were obliged to come home, sailing in three successive ships connected by sledge journeys, ironically showed how unviable a route it was for vessels: it was the crew that came through the passage, not the Investigator.

But ships cannot write their own histories, so half a century before Roald Amundsen navigated the Gjøa through the passage, it was Robert McClure’s crew who stole the limelight, winning renown and a grand prize of £10,000 that went some way to lightening the mood of a nation still recovering from the disaster of the lost Franklin Expedition, which the Investigator had ostensibly been searching for. This achievement, hailed as a landmark at the time, makes it all the more odd that no monograph on the expedition seems to have appeared since the publication of the official account, based on McClure’s log but smoothed and polished by Sherard Osborn, in 1856. Now polar historian Glenn Stein has rectified the oversight by producing a book that aims to be, and largely succeeds in being, the comprehensive, scholarly account that will form the essential benchmark against which all future work on the expedition will be judged. A glance at the list of archival references, journal articles, monographs and reference works in the bibliography is enough to show the extraordinary range and depth of his research, and the voluminous notes and appendices show the use he has made of them.

Robert McClure was born in 1807 into a comfortably off Irish family, with a father and grandfather who had made their careers in the army. After an abortive start in a military career Robert quickly switched his attention to the navy, meaning he was entering a world in which family connections—the usual lubricant to promotion—could no longer help him, and at a more advanced age than those of equivalent experience. But in the way of ambitious naval officers he got himself noticed, rising to mate and then lieutenant while serving on anti-slavery patrols in the Caribbean and then coast-guard service. Stein’s diligent archival research has also revealed for the first time McClure’s previously unknown first marriage during this period (in 1831). When the chance came for an adventure he grabbed it with both hands, volunteering as mate aboard the Terror on George Back’s expedition to Repulse Bay in 1837. More years on the Great Lakes and in anti-slaving duties intervened before another shot of polar glamour when he was chosen as 1st Lieutenant of HMS Enterprise in James Ross’s Franklin search expedition of 1848–49, which however was stopped by ice before advancing far beyond the entrance to Lancaster Sound. The fact that both of McClure’s first two Arctic voyages were frustrated from achieving their purpose seems only to have increased his resolve, when finally given command, to make certain of success.

In 1850 the Admiralty’s next throw of the dice in searching for Franklin was to send ships in a pincer movement from the west as well as the east, so as soon as they had returned Enterprise and Investigator began to be readied for a voyage to the Pacific, where they would enter the Arctic via Bering Strait and search along the continental coastline in case Franklin’s men had made their way westwards along it. McClure commanded the Investigator this time, with the Enterprise—and the expedition as a whole—commanded by Richard Collinson.

McClure has been much criticized for bamboozling his superior in order to take the Investigator into the Arctic alone, unimpeded by a commander whose lack of Arctic experience probably made him an object of contempt in McClure’s eyes. But Stein reminds us that Collinson gave every indication of trying to do the same to McClure, rarely waiting for the slower vessel to catch up and losing visual contact for the last time as far back as the Strait of Magellan. Moreover, it was Collinson himself (in a letter that Stein reproduces) who suggested that McClure take the dangerous but time-saving shortcut through the Aleutian Islands, the manoeuvre usually considered underhand by McClure’s critics. It was not the only characteristic the two commanders shared. Both seemed incapable of maintaining good relations with their officers, taking the almost unique step in Arctic voyages of placing officers under arrest for extended periods. Simultaneously, both courted the favour of the rest of the crew, although McClure, unlike Collinson, undercut his own efforts in this regard by his harsh punishments for offences, several times ordering the maximum 48 lashes. Both were deeply suspicious of rivals—which goes far to explain their attempts to shake each other off—and both wished to control the official version of events, suppressing accounts of rival officers to make sure their own were taken at face value. But McClure had the quality that would have endeared him to Napoleon—luck—one that Collinson conspicuously lacked.

