Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Hunters on the Track

Hunters on the track: William Penny and the search for Franklin

By W. Gillies Ross

Montreal & Kingston; McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019

Reviewed by Willam Barr



Gil Ross has published extensively on the history of whaling, both in Hudson Bay and inn Davis Strait/Baffin Bay. In this, his latest book, he focusses on one of the most successful Scottish whaling captains, William Penny Jr., and on his crucial role in one of the most complex searches for the missing Franklin expedition, that of 1850-51.

Born in Peterhead on 12 July 1809, the son of whaling captain William Penny Sr., William Jr. subsequently moved with his family to Aberdeen.  At the age of 12 he made his first whaling voyage on board his father’s ship Alert, to the Greenland Sea. By 1829 he was serving as mate on board a whaling ship bound for Davis Strait and by 1835 had his first command, the Neptune of Aberdeen. Thus by 1845 he was a very experienced (and very successful) whaling captain.  It was in that year that Captain Sir John Franklin sailed from the Thames with two ships, HMS Erebus and Terror bound for what is now the Canadian Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. With an initial complement of 134 men, after five had been invalided back to England from Greenland the final tally of the crews of the  two ships was 129. They were encountered by two whaling vessels in Baffin Bay, whose men were the last Europeans to see the ships and their crews alive.

At first sight Franklin’s task was quite a simple one.  He was to link up the major west-channel of Parry Channel (Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Viscount Melville Sound, M’Clure Strait) discovered by William Edward Parry in 1819-1820, with the waterway paralleling the mainland coast, which he explored in 1821, followed by Dr. John Richardson in 1826 and by Peter Warren Dease and Thomas Simpson in 1838-39. Franklin was instructed to proceed to Cape Walker, sighted by Parry (then thought to be the northeastern cape of Prince of Wales Island, but in fact that of Russell Island) and “to penetrate to the southward and westward in a course as direct towards Behring’s Strait as the position and extent of the ice, or the existence of land, at present unknown, may admit." In fact a route due south from Cape Walker would intersect with Dease and Simpson’s route at Cape Herschel in just 580 km.  Franklin’s instructions also suggested, however,  that if a southerly route were impracticable he should  attempt to penetrate north via Wellington Channel between Devon and Cornwallis Islands.

Given the known provisioning of Franklin’s ships, no particular concern was felt in England when there was no word from them in 1846.  But by the spring of 1847 some degree of anxiety had started to be felt. On his own initiative William Penny, by then in command of St. Andrew, made an attempt to penetrate into Lancaster Sound in the hope of searching for Franklin but was foiled by foul winds and heavy seas and was unable to penetrate beyond 78° W. i.e.  just off the entrance to Lancaster Sound. His was the first known attempt at making contact with the missing expedition, and led naturally to Penny’s subsequent  role in the massive search  in 1850-51  which represents the major theme of Gil Ross’s book.

In 1848 the first of the Admiralty’s expeditions in search of Franklin was dispatched to Baffin Bay, commanded by Captain Sir James Clark Ross in HMS Enterprise and Investigator. Seriously delayed by ice in Baffin Bay, heavy ice prevented them from penetrating far into Lancaster Sound, and they wintered at Port Leopold on northeastern Somerset Island.  In the spring of 1849 sledging parties travelling around parts of Somerset Island found no traces of the Franklin expedition.

Soon after William Penny’s return to his home port of  Dundee in the autumn of 1849, he received a visit from Lady Franklin, Franklin’s wife (or by then , in fact, widow). She asked Penny if he would be interested in commanding a search expedition, either a naval expedition or one sponsored by herself. Penny enthusiastically agreed in principle.

As a result Penny became an important player in a remarkable concentration of ships and effort in the search for Franklin which headed for Davis Strait and Baffin Bay in the spring of 1850.   Penny was in charge of two vessels, the brigs Lady Franklin and Sophia (the latter commanded by Alexander Stewart).  The Admiralty dispatched four vessels: the sailing vessels Resolute and Assistance and the steam tenders, Intrepid and Pioneer, under the overall command of Captain Horatio Austin, the other commanders being Erasmus Ommanney (Assistance), John Cator (Intrepid) and Sherard Osborn (Pioneer); a further vessel sponsored by Lady Franklin – Prince Albert, commanded by Charles Forsyth; the brig Felix, commanded by the septuagenarian Sir John Ross,  and  towing a small yacht, Mary; and finally  an American contribution, the USS Advance and Rescue (Edwin De Haven and Samuel Griffin, respectively) sponsored by the New York merchant and ship owner Henry Grinnell.

As Gil Ross has presented in detail, all of these vessels encountered heavy ice in Baffin Bay and especially Melville Bay, and while there was some collaboration between the different expeditions (e.g. the steam tenders towing various of the other expeditions’ vessels), there was absolutely no cohesive plan. Significantly, at Upernavik Penny was able to recruit the Dane Johan Christian Petersen, who joined Lady Franklin, complete with a team of sledge dogs. All the ships reached the North Water safely then swung west, south, then west into Lancaster Sound – a total of 10 ships and over 300 men. Assistance and Intrepid were the first to reach Beechey Island a small island joined to the southeast coast of Devon Island by a tombolo, partially submerged at high tides.  At Cape Riley, across Erebus and Terror Bay from Beechey Island Ommanney and Cator found clear evidence of a European tented camp, and then a large cairn on the summit of Beechey Island. When they dismantled it they were puzzled and disappointed to find no messages.   Ommanney and Cator then continued west across Wellington Channel to Cornwallis Island without noticing the graves of three members of the Franklin expedition and a wide scatter of  various clear signs that Erebus and Terror had wintered here. These were later discovered by  parties from Penny’s, Stewart’s, Ross’s and De Haven’s and Griffin’s ships, anchored in Union Bay, on the west side of Beechey Island. But once again no message was found to indicate where Erebus and Terror had headed after wintering here.

Austin’s four ships, Penny’s two vessels, the two American ships  and Ross’s Felix then headed across Wellington Channel and along the south coast of Cornwallis Island.  Subsequently Austin’s ships went into winter quarters off the northeast corner of Griffith Island while Penny’s vessels and Ross’s Felix found more secure winter quarters in Assistance Bay on the south coast of Cornwallis  Island. Rescue and Advance, which were not equipped or provisioned for wintering, started back east towards Baffin Bay.

After a relatively  uneventful wintering, Austin and Penny agreed that in the spring that while  Ommanney searched both coasts of Prince of Wales Island as far south as possible and McClintock sledged westwards along Parry Channel, Penny would head northwards along Wellington Channel. On 17 April 1851 Penny’s and Stewart’s men hauling six sledges set off eastwards to Cape Hotham then north along the western shore of Wellington Channel, followed by Penny and Petersen with the latter’s dog team next day.  Just over a week later, having covered 45 miles, on finding that stoves and kettles were inadequate, that some of the sledges needed to be altered, and that the fuel supply would not last much longer, Penny decided to turn back.  While some of the men were suffering from snow-blindness, frostbite had not caused any serious problems.

After resting for ten days on 6 May Penny and his men set off again. Petersen and Penny again drove dog sledges. While three sledges turned east across Wellington Chanel to search the west coast of Devon Island, Penny and Petersen, with two man-hauled sledges continued north. From the northern tip of Cornwallis Island they crossed on the ice to an island which Penny named Hamilton Island (now Baillie-Hamilton Island). Beyond its northern tip, which Penny named Point Surprise, he discovered a wide area of open water, which he named Queen Victoria  Channel. Starting back south on 17 May the two dog teams reached the ships on the 20th and the man-hauled sledges somewhat later. Penny was determined to haul a boat north on a sledge to explore the open water he had discovered. Visiting Griffith Island to inform Austin of his discoveries and to ask him for the loan of some men to help haul a boat north, Penny was infuriated when Austin refused this request.

