Book review: 'The Man Who Ate His Boots,' by Anthony Brandt, and 'Arctic Labyrinth,' by Glyn Williams

By Gary Krist
Sunday, March 28, 2010; B06


The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage

By Anthony Brandt

Knopf. 441 pp. $28.95


The Quest for the Northwest Passage

By Glyn Williams

Univ. of California. 440 pp. $34.95

For centuries it was regarded as "an object peculiarly British." In fact, the search for a Northwest Passage -- for a navigable sea route from Europe to Asia through the frigid, ice- choked waters of upper Canada -- became something of an English monopoly, though a monopoly largely by default. By the mid-1500s, Spain had already forged its preferred route to Asia southwestward through the Straits of Magellan; the Portuguese had established theirs southeastward around the Cape of Good Hope. That left only the far more challenging possibilities to the north, and only one nation intrepid enough -- or arrogant enough -- to pursue them. After all, what's a little ice and snow to a plucky, well-bred Englishman?

What followed was one of the longest, most disaster-plagued endeavors in the annals of geographical exploration. Over the next 300 years, England sent scores of expeditions into the perilous waters above the 60th Parallel, searching for a feasible way west. The hardships these explorers encountered were epic: severe hunger, frostbite, scurvy, ravenous mosquitoes in the summer, round-the-clock darkness in the winter and temperatures of 50 below zero. One thing they did not encounter, however, was great success.

The story of this heroic but misguided effort has spawned a substantial literature over the years, and now we have two excellent new books to add to the canon. Anthony Brandt's "The Man Who Ate His Boots" and Glyn Williams's "Arctic Labyrinth" both retell this complex saga with a good bit of narrative brio, though each author takes his own approach to the task. Williams, emeritus professor of history at the University of London, is far more comprehensive in scope. His book covers the full history of the search, from Martin Frobisher's early voyages in the 1570s to the first truly successful transits of the passage in the 20th century. He also makes ample use of parliamentary papers, Admiralty records and other archival materials. Brandt, the books editor at National Geographic Adventure magazine, confines his research to published accounts but proves to be the more powerful storyteller, vividly recreating the history's most dramatic episodes of the 19th century.

At the center of both books is a series of expeditions launched in the years after England's 1815 triumph in the Napoleonic Wars. Faced with a sudden surplus of underemployed ships and sailors, Britain needed a new venue in which to demonstrate its maritime supremacy. Egged on by Sir John Barrow, second secretary to the Admiralty and a true believer in the Northwest Passage (and in the God-given right of Englishmen to find it), the Royal Navy began throwing much of its excess capacity at the Arctic challenge. Never mind that earlier voyages had all but proved there was no practical route above North America for wooden ships. Barrow was convinced -- against all evidence to the contrary -- that permanent ice simply could not form on an open sea and that a usable passage must ipso facto exist. It was, perhaps, a bull-headedness peculiarly British.

Certainly, there were plenty of volunteers ready to act on Barrow's wishful thinking. Rather than endure idleness on land at half-pay, many Royal Navy men jumped at the chance to sail into uncharted Arctic waters. True, the potential rewards of such a trip were attractive -- including a share of a £5,000 prize -- but the costs were often ruinous. Battling those ship-crushing ice floes could make even warfare against Napoleon's navy seem relatively stress-free.

No one knew this better than Sir John Franklin, a veteran of Trafalgar whose three ill-fated expeditions epitomized both the valor and the shocking waste of the entire Northwest Passage quest. Franklin's first land-based foray into the ice in 1819 ended badly enough, with a frantic retreat across the Canadian tundra that left 11 of his companions dead and Franklin himself forced to subsist on shoe leather to survive (thus his moniker "The Man Who Ate His Boots"). But it was his final journey that became one of the worst debacles in Arctic history. Commanding two ships and 129 men, an aging, overweight Franklin confidently sailed into Lancaster Sound in the summer of 1845, never to be heard from again. Numerous rescue missions were launched to investigate, and eventually details of the doomed party's ordeal did emerge (including hints of cannibalism that Franklin's defenders -- Charles Dickens among them -- did their best to refute). But by then Barrow was dead and British enthusiasm for the Northwest Passage had waned. Ironically, when the first complete passage was finally made in 1905, the laurels went not to an Englishman but to (gasp!) a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen.

So, was the three-century quest for a Northwest Passage ultimately just a vain and pointless enterprise? Brandt, who calls it a "spectacular piece of folly," seems to think so. Williams is more forgiving, stressing the effort's contributions to our understanding of Arctic geography. After all, as John Barrow himself once wrote, "Knowledge endureth forever." Too bad the knowledge in this case had to be bought with so many English martyrs.

Gary Krist is the author, most recently, of "The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche."

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