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The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passageby Anthony Brandt
When Lieutenant Edward Parry of the Royal Navy climbed a small hill on what he believed to be the southwest corner of Melville Island in the summer of 1820, he gazed out upon an apparently endless sea of ice stretching west to the horizon. The same ice filled up the strait between Melville Island and land he could just make out in what sailors called the offing, far away, to the south, perhaps fifty miles distant. It was August, yet there was no trace of a lane of open water anywhere within sight. The surface of the ice was as hummocky and ridged as the wrinkled surface of a glacier, while the floes close to shore were as thick as a four-story building is tall. If this was the Northwest Passage, he could plainly see, it would never be navigable. Ice that thick, that old, that hard could not possibly melt in the brief Arctic summer, and no ship could penetrate it.
In the summer of 2007, for the first time in history, this particular route through the Canadian archipelago, the complex maze of islands lying north of the North American continent and east of the Mackenzie River delta, opened to ship traffic. The following summer it opened again. All that ice was gone. Thanks to global warming it is beginning to seem likely that the Northwest Passage will open for longer and longer periods each year, until, perhaps by the end of this century, ice will have vanished from the world altogether and the ancient dream of a Northwest Passage will have been, unexpectedly and inadvertently, realized.
The potentially apocalyptic consequences of such an event are too well known to need comment: drowned islands, drowned seacoasts, massive storms, cycles of flood and drought, the reconfiguration of the world’s ocean currents, and accelerated species loss. In the immediate time frame, however, there are advantages to global warming, and the opening of the Northwest Passage is one of them. By ship, via the Panama Canal, the distance from New York to Tokyo is 11,300 miles. Via the Northwest Passage it is nearly 3,000 miles shorter. The savings to European shipping would be comparable. And it isn’t only a question of shipping costs. If there turns out to be enough oil and natural gas in the Arctic to justify large- scale extraction, it will be much cheaper, and perhaps ecologically safer, to take it out by tanker than by laying pipe across the Arctic tundra.
The opening of the Passage, in fact, has energized a dormant political conflict over both the extraction of resources from the Arctic Ocean seafloor and the shipping lanes themselves. Canada claims the islands of its archipelago as its own but lacks the means and the will to occupy them and maintain its claim; nevertheless it regards the straits and channels that divide the islands as internal waterways with the same status as rivers and streams. The United States, Great Britain, and other countries have always disagreed with this position, insisting that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway free to all, like the oceans.To make its point, the United States sent a CoastGuard icebreaker through the Passage in 1985, before global warming had become an issue, without asking permission from the Canadian government. Canada responded by announcing its intention to build more icebreakers of its own and to enhance security in the Far North, plans that it subsequently abandoned because of the expense. The issue remains unresolved.
Ownership of the seafloor in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and the Canadian Northwest Territories has also been in question; with the advent of global warming the question has become more acute. In 2003 the United States tried to auction off drilling rights to an area believed to hold major natural gas reserves that Canada also claims.Energy companies backed off, not wanting to become involved in the dispute. In 2004 the Canadian military conducted exercises on Baffin Island designed to familiarize itself with Arctic conditions. Canada does not, however, maintain permanent bases in the archipelago and has no way to stop nuclear powered submarines from operating under the Arctic ice, and no stations to detect their passage. In 2007 the increasingly assertive Russians used a submersible to plant their flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean at theNorth Pole.The Danes for their part are claiming rights to oil and gas reserves in the narrow channel that divides Greenland, which is a Danish dependency, from Ellesmere Island, where the Canadians have nailed bronze plaques claiming sovereignty to the bare rocks.
