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A History of Arctic Exploration

Andrew Lambert is impressed with this study of icy exploration 

Published: January 31, 2010 at 10:44 am
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Reviewed by: Andrew Lambert
Author: Matti Lainema and Juha Nurminen
Publisher: Conway
Price (RRP): £40


The debate on global warming has focused international attention on the Arctic. Now we have a history of the region on a suitable scale. A comprehensive narrative stretching from the voyage of Pytheas the Massilia, the first to record reaching the edge of the ice, to the moment a Russian icebreaker arrived at the North Pole in 1991 is interleaved with a study of the development of polar cartography, and illustrated to the highest standards. 

The authors give the Inuit full credit for their mastery of the environment, and their influence on later explorers. The section dealing with Viking exploration and settlement is neatly linked to climatic change a thousand years ago, while pioneering efforts by Frobisher, Willoughby, Barents and Hudson to open a route to Asia are shown to have an overriding commercial imperative. These voyages ended when the English and the Dutch reached Asia via the Cape of Good Hope. By contrast Russian exploration along the northern coast of Siberia and into Alaska would be sustained by territorial conquest. Fishing and whaling were both a cause and a beneficiary of maritime exploration; Henry Hudson’s report from Spitsbergen prompted the first ocean whale fishery. Similar commercial impulses led the Hudson’s Bay Company to Canada to acquire furs and metals. 

The British returned to the Arctic in 1818, seeking a North-West Passage and answers to the navigational problems of high latitudes. By 1828 they knew that no economically viable passage existed, while the Franklin catastrophe of 1845 ended scientific interest, although the search for Franklin charted much of the Canadian Arctic. Modern day Vikings took up the challenge: Nordenskiöld completed the North-East Passage in 1878–80; Nansen’s voyage of 1893–96 took men closer to the North Pole; and Amundsen navigated the North-West passage between 1903 and 1906. 

The Scandinavian and Russian emphasis, an essential corrective to Anglophone literature, is partly explained by the fact that the book was originally published by the Finnish Nurminen Foundation as Ultima Thule. The cartographic sections emphasise the linked development of geographical knowledge, mapmaking technique, and publication methods. In picking a path through the guesswork that dominated Arctic cartography until well into the 19th century, Lainema and Nurminen demonstrate a refreshing willingness to engage in debate with their sources. Their heroes are the Inuit, and Vikings of all ages. This is both a significant addition to the literature on the Arctic, and an ideal point of entry for those new to the subject. 


Prof Andrew Lambert, author of Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation (Faber, 2009)


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