by Patrick Cahill, edited by David Hirzel
Pacifica, CA: Terra Nova Press. 173 pp., $20.00 USD.
Reviewed by: P.J. Capelotti, Division of Social Sciences, Pennsylvania State University, Abington College, Abington, PA 19001, USA. E-mail: email@example.com
James Gordon Bennett, the publisher of the New York Herald and the man who had dispatched Henry Morton Stanley to Africa in search of the British missionary Dr. David Livingstone, was equally fascinated with the Arctic. In 1873, Bennett dispatched two reporters to search for the survivors of Charles Francis Hall’s doomed North Pole expedition. Five years later, he assigned a reporter to an expedition in search of Sir John Franklin sponsored by the American Geographic Society and led by a U.S. Army lieutenant named Frederick Schwatka.
Bennett sponsored his greatest Arctic venture in 1879. A U.S. Navy captain, George Washington DeLong, was ordered to locate the ‘lost’ expedition of the Swede Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld—and then attempt to reach the North Pole itself. DeLong sailed from San Francisco in the Pandora, a former Royal Navy vessel which Bennett had purchased and renamed Jeannette after his sister. The navy agreed to man the ship if Bennett paid all the expenses of the expedition.
Even before the Jeannette reached the Arctic, Nordenskiöld and his ship Vega broke through the ice north of Russia and emerged into the Bering Sea. With no dramatic rescue to report, DeLong continued with his secondary mission and turned north towards Elisha Kent Kane’s chimerical open sea and the North Pole beyond. The Jeannette was soon beset in the ice north of the New Siberian Islands and, after two grueling years drifting about in the ice, crushed. DeLong and his men made a desperate retreat in the ship’s small boats to the Lena River delta on the Siberian coast. Only one of the three boats reached safety, another vanished with all hands, and DeLong’s own small boat made it to shore where he and all but two of his men starved to death as they waited in vain for relief. To intensify the disaster, a newly-commissioned U.S. Navy vessel sent to find DeLong, the U.S.S. Rodgers, was itself burned to the waterline and blown to pieces.
This interesting volume presents an edited version of the diary of a sailor on board the Rodgers, a thirty-two-year-old Irish-American mechanic named Patrick Cahill. Cahill was brought to the U.S. as a boy and by his mid-twenties had found work as on a railway in Panama. In 1880, Cahill joined the U.S. Navy as a Machinist’s Mate and the following year volunteered for service on the Rodgers as the navy sought to learn the fate of DeLong and his ship and crew.
Cahill must have possessed some literary ability in addition to his skills with machinery, as he was contracted by the San Francisco Chronicle to act as a correspondent during the Rodgers search for DeLong. Cahill’s notes from the cruise never seem to have made it to the Chronicle, but a typescript was later made of them and, combined with interviews he gave in his seventies to the Oakland Tribune, form the source material for this edited volume.
Cahill’s observations make for terrific reading. He describes his mates as “some pretty rough sailors” (p. 26), many of whom had been north previously and knew to carry a stash of trade goods with which to barter for furs and ivory in the far north. As Cahill wrote: “We expect to have all kinds of curios when we return” (p. 30). While the carpenter and cook suffered grievously from sea-sickness, Cahill loves being under sail: “it is grand to look at a big sea just as it comes aboard and dashes all over everything” (p. 31). When the Rodgers arrived in ‘Port Petropaulovski’ (now Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky) in late July, the officers on board the Russian cruiser Strelok (Cahill called it the 'Straylok') toasted the men of the Rodgers and the Russian Emperor, at which point the Americans who exactly was the emperor since the assassination of the last one. This quickly ended the celebrations, as the Russians, on the far side of the empire, had not yet learned of the assassination of Alexander II in St. Petersburg more than four months earlier.
By late August, the Rodgers had cleared the Bering Strait and searched at Wrangel Island and along the north coast of Siberian for any trace of the Jeannette. Finding none, the ship returned southwards and November anchored for the winter in St. Lawrence Bay on the eastern coast of the Chukotka Peninsula on the far eastern tip of Siberia. There, on November 30th, after the fire pumps had been disconnected to keep them from freezing, a fire in the fore hold broke out. The crew battled the fire as long as possible while the ship was run aground in about three fathoms. The ship burned to the waterline, and these are some of Cahill’s most vivid descriptions, as the crew scurried supplies ashore in the small boats before the ship was a total loss.
The entire crew escaped, to face a forced winter amidst four small villages of Inuit who nevertheless shared out what limited stocks of walrus and seal they possessed. Despite the near-starvation diet that nearly killed him, Cahill maintained his daily observations throughout the winter until a whaler arrived in the spring and took the men off to San Francisco. There Cahill recovered from his fascinating ordeal, left the navy, and made a career for himself in the city’s cable cars.
The volume is the product of Terra Nova Press, described as a ‘small POD publishing enterprise [that] seeks to bring into print the smaller, less-well-known true stories of polar exploration in the days of the sailing ship.’ The press is the result of editor David Hirzel’s longtime interest in Arctic and Antarctic exploration and, in particular, the Irish contribution to same, as previous works have covered the life and travels of the ‘Irish Giant’ of the Royal Navy, Tom Crean.
The lack of proper editing does show at times, with errors in punctuation and especially with inconsistencies in the use of italics and/or underlining for the names of ships and the titles of newspapers. In spite of these, the volume contains fascinating insights into a little-known sideshow of the vast saga of the Jeannette expedition and its aftermath.