Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Michael Palin's Erebus

Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time

by Michael Palin

Vancouver: Greystone Books USD $28
Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada CDN $37


Reviewed by John Wilson


In the past century and a half, dozens of books have been published dealing with the lost Franklin Expedition but only a few have stood the test of time—springing to mind are Richard Cyriax’s magisterial Sir John Franklin’s Last Arctic Expedition and David Woodman’s examination of the Inuit testimony, Unravelling the Franklin Mystery. Many are stylistically dated or poorly written or just plain weird, but for anyone wanting to add to the corpus of Franklin literature today, there is a much more dangerous pitfall—time.

As Michael Palin puts it in Erebus, after Lieutenant Schwatka’s return from his exploration of King William Island in 1880, “The indignation that fuelled the search, the wounded national pride that gave it such imperative, and the appetite of newspapers…for the grisly details had all diminished. There was a palpable sense of closure.” The skeleton of the story was known in as much detail as was possible, the memorialization could progress and for a century little was discovered to disturb the narrative. As Canada’s national interest in the Arctic grew in the second half of the 20th century, so the mystery of Franklin’s fate revived, fuelled by Owen Beattie’s work on the bodies buried at Beechey Island and the politics of sovereignty. Then the lost ships were discovered, Erebus in 2014 and Terror two years later. Suddenly, the risk of almost anything written about the Franklin disaster becoming outdated or being proven wrong overnight mushroomed. The hundreds of artifacts and the possibility of written records preserved in the cold water offer the chance of discovering more about the expedition at one fell swoop than many lifetimes of dedicated researching have previously done.

Palin’s book is not -- at least yet -- dated; it is very well written and only weird where the author wishes it to be. Most importantly, Palin cunningly sidesteps the issue of having his book undermined by the next dive on the wrecks: instead of focussing on the expedition, Palin gives us a biography of one of the ships.

After a short introduction with a title that could be out of Monty Python—"Hooker’s Stockings"—Palin gets down to business with a concise section outlining the construction of HMS Erebus in the Pembroke dockyards in Wales and the development of British interest in the ends of the earth after the Napoleonic wars. We learn about the early expeditions and through this are introduced to the two main characters in the Erebus story, James Clark Ross and John Franklin. The rest of the book is divided into two sections covering Erebus’s two great voyages: Ross’ four year exploration of the Antarctic and Franklin’s tragic attempt to transit the Northwest Passage. On both occasions she was accompanied by Terror under the command of Ross’ close friend Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier.

In 1839, Ross set off for the Antarctic. After replenishing in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), where John Franklin was Lieutenant Governor, they set off to explore Antartica. Over the following four years, the expedition mapped much of the continent’s coastline, located the south magnetic pole, named an active volcano Erebus, catalogued a plethora of animals and enough plants to provide the assistant surgeon, Joseph Hooker (he of the introductory stockings), with the 3,000 specimens that provided the basis for his classic six volumes of Flora Antarctica.

Ross’ expedition in Erebus and Terror was one of the great voyages of exploration—seventy years later Roald Amundsen said of it, “With two ponderous craft…these men sailed right into the heart of the pack [ice], which all previous explorers had regarded as certain death ... These men were heroes…in the highest sense of the word.” Palin’s judicious use of diaries and letters brings the voyage and the participants alive. It becomes almost a running gag as the Erebus’ Surgeon, Robert  McCormick catalogues the animals he slaughters on each trip ashore. Of course, that was his job and Palin gives him due credit for his love of nature and for his evocative prose, for example, his description of a penguin, “walking away upright as a dart… looking like an old monk going to mass.”

Palin, too, holds his own in vivid prose as when the expedition finally turns away from the ice and heads north: “More than a year of their three and a half years away had been spent in or near the most inhospitable continent on earth, with no relief from the relentless cold and no human contact of any kind, other than those men squeezed together on the two ships that carried them into this wilderness. And here they were, for a third season, grasping frozen lines with frozen hands, soaked to the skin, clinging to the rigging as the ships pitched and tossed and icebergs three times higher than their masthead loomed out of the darkness. And Cape Town still 2,500 miles away.”

Palin repeats his achievement in his use of letters from the participants of Erebus’ final voyage, in particular, James Fitzjames’ long letter home from Greenland. Fitzjames was third in command and captain of Erebus on Franklin’s attempt to sail through the Northwest Passage in 1845. He writes lightly and entertainingly, particularly in the pen-portraits of his fellow officers which Palin has dug out from the unpublished version of the letter—Stephen Stanley, Surgeon on the Erebus is described as, “…rather inclined to be good-looking, but fat, with jet black hair, very white hands, which are always abominably clean. and the shirt sleeves tucked up; giving one unpleasant ideas that he would not mind cutting one’s leg off immediately, if not sooner.”

Of course, unless legible letters or diaries are found in the wrecks of Erebus and Terror, Palin has nothing else to work with after the ships sailed from Greenland. Fortunately, Jane Franklin wrote letters to her missing husband and to anyone she felt could be of use in searching for him, however, the most moving work comes from much farther down the social scale. John Diggle was a veteran of Ross’ venture and signed on as cook on the Terror. After he had been gone for almost three years, his father wrote a letter to John to be taken on one of the many relief expeditions. He said, “I write these few lines to you in hopes to find you and all your shipmates in both ships well…” He then talks about his worry that his son is frozen in and in danger from scurvy. He concludes, “Dear son I conclude with our unbounded gratitude to you, your loving father and mother John and Phoebe Diggle.” The letter came back stamped “Returned to sender, There Having Been No Means of Forwarding It.”

Using Erebus as a structure for outlining British Polar exploration in the first half of the nineteenth century in general and Ross and Franklin’s exploits in particular is a wonderful idea and few could have carried it out as well as Michael Palin. His prose is lively and readable and he has an eye for the telling, unusual or odd detail and in the writings of McCormick, Fitzjames and others has some splendid material to work with. Palin has also visited many of the places important to the Erebus story, from what little remains of the dock where she was built and the dock she sailed from on her last voyage, to the Falkland Islands, Tasmania and the Canadian Arctic. This allows his travel-writer voice to come through and gives a modern, first-hand sense of the places her crew must have stared at in wonder.

There is not much in Erebus that will come as new to Franklin or polar exploration aficionados but there are snippets, such as that Ross wanted Fitzjames to come with him to the Antarctic as Gunnery Lieutenant but he was not available. Yet however much the reader knows of the background, Erebus is still a fascinating, readable account. For those with little knowledge but an interest tweaked by the recent discoveries, there are few better places to get a start.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Adventure at the Dawn of the Media Age

Flight to the Top of the World: the Adventures of Walter Wellman

By David L. Bristow

University of Nebraska Press, $29.95 (hc); $28.45 (kindle)

Reviewed by P.J. Capelotti


Walter Wellman is a unique figure in American journalism and exploration, comparable in some respects with Henry Morton Stanley.  However, since Wellman straddled many different fields: journalism, politics, exploration, aviation, technology, and the Polar Regions, he has been a particularly difficult individual to pin down in any one account of his life of writing and adventure.  His five expeditions in search of the North Pole from 1894-1909, along with an attempted stunt flight across the Atlantic in 1910, have long defined his life.  The present volume moves a bit closer to the goal of a full accounting but, in the end, as did Wellman himself so many times, it comes up short by failing to reach its stated goal.

The strengths of this biography are also its weaknesses.  First, the revelation of new details of Wellman’s youth and the beginnings and mid-career of his journalism, especially with regard to the prevailing management and labor turbulence and endemic corruption of the turn of the last century, are excellent.  Unfortunately, these make up a small fraction of the narrative.  Even here there are notable flaws.  Wellman’s coverage of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago is almost completely overlooked, and covered in barely a sentence.  This critical event in early middle age brought together and put on vivid display all of his eventual obsessions: technology (specifically aeronautics), the Arctic (specifically Franz Josef Land and the North Pole), and Norway (specifically its Arctic sea hunters).

The additions to the Wellman story are offset, as well, by the short shrift given to the final two and a half decades of Wellman’s life.  A full account of what he was doing in those years has been particularly lacking, especially so since Wellman’s expeditions have been covered in varying amounts of detail and accuracy in numerous prior accounts.  Wellman’s deep and complex secret life, beginning also in middle age and involving mistresses and illegitimate children in the U.S. and Europe, may never be known to a satisfying certainty.  It is possible if not probable that he was a bigamist, married simultaneously to Laura McCann, with whom he had five children, in the U.S., and Bergljot Bergersen, with whom he had three, in Norway.  Wellman likely met Bergersen during his final attempt to reach the North Pole from Spitsbergen in 1909, when Wellman was 51 and Bergersen 27.