On 4 June a party of 15 men set off hauling a whaleboat on a specially-designed sledge.  Although the melt was well under way, which meant slush or pools of melt-water on the sea ice, on 18 June the sledge haulers reached open water. Penny launched the boat and loaded it with provisions and gear. With seven men he put to sea, continuing north along the east coast of Cornwallis Island. Beyond Hamilton Island Penny discovered several more islands, including  Baring Island and Dundas Island and, to the north, land which Penny named Prince Albert Land, in fact part of Devon island. A strait which was later named Penny Strait extended to the horizon to the northwest.  This wide expanse of open water stretching north reinforced Penny’s belief in the existence of an Open Polar Sea – a belief which ws widely held at the time, and would not be abandoned until Fridtjof Nansen’s trans-Arctic ice-drift in Fram in 1893-96. Despite a lack of  solid evidence, apart from a small piece of elm wood which he found, Penny was now convinced that this was the route which had been taken by Franklin’s ships.  Returning south to where they had launched the boat, Penny abandoned boat and sledge and he and his men walked back to Assistance Bay.

By 11 August the ice had cleared out of Assistance Bay and on that date Lady Franklin, Sophia and Felix were joined by Resolute, Assistance, Pioneer and Intrepid. Having determined by an extensive series of man-hauled sledge journeys that there was no sign of Franklin’s ships to the south, southwest or west of Griffith Island, Austin wanted to head for home but needed Penny’s assurance that there ws no point in any further searches north via Wellington Channel. Relations between the two men had already become fraught and now Austin precipitated a bitter argument by demanding that Penny provide him with a statement to that effect in writing. All six ships, plus Ross’s Felix then started for home, although  their captains were leaving themselves open to criticism for returning after only one wintering. Penny reached Aberdeen on 10 September then travelled south by express train to London.

Starting on 22 October an official inquiry was now held  to investigate whether Austin and Penny had been justified in returning after only one wintering.  The two men had to face a committee consisting of five naval officers.   A crucial point at issue was whether or not Penny had asked Austin for the “loan” of one of his steamers towards the end of the season to investigate Wellington Channel, Queen Victoria Channel and Penny Strait further; this would have indicated that Penny felt that there might be justification for a further wintering. Austin had denied his request. But now he declared that Penny had made no such request.  Although Penny was supported by Stewart, and even by some of Austin’s officers who had heard of the exchange about the loan of a steamer, the members of the committee sided with Austin. Their final verdict was that both Austin and Penny had been justified in returning after only one winter.

This skeletal outline will provide some idea of the major topics covered in Ross’s book. But there are a number of wide-ranging sub-plots which I have not mentioned.  One of these, to which an entire chapter is devoted is the remarkable ice-drift of the American vessels, Advance and Rescue, totally unprepared for a wintering, over the winter of 1850-51.  In September they became beset in the ice and drifted north along Wellington Channel to within sight of land which they named Grinnell Land (later seen and named Prince Albert Land by Penny), then back south along Wellington Channel, east down Lancaster Sound and south for the full length of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait to beyond Cape Dyer before the ice broke up to release them. Other sub-plots covered in less detail include the belief in the Open Polar Sea, a history of the Royal Navy’s issue of a rum ration, the use (by Sir John Ross) of homing pigeons, and the use of balloons to try to contact the missing Franklin expedition.

With Hunters on the Track, Ross has crafted the first detailed, comprehensive account of one of the most far-reaching searches for the missing Franklin expedition, with particular emphasis on the crucial role played in it by whaling captain William Penny.  The list of at least 15 archival repositories in the Notes and Bibliography, gives some idea of the author’s thoroughness and dedication to his research. Ross’s style is very readable and entertaining and the text is sometimes leavened with a touch of humour. For example he quotes Cator’s description of the drunken progress of Ommanney and some of his officers staggering back to their own ship from the Intrepid on Christmas Eve, 1850, in nautical terms: “making tacks and stern boards and heaving-to, tumbling about the snow hummocks” (p. 281).

The book is enhanced by a small but important selection of illustrations. They include Stephen Pearce’s portrait of William Penny, an aerial photo which reveals wonderfully clearly  Beechey Island, Union Bay, Erebus and Terror Bay and Cape Riley, and also two paintings by of Canadian geologist and artist, Maurice Haycock, those of Penny’s abandoned boat (as seen in 1974) and the graves on Beechey Island.   Unfortunately, however the maps are frustratingly inadequate particularly in terms of the paucity of place names.  Some measure of the seriousness of the problem is that neither of the wintering sites (Griffith Island and Assistance Bay) is named on any of the maps. The mismatch between the high caliber of the research and writing and the  low quality of the cartography is baffling. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Split Tooth

Split Tooth

by Tanya Tagaq

Viking, $24.95



Reviewed by Paddy Eason


It's my impression that many readers of the Arctic Book Review are seeking stirring tales of exploration from long ago. On that basis, this book - which contains enthusiastic teenage solvent abuse, erotic encounters with wild animals and gleeful retribution against human bullies and predators - may not be everyone's cup of tea. For me, though, it's one of the most impressive books I have read in years.

Author Tanya Tagaq’s Wikipedia page describes her as a “Canadian Inuk throat singer from Cambridge Bay (Iqaluktuutiaq), Nunavut, Canada.” Tagaq has released four solo albums of increasing artistic range and ferocity, has collaborated with Bjork and the Kronos Quartet, tours worldwide, is an accomplished painter and an outspoken advocate for indigenous rights and climate activism. It would be no exaggeration to say that she's an Inuit superstar. This is her first book.

Split Tooth is a novel, with frequent nods to memoir, poetry, and traditional tales. At times, to this reader from a temperate clime, the book reads like science fiction or horror: encounters with the Northern Lights, journeys by snowmobile over frozen seas, battles with malignant spirits and musings on quantum physics. But at its icy, fiery heart, this is a book about female puberty.

The unnamed protagonist, when we first meet her, is an eleven-year-old girl living in a small village by Cambridge Bay in the High Arctic. Awkward, smart, and not particularly popular, she spends the long days and long nights in her home town negotiating the universally recognizable childhood assault course of friends, bullies, teachers, neighbors and relatives, while at the same time wishing she had ‘actual breasts’. Alongside this familiar-yet-unfamiliar narrative, there runs a strand of poetry, blocks of text in Inuktitut syllabics, and excellent pop culture illustrations (by Jaime Hernandez.)

Some of the events described or alluded to are shocking. Tagaq certainly pulls no punches. This is not the Arctic wonderland of noble natives that some readers may expect. The first sentence of the book is “Sometimes we would hide in the closet when the drunks came home from the bar.” Alcohol seems mostly for the adults and their tedious rowdy house parties - to be avoided. Our hero and her pals start with cigarette ends and pilfered joints, moving up to butane, rubber cement and gasoline huffed out of snowmobiles. What else is there to do when night and day have no meaning, nothing seems worth learning and the adults are either passed out from booze or away hunting? We learn, as our young hero does, that loud country music blasting from a house is a warning sign - and this is the kind of shorthand at which Tagaq excels, sketching the line from colonial corruption to child abuse.

Predatory adult males are a daily challenge - the teacher who habitually gropes his pupils under their desks, the relatives who sneak into children’s bedrooms at night. One of the first poems in the book is called "Sternum," and begins as a meditation on the human breastbone and ribcage. The last few lines come with the kind of kick that marks her writing throughout  -
The Human Sternum is used for so many things
Clavicles like handlebars
Ribs like stairs
The sternum is the shield
Even when impaired
Even when it smothers a little girl's face
As the bedsprings squeak
However - and I cannot emphasize this enough - Split Tooth is not a grim, dour book. It is a tragedy and a triumph.

The book's second strand, of poems, dreams and folk tales, initially a kind of counterpoint to the coming-of-age dramas of village life, gradually takes over the life of the book. The day-to-day narrative starts to incorporate brushes with malevolent spirits. Wild animals, such as the fox she encounters beneath her parents’ house while hiding from the school bully, walk into her dreams and begin to demand their due or bestow favor. In a key chapter on which the book’s plot turns, she walks out onto the sea ice one night and has an encounter with the Northern Lights that changes her life. What started out as a funny, harrowing tale of village life for an awkward teenager turns into a psychedelic spiritual ordeal ending up with some extraordinary choices for Tagaq’s young hero. I am being circumspect - this book is a page turner, and I’d really hate to spoil it with any further clues. If you choose to read this book, you will be hanging on by your fingertips by the end.

