The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909

The late Pierre Berton (d. 2016) was a Canadian writer on northern affairs combining a lyrical capacity to capture the history of the North with a critical sympathy and perhaps undue haste. Here he covers a century of exploration, ending in the middle of the “Heroic Age” with Peary’s last expedition.

p. 34-35, Parry and Ross in 1818: The greatest peril of wintering in the Arctic was not the cold; it was boredom. For eight, sometimes ten months nothing moved. Ships became prisons. Masts and superstructures were taken down, hatches hermetically sealed, the ships smothered in blankets of insulating snow. Hived together in these wooden cockleshells with little to do, the best-disciplined seamen could break down. Small irritations could be magnified into raging quarrels. Fancied insults could lead to mutinous talk and even mutiny, as Blight in the South Seas and Hudson in the North had discovered.

Parry was determined to cope with the monotony of the Arctic winter, and it is a tribute to his careful planning, which the more intelligent of his successors copied, that the British Navy was comparatively free of the friction that marred many of the later private expeditions from the United States.

Parry’s background fitted him for the role. Since childhood he had loved music; he had a good ear and at the age of four could repeat any tune after hearing it once…. There would be plenty of music aboard Parry’s ships (he even brought a barrel organ along) and there would be sports, amateur theatricals, and a newspaper, all designed to maintain a happy ship.

p. 41: The officers’ evening occupations were, to use Parry’s words, of “a more rational kind.” [by contrast to enlisted men] They read books, wrote letters, played chess or musical instruments.

p. 42: In spite of all this, the expedition produced and printed [?] a weekly newspaper to which Parry himself contributed and put on fortnightly theatricals (the female impersonators shivering gamely in their garments). It was almost too cold, Parry admitted, for actors or audience to enjoy the shows.

p. 46, on Parry’s next voyage [1820-21]: This time trunks of theatrical costumes were packed aboard along with the mandatory printing press, the magic lantern, and a full library of books that would be used in the schoolroom Parry intended to establish. In that long Arctic night he was determined that his unlettered crew would learn to read their Bibles.

p. 49: There were diversions. The officers shaved off their whiskers to play female roles in the theatre. (Parry played Sir Anthony Absolute in Sheridan’s The Rivals.) The school was a success; by year’s end, every man had learned to read. But the greatest event was the arrival on February 1 of a band of sixty Eskimos “as desirous of pleasing us as we were ready to be pleased.” Soon there was fiddling and dancing on the decks as the newcomers made repeated visits to the ships.

p. 72, of Franklin’s land expedition of 1819-22: On Sunday, October 20, after reading the morning service, Richardson crawled off to gather some of this lichen [tripe-de-roche], leaving the dying Hood before his tent arguing with Michel. Then to his horror, he heard a shot and an anguished shout from Hepburn, who had been trying to cut down a tree a short distance from the others. Richardson hurried back to find Hood dead with a ball in his forehead, a copy of Edward Bickersteth’s A Scripture Help in his hand. Was it suicide? Michel said it was. But Richardson concluded from the dead man’s position that it was impossible for him to have shot himself.

p. 91-93, about Franklin’s 1825-27 overland expedition: They returned to a wintering spot on Great Bear Lake, which they named Fort Franklin. There they spent a cheerful nine months. The officers taught the men to read and figure. Richardson gave the officers lectures on the flora, fauna, and geology of the region. Franklin read Dante and Milton. There were games of shinny and blindman’s bluff. And nobody went hungry.

p. 146-47, apropos Franklin at the beginning of hisill-fated 1845 expedition: He stocked his ships with twelve hundred books, including John Ross’s account of his four-year entrapment with its shrewd comment on the need for fresh meat to combat scurvy. But who listened to the discredited Ross? Parry had more clout, and Parry still harboured the naïve belief that scurvy could be held at bay by morale-building entertainment and lots of exercise—which actually accelerates the onslaught of the disease….

The most strident criticism of all came not from a naval man but from a civilian, the wiry and waspish surgeon-naturalist Richard King, who didn’t believe in sea expeditions. He was still convinced, after his journey with George Back, that the best way to find the Passage was by taking an overland route from the mouth of the Great Fish River and north along the west coast of Boothia…. Franklin had a copy of King’s book with him [Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Arctic Ocean in 1833…(London 1836)], giving King’s reasons for believing that Boothia was actually a peninsula and King William Land an island. But few took much account of King. If his theories had been accepted, Franklin’s ships might have been spared their tragic ordeal in the ice and the Passage discovered and even navigated in mid-century. At the very least, the search for the missing expedition might have been shortened.

p. 150, [1845]—notes that the expedition set off with testaments and prayer books, copies of Punch, as well as arithmatic books.

p. 209, speaks of Bellot’s lack of a Bible being his greatest privation.

p. 245, Kellett’s search for Franklin: His own ships were well provisioned. Fresh venison, bear, and muskox were available in abundance, while soirées, vaudeville shows, and plays broke the monotony.

p. 279, re Henry Goodfellow, a feckless youth on Kane’s ship in 1854, who Kane found so absolutely useless that he was relieved of all duties: While the others toiled, Goodfellow lounged about, reading novels.