Wellman died of cancer in 1934 at the age 74 and was cremated, his ashes scattered no one knows where.  Laura McCann died in April, 1938, at the age of 76, and was buried in a solitary grave in Waterford, Virginia, under the name Laura Wellman.  Bergersen died exactly a month later, at the age of 56, and was buried in her father’s plot in Vestre Gravlund in Oslo under the name Bergljot Wellman.  To the last, Wellman’s first wife despised him, while Bergersen’s story is wholly dark.  The stories of both relationships, along with at least one other that produced a child, remain largely hidden behind Wellman’s conspicuously public persona of the adventuring writer.

The second strength of the work is in the author’s overall thesis that Wellman was not so much a journalist or explorer as he was the packager of media events and, in this sense, one of the creators of our modern media environment, which sometimes can feel like our entire environment.  That Wellman was an augury, or even the progenitor, of the 24-hour media cycle, is an area ripe for exploration.  Unfortunately this theme is not reinforced enough to form a continuous thread throughout the work.

As this reviewer wrote more than two decades ago, there was a definite “hype effect” revealed by the confluence of Wellman’s journalism and his expeditions.  Ever since his first expedition, a lark to the Bahamas in 1891 to discover the precise landing spot of Columbus in the New World, Wellman continuously over-promised and under-delivered.  This worked so long as editors, sponsors, and the public, could be convinced that Wellman had an actual chance to reach the North Pole, or cross the Atlantic.

In these large and complicated quests, Wellman’s journalism always served not to inform but to entertain and, more critically, to mask his innate incompetence as either a qualified technologist or a properly prepared expedition leader.  In places, the author himself falls for this.  Describing the 1894 slaughter off the north coast of Svalbard of Wellman’s cohort of Belgian draft dogs, the author asserts: “Other expeditions planned on a high mortality rate for their dogs…” (p. 33).  This is a grotesque oversimplification of Wellman’s inexcusable shooting of all of his dogs just days into his first polar expedition.  Other expeditions did occasionally shoot their dogs, but these sad events came near the end of long and grueling treks or when the explorers were either in extremis or as part of a planned usage of dog meat to save men from scurvy.  For Wellman to make no attempt to bring home his dogs and instead shoot them before he had traveled anywhere, was disgraceful.

Such incompetence allowed professional explorers to quickly size up Wellman and agree that there was no chance of him ever reaching the North Pole, with or without an airship.  Robert Peary knew before 1900 that he would have no competition from Wellman.  Fridtjof Nansen in 1899 had been appalled at Wellman’s casual attitude to planning an escape route from Franz Josef Land.  A decade later, staring at the pillaged ruins of Wellman’s airship base on Danskøya, Nansen scathingly described Wellman as an advertising fraud.

By the time of his aborted 1909 polar airship flight, Wellman was all but ignored even by his own newspaper.  This chronic under-delivery of hard geographic results, more than anything, signaled the end of the explorer’s road for Wellman, and renders the 1910 transatlantic attempt more of a true ‘stunt,’ whereas the polar airship expeditions can be seen, at least in their early iterations, as serious attempts at pioneering fraught new technologies in a most extreme environment.

A more fitting title for the self-described hustling newspaperman would have been: WELLMAN! The Meteoric Rise and Stunning Crash of America’s Most Adventurous Journalist.  The chosen title, with its ironic claim of a Flight to the Top of the World that never came close to happening, copies Wellman’s optimistic hopes but masks his ultimate grinding unhappiness.  This is reflected nowhere so much as in an image of Wellman in 1926 (p. 292), looking utterly worn and vastly older than his 68 years.  It is a portrait of a beaten, forgotten man, one without a single legitimate public success to his credit and with his private life a hopeless shambles.  Wellman would never admit it but he had always been more Barnum than Nansen, yet without a fraction of Barnum’s success, fame, or legacy.  That Wellman is yet to receive his due.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

At the Edge: A life in search of challenge

At the Edge: A life in search of challenge

By Stephen J. Trafton

Amazon Digital Services LLC, $37.50 paperback, $7.49 eBook

Reviewed by Regina Koellner



To say Stephen Trafton led an interesting life would be an understatement. His achievements are many and versatile. Climbing Boulder Peak in Washington State, at the age of twelve led to an impressive career in mountain climbing, with numerous first ascents and subsequent leadership in mountain rescue.  A college job in a bank became a professional career which peaked in taking the US government to court and so saving what became Citibank. Later in life, he discovered a passion for car racing, and there he also excelled. He set the Ferrari land speed record in a car that he restored himself, and had an impressive racing career including an unsuccessful attempt to complete the Peking to Paris Rally. His passion for exploring led him across the USA on solo hikes and by kayak and on eleven expeditions to the High Arctic. His interest in the Franklin Expedition brought him to King William Island, where on his second visit he discovered a note left by Franklin searcher Frederick Schwatka.

This, Trafton’s first book, is entitled At The Edge – A life in search of challenge and covers his adventurous life from the early beginnings in the 1940s to the present time. In the foreword, he encourages his readers to push their own boundaries and challenge themselves by walking up to their personal edge, peeking to the other side, and walking back, being proud of the achievement. For that he includes tools of self-evaluation and goal setting. He also takes us on a wild ride through his life on edges most of us wouldn’t even dream of taking on.

The first part of the book deals with his expeditions into the Arctic and stories of mountain rescue. They are not in chronological order which is not too distracting as all are stand-alone, easy to read and always entertaining chapters. You know you are in for a wild ride when in the acknowledgements Trafton apologizes to his brother for the “ice axe in the forehead incident”. Unfortunately we never find out what exactly happened but it’s a synonym for the compelling, nail-biting and often hilarious tone the book is written in.

We learn intimate details about the perils of rectal body temperature measurement for a sponsor while climbing a mountain on Ellesmere Island or doing one's business in double-digit sub-zero temperatures, not to mention spending a night in frozen sleeping bags while a polar bear sniffs out the camp. Trafton takes us on a thrilling glacier crossing where deep crevasses are hidden under fragile snow bridges that when crossed shed icicles into the abyss. We also find out how you use spit to get your bearing when buried in an avalanche. Living on the edge indeed!

A more light-hearted paragraph deals with the group arriving at the remote DEW station on KWI telling the stunned personnel that they came to sell magazines. This is not the only part that makes one chuckle while reading. If it’s practical jokes in camp, being (temporarily) declared persona non grata on Spitzbergen for messing around with Russian observers, or a photo illustrating what happens when you discuss politics in the Arctic, Stephen Trafton’s sense of humour makes the book a very enjoyable read.

For Franklin aficionados the most interesting parts of the book are without a doubt those about King William Island. Just much of an Arctic buff Trafton is himself shows in the chapters on Ellesmere Island ,when he describes how he named several of the newly ascended peaks – in true discoverer fashion – after Arctic explorers and their ships. Unfortunately, the Canadian government had other ideas and gave the mountains Inuit names instead.

For those new to the topic, Trafton provides an overview on the Franklin expedition and the subsequent searches. Even the most seasoned Franklin scholar will be fascinated by the account of how Trafton found Schwatka’s note, possibly wince a little upon reading how he fished it out of its bottle to read it, and ponder his still holding a grudge against the Prince of Wales Museum in Yellowknife for not handing it back to him after conservation. Although it was found on Canadian soil, Trafton is still convinced that, since it was written by an American explorer, it should have gone to the US. The bottle in which the note was found now is part of Trafton’s Arctic library.

The book is a handsome softcover, illustrated by clear, easy-to-read maps and numerous colour photographs. It provides an entertaining read, not only for Arctic buffs and the historically inclined, but also to anyone who just likes a good adventure story.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Limits of the Known

Limits of the Known, by David Roberts.

336 pp. New York: Norton ISBN 978-0393609868

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore



After half a lifetime of mountaineering, and another half of canyoneering and writing books and magazine features, David Roberts has pulled together the various threads of his life in a book that is part memoir, part historical anthology of notable exploration, and part meditation on the meaning and limits of adventure and adventuring. Its summatory and valedictory flavour come from the autobiographical element, disclosed early on, that the author is living with an aggressive cancer (he guards us against the well-meant but double-edged metaphor of “battling” or “fighting” the disease), already spread and metastasized but against which, as of late 2017 when he finished writing, he was holding his own.

Each of the seven chapters of this artfully constructed book interleaves an account of one or more historical expeditions with an episode or aspect of the author’s own life that resonates with them, providing a parallel that Roberts then uses to discuss a series of themes that are fundamental to the mindset and actions of explorers and adventurers. While providing some finely written and thoroughly enjoyable expedition narratives, therefore, the book is much more than the sum of its narrative parts.

The most famous expedition covered in the book—Nansen’s polar drift in the Fram of 1893–96—is the subject of the opening chapter, where it’s interleaved with vignettes of Roberts’s childhood, discovering the joys of hiking and mountains in the Rockies, his imagination fired by space exploration, then by polar exploits like Nansen’s, and finally by mountaineering, the one arena that, in the 1950s, still seemed to offer the possibility of new discoveries—unclimbed peaks—of a kind that had once beckoned the great names of Arctic and Antarctic travel.