I wrote above that Split Tooth is about female puberty, but of course, Tagaq's gaze is much wider. She is a canny enough author not to be didactic or obvious, but it's clear that among her targets are colonization, institutional religion, and predatory male sexuality. She finds ways to take them all on, one by one, while keeping the book's narrative arrow flying straight. The collective trauma of her people is lived by this one small teenager. The conclusion feels like an exorcism.

What makes all this work so splendidly, is that Tagaq - and her protagonist - are such perceptive, funny, rational company. The book is sharp and bright as a knife, informed not only by Inuit folktales, but also by 21st century climate politics. Every violent act or thought is balanced with kindness and empathy. The suggestive, elliptical poetry is spiced with a lot of very specific cuss words.

The language is extraordinary. Has there been a better description of the disorientating effect on a community of endless Arctic daylight than “Everyone’s clocks tick sideways”? I felt like applauding at the end of each chapter at the sheer quality of the writing. The book is a firework display.

For anyone who has seen Tagaq as a live musical performer, this may come as no surprise. Having read the physical edition of the book, I went in again to listen to the audio book, read by the author with brief throat-singing interludes between chapters. If I had to choose a format to recommend, it would be the audiobook. The hardback is a lovely object (and there is also a vinyl album of the poems), but the five-hour audio book is another level. It is a performance.

The journey from recording studio to written page hides pitfalls that have tripped many an artist. But this book's icy white covers and red-tipped pages contain wonders. Tagaq writes with clarity, rage, humor and authority. In this book she has created what might be a defining artistic statement of the North. It is an Arctic masterpiece.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Library of Ice

The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate

By Nancy Campbell

Scribner, $18.95 (hc); $11.99 (kindle)

Reviewed by P.J. Capelotti




Tucking in to another round of the freely flowing alcohol at last December’s annual Roald Amundsen Memorial Dinner at the Fram Museum in Oslo, there was only one recently published book any of my companions wanted to talk about: the poet-artist Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice.  In a warming world, where every Sonny Jim is tweeting up a storm at their latest High Arctic disaster tourism lark, such exuberance manifests every couple of years and one must endure.  Yet there were exclamations such as one has not heard since Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams in 1986 (also published by Scribner).  All agreed that The Library of Ice marked a fundament, the first truly significant cultural signpost of the natural calamity racing at us.

They were right.

It would be facile to suggest that the work should have been directly linked to Lopez with a title such as Arctic Nightmares, because there is so much more at work here than disaster tourism.  The author holds a key to not just a library but a whole associated archive and art gallery the likes of which few writers have ever been able to reveal.  The story centers on the notion that “polar ice is the first archive” and proceeds to carry through the metaphor with a seemingly effortless display that ranges from Inuit mythology to Antarctic ice cores to artifacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum to the Olympic skating routine of Torvill and Dean (and yes, the latter discussion is absolutely transfixing).  It is not effortless, of course, and instead the product of years of careful observation by a poet, writer, translator, sketch artist, and print artist of wondrous sensitivity.

Visiting or doing research in the Arctic forces one into different categories of thoughts.  Most of these, in order for us to make a living, we must discard, and fast.  Campbell shows us what a mistake this is.  Reading the peer notes of the first article on the Arctic I wrote some thirty years ago, one reviewer chastised it for sounding too much like Lopez.  This puzzled me, as I’d spent the previous fifteen years trying to write precisely like him.  But I took heed, rewrote, flattened, polished the science up and toned the flourish down, and so began a more or less dutiful slow crawl up the academic ladder.

Along the way, as I jogged in a straight line down Archaeology Road without my beloved copy of Lopez’s River Notes, I neglected to properly record so many memorable scenes right in front of my eyes: the brilliant maritime archaeologist smoking a pipe while peddling a bicycle at walking speed on the rough dirt road outside of Longyearbyen so that we could have a proper chat about an expedition from the 1890s as I walked alongside, a scene as incongruous as Paul Newman flirting with Katherine Ross on that frontier bicycle in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Or the many drift artifacts noted but unrecorded on beaches throughout the Arctic, like the German light bulb seen on the north shore of Danskøya, a fragile glass bulb carried to an Arctic shore a hundred kilometers from the nearest lamp (and probably 2,000 kilometers from the lamp it had once been fitted to), an unlikely survivor of forces that could kill a human in seconds.  The Arctic both lifts one’s eyes to take in some of the planet’s most remarkable landscapes at the same time it presents small human connections that are easily ignored or quickly forgotten—while also making sure you maintain a weather eye (and a ready firearm) in case of polar bears.

The Library of Ice, fortunately, never makes this mistake.  No detail is lost or forgotten.  It is, one could argue, the first great literature of the Anthropocene.  If you don’t believe this, go to page 33, where a sentence concludes: “if humans are lucky, there may be more decades ahead.”  Decades.  If we are lucky.  Thus chastened, we embark on a journey around the Radcliffe Camera to the Bodleian to uncover Robert Boyle’s History of Cold.  One imagines John Thaw’s Inspector Morse drinking at The White Horse across the street—a crazy thought until, sure enough, Morse code makes an appearance later in the book.  One searches for the many prophecies in this book just as when listening to the music in Morse, where the composer of the soundtrack, Barrington Pheloung, would telegraph the name of the murderer in code in each episode.

The journey in The Library of Ice is undertaken by a poor pilgrim, with just a few quid for a drink and bed-sit, the very best of a miserable generation of academics bereft of proper positions or funding as the world inexplicably funnels buckets of cash upwards and away from renewable energies, digitization and democratization of archives, the preservation of indigenous lifeways, and a hundred other necessities.  It is therefore an incredibly brave voyage, fearless in its way of postponing the inevitable reckoning of settling down to what used to be called a proper living to record another, larger, global reckoning.  The brilliance of Campbell’s method is a stream of cultural connections tied to the theme of memory and loss: the architecture of the University of Greenland fitted to its surroundings, the ringing of the Terra Nova bell for tea and cakes twice a day at Scott Polar in Cambridge, the crafting the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office from the wreck of HMS Resolute in the Arctic.

Not being an artist, I am not qualified to attest to the descriptions of the wide variety of styles and media employed by the author.  But every note she strikes on the life of a library and archive rat rings true, with only one or two flat notes: 1921 being set in the 19th century, and Knud Rasmussen traveling “eastwards” from Greenland to trace the route of Inuit to Alaska.

But these slips of the fingers do nothing to detract from an author who can range from Mylius-Erichson’s 1902-04 Danish Literary Expedition (scientists needed not apply) to the genius of Halldór Laxness, from the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (into which my own grandfather was drafted but thankfully never showed up, lest someone else undertake this review) to the labyrinth of the Prose Edda, and from Ötzi the Iceman to Vander-Molen’s utterly Vernian attempt to cross Iceland via the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river in an ultralight aeroplane in 1983.  This latter expedition was so endlessly fantastic that it served as one of several inspirations that eventually sent me north.  It was sandwiched between the 1979 publication of Roland Huntford’s Scott and Amundsen and its dramatization by Trevor Griffiths as Judgement over the Dead to its filming in Greenland as the luminous The Last Place on Earth in 1984 and the publication of Lopez’s Arctic Dreams two years later.  How was anyone to avoid a scramble to the Poles with that cultural backdrop?

Still and all, it does bring back another missed pathway: my major professor—a lovely New Zealander and renowned paleoanthropologist working on Pliocene stone tools—telling me way back in 1995 that I needed to apply my Arctic work to this new-fangled idea of global climate change.  I do remember walking from his office and thinking that the old man was crazy: Arctic ice was as permanent as permanent could be.  I couldn’t see where my work could be of any use on that score.

