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The Iceman Cometh

Barack Obama’s White House desk was presented to Rutherford B. Hayes by Queen Victoria in 1880. It was made from wood belonging to the Resolute, one of the countless ships sent to search for Sir John Franklin, an explorer who disappeared with 129 men while searching for the Northwest Passage. It is ironic that the Resolute desk sits in Washington, because the search for a water route to the Pacific was a particularly British enterprise. Our own thirst for exploration would peak in the following century, with Neil Armstrong’s lunar steps. And that quest would yield Franklins of its own.

In his uniformly excellent book, Anthony Brandt describes how—in the wake of Waterloo and Trafalgar—the British Empire emerged as the premier European power, one that needed a new foe to replace Napoleon’s vanquished France. Ice would soon become that enemy. The energies of war—and the vast resources of the Royal Navy—began to flow towards the Arctic in the first decades of the nineteenth century. “A great war had been won,” Brandt writes. “The world was England's to conquer. If the ice was impenetrable, if the odds were impossible, no matter: they were Englishmen, members of a superior race, the children of destiny.” An editor for the National Geographic Society, he clearly understands—and clearly explains—the desire of countless men (and they were men, to the last) to hurl themselves into a treacherous unknown.

There were some practical considerations, although these were eventually subsumed in explorer's fever. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas had divided the New World between Spain and Portugal, and throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries European nations had established colonies in Africa and Asia. “The most profitable parts of the world were being snapped up,” as Brandt succinctly puts it. But the world was round, and so there had to be a route north of unknown North America—widely thought to be “occupied by illiterate savages…who had nothing of value”—that led to the relatively untapped riches of China and Japan.

This was, of course, mythical thinking, a national delusion that persisted even as men froze to death, starved, succumbed to scurvy, were attacked by hostile natives, or simply went mad. Leading the deluded was John Barrow, who eventually rose to command the Admiralty. As early as 1817, the account of the whaler William Scorseby Jr.—from whose careful observations Melville borrowed generously for Moby Dick—indicated that the Arctic was composed of “immense fields” of ice that a ship could not navigate. Barrow read Scorseby, but chose to ignore him. “He continued to believe in an open polar sea for the rest of his long life,” charges Brandt.

That the Arctic would yield to British determination was a widely held belief. The danger of sending wooden ships into ice floes as thick as forty feet was largely ignored. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, the explorer Walton says of the North Pole: “it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight...there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered.”

That misguided belief sent countless men to their death in what Brandt cleverly calls the “blank space at the top of globe.” The men who devoted their lives to Barrow’s obsession—Franklin, Scott, Parry—belong to the annals of British lore. They discovered new lands and waterways whose names came to suggest the greatness of their Empire: Victoria Island, Viscount Melville Sound, Prince of Wales Island.

But then there were Starvation Cove and Repulse Bay. The Man Who Ate His Boots is a harrowing account of double-whammy missions: suicidal and fruitless. The title refers to Franklin’s expedition of 1819-1822, in which he mapped the shores of northern Canada. Stuck at Fort Enterprise, the men ate pounded bone, lichen, and, eventually, dried skins that had been used in the construction of the fort’s walls. One simply had to make do in the Arctic. When, in 1854, Robert McClure finally became the first man to navigate the Northwest Passage—albeit some of it by sled, not ship—he and his half-mad, half-starved crew subsisted on the raw intestines of caribou.

Though all of these explorers bore some measure of the heroic, the center stage belongs to British moxie, animated by what Brandt describes as “the spirit of it has to be there." John Ross made a total of three expeditions to the Arctic, Parry made five, and Franklin perished on his fourth. Other than James Clark Ross's discovery of the Magnetic Pole in 1831—which the elder Ross, his uncle, ignobly claimed for himself—there was little purpose to these expeditions. By the time that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundseen finally traversed the Northwest Passage entirely on ship, the route no longer had much utility.

But the obsession with the Northwest Passage spoke deeply to industrialized Britain’s desire to overcome nature. And the main foe here was the ice—the floes where explorers, despite Barrow’s assertions, inevitably found themselves ensconced. Parry, perhaps the most capable of the Arctic explorers, noted the great variety of forms ice could take, including sailing-ice, pack ice, and young ice. He described its movements as “the roar of distant thunder.” Capricious floes could suddenly close on a ship and crush it like pincers: this is not the placid skater’s surface of Flemish paintings.

Land, too, presented challenges. Shortly after Wordsworth and Coleridge discovered the sublime in the Lake District, Parry found himself stuck on Melville Island, of which he wrote: “Not one object was to be seen on which the eye could long rest with pleasure,” noting also “the death-like stillness of the most dreary desolation, and the total animated existence.” And in the summer there were flies, which inflicted near-biblical torment. George Back complained that “they rose in clouds, actually darkening the air…our faces streamed with blood, as if leeches had been applied.”

If a new film is ever to be made from Arctic exploration, it should focus on the final voyage of John Franklin. An unabashed admirer of Franklin, Brandt gushes that he was “a gentleman and a gentle man, pious and pure but at the same time brave and indomitable,” adding that “his death…transformed him…into an avatar of British greatness.” His first three expeditions had advanced the cause of Arctic cartography, but ultimately fell short of their goal. His last foray into the north both immortalized and killed him. Having endured a frustrating governorship of Tasmania, Franklin took on the assignment at the age of fifty-eight. “He had to go,” Brandt argues, “had to wipe out the memory of Tasmanian politics and his own political ineptitude. The Far North was his comfort zone.”

But that comfort zone turned out to be a lion's mouth: Franklin vanished somewhere north of Canada, never to be found. He is thought to have died on King William Island, and though his men may have survived for several more years, none saw England again. Dozens of expeditions were sent to search and rescue, and despite tantalizing clues, the ships themselves were never found. It is widely believed that the crew died from scurvy and starvation; evidence suggests that cannibalism may have been what another explorer called a "last dread alternative."

The fate of the last Franklin expedition swayed the public against further exploration. In 1850, The New Monthly Magazine condemned the Northwest Passage frenzy as “a miracle of misdirected energy and enterprise.” The search for Franklin and the passage continued, but with diminished public interest. A decade after Amundseen actually found the passage, World War I erupted, and the young men of England now headed not for the ice floes of the Arctic, but the forests of Ardennes.

This is a sad tale, told capably by Brandt. It is neither a dry academic study nor the kind of jaunty history that has become popular in recent years. Indeed, Brand notes that climate change may soon render the whole notion of the Northwest Passage obsolete: “Thanks to global warming it is beginning to seem likely that the Northwest Passage will open for longer and longer periods each year, until, perhaps by the end of this century, ice will have vanished from the world altogether.” If there is any serious shortcoming to Brand’s book, it is that he barely alludes to the complex ownership debates surrounding the Arctic today. Canada claims much of it for herself; Russia, rarely one for subtle gestures, planted a flag on the Arctic seabed in 2007. Perhaps contemporary issues are outside the purview of such a historical study, but they could have made a riveting coda to the, well, chilling tale of Franklin and his peers. 

The Man Who Ate His Boots makes a strong case for exploration as an epitome of national ideals—not mere colonization, but a spirit of discovery that infects the public and private spheres. It is a lesson that our legislators—ever eager to punish those stargazers at NASA with budget cuts—would do well to remember. 

Alexander Nazaryan teaches at a public school in Brooklyn. He is at work on his first novel.