Monday, June 27, 2022

HMS Terror

HMS Terror: The Design, Fitting, and Voyages of the Polar Discovery Ship

by Dr. Matthew Betts

Seaforth Press, £30 (UK)

Naval Institute Press, $49.95 (US)

Reviewed by David C. Woodman


Ever since the Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin disappeared into the ice in 1845, most of what has been written about the lost ships and doomed men has been speculative. The recent discovery of his two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, has put an end to this as we await the results of an ongoing investigation of the wrecks. Authors recognize that discoveries in the ships, perhaps including documentation, would quickly render further speculation obsolete. To avoid this, they have embraced biographies of the ships themselves. Michael Palin’s recent book Erebus: The Story of a Ship tells the career of Franklin’s flagship, and now Dr. Matthew Betts has published a memoir of the junior, but in many ways more interesting, vessel. In contrast to Palin’s book, which treats the social history of the officers and crew extensively, Betts concentrates on the ship itself, essentially basing his analysis on the construction (and reconstruction) details of this amazing ship. The book is organized into four parts with a common thread. 

After a short 5-page introduction, part 1 of the book consists of four chapters covering Terror’s design and history. The first provides an admirable overview of Terror's career as a warship. The narrative covers not only the most famous and oft-cited events (the bombing of Fort McHenry, Back's 1836 expedition, the Antarctic years) but, in detail, other events in the ship's eventful career (a blockade of Baltimore, the battle of St. Mary’s, Georgia, her last combat action in 1824 at Algiers, her first wreck during the Lisbon hurricane of 1828) that are usually disregarded. Other noteworthy events, and fixtures in most histories, such as an extravagant ball at Hobart in 1840, are ignored. It quickly emerges that for Betts the various crew of the Terror are essentially interchangeable. Although given their due for skill and heroism, here and throughout the book, Betts concentrates on Terror herself, emphasizing her construction and conversion from warship to exploration vessel under the supervision of master shipwright William Rice.  

The following chapters deal with the Ross Antarctic Expedition of 1839–1843 and the subsequent Franklin expedition of 1845. The overall narrative is skillfully told, but elements that are generally not emphasized, such as sailing qualities and a lengthy description of damage suffered during a collision between the two ships in 1842, feature prominently. The final refit supervised by Oliver Lang is told in detail as the ships were prepared for their last voyage, incorporating lessons learned during her Antarctic adventures and the new technology of steam engines and removable propellors. 

Part two - The Design and Fitting section - consists of a text chapter, followed by one of the ship’s detailed plans. Here, one learns of Terror's hull construction and cabin layout and her major equipment - armament, anchors, capstans, illuminators, heating systems, pumps (two types), stoves, paint scheme and boats. The wealth of detail therein may overwhelm the general reader but will prove valuable to historians and archaeologists and settle many bar bets. The dimension and scantling list that ends the chapter extends for eleven pages and may have more conveniently been attached as an appendix.

Unless you are comfortable with the terms such as scarph, futtocks, keelson, spirketting, and carling, some of this section will require access to a good dictionary of nautical terms, which may have also been the subject of an appendix. If you bypass the terminology, you will still gather the overall point that the ship was built to be extremely strong, further strengthened for polar service, and outfitted with all of the best equipment available.

Chapter 6 consists entirely of the ship's plans, all expertly drawn and labelled. These are stunning works of research and art. As well as the expected plans of the ships themselves, Betts includes drawings of minor structures - Crozier's shaving table, a seaman's chest, the Captain's Steward's cabin, even the water closets (toilets), all of which will be compared with the fittings found on the wreck of Terror itself, and may help in identification of partially destroyed or missing structures.

Part Three - Building HMS Terror - contains the final three chapters dealing with Bett's construction of his 1:48 model of the ship, his involvement in assisting with the full-scale reconstruction of Terror for the recent AMC television series of the same name, and a final chapter on the 2016 discovery of the wreck. Using photographs of model pieces, the movie set, and actual elements of the wreck photographed by divers, these vividly bring three-dimensional reality to the plans of Chapter 6. 

The construction of the model as a hobby project was the inspiration for the research and writing of this book. Here again, dedication to accuracy and attention to detail shine through. Bett's pleasure in sharing his modelling techniques and various solutions to the challenges involved is admirable. Those who aren't current or prospective modellers can happily bypass the explanations and simply marvel at the photos.

The chapter on Bett's involvement with the TV series should greatly interest the many fans of that production. As an acknowledged expert, Betts was contracted by the show's producers to assist the production designer in recreating the ships and material culture. The results were exceptional and received widespread critical praise. The set photos in the book again bring the ship to life, although there is no substitute for watching the series itself (ignore the monster).

The final chapter relates the fortuitous discovery of Terror four years after Betts began his model and describes her condition as known from the initial survey work done by Parks Canada. A straightforward telling of the discovery, and evocative photos of the wreck, lead Betts to speculate about the role of Terror in the final tragedy. Based on the most current evidence, his analysis is not unreasonable and again relies heavily on details of the Terror’s location and condition. 