Well.  Twenty-five years later, as Ragnarök approaches, it is up to scholars like Nancy Campbell to record it all before the world melts and the old gods are defeated and washed away.  From behind her carrel in this Library of Ice, Campbell has brilliantly developed the theme of ice as both memory and loss of memory.  Now, for goodness’ sake, someone get her a pint and a very large grant.  That library’s almost gone and it’s not going to read itself.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

White Fox and Icy Seas in the Western Arctic

White Fox and Icy Seas in the Western Arctic: The Fur Trade, Transportation, and Change in the Early Twentieth Century

by John Bockstoce

New Haven: Yale University Press

Reviewed by Kenn Harper



John Bockstoce has devoted his career to researching and documenting whaling and trading activities in the Bering Strait region of the Arctic. His previous books include Whales, Ice and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic and Furs and Frontiers in the Far North: The Contest among Native and Foreign Nations for the Bering Strait Fur Trade.

The present volume extends and completes this work, bringing its temporal coverage up to World War II, and extending its geographic coverage into the western and central regions of the Canadian Arctic. Indeed, study of the fur trade in the region between Herschel Island and the Boothia Peninsula has been neglected until now.

The focus of this volume is squarely on trapping and trading for the pelt of the white fox, and includes that pursuit by both Native people and immigrant trappers and traders. The geographic scope of the work is vast. In Bockstoce’s terminology, the term Western Arctic includes the land and water of the Chukchi Peninsula in Russia, northern Alaska, the northern Yukon, the Mackenzie River delta, the mainland coast of the western and central Canadian Arctic, and the islands north of that coast. Bockstoce points out, “Within this district the participants in the fur trade included Chukchi, Siberian Yupik, Alaskan Eskimos, Alaskan and Canadian Gwich’in, Canadian Inuvialuit, Inuinnait, Inuit, persons of European descent, Russians, and many other foreign nationalities.”

Bockstoce notes in his preface that he thinks of all these people, both Native and non-Native, as simply “Northerners”. This is a refreshing departure from the new orthodoxy – or the constantly renewing orthodoxy – in which Canada, at least, has relegated the previously acceptable terms “native” and later “aboriginal” to the sidelines in favour of the new flavour of the day – “Indigenous.” In the Canadian new orthodoxy, meanwhile, White people, no matter how long their pedigree reaches back in this country, are recast, or miscast, as “settlers” (never with a capital), a quasi-pejorative term in the hands of many academics, which I cheerfully eschew.  I am pleased to note its absence in this work.

The author begins his book near the end of the story, with an interesting narrative on the establishment and subsequent abandonment by the Hudson’s Bay Company of a fur trade post at Fort Ross on Somerset Island at the eastern extremity of the geographic scope of his work. This post, which operated only from 1937 to 1948, was where east met west in the Canadian North. It began with a dream necessitated by the company’s realization that supplying its posts in the area of King William Island from the west was fraught with difficulty caused by ice, weather, and distance. The company’s plan was to ship supplies from Montréal through Lancaster Sound and Prince Regent Inlet to Fort Ross, where they would be transferred to a western-based schooner to supply company posts west of Boothia Peninsula. After a few years of success, the project ultimately failed because of ice conditions but also due to the sustained drop in value of white fox pelts.

This leads nicely into the second chapter, White Fox: From the Trapper to the Retail Customer, a detailed discussion of the animal itself, the trapping of it, pelt preparation, sale of pelts at the local level, and the lives of the trappers, both Native and foreign. Beyond the local level, the author carries the discussion on to include the fur auction, preparation of pelts by dealers, the manufacturing of fur garments, and their sale at both the wholesale and retail levels. This is an in-depth look at the economics and social aspects of the white fox trade that, to my knowledge, has not been presented elsewhere in such an integrated and holistic manner.

At this point, the author was faced with a choice – to present the narrative in chronological order or arrange it by region. He has wisely opted to do both. The rest of the book is presented in three parts, covering three time periods. The first, spanning the years 1899 to 1914, describes the development and geographic expansion of the fur trade. The second period covers the glory days from 1914 to 1929 – Bockstoce calls it the “heyday” of the fur trade. The third period covers the years 1929 to approximately 1950 – the end date varies geographically. Within each of these three periods the author discusses events within the three geographic regions: Chukotka, northern Alaska, and “Western Arctic Canada.” [I should note that, as a Canadian, I think of the Western Canadian Arctic as being the area from the Alaskan border to the area of Baillie Island, and the rest of the area from there to Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island as the Central Canadian Arctic. The recent settlement of native land claims in the area is probably changing the perception of those Canadians who care, so that the consensus of today’s understanding would be that the Western Canadian Arctic extends from the Alaskan border to the Nunavut border, and the rest of the coastline and islands from there to Boothia Peninsula is the Central Arctic, what we Canadians call the Kitikmeot Region.]

This organizational decision allows the author to discuss in detail the activities in the three regions, without the reader losing track of the timeline. And still it is a complex story. But it works.

Bowhead whaling, of which the author has written extensively, transformed the cultures of the native people on both sides of Bering Strait after 1848. Native peoples had also hunted bowheads, but primarily for their meat and blubber; non-Native whalers were more interested in the baleen but they also traded manufactured goods to the natives for the pelts of foxes and other land mammals. Eventually, gold also contributed to the transformation of Native society, bringing an influx of White treasure seekers to the North and presenting new opportunities for trade.

I should confess, at this point, my personal preference in reading history is biography. So I looked for, and found, the larger-than-life characters that one would expect in an epic of the north. Charlie Carpendale, an Australian; Bengt Vold, a Norwegian; and Olaf Swenson, a Swedish-American were just a few of the names of the traders on the front lines of this cultural transformation on the Siberian coast. Soon enough whaling made its impact on the north coast of Alaska with entrepreneurs like Charlie Brower at Point Barrow, from which station the industry pushed eastward to Herschel Island off the Yukon coast. Whalers and traders like Fritz Wolki took it past Herschel as far as the Baillie Island area, but it remained for the Danish cook-turned-whaler Christian Klengenberg to push into the last unexplored area of the North American coast line, into the central Canadian Arctic and initiate trade with the people today called Inuinnait, then known as the Copper Eskimos. Joseph Bernard plays an important and largely unsung role in this saga. A Canadian from Prince Edward Island, he described himself as “a trader uninterested in fortune; an explorer uninterested in fame; but consumed with a great curiosity about things of science and nature.” Bernard wintered his famous vessel, Teddy Bear, three times in Dolphin and Union Strait and Coronation Gulf between 1910 and 1914, where he traded and collected material goods and artifacts which today grace many museums. It was probably because of information gleaned from Bernard that Christian Klengenberg relocated his trading efforts to Coronation Gulf in 1916.

In his classic The People of the Twilight, the anthropologist Diamond Jenness noted that the fur trade transformed Copper Inuit society from collectivist to individualist. Copper Inuit were the last Inuit to be influenced by outside forces. Some had had fleeting interactions with explorers in the previous century, but the onslaught of traders, police and missionaries in the second decade of the twentieth century was brutally quick and transformative of all aspects of their culture. Jenness noted that “Only in one respect did it benefit them: it lessened the danger of those unpredictable famines which had overtaken them every ten or fifteen years.” Many who had suffered through those famines may have felt that it was worth the price. John Bockstoce says as much; during his many sojourns in the north, he “began to perceive how the lives of these ‘Northerners’ [and he is speaking not only of the Inuinnait]… had changed because of their participation in the whaling industry and the fur trade – and in the opinion of most of them, mainly for the better.”

In Russia, the Soviet government put the brakes on the unchecked proliferation of trading on the western side of the Bering Strait. In Canada the Royal North West Mounted Police (later renamed Royal Canadian Mounted Police) established detachments in an effort to bring law and order to the Western Canadian Arctic. At the same time the giant Hudson’s Bay Company moved eastward from the Mackenzie Delta, slowly but inexorably crushing its opponents, the independent traders. Captain C. T. Pedersen was the public face in the north for two trading companies, the Northern Whaling and Trading Company in Alaska, and the Canalaska Trading Company in the Canadian Arctic. He and his unseen southern partner Albert Herskovitz were the last to sell out or fold. In 1938 he sold the Canadian company to his well-capitalized rival. The Inuit had benefited from Pedersen’s presence. “Pedersen’s goods were of higher quality, his prices were lower, his deliveries were more reliable, and Captain and Mrs. Peterson’s accommodating personalities were far more attractive to customers than the HBC’s detachment and disinterest,” writes Bockstoce.

