[What follows here is a review I wrote for the journal Historian, included here not as related to reading by polar explorers, but relevant to current reading about them. As far as I know this review was never published, due to some confusion between the US and UK book review editors of Historian.]
At first glance this handsome coffee table book from the British Library seems to have taken a leaf from the publisher’s former landlord, the British Museum and its A History of the World in 100 Objects(2010). That model was followed by the Library in its History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps(2015), each map accompanied by a brief text and an illustration or two. That same formula is used by Hatfield to create a history of Arctic exploration in about 100 visual items: prints and drawings, books, objects, and primarily maps, produced by both European and indigenous peoples. The organization is in a straightforward three sections: Chapter 1: Blank Spaces? The Draw of the Arctic; Chapter 2: ‘One Warm Line’: Seeking an Arctic Passage; Chapter 3: The Arctic and the Modern World. Each section has about 35 objects with commentary. Occasionally Antarctica sneaks into the narrative, but the emphasis throughout is firmly on the North and especially the Northwest Passage which appears in all three sections. Above all, the maps give a continuous picture over time of the filling of blank spaces at the roof of the world.
The format of the three sections is virtually identical, with brief texts that include generalities of varying depth: informative, debatable, provocative, surprising, anodyne, or dubious. In this case the items are not numbered and might better be called concepts with illustrations ranging from a single map to a half dozen photographs. In the informative category pride of place belongs to the original inhabitants themselves and the book stresses the importance of the Inuit and other indigenous peoples not only in the history of the region but also the role of native oral memory and testimony in unravelling that history. In fact, the first item emphasizes that 15th-century European arrivals did not enter an empty land, however blank the maps. The final entry stresses the importance of Inuit testimony in the 2014 location of Sir John Franklin’s HMS Erebus and the solution to one of the great mysteries of Arctic history. On the other hand, one of the more anemic observations on this subject suggests that the indigenous peoples have different cultures from its Western visitors: “The Arctic is full of indigenous cultures whose use of the high north deserves respect from non-polar societies…” (p. 247), an obvious observation though often neglected.
Both surprising and provocative is a beautifully carved wooden map of a jagged East Greenland coastline, “each notch and curve represents not only a ‘bird’s eye view’ of the coast, but also gives a sense of it in three dimensions” (p. 20). Another surprise is Rockwell Kent’s beautifully illustrated Salamina (1935), which Hatfield places under the heading “an antidote to modern life.” More commonplace is an illustration from Gustave Doré’s well-known 1877 edition of The Ancient Mariner(p. 89), not particularly appropriate for this Northern compendium. Among the more dubious assertions are a couple of apparent gaffes, one showing a 1680 Oxford “Map of the North Pole and the Parts Adjoining” clearly showing Greenland seamlessly joining North America beyond Baffin’s Bay. Hatfield writes that “However, contrary to what the map suggests, North America is in fact connected to Greenland, which shows how much further the charting of this area had to go” (p. 59 and 62). This may be no more than a syntactical problem, but only half of the sentence can be true: Greenland is an island.
For a debatable example, a map of Greenland shows vignettes of whale hunting from Purchas His Pilgrims(1625). Hatfield generalizes that “…the strain on whaling communities was immense, leading to a symbiotic relationship between whalers and explorers, with the latter continually opening up new grounds for the former to exploit” (p. 31). One could argue the opposite, that the whalers tended to be the explorers, looking for new sealing and whaling opportunities and secretive about revealing their discoveries until those sources were depleted. That was certainly the case in Antarctica. Both views might be true.
Most of these descriptions will be helpful to anyone new to the field, and often stimulating for others more knowledgeable about the Arctic. Each of the images is interesting in one way or another, but it is difficult to find a compelling purpose for the book other than as an elaborate picture book pitching the cartographic and other holdings of the British Library (among the richest in the world) and a few other British institutions. Its claim is “an attempt to illustrate this rich, interconnected history through its human legacies….” [With the focus on] “how non-Arctic societies, such as Britain, relate to this polar region, it lingers particularly on the work of explorers and their agency in shaping the Arctic region we know today, not to mention how this underpins our deeper understanding of the world at large” (p.11). But the format is too fragmentary to provide no more than a tasting menu compared to the full meal promised. Or to mix the metaphor even further, the book can best serve as a useful primer to all things Arctic. There is more than enough in all the entries to entice the readers into further explorations of their own.
Syracuse University David H. Stam