Another factor linking his experience with theirs is isolation, the underlying theme of the second chapter, which interleaves an enchanting account of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman’s reconnaissance of the remotest valleys of the Karakoram in 1937 with a description of an expedition that Roberts and a small group of companions, hungry for first ascents of unclimbed peaks, made to the Revelation Range in south-western Alaska in 1967. Roberts encountered his share of disappointment, failing to climb the peak he attempted in several campaigns over seven weeks, just as Nansen’s early optimism about sledging to the North Pole was crushed less than a month after leaving the Fram. Looking back from an age of satellite phones, the fifty days he spent without contact seemed to Roberts unfathomably isolated compared to today, giving him a kinship to Shipton and Tilman who, after leaving Srinagar with their porters and supplies were completely alone for four months—and with the crew of the Fram, a dozen men away from all other human contact for three years. Although extreme, such isolation was not an uncommon feature of expeditions during the great ages of exploration, an unavoidable sacrifice and a challenge that some rose to meet while others were crushed by it. In retrospect Roberts reports that the freedom to have no responsibility to contact the outside world for a time was an aspect of his Alaskan expedition that he treasures most—but at the same time is glad it was not much longer.

From the 1980s Roberts began to explore the landscape of the Anasazi in the American south-west, and his third chapter explores a conundrum that, as a climber, he became fascinated by as he visited the famous cliff-dwellings and, in remote canyons, discovered some previously unknown to archaeologists. Before the age of modern climbing equipment, how did those ancient people climb rock walls that seem dauntingly difficult even today? Samples of surviving Anasazi rope show they did not have enough strength to hold the weight of an adult, so they cannot have rappelled down from the clifftops. The ancient dwellers of the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali, by contrast, had stronger rope, and their burial caves in the cliffside commonly show a stout stick thrust into the rock at an upward angle near the cave mouth. Their method, it seems, was to hazard a dangerous free climb to a cave, put the stick in place, and then loop enough rope over it for both ends to reach the ground, from which point they could haul up their relatives’ bodies. With the Anasazi, as with the Toraja of Sulawesi and the Chachopoya of Peru, there is the additional complication not only of climbing to a ledge or cave but transporting materials to build elaborate structures there. But where ropes are too weak to bear human weight, they may be strong enough to hold some kind of frame to a vertical surface, and Roberts concludes that series of log or bamboo ladders, connecting one ledge to the next, may have been the method used.

For Roberts, an important element of this question is that pursuing it provided a release from the essentially solipsistic pleasures of mountaineering: “However thrilling my canyon play … the game was not about me. It was about them.” Searching for modes of adventure that had a longer resonance with human history also led him to an interest in rivers, which have always been “far more central to human existence than mountains”. What were the potamic equivalents, he wondered, to the last great unclimbed peaks? Surely it would be the last undescended rivers—those not yet navigated by boat from their source (or close to it) to their mouth. These need not necessarily be technically difficult exercises in whitewater, although many are. A more common problem is the remoteness of the spot at which the boats are put in the water, often requiring a long hike or helicopter ride just to get to the jumping off point. In a series of writing assignments Roberts accompanied Richard Bangs, who has made this his life’s work, in descending rivers in Ethiopia and, in the book’s longest sustained episode of comedy, New Guinea, where the BBC crew filming their descent were more focused on their hotel accommodation and the structure of the finished documentary than they were on actually filming. Roberts felt the thrill of encountering people along the riverbank who often had almost no exposure to the outside world—“What are they thinking? Who do they think we are? Why do they think we’ve come?”—but in the end the lack of answers seemed to become a metaphor for their frustratingly fugitive interaction with people and landscape alike, forever borne onwards by the water without time for reflection.

The quest for human contact is at the heart of chapter 5, which focuses on the journeys the Australian gold prospector Michael Leahy made in the interior of Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, when he was the first outsider ever to contact several tribes whose boundaries of experience seldom extended beyond their own valleys. With a mixture of genuine anthropological curiosity and a crude reliance on firearms to overawe all those he met, Leahy never found his crock of gold but did leave behind some five thousand photographs and several reels of 16mm film as a record of his travels, along with diaries that became more detailed and thoughtful as he progressed and gained confidence as a writer, providing modern anthropologists with a now-irreplaceable record of highland Papuan societies before any appreciable contact had taken place. Ironically, such first contact was for Leahy an unlooked-for side effect of his main purpose, yet it is what today places him in the line of first-contact explorers from Marco Polo to Bernal Diaz and James Cook.

In an age when satellite imagery can reveal every inch of the Earth’s visible surface—whether humans have trod there or not—we are accustomed to thinking of the physical exploration of the planet as being completed. But in two respects it is just beginning. The first, which Roberts does not go into, is the underwater world—both the geographical interest of the abyssal plain and submarine mountain ranges and the human interest of shallower seas that are the new frontier for archaeologists investigating the drowned surfaces on which our Palaeolithic ancestors walked. The second, which Roberts does write about, are the secret spaces underground: the world of caves. While everyone knows the location and height of the highest points on each continent, he points out, no one knows where the deepest points of the deepest caves are, because they probably haven’t been discovered yet. While a mountain might be seen and measured a century before it is climbed, no one can see and measure a cave—or even be sure of its existence—until they are actually descending into it. And this exploration is happening right now: over the last two decades the title of “world’s deepest cave” has been contended by various cavern systems in France before rival teams began “pushing” the cave systems of Chevé and Huautla (in Mexico) and Krubera (in the Caucasus of Georgia) in long campaigns involving huge quantities of equipment and dozens of international cavers, resembling the Himalayan mountaineering assaults of the 1950s. Currently Krubera holds the record at 7,206 feet, but that is surely not the last word.

In the final chapter Roberts recounts his ongoing medical treatment and writes movingly of the deep friendships that his life of adventuring have led to, but also of the toll that life has taken on his wife Sharon, acknowledging the unthinking cruelty with which he brushed off her worries about accidents and bear attacks during his climbing trips even as he remembers a golden week they spent alone camping on an Alaskan lake island before their floatplane pickup. But for those in the future who, despite their loved-one’s misgivings, find their pulse quickened by the thought of adventuring into the unknown, Roberts sees no end in sight to the riches Earth has to offer.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Thou Shalt Do No Murder

Thou Shalt Do No Murder

by Kenn Harper

Iqaluit, NU: Nunavut Arctic College Media, 2017. ISBN 978-1-879568-49-1

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore



For more than thirty years Kenn Harper has been writing historical books and journalism that skilfully combine the archival sources available in southern Canada with the rich oral histories of the Inuit, among whom he has lived for half a century. In doing so he’s shown the journalist’s unerring instinct for finding compelling human stories that are emblematic of the cultural exchange, and often cultural collision, between the two. But he’s also shown the historian’s ability to step back from his immediate subject, seeking its roots in the longer term and the broader view, with an impressively unpartisan sympathy for all the characters, Inuit and European, who fall within his view. In 1986 he first told the story of Minik, the Inuit boy swept along in the wake of Robert Peary’s polar monomania (Give Me My Father’s Body, republished in a new and much expanded edition as Minik, the New York Eskimo in 2017). And two years ago he published two collections, titled In Those Days, of his regular historical column in the Nunatsiaq News. The second of these volumes focused on Arctic Crime and Punishment, and it is one of these stories that Harper has chosen to expand into a full-length study, Thou Shalt Do No Murder.

On 15 March 1920 the independent fur trader Robert Janes was ambushed and shot dead at a hunting camp on the ice near Cape Crauford at the mouth of Admiralty Inlet, the north-westernmost corner of Baffin Island. The man who shot him, Nuqallaq, was one of about twenty Inuit in the camp, most of whom agreed with his action. None of them attempted to hide what they had done, but respectfully buried Janes’s body and, on returning to their home settlement of Pond’s Inlet, brought back and stored his furs and trade goods in his house before reporting their actions to the fur traders there. These events, so baffling on the surface, were the climax to a long series of confrontations, stretching over years, that the increasingly unstable Janes had had with Nuqallaq and most of the other hunters in the camp.

Robert Janes was a Newfoundlander, originally a sailor and eventually ship’s master, who first came north in 1910 on one of Joseph Bernier’s many voyages for the Canadian government. Bernier’s practice was to build cairns, fly flags, and make declarations of claim on behalf of Canada at strategic points on as many different Arctic islands as he could, but in between he traded furs on his own account, often using government-supplied goods as trade items but selling the furs for his own profit. Janes, his second-in-command, was drawn into his web of embezzlement, trading on his behalf during the winter at Pond’s Inlet. After an abortive diversion into gold-prospecting, he eventually got backing from a Newfoundland businessman, Kenneth Prowse, to set up a well-stocked trading station on his own account in 1916.