Chief in rank among McClure’s rivals on board was 1st Lieutenant William Haswell, whom McClure said openly should not be on board even before the ship had lost sight of Britain. Yet without any personal writings by Haswell the long-suffering officer virtually disappears from the book for long stretches, reflecting the way he was systematically sidelined by his commander. A more formidable rival was the surgeon Alexander Armstrong. Dismissed by McClure as a fairweather officer with exaggerated self-regard, Armstrong was nevertheless solicitous of the entire crew’s health, and it’s striking that most of them contributed to buying him a gold watch after their return to Britain, a token of affectionate esteem not recorded for any other officer. Most endearing among the senior crew was the Moravian missionary and Inuktitut translator Johann Miertsching, seemingly the only one McClure treated with consistent friendliness, and in whom he seems to have confided as a sort of confessor. As a German among Britons, a landlubber among sailors, and a convinced Christian among mostly nominal ones, Miertsching was trebly a fish out of water, but every time the crew came in contact with local people his communication made a decisive difference in overcoming mistrust and soliciting information on geography and other expeditions.

Stein’s book is effectively a counterpart for the Investigator to William Barr’s similarly groundbreaking account of the Enterprise’s voyage, Arctic Hell Ship (University of Alberta Press, 2007). Both authors have been faced with the same problem in writing about two exceptionally acrimonious voyages: a conundrum of sources. In one way voluminous (the databases of 19th-century bureaucrats compiling service records, medal citations, ships’ stores, dockyard records, and logs, along with institutional histories, published and manuscript correspondence, charts, plans, drawings, watercolours and engravings) in crucial respects the sources are seriously lacking (in both cases most of the private journals written on board are missing—either deliberately destroyed or suppressed and then lost). Or to put it another way, there is a plentiful supply of dull raw material and a rather limited supply of interesting raw material. Barr responded with a frustrating refusal to reveal his own views, or use his own judgement to think himself into the shoes of the men he was writing about. Stein is nothing like as self-abnegating a writer as Barr, but he too is overly reluctant (for this reviewer’s taste) in trying to illuminate for his readers what was going on inside his subjects’ heads, or attempting to present events from their varying points of view, beyond simply quoting the surviving written sources.

His main strength is as an archival researcher, so it’s no surprise that the book contains no fewer than seven appendices, of which appendix 2 is the most important: a thorough discussion of the primary sources, both surviving and lost. Although Stein leaves the reader to fill in the blanks, it seems likely that McClure, who had ordered all those keeping a journal to deliver them to him, deliberately destroyed them once it became clear he would have to abandon the Investigator, since a search the following spring could not locate any but Haswell’s—ironically the officer McClure most loathed; yet somehow it too later vanished. Only Armstrong managed to retain his journal, either by making a secret copy as he wrote (McClure’s mistrust of him was entirely mutual) or by somehow retrieving it, officially or unofficially, from under McClure’s nose once command of the crew had passed to their rescuer Captain Kellett. Appendix 7 reveals Stein’s specialist interest in a usually overlooked form of ephemera: medals. His research into the history of individual medals and the official citations that accompanied them opened a narrow but often invaluable shaft of light into the service records of many of the expedition participants. Along with admiralty service records and other official data these have enabled Stein to build up small vignettes of practically every man on board, which he organizes in concentrated form in Appendix 3 but also sprinkles in narrative form throughout the book whenever some individual action by them is reported, giving an unusually egalitarian flavour to his account.

The book is well illustrated throughout with contemporary engravings—some news illustrations, some generic—alongside the talented Lieutenant Cresswell’s evocative and well-known watercolours. There are a handful of good area maps, but as in so many exploration books, maps showing routes, whether of the ships or of sledge journeys, are sadly missing, depriving readers of the most intuitive way of absorbing and contextualizing placenames, directions and distances.

The book contains a few solecisms and errors: “Kent County” and “Dorset County” are not formulas anyone living there would use; crewman Fawcett’s “society” being coveted has nothing to do with friendly societies—the nascent mutual insurance and banking organizations—but simply meant that people enjoyed being in his company, as any reader of Austen or Dickens would recognize; Andrew Dunlop’s short biography of McClure has been misattributed to Kenneth Douglas-Morris through some alphabetization malfunction in the references. Readers with different awarenesses would doubtless find others. But in a book of such density and range of information, the brevity of this list is a testament to the seriousness of the author’s commitment to accuracy and scholarship. Only his decision to quote himself—more than once—when choosing chapter epigrams betrays a lapse of judgement and a pardonable trace of authorial vanity.

