Sunday, October 29, 2017

Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage

Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage

By Ken McGoogan

Toronto: HarperCollins, 2017

Reviewed by Kenn Harper



Ken McGoogan has produced yet another worthy northern book. Dead Reckoning sets out to tell, as its sub-title proclaims, “The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage.” The book is peopled with the usual suspects in the history of Arctic exploration and the search for the elusive Northwest Passage. I needn’t name them here; if you are reading this, you already know who they are.  But this book introduces other names that will be unfamiliar to many readers, even some well-versed in northern history. Their stories are the “untold stories” of the sub-title.

McGoogan points out in his Prologue that orthodox history only grudgingly acknowledges non-British explorers - he specifically mentions Amundsen, Kane and Hall - as well as “short-changing” fur-trade explorers - and here he mentions Hearne, Mackenzie and Rae. He has mentioned these explorers before, of course, and his focus on John Rae is well-known. But in the present volume he takes his championship of the neglected considerably further. “The twenty-first century,” he says, “demands a more inclusive narrative of Arctic exploration–one that accommodates both neglected explorers and forgotten First Peoples.”

 His goal, then, is “to restore the unsung heroes to their rightful eminence.” He recognizes not just the physical work, but the contributions, of the fur-trade explorers, and of Dene, Ojibway, Cree, and especially Inuit. He points out that Franklin’s ships would still be undiscovered at the bottom of the ocean were it not for Inuit and their oral histories.

And so the reader encounters unfamiliar names in this sweeping tale. McGoogan’s point is that they have largely been nameless to date, so I feel compelled to name them here, in solidarity with McGoogan’s championing of them, and to help in rectifying the injury that past histories have done them.

Thanadelthur, an unsung Dene woman who assisted James Knight, has her story told in these pages, as do other Dene leaders, Matonabbee, who accompanied Hearne, and Akaitcho, who assisted Franklin on his overland expeditions. The Ojibway hunter, Thomas Mistegan, played an important role in support of John Rae. Even the Iroquois voyageur (and murderer), Michel, makes an appearance.

Two Greenlandic Inuit are recognized in these pages: John Sakeouse is present for his role in helping John Ross make the first contact by Europeans with the Inughuit of north-western Greenland; Hans Hendrik is featured for the reliance Elisha Kent Kane placed on him.

Early Inuit interpreters in what is now Canada ranged far and wide. They include Tattannoeuck and Hoeootoerock, both from the western shores of Hudson Bay, but who travelled extensively with explorers as far west as the Mackenzie Delta. Albert One-Eye lost his life in the service of John Rae. Ouligbuck (William Ouligbuck Senior), an Inuk from the Keewatin region, worked with explorers and traders as far east as Fort Chimo (Kuujjuaq) and as far west as Fort McPherson, certainly an accomplishment worth noting, yet the historical record has been generally silent on his contributions, less so for those of his son, William Ouligbuck Junior, on whom much of Rae’s success depended.

Other Inuit contributed directly to the work of those Qallunaat explorers who searched for Franklin and his missing men. The oral histories provided by men like In-nook-poo-zhe-jook and Puhtoorak, and the indispensable couple, Tookoolito and Ebierbing, not to mention their physical labours – and those of men like Tulugaq - in support of the expeditions of Hall and Schwatka, leave one wondering why their stories have not been known earlier. Tookoolito’s brother, Eenoolooapik, played an important role in the rediscovery of Cumberland Sound by whalers, but no role at all in the search for Franklin or the Northwest Passage. But his biographer later sailed as assistant surgeon with Franklin, and this prompts McGoogan to tell his story in a “what if” chapter. Might things have turned out differently for Franklin if Eenoolooapik had travelled with his friend, the surgeon, on Franklin’s doomed expedition? Eenoolooapik can be seen here as a surrogate for Inuit in general, and the question becomes – What if Franklin had made use of Inuit travel methods and Inuit knowledge? It’s a question worth pondering.

McGoogan devotes a chapter also to Knud Rasmussen, an explorer-ethnographer of Danish and Greenlandic heritage, who spoke Greenlandic (closely related to Inuktitut) as his native language. He collected Franklin reminiscences on his epic dog-sled journey across Arctic America from Hudson Bay to Bering Strait. He travelled with two indispensable Inughuit companions. Ironically McGoogan doesn’t give us their names, but they were the hunter, Qaavigarsuaq, and his female cousin, Arnarulunnguaq.

Of course, the story must end (and does) with acknowledgement of the contributions of Louie Kamookak and Sammy Kogvik, both instrumental in the finding of the Erebus and Terror.
McGoogan highlights also the work of non-British explorers whom he feels history has short-changed, among them Jens Munk, a Dane who led an early and tragic expedition to Hudson Bay, and Roald Amundsen, the first to sail the Northwest Passage. David Woodman, a modern-day researcher, is given the credit he richly deserves for his work in pointing out that Inuit oral histories held the key to “unravelling the Franklin mystery.”

