"A Peculiarly British Object”: Britain and the Arctic in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Exploration of the Arctic ocean and its surrounding lands has exercised a firm grip on the minds of the British nation since the 16th century. The possible discovery of new lands, of the North West Passage and the North Pole appealed to the imagination, patriotism and commercial desires of generations of politicians, naval officers, adventurers and traders and also fascinated the general public. The narratives of their achievements and disasters became a source of national pride as well as a stimulus to science, art and literature.
This paper will look at the ways that the conception of the Arctic exploration developed and changed from the early 19th century to the 21st century in Britain and the response of different groups and sections of British society to the ongoing narrative of the nation’s relationship with the far north . Disaster and success, courage and determination, awe and wonder have fascinated the British people, from the early naval expeditions, through the warfare of the last century to the present-day problems of climate change and conservation. The Arctic has been kept alive in the consciousness of government and governed by the role of the popular press, literature by the modern mass media.
Geographical curiosity and commercial success were both present in the voyages of Martin Frobisher, in the 1570s and The voyages of John Davis in the 1580s and 1590s gained the support of Queen Elizabeth and important courtiers such as Sir Francis Walsingham and began the mapping of the Arctic regions . The exploration of Baffin Island and the Davis strait was to open up an expansion of the whale trade, with estimates of up to 29,000 whaling voyages to the arctic regions between the 17th and 19th centuries . The knowledge and experience gained by whalers was to benefit later exploration.
At this stage the status of Britain as an important exploring country was emerging. Glyn Williams points to the evidence of British names for geographical discoveries. The search for North West passage seemed to become a British monopoly. The discoveries of Baffin in 1616 indicated the possibilities of the westward openings of Baffin Bay which were to lead eventually deep into the northern archipelago. The discovery of Hudson Bay by Henry Hudson in 1610-1611 , the development of the fur trade and the consequent exploration of the lands around it led to the setting up of the Hudson’s bay company in 1670.
The land journeys of Samuel Hearne (1769, 1700 and 1771 )through Arctic and the attempt of James Cook in 1778 to discover the North West Passage from the pacific added to the growing knowledge of the arctic . By the late 18th century it had become to be realised that if the North West Passage existed it was probably to be found further north and would not be navigable by sailing ship. Gwynne Williams has described the 18th century search for the NW passage as ‘pursuing a phantom ‘ but the efforts of these explorers had in the mapping of the coastline of the north and west coastlines of America and some of the Arctic archipelago. Much had been charted by British explorers.
The need for employing the redundant ships and men at the end of the Napoleonic wars resulted in a renewed interest of Britain in Arctic exploration and the search for a NW passage . This was advocated by John Barrow (1764-1848) ,the second secretary at the Admiralty. In his autobiographical memoir written in 1847 Barrow stated: “During this period of stability there was but little demand on the services of the Royal Navy . It had from the year 1817 afforded a fitting opportunity of employing a few small ships in voyages of discovery for the advancement of Geography, navigation and commerce.” In an anonymous article in the Quarterly Review in October 1817 he had claimed that Russian ships were seeking a northern sea route from the north Pacific , not only posing a threat to British security in North America but also a threat to British naval pride. At the same time, Willian Scoresby, (1760–1829) a whaling captain from Whitby, suggested strongly that the discovery of North West Passage was possible. In Account of the Arctic Regions in 1820 he reported a very favourable year of ice conditions. In a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, he described his findings:
On my last voyage about 2000 square leagues of the surface of the Greenland sea between the parallels of 740 and 800 North , perfectly void of ice which is usually covered with it. Now all this ice had disappeared within the last two years and there is little doubt but it has been drifted to the southward into warmer climates and there dissolved …
Unfortunately for Scoresby, Barrow and the Admiralty were not willing to entrust an expedition to him, preferring to keep the whole affair in the hands of the navy.
Jen Hill has suggested that Arctic exploration replaced the war with France as a way of expressing British identity: “ Barrow well understood that peace with France had negative implications for England’s sense of itself as a nation and invoked nationalism as a rationale in his championing of Arctic exploration.”
