The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage
by Anthony Brandt
Reviewed by Marc Covert
A well-known statue of Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin stands in London's Waterloo Square, an 8-foot bronze of heroic proportions that carries the following inscription: "To the great Arctic navigator and his brave companions who sacrificed their lives in completing the discovery of the Northwest Passage, A.D. 1847-8." It mentions nothing about Franklin being "The Man Who Ate His Boots," but in the eyes of the 19th-century British public that thrilled at his adventures and mourned his eventual disappearance in the Arctic ice, it was a name he never lived down.
It is also a name that must have proved irresistible to Anthony Brandt, whose new book, The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage, chronicles one of the most remarkable and least understood quests in the history of exploration. From the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the loss of Franklin and his two ships (with 129 men aboard) in 1847, the British Admiralty tried again and again to find the fabled Northwest Passage, a sea route which would, if it existed, cut thousands of miles from shipping routes to the Orient. They did this by throwing dozens of ships, hundreds of men, and tons of the best supplies and equipment money could buy at the great frozen wastes of the Canadian archipelago, a dizzying maze of peninsulas, straits, inlets, outlets, channels, gulfs, capes, bays and dead ends off the northern coast of Canada.
As Brandt points out, there is a Northwest Passage after all -- several, actually, now that global warming has begun a steady retreat of what was once considered impenetrable Arctic ice. The passage was there at the time of the admiralty's obsession with finding it; it was just inconveniently clogged by ice, in many places more than 40 feet thick, which cast doubt on whether the passage would ever be of any practical use once found. But here romanticism and nationalism kicked in. The idea of Arctic exploration and an opening of new sea routes as a British "gift to mankind" took hold; the greatness and fame and glory heaped upon the victors would be mere icing on the cake, at least in the minds of the dreamers who so firmly believed in its existence.
Rather than relying solely on tales of heroics and towering personalities -- though both get their due in The Man Who Ate His Boots -- Brandt displays a keen knowledge of the social, historical and political movements that propelled England to undertake such a costly, ultimately tragic national goal. The peculiarly British interest in Arctic exploration took hold at a time when England was the mightiest naval power in the world, leading to a sense of "the inherent superiority of the British race," which drove the growth of the British Empire for the remainder of the 19th century.
Ultimately, even the stirrings of great cultural and nationalistic movements pale in comparison to Brandt's descriptions of the dangers of Arctic exploration. The admiralty unwittingly chose a time of some of the worst Arctic winters in history for the enterprise. Temperatures regularly plunged to 50 below zero; ice was everywhere and a constant threat -- even the most heavily reinforced ship could be caught in "the pinch" between two ice floes and ground to splinters. Once beset in ice, men would have to saw channels through it by hand and then pull the ships along with ropes; "sallying" involved having the entire crew run from one side of the ship to the other for hours on end, to rock the ship and try to break free. Even with tons of provisions, scurvy was a constant, dreaded threat, brought about by a lack of fresh food and vitamin C.
The men who took up the challenge are no less extraordinary. While Franklin is the obvious focus of the book -- his overland expedition of 1819-22 cost the lives of 11 of his men to scurvy, starvation and two murders, and reduced the survivors to eating boiled lichens and shoe leather, earning him his title as The Man Who Ate His Boots -- Brandt brings to life many of the major officials and explorers of the day. John Barrow, second secretary of the admiralty from 1804-45, bent his tremendous power and will to finding the Northwest Passage. Brandt's bemused admiration for Sir John Ross is apparent; Ross may have failed over and over, but he refused to quit. On a steamship journey in 1829, he discovered the Magnetic North Pole but paid for this victory by being trapped in the ice for four years -- "one of the worst ordeals in Arctic history, topping Parry, Franklin, all of them in terms of sheer longevity" -- but he did survive, along with most of his crew.
So what, then, did it all mean in the end? Were the British out of their minds to expend so much effort and risk so many lives for something of questionable value? While wisely offering no yes-or-no answers, Brandt writes of Franklin and his doomed crew:
To behave nobly and heroically in an obvious 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.
Brandt's admiration for the motives and bravery of his subjects is clear throughout his book, which has its humorous moments, often rendered in a manner both macabre and deadpan, ideally suited to a story so fraught with egos, dangers and hardships. Thoughtful, compassionate and meticulously researched, The Man Who Ate His Boots
offers readers a vivid, compelling, ultimately heartbreaking history of Arctic exploration.