No doubt there will be other books on the expedition in the future, especially perhaps if the contents of the Investigator, whose wreck was relocated with much fanfare in 2010 (the subject of a brief epilogue here), are ever thoroughly investigated. Some may be written with a greater flair for language and a surer sense of narrative drive, but it is hard to see Glenn Stein’s monument to scholarly devotion and documentary research ever being surpassed.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Franklin's Lost Ship

Franklin’s Lost Ship: The Historic Discovery of HMS Erebus

By John Geiger and Alanna Mitchell

201 p., illustrations, maps, notes, selected bibliography

HarperCollins Publishers, Toronto, 2015

Reviewed by David C. Woodman


The September 2014 discovery of HMS Erebus, one of two long-lost discovery vessels from the third Arctic voyage of Sir John Franklin, garnered international interest and will undoubtedly count as one of the greatest marine archaeological finds of the century. As the fitting culmination of a six-year effort in difficult conditions by Parks Canada and its partners, this discovery will undoubtedly result in a bookshelf full of new publications concerning its archaeological, historical, and even political implications (full disclosure: I have one in manuscript form). Franklin’s Lost Ship, as the first of these, has the advantage of primacy and immediacy, and serves as a good introduction to the story of the discovery of the wreck and the historical background.

Mr. Geiger, the primary author, after a career as a journalist and author, now serves as CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, a partner in the 2014 search. This book is one result of the Society’s role in the expedition, which was to bring the news of this expedition to the world, and set it in its geographical and historical context. As outlined in a formal contract between the partners, the Society was to engage in promotional and educational efforts and produce “a coffee table book devoted to the discovery.” Geiger, although not personally present at the moment HMS "Erebus" was found, was on one of the ships involved in the northern search area, and thus had ready access to the Parks Canada team that discovered the wreck. Alanna Mitchell, also a renowned journalist and author, assisted as co-author and the combined experience of the writers is reflected in the high quality of the writing throughout.

It's no reflection on his writing skills that Mr. Geiger has had the misfortune of producing two books dealing with the Franklin story that are both more memorable for the photos than for their text. Geiger, as co-author with Dr. Owen Beattie, produced one of the earliest Franklin-related books of the recent literary resurgence. Frozen in Time (1987) detailed the 1980s exhumation and investigation of three of Franklin’s crew who died during the first winter at Beechey Island. The evocative photos of the well-preserved faces of those seamen as they emerged from the permafrost helped to breathe new life into public awareness of the Franklin mystery. Yet unlike Frozen in Time, where the illustrations are remembered mainly for their dramatic impact, here they are used as integral elements to tell the story.

Almost every page features at least one image and many pages consist of nothing else; most are accompanied by informative captions relevant to the adjacent text. The images fall into three categories. The first are exquisitely beautiful Arctic land- and seascapes, which ably help the reader develop a sense of place and the conditions faced by both Franklin and his men and the participants on the modern expedition. Also included are standard images familiar to anyone interested in the Franklin story - maps, the "Victory Point" record, relics, Thomas Smith’s famous painting etc., as well as the expected portraits of Sir John, Lady Franklin, Rae, Hall and others. These assist in illuminating the historical sections of the book. Undoubtedly, the most welcome images are the photos from the 2014 expedition, many never before published. These show the participants at work, the highlights from dives on the Erebus and the relics recovered.

The book is sensibly laid out in alternating chapters dealing with a narrative of the 2014 expedition interspersed with historical background telling of Franklin’s doomed third expedition. This is a clever way to address the two main, but disparate, audiences for this book. The first audience, already steeped in the lore of Arctic exploration, will primarily want to read about the recent discovery of this important wreck. The second audience, coming to the subject anew and wishing more context than press reports provided, will appreciate the intervening expository chapters. A final epilogue considers the importance of the discovery in light of modern conditions of resource and community development, climate change and sovereignty issues.