Almost immediately, however, he began sowing the seeds of his own downfall by his approach to trade. Attempting to ingratiate himself with the local hunters in the hope they would supply him rather than Bernier or another wily businessman, Henry Toke Munn, he gave the Inuit valuable items—guns, ammunition, knives—that he regarded as advances on future payment in furs. But it seems that the Inuit regarded the items as gifts, sweeteners to set the ball rolling in a new trading relationship. As his stock of better trade goods ran out and, increasingly desperate, he was left with only minor items such as cutlery and plugs of tobacco, this mutual misunderstanding was compounded by Janes’s increasingly brusque and overbearing manner, peremptorily demanding furs with menaces before he had even asked for them. Hunters became increasingly disinclined to deal with him as he abused them, eventually attacking one, Umik, with a knife and threatening to shoot him. He also developed a deep personal animus against Umik’s son, Nuqallaq, who was having an affair with Kalluk, the woman providing Janes with wifely services (by arrangement with her husband) during his stay. Through intermediaries, he warned Nuqallaq that he would shoot him on sight if he came near his post, and said the same in a letter of pure venom sent to Bernier’s post manager. Munn’s post manager Jamie Florence, meanwhile, not only had few furs but not enough food to feed himself. He appealed to Janes to buy some of his supplies and Janes, now desperate for furs, gave his terms: Florence must hand over half the furs he had collected for Munn. It was a demand too far, and Florence stuck out the winter of 1917–18 on starvation rations.

But the watershed moment came in September 1919, when for the third summer in a row a relief vessel expected from Janes’s business partner in St John’s failed to arrive. Unbeknown to him, Prowse had received a visit from the wily Munn, who told him not to bother sending a ship to pick up Janes since he himself was going north that year and would bring Janes back. When he arrived he learned of Janes’s demand for furs from Florence, and when Janes arrived at Pond’s Inlet and asked to be shipped out, the same terms were vengefully laid before him: Munn would take him home, but only in exchange for half of his own furs. A demand that would have inconvenienced Munn would have ruined Janes, who, beaten up by Munn’s men, refused. It was a turning point that the Inuit said unhinged the lone trader. His only option for ever getting back would be to return south by dogsled.

After enduring another miserable winter at his post, he and his Inuit post assistant Uuttukuttuk set out by sledge in February 1920. When they reached Admiralty Inlet they found the sea-ice hunting camp where Janes knew he would find several men who he thought owed him furs. They spent several days at the camp as Janes demanded and strong-armed fox pelts from the sleds of the hunters. Used to his tactics by now, the Inuit stoically went about their lives until a newly arrived hunter Miqutui, who had come from the direction Janes was travelling in, told the trader that the ice on that route was so bad he wouldn’t be able to get through that year. With all his options for escape blocked, the news cracked what little mental equilibrium Janes had left. He began threatening to shoot the dogs, and then the people, cooling down only because he temporarily couldn’t find his gun. Two women were so terrified they quietly left the camp, meeting hunters returning to it. Nuqallaq was among them, and as the natural leader of the group he knew that something had to be done.

Although Harper doesn’t draw the comparison, perhaps the closest situation to Nuqallaq’s dilemma in earlier Arctic history was John Richardson’s in October 1821, when he had to decide to shoot the voyageur Michel Terohaute once he became certain that Terohaute, who had already murdered one of their companions and cannibalized others, would otherwise kill him and Hepburn. Likewise, Nuqallaq and his fellow hunters were far from any settlements where they could enlist aid and, before a time when the police had any permanent presence in the north, they were entirely on their own with a dangerously volatile man whom they expected to open fire on them the next time he emerged from his igloo. So Ululijarnaaq called for Janes to come out of his igloo to see some furs, and when he did, Nuqallaq shot him dead.

The Canadian government did not marshal a response until 1921, when it sent a single policeman, Alfred Joy, to act first as coroner, then as justice of the peace, and finally as constable to effect an “open arrest”—there were no facilities for incarceration—of three men, Nuqallaq, Aatitaaq, and Ululijarnaaq.  His report went south the following summer, and only in the one after that, 1923, did a government party arrive at Pond Inlet to conduct the trial. Although the testimony of all the Inuit called as witnesses was clear that Janes had been behaving in a manner so aggressive they feared for their lives, Nuqallaq, as the man who had taken the responsibility of pulling the trigger, was found guilty, though of manslaughter rather than murder. Ululijarnaaq was found guilty of abetting him, though with a recommendation for clemency, and Aatitaaq was acquitted. Ululijarnaaq served his two-year sentence as an open prisoner at Pond’s Inlet, while Nuqallaq was sent south to prison in Manitoba on a sentence of ten years. His health broken by TB, the radical change of climate, and hard labour, he was allowed to return north two years later on licence, the government fearing that if he died and was never seen again the salutary tale he would tell of prison experience would be lost on his community at Pond’s Inlet. Although he tried to pick up the threads of his former life again, he was dead from TB within a year of returning.

On one level, this is a tragedy of personalities. Janes seems to have been short-tempered and, as his fortunes got worse, increasingly overbearing and then aggressive, frequently losing control in violent outbursts. This naturally brought him into conflict with anyone with the confidence and self-possession to stand up to him, which Nuqallaq certainly had. But Nuqallaq was also a piece of work: his first wife had committed suicide rather than put up with his continued beatings, and his young second wife was subject to the same treatment.

But Harper expertly puts this personal tragedy into its larger context—of the fur trade and its effect on Inuit communities, and of a Canadian state at first hesitant but eventually determined to impose visible marks of its sovereignty over lands, and the allegiance of its people, which it claimed in theory but had barely begun to get to grips with in practice. Harper’s mastery of all these levels to his story is what makes his book’s cumulative effect so impressive.

The intense competition that evolved between rival fur traders, competing for the limited trade of Pond’s Inlet, meant that, in a land where profits were modest at best, one bad year could make the difference between success and failure and traders’ could never afford to relax, or fail to take a chance to best the competition. Bernier had the backing of the Canadian government, Munn that of a financial consortium in Britain, but Janes was bankrolled by just one man in St John’s, so was in the most precarious position. Harper’s work in Canadian and British archives bears fruit in the behind-the-scenes correspondence he reveals going on between and about these and other traders as they jockeyed for advantage in the North.

And the fur traders’ presence in the High Arctic was itself a manifestation of long-term forces playing out in the South. Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic, not even acknowledged by the Canadian government until the 1890s, was still at the stage of assertion and proclamation. Only occasional exploratory expeditions by the United States and European powers would goad Ottawa into actual action, but even that would be done as far as possible through diplomatic channels. Actually establishing a physical presence of the state was an expensive last resort. What they typically relied on instead was for fur traders to act as proxy representatives of Canadian power and values, so someone like Bernier was for them an ideal representative: he planted flags and made speeches to the Inuit telling them they were now Canadian citizens, but also managed to tie them into the Canadian economy through his fur-trading, deflecting men away from hunting food for their families towards hunting non-food game for their skins, thus increasing their dependency on trade goods still further. It’s hard to imagine that no civil servant in Ottawa noticed that Bernier was siphoning off government provisions to line his own pocket: it’s likely they just considered it a reasonable price to pay for maintaining a Canadian presence in the North.

Another mechanism of proxy representation was religion, and Harper details the strange syncretic forms of belief that grew up around this time as Bibles translated into Inuktitut syllabics were disseminated long before missionaries were there to make sense of them. This left the field open for those who wanted to set themselves up as religious leaders, and one of the first to do so was none other than Umik. He established a Christian commune at Igloolik in which he placed himself at the head. He directed where the others should hunt, but did no hunting himself. He declared that men should no longer swap their wives for a season, as the custom had been, yet he continued to do so himself. And Nuqallaq, as his son, shared in these privileges, which can only have added to his cynicism.

But the killing of Robert Janes required the Canadian state to make its presence known in a way that it could not delegate to a proxy: the operation of law. First in the person of Joy, and finally in the person of a judge, Louis Rivet, travelling with the staff and trappings of a court, this was the point at which the state had to turn up in person. Here again Harper is meticulous in establishing the background to the scene that unfolded, giving us summaries of three similar cases in the western Arctic that occurred in the years around the Janes killing, and the gradually escalating judicial response. A 1912 killing of an American sports hunter and a Canadian surveyor had been deemed acts of self-defence when the American seemed about to kill one of his Inuit guides, and the case did not come to court. The following year a very similar case occurred, this time involving two priests: again the elder one lost his temper, threatened to shoot his two Inuit guides, and was stabbed by them before he could do so, and again the companion, fleeing away, was also killed in the melee. This time it came to trial in two separate cases: in the first, one defendant was found not guilty of murdering the younger priest; in the second, both were found guilty of killing the elder priest—the one who had actually threatened violence, and thus ironically the one in which the Inuit had the stronger case for self-defence. But the automatic death sentence was then commuted, and the men were discharged from open confinement after little more than a year. Finally, in April 1920, just a month after Janes was killed, a young man in Tree River killed a police constable and a fur trader after the policeman had arrested him and his uncle for five other murders on the Kent Peninsula. With clear and cool premeditation, these killings seemed to represent the clearest case of murder, and when the case came to trial in July 1923, a few weeks before the trial at Pond’s Inlet, it again led to guilty verdicts, but not this time to commutation, and both defendants were hanged.