McGoogan achieves admirably his goal of bringing the unsung, whether Indigenous or Qallunaat, to the fore. In some areas, I would suggest he overachieves it.

In his desire to give Indigenous people their due, he sometimes over-reaches. While there is ample reason to include Hans Hendrik for his work with Kane, and Tookoolito and Ebierbing for their assistance to Hall, there seems little reason to discuss Hall’s expedition in search of the North Pole, in which all three participated, in a book on the Northwest Passage; perhaps it was a way of making the Inuit biographies more complete. The inclusion of a chapter on Minik (the New York Eskimo) in a book on the passage is more perplexing, although I am personally grateful for the exposure this inclusion gives to Minik’s sad story.

And yet a few Inuit who were involved in the search for Franklin are omitted, perhaps because the author felt their roles were quite minor. Kallihirua (properly Qalaherhuaq, and usually abbreviated to Kalli), from northern Greenland, was with Ommanney in 1850 and ended up in England where he assisted Captain John Washington in preparing an English-Eskimo dictionary for the use of Franklin search parties. The West Greenlander, Adam Beck, also played a minor (and confusing) role in the Franklin search.

In his blog on August 30, McGoogan pointed out that “copies from the first print run include a map-related glitch that will turn these books into collectors’ items.” The challenge implicit in his statement was to find the glitch. OK, I found it. It is the misplacement of the maps (but not the map titles) on pages 206 and 254. All the maps, by the way, and especially the end-paper maps are superb.

A book of this scope necessarily gives rise to questions and quibbles. They are remarkably few.

In discussing James Knight’s ill-fated expedition, which perished, it is claimed, in its entirety, he makes no mention of “the English Man.” Between 1738 and 1744 Francis Smith, the captain of a Hudson’s Bay Company trading sloop which ventured annually north from Churchill, reported that at Whale Cove the Inuit called one of their number “the English Man.” The captain noted that he was of an age that meant that he could possibly be the son of a survivor of the Knight expedition and an Inuit woman. This is supposition, of course, but would have made a nice aside.

The controversial Moses Norton of Churchill is referred to as “HBC governor” (43), when what is meant is “chief factor,” the position that Norton held there from 1762 until his death in 1773. The same error is repeated in reference to Samuel Hearne (52).

In “Matonabbee Leads Hearne to the Coast,” the slaughter of Inuit by Dene at Bloody Falls is recounted. But I was disappointed that there was no reference to recent scholarship casting doubt on the veracity of Hearne’s account of the massacre – whether one believes the recent scholarship or not - although an earlier chapter casts doubt on Hearne’s account of the James Knight story.

Eenoolooapik’s birthplace, Qimisuk, is not Blacklead Island (155), which is farther down the coast of Cumberland Sound and has the Inuktitut name Uummannarjuaq. Qegertarsuag should be Qeqertarsuaq (364). “Qallunaat,” the word given for “white man” is the plural form; the singular is “qallunaaq” (399).

On page 335, it is claimed that in 1870 when Lady Franklin visited him, Charles Francis Hall was working on his “soon-to-be-published book Life with the Esquimaux: A Narrative of Arctic Experience in Search of Survivors of Sir John Franklin’s Expedition.” But that book was published in 1866, the American edition of a two-volume work first published in England under a different title two years earlier. In 1870 Hall was, in fact, working on plans for his North Pole expedition. He never published an account of his second expedition, the one in which Lady Franklin was interested; his notes were edited and published posthumously as a third-person narrative in 1879.

But these are minor quibbles in a sweeping work that sets out to bring the Indigenous contributors to northern exploration into the story as participants with names – not just tribal affiliations or occupations stated as “hunter” or “my faithful interpreter” – and lives, families, and accomplishments.  McGoogan achieves his goal. Let’s hope that future writers follow his lead and give Indigenous people their rightful place in the development of inclusive, cross-cultural histories of northern exploration.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Minik, the New York Eskimo

Minik, the New York Eskimo: An Arctic Explorer, a Museum, and the Betrayal of the Inuit People

Havover, NH: Steerforth Press

$17 (US), $20 (CA)

By Kenn Harper

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter



This is a new, and substantially revised edition of Kenn Harper's book, which was originally titled Give Me My Father's Body: The  Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo. Originally published in 1986 by Blacklead Books in Iqaluit (then still known as Frobisher Bay), the book recounts in plain yet passionate detail the sad details of the life of Minik (or Mene) Wallace, a young boy who was among a group of Inuit brought back from northwest Greenland by Robert Peary, at the seeming behest of his sponsors, particularly Morris Jesup of the Museum of Natural History, and the anthropologist Franz Boas.