The chapters dealing with the actual 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition are ordered in chronological sequence, although with northern and southern search groups operating concurrently there is some overlap. The text is a refreshingly straightforward telling of the main incidents, obviously gleaned from interviews with the participants themselves. It conveys both the difficulties of the long search and the flash of joy and excitement at the eventual discovery. Appropriate and ample credit is given to the Parks Canada, Hydrographic, and Arctic Research Foundation teams, all of whom invested years in the search effort. Other partners, both governmental and private, some of whom luckily joined the team just in time for the discovery, are also extensively covered. Indeed the full list of partners is presented no less than six times, with some lengthy personal and organizational biographical asides.

In an effort to place the Franklin expedition in context the historical chapters cast a very wide and impressive net. Starting with James Knight’s mysterious disappearance in 1719, subject of an earlier Geiger book, almost every expedition sent to find the Northwest Passage in the first half of the nineteenth century is mentioned.  The many Franklin relief expeditions and later efforts to determine his fate are given necessarily brief but informative sketches. The text shows an admirable familiarity with the historical background, and will serve the general reader, who is coming to the subject for the first time, as a welcome introduction. The book also provides brief but illuminating biographies of the main historical protagonists, with diversions into the geopolitical, scientific, and cultural significance of the Franklin expedition to both his contemporaries and to the current world situation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly considering the fact that his earlier book introduced the topic of lead poisoning as a contributory factor to the Franklin disaster, the subject of lead poisoning is repeatedly woven into the fabric of this new book as well. Geiger continues to promote the idea that solder from Franklin’s tinned food is the probable source of the lead, an idea that has been seriously questioned since it was first proposed. In one of the more purple passages of the book Franklin’s retreating crews are portrayed as “frail addled men” with the implication that their mental state had been compromised by lead-poisoning, another idea that has recently been called into question.

Another obligatory Franklin topic, cannibalism, is mentioned as well, although modern forensic work on the subject is ignored. Here the text cannot resist a dip into journalistic sensationalism, picturing the retreating men “likely carrying their comrades’ heads, arms, hands and legs … as a ready supply of calories,” which is, to my knowledge, totally unsupported by any evidence.

Throughout the book Inuit traditional accounts are consistently acknowledged as a primary reason for the discovery of the Erebus. This is true and fitting, however there is no discussion of how the traditions contributed, which is simply offered as a fact. The book also attempts to use other Inuit recollections to augment the history of the Franklin expedition as known from the sparse documentary and physical evidence. The text generally follows the “standard reconstruction” of a single, fatal, abandonment in 1848 and attempts to integrate Inuit remembrances of visits to the ships, of one sinking, of a large joint hunt, and of the “black men” to that traditional scenario. Most of these details are less amenable to the single-abandonment reconstruction and the authors remark that further discoveries on the Erebus , especially if accounts of living white men aboard should be confirmed by physical evidence, may cause a “wholesale rewriting of the history books.”

The technical aspects of the book are good. The page layout of images, text, and white space is well balanced and attractive, and the book itself is solidly printed on heavy, glossy stock.  Notes are used sparingly but sixty percent of them are taken from only five authors. The short select bibliography relies mainly on recently published work with half of the books having been published in the last ten years.

Franklin’s Lost Ship takes the story of the discovery of the Erebus up to the spring dives of 2015. As such it is a timely account for a public interested in that story, but it will not be the last word on this amazing discovery. The authors acknowledge this when they remark that “untold discoveries from this astonishing vessel are still down there,” and indeed Parks Canada’s September 2015 dives revealed new elements and spectacular artifacts that inspire both questions and wonder. Much more will be learned as further work proceeds on the five-year plan developed to properly assess the wreck. But for those of us who hang expectantly on every new development this is a worthy first installment.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Polar North

The Polar North: Ways of Speaking, Ways of Belonging

Stephan Pax Leonard

Francis Boutle Publishers, London. 2014.  £20.