Throughout the book, the quality of the numerous images and plans is extraordinary. Many contemporary paintings of Terror are rendered in colour, and the ship’s plans (copies of which hang on my study wall) are clear and often expertly redrawn and labelled. The book concludes with an extensive bibliography and an index to assist in navigating the text. 

Betts’ admiration for his subject is evident throughout, "she took everything the Arctic pack-ice could throw at her. She sheltered her men to the very last and never, not once in three harrowing expeditions, abandoned them to the ice. She performed exactly the way she was designed, and there was nothing more anyone could have asked from Terror. This remarkable ship’s story needs to be told: she is the greatest polar exploration vessel the world has ever known."

Dr. Betts has honed his fine eye for detail as a professional archaeologist, enhanced by his avocation as a modelmaker. To these skills, he now adds storyteller and writer to produce this passionate biography of an interesting and significant ship.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Inuit and Explorers


by Kenn Harper

Inhabit Media, 2022


Reviewed by Lawrence Millman


In far too many accounts of Arctic exploration, foreign outsiders reign supreme, while their Inuit guides and interpreters are followers, mere slaves helping their masters search for seemingly significant destinations.  Released by the Inuit-owned publishing company Inhabit Media, Arctic historian Kenn Harper’s book series In Those Days blows the whistle on this prejudice.  Inuit and Explorers, vol. 6 in the series, blows that whistle emphatically.  In its pages, the Inuit are usually depicted as the true explorers, while the qallunaat (white folks) often seem like they’re stuck to sedan chairs.  With respect to my own Arctic travels, I was never stuck to a sedan chair, but I probably wouldn’t be around to write this review were it not for my Inuit guides.

In Inuit and Explorers, Harper investigates unfamiliar Arctic stories.  Here are two examples: R.C.M.P. Officer Joe Panikgakuttuk’s journey on the St. Roch as that vessel plies the Northwest Passage and 16th century explorer Christopher Hall’s jotting down of an Inuktitut word list.  But Harper also offers new takes on more familiar stories, like Martin Frobisher’s 5 missing men, Samuel Hearne’s account of the Bloody Fall massacre, the ill-fated Karluk expedition, and the even more ill-fated Franklin expedition.  As readers of Harper’s book Minik: The New York Eskimo will already know, all of his takes are impeccably researched.

I’m tempted to refer to the book’s essays as field work despite the fact that many of them describe incidents from several hundred years ago.  That’s because Harper lived in the Arctic for nearly 50 years, first in Broughton Island (Qikiqtarjuaq), where he was called Ilisaijkutaaq (“the tall teacher”), and later in Iqaluit, Nunavut.  Thus he’s much more intimate with the Inuit and their habitats than, say, a New Yorker staff writer might be.  Likewise, he speaks Inuktitut, which means he can acquire information from Inuit elders about their history rather than, say, purloin not necessarily accurate information from the Internet.

In addition to its 26 essays, Inuit and Explorers contains 40 pages of illustrations and photographs.  There’s a delightful 1823 drawing of Inuit children dancing by the sadly neglected explorer George Francis Lyon as well as a sketch by Sir John Ross of the one-legged Inuk Tulluahiu, about whom Harper writes in “A Wooden Leg for Tulluahiu.”  There’s a photograph of Iggiaraarjuk, an Inuk who told Knud Rasmussen about his father’s meeting with three grim-looking members of the Franklin expedition.  There’s also a photograph, possibly taken by the author himself, of the elderly Uutaaq, a Greenland Inuk who accompanied Commodore Robert Peary (called “the great tormentor” by one of Harper’s informants) to the latter’s farthest North in 1909. 

 I have just one complaint about this book — its only references are to the issues of the Nunatsiaq News where the essays originally appeared.  Harper offers a quite salient quote from archaeologist Susan Rowley about Martin Frobisher’s 5 missing men, but he doesn’t indicate where the quote comes from.  There are other instances where I would have liked to see a citation, too.  Otherwise, this is a masterful collection that I recommend not just to Arctic enthusiasts, but also to readers with only a passing interest in the Arctic, for it might turn that passing interest into a passion.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages

Visual Culture and the Arctic Regions: Personal and Public Art and Literature of the Franklin Search Expeditions

by Eavan O'Dochartaigh

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

$99.99 (hardcover), Open Source (free)

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

The importance of the role of visual culture in bringing imagery of the Arctic regions to a nineteenth-century public for whom these scenes represented an ethereal and almost unimaginable landscape would be hard to overestimate. That the exploration of this hitherto seldom-seen zone coincided with a wide variety of new and emerging visual technologies -- the woodcuts of illustrated newspapers, widely-reproduced prints and engravings, lithographs -- not to mention the panorama, the moving panorama, and (ultimately) photography -- makes them doubly exemplary, and among the first of what can truly be called "mass media."