The first US edition of the book came out from Steerforth in 2001; we reviewed the book in what was, at the time, only the second 'issue' of the Arctic Book Review. And we stand by everything we said there; we still feel, as we wrote then, that "in a book as meticulous and thoughtful as this, the author can seem invisible at times, but Harper manages to say just what is needed, and when it's needed, to add to the difficult and poignant story he has so patiently uncovered." And this is yet more true of this new edition; every portion from the previous edition has been carefully gone over and selectively refined; there is also a good deal of new material, and new photographs, the fruit of Harper's ongoing research into the story over the past two decades.

Among the more significant such material is the identity and role of the woman who served as translator for Minik, his father Qisuk, and others in their group during their time in New York. She was Esther Eneutseak, a Labrador Inuk who had been in the United States since 1892, on her way to become part of the "Eskimo Village" at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At the exposition, she'd given birth to a daughter, Nancy, who would go on to become the star of many such attractions, and the first Inuk to be credited with writing and starring in a Hollywood film. At that moment, though, Nancy was back in Labrador being cared for by relatives, while Esther -- only 21 at the time -- had been hired as a maid by William Wallace, the chief custodian at the Museum.

It was a fortunate hire -- Esther soon became known to the anthropologists at the Museum, and served as the principal informant for a key early paper on Inuit burial and mourning customs. This paper, which Harper originally credited to Theodore Kroeber, a young anthropologist who worked with Boas, he has now found to be largely the work of Boas himself, working with Esther. The subject of the paper had a poignant resonance with Minik's own plight: following the death of his father, Qisuk, Boas and the others at the museum staged a burial on the Museum grounds in order to see what sort of customs the young boy would follow. They didn't bury Qisuk's body -- that they wanted for their scientific work, and to mount the skeleton for display -- but only buried a log covered in cloth.

It was the revelation of this deception that marked the start of Minik's sad destiny; although he was adopted by the Wallaces and treated in every conscious way the same as their own son, the news of his father's body reached his ears all the same, from his schoolmates:
  "He was coming home from school with my son Willie one snowy afternoon, when he suddenly began to cry.  'My father is not in his grave,' he said, 'his bones are in the museum.'
    "We questioned him and found out how he had learned the truth. But after that, he was never the same boy.  He became morbid and restless.  Often we would see him crying, and sometimes he would not speak for days.
    "We did our best to cheer him up, but it was no use.  His heart was broken.  He had lost faith in the new people he had come among."
And the resonance of these words still reaches us today. This is indeed a story of a young Inuk, a polar explorer, and of betrayal -- but most of all, it remains a very human story. And the inhumanity of nearly all those in whose balance Minik's life hung has never been told so vividly.

Friday, April 21, 2017

From the Tundra to the Trenches

From the Tundra to the Trenches

By Eddy Weetaltuk

Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016
$24.95 Canadian/ $27.95 US

Reviewed by Kenn Harper



To say that Eddy Weetaltuk lived an eventful life, unlike the lives of his fellow Inuit, is an understatement. He was born in 1932 on Strutton Island in James Bay, one of twelve children. His surname, he points out, means “innocent eyes” (and should really be spelled Uitaaluttuq). His grandfather, George Weetaltuk, was a guide for the film-maker Robert Flaherty in the making of his ground-breaking documentary, Nanook of the North. Eddy’s childhood was what one would expect for an Inuk boy growing up in the 1930s and 40s at the southern limit of traditional Inuit land, in James Bay and on the Quebec coast – periods of joy and hunger in the comfort of a large family.  He went to school in Fort George, and finished the eighth grade at boarding school. By the time he reached adulthood, he was multi-lingual, speaking English, Inuktitut, French and Cree.

Although he describes the loneliness he experienced at school in Fort George because of his absence from family, Eddy focuses on the inter-racial friendships he made there, and the camaraderie he had with the religious brothers who were his teachers.  It is perhaps worth noting that, at a time when Canadian media is obsessed with the subject of abuse encountered by indigenous students at residential schools, and indigenous authors are documenting their own experiences of abuse, this book is not of that genre.

Always curious about the world outside his small community, and encouraged by a Catholic priest, in 1951 Eddy made a fateful decision – to go south. His friend, Brother Martin, told him “Edward, my dear son, do not stay in the North. Do whatever it takes but go south. Your real place is there… you will be able to succeed there… Our laws are foolish; we should not be preventing Eskimos from going anywhere.” This seems to be the genesis of Eddy’s belief that Inuit were not allowed to leave the north; although technically mistaken – there was no such law - in practical terms few Inuit at the time had the language and other skills needed to make the transition to a southern life.

