Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Gates of Hell: Sir John Franklin's Tragic Quest for the Northwest Passage

The Gates of Hell: Sir John Franklin's Tragic Quest for the Northwest Passage
by Andrew Lambert
New Haven: Yale University Press, $32.50

I've already reviewed the UK edition of Professor Lambert's book brought out by Faber & Faber earlier this year, but thought the US edition deserves at least a brief notice on its own. The book's appearance is strikingly different; in place of a bald and puffy Sir John Franklin we have Richard Brydges Beechey's luminous "HMS Erebus passing through the Chain of Bergs" from 1842. Quibblers will note that, although these were indeed Franklin's (later) vessels, the setting is the Antarctic rather than the Arctic, and some may find their greenish darkness, framed by deep olive, a bit much -- but I think it's a very handsome design, and beautifully printed. A more significant difference lies in the subtitle, and here there is an odd dissonance; given that one of Lambert's main arguments is that the Franklin expedition was not principally dispatched to search for the Passage, it may give some readers the wrong first impression. Of course, I disagree with this claim, and so the title works for me! And, although the main title makes one think at first of Rodin's great sculpture, it's dramatic and certainly will pique readers' curiosity.

The other differences in the book are physical rather than textual. The binding case is tighter and more sturdy, and the quality of the paper is far better than Faber's fibrous leaves; were I purchasing for a library, I would certainly prefer this edition. Alas, the plates are only reproduced in black and white, unlike the lovely color of the UK edition, which suggests a sort of trade-off in production values. All in all, US readers who have managed to wait will be richly rewarded by this edition, which certainly deserves a spot on the shelf of anyone with an interest in Franklin and the history of Arctic exploration.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Polar Hayes

Polar Hayes: The Life and Contributions of Isaac Israel Hayes, M.D.

Douglas W. Wamsley

Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-87169-262-7

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore

Douglas Wamsley has filled a glaring gap in the historiography of 19th-century polar exploration by producing the first biography of Isaac Hayes, leader of perhaps the most overlooked US Arctic expedition before the age of Cook and Peary. But Hayes’s activities extended well beyond the Arctic, and in thoroughly charting them Wamsley has given us a picture not only of Arctic exploration but of many disparate aspects of 19th-century American life. The publishers are also to be commended for producing a pleasingly solid and attractively presented volume, illustrated with photographs, engravings, well-drawn maps, and a colour plate.

Isaac Hayes was born into a Quaker community in rural Pennsylvania in 1832, and the author has taken great trouble to evoke the details of what that Quaker upbringing would have meant. To those accustomed to the modern Quaker image as a peace-loving but, in theological terms, virtually doctrine-free sect, it is a bracing shock to realize that in the 1820s American Quakers were stern disciplinarians who experienced a doctrinal and praxis-based schism that bitterly split the community. As a result, their physical assets were divided according to which group could muster the greatest support in each locality. In Chester county, the more orthodox group to which Hayes’s family belonged retained control of the most precious local asset, a residential school, and here the young Isaac had a formal and very serious education that encompassed natural science, mathematics, rhetoric and public speaking alongside religious studies and some carefully controlled exposure to literature. The detail with which Wamsley has researched and recreated the life of this school and the world-view of the community it served marks an impressive contribution to the social history of the Quakers.

Grasping with both hands the opportunity of his few years at the school, young Isaac flourished in the school’s debating and literary societies, and went on to become a junior instructor himself when he graduated. But his ambition clearly drew him to wider horizons from a young age, and he quickly decided that a medical career was his best chance for advancement on the social and economic ladder he desperately wanted to climb. Looking even further afield, he pushed himself unrelentingly to complete a three-year medical course in two years so that he would be qualified in time to sign up with the Second Grinnell Expedition to the Arctic, led by Elisha Kent Kane. A generalized ambition, and specifically a desire to escape from the respectable poverty in which he had been raised, seems to have led Hayes both to medicine and to the Arctic, rather than any specific interest in either field. But while his fascination with the Arctic grew along with his exposure to it, on the evidence of this biography his commitment to medicine as a vocation—rather than as a door-opener—seems always to have been somewhat half-hearted. At no point did he settle down to regular medical practice, even as he complained of a lack of income, and in the one period in his life continuously devoted to a medical institution, when he ran Philadelphia’s Satterlee Hospital during the Civil War, his work was overwhelmingly administrative in nature.

Wamsley’s attention to detail is always impressive, but this sometimes leads him astray in misjudgements of emphasis. This is particularly noticeable during his overly thorough description of Kane’s expedition, which takes up fully a hundred pages of rather close-set text. The detail is unnecessary both because this expedition is so well covered elsewhere and because the pages devoted to it are not used to give any more emphasis to the role of Hayes than that of anyone else. Wamsley’s impeccably impartial view avoids any special pleading for Hayes’s actions in the often acrimonious series of events, as the crew split into camps before uneasily reintegrating. But nor does he provide any particular focus on Hayes’s role in the expedition—which a biography surely ought to—and we get no sense of seeing events from Hayes’s viewpoint. Indeed, for chapters at a time one simply forgets that this is a biography of Hayes, rather than simply an account of the expedition.