The outsized personalities who people this book and found success as traders were not only non-Native. On the Siberian side the Native trader Quwaaren was extremely successful, so much so that in the 1880s he purchased a sixty-foot schooner from an American whaler. Natkusiak from Alaska, also known as Billy Banksland, and others from the Mackenzie Delta settled Banks Island, virgin territory for white fox trapping, and accumulated wealth in the glory years of the fur trade. Some were able to buy their own schooners. Some even travelled occasionally to Seattle in their own vessels to purchase supplies. The author also devotes considerable consideration to a successful Canadian Inuit trader and middleman in the central Arctic, Angulalik.

Fur prices had been at record heights in 1928. But the stock market crash of the following year was mirrored quickly in the fur markets worldwide. By 1934 the retail fur market was 30% of its 1929 turnover. The market never recovered.

The end of Bockstoce’s narrative coincides with the end of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s dream of uniting east and west through the use of Fort Ross as a trans-shipment point for goods. The fur trade was not dead but it was stagnant, and the HBC, having secured its long-sought monopoly in the Western Canadian Arctic, was left to maintain its position largely unopposed. With Soviet control of Siberia in the 1920s, a curtain of silence descended on the western side of Bering Strait, with knowledge of developments there seldom reaching North America. Inuit society in both Alaska and the Western Canadian Arctic, in the meantime, had been transformed. The author notes, in his concluding paragraph, “A market for white fox pelts exist to this day, but the price – and the reward for the trapper and for the trapper’s family – has never returned to the glory days of the 1920s.”

John Bockstoce’s research for this book, done in tandem with that for his other major works, covers half a century. It shows. His scholarship is impeccable and his writing lucid and captivating. The book is well-bound, with an attractive dust jacket. Front and back end-maps cover the geographic scope of the book, and contain all relevant place names. Other maps are included with the text as necessary. Numerous relevant photographs are included, and their captions are generous and informative. The Acknowledgments read like a Who’s Who of Arctic scholarship and western Arctic citizenry covering many decades. Of particular note and utility, the book has an eight-page chronology.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Unchained Man

Unchained Man: The Arctic life and times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett

by Maura Hanrahan

Portugal Cove-St Philip’s, NL: Boulder Publications

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore



Robert Bartlett was born in Brigus, Newfoundland, in 1875, and bucked the tradition of his locally famous ancestors by going to sea not to hunt seals but to explore, gravitating always towards the far north. The best-known expeditions in which he participated were the last three of Peary (1898-1902 in the Windward, and 1905-06 and 1908-09 in the Roosevelt), including his attempts on the North Pole, and Stefansson’s Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-18 in the Karluk. In the latter three expeditions Bartlett was captain of the ship, but not expedition leader, and the ambivalence of this position means that he would probably be known only to Arctic exploration aficionados but for his extraordinary 700-mile journey, with the Inuit hunter Claude Kataktovik, to seek help for the stranded survivors of the Karluk in 1914, showing leadership of a kind that Stefansson so pointedly lacked. It was this journey, so reminiscent of Shackleton’s rescue of the Endurance crew two years later, that propels Bartlett into the realm of mythic fame. Haunted by the tragic death—despite his best efforts—of 11 expedition members from the Karluk, he succumbed to alcoholism in the following decade before restoring equilibrium and sense of purpose to his life when he started leading his own series of annual expeditions in his own schooner, the Effie Morrissey, over the twenty-odd years before his death in 1946.

Almost all of this information can be found, scattered randomly like grass seed, at some point or other in Maura Hanrahan’s book. But it really shouldn’t be as difficult to find as it is. It’s not often that one finishes the opening chapter of a non-fiction book bemused by the simple question of what the author is trying to achieve. Even rarer that the puzzlement remains on reaching the end of the book. Ostensibly a biography (“life and times” could scarcely be a more traditional marker of the genre), Unchained Man seems, by contrast, to be segments of several different books with different goals, all sadly unrealized. It’s not even clear that a biography is one of them.

The book’s opening chapter launches straight into Peary’s last expedition. Often such points of high drama function as brief openers in biographies to draw a reader in before returning to the subject’s origins. Here instead we get not only the author’s full account of the expedition, but also of Peary and Bartlett’s two previous expeditions, mixed in with summaries of Inuit–European relations, theories of imperialism, racism, and white male privilege, and thumbnail sketches of a generous handful of Bartlett ancestors, in a chapter in which Peary is a far more visible presence than Bartlett. The author seems somewhat naïve in assessing Peary’s truthfulness about reaching the Pole, and it’s a question how familiar she is with the literature on the subject—Robert Bryce’s Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved and Wally Herbert’s The Noose of Laurels are both notable for their absence from the book’s bibliography. The sparsity of dates, absence of maps, and lack of dramatic flair in the writing are also serious failings in this chapter as an account of an expedition.

Chapter 2, “A cottage hearth and open waters: An expectant childhood” looks like it might be going back to the beginning to give us the background we need to put Bartlett’s later exploits in context, but here again we are destined to be frustrated. The explorer’s own childhood is referred to occasionally, and fleetingly, in the context of a long and rambling essay on his immediate family and ancestors—expanding on the thumbnail sketches begun in chapter 1—many of whom the author writes about with patently greater interest and warmth than she shows for her supposed subject. Eight pages are devoted to the explorer’s grandmother Mary Leamon, within which four are spent describing in great detail a stipulation in her will that her descendants should not marry into a particular local family—something that might, at a push, warrant two or three sentences in a biography of Robert Bartlett. Even the two pages devoted to his younger sisters’ later tearoom business (several decades out of place in this chapter) is more than we learn about the first thirty years of Robert Bartlett’s own life.

Surely chapter 3—“Sculpting a life: Gaffs, compasses, and following on” will make amends? But no: whoever’s life is being sculpted, it isn’t Bob Bartlett’s. The family history simply continues uninterrupted, this time following the Y chromosome back through several generations of hard-bitten Bartlett sealers and sailors. By the end of it, we are half-way through the book and have had 135 pages on the social history of Brigus seen through the lens of a few interrelated families over several generations, mixed in with an abbreviated and unfocused account of Peary’s later expeditions and generous dollops of apologetic fussing about how racist and sexist everyone was in the nineteenth century, as if autres temps, autres mœurs were a new discovery. What we emphatically don’t have is what’s promised on the cover of the book.

In chapter 4 we hit the half-way point, and the author’s account of the Karluk disaster, once again short of dates, route maps, and telling the story in chronological order—the basic apparatus needed to make an expedition account intelligible to the reader. What the author does finally achieve, however, is the foregrounding of Robert Bartlett, and specifically of his life-saving trek from Wrangell Island to the Siberian mainland and across the Bering Strait to summon help. Even here, however, the drama must take a back seat to the author’s virtue-signalling concern to quantify precisely how much respect Bartlett is showing to his companion Kataktovik and the succession of Chukchi hosts who, once on land, gave them hospitality and supplies that saved their lives. It is instructive to compare this to the expertly crafted prose, seamlessly assimilated archival research, clearly drawn character sketches, perfectly paced narrative, and simple, non-judgemental warmth of human understanding seen in Jennifer Niven’s account of the disaster, The Ice Master (2002).