Fearing the discrimination he thought would confront him outside his comfort zone, Eddy changed his name – he would no longer be Eddy Weetaltuk E9-422, but rather Eddy Vital, and he would pass as a French-Canadian. He made up a cover story that his father was a French-Canadian from Winnipeg, with the surname Vital, and his mother an Inuk “which made me not Eskimo but Canadian.” (Those were the days when people of mixed race often denied their indigenous ancestry, rather than embracing it.)

Eddy joined the Army and was sent to Korea. He saw battle there, and sought his solace, like many young soldiers, in alcohol and in the brothels of Japan and Korea. Following his Korean service, he trained as a parachutist in Manitoba, then was stationed for many years in Germany before finally leaving the Army in 1967 and returning to northern Quebec.

The story of how Eddy’s life experiences finally made it into print is almost as interesting as his story itself. He first wrote down his tale in 1974. With the help of a friend, he sent the handwritten manuscript of about 200 pages, along with twenty drawings – for Eddy was an artist as well as a writer - to the National Museum of Man in Ottawa (now the Canadian Museum of History). And there it languished. In 2002 a curator came across the forgotten manuscript and drawings, and arranged for them to be transferred to the Canadian War Museum. Eddy agreed to the transfer, believing that the war museum might take more of an interest in his story and finally publish it.  But again it languished. Then, with the help of a lawyer, he recovered the manuscript from the war museum, and submitted it to a southern publisher. They considered it, but wanted major revisions. And so it went unpublished once more.

Then, by chance, the lawyer met an academic, Thibault Martin, at a conference and told him the story of Eddy’s manuscript. Martin had previously met Eddy while doing research for his doctorate, and the two began a collaborative editing process. Eddy died at his home in Umiujaq in 2005, when the editing was almost complete. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see his work published.

Eddy’s book was published first in French in 2009, in Paris, by a publisher which specialized in exceptional life stories. In 2015, a German language edition was produced. Finally, it has appeared in English, in the University of Manitoba series, First Voices, First Texts. 

Thibault Martin is not reticent to acknowledge the role he played in shaping the manuscript for a non-Inuit audience. Eddy had been “adamant in his refusal to write an academic text that would cater to an audience of anthropologists and ethnographers.” Yet the museums had treated his work as an archival document that would appeal to just those interests, and even when it reached a mainstream Canadian publisher for consideration, Eddy’s story did not make the grade – it didn’t satisfy what the publisher thought Canadian readers wanted in a book from an Inuit author, namely “traditional Inuit tales and children’s literature.”

Martin asked Eddy to expand on some aspects of his life story and to cut back his narration of other parts.  He felt that the early part of the story needed more childhood memories, and that the parts dealing with the author’s military service needed paring to avoid repetitive descriptions of inebriation, imprisonment, disgrace and discrimination.  Martin described the “revised life story” that resulted as “a compensatory autobiography “

Thibault Martin’s foreword is followed by an introduction by Isabelle St-Amand, a specialist in Canadian native literature, who places Eddy’s work in the context of other Inuit biographies. Inuit and First Nations authors have, in recent years, broken the boundaries of what was once considered “acceptable” indigenous literature. A thirty-five-page appendix by Martin, with the mind-numbing title, “The Experience of Eddy Weetaltuk in the Context of Aboriginal Participation in Canadian Wars,” is far too long and detailed and detracts from the book. It should have been condensed into a paragraph or two and imbedded in the editor’s foreword, or treated in footnotes.

Eddy’s narrative ends with his return to Great Whale River in 1967 and the very beginning of his re-integration into a much-changed north. “A new life was ahead of me,” he wrote in his final paragraph. “The life of an Inuk in his village.” And there it ends. But it shouldn’t have. This reader wants to know some details of that life, of how Eddy Weetaltuk reconciled his unique experiences in the south and abroad with his new-old life-of-an-Inuk in the years after 1974. How did he spend his time? What were his interests? How did his community accept him?  Eddy’s own narrative ends too soon and he never had the chance to write his own version of the epilogue that his story deserves. The book would have been greatly enhanced had someone done the research to include an appendix on Eddy’s life post-1974. Eddy deserved that, and we, the readers, deserve it too. As it stands very little other material has been written about Eddy’s life back home. Bob Mesher wrote an interesting article, “A Closer Look at Eddy Weetaltuk’s Painting” for the Winter 2006-2007 issue of Makivik Magazine, but those paintings too were done before 1974.