Reviewed by Genevieve LeMoine


Stephen Pax Leonard's book The Polar North joins a long line of popular accounts by travellers to the far north who seek to experience and learn from traditional "primitive" culture before it disappears. Leonard spent a year among the Inughuit (in his spelling, Inugguit) conducting linguistic research, concerned about the impending loss of oral traditions, and indeed Inughuit culture as whole, in the face of rapid cultural and climatic change. His background is as a linguist of Scandinavian languages and this was his first experience in the far north. His approach is phenomenological, concerned with the spoken word, as well as gestures; language not as “a disembodied, purely formal set of grammatical and syntactic relations” but as a part of “the totality of human experience” (p. 28). Leonard discusses this aspect of his research, but this book is a memoir – a more scholarly treatment is in the works.

The book opens with a prologue in which Leonard outlines the genesis of the project and sets the scene, describing his rushed preparation (six weeks) and eventual arrival in Qaanaaq. Leonard freely exposes his naive expectations; his romanticized view of the people he expects to meet, based on decades-old popular accounts; his deeply felt disenchantment with the modern world; and his expectations that he will find relief in the unspoiled wilderness of northern Greenland. Readers familiar with the north, or with anthropological field work generally, will see that he is setting himself up for disappointment. Exacerbating this situation, he appears to have neglected to consult the community about their willingness to participate in his endeavor, and encounters considerable resistance to his work.

From the beginning Leonard approaches the project, and the book, with hubris, describing his own “innate” gift for languages. He writes “[h]aving this special gift, I would have an immediate advantage over researchers who try and conduct fieldwork in their own language and who end up with an incomplete understanding of the societies they are working in because they understand so little of what is going on” (p. 15). Considering that anthropologists routinely spend years in the field and do become fluent in the language of the people they study, one wonders how Leonard can think that twelve months will be enough to gain complete understanding of a very different society, especially one which he seems to have made so little effort to learn about beforehand. Leonard also makes it clear that this is not an objective ethnography but a subjective memoir in which he is determined to :”challenge the sterile, soulless approach to standardised academic writing” (p. 17) and to present the "unvarnished truth" (p. 24). These are laudable goals, but readers should be cautioned that the truth he presents is one mediated by his own experiences and perspectives.

Following the prologue, ten chapters present a sometimes discursive narrative of Leonard’s experiences over the following year, interspersed with discussions of language, ways of speaking, and ways of belonging. As do many anthropologists, he at first struggles to integrate into a community, but eventually learns enough of the language to converse and establish working relationships. He attends church, visits Qaanaaq’s only bar, participates in celebrations and funerals, goes on hunting trips, and makes some ill-advised solo ski trips. Through it all he struggles with the heater in his “hut,” rails at the way Inughuit hunters treat their dogs, and ruminates on questions of belonging, both within the culture and with reference to himself, the lone anthropologist among the “other” Inughuit. Chapters 5 and 9 break up the narrative, being wide-ranging discussions of “Ways of Speaking” and “Ways of Belonging.” Readers with no background in linguistics may have trouble following some parts of these chapters, while linguists will no doubt find them too superficial. Falling somewhere between the two (although closer to the first group), my own sense is that Leonard may have something interesting to add to our understanding of language in Inuit society, but exactly what that will be will have to await the promised fuller treatment. An epilogue serves to summarize the challenges of fieldwork; what can be learned from a holistic approach to language; and the importance of experiencing language as “an intersubjective phenomenon enabling one to experience the other as a subject and not an object” (p 295). Leonard ends by railing against industrialization, climate change, and the rapid change currently facing all northern communities.