In all three cases the actual judicial result was undermined by rhetoric, both spoken and unspoken, that made it clear the process and the verdicts reached were important less for their truth than for the salutary moral effect it was hoped they would have in convincing the Inuit population, first, of the mercy of the law, then of its impartiality, and eventually of its unrelenting determination to punish if that initial lenience were abused. Harper describes them as “show trials”, which is perhaps too strong a term since, although they were procedurally flawed in the many specifics he documents, they were a response to actual violent deaths, rather than the purely fictitious crimes the term suggests.

This is the immediate context in which the three men were tried at Pond’s Inlet, but it’s interesting that the verdict, flawed as it might have been, does not represent the continued ratcheting up of severity that might have been expected from the pattern of those three previous trials. The mitigating circumstances of Janes’s behaviour, and the reality of the fear of imminent violence he inspired, seems to have been at least partially recognized, while the differing sentences might have been intended to show that each man’s culpability was being judged individually, rather than making an undifferentiated example of them all.

But translation problems with the trial—testimony had to be filtered through two translators (one of them the prosecution counsel!) between the Inuktitut witnesses and the Francophone jurors—meant that the defendants, and their broader community, seem to have had little understanding of what was going on. Later, stories emerged in Pond’s Inlet that Nuqallaq had been taken away not for the killing but for beating his wives, or that a demonstration of kayaking prowess by Ululijarnaaq had so impressed the jurors that it turned them aside from their intention of killing the defendants. The exceptional range of Harper’s sources, gleaned from dozens of conversations over the years with descendants of Inuit eyewitnesses, gives this, as every other part of his account, a richness that could never be recreated from published sources alone. The author’s act of bringing together archival and oral sources reveals the broader tragedy of which the Janes case was a part, that of two cultures with different conceptions of law and punishment, each misinterpreting the other’s actions through their own prisms of understanding.

Anyone with an interest in Canadian history and the North should welcome Harper’s latest as a masterly account of the case and its background, as a first-class evocation of a time and place, and not least as a healing and perhaps redemptive braiding together of perspectives to enhance the understanding of all.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage

Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage

By Ken McGoogan

Toronto: HarperCollins, 2017

Reviewed by Kenn Harper



Ken McGoogan has produced yet another worthy northern book. Dead Reckoning sets out to tell, as its sub-title proclaims, “The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage.” The book is peopled with the usual suspects in the history of Arctic exploration and the search for the elusive Northwest Passage. I needn’t name them here; if you are reading this, you already know who they are.  But this book introduces other names that will be unfamiliar to many readers, even some well-versed in northern history. Their stories are the “untold stories” of the sub-title.

McGoogan points out in his Prologue that orthodox history only grudgingly acknowledges non-British explorers - he specifically mentions Amundsen, Kane and Hall - as well as “short-changing” fur-trade explorers - and here he mentions Hearne, Mackenzie and Rae. He has mentioned these explorers before, of course, and his focus on John Rae is well-known. But in the present volume he takes his championship of the neglected considerably further. “The twenty-first century,” he says, “demands a more inclusive narrative of Arctic exploration–one that accommodates both neglected explorers and forgotten First Peoples.”

 His goal, then, is “to restore the unsung heroes to their rightful eminence.” He recognizes not just the physical work, but the contributions, of the fur-trade explorers, and of Dene, Ojibway, Cree, and especially Inuit. He points out that Franklin’s ships would still be undiscovered at the bottom of the ocean were it not for Inuit and their oral histories.

And so the reader encounters unfamiliar names in this sweeping tale. McGoogan’s point is that they have largely been nameless to date, so I feel compelled to name them here, in solidarity with McGoogan’s championing of them, and to help in rectifying the injury that past histories have done them.

Thanadelthur, an unsung Dene woman who assisted James Knight, has her story told in these pages, as do other Dene leaders, Matonabbee, who accompanied Hearne, and Akaitcho, who assisted Franklin on his overland expeditions. The Ojibway hunter, Thomas Mistegan, played an important role in support of John Rae. Even the Iroquois voyageur (and murderer), Michel, makes an appearance.

Two Greenlandic Inuit are recognized in these pages: John Sakeouse is present for his role in helping John Ross make the first contact by Europeans with the Inughuit of north-western Greenland; Hans Hendrik is featured for the reliance Elisha Kent Kane placed on him.

Early Inuit interpreters in what is now Canada ranged far and wide. They include Tattannoeuck and Hoeootoerock, both from the western shores of Hudson Bay, but who travelled extensively with explorers as far west as the Mackenzie Delta. Albert One-Eye lost his life in the service of John Rae. Ouligbuck (William Ouligbuck Senior), an Inuk from the Keewatin region, worked with explorers and traders as far east as Fort Chimo (Kuujjuaq) and as far west as Fort McPherson, certainly an accomplishment worth noting, yet the historical record has been generally silent on his contributions, less so for those of his son, William Ouligbuck Junior, on whom much of Rae’s success depended.

Other Inuit contributed directly to the work of those Qallunaat explorers who searched for Franklin and his missing men. The oral histories provided by men like In-nook-poo-zhe-jook and Puhtoorak, and the indispensable couple, Tookoolito and Ebierbing, not to mention their physical labours – and those of men like Tulugaq - in support of the expeditions of Hall and Schwatka, leave one wondering why their stories have not been known earlier. Tookoolito’s brother, Eenoolooapik, played an important role in the rediscovery of Cumberland Sound by whalers, but no role at all in the search for Franklin or the Northwest Passage. But his biographer later sailed as assistant surgeon with Franklin, and this prompts McGoogan to tell his story in a “what if” chapter. Might things have turned out differently for Franklin if Eenoolooapik had travelled with his friend, the surgeon, on Franklin’s doomed expedition? Eenoolooapik can be seen here as a surrogate for Inuit in general, and the question becomes – What if Franklin had made use of Inuit travel methods and Inuit knowledge? It’s a question worth pondering.

McGoogan devotes a chapter also to Knud Rasmussen, an explorer-ethnographer of Danish and Greenlandic heritage, who spoke Greenlandic (closely related to Inuktitut) as his native language. He collected Franklin reminiscences on his epic dog-sled journey across Arctic America from Hudson Bay to Bering Strait. He travelled with two indispensable Inughuit companions. Ironically McGoogan doesn’t give us their names, but they were the hunter, Qaavigarsuaq, and his female cousin, Arnarulunnguaq.

Of course, the story must end (and does) with acknowledgement of the contributions of Louie Kamookak and Sammy Kogvik, both instrumental in the finding of the Erebus and Terror.
McGoogan highlights also the work of non-British explorers whom he feels history has short-changed, among them Jens Munk, a Dane who led an early and tragic expedition to Hudson Bay, and Roald Amundsen, the first to sail the Northwest Passage. David Woodman, a modern-day researcher, is given the credit he richly deserves for his work in pointing out that Inuit oral histories held the key to “unravelling the Franklin mystery.”

McGoogan achieves admirably his goal of bringing the unsung, whether Indigenous or Qallunaat, to the fore. In some areas, I would suggest he overachieves it.

In his desire to give Indigenous people their due, he sometimes over-reaches. While there is ample reason to include Hans Hendrik for his work with Kane, and Tookoolito and Ebierbing for their assistance to Hall, there seems little reason to discuss Hall’s expedition in search of the North Pole, in which all three participated, in a book on the Northwest Passage; perhaps it was a way of making the Inuit biographies more complete. The inclusion of a chapter on Minik (the New York Eskimo) in a book on the passage is more perplexing, although I am personally grateful for the exposure this inclusion gives to Minik’s sad story.

And yet a few Inuit who were involved in the search for Franklin are omitted, perhaps because the author felt their roles were quite minor. Kallihirua (properly Qalaherhuaq, and usually abbreviated to Kalli), from northern Greenland, was with Ommanney in 1850 and ended up in England where he assisted Captain John Washington in preparing an English-Eskimo dictionary for the use of Franklin search parties. The West Greenlander, Adam Beck, also played a minor (and confusing) role in the Franklin search.

In his blog on August 30, McGoogan pointed out that “copies from the first print run include a map-related glitch that will turn these books into collectors’ items.” The challenge implicit in his statement was to find the glitch. OK, I found it. It is the misplacement of the maps (but not the map titles) on pages 206 and 254. All the maps, by the way, and especially the end-paper maps are superb.

A book of this scope necessarily gives rise to questions and quibbles. They are remarkably few.