Eddy had made no bones about the fact that he wanted to write a best-seller. He wanted his work to serve as an encouragement to Inuit youth to achieve their potential. “I wish to tell them,” he wrote in the book’s last chapter, “your life belongs to you. You are the ultimate master of your destiny, so don’t let despair, alcohol, or drugs control you. Be yourself, be proud. Be proud of being Inuit and always remember that your ancestors had to fight every single day of their lives to survive. It is now your turn to be strong and courageous.” 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Relics of the Franklin Expedition

Relics of the Franklin Expedition: Discovering Artifacts from the Doomed Arctic Voyage of 1845

By Garth Walpole

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017, $39.95

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore


Garth Walpole was an Australian archaeologist who early on became fascinated with Franklin’s final expedition, and who wrote his undergraduate thesis on the relics recovered from it by various searchers and held in the National Maritime Museum, London.  In later life he decided to expand this research and publish the results as a book, and had completed most of this work before he sadly succumbed to cancer in 2015. Before his death he had asked Russell Potter to edit the work for publication, and it has now been published by McFarland (who also brought out Glenn Stein’s Discovering the North West Passage). With the first major exhibition of the relics in more than a century due to open this summer, publication could not have been better timed, despite the poignant reminder that the author did not live to see the exhibition or garner the well-deserved attention his book would have engendered in its wake.

Although the first chapter is titled “The material biography of relics: A physical and spiritual relationship”, only the first couple of its 45 pages address the question of the spiritual meaning that individuals and cultures invest in historical artifacts. After that uneasy theoretical throat-clearing (perhaps a requirement of the original thesis), we are straight into a chronological account of the years after Franklin set sail in 1845, starting with the first tentative search expeditions by land and sea in 1848 and the first breakthrough – the earliest discovery of actual artifacts – in August 1850, on Beechey Island. At this point the chapter loses its chronological structure, and it is hard to see what organizing principle replaces it, though the complexity of events in that month, with several British and American ships operating around Beechey simultaneously, would always be hard to capture. Accounts of the reconnoitring of the various sites by different officers overlap, each one discovering not only the remains of Franklin’s first wintering but having to disentangle them from the traces of each other, as each party visited the same sites in turn. The action then moves on to Belcher’s expedition in 1852, then confusingly back again to 1850, and the chapter ends with Kennedy’s expedition in 1851. Only with the description of Franklin’s main camp at Beechey does the discussion become more clearly structured, with a focus on each site (garden, storehouse, cairn), and the artifacts found in them, as seen by each searcher in turn. Late in the day we come to the three graves, most iconic of the Beechey remains, though Walpole perhaps wisely limits his discussion to the discoveries made by the first searchers rather than trying to summarize the wealth of knowledge gained by Beattie and Geiger’s exhumation of the bodies in the 1980s.

Chapter 2’s title is similarly misleading (“The continued search for relics, 1851–1854”, though in fact it covers 1851–2010), again perhaps a relic of the original thesis. It is, however, a much better-organized narrative than chapter 1, benefiting from the historical accident that it relates a series of successive, rather than simultaneous, expeditions. In terms of the quantity of artifacts and information retrieved, the most important of these were the first four: Rae in 1854, McClintock in 1857–59, Hall in 1864–69 and Schwatka in 1878–79, all of whom, exploring within living memory of the expedition, also interviewed many Inuit who had been eyewitnesses of Franklin’s expedition, or had heard stories directly from those who were  – narratives that became cultural artifacts of as great a value as the many objects of repurposed wood and metal that the searchers traded from the Inuit.

But if the survival of these oral histories represents a triumph of individual and cultural memory, their tragic counterpart is the utter loss, apart from the single Victory Point document, of all written records from Franklin’s crews that might give more detailed information about their fate. A constant refrain throughout Walpole’s account of these expeditions is the raising – and then dashing – of hopes that written records might be discovered, as one cairn after another is hopefully dismantled, dug beneath and around, and then mournfully rebuilt when found to be empty. When Schwatka heard Inuit accounts of the strongbox carefully preserved by the men who had made it to the continental mainland at the place he dubbed Starvation Cove, he hoped that it might have contained the expedition’s records, but when he heard stories describing it being forced open, its contents discarded, and the box reused for its parts, he was shattered by the realization that the last best hope to recover any written account had gone. The barely intelligible gibberish of the Peglar papers, a few sheets of handwriting that happened to survive on or near a seaman’s body, seemed to mock the searchers with their pointless triviality.

