Book reviews

An Educational Reading About Arctic Exploration | Book reviews

Halfway through ‘Explorations in the Frigid North’, Nanna Katrine Lüders Kaalund wrote: ‘Science in the Arctic has been shaped not only by the training and skills of explorers, but also by interaction with peoples. aboriginal peoples, the financial context of the expeditions and the unpredictability of the environment.

This is a good summary of her argument, which she makes with varying degrees of success in a confusing account of the ways in which scientific and geographic knowledge of the Arctic was acquired through explorations and transmitted through memories. . If it sounds a bit dry, it is; Kaalund is an academic who writes as such, and her subject is of limited interest. But for an understanding of the exploration of the Arctic in the 19th century, his book is an important contribution.

Kaalund is interested in what arctic travel accounts tell us about how knowledge of the High North was acquired and how these tales were viewed by readers of the time. As she demonstrates, this took place in an environment where authenticity as an Arctic explorer was a matter of considerable litigation, rooted as much in social status and individual behavior as in actual achievement. For British explorers in particular, the accuracy or lack of precision in an individual’s observations was often judged more by social class than by achievement.

The 19th century was the most dramatic period for Arctic travel, and most of the narrative of the period focuses on Britain’s role. Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, an inactive British Admiralty found purpose in searching for the Northwest Passage, a long sought after shipping route across the northern coast of North America that would provide traders with a shortcut to the ‘Asia. In the standard account, this resulted in the catastrophic loss of all men assigned to the Franklin Expedition, which left England in 1845, and subsequent research in the 1850s which found only minimal clues to their fate.

This tragedy inevitably dominates any account of European expansion in the Arctic over the century, and Kaalund includes it in his book. But it places it in a different context from that of most authors. For Kaalund, this was just one piece in a century-old search for knowledge in the north that also consumed his own country, Denmark, which claimed territories over Greenland. During this time, the region was already inhabited, mainly by the Inuit, although, like the Europeans, they also included a diverse set of cultures.

“It’s easy to generalize and create a dichotomy between European and Euro-American explorers on the one hand, and indigenous peoples on the other. But there was no sense of unity among explorers beyond national borders, “Kaalund wrote, adding that” there was (and is) no singular arctic indigenous culture with which the historians can clearly create a dichotomy ”.

It’s a wordy way of saying that history is never black and white. Cultures and individuals within those cultures have their own goals. Sometimes they work in tandem, sometimes they collide, and from there comes our understanding of how the story unfolded and knowledge was gained.

For Kaalund, the knowledge in question is the geographic and scientific nature of the Arctic, how travel accounts have contributed to collective understanding, and how they have been judged during a period of rapid scientific advancement. The Arctic travel diaries were the de facto scientific writings about the region, but who wrote them often had more influence than what they contained.

The internal dynamics of cultures played a role in this. Kaalund discusses Scottish explorer John Rae at some length. Probably the most knowledgeable European land traveler to the Arctic, he learned from native residents and prospered. He was also the first to learn about the grisly fate of Franklin’s men, which he learned from an Inuit group he met.

Rae was uniquely positioned to introduce the Arctic to English readers, and his memoir was very popular. But among elite opinion-makers on Arctic issues, he has had several strikes against him. He was Scottish, and so, well, not British. By adapting Inuit ways on land and ice, he had extraordinary success in his Arctic endeavors, but denounced for “being a native” back home. He probably could have overcome these obstacles, but since he was the first to discover the cannibalism that the last surviving Franklin men resorted to, which he learned by believing that the Native residents were ashamed in the eyes of the British and he and the Inuit were often dismissed as liars.

Suersaq, also known as Hans Hendrik, was an Inuit from Greenland who was hired for his expertise on several turn-of-the-century expeditions. His skills helped 18 castaways from the wrecked Polaris survive six months on the pack ice during the winter of 1872-1873. Formally educated, he wrote one of the few Inuit memoirs of the time. Yet he, too, was frequently dismissed by armchair critics as lacking in knowledge.

During the search for the Northwest Passage, British explorers were primarily tasked with geographic discovery. But science was a close second priority. Much has been learned. However, after the Franklin debacle and many failed rescue missions, England withdrew from the Arctic. Scientists rushed into the void.

The first International Polar Year took place between 1882 and 1883 and brought together researchers from across Europe, the United States and Canada to collect data. This marked a new phase in global scientific cooperation and a new conception of what has been called “scientific”. England, still very class conscious at the time, only reluctantly joined the effort. For Kaalund, this marked the real end of British rule of arctic science and exploration.

Kaalund weaves his way through “Explorations in the Frigid North”, touching on far more topics than can be summed up here. It brings a new perspective on the diversity of cultural interactions of the time. The book is not short of information, but because of poor organization and Kaalund’s inability to stay focused. Again, this is academic writing. Sometimes painfully. Lay readers will have a hard time with this. But the geeks of arctic history will find something to think about. We still do.