No Longer Merely the Man Who Ate His Boots

Thomas Jones

  • Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage by Glyn Williams
    Allen Lane, 440 pp, £25.00, October 2009, ISBN 978 1 84614 138 6
  • Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation by Andrew Lambert
    Faber, 428 pp, £20.00, July 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 23160 7

Last June, Nasa and the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry published a detailed topographic map of the Earth, covering an unprecedented 99 per cent of the planet’s landmass. The map was compiled from data collected from a Japanese radiometer on board an American spacecraft; the elevation measurement points are only 30 metres apart. According to Nasa, the data ‘fill in many of the voids … such as in very steep terrains and in some deserts’. Anyone can look at it online for free. It would seem that now there really is no uncharted territory left on the surface of the Earth. If you wanted to set out exploring unknown terrain with a map that could still even half-plausibly claim ‘here be dragons,’ you’d have to go deep underwater, deep underground or into deep space.

The Nasa/METI map is a triumph of 21st-century technology and international co-operation. But amazing though it is, it’s in some ways less impressive than its distant pre-Sputnik ancestors, the new maps that could only be made by sending men beyond the edges of the old maps. Glyn Williams’s Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage is an engrossing account of four centuries of exploration, as expedition after expedition tried to negotiate a course through the vast, multitudinous, close-set and ice-locked archipelago to the north of the American continent.

The ice is now melting: within 25 years the Arctic Ocean will probably be entirely free of ice during the summer; some climate researchers believe it could happen as soon as 2013. (Mapping the effects of climate change is one of the purposes of the Nasa/METI project.) Among the possible consequences are the extinction of polar bears; the end of the Inuit way of life; rising sea levels worldwide; and a territorial stand-off between Canada and the United States, which disagree about whether the maze of straits intersecting the archipelago count as international waters or sovereign Canadian territory (no longer an academic question, once the northwest passage is open). Some of the effects that an open Arctic Ocean may have on international relations, energy security and global trade are explored in The Future History of the Arctic by Charles Emmerson.[*] But the idea that a thawing Arctic is something to be afraid of would have baffled our ancestors. For the men who sailed from Europe in search of a northwest passage, and for the men who sent them, the ice was what there was to fear, and a summer warm enough to melt it was often the only hope for survival.

The same wishful thinking that led people to believe there had to be a way through the ice, if only because they wanted there to be one, must in part explain the oddly persistent belief that if you went far enough north the ice would give way to an open polar sea. Williams reproduces a beautiful but fanciful map made by Mercator in 1569 that shows the North Pole as a large rock (an iron-rich mountain at the pole was one way of explaining why compass needles swung towards it) in the middle of an open sea surrounded by four islands with convenient channels between them. On Mercator’s map, there’s an obvious sea route from Europe to Asia up the west coast of Greenland, along the northern edge of North America, and south through a channel called the Strait of Anian, which seems to have been the hopeful invention of a Venetian cartographer, Giacomo Gastaldi, a few years earlier.

Map from ‘The Quest for the Northwest Passage’
Map drawn by Reginald Piggott from ‘The Quest for the Northwest Passage’ (Folio Society, £39.95)

The first Englishman to try to navigate this route was Martin Frobisher, privateer, adventurer and blagger extraordinaire, who set sail from Gravesend in June 1576 with 34 men in three lightly equipped and, as Williams puts it, ‘alarmingly small’ boats. The expedition was financed by a group of 18 investors who called themselves the Company of Cathay. Two years earlier Elizabeth I had rejected a plan for a voyage through the Strait of Magellan: one of the great advantages of a northwest passage, besides the shorter distance, would be its remoteness from Spanish spheres of influence. And a northeast passage had already proved impossible: in 1553, the last year of the reign of Elizabeth’s brother, Edward VI, an English expedition had tried to sail to China round the north of Russia. Most of the sailors froze to death near present-day Murmansk, but some of them made it to Moscow, where they struck a trade deal with Ivan the Terrible – nearly as good as a sea route to Asia, if not better.

After losing five men and a boat, either (as he thought) to an Inuit trick or to the bad weather, and in the face of heavy snow, Frobisher turned back. He claimed to have discovered the entrance to the passage, which he called Frobisher’s Straits; in fact he had penetrated a hundred miles or so into an inlet on Baffin Island now known as Frobisher Bay. But he also appeared to have found something even better: a gold mine. He led another expedition the following year and returned to England with 200 tonnes of ore that his men had ‘dug out of the frozen earth’, in Williams’s words, ‘with agonising toil’. It was found to contain little or no trace of precious metals.

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[*] Bodley Head, 418 pp., £20, March, 978 1 84792 025 6.