Although the material objects collected by the search expeditions are thought of today as archaeological artifacts – part of a historical, public realm – for the first searchers many of them were intensely personal talismans. McClintock especially had known members of the lost crews, and made it his mission to restore as many personally identifiable relics as he could to their families, for whom they became treasured heirlooms of private grief. This is seen in the post-expedition histories of many objects that Walpole records, which show them re-emerging many decades later as a descendant, young enough or distantly related enough never to have known the crewmember personally, bequeathed them to a public collection. Engraved watches and cutlery, the most clearly identifiable items, were thus those McClintock made most effort to retrieve, though the sheer quantity and variety of material in the NMM collection originating in his expedition outstrips that from any others (they are all listed, grouped by expedition source, in the book’s Appendix B).

Uncertainty about the nature of many objects has caused problems in cataloguing and identification, however: is that piece of wood part of a doorframe or a hatchway? A table leg or a stanchion? Differences of opinion between searchers describing an object in a journal and conservators cataloguing them in a museum can lead to objects seeming to appear, disappear, and fluctuate in overall number. In addition, some objects seem to have been lost when collections changed hands from one institution to another. Walpole gives several examples of the kind of detailed worrying away at a description that is needed to resolve such nebulous uncertainties. It is not a task for those whose patience is easily tested.

The mostly keenly felt absence in the first two chapters is a modern map of the two search areas (Beechey and King William islands respectively) naming all of the places mentioned in the text (there are a handful of historical maps of both places, none comprehensive or easily legible). To those not already intimately familiar with the geography of these two remote islands, the descriptions of searchers moving from one place to another, and hearing of events in other places, will simply be impossible to picture or remember, since their relative positions will be unknown. This is a serious drawback.

After Schwatka there was a pause in the search of some fifty years, during which the Franklin expedition passed out of living memory. Since then other searchers – Burwash, Gibson, Larsen and others – mostly on shorter expeditions to smaller areas, have unearthed smaller quantities of material, bearing the steadily increasing signs of weathering as each decade passed. But in recent years aerial and satellite photography, the retreat of sea ice and cheaper travel have all made the remote search zone a more easily approached place, leading to the concerted effort that has now seen the discovery of both Erebus and Terror.

Chapter 5 is the most systematically organized, giving a chronological series of mostly 19th-century engravings and photographs of groupings of objects, with a key identifying each one with its modern NMM accession number. This chapter, when cross-referenced with the complementary listing in Appendix B mentioned above, provides the most permanent documentary and reference value of Walpole’s book.

Although beautifully typeset and printed, the book suffers from what seems to have been a mismatch of expectations between publisher and editor. Potter’s role, as he makes clear in his preface, has not been to rewrite or smooth out the author’s prose but to check the references and add information to fill the occasional lacuna. Unfortunately McFarland, perhaps unfamiliar with the role of an academic editor, seem to have misunderstood it as meaning that they did not need to have the text copy-edited or even, apparently, proofread, with the result that the number of typos, word substitutions, inconsistent spellings and ungrammatical sentences, which Potter must have assumed the publisher would deal with, reach sometimes distracting levels.

Now that Erebus and Terror have been located, we are on the cusp of a new era in the study of Franklin’s last expedition, in which the recovery of a host of new artifacts, apparently well preserved, unweathered, and unmodified by Inuit re-use, could potentially dwarf the number and quality of items collected with such pains over so many years by so many searchers on land. The holy grail – a trembling hope that we share with Hobson opening up the record tube at the Victory Point cairn – is that the ships may yet contain some written records, some crewmember’s journal, that will somehow be legible. The initial conditions seem good – the general state of preservation of the wood is exceptional, boding well for that of the organic material more generally – and we can only hope that the investigation planned by Parks Canada is not too slow or tentative to take advantage before further deterioration occurs.

Walpole’s book is thus published at a fitting moment. Like the exhibition due to open at the NMM in July 2017, it represents a summation of what is known and what has been recovered from Franklin’s last expedition in the first 165 years of searching. It is a memorial to the searchers, and a testament to the almost numinous presence that spoons, watches, and fragments of wood can acquire when these mute witnesses to a calamitous human drama are all that we have to go on.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Polaris: The Chief Scientist's Recollections of the American North Pole Expedition, 1871-73

Polaris: The Chief Scientist's Recollections of the American North Pole Expedition, 1871-73

Translated and Edited by William Barr

U. Calgary Press $44.95 (ebook free)


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


Since it's already been the subject of quite a number of books -- Chauncey Loomis's Weird and Tragic Shores, not to mention dueling exposés by Bruce Henderson (Fatal North) and Richard Parry (Trial by Ice), one might be forgiven for thinking that there's not much new to be learned about the ill-fated Polaris expedition to the North Pole commanded by Charles Francis Hall in 1871. One would be wrong, of course.

