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Arctic Labyrinth

 Andrew Lambert is impressed with a new account of the quest for a North-West Passage across the American continent

Published: November 10, 2009 at 7:51 am

Reviewed by: Andrew Lambert
Author: Glyn Williams
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £25


Just as the strange, icebound world of the high Arctic has become central to debates about global warming, ecological catastrophe and scarce resources, Glyn Williams has produced the essential history. For five centuries the route across the north of the American continent was little more than a lethal obsession, linked to dreams of empire, gold, whale oil and beaver pelts, but all too soon it will be a reality – one with catastrophic implications for the local human and animal populations. 

Williams deploys a lifetime of research and distinguished scholarship in this sophisticated treatment, linking the key expeditions, by turns mad, bad and downright dangerous, with a sustained analysis of the reason why men kept coming back to this frozen wasteland. Merchants, speculators, imaginative geographers, cranks, monarchs and scientists all had reason to search for the North-West Passage – and they paid the professional mariners. It is highly significant that very few of those who headed north did so at their own expense. 

While the enduring fascination of the story generated a steady stream of voyage narratives, speculative writing and controversy, Williams has sought out the original manuscripts to explain what really happened. Locked away in the endless dark of an arctic winter human relationships fell apart; confidence, trust, hope and faith were early casualties as despair set in.

The first attempt on the passage, Martin Frobisher’s voyages in the 1570s, set a pattern. Uncertain whether to search for a passage, claim new lands or mine gold, they returned with a cargo of iron pyrites, bankrupting their backers. Subsequent attempts were hampered by limited knowledge, and the wild, and often deliberately dishonest geography peddled by cranks. 

Finally Captain Cook was drawn into the search, and Williams suggests his failure may explain the events that led to his death on Hawaii. Cook’s followers, scientific naval officers, finally charted the passage after 1815. Encouraged by official rewards and sponsored by the Royal Society, men like John Franklin, Edward Parry and James Clark Ross mapped the region and increased whale catches – and their charts ensured the high Arctic was British, and not Russian. 

Their efforts remain fundamental to the question of sovereignty; because the British government gave the region to Canada in 1870. By then the passage had been charted, although not navigated, as a by-product of Sir John Franklin’s catastrophic 1845 expedition. While a 12-year search mission did not find Franklin, it did settle the map. Once again these voyages revealed the darkest corners of human nature, notably Robert McClure, so desperate to claim the glory of the passage that he disobeyed his orders, risking his ship and his crew on a doomed enterprise. He was promoted and knighted. Finally Lady Franklin sent her own expedition, and secured for her husband the credit of discovering the passage, suitably commemorated by a statue in London. 

But like so much else in this story, the truth was very different. Only in 1905 did Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen complete the passage, in a 47-tonne herring smack. His feat was not repeated until the 1940s, when a Royal Canadian Mounted Police vessel was sent to assert sovereignty, and counter possible German operations in Greenland. In the past 20 years transits have become frequent, but the only vessels to make any money on the passage carry tourists. 

Glyn Williams concludes by addressing future issues. Canada claims the passage is an internal waterway, the USA an international strait. The route will be used for resource extraction rather than inter-ocean transits. Martin Frobisher would have understood these imperatives only too well. Superb.


Andrew Lambert is Laughton professor of naval history at King’s College London. His latest book: Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation was published by Faber in July


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