Chapters 5 and 6 happily continue to focus on Bartlett, and take us through the last thirty years of his life. Though now famous enough for his name and image to be used in advertising everything from tobacco to breakfast cereal, and despite being the author of his own account of the Karluk’s voyage (later he also wrote an autobiography), he was dogged by dissatisfaction, unease, and probably survivor guilt, his reliance on alcohol gradually increasing over a decade that ended with him being run over on a New York street. The enforced abstinence of his subsequent time in hospital was enough to break the spell, and he determined to swear off liquor for good. Determined to go north again on his own terms, he bought a schooner of the kind he knew from his early days in Newfoundland and started to use the wealthy New York contacts his fame had brought him to conduct a series of summer voyages to the coasts of Labrador and Baffin Bay in which the sons of the rich would pay to act as crew (though always with a core staff of professional sailors) on a character-building adventure. It proved to be a winning formula that provided Bartlett with a living for the rest of his life. Mentoring the young seemed to give him genuine pleasure too, and Hanrahan picks out his nephew Jack Angel and the geographer David Nutt, later one of the founders of climate science, as particularly significant. Science was another interest that flowered in Bartlett’s later life, particularly the collecting of plant and animal specimens for museums, and stemmed from the spiritual refreshment he always got from nature, part of the attraction that kept drawing him back to the Arctic.

Although all these elements emerge in Hanrahan’s account, their presentation lacks the essential chronological markers needed to make sense of a person’s life, which is after all experienced, and develops, in only a forward direction through time. When writing a biography, a thematic approach is not enough.

Hanrahan seems to have been caught between the desire to write several different books, and has tried unsatisfactorily to do a bit of all of them. One, perhaps, is a history of the town of Brigus as an example of a prosperous nineteenth-century sealing and fishing town. Another is a family history, showing the ebb and flow of personal and social forces that mould each generation’s outlook and life chances. A third is an attempt to recover the hidden stories of a series of impressive and formidable women, in danger of being lost because their accomplishments were more often domestic than public. All of these are worthwhile projects, and deserve their own books. They should not have been shoehorned into a biography of Robert Bartlett, a project that one senses lost the author’s interest at some point. The decade of archival research on three continents that she undertook for this book should have made it a definitive biography; instead it seems merely to have distracted the author into disappearing down innumerable rabbit holes, and then presenting her findings as if they were all equally relevant. The crucial discipline of selection is missing.

At root the problem perhaps stems from the author’s lack of interest in, or sympathy with, geographical exploration, the activity that motivated Bartlett. Certainly anyone capable of writing the breathtakingly unqualified statement that “racism was at the foundation of all exploration activity” could not be accused of a broad or deep knowledge of the field, as numerous errors of fact throughout the book illustrate. In the page 23 footnote, Hanrahan brackets Svalbard with Australia and Canada as “colonized” places subject unjustly to the legal doctrine of terra nullius, seemingly unaware that Svalbard had never had any human inhabitants before its discovery by the Dutch in 1596. On page 20, she brackets Ernest Shackleton with Robert Scott as having “military origins” (an idea Scott would have found wryly amusing), and in the page 57 footnote has Shackleton’s famous open-boat journey in 1916 ending at the Falkland Islands rather than South Georgia. On page 35 she writes that in 1906 “the ailing Roosevelt had pushed farther north than any ship in history” (to 82°20′N—the latitude is not actually given in the book), unaware that the most celebrated ship in polar history, the Fram, had been more than three degrees further north (to 85°57′), ten years earlier. On page 147 this claim is given an even more bizarre twist, in the statement that Bartlett was “the first captain to take a ship north of 88 degrees”, something that no ship achieved before nuclear-powered icebreakers in the 1970s, and perhaps the result of conflating the earlier claim, already false, with Bartlett’s own personal farthest north on foot in 1909. On page 40 she berates Peary for naming features on the north-east coast of Greenland in 1892 and 1895: “In so doing he completely ignored the long-standing Inuit presence in the Arctic”. But as with Svalbard, it is the author who is unaware of when and where that presence was and was not to be found: Thule settlement of the north-east coast of Greenland had declined long before European contact, and had been extinct for some seventy years by the time of Peary’s first expeditions. Their names for geographical features, never written down or part of any surviving group’s oral history, therefore were and are definitively unrecoverable. On page 142 Bartlett’s acclaimed navigation of the stricken Roosevelt was in 1906, not 1909 (as the author knows, having written about it in chapter 1), and on page 143 Sam Bartlett’s voyage of 1903-04 had made claim to the eastern Arctic specifically on behalf of Canada, not Britain, which had transferred its claim to the dominion in 1880. On page 241, Roald Amundsen had not yet, in 1909, even announced he was aiming for the South Pole, let alone reached it. And on page 242, George Francis Lyon was certainly never part of an expedition aiming for the North Pole, though his former commander Parry had been.

The failure is as much the publisher’s as the author’s. The book’s editor should have obliged the author to make a root-and-branch restructuring of the content, jettisoning whole chapters, tightening up others, adding new ones, and restoring some sense of direction and focus. The copy-editor should have dealt with the errors listed above, as well as absent-minded inversions and solecisms like “biscuits of tins” (156), “London Illustrated News” (167), and “Royal Geographic Society” (241). Both individuals are named on the book’s copyright page, a practice the publisher might want to reconsider.

Most readers who buy a biography of Robert Bartlett will be, in some sense, fans of exploration history. An archivally researched biography of Bartlett has long been needed. On both counts it seems a shame that the assignment should have fallen to someone whose antipathy to the very activity that gives the story life makes her so ill-suited to the task. Such a narrative should be a dramatic gift to the author; what results instead sorely tests the patience of the reader.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

John Rae, Arctic Explorer

John Rae, Arctic Explorer: The Unfinished Biography

Edited by William Barr

Edmonton: Polynya Press (an imprint of the University of Alberta Press)

USD $60, $CAD 54

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


On the occasion of the death of Dr. John Rae, the journal of the American Geographical and Statistical Society offered a heartfelt encomium: "He wrote with simplicity and force, but he was more concerned to do things worthy of record than to record them." Had they known of this, his extraordinarily detailed autobiography, they might have had to change that comparison; Dr. Rae indeed did many things worth recording -- and he recorded them. The exact reasons why this manuscript -- which ends, frustratingly, in the middle of a sentence just as Rae is about to describe his fateful meeting with In-nook-poo-zhee-jook and how he learned from him of Franklin's fate -- was never completed, or (if it was) was never proffered to a publisher, may forever be shrouded in uncertainty. The manuscript was clearly passed from hand to hand -- so much so that the first few leaves became worn and tattered, and were re-copied in later years by his wife Kate -- but it has not seen the light of publication until today.

Much has been written in recent years about Rae's career, the more so since Ken McGoogan's 2001 magisterial Fatal Passage, but one feels on reading these pages -- more than 600 of them -- that we have, until now, but scarcely known John Rae, the shy boy from Orkney who, surprising even himself, made his way into the roughest country of the North, and distinguished himself above any other man of similar background. The man who comes into view in these pages is, by turns, reclusive, gregarious, sly, a fine doctor, a capable administrator, a gifted explorer --  who only learned the essentials of navigation and surveying midway through his career -- and a deeply decent man whose life subsequent to his discovery of the fate of Franklin was straitened by the public scorning of the news he brought, despite the fact that those who truly knew him and his work never wavered in their admiration.