In broad outline this is worthy and interesting but the end result is unsatisfying. In the interests of presenting “unvarnished truth” Leonard gives us a glimpse of his own evolution over the year. Before he arrived, Leonard had  a stereotypically romanticized view of the Inughuit. Early in the narrative, before he is comfortable in the community and conversant in the language, faced with the reality of life in modern northern community very different (at lest superficially) from what he expected, Leonard is judgmental. His description of his first visit to an Inughuit home is filled with pejorative adjectives: fetid, pungent, chaotic, stained and (with reference to mataq, raw narwhal skin) tough (p. 33). Qaanaaq is “tatty, shabby, dysfunctional” (p. 31). He also perpetuates other stereotypes, stating for example “[a]s with many indigenous groups, and most obviously the Aborigines of Australia, the Inugguit are sadly very prone to addiction” (p. 83). While it is true that addiction is a problem in many indigenous (and non-indigenous) communities, and Qaanaaq has its fair share of social problems, including alcoholism, I know of no research that attributes these problems to indigeneity per se. But Leonard leaves this statement unexamined, erroneously implying that susceptibility to addiction is an inherent characteristic of indigenous societies.

Over time Leonard develops a more nuanced view, grows more accustomed to traditional foods and their tastes, textures, and odors, and meets people who are hospitable, kind, helpful, and welcoming, but the damage has already been done. In bringing up these stereotypes and leaving them unchallenged he has lost an important opportunity to dispel myths still commonly believed by many in the south.

Following along from his reliance on stereotypes, Leonard falls in to the twin traps of an earlier generation of anthropologists: thinking that the Inughuit have an unchanging past (see p. 49 - “this is and always has been a static society”), sometime formerly glossed as ‘the ethnographic present’ and typically understood to be the way people lived immediately before contact with Western society; and that they are representative of an earlier stage of human existence – expressed through frequent use of words such as ‘primitive’ and ‘primordial’ with reference both to pre-contact culture and to the language itself. Both of these notions have long since been shown to be fallacies, and again Leonard has missed an opportunity to dispel myths and stereotypes that are still sadly common in the popular imagination.

One final note on the editing. One has to be concerned when errors jump out from almost the first page: the maps that accompany the prologue identify Baffin Bay as Baffin Sea, and more egregiously Ellesmere Island is labeled Baffin Island. Such basic errors of fact do not bode well for the quality of the editing at any level. The glossary is short and idiosyncratic. Most often, but not always, Inuktun words are followed in the text by their English translations and it is unclear why some were selected to appear in the glossary. Similarly, the bibliography is lacking. Key works are missing: Rasmussen is here, and Freuchen, but Holtved is not, although his work is referred to, albeit briefly. Nowhere is Michael Hauser mentioned, although he has written extensively on Inughuit songs, an area Leonard was keen to study. At the other end of the spectrum, Miriam MacMillan's hagiography of her husband Donald, I Married an Explorer (originally published in the US as Green Seas, White Ice) inexplicably makes an appearance, although none of MacMillan's own work based on years living among the Inughuit, is mentioned. I have great respect for Mrs. MacMillan but she was no ethnographer and had only very limited experience of Inughuit culture. There is no index.

In sum, I found this book to be unsatisfying. Leonard's linguistic research may be valuable and sophisticated – evaluation of that will have to await a more scholarly publication – but in other areas he is unreliable and overly reliant on stereotypes, resulting in a superficial understanding of the culture. His two key points, that Inuktun is in danger of disappearing, and that climate change poses a serious threat to Inughuit culture, are important but he is far from the first to make them. His message is obscured in this rambling, discursive narrative. He makes it clear from the start that he is off for an adventure, seeking wilderness and a version of the Inughuit gleaned from historic and popular accounts. He is clearly unprepared for what he finds. Readers may find his adventures appealing and certainly his honesty is refreshing, but I can’t help but be disappointed that he did not take more care to better prepare himself before he left for the field and to more carefully examine the stereotypical views he brought to his understanding to the community. Had he done so he would have had a better experience, and a better book.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony

Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony

Second Edition

by David C. Woodman

Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


It's the single most significant book in the history of the search for Sir John Franklin's long-lost ships and men, one without which, arguably, Parks Canada's 2014 discovery of HMS "Erebus" would never have been possible. And yet it's a book that relatively few, aside from the true Franklinomanes, have read, read recently, or read with care. And so it's extraordinarily welcome news that McGil-Queen's University Press has seen fit to bring out this new paperback edition, just in time for those who have only recently contracted Franklin fever to apply its sobering salve to their heated brows.