The expedition's doctor, Emil Bessels, published his own account of the voyage in Germany in 1879 under the title Die Amerikanische Nordpol-Expedition, but until now, there has been no English translation of his memoir. Thankfully, William Barr has undertaken this invaluable project, as he did earlier with Heinrich Klutschak's account of the Schwatka expedition, and this edition has all the customary hallmarks of his care and erudition. And, as Barr notes in an Epilogue, there's a new reason to take an interest in Bessels' version of events, since evidence has recently emerged giving him a powerful motive to have murdered his commander.

Those expecting such a book to have a lurid element will, however, be disappointed. Bessels, whatever his human failings, turns out to have been quite a good writer, seasoning his account with humor, relating events dispassionately, and demonstrating substantial knowledge of previous polar exploration. Early on, in giving his account of Isaac Israel Hayes's claim of a new furthest north, along with the sighting of an "open polar sea," Bessels offers an acute analysis, showing that Hayes's observations are completely inconsistent with both claims. Of course, it helped that the Polaris had just sailed through, and beyond, this purported open sea, but the clarity of his assessment is still impressive.

A few pages later, we're treated to one of the more wryly delightful accounts of the frustrations of shipboard dining in the frozen north that I know:
The food that was served up hot suffered a more significant cooling on its trip from the platter to the plate, and from the latter to the mouth, than the crust of the earth did at the start of the Ice Age; and food that came cold to the table became even colder there, before it could be eaten. Mayonnaise attained the consistency that properly prepared arrowroot ought to possess; English mustard reached the degree of hardness that a sculptor gives his modelling clay, and butter acquired the consistency of air-dried Swiss cheese.  Anyone who had a feeling heart beating in his breast would be moved to deep sadness by the sight of the sour pickled cucumbers. Half a dozen cycles of thawing and freezing which they had experienced in succession had etched massive wrinkles in their youthfully green skins which covered the wrinkled, shrunken flesh in folds. Surrounded by plump onions, slender beans and crisp heads of cauliflower that swam in crisping vinegar, they formed the saddest component that any still-life ever incorporated. 
Through passages such as these, the reader, quite naturally, begins to trust Bessels' account, and so of course wonders how he will treat of the death of his commander -- but here he or she will be disappointed. Hall's sickness and death are dealt with in very plain and prosaic manner, a bit surprising for someone who as the ship's doctor might feel that his readers would expect a greater degree of medical detail. There is, however, a telling moment after Bessels describes Hall's burial; he offers as his elegy a stanza from Canto 32 of Dante's Inferno.  The passage, which he may have chosen for its evocative imagery of sinners buried up to their necks in ice, has another significance: it's from that particular circle of Hell where those who have been treacherous to kin and country are punished.

Tookoolito at Hall's Grave (from a sketch by Bessels)
For there can be little doubt that Bessels possessed not only the means, but the motive for murdering Hall. As Barr notes, letters written by him to the young sculptress Vinnie Ream, with whom both he and Hall dined on several occasions before sailing, show that he was infatuated with her; my own research revealed that Hall, too, had special feelings for Ream (though his may have well been merely platonic). Bessels couldn't have helped but have noticed the gifts for Hall, including a miniature copy of her famous bust of Abraham Lincoln, that arrived by steamer at the Polaris's last stop at Upernavik, which were prominently displayed in his cabin. Jealousy, it seems, got the best of him, and augmented by the general resentment against Hall felt by others of the German scientific staff, led him to poison the captain's coffee with arsenic, with additional injections as "treatment" (Bessels claimed these were quinine), leading to the slow painful death of the one man who might, had he lived, have managed a sledge-trip to the pole.

Yet despite our knowledge of his crime, Bessels remains an observant and even charming narrator, and as Hall's death recedes into the background, the tale takes on, once again, the general descriptive tones of exploration narrative. As Barr notes, there's considerable information about climate, flora, and fauna, not to mention early Inuit settlements, that is elsewhere unavailable. Among these passages, though, there are some which raise still another concern.  According to the testimony given at the board of inquiry, the logbooks and journals from the Polaris were lost -- and yet Bessels, oblivious to this (or perhaps thinking his German readers would be unacquainted with the circumstances), seems at places to be drawing from them. It raises suspicions as to whether Bessels might have absconded with some of the missing logbooks, which might well have contained material he thought could incriminate him.

One gets the impression that Bessels was a methodial, efficient man who took pride in his scientific work, and hoped that his association with the disastrous expedition would not impede his overall career. If so, his hopes were largely unfulfilled; although a participant in some minor expeditions in the years after Polaris, the more ambitious ones he sought were postponed or cancelled due to difficulties with funding and other support. Along the way, he lost his office at the Smithsonian, and a fire destroyed his home near Washington D.C. (and with it, one supposes, any evidence for malfeasance there might have been among his papers); his last few years were marked by illness and instability, and he died of a heart attack at the age of forty-one.

