Saturday, December 12, 2015

Discovering the North-West Passage

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

By Glenn M. Stein.

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

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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