Heavy Sledding

Chauncey Loomis

  • The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 by Pierre Berton
    Viking, 672 pp, £16.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 670 82491 7
  • Overland to Starvation Cove: With the Inuit in Search of Franklin 1878-1880 by Heinrich Klutschak and William Barr
    Toronto, 261 pp, £17.50, February 1988, ISBN 0 8020 5762 4
  • Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Geiger
    Bloomsbury, 180 pp, £12.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 7475 0101 7

In the 19th century, Canada’s Arctic Archipelago proved to be an explorer’s nightmare, a maze of straits, channels, gulfs, inlets, sounds, shoals, peninsulas and islands that confounded even the best navigators. Looking at its jigsaw configurations on a modern map, we can understand why its uncharted straits and channels were often mistaken by the pessimistic for dead-end inlets, its inlets by the optimistic for straits and channels – its islands for peninsulas, its peninsulas for islands. Exacerbating the problem was ice, especially floe and pack ice. Protean and shifting, it also could be fatally solid, and it made the geography of the Arctic unstable: a passage clear one week could be clogged the next, and even accurate charts could be made useless by the ice. The Archipelago was a daunting place to find your way around in.

A writer setting out to tell the story of 19th-century Arctic exploration faces a maze almost as shifting and as daunting as the Archipelago itself. Especially during the search for the Franklin Expedition at mid-century, the story is complex. In the decade between 1848, when the search for Franklin began, and 1859, when M’Clintock discovered some grisly remains on King William Island, almost thirty naval and overland expeditions joined the search. A writer has to juggle the names of explorers, famous in their day, but now known only to Arctic buffs, such as John and James Clark Ross, Rae, Pullen, Collinson, M’Clure, Austin, Ommanney, Richardson, Penny, DeHaven, Kane, Forsyth, Bellot, Kennedy, Belcher, Inglefield, M’Clintock – and names of ships, such as Plover, Herald, Enterprise, Investigator, Resolute, Intrepid, Assistance, Pioneer, Lady Franklin, Sophia, Felix, Advance, Rescue, Prince Albert, Isabel, Phoenix, Talbot, Fox. Then there are innumerable place-names, often the names of powerful personages scattered around the Arctic wastes like confetti and made confusing by repetition: Viscount Melville Sound, Melville Island, Melville Peninsula, Victoria Island, Victoria Strait, Prince of Wales Strait, Prince Regent Inlet, Prince Albert Sound (penetrating, it might be noted, deep into Victoria Island), Barrow Strait, Cornwallis Island, Bathurst Island, Boothia Peninsula (Felix Booth, the distiller and patron of Arctic exploration – there also is a Gulf of Boothia and a Cape Felix). Space and time become logistical problems: the writer has to move this explorer here, and that explorer there, in such and such ships, at such and such times, and then explain why they did or did not encounter each other. The danger of narrative confusion is great, and even greater is the danger of narrative monotony.

The latest writer to tell the story is Pierre Berton in The Arctic Grail. Berton accepts the challenge with a boldness worthy of a Robert M’Clure or a James Clark Ross. Not only does he tell the story of the Franklin Expedition and the search for it, he tells the story of all Arctic exploration in the 19th century in three overlapping stages: the search for the Northwest Passage, the search for Franklin, and the attempt to reach the North Pole. The story has the scope, the heroism, the grandeur of a saga, and it also has the absurdity that is latent in any saga looked at with a cool eye. Berton sees both sides of it – and that is one of the many strengths of his book. Assisted by the plenitude of mini-maps scattered throughout the text (an excellent piece of book design), he tells the story clearly, informing the reader of who was where when, but avoiding the tedium and confusion that often accompanies such exposition. He uses much unpublished manuscript material, especially private journals and letters, and also much 19th-century periodical literature, handling both with intelligence and imagination. He puts the exploration into historical context by commenting on the motives that impelled it, and by demonstrating public and private responses to it. He has a unifying thesis: throughout the book his focus is on the terrible cost paid for cultural arrogance and inflexibility (especially the arrogance and inflexibility of naval establishments) in the face of such an austere and fickle environment as the Arctic. The thesis is not original, but it is sound and inevitable when the story is viewed with the imaginative common sense that he demonstrates in the book.

