Sunday, August 29, 2010

‘Ninth circle of Dante’s hell’ confounds British Arctic Explorers

by David James/ Books in Review

FAIRBANKS — Arctic literature is filled with heady accounts of the long, futile search for a navigable Northwest Passage running from Europe, over the top of North America, and onward to Asia. It was a horrific and frequently deadly enterprise that obsessed the British navy throughout the first half of the 19th century, and that has since been investigated by some of our finest authors.

It is no small accomplishment for any writer to compose a work that stands out for its excellence in this rarified canon. But such is the case for Anthony Brandt, whose lyrically written “The Man Who Ate His Boots” is a compelling, accessible narrative of one of the most dramatic periods of maritime exploration; a must-read for anyone fascinated by this history.

Brandt, an editor with National Geographic Society Press, offers an indispensable book that places Arctic exploration in the context of British history, introduces readers to the most prominent players in the lengthy drama, and repeatedly drives home the pointlessness of their efforts.

By 1818, when the British Admiralty sent out its first ship in an effort at discovering a quick route to the Pacific, England sat atop the world. As Brandt reminds readers, the British Empire had vanquished its rivals and faced no serious threat to its supremacy. This, in turn, convinced the British that they were a superior people capable of overcoming anything.

For the Admiralty, which lacked an enemy to fight and therefore a reason to exist, charting and conquering the Arctic was the logical next step. Opening up the Northwest Passage would be England’s gift to the world and prove British greatness beyond doubt. And as Brandt skillfully shows, it was this arrogance that would prove to be Britain’s undoing.

Among the many men — and one woman — that played key roles in the search, John Barrow, Second Secretary of the Admiralty and its chief of operations, was the most pivotal. Barrow was convinced that sea ice could not form over deep waters, and hence that the Arctic Ocean was an open body of water (this was a widely held opinion at the time). One had merely to penetrate the ice thought to ring this ocean, and then clear sailing could be had to the opposite hemisphere.

The picture Brant offers of Barrow is hardly flattering. Whalers, he notes, were quite familiar with sea ice and knew it could form anywhere that temperatures warranted. But Barrow ignored them. He also ignored the evidence brought back from the long string of expeditions that were stopped dead by ice that was found in virtually every direction. Barrow was stubbornly dismissive of anyone who contradicted his unfounded beliefs and of the ever-mounting evidence that proved him wrong. But he called the shots, and so the ships kept sailing north into failure.

Brandt recounts the journeys of such famous explorers as John Ross, who commanded the 1818 expedition, thought he saw mountains where none existed, and turned back from his goal, earning Barrow’s permanent scorn. We also meet William Edward Parry, who sailed with Ross and then returned three more times to the Arctic, twice as commander of sea voyages and the final time as the leader of an attempt at reaching the North Pole by sled and boat (his failure to find open water on this effort did nothing to deter belief in a Polar Sea).

John Franklin led two overland expeditions through northern Canada. The first resulted in multiple deaths, and while Franklin learned enough to prevent serious tragedy on his second trip to America’s northern coastline, he never found evidence of a sea passage. He did, however, become a British hero, known as “the man who ate his boots,” after he and his men were forced to boil shoe leather to avoid starvation.

It is Franklin, or rather, his ghost, who becomes the focus of the book’s final hundred pages. In 1845 he set sail on one last, highly celebrated effort at finding the Northwest Passage and was never seen again. For the British, the disappearance of a national hero was too great a burden to be borne, and the Admiralty spent large sums of money and plenty of human lives trying first to rescue him, and later, when hope had been lost, to simply learn of his fate.

This effort was driven in no small part by Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane. She devoted the rest of her life first to her husband’s rescue, and when that failed, to his canonization in the British mind. On the second count she was highly successful.

It was ultimately John Rae, who was mapping the north and not looking for Franklin, who discovered the expedition’s fate. A group of Inuit who were carrying items that had belonged to Franklin and his men told Rae the sailors had starved to death, but not before resorting to cannibalism.

The news was too much for the British, who refused to believe good English seamen would eat each other. The truth was ignored, and the men became national martyrs. But their loss closed the book on England’s Arctic enterprise. The price was too high, the reward nonexistent.

The Arctic, as Brandt notes, could not be penetrated, because “Ice stretched to the horizon, built up on the coastlines, moved with the currents, broke and piled up floe on floe, held ships tight in its embrace, and crushed them at will.” It was “the ninth circle of Dante’s hell, nothingness itself.”

Anthony Brandt has written a sparkling account of a nation’s folly. The British believed themselves impervious. Nature proved otherwise. It’s a lesson that should be heeded by any country that believes it can’t possibly fail.

David James lives in Fairbanks.

The Man Who Ate His Boots
by Anthony Brandt

Alfred A. Knopf • 466 pages • 2010

Read more:Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - ‘Ninth circle of Dante’s hell’ confounds British Arctic explorers

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