As soon as he returned from the Kane expedition, it seems, Hayes decided that he would support himself by public lecturing, drawing on his school-time experience as a public speaker and debater. And within a short time he had conceived the idea of leading his own Arctic expedition to put right the errors of decision and execution he perceived Kane as having made. But throughout his life Hayes’s timing, and much else, was dogged by bad luck, and without the prestigious social and political connections that had smoothed the fundraising process for Kane, or the charismatic force of personality that would later propel Charles Hall to leadership of the government-funded Polaris expedition, Hayes had to cajole, exhort, scrimp, save, beguile, and seduce his would-be funders—and all during an economic downturn. Unsurprisingly it took him five years to raise the funds for even a modest, single-ship expedition.

Crucially, this was a sailing ship rather than a steamer, and the restrictions this placed on navigating in the ice-choked waters of Smith Sound had profound implications for what the expedition could accomplish. Their wintering place was further south than Kane’s (without steam power they could not risk getting stuck further north) and wind and ice had forced them onto the Greenland shore of Smith Sound, while Hayes had explicitly wanted to aim for the Ellesmere side. As a consequence, the main exploratory sledge journey of the expedition in the spring of 1861 had to use virtually all its strength and resources just crossing the frozen strait to the west before the participants could even begin heading north, with the result that Hayes’s furthest advance did not even reach as high a latitude as Morton achieved on Kane’s expedition in 1854. Although some coastline had been mapped for the first time, and Hayes tried to claim a greater distance than, in all probability, he actually achieved, it became apparent when the expedition’s results were eventually published (in 1865) how little new ground had been covered. This, along with the explorers’ return to find themselves in the midst of a civil war, ensured that any momentum that might have been generated for further exploration was lost, and that Hayes’s expedition, with no distinct achievement to call its own, soon faded in the public mind.

The Civil War provided Hayes with another opportunity to show his flair for leadership, as President Lincoln himself recommended him to run the Union’s major military hospital—in fact during its brief three-year existence Satterlee became the largest hospital in the world, and its well-ordered functioning and reputation for high standards of care owed much to Hayes’s zeal and discipline. But from the war’s end onwards the sense of drift in Hayes’s career is palpable. Lecturing and occasional writing continued to be his bread and butter, and his two remaining Arctic journeys (a summer cruise to Greenland with the painter William Bradford in 1869 and an expedition to Iceland during its millennial celebrations in 1874) are perhaps most accurately thought of as extensions of the same type of activity—creating diversions for the edification of the wealthy—rather than as genuinely exploratory ventures. Instead, the major effort of the remainder of what would prove to be a truncated life was in politics. From 1875 until the spring of 1881 Hayes served as an assemblyman representing a New York City district in the state assembly in Albany. He championed many progressive and far-sighted causes, including underground railways, subacqueous tunnels, and the abolition of canal freight charges, and was a consistent opponent of the Tammany Hall corruption that was only then beginning to be seriously challenged.

As with his treatment of Hayes’s Quaker background, Wamsley’s coverage of Hayes’s political career is admirably researched and comprehensive, providing a well-drawn picture of both corrupt and reformist state and city politics in the gilded age. Even this career had completed its brief cycle of rise and fall before Hayes’s death, however: reaching a zenith of popular regard and power in his third year as assemblyman, when he chaired important committees, his behaviour was increasingly erratic in his fourth and fifth years, and he became a marked man whom the New York Times, once supportive, singled out for relentless criticism until Republican Party bosses persuaded him not to run for re-election in November 1881. His decline, marked by intemperate outbursts and rambling orations, was perhaps linked to heart disease, his probable cause of death in December 1881.

Although he was just 49, having finished with careers as explorer, administrator, and politician, and with nothing to show financially for a life of toil, it is hard to know what Hayes would have done next if he hadn’t died; he seems to have consumed and exhausted every opportunity open to him. Yet for all the abundant detail of Wamsley’s work there seems to remain something blankly unknowable about Hayes, a lack of a strongly characterized personality that is puzzling. Perhaps the absence of a life partner (Hayes never married) and the emotional mirror such a person would have provided to his thoughts and actions, is one cause. But the author’s one serious omission in an otherwise all-inclusive book is an extensive consideration of Hayes’s published writing, from which there are surprisingly few quotations, and it is sobering on reaching the bibliography to see how extensive the list of publications is, ranging from exploration narratives, journalism and political advocacy to children’s stories. Perhaps a greater emphasis on evaluation of these writings, rather than simple reporting of their contents, would have gone some way to providing those missing insights into Hayes’s personality.

As a documentary record of the explorer’s life and the background that shaped him, Polar Hayes is surely the definitive work. But the elusive personality of the man still perhaps remains to be grasped.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation

Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation
by Andrew Lambert
London: Faber & Faber, 2009

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Andrew Lambert's Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation is the first new scholarly biography of Sir John Franklin in many years. How many? Well, it depends on how you count. Deadly Winter, Martyn Beardsley's 2002 biography, was more of a general-interest work, while John Wilson's lively 2001 volume, John Franklin: Traveller on Undiscovered Seas, was geared to younger readers. Before that, if one wanted a detailed biography by a naval historian one would have to reach back almost to Richard J. Cyriax's Sir John Franklin's Last Expedition in 1939. So there can be no doubt that the appearance of Lambert's study is an occasion for celebration among all with an interest in the strange fate of this unhappy navigator.