In discussing James Knight’s ill-fated expedition, which perished, it is claimed, in its entirety, he makes no mention of “the English Man.” Between 1738 and 1744 Francis Smith, the captain of a Hudson’s Bay Company trading sloop which ventured annually north from Churchill, reported that at Whale Cove the Inuit called one of their number “the English Man.” The captain noted that he was of an age that meant that he could possibly be the son of a survivor of the Knight expedition and an Inuit woman. This is supposition, of course, but would have made a nice aside.

The controversial Moses Norton of Churchill is referred to as “HBC governor” (43), when what is meant is “chief factor,” the position that Norton held there from 1762 until his death in 1773. The same error is repeated in reference to Samuel Hearne (52).

In “Matonabbee Leads Hearne to the Coast,” the slaughter of Inuit by Dene at Bloody Falls is recounted. But I was disappointed that there was no reference to recent scholarship casting doubt on the veracity of Hearne’s account of the massacre – whether one believes the recent scholarship or not - although an earlier chapter casts doubt on Hearne’s account of the James Knight story.

Eenoolooapik’s birthplace, Qimisuk, is not Blacklead Island (155), which is farther down the coast of Cumberland Sound and has the Inuktitut name Uummannarjuaq. Qegertarsuag should be Qeqertarsuaq (364). “Qallunaat,” the word given for “white man” is the plural form; the singular is “qallunaaq” (399).

On page 335, it is claimed that in 1870 when Lady Franklin visited him, Charles Francis Hall was working on his “soon-to-be-published book Life with the Esquimaux: A Narrative of Arctic Experience in Search of Survivors of Sir John Franklin’s Expedition.” But that book was published in 1866, the American edition of a two-volume work first published in England under a different title two years earlier. In 1870 Hall was, in fact, working on plans for his North Pole expedition. He never published an account of his second expedition, the one in which Lady Franklin was interested; his notes were edited and published posthumously as a third-person narrative in 1879.

But these are minor quibbles in a sweeping work that sets out to bring the Indigenous contributors to northern exploration into the story as participants with names – not just tribal affiliations or occupations stated as “hunter” or “my faithful interpreter” – and lives, families, and accomplishments.  McGoogan achieves his goal. Let’s hope that future writers follow his lead and give Indigenous people their rightful place in the development of inclusive, cross-cultural histories of northern exploration.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Minik, the New York Eskimo

Minik, the New York Eskimo: An Arctic Explorer, a Museum, and the Betrayal of the Inuit People

Havover, NH: Steerforth Press

$17 (US), $20 (CA)

By Kenn Harper

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter



This is a new, and substantially revised edition of Kenn Harper's book, which was originally titled Give Me My Father's Body: The  Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo. Originally published in 1986 by Blacklead Books in Iqaluit (then still known as Frobisher Bay), the book recounts in plain yet passionate detail the sad details of the life of Minik (or Mene) Wallace, a young boy who was among a group of Inuit brought back from northwest Greenland by Robert Peary, at the seeming behest of his sponsors, particularly Morris Jesup of the Museum of Natural History, and the anthropologist Franz Boas.

The first US edition of the book came out from Steerforth in 2001; we reviewed the book in what was, at the time, only the second 'issue' of the Arctic Book Review. And we stand by everything we said there; we still feel, as we wrote then, that "in a book as meticulous and thoughtful as this, the author can seem invisible at times, but Harper manages to say just what is needed, and when it's needed, to add to the difficult and poignant story he has so patiently uncovered." And this is yet more true of this new edition; every portion from the previous edition has been carefully gone over and selectively refined; there is also a good deal of new material, and new photographs, the fruit of Harper's ongoing research into the story over the past two decades.

Among the more significant such material is the identity and role of the woman who served as translator for Minik, his father Qisuk, and others in their group during their time in New York. She was Esther Eneutseak, a Labrador Inuk who had been in the United States since 1892, on her way to become part of the "Eskimo Village" at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At the exposition, she'd given birth to a daughter, Nancy, who would go on to become the star of many such attractions, and the first Inuk to be credited with writing and starring in a Hollywood film. At that moment, though, Nancy was back in Labrador being cared for by relatives, while Esther -- only 21 at the time -- had been hired as a maid by William Wallace, the chief custodian at the Museum.

It was a fortunate hire -- Esther soon became known to the anthropologists at the Museum, and served as the principal informant for a key early paper on Inuit burial and mourning customs. This paper, which Harper originally credited to Theodore Kroeber, a young anthropologist who worked with Boas, he has now found to be largely the work of Boas himself, working with Esther. The subject of the paper had a poignant resonance with Minik's own plight: following the death of his father, Qisuk, Boas and the others at the museum staged a burial on the Museum grounds in order to see what sort of customs the young boy would follow. They didn't bury Qisuk's body -- that they wanted for their scientific work, and to mount the skeleton for display -- but only buried a log covered in cloth.

It was the revelation of this deception that marked the start of Minik's sad destiny; although he was adopted by the Wallaces and treated in every conscious way the same as their own son, the news of his father's body reached his ears all the same, from his schoolmates:
  "He was coming home from school with my son Willie one snowy afternoon, when he suddenly began to cry.  'My father is not in his grave,' he said, 'his bones are in the museum.'
    "We questioned him and found out how he had learned the truth. But after that, he was never the same boy.  He became morbid and restless.  Often we would see him crying, and sometimes he would not speak for days.
    "We did our best to cheer him up, but it was no use.  His heart was broken.  He had lost faith in the new people he had come among."
And the resonance of these words still reaches us today. This is indeed a story of a young Inuk, a polar explorer, and of betrayal -- but most of all, it remains a very human story. And the inhumanity of nearly all those in whose balance Minik's life hung has never been told so vividly.

Friday, April 21, 2017

From the Tundra to the Trenches

From the Tundra to the Trenches

By Eddy Weetaltuk

Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016
$24.95 Canadian/ $27.95 US

Reviewed by Kenn Harper



To say that Eddy Weetaltuk lived an eventful life, unlike the lives of his fellow Inuit, is an understatement. He was born in 1932 on Strutton Island in James Bay, one of twelve children. His surname, he points out, means “innocent eyes” (and should really be spelled Uitaaluttuq). His grandfather, George Weetaltuk, was a guide for the film-maker Robert Flaherty in the making of his ground-breaking documentary, Nanook of the North. Eddy’s childhood was what one would expect for an Inuk boy growing up in the 1930s and 40s at the southern limit of traditional Inuit land, in James Bay and on the Quebec coast – periods of joy and hunger in the comfort of a large family.  He went to school in Fort George, and finished the eighth grade at boarding school. By the time he reached adulthood, he was multi-lingual, speaking English, Inuktitut, French and Cree.

Although he describes the loneliness he experienced at school in Fort George because of his absence from family, Eddy focuses on the inter-racial friendships he made there, and the camaraderie he had with the religious brothers who were his teachers.  It is perhaps worth noting that, at a time when Canadian media is obsessed with the subject of abuse encountered by indigenous students at residential schools, and indigenous authors are documenting their own experiences of abuse, this book is not of that genre.

Always curious about the world outside his small community, and encouraged by a Catholic priest, in 1951 Eddy made a fateful decision – to go south. His friend, Brother Martin, told him “Edward, my dear son, do not stay in the North. Do whatever it takes but go south. Your real place is there… you will be able to succeed there… Our laws are foolish; we should not be preventing Eskimos from going anywhere.” This seems to be the genesis of Eddy’s belief that Inuit were not allowed to leave the north; although technically mistaken – there was no such law - in practical terms few Inuit at the time had the language and other skills needed to make the transition to a southern life.

Fearing the discrimination he thought would confront him outside his comfort zone, Eddy changed his name – he would no longer be Eddy Weetaltuk E9-422, but rather Eddy Vital, and he would pass as a French-Canadian. He made up a cover story that his father was a French-Canadian from Winnipeg, with the surname Vital, and his mother an Inuk “which made me not Eskimo but Canadian.” (Those were the days when people of mixed race often denied their indigenous ancestry, rather than embracing it.)

Eddy joined the Army and was sent to Korea. He saw battle there, and sought his solace, like many young soldiers, in alcohol and in the brothels of Japan and Korea. Following his Korean service, he trained as a parachutist in Manitoba, then was stationed for many years in Germany before finally leaving the Army in 1967 and returning to northern Quebec.

The story of how Eddy’s life experiences finally made it into print is almost as interesting as his story itself. He first wrote down his tale in 1974. With the help of a friend, he sent the handwritten manuscript of about 200 pages, along with twenty drawings – for Eddy was an artist as well as a writer - to the National Museum of Man in Ottawa (now the Canadian Museum of History). And there it languished. In 2002 a curator came across the forgotten manuscript and drawings, and arranged for them to be transferred to the Canadian War Museum. Eddy agreed to the transfer, believing that the war museum might take more of an interest in his story and finally publish it.  But again it languished. Then, with the help of a lawyer, he recovered the manuscript from the war museum, and submitted it to a southern publisher. They considered it, but wanted major revisions. And so it went unpublished once more.