These developments no doubt would have amazed Lieutenant Parry. The industrialization of Europe and the United States that would set global warming in motion was certainly well under way by 1820, but England was still primarily a rural nation. Ships were made of wood, and the age of sail was not yet over. The first passenger railways were a decade in the future; in 1820 railways were used to transport coal and ore. Steam engines had only just begun to appear in a few coastal ferries. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Parry to imagine massive icebreakers hundreds of feet long weighing thousands of tons plowing through the frozen waters he surveyed. For Parry, the Northwest Passage was a geographic puzzle to be solved, and his mission was basically scientific. He spent much of his time his first winter in the Arctic measuring temperature, barometric pressure, and compass variations; recording the appearance and frequency of the aurora borealis; collecting specimens of rocks, plants, and animals; and making maps. There were dreamers—there are always dreamers—but few sensible people had any hope that the Northwest Passage might become a commercially viable route to the Pacific. One of those dreamers, to be sure, happened to be the second secretary of the Admiralty, and it was he who had engineered this voyage, and would engineer many more. But for Parry, staring in wonder over this alabaster sea, in awe of what he was looking at and mindful of his own growing experience of sea ice, the idea that it all might one day melt away like so much ice cream would have been incomprehensible. Throughout his lifetime, and the lifetime of the second secretary, during the half- century or so the search for the Northwest Passage engaged British ambitions and thrilled the British public, the ice never melted. It remained intractable, impenetrable, and, for those who challenged it, a kind of fate.
It was a tragic fate in the end. We use the word tragic carelessly these days to describe any sort of disaster that kills people, from the space shuttle Challenger exploding in the sky to Hurricane Katrina devastating New Orleans. In its original Greek sense, however, the word refers not to straightforward natural disasters but to tragic drama, in which it was hubris, an all-too-human arrogance and pride, that triggered a particular calamity. Historical events are tragic in a looser sense; history is messy, it lacks the tight construction of classic drama, and things can go wrong in a thousand ways that have no connection to human motivation or human action. The study of ice cores in the Canadian archipelago has revealed that the years from 1810 to 1860, during which the British pursued the quest for the Northwest Passage that is the subject of this book, had summers that were the coldest on record, four full degrees below the seven- hundred- year average, and the ice melt during those summers was consequently the lowest. No one could have predicted such an eventuality.
Yet instances of hubris in history abound and the consequences are often fatal. In the case of the quest for the Northwest Passage, a nation pursued an enterprise that met with repeated and often deadly failure over a period not just of years but of centuries, persisting in tempting fate until fatality became inevitable. And fate arrived in the form of sea ice. For generations, as we shall see, men deluded themselves into believing that sea ice did not exist, or that if it did, it occurred only in shallow water, in the vicinity of land, while in the open oceans it could not form because of the action of the waves. Some scientists even theorized that salt water could not freeze at all.The seeds of tragedy are to be found in just such delusions, coming in this case from the minds of men with no experience in the ice, men who had never watched a harbor freeze over or felt the terror of ice floes a mile or two across and ten feet thick bearing down on them in Baffin Bay or the whale- rich waters around Svalbard. In the half-century after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, this tragic folly came to its climax when the British tried to force the Northwest Passage once and for all, no matter what. They believed it their peculiar destiny to do so, to triumph over the ice and add this exclamation point to the great victories at Trafalgar and Waterloo, underlining in the process British command of the world’s oceans. In the end two lavishly equipped ships and 129 men fell victim to the ice. Their deaths were ugly, a scene of horror out of a Gothic novel or Dante’s Inferno. There was no trace of dignity in the record left by their bones, which had been broken open by the last survivors for their marrow.
Yet tragedy can be the scene of heroism as well as arrogance and folly. Men suffered and died in the Arctic in a great cause, to open an entire region of the globe to science and human traffic, however unreal it was at the time to envision sailing through water frozen to a depth of forty feet. Should they have stayed home and waited for global warming? No easy answer suggests itself. To behave nobly and heroically in an obviously hopeless cause is a kind of folly, but it can also constitute a kind of greatness. Despite the wrongheadedness of the enterprise, an air of transcendence arises from their sufferings. It was in vain that they died, but their deaths raised them up, as it were, and made them emblems of whatever it is in human beings that can seem sublime.