And yet, as Franklin has come to mean so many things for so many people, it might be wise to say at the outset what this book is not. It is not a psychological study; those looking for insights into Franklin's character would be far better served by Beardsley's book. It is not, in fact, a summa of Franklin's entire career; for that, one would have to reach back to G.F. Lamb's Franklin - Happy Voyager from 1956. Like Cyriax, Lambert's real subject is Franklin's last expedition, and his great aim is to set that event in the richest possible naval and historical context. As such, Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation is a resounding success, easily the most comprehensive and authoritative account we have of the reasons why this man did, and died.

(For those who may resent my pun on Tennyson, who was Sir John's cousin, I would only add that it was -- of all people -- Lady Jane Franklin who caused 10,000 copies of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" to be distributed to soldiers in the Crimea).

Lambert's labor is to give his readers the fullest possible account of the motivations of those who sent Franklin and his men to what turned out to be their demise. In order to do this, he seems to feel, he must take away the popular notion that the Franklin Expedition sailed in order to complete the "Arctic Grail" of the Northwest Passage, and give us instead an account of Franklin as scientist-in-chief of a great voyage of magnetic and geographical observation. The correction, like that for the declination of the compass, is a vital one, and yet in his effort to re-orient our gaze Lambert, in my view, risks distorting the reader's perspective in the opposite direction.

In his strongest declaration, on page 167, he goes so far as to say that "the Victorians were not so foolhardy as to risk two ships and 129 men in pursuit of a geographical curiosity of no practical utility. Instead, [Franklin's] expedition was designed to address a high-profile scientific agenda, and the decision to send him was driven by the political power of organised science." There's certainly no doubt that a scientific imperative, driven (as Lambert vividly recounts) by the Humboldtian quest for the mapping of terrestrial magnetism, was a key factor in getting the necessary government support. But to say that the Victorians were uninterested in geographical accomplishments "of no practical utility" is to distort the political and public sense, driven home over the years by men such as Sir John Barrow, that it was precisely the useless things that mattered. After all, had not Sir John Ross, testifying before a Parliamentary committee in 1834, declared that the Northwest Passage, even if obtained, would be "absolutely useless"? And had not Barrow, in his last and most emphatic defense of the quest for the Passage, rejected the utilitarian view, declaring that "it must be a very narrow spirit and view of the subject which can raise the cry of "Cui bono?" and counsel us to relinquish the honor and peril of such enterprises?"

The divergence between the reasons necessary to justify an undertaking on purely scientific grounds, and those vital to capturing the public imagination, is a persistent one. In response to those who questioned why the United States needed to despatch a man to the surface of Earth's Moon before the Soviets could do so, many an otherwise calm and rational man fell back upon disquisitions about Tang, "space food sticks," and improvements to onboard telemetry. Truth be told, while all of these things had some significant practical value, if their practical value alone had been the only argument, the mission to the Moon would never have been undertaken. Just so, while from a scientific view the "Passage" as such was a nil value, whereas magnetic data obtained near the Pole was worth its weight in scientific gold, such marvelous observations would not have been possible without the public's passion for a national achievement, even and especially one of so little immediate use that only the greatest nations dared undertake it.

So let us simply say that, while that the urge to obtain newly accurate magnetic observations near the North Magnetic Pole was indeed a vital impetus for Franklin's mission, that mission would have never have received Government backing had it not "piggybacked" upon the public's passion for the elusive laurels of the Passage. We need not lessen one achievement by disparaging the allotment of the other. Indeed, Roald Amundsen, who eventually achieved this long-sought goal, was only able to justify his undertaking by making similar protestations that magnetic observations were his chief object. Let us look kindly upon such claims, accepting the boon to science while permitting some degree of adulation for the accomplishment of a useless, yet widely lauded goal.

But back to Lambert's study. He skims over Franklin's earlier expeditions, allotting only a few pages apiece to his voyage under Buchan to Spitsbergen, and his first and second land expeditions. Franklin's time in Tasmania receives more substantial coverage, and rightly so, as it was there, on the colonial frontier, that Franklin was able to take up the mantle of the prime intellectual magnate. Through his, and through Jane's, public foundations, journals, and societies, they laid the foundation of an enlightened country far before -- as it turned out -- the country was ready for them. Nevertheless, it was a grand period, and never more so than when Sir James Clark Ross and Francis Crozier sojourned in Hobart Town. Lambert passes quickly over the dress balls with their famous mirrors, and gives us in their place a contrasting portrait of a Franklin, more Benjamin than John in his inclinations, supporting and encouraging vital magnetic and geological observations.