The motivation for the early 19th century explorers, naval men John Ross (1777 -1856) William Parry (1790 –1855) , John Franklin( 1786 – 1847) and John Richardson (1787 –1865) was a mixture of practical considerations; those of having a job, rather than being laid off from the navy on half pay , a pride in utilising their naval skills, and the hope of financial reward and fame if they achieved their objective . It was already apparent that even if the passage was found, the likelihood of it being of great value to trade was slim, and theses early explorers tended in their reports and writings to concentrate on the geographical value of the exploration. The financial reward offered by the revised Longitude Act 1818 must have also had an influence on their decision to take part. when the Ross expedition set sail in 1818 , although their instructions emphasised the importance of the North West Passage, there was the hope that “At the same time , it might like wise be the means of improving the geography and hydrography of the Arctic Regions.” In order to accomplish this scientific enquiry the ships were well equipped with scientific and astronomical instruments and also carried Captain Edward Sabine (1788 – 1883), who was to take magnetic observations.
A voyage by John Ross in 1918 explored Lancaster Sound , and in 1819 William Parry made more progress westward through the sound reaching 110 degrees west reaching Melville Island. He was well rewarded for this , having a lucrative publishing contract and becoming a fellow of the royal society .At the same time , John Franklin was leading an overland expedition form the Hudson bay to the arctic, resulting the loss of 11 of the 20 men, mostly from starvation ,earned him the reputation of “the man who ate his boots “
The narratives of Parry’s and Franklin’s expeditions were eagerly received by the British public in the published journals and a wide audience through magazine like the Gentleman’s Magazine . Very popular were the reports of the way the iced in crew sof the Hecla and Furu entertained themselves Francis Spufford commented “this image of tenacious jollity proved irresistible the public.” The journals were well illustrated with engravings and subsequent paintings by Edwin Landseer (1802 –1873 ) in his Man Proposes God Disposes and Briton Riviere (1840 1920) in In Man’s Footsteps emphasize the sublime in the Arctic Landscape . Diana Donald has used the presence of polar bears in both these works as evidence “of a growing Darwinian awareness that humans and other species are united in a struggle for existence in a hostile environment.”
Another reason for the popularity of Arctic expedition was the way they chimed with contemporary ideas of imperialism . polar exploration was an important indicator of Britain’s global status . Barrow, in his anonymous article in the Quarterly Review in October 1917 had thought the exploration of the Arctic and the North West passage: “A peculiarly British object.”
The exploration of the Arctic in the early 19th century was seen by the educated reading public through the lens of Edmund Burke’s(1729 –1797) theory of the sublime. In 19th century Britain the obvious place to experience the sublime, even at second hand, was the Arctic. An example of this can be seem in Mary Shelly’s (1897-1851) Frankenstein , with its themes of curiosity of an unknown world and the overconfidence of man’s relationship with its immensity
The British newspapers and magazines reported the exploration of the Arctic in terms of the sublime or picturesque until the 1850s. Then as a result of the disappearance of John Franklins expedition soon resulted in more popular and sensationalist coverage. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) in Household Words kept up the increasingly frenzied interest in the search for Franklin
On May 19th 1845, 59 year old Sir John Franklin set off of an expedition which was seen as the final solution to the riddle of the North West Passage . As most of the Arctic coastline had now been mapped , it was felt by Barrow , who instigated the expedition, that that a final well equipped voyage would be successful. He wrote No objection with regard to any apprehension of loss of ships or men.” Andrew Lambert has recently drawn attention to , , concluded “Magnetic science dominated the genesis and the direction of the Franklin expedition.” (arc
The ships Erebus and Terror set off into what were some of the worst ice years and climatic conditions of the previous thousand years. but were well equipped and confident. The expedition was last seen by two whaling ships in July 1845 and then disappeared. Concern for the missing expedition did not grow until the end of 1847. . In response to pressure from Lady Jane Franklin (1791 –1875) , parliament and British newspapers a three pronged search was started in the spring of 1848.
