Jonathan Lamb

  • Voyages of Delusion: The Search for the Northwest Passage in the Age of Reason by Glyn Williams
    HarperCollins, 467 pp, £8.99, March 2003, ISBN 0 00 653213 6
  • Voyage to Desolation Island by Jean-Paul Kauffmann, translated by Patricia Clancy
    Harvill, 177 pp, £14.99, October 2001, ISBN 1 86046 926 4

The great Pacific navigations of the mid-18th century were officially failures. Cook managed to map the missing north-eastern section of the coast of a land he claimed for Britain as New South Wales, and he also produced a complete outline of New Zealand – with surprising accuracy, given that he was entirely dependent on lunar observations. But he didn’t find the Great Southern Continent. This had been his task, set out in the secret instructions for his first and second voyages; the other achievements were incidental. On his third expedition he spent time checking that there wasn’t a continent in the higher latitudes of the Indian Ocean, though his primary job was to locate the Northwest Passage that was supposed to link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. He couldn’t find that either, but came across Hawaii instead.

Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, the Spaniard who landed in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in 1605, believed he had found the southern and northern rims of a continent that stretched all the way from the western coast of New Holland (now Australia) to the eastern Pacific, and perhaps beyond. In 1588 Lorenzo Ferrer Maldonado sailed, or said he had sailed, from Davis Strait, north of Hudson Bay, into the fabled Strait of Anian that opened into the Pacific Ocean. These reports were later supported by Willem Schouten and Abel Tasman in the South Seas, and Juan de Fuca and Bartolomeo de Fonte in the Northwest. On these slender foundations, geographers and map-makers built elaborate outlines of coasts that had never been seen, and waterways that no one had visited. The idea of a Great Southern Continent in the temperate latitudes of the Southern hemisphere fed visions of settlement, trade and untold mineral wealth. A Northwest Passage, navigable in summer, encouraged fancies of a much faster route for British ships sailing to China, and of naval vessels being able to exploit rapid and unadvertised access to the Spanish Lake (the Pacific Ocean) in times of crisis. Oddly, the two great trading companies with an interest in these areas, the East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company, showed little interest in exploring them: a sign perhaps that existing trade routes had already determined the shape and, ultimately, the extent of Britain’s Empire, and that even the wildest imaginings of geographers could not make its ventures more profitable.

Still, the dreams persisted. For each one there was a line of patrons, and for each patron a map-maker. The most persistent advocate of the Great Southern Continent, Alexander Dalrymple, was convinced that a land-bridge connected Australia either to New Guinea to the north, or to the paradise de Quiros had named Austrialia del Espiritu Santo to the east. On his first voyage Cook was carrying maps by the French cartographer Didier de Vaugondy that imaginatively laid out both possibilities. By the time of his third voyage, Jacob von Staehlin’s 1773 map of the Northwest coastline, showing Alaska as an island, was supposedly the most accurate chart of the region. The navigators sent to confirm this dangerous cartographical nonsense had harsh things to say about armchair geographers and their fanciful illustrators. Cook accused de Vaugondy of making compilations of rough sketches and marketing them as authoritative, and von Staehlin, he said, had produced ‘a Map that the most illiterate of illiterate Sea-faring men would have been ashamed to put his name to’. In 1793, the year Vancouver completed his definitive survey, William Goldson published a map incorporating Cook’s chart of the Northwest into the draught of an inland sea that covered most of Washington and British Columbia. This ‘mer de l’ouest’ had been dreamed up forty years before by two French cartographers, Philippe Buache and Joseph Nicolas Delisle – Buache had claimed that his map was ‘supported by every kind of proof . . . except the living testimony of mariners who had made the voyage’.

Why enlightened and rational people should have entertained such improbabilities is a question Glyn Williams asks with increasing wonder in his account of the five principal eras of Northwest navigations. He finds no simple answer. Obsession, greed, fame, public spirit, ambition, curiosity, even revenge play parts in the narrative, whose constant theme is the anger directed by sailors at the fools, charlatans and madmen who were putting their lives at risk for the sake of delusions. Sven Waxell, who sailed with Bering, and saw him die of scurvy after they were marooned on a deserted island, spoke for many when he said: ‘My blood still boils whenever I think of the scandalous deception of which we were the victims.’ Navigators at the ends of the earth conventionally enjoyed a reputation for tall stories, but here the roles were reversed. The liars were sitting at the centre of the world, drawing visionary pictures of what its remotest places might look like; the empiricists and truthtellers were the mariners who came home with nothing, if they came home at all. Having lost the Great Southern Continent to Cook’s charts of the Southern Ocean, in the 1790s Dalrymple turned to the Northwest Passage for consolation, and Vancouver had him in his sights when he defended himself and Cook from ‘the enthusiasm of closet philosophy, eager to revenge itself for the refutation of its former fallacious speculations’. Experts, their dreams foiled, were prone to seek revenge. Arthur Dobbs deliberately set out to ruin the career and reputation of Christopher Middleton, who came back from Hudson Bay with news that there was no passage to the west. Dalrymple’s exasperation found an outlet in two public letters he wrote against John Hawkesworth, Cook’s editor; and of Cook himself, he observed: ‘I cannot admit of a Pope in Geography or Navigation.’

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