The buildup to the great undertaking is aptly handled by Lambert, who gives a vivid account of the machinations by which Franklin won the command, as the great gears and cogs of science rotated their contributions into place. As he notes pointedly, on 12 July 1845, as the last parcels of mail headed south, the inner thoughts of Franklin, along with all of his men, passed forever out of direct knowledge, and all the rest is speculation. And yet, in its place, the drama of the search for Franklin soon engaged more men, more resources, and more ships than anything conceived of in Franklin's original orders. Lambert proves a capable chronicler of the Franklin search, and while he does not add a great deal of new insight to our understanding of it, he keeps the drama vividly alive, and sprinkles the salt of lesser-known facts which keep the matter savory.

When it comes, though, to the "last resource" and other events which depend on a complex, ambiguous, and permanently incomplete assortment of Inuit testimony, archaeological finds, and grand conjectures, Lambert remains -- resolutely though frustratingly -- aloof. I'm relieved that, unlike Beardsley, he accepts it as established that cannibalism occurred among some groups of survivors; the preponderance of the forensic and historical evidence leaves no room for comfort here. Nevertheless, he follows Beardsley in setting aside any detailed analysis of this same evidence, leaving his readers with a similar sense that, if they wish to know more, they will have to turn to Woodman, Loomis, Eber, and others. While I respect Lambert's sense of integrity in drawing his limits, I still regret that his study declines to offer what I'm sure would have been his sensible overview of what, by patient inquiry, has at least so far been learned.

The remainder of Lambert's study is largely memorial, in the sense that it traces the evolution of Franklin's reputation in the world he had long since left. His section "Brazen lies" offers an observant and detailed account of Lady Franklin's attempts to secure her husband's posthumous reputation. And yes (how) does that brass lie? The line from Richardson is one of contention: "they forged the last link with their lives." And yet the Inuit testimony of their encounter with Franklin's men at Washington Bay, on whose southern edge Simpson's cairn had been erected -- testimony which Lambert elsewhere accepts -- corroborates this very line. It is strange indeed that Lambert, and -- more notably in the press -- Inuit politician Tagak Curley -- have taken to calling this line a lie. It seems as though Lambert wants it both ways; he desires to free Franklin of falsely-flaunted explorer's laurels while re-crowning him with Science -- and yet at the same time loudly proclaims that the statue on Waterloo Place has feet of clay.

Yet the end, I must say, I remain an admirer of this well-written, challenging, and thoughtful book. It is not precisely a biography, and it has less of social and literary context than I should have liked -- but it is an ardent, energetic volume which does much to correct and balance the historical record. It rewards its readers with a new sense of the substance of the man and his mission, and while it only pauses to observe a few of the many cultural monuments he left in his wake, it restores to us a man who, whatever fancies have kept him in the public's mind since, had an eminently practical and valuable career in the eyes of his Victorian compeers.

SPECIAL FEATURE: Check out our interview with Andrew Lambert.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Coming Soon: New Arctic Books

Our site may have been quiet for a few weeks, but the silence you hear is actually the sound of our reviewers carefully paging through some of the year's most exciting new titles of Arctic interest. With our new format, these will be published as soon as they're complete, so you won't have to wait for a full "issue" to accumulate before you can sample our latest offerings.

Russell Potter is currently reading Andrew Lambert's new biography of Sir John Franklin from Faber & Faber, the first new scholarly biography in many years. Lambert, a professor of naval history at King's College, London, was featured in John Murray's documentary, Finding Franklin. Meanwhile, Kari Herbert, fresh from work on her forthcoming book The Heart of the Hero - The Women Behind Polar Explorers, will be reviewing Erika Elce's new collection of the letters of Lady Jane Franklin, As affecting the fate of my absent husband. Jonathan Dore will offer his assessment of Polar Hayes, Douglas Wamsley's long-awaited account of Isaac Israel Hayes, whose remarkable career stretched from the Second Grinnell Expedition in 1853 through William Bradford's voyage aboard the Panther in 1869. Last but far from least, our Nunavut correspondent Kenn Harper will bring his knowledge of Arctic shows and exhibitions to bear on Eric Ames's Carl Hagenbeck's Empire of Entertainments, the first book-length study in English of the German zoo magnate whose polar panoramas were stocked with live bears and seals.

2009 promises to be a banner year for Polar books; in addition to the above titles, there are several noteworthy efforts coming later this year. John Bockstoce's comprehensive new study, Furs and Frontiers in the Far North: The Contest among Native and Foreign Nations for the Bering Strait Fur Trade, is due out this fall from Yale University Press. Glyn Williams, whose Voyages of Delusion was well received here a few years past, has a enticing new offering with Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage, due out in October. Lastly, we're looking foward keenly to Beau Riffenburgh's latest effort, Polar Exploration, a richly illustrated account of the era of Shackleton, Mawson, Scott, and Amundsen.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Wanting: A Novel

Wanting, by Richard Flanagan

NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, $24

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Wanting is the latest, but surely not the last, in the tradition of fiction inspired by some aspect of the career of Sir John Franklin. And yet, even in this crowded field, it stands out as one of only two or three that draw fully and richly from the indigenous cultures among which Franklin sojourned, and it is the only one to take on his and Lady Jane's relationship with the aboriginal peoples of Tasmania. At the same time, by alternating this narrative with a fictionalized account of Charles Dickens's personal crises in the later 1850's -- a period which would see both the death of his youngest daughter and his separation from his wife -- he complicates the colonial landscape with a cobblestone corollary. The most unexpected figure in all of this is a tragic heroine of almost Dickensian proportions, the native Tasmanian girl Mathinna, adopted by the Franklins during their time at Government House in Hobart Town, then abandoned when they returned to England in 1843.