And yet, there is another dimension to this development, one which encompasses the private, more ephemeral, visual materials actually produced in the Arctic by those who ventured there. A number of these, of course, were the basis of reproductions that were a key part of this mass audience -- but a greater number remained in private hands, gradually migrating to archival collections where many have lain unseen -- or at least unremarked -- for more than a century and a half. It is these visual works that Eavan O'Dochartaigh has brought to light in her remarkable new study, though she also discusses a number of public versions of these works.

O'Dochartaigh makes the case that these shipboard artistic productions be seen as "primary" documents, whether or not they later became the basis of reproductions. Looked at in this manner, they certainly present a different kind of visual vocabulary, in part due to the specific conditions in which they were produced. Shipboard sketches and landscapes were more often made in the summer, depicting a calmer and less foreboding environment than was standard in public productions. The winter output of these same amateur artists, rather than featuring icebound ships and bleak landscapes, tended to depict shipboard theatricals, humorous stories, and longed-for domestic scenes. She also observes that, when shipboard sketches or watercolors were converted into lithographs and prints, the printmakers drew from their own imaginations as they adapted often rough materials into polished products. While this certainly did occur in many instances, though, the degree of editorial "enhancement" must have varied -- when the shipboard artist was a skilled draughtsman, there was, in a sense, less for the lithographer to do. And, as she acknowledges, some of these reproductions, such as Burford's 1850 panorama "Summer and Winter Views of the Arctic Regions," were produced with the direct input of the original artists, the more solidly to seal the compact of authenticity between their "sketches made on the spot" and the finished painting. O'Dochartaigh's analysis of this panorama is extensive and detailed, and adds to our understanding of how its various elements drew from their source materials, as well as how the finished production and program sought amplify the sense of the natural sublime as well as the human plight.

Other chapters focus on the illustrated newspapers produced aboard several ships, particularly the Illustrated Arctic News (HMS Resolute) and the Queen's Illustrated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette (HMS Pioneer and HMS Assistance). These periodicals, she notes, embodied quite a different, often humorous approach to the vagaries of shipboard life, both in their texts and in their illustrations. They also contained an element -- color -- which was not yet available in the illustrated papers of home. In the case of the Queen's Illustrated, most if not all of illustrations were the work of Walter William May, whose depictions of Arctic were later turned into an attractive set of lithographic views. Such views are analyzed in depth in the following chapter, with a sharp focus on the question of accuracy. With exact sources lacking for many of these lithographic plates, and the different capacities of a color lithograph over a charcoal sketch, it's a tricky business: are the sledge haulers having a harder time of it in the sketch or the stone? Some compositional adjustments are to be expected, as are additional details in faces and human figures. For while gifted with landscapes and ships, it seems that many of these shipboard sketchers weren't nearly as skilled with human figures, perhaps because they lacked artistic training. This was certainly not a problem at established lithographic firms such as Day & Son, whose array of artists with varied talents could handle any subject. 

O'Dochartaigh's is an extraordinary study, particularly in its exploration of original artwork from archival sources that has, hitherto, been relatively neglected.  We should also be especially grateful to Cambridge University Press for making the full book available as an Open Source text. I did have, as would anyone in a review of a book of this scope, some (mostly minor) quibbles: the reported faintness and infrequency of the aurora, for instance, is used to suggest that the panorama's highlighting of the phenomenon was exaggerated. For their infrequency, it's worth noting that the 1850's were progressing toward a solar minimum, while for the highlighting, the more proximate cause was Burford's earlier (1834) panorama of the Rosses' time in Boothia (which coincided with a solar maximum); its depiction of the aurora had been singled out for praise by the press -- surely the public would expect one again. 

This points to what I would say is the book's one weakness -- by focusing on depictions of British searchers for Franklin, it misses some of the larger historical context, particularly earlier works which had already shaped the public perceptions of the Arctic and its explorers. It's also somewhat disheartening, as someone who has published extensively on the visual culture of the Arctic for the past twenty-odd years, to have the author inform me that the subject has been "largely overlooked," or that neither a fully art-historical or a committed interdisciplinary approach has previously been taken. And, though the present book's analysis of the 1850 panorama is certainly much more detailed, it's odd to have the nearly ten pages I devoted to it in Arctic Spectacles referred to as "brief." It's always, I suppose, part of the scaffolding of any new scholarly study to start by seeking a lack in what's been done before.

In that sense, the most innovative -- and most valuable -- contribution of this book is really to our understanding of the personal more than the public art of the various Franklin search expeditions. O'Dochartaigh has dug deep into the archival records, and brought forth not only many individual treasures, but fresh insights into the lives and practices of the shipboard artists of that time. The most powerful and touching of all these has, rightly, pride of place on the book's cover -- Edward Adams's "Koutok├╝dluk - My First Love" -- in it, we can see both the deep feeling and the fleeting fragility of a love long lost.