Then, by chance, the lawyer met an academic, Thibault Martin, at a conference and told him the story of Eddy’s manuscript. Martin had previously met Eddy while doing research for his doctorate, and the two began a collaborative editing process. Eddy died at his home in Umiujaq in 2005, when the editing was almost complete. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see his work published.

Eddy’s book was published first in French in 2009, in Paris, by a publisher which specialized in exceptional life stories. In 2015, a German language edition was produced. Finally, it has appeared in English, in the University of Manitoba series, First Voices, First Texts. 

Thibault Martin is not reticent to acknowledge the role he played in shaping the manuscript for a non-Inuit audience. Eddy had been “adamant in his refusal to write an academic text that would cater to an audience of anthropologists and ethnographers.” Yet the museums had treated his work as an archival document that would appeal to just those interests, and even when it reached a mainstream Canadian publisher for consideration, Eddy’s story did not make the grade – it didn’t satisfy what the publisher thought Canadian readers wanted in a book from an Inuit author, namely “traditional Inuit tales and children’s literature.”

Martin asked Eddy to expand on some aspects of his life story and to cut back his narration of other parts.  He felt that the early part of the story needed more childhood memories, and that the parts dealing with the author’s military service needed paring to avoid repetitive descriptions of inebriation, imprisonment, disgrace and discrimination.  Martin described the “revised life story” that resulted as “a compensatory autobiography “

Thibault Martin’s foreword is followed by an introduction by Isabelle St-Amand, a specialist in Canadian native literature, who places Eddy’s work in the context of other Inuit biographies. Inuit and First Nations authors have, in recent years, broken the boundaries of what was once considered “acceptable” indigenous literature. A thirty-five-page appendix by Martin, with the mind-numbing title, “The Experience of Eddy Weetaltuk in the Context of Aboriginal Participation in Canadian Wars,” is far too long and detailed and detracts from the book. It should have been condensed into a paragraph or two and imbedded in the editor’s foreword, or treated in footnotes.

Eddy’s narrative ends with his return to Great Whale River in 1967 and the very beginning of his re-integration into a much-changed north. “A new life was ahead of me,” he wrote in his final paragraph. “The life of an Inuk in his village.” And there it ends. But it shouldn’t have. This reader wants to know some details of that life, of how Eddy Weetaltuk reconciled his unique experiences in the south and abroad with his new-old life-of-an-Inuk in the years after 1974. How did he spend his time? What were his interests? How did his community accept him?  Eddy’s own narrative ends too soon and he never had the chance to write his own version of the epilogue that his story deserves. The book would have been greatly enhanced had someone done the research to include an appendix on Eddy’s life post-1974. Eddy deserved that, and we, the readers, deserve it too. As it stands very little other material has been written about Eddy’s life back home. Bob Mesher wrote an interesting article, “A Closer Look at Eddy Weetaltuk’s Painting” for the Winter 2006-2007 issue of Makivik Magazine, but those paintings too were done before 1974.

Eddy had made no bones about the fact that he wanted to write a best-seller. He wanted his work to serve as an encouragement to Inuit youth to achieve their potential. “I wish to tell them,” he wrote in the book’s last chapter, “your life belongs to you. You are the ultimate master of your destiny, so don’t let despair, alcohol, or drugs control you. Be yourself, be proud. Be proud of being Inuit and always remember that your ancestors had to fight every single day of their lives to survive. It is now your turn to be strong and courageous.” 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Relics of the Franklin Expedition

Relics of the Franklin Expedition: Discovering Artifacts from the Doomed Arctic Voyage of 1845

By Garth Walpole

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017, $39.95

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore


Garth Walpole was an Australian archaeologist who early on became fascinated with Franklin’s final expedition, and who wrote his undergraduate thesis on the relics recovered from it by various searchers and held in the National Maritime Museum, London.  In later life he decided to expand this research and publish the results as a book, and had completed most of this work before he sadly succumbed to cancer in 2015. Before his death he had asked Russell Potter to edit the work for publication, and it has now been published by McFarland (who also brought out Glenn Stein’s Discovering the North West Passage). With the first major exhibition of the relics in more than a century due to open this summer, publication could not have been better timed, despite the poignant reminder that the author did not live to see the exhibition or garner the well-deserved attention his book would have engendered in its wake.

Although the first chapter is titled “The material biography of relics: A physical and spiritual relationship”, only the first couple of its 45 pages address the question of the spiritual meaning that individuals and cultures invest in historical artifacts. After that uneasy theoretical throat-clearing (perhaps a requirement of the original thesis), we are straight into a chronological account of the years after Franklin set sail in 1845, starting with the first tentative search expeditions by land and sea in 1848 and the first breakthrough – the earliest discovery of actual artifacts – in August 1850, on Beechey Island. At this point the chapter loses its chronological structure, and it is hard to see what organizing principle replaces it, though the complexity of events in that month, with several British and American ships operating around Beechey simultaneously, would always be hard to capture. Accounts of the reconnoitring of the various sites by different officers overlap, each one discovering not only the remains of Franklin’s first wintering but having to disentangle them from the traces of each other, as each party visited the same sites in turn. The action then moves on to Belcher’s expedition in 1852, then confusingly back again to 1850, and the chapter ends with Kennedy’s expedition in 1851. Only with the description of Franklin’s main camp at Beechey does the discussion become more clearly structured, with a focus on each site (garden, storehouse, cairn), and the artifacts found in them, as seen by each searcher in turn. Late in the day we come to the three graves, most iconic of the Beechey remains, though Walpole perhaps wisely limits his discussion to the discoveries made by the first searchers rather than trying to summarize the wealth of knowledge gained by Beattie and Geiger’s exhumation of the bodies in the 1980s.

Chapter 2’s title is similarly misleading (“The continued search for relics, 1851–1854”, though in fact it covers 1851–2010), again perhaps a relic of the original thesis. It is, however, a much better-organized narrative than chapter 1, benefiting from the historical accident that it relates a series of successive, rather than simultaneous, expeditions. In terms of the quantity of artifacts and information retrieved, the most important of these were the first four: Rae in 1854, McClintock in 1857–59, Hall in 1864–69 and Schwatka in 1878–79, all of whom, exploring within living memory of the expedition, also interviewed many Inuit who had been eyewitnesses of Franklin’s expedition, or had heard stories directly from those who were  – narratives that became cultural artifacts of as great a value as the many objects of repurposed wood and metal that the searchers traded from the Inuit.

But if the survival of these oral histories represents a triumph of individual and cultural memory, their tragic counterpart is the utter loss, apart from the single Victory Point document, of all written records from Franklin’s crews that might give more detailed information about their fate. A constant refrain throughout Walpole’s account of these expeditions is the raising – and then dashing – of hopes that written records might be discovered, as one cairn after another is hopefully dismantled, dug beneath and around, and then mournfully rebuilt when found to be empty. When Schwatka heard Inuit accounts of the strongbox carefully preserved by the men who had made it to the continental mainland at the place he dubbed Starvation Cove, he hoped that it might have contained the expedition’s records, but when he heard stories describing it being forced open, its contents discarded, and the box reused for its parts, he was shattered by the realization that the last best hope to recover any written account had gone. The barely intelligible gibberish of the Peglar papers, a few sheets of handwriting that happened to survive on or near a seaman’s body, seemed to mock the searchers with their pointless triviality.

Although the material objects collected by the search expeditions are thought of today as archaeological artifacts – part of a historical, public realm – for the first searchers many of them were intensely personal talismans. McClintock especially had known members of the lost crews, and made it his mission to restore as many personally identifiable relics as he could to their families, for whom they became treasured heirlooms of private grief. This is seen in the post-expedition histories of many objects that Walpole records, which show them re-emerging many decades later as a descendant, young enough or distantly related enough never to have known the crewmember personally, bequeathed them to a public collection. Engraved watches and cutlery, the most clearly identifiable items, were thus those McClintock made most effort to retrieve, though the sheer quantity and variety of material in the NMM collection originating in his expedition outstrips that from any others (they are all listed, grouped by expedition source, in the book’s Appendix B).

Uncertainty about the nature of many objects has caused problems in cataloguing and identification, however: is that piece of wood part of a doorframe or a hatchway? A table leg or a stanchion? Differences of opinion between searchers describing an object in a journal and conservators cataloguing them in a museum can lead to objects seeming to appear, disappear, and fluctuate in overall number. In addition, some objects seem to have been lost when collections changed hands from one institution to another. Walpole gives several examples of the kind of detailed worrying away at a description that is needed to resolve such nebulous uncertainties. It is not a task for those whose patience is easily tested.