Mathinna's story has been told before -- most powerfully in a radio play by Carmen Bird, In Her Father's House, which was broadcast on ABC Australia in 2003. Yet here, interwoven into Flanagan's dense, Tolstoyesque garden of forking narratives, it seems somehow even darker and more desperate. Mathinna was part of that remnant of Tasmania's original people who had been rounded up and isolated on Flinders Island (named after Franklin's uncle) under a policy conceived of as protection but in practice both a cultural and literal act of genocide. The program was administered by George Augustus Robinson, the chief "Protector of Aborigines," a man who never appreciated the irony of his title. Early on, Flanagan gives us a vivid portrait of the workings of his mind, and we see the method in the madness he directed. To him, Lady Jane's desire to adopt Mathinna is a conundrum; he recognizes a certain imperious selfishness to which, given the Franklins' position, he has little choice but to accede. Jane comes across as a bossy, breezy, and thoughtless woman, and her husband -- when he comes across at all -- is reduced to little but a wheezing, overweight sack of compliance. Rarely in the tradition of Franklin fiction has the "great man" appeared so reduced; when, as he always does, he dies in this narrative, one can scarcely even muster a feeling of pity.

At the same time, we are introduced to the world of Dickens, and here again Flanagan has clearly done his historical homework. We see him both as the toast of polite society and the restless recluse, wandering the streets of London by night; we meet two men -- John Forster and Wilkie Collins -- whose rivalry for his intimacy triangulates this period of his life. Dickens, of course, was quite carried away by the public feeling over the disappearance of Franklin, offering his services to Lady Jane to dispel Dr. John Rae's reports of cannibalism in 1854, as well as producing, with Collins, the 1857 play The Frozen Deep, which was in many ways a public elegy for Franklin's men. And it was during the Manchester performances of the play at which he met Ellen Ternan, a young actress who quite won his heart, and with whom he spent the rest of his life in a possibly Platonic relationship (they burned all their letters, so the world may never know).

The parallels between the world of Dickens and that of Mathinna seem at times a bit strained; the "experiment" of "civilizing" an Aboriginal girl, and her later abandonment, seems quite distant from Dickens's emotional travails in the midst of a bustling London literary scene. And yet time, being made of moments, works some wonders here; Flanagan frames the epiphanies of his characters as vividly and multifariously as the famous seven hundred looking glasses with which the "Erebus" and "Terror" were festooned for a fancy dress ball while calling on Hobart Town in the midst of James Clark Ross's circumnavigation of Antarctica. That these same ships, only a few years later, would be witness to Franklin's own death and nearly twenty of his men, is a fact not lost on Flanagan, who finds light in darkness and darkness in light. He makes the ball into a costume party, giving Mathinna a wallaby mask and Sir John -- who escorts her on board -- that of a black swan, which enables richly memorable lines: "'Our princess of the wilds,' sighed a wolf."

Mathinna herself comes through vividly, and with the kind of uncondescending empathy that's rare in fictional depictions of tragic native figures. Flanagan has caught something of the weave and the weft of her world, of the impossibility of the promise leant to her by Lady Franklin's stiff affection, the gazes of the white fellas, and the famous red dress given by her Ladyship, preserved in the oil portrait she commissioned. The details of Mathinna's known life form a kind of armature for the fabric of Flanagan's imaginings, but he leaves some parts of his own cloth unwoven and gauzy, as he should.

It would be unfair to the reader to trace the ultimate denouement of these darkly twinned, deeply tangled tales -- suffice it to say that Flanagan manages to make a sort of resolution out of the lack of resolution offered by history. In a Beckettian phrase, Garney Walch, the old oxcart driver who had first driven Mathinna into Hobart Town muses on the meaning of it all:

"How it goes,' he murmured," and keeps on going."
And so it goes.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Encounters on the Passage

Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers

Dorothy Harley Eber
University of Toronto Press, 2008
ISBN (cloth): 978-0-8020-9275-5

Reviewed by David C. Woodman

I have always envied Dorothy Harley Eber. Two decades ago my soon-to-be editor kindly invited me to lunch to discuss my unpublished manuscript. A charming lady named Dorothy who had a similar interest in Inuit oral history accompanied her. At that time Dorothy, unknown to me, was already famous for her groundbreaking Pitseolak: Pictures Out of My Life. That book was an illustrated oral biography of the Inuit artist Pitseolak Ashoona created from recorded interviews Dorothy had undertaken in 1970. She had recently completed another biography based on interviews with Peter Pitseolak eventually published as the excellent People from Our Side.

Whereas I mined dusty and obscure sources for Inuit testimony collected during the nineteenth century, Dorothy actually met with living Inuit and over the years had patiently developed a trust and rapport that allowed her to record and preserve a fast-fading culture. We shared a belief in the value of the Inuit oral tradition, both in itself and as a cross-cultural window into historical events. Dorothy had notably pursued this second avenue with her When the Whalers Were Up North: Inuit Memories from the Eastern Arctic (1989), her first foray into contact between the Inuit and Europeans.