John Franklin, known after his disastrous journey along the north coast of Canada as “the man who ate his boots,” was just such a hero. Short and tending to corpulence, he was almost excessively pious—but it was a pious age—and so kind that he would not swat mosquitoes but blew them off his skin, telling the astonished Yellow Knife Indians who saw him do this that these pestiferous insects, which in their swarms could blot out the sun on the Arctic tundra, drain a caribou dry, and drive a man insane, had as much right to live as he did. This exaggerated kindness is part of his legend, along with his courage, his sufferings, his persistence, and the mystery of his disappearance in the icy wastes of the North. Within sixty years of his death one short and three full- length biographies appeared. As recently as 2002 there was another. He became a model for the chivalric revival of the mid- to late nineteenth century in England. He seemed to embody the chivalric virtues at their best; he was a gentleman and a gentle man, pious and pure but at the same time brave and indomitable. This book is not a biography of Franklin, but he is its natural focus, because it was he, not Parry, who became the central, the emblematic figure in the quest for the Northwest Passage in the nineteenth century. He was present at the beginning in 1818 and again at the end, when he commanded the last expedition the British sent on this quest in 1845. It was the long, exhaustive search for this expedition that ultimately mapped most of the Arctic and finally solved the riddle of the Northwest Passage.
He was in most respects perfectly ordinary, not in the least heroic in the standard sense of the word, not the swashbuckling naval officer of boys’ adventure stories or a moody grand Byronic hero. It is hard to imagine him brandishing a sword. He was socially shy and uneasy at large parties, and being treated as a hero made him extremely uncomfortable. It is his bronze statue, nevertheless, that stands in Waterloo Place in London, honoring not only him but all the men who died with him in the unforgiving Arctic ice; and it is his monument with its portrait bust that is embedded in the wall in Westminster Abbey, with its neat little epitaph by Tennyson:
NOT HERE! THE WHITE NORTH HATH THY BONES, AND THOU,
HEROIC SAILOR SOUL,
ART PASSING ON THY HAPPIER VOYAGE NOW
TOWARDS NO EARTHLY POLE.
Had Franklin been capable of irony he might have smiled, not at the words but at the fact that Tennyson wrote them. Tennyson had married one of Franklin’s many nieces, and Franklin had met him once and hadn’t approved of him. The young, tall, long- haired poet had sprawled across no fewer than three chairs after dinner and lit a pipe in the presence of the ladies. Franklin was nothing if not proper. But it was precisely the fact that he was not capable of irony that made him such a perfect candidate for heroism. The making of heroes is one way of transcending the ubiquitous irony of history; it is what demonstrates that we are a great people after all, that our hopes and dreams are not foolish and futile, that we can rise above defeat. The hubris was Britain’s, not Franklin’s. He sailed for the Northwest Passage to redeem a somewhat damaged reputation and to cap his long career with a triumph. But by his death he suffered a sea change. Kind, avuncular, overweight, and too old to be leading an expedition into the Arctic, his death and the death of his companions transformed him from a well- known Arctic explorer into an avatar of British greatness. He actually died before the tragic denouement of that final voyage. No matter. As the leader of the expedition, it was he who was declared to be the discoverer of the Northwest Passage, he was the one to whom the statues were erected. It was Franklin who gave the story its tragic dimension and the nation its catharsis: he, and the tireless work on behalf of his memory of his extraordinary wife, Jane.
But if Franklin was not in fact the great man his wife, and a grieving nation, made him out to be, the personal nobility of the enterprise he was engaged upon is undeniable. Great Britain’s Arctic explorers sailed eagerly into the bitter seas of the far North, testing themselves against the deadliest climate in the world, in the service of something they believed in. The conclusion was tragic, but tragedy gives depth and meaning to death. Where would mankind be if it did not take risks? If it were not proud? The story that follows is replete with folly, official and otherwise, but the story as a whole is stirring. Things may have ended very badly indeed, yet it is impossible not to feel that the monuments and memorials were deserved.
It is just this tension, finally, between the nobility and the folly of the enterprise that makes the story so rich and has inspired so many efforts to tell it. And now we have its climactic irony, the melting of the Northwest Passage. It was plain early on in the search for the Passage that it would never be of any practical use. Now it is. Global warming has given the search a whole new context and its history one more twist. In the scramble for seafloor and rights-of-way in the Arctic that is already beginning, Canada is counting on the Franklin expedition’s presumed discovery of the Passage in 1848 to establish ownership, and every summer now Parks Canada is sending underwater archaeology teams into the area of the Canadian archipelago where Franklin’s ships disappeared in the hope of finding their remains. So far they have come up with some pieces of copper sheeting. The muse of history must be smiling. She has become relevant again, in a way no one could have expected.
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