The mostly keenly felt absence in the first two chapters is a modern map of the two search areas (Beechey and King William islands respectively) naming all of the places mentioned in the text (there are a handful of historical maps of both places, none comprehensive or easily legible). To those not already intimately familiar with the geography of these two remote islands, the descriptions of searchers moving from one place to another, and hearing of events in other places, will simply be impossible to picture or remember, since their relative positions will be unknown. This is a serious drawback.

After Schwatka there was a pause in the search of some fifty years, during which the Franklin expedition passed out of living memory. Since then other searchers – Burwash, Gibson, Larsen and others – mostly on shorter expeditions to smaller areas, have unearthed smaller quantities of material, bearing the steadily increasing signs of weathering as each decade passed. But in recent years aerial and satellite photography, the retreat of sea ice and cheaper travel have all made the remote search zone a more easily approached place, leading to the concerted effort that has now seen the discovery of both Erebus and Terror.

Chapter 5 is the most systematically organized, giving a chronological series of mostly 19th-century engravings and photographs of groupings of objects, with a key identifying each one with its modern NMM accession number. This chapter, when cross-referenced with the complementary listing in Appendix B mentioned above, provides the most permanent documentary and reference value of Walpole’s book.

Although beautifully typeset and printed, the book suffers from what seems to have been a mismatch of expectations between publisher and editor. Potter’s role, as he makes clear in his preface, has not been to rewrite or smooth out the author’s prose but to check the references and add information to fill the occasional lacuna. Unfortunately McFarland, perhaps unfamiliar with the role of an academic editor, seem to have misunderstood it as meaning that they did not need to have the text copy-edited or even, apparently, proofread, with the result that the number of typos, word substitutions, inconsistent spellings and ungrammatical sentences, which Potter must have assumed the publisher would deal with, reach sometimes distracting levels.

Now that Erebus and Terror have been located, we are on the cusp of a new era in the study of Franklin’s last expedition, in which the recovery of a host of new artifacts, apparently well preserved, unweathered, and unmodified by Inuit re-use, could potentially dwarf the number and quality of items collected with such pains over so many years by so many searchers on land. The holy grail – a trembling hope that we share with Hobson opening up the record tube at the Victory Point cairn – is that the ships may yet contain some written records, some crewmember’s journal, that will somehow be legible. The initial conditions seem good – the general state of preservation of the wood is exceptional, boding well for that of the organic material more generally – and we can only hope that the investigation planned by Parks Canada is not too slow or tentative to take advantage before further deterioration occurs.

Walpole’s book is thus published at a fitting moment. Like the exhibition due to open at the NMM in July 2017, it represents a summation of what is known and what has been recovered from Franklin’s last expedition in the first 165 years of searching. It is a memorial to the searchers, and a testament to the almost numinous presence that spoons, watches, and fragments of wood can acquire when these mute witnesses to a calamitous human drama are all that we have to go on.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Polaris: The Chief Scientist's Recollections of the American North Pole Expedition, 1871-73

Polaris: The Chief Scientist's Recollections of the American North Pole Expedition, 1871-73

Translated and Edited by William Barr

U. Calgary Press $44.95 (ebook free)


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


Since it's already been the subject of quite a number of books -- Chauncey Loomis's Weird and Tragic Shores, not to mention dueling exposés by Bruce Henderson (Fatal North) and Richard Parry (Trial by Ice), one might be forgiven for thinking that there's not much new to be learned about the ill-fated Polaris expedition to the North Pole commanded by Charles Francis Hall in 1871. One would be wrong, of course.

The expedition's doctor, Emil Bessels, published his own account of the voyage in Germany in 1879 under the title Die Amerikanische Nordpol-Expedition, but until now, there has been no English translation of his memoir. Thankfully, William Barr has undertaken this invaluable project, as he did earlier with Heinrich Klutschak's account of the Schwatka expedition, and this edition has all the customary hallmarks of his care and erudition. And, as Barr notes in an Epilogue, there's a new reason to take an interest in Bessels' version of events, since evidence has recently emerged giving him a powerful motive to have murdered his commander.

Those expecting such a book to have a lurid element will, however, be disappointed. Bessels, whatever his human failings, turns out to have been quite a good writer, seasoning his account with humor, relating events dispassionately, and demonstrating substantial knowledge of previous polar exploration. Early on, in giving his account of Isaac Israel Hayes's claim of a new furthest north, along with the sighting of an "open polar sea," Bessels offers an acute analysis, showing that Hayes's observations are completely inconsistent with both claims. Of course, it helped that the Polaris had just sailed through, and beyond, this purported open sea, but the clarity of his assessment is still impressive.

A few pages later, we're treated to one of the more wryly delightful accounts of the frustrations of shipboard dining in the frozen north that I know:
The food that was served up hot suffered a more significant cooling on its trip from the platter to the plate, and from the latter to the mouth, than the crust of the earth did at the start of the Ice Age; and food that came cold to the table became even colder there, before it could be eaten. Mayonnaise attained the consistency that properly prepared arrowroot ought to possess; English mustard reached the degree of hardness that a sculptor gives his modelling clay, and butter acquired the consistency of air-dried Swiss cheese.  Anyone who had a feeling heart beating in his breast would be moved to deep sadness by the sight of the sour pickled cucumbers. Half a dozen cycles of thawing and freezing which they had experienced in succession had etched massive wrinkles in their youthfully green skins which covered the wrinkled, shrunken flesh in folds. Surrounded by plump onions, slender beans and crisp heads of cauliflower that swam in crisping vinegar, they formed the saddest component that any still-life ever incorporated. 
Through passages such as these, the reader, quite naturally, begins to trust Bessels' account, and so of course wonders how he will treat of the death of his commander -- but here he or she will be disappointed. Hall's sickness and death are dealt with in very plain and prosaic manner, a bit surprising for someone who as the ship's doctor might feel that his readers would expect a greater degree of medical detail. There is, however, a telling moment after Bessels describes Hall's burial; he offers as his elegy a stanza from Canto 32 of Dante's Inferno.  The passage, which he may have chosen for its evocative imagery of sinners buried up to their necks in ice, has another significance: it's from that particular circle of Hell where those who have been treacherous to kin and country are punished.

Tookoolito at Hall's Grave (from a sketch by Bessels)
For there can be little doubt that Bessels possessed not only the means, but the motive for murdering Hall. As Barr notes, letters written by him to the young sculptress Vinnie Ream, with whom both he and Hall dined on several occasions before sailing, show that he was infatuated with her; my own research revealed that Hall, too, had special feelings for Ream (though his may have well been merely platonic). Bessels couldn't have helped but have noticed the gifts for Hall, including a miniature copy of her famous bust of Abraham Lincoln, that arrived by steamer at the Polaris's last stop at Upernavik, which were prominently displayed in his cabin. Jealousy, it seems, got the best of him, and augmented by the general resentment against Hall felt by others of the German scientific staff, led him to poison the captain's coffee with arsenic, with additional injections as "treatment" (Bessels claimed these were quinine), leading to the slow painful death of the one man who might, had he lived, have managed a sledge-trip to the pole.

Yet despite our knowledge of his crime, Bessels remains an observant and even charming narrator, and as Hall's death recedes into the background, the tale takes on, once again, the general descriptive tones of exploration narrative. As Barr notes, there's considerable information about climate, flora, and fauna, not to mention early Inuit settlements, that is elsewhere unavailable. Among these passages, though, there are some which raise still another concern.  According to the testimony given at the board of inquiry, the logbooks and journals from the Polaris were lost -- and yet Bessels, oblivious to this (or perhaps thinking his German readers would be unacquainted with the circumstances), seems at places to be drawing from them. It raises suspicions as to whether Bessels might have absconded with some of the missing logbooks, which might well have contained material he thought could incriminate him.

One gets the impression that Bessels was a methodial, efficient man who took pride in his scientific work, and hoped that his association with the disastrous expedition would not impede his overall career. If so, his hopes were largely unfulfilled; although a participant in some minor expeditions in the years after Polaris, the more ambitious ones he sought were postponed or cancelled due to difficulties with funding and other support. Along the way, he lost his office at the Smithsonian, and a fire destroyed his home near Washington D.C. (and with it, one supposes, any evidence for malfeasance there might have been among his papers); his last few years were marked by illness and instability, and he died of a heart attack at the age of forty-one.

William Barr, as ever, has produced a well-translated and throughly annotated edition. Extensive footnotes clarify many of Bessels' more obscure references, and the end-matter of the book includes a note on the new evidence as to his motive for murdering Hall, an account of the finding of the Board of Inquiry in his case, brief biographies of the senior members of the Polaris expedition, and a thorough bibliography. The University of Calgary Press has done the scholarly world a favor by making the book available as a free .pdf, but the printed version is well worth it; the quality of its production is high, and it's a book that deserves to be on the shelf beside any other accounts of the Polaris affair. It balances them, both with what it adds -- and what we know it withholds -- from that tragic story.