We had a delightful lunch, and I remember asking Dorothy whether there were any modern memories of the Franklin disaster (my own area of interest) among her informants. In this book, finally, and much to my delight, Dorothy has answered that question.

Gleaned from interviews conducted between 1994 and 2008, Encounters on the Passage relates modern Inuit remembrances, passed down through generations, of encounters with European explorers. Eber’s aim in doing so is simple and practical – to preserve the Inuit oral tradition. Yet this book is not simply a repository of endangered stories. Throughout Eber takes pains to place the Inuit traditions in historical context and to compare them with written accounts preserved by the explorers themselves. In doing so she concludes that the traditions offer “correlations and contrasts, and, always, new perspectives.”

Eber is fully forthright about the difficulties involved in the use of Inuit oral history. Tommy Anguttitauruq tells her, “every time the stories are told, maybe they'r [sic] a little bit different; there's a little bit added and maybe some things left out” and she notes that the stories “are sometimes blended or “collapsed” … [t]hese stories are now getting through to the next generation only in a fragmented state.” Even so, as the narrative makes clear, these relics of old traditions often complement the preserved stories of the great-great-grandparents of Eber’s informants. Whether these correlations are confirmation or repetition is more difficult to determine.

The stories themselves preserve Inuit traditions ranging in date from the expeditions of Martin Frobisher (1575-78), to the successful accomplishment of the Northwest Passage by Amundsen in 1903. As the theme of the work is to show the reliability of transmitted oral tradition it is not perhaps surprising to see that there is nothing particularly new in most of the stories, which are often rather pale reiterations of traditions originally relayed, mainly in the nineteenth century, to Rae, McClintock, Hall and Schwatka.

The best test for the accuracy and resiliency of Inuit testimony comes from extended interactions during Sir William Edward Parry's 1821-23 sojourn at Igloolik, and Sir John Ross’ voyage to Lord Mayor Bay between 1830-34. These well-documented expeditions allow Eber to usefully compare modern remembrances with the journals of the explorers themselves. Eber relays various versions of the most colourful intercultural incidents of these interactions. Given prominence of place is the punishment meted out by Parry to a local shaman for stealing a shovel and the shaman’s supernatural revenge. The stories of Ross’ visit include the initial discovery of his ship in the ice and subsequent deliberations among the Inuit, and various tales of the repeated visits of the Inuit to his vessel.

Here the interest lies not so much in the content of the modern recollections, but in noting how these have been filtered and modified by the passage of over a century and a half. Some of the modern Inuit stories also contribute to exploration history by dealing with matters unknown to the explorers themselves, such as the final resting place of Ross’ abandoned Victory, or the use made by the Inuit of his “treasure trove” of abandoned equipment.

The modern stories are best at relaying charming cross-cultural vignettes of a hunter so afraid of a strange ship that he ran so fast that his caribou coat trailed behind him in the wind, of a girl using tobacco blocks as toys, or of children throwing flour into the air as "smoke" having no idea of its food value.

These opening chapters lead to the core of the book, the stories relating to the Third Franklin expedition (1845-?). Comprising almost half of the book, the next three chapters deal with this doomed expedition and the Inuit remembrances of it. The chapters revolve around three of the pivotal questions of the disaster - the burial of a “shaman” or officer, encounters of Franklin’s doomed men on the march, and the location of the wreck(s) of the expedition vessels.

Here Eber runs into the difficulty that, even according to her modern informants, “nobody saw the ship - what happened to it; or how they died … Little stories, here and there. We don't know much at all.”

The remembrances concerning the burial of an officer again follow closely on other recorded testimony, particularly that known as the “Bayne story” which Eber surprisingly buries in a long endnote. Presumably dealing with the burial of a senior officer (usually assumed to be Franklin himself) and, more significantly, with the nearby burial or deposition of written records, the modern physical description of the site “a sandy hill” matches that of Bayne, although the exact location remains frustratingly vague.

The stories of encounters with Franklin survivors on the march are given in three versions, all located in different but uncertain areas. Two of these deal with Franklin crewmen wandering into a camp, one told from the perspective of the women, and one from that of the hunters who returned to find that strangers had come to visit. Even the Inuit are unsure whether these traditions “might be the same story ... but passed on through a different family in a different manner.” These stories do not have much in common with the testimony preserved by Hall, Schwatka and Rasmussen about an encounter between hunters and struggling men in Washington Bay, but there are enough common elements (being offered a small piece of seal, the abandonment of the Europeans after one night etc.) to make one wonder whether these are indeed new stories.

Eber herself considers the stories of the “ship at Imnguyaaluk” and the “fireplace trail” to be the most significant of her collection remarking that they “add a new chapter to the Franklin tragedy.”