The text of the book is essentially unmodified from its first edition -- but, as Woodman explains in his thoughtful and informative preface, that's because -- aside from one or two relatively minor points he addresses there -- the testimony he's collected and analyzed still stands, and has been proven entirely accurate in every instance where it's been possible to corroborate it with physical evidence.

Those -- such as latter-day Franklin biographer Andrew Lambert -- who have depracated Inuit oral testimony as somehow flawed, somehow unreliable, simply do not understand it, and would do well to read this book with more care. In a pre-literature culture, oral stories function quite a bit differently than they do in a literate one; Plato was entirely correct when he warned against the use of alphabetic script, saying that it would lead to the weakening of the human faculty of memory:
If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. 
And it's true: any historian worth her or his salt knows that written accounts are hardly immune to errors of transmission,  promulgated through copying, miscopying, and misquoting, and how faith in the truth of the printed word can misguide readers. We should think, then, of the oral-traditional period as one in which the memory, indeed, was stronger, more methodical, and more robust -- because it had to be. For the Inuit, who were still living in the oral age two millennia after the Greeks, their survival depended on it. Where was a good place to fish in the fall? Where were seals found last year? The year before? The last year in which the sea-ice was thicker than usual? Where, in case of need, were one's old food caches, on which one had to depend when game was scarce?

That these strangers came among them, thus, was something which the Inuit recalled with tremendous detail and remarkable consistency. Those Inuit who spoke to McClintock, to Rae, to Hall, and to Schwatka told their stories with great care, always noting whether they had personally witnessed the events or were passing on accounts from others. They named all present at the time as witnesses, and these names were remembered even when, generations later, Knud Rasmussen spoke to the sons and grandsons of the hunters who had told their tales in the 1860's and 1870's. Indeed, as Dorothy Eber has shown, many of the essential elements of this tradition were still recalled by elders well into the 1990's, although by then decades of settlement life, satellite television, and sedentary existence had dulled some details.

In his introduction, Woodman points clearly to the ways in which the Inuit testimony has been proven accurate: the Inuit testified that some of Franklin's men resorted to cannibalism, which has now been verified by forensic studies by Beattie, Keenleyside, and others. The Inuit led white men searching for Franklin to the bones of his men, to the places where their boats and camps had been, without error, a tradition that has continued up through to Louie Kamookak today. And, most significantly, the Inuit testimony consistently indicated the area where one of Franklin's ships had sunk, the spring after a winter during which they had visited the vessel, near an island in water shallow enough that the masts still showed above the surface. Without knowing the precise location, we can easily see that this account, which placed the ship near an island in Wilmot & Crampton Bay, has been proven entirely accurate.

This Inuit testimony, long ignored, was collected and collated by Woodman, who managed to sift through multiple accounts by multiple witnesses, accounts in which certain details varied, or dates and place-names were ambiguous (local bands of Inuit often gave names to familiar places which turned out to be identical to those used for other places by other bands). It was a tremendous labor, and it's no discredit to the original Inuit witnesses to say that, without Woodman's work, it would have been very difficult indeed to make much use of it.

That said, Unravelling remains a challenging read. One has the sense, even on the second or third time around, of having stumbled into a rabbit-hole of what are, initially at least, confusingly overlapping and interconnected accounts. Woodman organizes the material as clearly as possible, but even he can't avoid doubling back and forth a bit in his search to re-connect loose or missing ends. Which makes his book even more valuable, in that, even for those who think they know these tales, Woodman stimulates a careful reconsideration, a probing mind, and -- it can't be helped -- the tendency to form theories of one's own.

Woodman graciously acknowledges this, and offers insightful reflections on the developments -- the birth of the public Internet chief among them -- which have augmented what we know, even as they have, inevitably, re-muddied some of what had seemed clear waters.