In a postscript, Berton rightly comments that The Arctic Grail is ‘as much about explorers as it is about exploring’. He is deft in brief characterisation, an art that vivifies the entire work. Explorers who were just names in most earlier books become men with private lives and defined personalities in his. At the very outset he demonstrates this skill. There is Edward Parry, son of a cultivated and fashionable doctor in Bath – well-educated, intelligent, pious – a team-player very quick to use his charm and his connections to his own advantage, but also courageous and steadfast. There is John Ross, Parry’s commander on his first venture into the Arctic, of relatively humble stock, a quirky intellectual Scot, proud, individualistic, and badly humiliated by a mistake on that venture that he never lived down. There is John Barrow, Second Secretary of the Admiralty (who always acted, according to Ross, like the First Secretary) and the power behind British Arctic exploration for four decades – of humble stock and attracted to persons, like Parry, more to the manor born, stubborn in defending his own often wrong ideas, high-handed in his use of power. And there is William Scoresby, a whaling captain and brilliant amateur scientist who knew more about the Arctic than all of the others put together. In the opening pages, Berton plays these men off against each other: Barrow in power, not liking John Ross and simply refusing to listen to the knowledgeable Scoresby, but taking Parry as his protégé; Scoresby, disdained by Barrow, denied any sort of naval command and forced to stand on the sidelines watching the amateurs do their thing; Ross, seeing mountains up Lancaster Sound where no mountains exist and turning his expedition back; Parry, second in command, not protesting at the time, but taking full advantage of Ross’s error after the fact, and proving Ross wrong on his own expedition a year later. When Parry returned triumphant from his own expedition, one of the first letters of congratulation he received was from his former commander John Ross, who had good reason to dislike Parry because Parry had been openly critical of his command after they had returned to England. Writing to his parents, Parry sarcastically said that he should frame the letter and put it in the British Museum, and he noted that he would reply civilly, but in such a way as ‘to prevent the possibility of his bringing on a correspondence, which is the game he now wants to play’. Such a glimpse into the private thinking of a man like Parry confirms the truth of Berton’s assertion that in Arctic exploration ‘personality and temperament were as significant as seamanship,’ and that important aspects of the personality and temperament often were concealed from the public. Parry acted the paragon among explorers, but he also was a shrewd player of power games.

The importance of unpublished manuscript material in achieving something like a whole instead of a partial truth is well demonstrated in The Arctic Grail by the story of Elisha Kent Kane’s 1853-1855 expedition (‘The Second United States Grinnell Expedition’). Well-educated, handsome, frail (he suffered from rheumatic fever) but nevertheless remarkably tough, Kane made himself famous partly by his books on his two expeditions. Elegantly written and gorgeously illustrated, they enjoyed immense circulation, and Kane became a beau idéal in his country. After his death in Havana at the age of 36, his body was carried in state by train and boat from New Orleans to Philadelphia; the obsequies observed by communities along the way can be compared to those lavished on Lincoln’s funeral train. The Second United States Grinnell Expedition had been a grinding ordeal. Ostensibly, its purpose was to search for Franklin, but Kane obviously hoped to find the ‘Open Polar Sea’ that many still believed lay beyond the encircling rim of ice – and perhaps even to reach the North Pole. Instead, he and his crew ended up virtually marooned on the west coast of Greenland for more than two years. The story is not entirely one of noble endurance, although Kane soft-peddles the nastiness. Frictions on board led to open rebellion and desertion several times. Kane rather coolly describes one such incident, when eight men separated from the expedition to sledge south. The implication is that Kane, although he disagreed with the plan, willingly acquiesced to it and wished the men a heartfelt godspeed. Actually, in his private journal he was pouring out hatred on them:

I cannot but feel that some of them will return broken down and suffering to seek a refuge on board. They shall have it to the halving of our last chip – but – but – but – if I ever live to get home – home! And should I meet Dr Hayes or Mr Bonsall or Mister Sonntag – let them look out for their skins. If I don’t live to thrash them, why then, brother John, seek a solitary orchard and maull [sic] them for me. Don’t honour them with a bullet and let the mauling be solitary save to the principals. It would hurt your Character to be wrestling with such low-minded sneaks.

