A complete biography of George Back, covering all aspects of his background and explorations: Franklin’s two overland journeys; his Great Fish River Expedition; and his HMS Terror debacle, including his teenage five-year Napoleonic captivity in Verdun. Many maps.
p. 26, in rather lenient imprisonment in Verdun: He eventually tired of the constant revelry, and rented another room in town where he had easy access to the library. The prisoners themselves eventually held a general meeting to try to clean up the moral tone of the citadel.
p. 27: Amateur theatricals became popular in Verdun. Some prisoners bought musical instruments captured in Spain, and formed a; musical society with a band of over twenty musicians. In nearby Givet, John
Wetherell reported enjoying ‘music to which I devoted the greatest part of my time this winter by the side of a good stove. We began to think it was mere folly to [dream] of ever being released; therefore we might make ourselves as our situation would allow.
p. 37, after released from prison and France, Back became a midshipman in HMS Akbar: On the ship Back was appointed aide to the lieutenant of his division. A lieutenant’s job was to manage day-to-day control over men’s nautical training. He would send them aloft to reef and furl the mizzen topsail, and make them rig a model ship according to Darcy Lever’s 1808 handbook, The Young Sea Officer’s Sheet Anchor—a Key to the Leading of Rigging and to Practical Seamanship. He also made sure midshipmen kept their daily journals up-to-date—a routine procedure for officers in the Royal Navy which explains how there are so many vivid and detailed descriptions of their voyages and adventures.
p. 44, assigned to HMS Bulwark in March 1817: He now started taking his education seriously, having long since given up the dissolute living of his prisoner of war days. He even complained how difficult it was to study ‘in the constant bustle and uproar if a midshipman’s mess’, and was grateful to a friend who offered him a quiet place to read in the privacy of a cabin in the gunroom.
p. 45-46, on Back’s appointment to John Barrow’s plan to explore the Northwest Passage on the Isabella and Alexander expeditions to be paired with land explorations.
p. 59-60, on Franklin’s first overland expedition to the Arctic Sea beginning in 1819: Franklin’s appointed officers for this expedition were Doctor John Richardson, surgeon and naturalist; and two midshipmen, George Back and Robert Hood, both artists. Richardson was a gentle scholarly, diversely talented Renaissance man. Nevertheless, over the coming years he would show repeatedly his admirable stamina and pluck. He got on well with his companions and was especially empathetic to native people among whom they traveled, and on whom the expedition relied so heavily….
Hood, like Back, was a young midshipman chosen at a time, before the days of photography, when artists were sent with expeditions primarily to survey their routes, make maps, and chart and compile the scientific findings; their secondary task was to record scenery, flora and fauna. Although lacking Back’s robust constitution, Hood was nevertheless a hard worker and a meticulous meteorological observer and surveyor in mapping their northern route. Of the two artists, Hood was better with people and animals, Back excelled in scenery and action. Hood’s career was short and he left few paintings, while Back’s several and scattered sketchbooks display his talent well.
p. 118, cabin fever, just prior to northward trek towards Coppermine River.
p. 179, on Franklin’s second land expedition down the Mackenzie in 1825-26: Nights were closing in, and Back records in his journal: ‘The manner of passing a Winter in this Country is usually of such dull uniformity and so destitute of any novelty to enliven it, that a recapitulation of daily occurrences would be equally as tedious, as it must be necessarily be prolix.’
p. 180: For relaxation, officers played chess, and men joined in party games. They all spent Sundays ‘in quietness and devotion’. Franklin read divine service both morning and evening as was his regular habit (even when starving on the Barrens). Every man had to attend and, believe it or not, they ‘evinced the most rigid attention to the holy doctrine, and the Day closed in Harmony and Peace’.
p. 181, at the holidays: A package of letters, newspapers, and magazines arrived from England, but Indians had rifled some of them on the way. The news they bore raised everyone’s spirits and, Back says, ‘gave a fresh Fillip to our little party’. Though hardly light reading—Quarterly Review, Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Literary Gazette, Mechanics Magazine—they gave the officers something new to talk about and staved off incipient cabin fever, common in those who winter in cold, dark latitudes.
p. 211-13, when the Admiralty was considering a search for the missing John Ross and James Clarke Ross expedition: Dr. John Richardson had been the first to suggest such an overland research expedition, but the Admiralty turned him down because he was not a Royal Navy officer. Nevertheless, they still adopted his idea. Richardson was then director of the gigantic Royal Naval Hospital at Haslar, Portsmouth, where he developed its library and museum, pioneered the use of general anaesthesia on sailors, and improved standards of nursing, especially for psychiatric patients.
p. 212, one job applicant for the Great Fish River expedition was one Mr H. Clarke, from Winchester in Sussex, who wrote: I am a surgeon, strong and in good health—have middling pluck—am a pretty good shot… and perfectly acquainted with the dangers and privations; incident to such a life … I am not unacquainted with Nat: Hist: — consider myself a pretty good chemist and play the Key-Bugle like an angel, and in a manner that would astoni[sh] the Esquimaux Bears. Moreover my services as an Accoucheur might be acceptable to the Esquimaux women.’ He was not chosen; but a young doctor, Richard King, was.
p. 267, on the Terror rescue expedition: ‘not an incident occurred to relieve for a moment the dull monotony of our unprofitable detention…no occupation, no amusement, however ordinarily gratifying, had power to please or even distract the thoughts.’ It was not a jolly prospect for a long dark winter ahead.
p. 277, after being knighted on March 18, 1839, Back faded into obscurity: Had he died on Terror he might—since the public have an insatiable appetite for high drama—have been beatified and passed into Arctic mythology, as his former boss, John Franklin, was to be. Explorers who return safely, however awful the experiences they survive, take second place to those who die tragically.
p. 285, Coda: He was a man of his time, with all the faults conferred by being trained in the Royal Navy and nurtured in class-conscious, hierarchical Britain. It is strange that it has taken so long for him to be recognized as one of the great Arctic explorers.