The first deals with the discovery by Inuit of a ship to the east of the Royal Geographical Society Islands, and of a presumed Franklin campsite ashore. Although the story adds detail, this again is not entirely new information as Amundsen was told of a ship having been seen here (Eber notes this herself, but not until 10 pages later). The traditions that tell of visits to this ship and interactions with its crew are also in accordance with older stories about pre-abandonment encounters between the Franklin expedition and Inuit and, from the location, tend to validate the hypothesis that at least one ship (only one is mentioned) was remanned after the initial 1848 abandonment.

The “fireplace trail” stories also tend to reinforce this idea as they deal with a sequence of encampments found around the western and northern coasts of the Adelaide Peninsula. These seem to mark a party retreating from the ship spoken of as having been abandoned near O’Reilly Island. The first find was at “Aveomavik” a small island off Grant Point, where Michael Angottitauruq found a non-Inuit campsite and bones of three individuals in 1984. The discovery of campsites and human remains on a small islet nearby in 1997, 2002, and 2004 lends support to this story. Other locations on the “trail” recollect finds from the nineteenth century at Thunder Cove and northwest of Starvation Cove.

Eber then diverts to a long consideration of the possibility that one of Franklin’s ships traversed Simpson and/or Rae Strait to come to rest near Chantrey Inlet or Matty Island. The first idea is based entirely on late testimony from the Anderson expedition that is well known if not widely supported. The idea of a Matty Island wreck is also previously attested, mainly by testimony relayed to Maj. Burwash in 1929. This told of a strange but orderly cache of crates found inland on an islet near a sunken wreck. Eber’s informants add to our knowledge of this strange cache with an eyewitness account of it. They found “burlap and cotton bags filled with flour and sugar and perhaps something like porridge – oatmeal. These were all buried in a mound covered with part of a cotton sail buried under sand and rocks … and when they uncovered this cache they found cans, sacks of sugar, oatmeal.”

This detailed description further calls into doubt the opinion of most commentators (uncritically accepted by Eber) that this deposit was formed from cases of dog food thrown overboard by Amundsen while the Gjoa was enmeshed in the Matty Island shoals. Both the Burwash account of carefully stacked cases inshore, and this new story of a carefully buried cache, imply stores left deliberately and point to the Franklin expedition. This does not necessarily support the idea of a wrecked vessel nearby, which has been repeatedly searched for in vain, for a cache here could have been established to support survey or possible retreat parties.

The book ends with chapters of Inuit stories about the Collinson expedition sent in search of Franklin and of remembrances of Amundsen’s Northwest Passage triumph. Again these stories are interesting windows into the Inuit perception of the visits of these strangers but offer little new information of significance to historians. The publisher’s claim that “new information opens another chapter in our understanding” of the events of these expeditions, especially the Franklin disaster, is perhaps overstated. A close reading shows that there is actually very little new information presented, and that where there is it tends to, at best, confirm earlier evidence.

Overall, the book is a very worthy contribution to the store of preserved Inuit oral traditions. It serves as a useful reference and introduction to the stories relating to explorers that are otherwise scattered throughout the literature on British Arctic exploration, and sets them in a clear context. Those who are already familiar with the traditions will enjoy tracing the genealogies of the modern remembrances; others will be interested in the effect of time on changing the original versions.

To her credit Eber only rarely gets caught up in the intricacies of historical speculation and primarily stays with her strength – the reporting and preservation of the stories themselves. This is a task she was seemingly born to do, and once again we are indebted for her painstaking labours.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Face to Face: Polar Portraits

Face to Face: Polar Portraits
Huw Lewis-Jones
with Foreword by Ranulph Fiennes and Afterword by Hugh Brody
Cambridge: Scott Polar Research Institute in association with PolarWorld, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-901021-083-3/07-6

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore

Face to Face is a travelling exhibition—and now a beautifully produced book—that emerged from “Freeze Frame”, the Scott Polar Research Institute’s project to digitize some 20,000 photographs from its archives. The project’s curator, Huw Lewis-Jones, seems to have been particularly struck by the range of portraiture in the collections, and decided to create an exhibition in which 50 portraits from the archives would be supplemented by another 50 by the photographer Martin Hartley (some previously taken, some newly commissioned), a hugely experienced veteran of 17 polar expeditions. Each of the 100 featured portraits is presented on a full page or double page spread with a caption to the side (usually a generous couple of paragraphs) about the sitter. Preceding these are an essay by Lewis-Jones on early photography and its first applications in the polar regions (“Photography Then”), and succeeding it is a conversation between Lewis-Jones and Hartley on the differing challenges presented by polar conditions to the art today (“Photography Now”). And bookending the whole lot are a foreword by the explorer Ranulph Fiennes and an afterword by the anthropologist Hugh Brody. As a further bonus, all the text features are themselves very generously illustrated.