Jen Hill has seen this confidence in success , even to the extent of not making any arrangements in advance for a possible rescue, as an example of “Victorian Hubris.” She also linked the intense efforts to rescue the expedition with its colonial perspective and its role in the vision of national and imperial masculinity “In Franklin’s failure to negotiate it , Arctic space was revealed … to be central to the way that Britain imagined, justified and even critiqued their nation and empire.”
.” In 1849 the Admiralty offered a reward of £20,000 to ships or men of any nationality who helped find the Franklin expedition. Forty rescue expeditions left during the years 1848 – 1859. Much sledging , mapping and discovering ensued, some by admiralty ships, some privately by Jane Franklin and her supporters , and two American vessels.
Robert McClure (1807 – 1783) set out in the Investigator and Richard Collinson (1811-1883) in the Enterprise and entered the Canadian Archipelago from the West. McClure was the first to achieve a North West Passage , although by sea and sledge, rather than by sea alone, having eventually to abandon the Investigator. In 1850 15 ships had left to search for Franklin.
After seven years of unsuccessful searching, the Admiralty, focused now on the Crimean war, formally ended the search and removed the names of Franklin and his crews from the navy list in March 1854. Ironically, at the same time Dr John Rae (1813 – 22 July 1893), on an expedition for the Hudson’s Bay company , gained information from Inuit he met o
. Rae’s report also contained shocking evidence that Franklin and his men might have resorted to cannibalism: This caused controversy , and Ray was heavily criticised in the press. .
The Franklin Expedition and the subsequent searches were not without value, as although no ship had yet sailed through the North West Passage the existence of such a passage, and the possibilities of other routes had been established During the searches, thousands of miles of dog sledging, (43.000 according to McLintock ) had investigated the intricate coastlines of the islands of the archipelago and by 1860 many of the main waterways had been mapped.
It was thought that Franklin’s and other expeditions had not been flexible enough to adapt to Arctic conditions and use the examples of the Inuit to survive . Cavell concluded that Franklin’s men did attempt to hunt and to learn from the natives, but their party was simply too large to be supported by hunting in an area where game was so scarce.
In 1867 Alaska was purchased by the United States and Canada became a confederation , both events leading to an increased interest in the exploration of their Northern territories.
In the face of increased competition from Scandinavian countries and the Usa Britain decided in 1875 to return to Arctic exploration and send an expedition to the north pole , which failed largely because the lessons learned by the search for Franklin had not been learned. The failure of Nares and the success of Roald Amundsen (1872 – 1928) in navigating the North West Passage in 1903, followed by the claims of Frederick Cook (1865 – 1940) and Robert Peary (1856 – 1920) to have reached the North Pole in 1908 and 1909 may have been major factors in the growing interest of Britain in Antarctic exploration. . For 25 years no polar exploration was attempted until Scott’s Discovert voyage in 190l. During these years the experience of polar exploration continued in the memory and the imagination, particularly in boy’s stories such as George Alfred Henty ( 1832 – 1902 ) and Robert Michael Ballantyne (1825 – 1894) .During the years up to the first world war the exploration of the Antarctic had the nost influence on the British imagination
The impetus and imitative for exploration of the Arctic regions was to come from a different source in the 1920s. Men of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were to take the lead in pioneering a different type of exploration of the Arctic.
The expeditions that George Binney (1900-1972) led in 1921-1923 and 1924 to Spitsbergen, manned mainly by Oxbridge students and seven servicemen broke new ground in the motivation, organization and attitudes to polar exploring. The 1924 expedition used a seaplane to survey the northern Spitsbergen Between his three expeditions, 1921-1924, Binney’s parties had mapped nearly the whole of North Eastland coast and a traverse of the island was completed by a sledging party on the 1924 expedition.
