Saturday, May 15, 2010

Arctic Labyrinth

Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage

Glyn Williams

Allen Lane

ISBN 978-1-846-14138-6

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore


Anyone wanting an introductory overview of one of the Western world’s most enduring exploratory obsessions would previously have had to consult three or four books at a minimum. Now we can recommend an authoritative and engaging account of the whole sweep of the subject, from soup to nuts, in one volume.

Over the last fifty years Glyn Williams’s writings have ranged widely over maritime and exploration history in the broad context of the development of European empires, with a particular focus on the eighteenth century. The Northwest Passage has been a constant theme in his work, from his first monograph, The British Search for the Northwest Passage in the Eighteenth Century, in 1962, through his editions of journals and correspondence from the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. The long and complicated search for the passage from the bay, and then from the Pacific coast, resulted in his 2002 overview of the 18th-century phase of that work, Voyages of Delusion, an updating and major expansion of his 1962 book. Now, in Arctic Labyrinth, he has pulled back the focus still further to give us a bird’s-eye view of the whole exploratory effort towards a north-west passage from Frobisher’s first voyage in 1576 to Amundsen’s final accomplishment of it in 1906, with further chapters bringing us through Larsen’s first single-season navigation in the St Roch in 1944 to the present, when the new situations opened up by global warming—both navigational and political—are still very much in flux. As a masterly synthesis of so much of his previous work, Arctic Labyrinth is a fitting capstone to Williams’s authorial career.

As its title makes clear, the focus throughout is on the Northwest Passage, not Arctic exploration in general, and Williams, Emeritus Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London, is disciplined in not getting sidetracked into the sixteenth century probing of the Northeast Passage, or the late-19th century moves towards the North Pole. The title also makes clear the central problem of the Northwest Passage: unlike the long and dangerous but ultimately straightforward slog of the Northeast Passage, or the short and dangerous canal of Magellan’s Strait, the Northwest Passage is not one route but a mix-and-match collection of possible routes through a maze of islands that can theoretically be put together in dozens of possible permutations, and the book’s title emphasizes the labyrinthine nature of a passage whose very entrance took more than two centuries to find.

While other writers, especially Pierre Berton and Fergus Fleming, have made enormous contributions to our understanding of the 19th-century phase of exploration, their passion and humour have occasionally been at the expense of a disinterested coolness of judgement in assessing the motives of the explorers and outcomes of their actions. But the depth of knowledge that a professional historian brings to all the related topics in the background of Northwest Passage exploration, from early globes and maps to the fur trade and naval history, all within the overarching context of an unfolding European imperialism, make this a work apart in its breadth of reference and sophistication of outlook, and bring exploration history out of its specialist niche and into the unaccustomed light of the serious historiographic mainstream. All this means it is hard to imagine an author better qualified to write such a book. In terms of the source material with which he is familiar, probably no one has been in a better position to do so since John Barrow himself produced his Chronological History of Voyages into Arctic Regions in 1818—a time when the last and most productive segment of the search was still in the future.

The book is essentially in three parts, underlining the three-act structure of the search: an opening phase from the 1570s to the 1630s, when mythical waterways such as the Strait of Anian led many explorers astray; a renewed though sporadic effort focused on Hudson’s Bay and then the Pacific between 1719 and 1794; and the third and best-known phase beginning with John Ross’s cruise around Baffin Bay in 1818 and concluding with the final Franklin search expeditions in the late 1850s. The last phase is further subdivided, as is appropriate for the period of greatest activity, into Barrow’s systematic attempt to map the coasts and sea lanes both overland and by ship, and the large number of naval and private voyages that, in attempting to save Franklin’s last expedition, virtually finished the job. The intense activity of this later period inevitably makes Amundsen’s final voyage through the passage—the main subject of the book’s fifth section—almost bathetic. Unlike Magellan or even Nordenskj√∂ld, every mile of Amundsen’s route had been mapped by one or another of dozens of previous explorers before he sailed it; only the stringing together by a single crew in a single vessel was missing, and it is to Williams’s credit that he recognizes how much that “only” hides, giving proper weight to Amundsen’s grit and accomplishment.

The author’s breadth of outlook brings some refreshing new angles to familiar stories. For instance, it’s become an almost universal motif to note how the cultural prejudices of the 19th-century Royal Navy prevented them from learning effective means of travel, clothing, or shelter despite the abundant examples of all three the Inuit provided them with. Williams does not demur from the general point at all, but nevertheless makes clear that the Navy’s practice in fact showed significant evolution and signs of learning from experience as one expedition followed another: clothing and rations were improved, daily routines refined, and there was even, before the deadening orthodoxy of man-hauled sledging became established later in the century, enthusiastic and extensive adoption of dog-sledging.

The source materials available for each period vary tremendously: for the earliest voyages very few original materials survive and for blow-by-blow accounts of the voyages the historian is almost completely reliant on the sometimes heavily redacted navigators’ journals published by Richard Hakluyt and his successor, Samuel Purchas. For the 18th-century material, the author’s countless hours in the Hudson’s Bay Company archives over the decades show in his profound knowledge not only of the journals but of the company’s minute books, correspondence, and other administrative papers. And for the 19th century phase a still larger selection of manuscript material is available alongside the often minutely detailed published journals, sometimes from more than one participant of each voyage. Williams shows his experience not just as a historian but as a writer in smoothing out the discontinuities of the sources to present a seamless narrative with a roughly even granularity of detail throughout—a task made easier by the fact that the four-century scope of the book mostly precludes the description of events at a day-to-day level.

Painting with even brushstrokes also brings to the fore the usually more overlooked characters of the story, and particularly those of Williams’s original area of specialism, the 18th century, when the search was at its most unglamorous, circling obsessively around the giant cul-de-sac of Hudson Bay. Christopher Middleton takes his rightful place as a worthy merchant-turned-naval seaman in the mould of Cook, while the loss of James Knight and his entire crew in 1719 continues, in the puzzling absence of human remains, to present even more unanswered questions than that of Franklin. The real advance of the 18th century was on land, when Samuel Hearne trekked from the Bay across the Barrens to the Arctic coast in 1770–72, thus ruling out a temperate-latitude passage across North America and paving the way for the High-Arctic focus of the following century’s exploration. Williams does not give the background of Hearne’s journey in the HBC’s earlier overland expeditions of Henry Kelsey and Anthony Henday, but again this is due to his tight focus on the North West Passage, and land expeditions that went west without travelling significantly north are outside his remit (readers can turn to Company of Adventurers, the first part of Peter Newman’s monumental trilogy on the HBC, to get the full flavour of that other exploratory trajectory).

Williams ends by giving an overview of the Passage in the era of global warming. As it becomes more accessible, offering ice-free navigation for at least brief summer periods, issues of sovereignty and supervision raise their heads, but mineral exploitation seems likely to cause the most intense activity, with Russian assertions of control over undersea resources likely to provoke Canadian and US assertions in response. An oil spill or the rescue of stranded cruise ship passengers are perhaps more likely scenarios of a future crisis in the North West Passage than an armed confrontation over recognition of Canadian sovereignty. Williams marshals the evidence as impressively as ever, but would be the first to admit that in the face of such an unclear and fast-changing future, crystal-ball gazing is likely to be as speculative as mapping the Strait of Anian.