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14 posts categorized "Arctic"

18 December 2014

Christmas, locked in the ice

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Illustrated Arctic News 1

Above: winter in the Arctic, from The Illustrated Arctic News [BL: 1875.c.19]. Courtesy of Images Online.

While researching Lines in the Ice one thing that has repeatedly struck me is the scale of the Arctic expeditions. Today we tend to embody these journeys in a single person, Amundsen, Franklin, Frobisher, Parry, Ross, and so on, but the reality is that even the smallest expeditions (such as those led by Dr John Rae) were made up of at least a handful of men. Meanwhile the largest expeditions, such as that led by Franklin in 1845, were more like mobile communities, over a hundred men all sharing adventure, danger and cramped surroundings.

At no time of year is this brought home more than Christmas. While many prepare for a break, time with family and all the comforts of the festive season, my mind is drawn back to the various documents the Library holds that recount how sailors in the Arctic tried to make the winter more bearable. The Illustrated Arctic News, on display in the exhibition, is a wonderful example of how crews attempted to pull through the darkness and boredom of the Arctic winter. The heavily illustrated newspaper, published on board HMS Resolute then reprinted upon the crew’s return to London, depicts various winter celebrations, a Guy Fawkes bonfire (seen above), a festive ball (complete with formal dress for men and women) and note on Christmas Day celebrations, but its production was also a tool for warding off boredom.

Sun at Midnight

Above: the winter may be long and dark but the sun would eventually return (and hang around), from Arctic Expeditions from British and Foreign Shores [BL: 10460.g.1]

It may be hard to imagine today, given the level of access to learning in the UK, but many sailors signed up for Arctic expeditions to get an education. While the winter may have been cramped, cold and dangerous it also meant little work could be done and so sailors would be taught how to read, write and do maths. This was not purely philanthropic on the part of the officers, it was mostly a way to keep the crew occupied and avoid depression, but, combined with good pay, the possibilities offered by a winter’s education were appealing to many sailors. Papers such as The Illustrated Arctic News, while organised by officers, were part of this system of education as they provided an output for the lessons learned by the crew. 

Of course, should the crew make it through the winter (low supplies, the ship being ‘pinched’ by the ice and many other risks were a constant danger) the sun would eventually return and a summer of back-breaking work would begin. As the temperature rose and the sun stayed in the sky for longer the crew could look forward to trying to navigate (and manually cut) the ships through the ice, man-hauling impossibly heavy sledges over land and all the other chores involved in Arctic exploration. Should they make it home, however, even if the Northwest Passage remained undiscovered, the crew would hopefully carry a unique record of their endeavour and a little more education with them.

Illustrated Arctic News 2

Above: the return of the sun means getting back into the field, from The Illustrated Arctic News [BL: 1875.c.19]. Courtesy of Images Online.

Lines in the Ice will be open until spring 2015 but, given Christmas is such a feature of the exhibition (even Santa makes an appearance), the festive season may be a good time to come and have a look around (just be sure to check the Library’s opening times). Meanwhile, Team Americas are gearing up for the festive break, so happy holidays everyone!

[PJH]

24 November 2014

Bringing the Arctic to Leicester Square

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Arctic panorama 3

Above: an overview of Henry Ashton Barker's Panorama, from 1819.

Lines in the Ice is now open and continuing a long tradition of bringing the sights, sounds and experiences of the Arctic to the heart of the city. One thing that struck me in researching and selecting material for the exhibition is how much has been published about the Arctic and our exploration of it - the volume suggests a ravenous market for accounts, stories and information.

This is undoubtedly true. A number of items in the exhibition speak to the market for Arctic tales, especially during the British Navy's nineteenth-century quest for the Northwest Passage. One display item in particular, The Illustrated Arctic News, is a lavish facsimilie of the onboard newspaper of HMS Resolute. It tells two stories simultaneously, the lengths officers and their crew went to in order to stave off the boredom of a dark winter in the Arctic and the hunger the population of Britain had for stories from these expeditions.