A total of 60 scientific papers were given on the results achieved and the expeditions were widely praised for their geographical mapping and charting. The interest of the establishment was aroused in 1933 by a proposed expedition to Greenland. The exploration of Greenland increasingly became important to obtain the meteorological and geographical research which would help determine the possibilities for transatlantic flight. Gino Watkins and a party of university men and service men planned to examine the possibilities of building and utilising airfields in Greenland, which would facilitate transatlantic airmail and passenger routes. n 1931 there had been no measurements of the interior of the icecap, of temperature or of the depth and height of the ice cap. Members of the expedition set up an icecap station took weather observations on the ice cap. A party also travelled northwards up the coast and investigated Kangerdlugsuak fjord as a possible place for seaplanes to land.
Flight over Greenland was to become very important to the allies in the Second World War. Both for transporting men and aeroplanes, and as a base to counter the U boat threat. This war time activity benefited from these 1930s explorations, as the eventual allied air bases on Greenland were near the bases chosen by the various expeditions as their base camps .
Alexander ‘Sandy’ Glen’s (1912-2004) second Oxford University expedition to North East Land,in 1936 Spitsbergen had ambitious aims which were in the main realised . Glen realised that more work was to be done on conditions on the Arctic icecaps if efficient weather forecasting for transatlantic flight was develop. His party set up two underground ice stations in which various members of the expedition overwintered. His second in command Andrew Croft, a veteran of the 1933 Trans Greenland crossing, explained the scientific aims of the expedition.
Most important of all, however, was to be the continuous research on the ionosphere the region in the upper atmosphere which is responsible for the long-distance propagation of radio waves. This particular work in such a high altitude as 800 north was to prove of such importance to the development of radar –vital in the war that was coming- that all members of the expedition were awarded the polar medal in 1942.
During the Second World War the strategic importance of the Svalbard Archipelago became apparent. Weather stations would provide information on conditions in the North Atlantic for Axis and Allied powers. In April 1942, Glen and Godfrey took part in Operation Frithham, which aimed to establish weather stations and investigate reports that German manned weather stations were operating on the island. When the operation ships, Isbjorn and the Selis were sunk before landing, Glen’s Arctic skills were important in securing the safety and eventual rescue of the survivors.
The Second World War in many ways depended on accurate weather forecasting, not least the window of opportunity given by forecasters which enabled D day to go ahead. Much of the war in the European theatre depended on the actions of what Glen had called “This curious, special little war in the Arctic.” and the expertise and knowledge gained by British explorers in the high Arctic in the interwar years .
The second half of the twentieth century saw the resumption of interest in Polar exploring by the British. In 1969 Walter ‘Wally’ Herbert (1934-2007) became the first man to be recognised as having definitely reached the North Pole, but in the second half of thr twentieth centuru , although scientists from SPRI and BAS have ongoing scientific programmes, the focus of public interest in the Arctic has shifted . Explorers such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes (1944-) and Pen Hadow (1962-) have popularised Arctic adventure , with the focus on ever increasing overcoming of self-imposed difficulties , such as travelling solo , or without any external logistical support.
The British public have become well informed by television documentaries about the Arctic and Arctic history and there is a welcome discussion of the role of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic in both the history and present day management of the area and of the issues arising for the Inuit people over the long history of European and British involvement with the Arctic environment.
Another aspect of the Arctic with which British people are increasingly engaging with is the reality of global warming and the disappearance of the pack ice in the polar sea. This has been led in the popular imagination by the threat to wildlife, especially the predicted disappearance of the polar bear.
The relationship of Britain with the Arctic has had some continuities and many changes in its 400 year history. Initial exploration was stimulated by the search for the unknown and desire to fill in the gaps on maps but quickly became linked with commercial gain and the furtherance of scientific progress. The Arctic provided the backdrop for the development of British patriotism and heroic masculinity and stimulated works of art and literature, and has been significant to British interests for several centuries for its strategic geographical locations. British explorers, politicians, scientists and military commanders have all had cause to appreciate its influence, and the Arctic has always retained a strong interest in the population at large, from admiring Victorian arctic panoramas to watching the Arctic scenes available in documentaries made possible by 21st century media technology.
It is to be hoped that Britain plays its part in the future of the Arctic regions and that conservation of the Arctic continues to be “ A peculiarly British project. ”
The National Archives. AIR 8/1401.
The National Archives, AIR 20/1154.
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