Berton also quotes passages from the unpublished papers of John Wall Wilson, Kane’s sailing master, who despised Kane and wrote that he was ‘peevish, coarse, sometimes insulting ... the most self-conceited man I ever saw.’

Berton’s purpose is not to debunk heroes and heroism, but he knows that under sustained pressure (duration is crucial here, and was a crucial element in all 19th-century explorations – most expeditions took years rather than months), human beings often do lose control, at least temporarily. In The Arctic Grail, images of Elisha Kent Kane and of the other men who were caught up in the Polar passion are complex, or at least as complex as they can be when each individual has to be treated briefly as only one part of the saga. Berton avoids the sense of rushing over the surface; at times, indeed, he seems almost leisurely in his treatment of detail. For example, he cares enough about the individuality of the explorers to inform us about their love lives – Parry’s unsuccessful pursuit of various young ladies, the stodgy Franklin’s surprising marriages to two forceful and highly intelligent women, Kane’s weird affair with the famous ‘spirit rapper’ Margaret Fox. This humanising detail makes them, in a subtle way, not less but more heroic. Fallible human beings, sometimes even weak and neurotic, not romantically conceived supermen, lived through those terrible ordeals.

Berton’s eye for selected detail also strengthens his commentary on the historical and cultural implications of 19th-century Arctic exploration. His ideas here are not particularly original, but he gives them clearer and more forceful expression than they have been given in the past. One theme is the pig-headed stubbornness of the Admiralty in refusing to adjust its methods to the environment – in particular, by ignoring techniques of travel and survival that could have been learned from the Inuit. Many other writers have made the same point, but Berton’s exposition is more effective. One of his best examples is drawn from late in the century, when the Navy should have learned from its past mistakes. When the Nares Expedition set out for the Pole in 1875, its leaders had been given the advice of George Rae among others. Rae was the most accomplished British traveller in the Arctic; he had lived with Inuit, and he had been willing to learn from them. For several pages, Berton quotes Rae’s advice and describes how it was ignored. Rae urged that they learn how to make snow houses, citing some subtle advantages: ‘When you use snow as a shelter your breath instead of condensing on your bedding gets condensed on the walls of the snow house, and therefore your bedding is relieved from nearly the whole of this.’ An additional benefit of the snow house is, of course, that it does not have to be carried. The Nares Expedition manhauled heavy tents and paid a terrible price.

Berton sees that the flaws of the Navy were not just its own, but were cultural, and that behind the refusal to learn from the Inuit was an ethnocentric, even racist arrogance. And he sees that the arrogance was fed partly by the fuel of misguided and anachronistic chivalric idealism – an idealism that presumably separated civilised men from barbarians like the Inuit. Again, his eye for detail strengthens his argument. The manhauling of heavy naval (as against light Inuit) sledges was one of the most deadly flaws in the Navy’s methods of Arctic exploration.

Strangely, to the English there was something noble, something romantic, about strong young men marching in harness through the Arctic wastes, enduring incredible hardships with a smile on their lips and a song in their hearts. They were like the knights of old, breaking new paths, facing unknown perils in their search for the Grail. The parallel is by no means inexact, for M’Clintock had given his sledges names that suggest knightly virtues – Inflexible, Hotspur, Perseverance, Resolute. Each sledge proudly carried a banner of heraldic design and each had its own motto (‘Never Despair’ ... ‘Faithful and Firm’), some even in Latin.