The opening chapters of Rae's book are by far its finest -- here, more than in those that follow, we hear the voice of a man reflecting on a life well-lived, with a strange admixture of poignancy and pride:
Brought up and educated at home under a tutor in the Orkney Islands (which have been, I think not inappropriately, called by an old friend a “paradise for boys”) and never having had until the age of sixteen what would have been to a boy so defectively constituted, the advantage of attending a public school, my chief and almost sole amusements during vacation or play hours were boating, shooting, fishing and riding (chiefly the three first) all of which my brothers and myself had ample opportunities of practising. 
There are reminiscences of steering through the strong tides of the Hoy Mouth, of engaging in boat-races with his youthful comrades, and of hunting small game, a sport he enjoyed from his earliest years to his last. And yet it was the sea, it seems, that most strongly formed him; though a great part of his best-known adventures were primarily managed on foot, the deep and foundational impression made by his education as a boatsman became a metaphor for his life, one in which the reader will detect some sense of the way in which he faced -- and managed to navigate -- his later difficulties:
Poetical ideas are not much in my way at any time but this one line, “She walks the waters like a thing of life,” has often occurred to me, when steering one or other of the lively boats I have at different times possessed, through a sea of troubled waters. The sympathy between the steersman and his boat is felt much as that between the rider and a well known and favourite horse. On a smooth sea in the one case, or on a level road or good bit of turf in the other, a slight strain on the rein or a steady touch on the helm is all that is wanted, both rider and steersman, if up to their work, keeping wide awake and a sharp lookout ahead or to windward. But put the man and horse in the hunting field with a rattling big fence or stone wall in front of them, and the hounds in full cry a short distance ahead on the other side, and we have a different state of things, requiring a change of tactics
Detail of Rae's memorial
The line is from Lord Byron's The Corsair, and reveals to us something of Rae's reading, which was surely broader than he implies; throughout his travels, he was known for taking a miniature library of books in duodecimo amongst his gear -- one of them lies by his side on the sculptural memorial in St. Magnus Cathedral. But the dominant images of his memoir are those of the active life, the resourceful man who only fully shows his mettle when facing his worst difficulties.

His autobiography continues in this tone, up through his account of his first challenges upon entering the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, during which he ended up stationed with an icebound ship and her crew, saving nearly all of them from scurvy by the discovery of a large patch of cranberries under the snow. But not long after this point, the narrative gradually shifts to a daily journal style, interrupted at times by asides that seem directed more to those of his own profession than to the general reader. The reasons behind his three major surveying expeditions, the latter two part of the search for Franklin and his men, receive only perfunctory remarks, and much of Rae's account consists of the daily details of each journey.

Barr, perhaps the most experienced scholar in the world when it comes to editing Arctic explorers' narratives, provides all manner of helpful context. The latter third of the autobiography is supplemented by a large number of letters, all of which add something, though at times they feel rather like interruptions. And yet there will be few consolations when, on reaching the end of the manuscript and arriving at Barr's précis of the "second half" of Rae's life, one feels as though, having hiked the long incline of this rich and detailed narrative, the journey ends at a precipice.

Barr helpfully provides a brief summary of Rae's report on Franklin, as well as of his subsequent life and career. Within this, he even offers a poignant tidbit or two, as when he notes how upset Rae was by the death of his pet canary "Dickie," in June of 1888:
He maintained that [the bird] recognized his footsteps, which he "responded to as if he had been a Christian." [Rae] made a small coffin for it, and "as a solitary mourner," buried it in a secret location in his garden, later planting a flower over the grave.
There are also supplements, including articles by Rae on "Ice and its Formation" and "Building a snow-house." But what is most missed is any return of Rae's original narrative voice. This could have been provided (in the instance of Rae's 1854 discoveries) by including his full report; although it has been published elsewhere, it would have resonated quite differently here. Other letters could also have been chosen to give some sense of his later career. My understanding is that Barr had wished to extend and complete the narrative in this manner, but that his editors overruled him, probably in consideration of making a large book even larger. If that was their chief consideration, I certainly understand it, though I'd respectfully disagree.

Barr also makes it clear here that he feels that Rae's considerable accomplishments do not include, and need not be augmented by, modern claims that in surveying the strait that bears his name, he ought to have the credit for first discovering a navigable Northwest Passage. There will be many who will continue to challenge Barr's view, but it would be a terrible shame if, on the basis of that disagreement, they were to eschew this volume. The extraordinary value of getting Rae’s own personal measure of his life and career surely outweighs such disputes. In the end, though frustrated by its silences, we must all be grateful that we have before us an account of Rae's life from Rae's own hand.

The format of the book is extraordinarily handsome -- indeed, I have never seen anything like it among modern Arctic publications -- the paper is heavy and cream-colored, and the beautifully-designed jacket perfectly encompasses the well-crafted curvature of the massive spine. The main text is given with broad outer margins, which are sometimes used for very helpful side-notes; indeed, it would have been preferable if the end-notes had all been re-created as side-notes. There certainly seems to have been enough white space, and having to turn back and forth from the footnotes as one reads makes a long read feel longer. And yet, despite all these minor criticisms, this remains an extraordinary volume -- one that anyone who cares deeply about John Rae's life and work will want to acquire.

[NB There remains the possibility that, as some believe, the second half of the manuscript may still survive somewhere. Were it to be found, it would certainly be invaluable, and I would hope that it would soon rejoin the portion we now possess].

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Lady Franklin of Russell Square

Lady Franklin of Russell Square

by Erika Behrisch Elce

Stonehouse Publishing, $19.95

Reviewed by Regina Koellner



Jane Franklin has always been a controversial figure. Some see her as a calculating egomaniac, trying to rule a colonial empire through her weak husband and, after he vanished in the Arctic, bullying the Admiralty into sending out one unnecessary search expedition after another. Others perceive her as the devoted, loving wife ready to sacrifice everything she had to bring back the love of her life or at least find out what happened to him, conjured up in the powerful but most likely imagined image of her on the shore of Orkney, arms outstretched to the North, willing her hero to come back to her.

The truth, like always, lies somewhere in between. To find out where exactly is almost impossible although Jane Franklin kept an extensive diary throughout her whole life, recording even the smallest detail. Unfortunately after her death her personal papers and correspondence were heavily edited by her constant companion, friend, secretary and executrix of her will, her niece Sophia Cracroft.

Numerous books have been written about John Franklin, his last expedition and also about his wife. Erika Behrisch Elce, professor for Victorian Literature and Culture at the Royal Military College of Canada, has herself added to this scholarly library of Franklinite literature with a non-fiction book about the letters Lady Franklin wrote to politicians, friends, Royal Navy personnel and everybody else who she thought useful in the quest for her husband lost in the Arctic.

Now, almost ten years later, the author presents an epistolary novel about Lady Jane Franklin, following partly the lines of this extraordinary woman's life who, although she left school at 16, possessed an active and intelligent mind that made her a restless traveler, venturing into territories where not many of her contemporaries dared to go, especially if they were female.

As the author mentions in her book it has always been widely discussed how much John and Jane Franklin were in love with each other. Of course, it is possible that she just looked for a tolerable husband and he for a mother to his young daughter but on the other hand there is enough evidence in their letters that they had feelings for each other and formed a team of equal partners. Especially in Van Diemen's Land (today's Tasmania) Jane shared John's load, supporting him with advice, taking care of correspondence and being there when needed – if she was not away on one of her excursions.

How much she pushed her husband to become the governor of Van Diemen's Land, a post he was too good-natured to be suited for, or to take over command of his last expedition at the age of 59, is also a question that cannot be answered. Franklin himself, however, seemed to have been keen on both posts.

After Franklin and his expedition had not been heard of for more than two years, Jane Franklin rose to form, peppering with letters every human being or institution who she thought would be useful in sending out search expeditions. When she had the impression that letter writing was not enough, she invested a large part of her fortune (to the chagrin of John Franklin's daughter and her husband who feared Jane would waste Eleanor's inheritance on a fruitless task) and sent out her own expeditions. With every new ship that left for the direction of the Arctic she and other friends and relatives of the officers and crews sent letters to their loved ones in the hope they would reach them. No letter ever did and the ones that survived to this day are testament to desperate hope crushed by each "Returned to the Sender" stamp on the envelope when it came back. Jane Franklin's letters to her husband are no exception.

The novel starts with a fictional story about how Lady Franklin's letters were found in the attic of her father's house near Russell Square, neatly bound to a book in the form of a diary and – in contrast to the real letters – never sent out to her husband. They start in spring two years after the expedition left Greenhithe and the first unease starts to gnaw at her:
"I write also to apologize to you that we have been at least a little worried while you've been gone, but, really, this is to be expected. It is nothing out of the ordinary for a wife and daughter to worry for an absent husband and father – not lost but gone almost, almost too long." 
Still, up to that point it had been expected not to hear from the expedition and Jane Franklin, like almost everybody else, must have felt that the men would be back every day now as triumphant conquerors of the North West Passage, one of the last blank spaces on Earth waiting for the Royal Navy to map, name and take into possession for Queen and country.