A few days ago, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society gave out a newly-designed "Erebus medal," presenting 220 of them to those whose work contributed to the 2014 find. And yet, that list could readily have been shortened by about 219 -- for, without the work of David C. Woodman, there would almost certainly have been nothing to celebrate. His is one of the greatest achievements of amateur historians, whose love of mystery causes them to revisit that which the world of written reference falsely believes to have been solved. And, for those still fascinated by the Franklin story, there is good news: it still isn't.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Second in Command

Second In Command

by May Fluhmann

NWT Department of Information (1976)

Reviewed by Regina Koellner


It is a phenomenon that so many books have been written about Sir John Franklin and his ill-fated expedition, but so few about the officers and men who accompanied him. There is currently only one biography of Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier available, namely Michael Smith's Captain Francis Crozier: Last man StandingJames Fitzjames, Commander of H.M.S. Erebus, had to wait until 2010 for his story to be told by William Battersby in James Fitzjames – The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition. Graham Gore, Harry Goodsir and all the others still remain unsung heroes.

In Crozier’s case, though, there is in fact a second biography apart from Smith's, but other than in selected libraries and archives, it's hard to find a copy. The book, published in a small edition by the Government of the Northwest Territories (Department of Information), is appropriately called “Second in Command” and was written by Franklin Expedition enthusiast May Fluhmann in 1976.

This small softcover (162 pages) with its modest blue bookplate and a grainy reproduction of the only known daguerreotype of Crozier on the cover is very fitting for a book about that modest and unobtrusive man. It includes five pages with photos, most of which can be found in better quality on the internet nowadays. The most interesting illustration is a photograph of an envelope addressed in Crozier’s handwriting to James Clark Ross (Crozier’s closest friend since they both sailed as midshipmen with Parry in 1821).

May Fluhmann (1906 – 1985) was a professional Julliard-trained musician before she became a telegrapher. She developed a lifelong interest in John Franklin early on. Almost incidentally, while reading a book on Franklin, she discovered the Crozier letters held at the Scott Polar Research Institute by and asked the author where the cited letter by Crozier could be found. She then contacted SPRI and obtained copies of their Crozier collection. Her stated goal was not to write another book about the Franklin Expedition. Instead, she wanted to show the personality behind the forgotten historic figure of Francis Crozier; and what better way to find out about a man’s character than through his letters. And this is what makes “Second in Command” so interesting and well worth reading, even with Michael Smith’s biography now on hand.

The first part of the book describes Crozier’s family background and gives a short outline of his early career, but the middle part of the book is peppered with excerpts from Crozier’s letters. A large part of his last letter to James Clark Ross from Whalefish Island is there, as well as one written during Ross’ excursion with Parry to the North Pole in which Crozier’s deep affection and fear for his friend shines through the narrative of everyday shipboard life. We learn from other letters of Crozier’s fragile state of mind after the Antarctic expedition, his delight at discovering his interest for art in Florence, his fear of being left behind because the Admiralty might not approve two ships for the Antarctic voyage – and fearing the same prior to the Franklin Expedition. We see him agonizing about going second to Franklin instead of volunteering for the leadership of the exhibition, but also light-heartedly writing of his amusement at a small marble statue he had had made of himself in Italy, his caring for his elderly sisters, his love for his brothers and many other thoughts and minor and major events he writes about in his own entertaining style.

The third part of the book deals with the events following the disappearance of the Franklin Expedition. In the meantime, more detailed books on Inuit oral history about the expedition's last days have been published; among them the two volumes by David Woodman, and Dorothy Eber’s Encounters in the Passageand anyone who has made the effort to obtain a copy of “Second in Command” is most likely familiar with them. Although Miss Fluhmann makes some valuable points, she also veers a bit from the course of scientific neutrality a few times in defending her firm belief that Crozier was Aglooka, a theory which still has yet to be proved – or disproved. Nevertheless, she narrates Crozier’s alleged doomed path with apparent sympathy.

Francis Crozier was not a man given to beating his own drum. Through her book, May Fluhmann has allowed us to see a glimpse of his personality and so achieved her goal: to show us the human being behind the legend.