William Barr, as ever, has produced a well-translated and throughly annotated edition. Extensive footnotes clarify many of Bessels' more obscure references, and the end-matter of the book includes a note on the new evidence as to his motive for murdering Hall, an account of the finding of the Board of Inquiry in his case, brief biographies of the senior members of the Polaris expedition, and a thorough bibliography. The University of Calgary Press has done the scholarly world a favor by making the book available as a free .pdf, but the printed version is well worth it; the quality of its production is high, and it's a book that deserves to be on the shelf beside any other accounts of the Polaris affair. It balances them, both with what it adds -- and what we know it withholds -- from that tragic story.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic

At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic

By Lawrence Millman

St. Martin's Press, 2017


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


The Arctic has been the theme of many a book – tales of  lost explorers, stories of oddball nothern "characters," and ecological parables of that bellwether northern zone. And yet some, though true in every particular to that portion of the earth which is their theme, have had a deep and profound resonance throughout a far wider swathe of our human experience. Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, and John McPhee's Coming Into the Country come to mind. Lawrence Millman's At the End of the World is one of these.

Millman's central story – that of a fit of religiously-inflected madness in which a number of Inuit on the remote Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay set upon their neighbors, whom they regarded as incarnations of  "Satan" –  is the main, but in a sense only partial theme of this book. Our solid-seeming world may end in any of a great number of ways, not just a bang or a whimper – and Millman's genius here is a matter of sensing out the proportions. In the Belcher Islands, the whole universe might be condensed into a single village, one by the name of Sanikiluaq  from which vantage-point, during the author's visit there, the rest of the world was but a phantom on a glowing box. It's often observed that we southerners have little notion of the day-to-day nature of life in the Arctic, but the reverse may also apply – and so it was, that when by chance the destruction of the World Trade towers took place in the midst of Millman's visit, its image on the television became even more surreal. The Inuit residents were at first inclined to change the channel to something more amusing, like a Road Runner cartoon, but switched it back when one man observed "There's an American here, and his country is falling down."

But that's just one "end" of one world. The other had come sixty years earlier, and the Belcher Islands had been its epicenter. It came in the form of a shooting star, which persuaded many Inuit there that perhaps the "end times" they'd read about in their syllabic Bibles were at hand. Its chief apocalyptic horseman was one Peter Sala, a local hunter who decided one day that he was God, and that anyone who didn't like that idea was probably Satan. Another man, Charlie Ouyerack, soon decided that he was Jesus, and God and Jesus joined forces to destroy the evil among them and prepare for the Second Coming. No rough beast ever slouched quite as low as these men, who began beating people to death and shooting them. Yet despite their depravity, their acts paled before those of Sala's sister Mina, whose mind gave way under the enormous pressure to conform to these new deities. She declared that Jesus was coming – right away – and summoned everyone out onto the ice. At her behest, many of them shed their fur clothing; the idea was that one should go to meet one's maker naked as the day one was born.

Of course nearly all of them died. One woman, the only one who had stayed behind, came out to those on the ice, and managed to get several of them, including Mina and two children, to return to the village, if not to their senses, but six others remained and soon froze to death. The aftermath of these deaths, which were belatedly investigated by the RCMP, is its own story, fraught with all the issues of religion, local culture, and the line between murderous intent and mental illness, and Millman tells it well. But despite the book's subtitle, these stories, though at the heart of the book, are only one of its interwoven themes. From the glowing box in the house in 2001 in Sanikiluaq, we move back and forth – back to Robert Flaherty's filming of Nanook of the North in 1921, and forward to our own moment, and our own ubiquitous portable glowing screens. We have, in Millman's view, become our own islands, disconnected from any sense of ourselves as much or more than this isolated Inuit village is from the rest of the world. We have lost, in his view, something more profound than perspective -- we have lost our essential humanity, becoming the servants of the machines we built to serve us.

It's a potent meditation, the more so for its dual anchors in the two worlds traversed by the book, and its resonance reaches far and wide. It remains possible, the reader discovers, for a single person in a small place to discover something about ourselves that the rest of us never stopped to notice. It's happened before – with Thoreau at Walden, Muir in his woods, or Rachel Carson in her office at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries – but it doesn't happen often. Millman's epigrammatic style – a departure from the straightforward (but no less lyrical) one of his many previous books – is its own sly benefactor; under its spell, we become open to insights that neither simple storytelling nor argumentative diatribes could have brought us.

In the final chapter of Walden, Thoreau exhorts his readers to turn away from earthly exploration, to "be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes." In this book, Lawrence Millman shows us that it's possible to travel to both places -- the ends of the earth and our interior poles -- at the same time.