Jane tried to keep the letters to her husband positive and omit anything bound to disturb or sadden the recipient and even advised the relatives of other expedition members to do the same. Perhaps that is the reason why Erika Behrisch Elce decided to write a novel instead of another scholarly book. She also does not attempt to have mixed any existing letters by Lady Franklin with fictitious parts. Instead she opted for a more modernized diction, although terms like "okay", "break me out of my funk" and "Christ on a stick" should not have appeared in letters meant to have been written by an early Victorian lady. The fictional letters in the book do not restrict themselves to positivity, allowing the author creative freedom to reveal more of Jane's inner feelings, frustrations, anger and finally the realization that all hope had been in vain:
"Are you surprised that I continue to write to you even now that I know that you are dead?"
The difference between the actual letters of Jane Franklin and those of the fictional counterpart can be illustrated by comparing the following examples written shortly after Eleanor Franklin's marriage to the Reverend John Phillip Gell:
Lady Franklin 
"Dear Eleanor was married yesterday 7th June… I left them after the ceremony, because in your absence I could not bear any festivities & employed the afternoon in going to Stanmore & visiting the old church in which we were married & and which I am sorry to say is going to be pulled down.. The bride and bridegroom went to Eastborn [sic] to the house of Mr. Davies Gilbert which is leant to them… "1
Lady Franklin of Russell Square: 
"I write to tell you that there are no more Eleanor Franklins in the world. Do not be downhearted about it – your young Eleanor continues living – but no longer under our collective wing. No: this month, she at long last married her Gell, and that's an end on it. Of course she was beautiful in her way, with her simple gown and homely looks…"
One feature of the book appealing not only to readers interested in fiction but the scholar as well are only very slightly edited Times newspaper articles and letters to the editor that give a fascinating insight into how the Franklin search was seen in the public eye but also how openly Lady Franklin and Sophy fought against critics from the public and their own family. They also provide context and background information to the fictitious letters.

As the title suggests, Russell Square in London plays a pivotal part. Jane grew up in adjacent Bedford Place in her father's house and often stayed there even after her marriage. When they came back from Tasmania, Jane and John Franklin again shared the house with Jane's ailing father and the family of her sister Mary, the Simpkinsons. It must have felt quite crowded in there and was not made better when, after Eleanor left to get married, Sophia Cracroft, who was no relative of the Simpkinsons, came to live with Lady Franklin permanently. In Lady Franklin of Russell Square, the reader gets a glimpse of how claustrophobic it must have felt for Jane and Sophy (and the Simpkinsons) until they finally decided to move out in 1854 and take up lodgings in Spring Gardens in close proximity to the Admiralty. In the novel Jane keeps going back to the solace of Russell Square and the statue of the Duke of Bedford as her confidant and collaborator since her childhood days, greeted even by the mature Jane with an elaborate ritual.

Jane Franklin's gentle friendship with the Russell Square gardener (who is tormented by his own dark past) is a captivating side story but unfortunately not drawn out to its full potential. The reader is left longing for a more substantial interaction between the two as the author decided to take the story a different direction. Thus a few dialogues and their mutual love for unassuming flowers have to suffice to show two lonely people longing for the happiness of the past. The novel ends with the departure of Leopold McClintock in the Fox without covering its return and the information it brought on the date of John Franklin's death.

Lady Franklin of Russell Square adds another stitch to the rich tapestry of the Franklin expedition saga and enables the reader to imagine Jane Franklin in a more private, softer light as a flawed but dedicated person dealing with hope, despair and in the end accepting her fate and moving on.

1 from Frances J. Woodward's Portrait of Jane

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Do You See Ice?

Do You See Ice? 
Inuit and Americans at Home and Away
By Karen Routledge
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018, $50.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


Karen Routledge has written an extraordinary book, and she’s managed it by making a seemingly slight adjustment to the cultural spectacles through which the Arctic and its peoples, and those from elsewhere who have sojourned there, have been seen in their worlds, both familiar and strange. All too often, even the most seemingly modern and culturally “aware” books find themselves snared in the old truisms about the Arctic – its harsh, unyielding climate, its almost-malevolent ice, its isolation and apparent emptiness when compared with more temperate regions. She accomplishes this feat, remarkably, by making a sense of displacement her main theme – the displacement of whalers, following the lure of rich shares into a world they scarcely knew (and thus feared), and following Inuit who spent time in the “southern” world through their own experience of estrangement and display. Quite a few of these are accounts we’ve heard in some form or another, but never quite in this way.

Routledge is fortunate in that Cumberland Sound, the epicenter of her study, has so many stories of both kinds. It was, as she notes, brought to the attention of westerners by Eenoolooapik, who guided the Scots whaler William Penny to its shores in 1840. The subsequent discovery that overwintering there brought enormous advantages in the whale harvest led to a long period of mutual contact and cooperation, through which the bonds – material, cultural, and familial – between the Inuit and the whalers grew in strength and complexity, even as both remained in a sense strangers in each other’s lands. The experiences of whaling men who at first feared an uncertain time in an unknown land can thus be contrasted very directly with the alienation experienced by Inuit such as Ebierbing and Tookoolito, who were brought from Cumberland Sound to England in the 1850’s, and then to America and Greenland in their more than decade-long association with the explorer Charles Francis Hall.

The book is organized into four symmetrical, or rather parallel chapters -- "Americans in Cumberland Sound," "Inuit in the United States," "Americans and Inuit in the High Arctic," and "Inuit in Cumberland Sound." In the first, Routledge sets some of the experiences of early whalers against the Inuit cycles of the five seasons, from Aujaq (summer) to Upingaaq (spring). The device of using the Inuit seasons as the setting for the whalers' tales perfectly frames the double sense of these men and their unfamiliarity with all that was so deeply familiar to the Inuit. In one case, a small group of whalers who went AWOL from their ship -- something that happened more often than I'd realized -- becomes a cautionary tale as, even with some assistance from Inuit, they manage to have a pretty rough time of it, and surely those of them who lived, lived to regret their choice.

In the next chapter, the key figures are Ebierbing and Tookoolito, known to the whalers (and to Hall) as "Joe" and "Hannah." This is the most detailed and accurate account yet published of their time with Hall, and Routledge lays out all the complexities of their often-uneasy alliance with Hall and the Budingtons. She quite rightly points to the issue of the Qallunaat authoritarianism -- and expectation of obedience -- and its unfortunate intersection with the Inuit cultural tradition of avoiding confrontation. She illustrates this chapter with the posed photographs of the family taken in Groton, as well as with some of Hannah's drawings from the Hall papers. And she's right about the uneasy effects of authority -- you can feel it almost viscerally in a letter by Joe also in those papers (but not quoted in the book) -- although his command of English was less fluent than Hannah's, the sense he had of being bullied by the white man's loud demands comes through clearly:
2 years I stay Houdsons Bay try go King William Land then I give it up, meet 3 men from their tell me give it up make me afraid. Mr. Hall tease me all time make me go their never give it up. Next time I go like a soldier every body go so every body carry gun. 
The third chapter, the only one to depart from the Cumberland Sound region, deals mainly with the Greely expedition, mixing accounts of the alienation felt by the Inuit who accompanied them with Greely's men's own sad decline into starvation and cannibalism. It's perhaps the least of the chapters, but still quite strong -- and it's good to see a full account of the qivittoq, the lone and ghostly soul whose frightful isolation provides the cautionary opposite to the overall spirit of community and sharing intrinsic to Inuit life. The final chapter, happily, returns to the shores of Cumberland sound, offering some striking accounts from the time of first contact to the present, and entirely from the Inuit point of view.

It's wonderful to see that the author is donating the proceeds of the book to the Elders' Room at the Angmarik Center in Pangnirtung. When I visited the center last summer as historian to a group of expedition ship passengers, one of them asked "What do the Elders do in the Elders' room?" Our guide laughed, answering that they just talked, told stories, or sometimes played cards. This book, woven of their stories, ought to help support these basic pleasures for some time to come.

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.