p. 324, M’Clintock on his ultimately successful 1859 search for Franklin on King William Island: M’Clintock’s task would not be an easy one. The Eskimos had plundered everything they could find, throwing away what they didn’t need—such as books, papers, and journals—and adapting the rest for their own use. And a spectral cloud of snow still covered the land, concealing the remains of the lost explorers as well as any artifacts not yet discovered by the natives.

p. 325: Franklin’s men must have left some sort of record, but if they had, the Eskimos had long since scattered it to the winds; to them books and papers had no value or meaning.

p. 331-32, M’Clintock on finding the Franklin party’s sledge and boat notes the sheer weight of what Franklin’s survivors had dragged with them: The sledge itself was a monstrous contraption of iron and oak, weighing at least 650 pounds. On top of it was a twenty-eight foot boat, rigged for river travel, weighing another 700 or 800 pounds. To M’Clintock, with his own sledging experience, this was madness. Seven healthy men would have had trouble hauling it any distance, even if it had not been loaded. But it was loaded, with an incredible accumulation of unnecessary articles: books (The Vicar of Wakefield was one), every kind of footgear from sea boots to strong shoes, towels and toothbrushes, gun covers and twine…, a bead purse, a cigar case—everything, in short, that civilized nineteenth-century travelers considered necessary for their comfort and well-being.

p. 332: But by what weird caprice had they been persuaded to bring along button polish, heavy cookstoves, brass curtain rods, a lightning conductor, and a library of religious books? It had taken them three days to haul this ponderosity of non-essentials fifteen miles before they realized they were not equal to the task.

p. 336: But as John Ross had discovered—and Franklin well knew—there were natives living directly across the water in Boothia who were to keep his own crew alive and healthy. Ross’s account was in Franklin’s shipboard library, but there is no evidence that any of his sledgers ventured over to Boothia.

p. 399, when Charles Francis Hall’s Polaris foundered on the ice in late 1872, Hall abandoned ship, moving many supplies to the ice. When the ship seemed stable enough fourteen men reboarded it, shortly before the ice-floe floated away with the stranded party of Tyson as senior officer, ten seamen, and nine Inuit. They drifted toward and beyond Labrador for 1300 miles before being rescued near Newfoundland: The worst aspect of these long dark days was not hunger or cold; it was the sheer boredom that almost drove Tyson mad. There was nothing to do, nothing to read, and scarcely anybody to talk to. He could no longer write daily notes in his journal—it would take too much paper. Somebody had stolen the notes he had laid aside for future use….

p. 401, has a similar passage: “Oh, it is depressing in the extreme to sit crouched up all day with nothing to do but keep from freezing,” Tyson wrote. There was no proper place to sit and absolutely nothing to read in the soft Arctic twilight. “It is now one hundred and seven days since I have seen printed words.”

p. 441, at Fort Conger on Ellesmere Island in 1881 during the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition led by Adolphus Washington Greely: Marooned on these bleak and treeless shores, hemmed in by sullen, wall-like cliffs that rose as high as a thousand feet, they did their best to pass the time playing Parcheesi and chess, backgammon and cards (but never for money), engaging in theatricals, taking classes in everything from grammar to meteorology, and publishing a newspaper, the Arctic Moon. Greely himself lectured on “the Arctic question,” a euphemism for the North Pole discovery, which, as George Rice, the civilian photographer…remarked, was “a subject especially absorbing to those present.”

p. 445, in 1883 a rescue ship for the Greely party failed to arrive and 25 men faced the prospect of a second winter: “The life we are leading now is somewhat similar to a prisoner in the Bastille [sic],” the impatient Lockwood wrote, “no amusements, no recreations, no event to break the monotony…. The others are as moody as I am—Greely sometimes, Kislingbury always, and as to the doctor [Bessels] to say he is not congenial is to put it in a very mild way indeed.”

…The only reading available consisted of novels and books on the Arctic. [Only six men survived, rescued amidst allegations of cannibalism vehemently denied by the survivors despite plentiful evidence that it had occurred, at least among the deceased.]

p. 493, re Nansen on the Fram in 1893: To while away the time, he read Darwin, Schopenhauer, and the published journals of the earlier explorers, and edited a weekly journal, Framjaa. He agreed with David Hume, the English philosopher, that “he is more excellent who can suit his temperament to any circumstances”: that, he wrote, was the philosophy he was practicing at the moment. It wasn’t always easy: “I long to return to life…. The years are passing here…. Oh! At times this inactivity crushes one’s very soul; one’s life seems as dark as the winter; night outside; there is no sunlight on no other part of it except the past, and the far, far distant future. I feel I must break through this deadness, this inertia and find some outlet for my energies.”

p. 497, Nansen after reaching Franz Josef Land: Since the land was teeming with walrus and polar bear they had plenty to eat. But the monotony was maddening. There was nothing to read but Nansen’s navigation table and pocket almanac: “… the sight of the printed letters gave one the feeling that there was, after all, a little bit of civilized man left.” They had exhausted all conversation and were reduced to playing fantasy games, talking of life at home and how they would spend the following winter. Most of the time they slept.

p. 573, Peary in 1909 and Captain Bartlett: In a romantic gesture, the husky captain had jettisoned his precious supply of chewing tobacco in favour of a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.