Herbert Ponting’s haunting cover portrait of the piercing eyes and sun-blackened face of Cecil Meares—expert dog driver on Scott’s Terra Nova expedition—underlines what will surely be the expectation of many that these will mainly be portraits of explorers. Many indeed are, but an important point the selection underlines is that the poles, or at least the Arctic, are a region where people live as well as explore and do science, a point made with gentle grace by Hugh Brody in his afterword, the most beautiful prose in the book. From the portrait of an unnamed Inuit boy in Godhavn in 1869 to another in Resolute Bay in 2008, Inuit sitters are a continuous presence (though it’s a pity there aren’t any images of indigenous people from Arctic Eurasia alongside them). But the “portrait” part of the title is equally important as the “polar” part: these are all individual portraits, a single sitter’s body, and often just the face, dominating the frame. And all are posed, not merely cropped from a general action or group shot. Having said that, there is much variety in the settings in which they are found. Modern photography, with its much shorter exposure times, allows images to be captured quickly out on the ice with the wind howling and the icicles forming on beard or eyebrow, though this can lead counterproductively to images that feature polar clothing more than the people wearing it (can a picture in which literally no part of the face is visible, such as those of Stephen Jones, David de Rothschild, and Ian Wesley, be meaningfully described as a portrait?).

By contrast, many people famous for doing uncomfortable things in uncomfortable places are discovered relaxing in their sitting room or library, emphasizing that it’s the individuals and their achievements, not the setting, that defines their inclusion. And for the best-known subjects, for whom a choice of images was presumably available, the selection is often pleasingly unexpected: Scott and Wilson not in harness, but in three-piece suits; Shackleton munching a sandwich; Vivian Fuchs with a towel on the way to a bath. Fame itself, however, is not a criterion for inclusion, and almost any connection with the poles confers eligibility if it results in a good portrait. Lewis-Jones and Hartley regret some of the names they haven’t been able to include, and interested readers will no doubt be able to think of more—Otto Sverdrup, Adolf Nordenskiƶld, John Rae, Elisha Kane, Isaac Hayes, and Frederick Jackson are a few of the obvious ones that popped into my exploration-biased head—but perhaps a simple absence of images in the SPRI collection is to blame. It’s important to remember that this isn’t an encyclopedia with claims of, or responsibility to strive for, comprehensiveness or consistency. Even so, the many omissions make some of the inclusions less comprehensible: for instance the polar connections of Keith Dedman, a naval helicopter pilot who once airlifted passengers from an icebound ship, and Cha-Joon Koo, a Korean insurance executive sent to Antarctica to “check on” Park Young Seok (who perhaps should have been included instead), seem tangential to say the least. And Hartley’s fondness for a pretty pair of eyes has led to the inclusion of two portraits—the Spanish girlfriend of an adventurer about to set off from Siberia, and a Turkish-Bulgarian popcorn seller in London who happens to be wearing a fur-hooded parka—that frankly have no place in the selection no matter who else is in or out.

Lewis-Jones’s extended opening essay artfully summarizes the first few decades of technical development in photography before segueing neatly into the portraits taken by Richard Beard (the first British practitioner of Daguerre’s process) of Franklin’s officers in 1845, from which he proceeds to summarize the role of photography in Arctic exploration during the 19th and early 20th centuries—as documentary tool, as raw material for painters, as artistic statement in its own right, and finally as motion pictures. There is much of value here for readers interested in any aspect of the first century of photography’s history, including philosophical and aesthetic questions as well as its technical developments and social effects.

But the real interest for this reviewer was in “Photography Now”, in which Lewis-Jones and Hartley discuss not only the equipment needs and techniques of a present-day polar photographer but also range widely over the psychology of portrait-making, the role of paid expedition photographer in balancing his own professional judgement with his client’s wishes, and whether anyone travelling somewhere on the earth’s surface in the age of Google Earth and satellite phones can any longer be described as an explorer. Humans more or less ran out of virgin territory to explore sometime in the 20th century (at least without going underwater or into space—the first twice as large an area as the earth’s land surface, the second somewhat larger still!), and we are accustomed to the idea that the challenges available now are essentially secondary: doing something using a new technique, or in a new combination, or faster, or in more difficult conditions. But Lewis-Jones wonders whether even that ethic of self-challenge is enough any longer, or whether “to be imagined as valuable they [also] need to be relevant”. Just as few non-athletes would contemplate running a marathon without doing it for a “good cause”, most polar travelling expeditions, both solo and team, now also try to bring some climatic, zoological, or social problem to wider attention—and climate most of all, since the poles are the places in which global warming will have, and is already having, the most dramatic effects. Scientists have the best case of any outsiders for being at the poles; they are “adding to the existing body of knowledge”. But they fly into known locations and then generally stay put, so their work no longer involves exploration in a geographical sense. So this well thought-out, nicely balanced, and carefully crafted book not only casts a retrospective view on polar history, but captures it at a moment when our understanding of and engagement with it is in transition, as those trying to keep alive a tradition of heroic confrontation with the elements sit sometimes happily, sometimes uneasily beside those who anxiously monitor its environmental condition, and those whose lives and culture are inextricably bound up with the fate of the icy realms.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Welcome to the new Arctic Book Review site

As of April 2009, this site will be the new home of The Arctic Book Review, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The old site will remain as an archive, but all new reviews will be posted here, "hot off the press," as soon as they're ready.  The additional features of the blog, such as posting comments, will only enhance the ABR's overall project, which is to place knowledgeable, thoughtful, well-written reviews of books on all manner of polar subjects before its readers.  So watch this space -- we'll be here soon! -- Russell Potter, founding editor