Inevitably in such a survey as The Arctic Grail, things are missing. In particular, one wishes Berton has commented more on aesthetic responses to the Arctic, and that the book were better illustrated: the small maps are excellent, but the other illustrations are second-rate, both in choice and in quality of reproduction. Berton does not even mention that George Back was an almost professional artist and graphics were an important aspect of Arctic exploration in the 19th century. Many of the explorers, like Back, were competent draughtsmen, and their sketches became the basis of work done by professional artists and illustrators; illustrations in widely-circulated books, magazines and newspapers, as well as paintings and dioramas that attracted large audiences to popular displays, gave the public the chilling and dramatic images of the Arctic that linger on today.

Berton writes in the tradition of a master, Alan Moorehead. He is more facile than Moorehead and perhaps more superficial, looser and perhaps more pointed in shaping his material, but he shares Moorehead’s ability to assimilate masses of material to select what is telling, and to cast it into an appealing narrative without excessive distortion or oversimplification. He makes available to the common reader a saga that might otherwise be forgotten by all but historians. The drunken poet in Thomas Keneally’s The Survivor berates the Antarctic explorer Ramsey for being so laconic about his experiences: ‘What’s the use of getting involved in a bloody saga if you won’t tell a poet about it?’ Berton may not be a poet, but he is a fluent writer of narrative prose, and The Arctic Grail is the best survey of 19th-century Arctic exploration yet written.

William Barr has translated and edited Heinrich Klutschak’s Als Eskimo unter den Eskimos as Overland to Starvation Cove. Klutschak was a member of the Schwatka Expedition in 1878-80, and during part of the expedition travelled by himself with Inuit. His account, published in 1881, is valuable primarily as a description of Inuit life as observed by an intelligent and sympathetic outsider, its thrust made clear by the original title As an Eskimo among the Eskimos. Klutschak was not a professional anthropologist, but his observations were keen enough to earn the respect and gratitude some years later of the first true ethnographer to live with Inuit, Franz Boas. The translation and republication of such a work is important mainly to scholars and Arctic buffs, but its importance is indeed great to them.

Owen Beattie’s and John Geiger’s Frozen in Time is an account of Beattie’s rather sensational researches into the causes of the Franklin disaster. The book is an ‘as told to’ story. Apparently Beattie has told Geiger the story, and Geiger has written it. After Beattie, an anthropologist, found high levels of lead in the bones of some of the Franklin victims scattered about King William Island, he received permission to exhume the bodies of three members of the expedition who had died on Beechey Island during the first winter of the expedition. Most of the book is a description of Beattie’s own trips and of the exhumations, and the text is accompanied by some repellent photographs of the bodies.

The exhumed bodies also had a high lead content, and Beattie argues that the entire expedition was poisoned by faulty lead soldering in the tins that held much of the expedition’s food supplies. Lead poisoning can lead to erratic behaviour and bad judgment – and this, according to Beattie, explains why the Franklin expedition make so many mistakes. The argument cannot be dismissed, but it has problems. First of all, we don’t really know what happened to the Franklin Expedition – what the situation was, or what the reasoning was behind some of the decisions that were made – and so it is hard to specify just what the mistakes were. Often cited is the sheer madness of men on the verge of death hauling heavy boats over the ice loaded with such things as silverware and teak desks – but such madness can also be attributed to naval discipline and the sort of quixotic stupidity that Berton describes in The Arctic Grail. A more serious flaw lies in a missing statistic. Beattie makes much out of the fact that Inuit bones near the Franklin bones did not have a high lead content. That’s interesting, but a more important statistic would be the lead content in Englishmen in general in the 19th century, and Beattie offers no such statistic. At one point in the book, he mentions that they might have had more lead in their systems than they do today, but he rapidly drops the subject. If in fact the average English homebody did have a high content of lead during that period, then probably the tin cans on the Franklin Expedition were not the cause of the disaster. I confess, however, that I was sufficiently persuaded by his description of the effects of lead poisoning to entertain the possibility that all of England suffered it in the century – that maybe the entire island was high on lead and stark raving mad.