American Collections blog

2 posts from February 2015

18 February 2015

Perspectives on the Passage: encountering the explorers

John-ross-and-the-inuit (1)

Above: a first encounter between Ross and the Inuit of Prince Regent Bay [Shelfmark: G.7399]

One of the themes Lines in the Ice draws out, across the length of the exhibition, is that the story of exploration does not occur in an empty land. It can be easy to forget this, we still often imagine the Arctic as a remote and hostile place and the narratives of explorers that were left to us often treat the indigenous people they encountered as an aside from the grand adventure at hand. This overlooks the crucial role Inuit and other indigenous peoples have played in the exploration of the Northwest Passage and other areas of the Arctic. Indeed, even exploration of the Antarctic owes a debt to indigenous knowledge; Amundsen used many techniques he learned from Arctic Inuit on his quest for the South Pole (although it's worth noting Amundsen always stressed how much his success owed to Inuit knowledge).

As well as Amundsen there are other expedition leaders who buck the trend of underplaying Inuit culture and agency. Sir John Ross, captain of the 1818 expedition to chart the Northwest Passage, took a great deal of interest in the cultures he encountered, especially the Inughuit. Ross was the first European the Inughuit had encountered and he spent a large amount of time in his published account detailing this encounter and what he learnt about a group he called the, 'Arctic Highlanders'. Indeed much of Ross's account was devoted to discussing the cultures, landscapes, animals and plants he came across, much to the chagrin of Sir John Barrow. Barrow thought Ross had given up his quest for the passage too early, perhaps even spuriously, and so Ross's fascination with the people and ecology of the Arctic was mocked by Barrow for years to come.


Above: Ross and his crew also took an interest in Arctic flora and fauna, although a more invasive approach was taken in the 19th century [Shelfmark: G.7399]

Adding interest to this story is the fact that another historic perspective of Ross's expedition still exists. Playing on a sound point in Lines in the Ice is an account of Ross's arrival told by Lena Kingmiatook, a 20th century resident of Nunavut. This account is an oral history handed down over the generations and it tells us how disorientating contact with these outsiders and their gigantic ship was. We are also reminded that culture clash is not one sided, with the Inuit account focussing on the odd smell that came with the kabloona (white people), and that both groups attempted to mediate first contact in a friendly and productive way, as the local shaman and elders worked to generate a productive first meeting.

Kingmiatook's account stresses to us the strength of Inuit oral history as a means of passing information across generations, something the 2014 finding of Erebus, in an area local Inuit long claimed the ship lay, also reminds us of. For Lines in the Ice we have been fortunate to be able to tell these two stories together as the result of a loan from the Canadian Museum of History. More on this collection can be found here, there is also a book on Inuit-explorer interaction, 'Encounters on the Passage', held at shelfmark: YD.2009.a.764. 


10 February 2015

Forgotten histories of the Passage: the whalers

Scoresby frontispiece 2

Above: frontispiece from vol. 2 of Scoresby's, 'An Account of the Arctic Regions' [copy on display in Lines in the Ice, G.2602 & G.2603]. Image from

By now daily life of Lines in the Ice is well into a rhythm of showing tours around the gallery and responding to the most frequently asked question, 'what is your favourite item?' In truth, the question is impossible to answer as I love everything on display and some of my absolute favourites didn't make the cut for narrative reasons (see this previous piece on Equiano). However, there is one piece that tells a story I always like to dwell on, that of William Scoresby.

Scoresby is often marginalised in the history of the search for the Northwest Passage but his long running disagreement with Sir John Barrow is a key part of the narrative. Even in the nineteenth century there were some (like Barrow) who still believed that open sea water could not freeze. Scoresby argued the opposite; he knew it could as he had seen it with his own eyes - as the captain of a whaling vessel.

Scoresby sea fauna

Above: sea life illustrations from Scoresby's 'An Account of the Arctic Regions' [copy on display in Lines in the Ice, G.2602 & G.2603]. Image from

The days when whaling was an important form of British employment and commerce are, thankfully, long gone. Nonetheless, for hundreds of years whaling was an important part of people's diets, local economies and, indeed, the very working of England, Europe and America's cities. Before fossil fuels came along it was the fluids and fats of whales that lit London, not to mention underpinned its highest fashions. As a result whaling was big business and whaling parties were some of the first groups to make commercial use of the finds of Arctic explorers.

Those who ran the gauntlet, year in, year out, to the Arctic built up a body of experience about the sea ice that was far superior to the skills held by sailors from the Navy, such as Parry or Franklin. This meant whaling captains were often employed as ice-masters on expeditions searching for the Northwest Passage and some, such as Scoresby, even published their own research on the properties of snow and ice.

Scoresby snow and ice

Above: Scoresby's detailed drawings of snow and ice structures, from 'An Account of the Arctic Regions' [copy on display in Lines in the Ice, G.2602 & G.2603]. Image from

Our forgetting of the importance of whalers in the history of Arctic exploration, as well as the knowledge, skill and artistry that went into publications such as William Scoresby's, 'An Account of the Arctic Regions' is what makes this item so intriguing to me. If people like Barrow had listened to those like Scoresby, who provided evidence and their own hard-won opinions to argue for the unfeasibility of the Northwest Passage, a very different history of Arctic exploration would be discussed today.

More importantly, by forgetting how involved whalers were in this process we are also at risk of ignoring the fact that where explorers went, traders, trappers and whalers inevitably followed and did huge amounts of damage to the areas they worked in. In many ways they reshaped the ecology of a significant part of the world and they also instigated massive changes within indigenous societies. Therefore, while we may no longer need the work that was once done by these commercial crews their role in creating the world we know today, as well as in charting and using the Northwest Passage, should not be forgotten.