Many similar items did not make it into the exhibition. One that almost did, and is well worth mentioning here, is a book related to Henry Ashton Barker's Panorama in Leicester Square. During the nineteenth century panoramas were a popular entertainment, giant works of art that brought the foreign landscapes of the empire home for metropolitan Londoners to see. The expeditions of Franklin and others generated a number of these installations, but this one from 1819 captured my attention. 

Arctic panorama 1

Above: detail from the panorama.

This book, a souvenir and guide to the panorama, provides written details of the content of the panorama but also a handy sketch, presumably to help the reader orientate the account with particular parts of the display. The sketch, while not lavishly reproduced, suggests the scale of the panorama and the sheer volume of things to see. It is worth noting that some of the details are a little off - viewers would be forgiven (despite this being about the wrong Pole) for thinking the above birds (noted as point 8) are penguins, or more realistically, Great Auks. Instead, they are puffins...

Arctic panorama 4

Above: a later Leicester Square panorama, depicting Capt. James Ross' 1848-49 survey of Somerset Island.

Erroneous depictions aside the book reminds us of the hold the Arctic has long had on our imagination and the connection to the entertainments of Leicester Square also provides a sense of the scale of interest in the high north. Indeed, it was far from the only Arctic panorama on display in Leicester Square between 1819 and 1860, as a flick through a compendium of these panorama guides (found at shelfmark: 10349.t.15) will show. That being the case, we're pleased to continue this tradition of bringing the Arctic to central London. Hopefully it will inspire as much curiosity, interest and questioning about the Arctic as the panoramas of previous centuries.

[PJH]

09 October 2014

Olaudah Equiano and the draw of the Arctic

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Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano (portrait)

Above: frontispiece portrait from, 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano' [BL: 1489.g.50]

When I started planning 'Lines in the Ice' there were certain stories I already had in my mind, events from history I thought would surprise the viewer and grab attention in the exhibition space. Alas, not all of these pieces of the narrative make it into the final cut for various reasons including space, the shape of the narrative or because another item tells a similar story better. One such event I wanted to discuss but has recently fallen victim to the hard decisions of exhibition planning is the Arctic expedition on which Olaudah Equiano travelled.

I must confess, before starting work as a curator, at no point had I ever sat down and read all of Equiano's 'Interesting Narrative'. Previously I'd read and discussed key sections but had never made time to digest the account cover to cover. That was until I held the Library's first edition copy and its details began to jump out, the portrait at the front, the extensive list of subscribers (filled with names sure to catch any historian's eye), etc. From then on I was hooked and Equiano's narrative has been one of my favourite items to talk to visitors about (the BL holds quite a few copies).

Equiano is well known to many as the author of 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano' and, as a result, prominent figure in the campaign against the slave trade. Fewer people realise that Equiano's life was underpinned by travel across the British Empire and beyond, as a slave, an indentured person and an independent businessman at different times. Indeed Equiano's travels were long, complex and varied - as evidenced by his presence on the 1773 journey of Captain Constantine John Phipps to Spitzbergen, part of an attempt to find a passage to Asia via the North Pole.

The connection between Equiano and this particular attempt on the North Pole was Dr Charles Irving, a scientist renowned for his work on water purification to whom Equiano was contracted. Equiano's opinion of the voyage is a wonderful critique of the deluded idea a passage existed via the Pole, stating the journey was, 'to find, towards the north pole, what our Creator never intended we should, a passage to India'. 

Nelson in conflict with a bear

Above: a dramatised depiction of Nelson's encounter with a bear. From, 'The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson' [BL: 1859.c.5]

It is a shame Equiano's role in this journey is little known today, especially given the frank opinions he expresses in his Narrative. Instead the journey is more often remembered for the presence of one Horatio Nelson, who attracted considerable attention with his ill-conceived hunting trip. That being said, the presence of both individuals underlines a point I made in a recent post about Franklin, which is how important these potential routes have been at various points in the histoy of the British Empire and Europe in general. Indeed, so notable were these journeys of exploration that they drew some of the greatest writers, thinkers and explorers of the time.

That Equiano did not make it into 'Lines in the Ice' is the fault of Phipps's destination; British attempts on the North Pole and Northeast Passage are not a focus of the early part of the exhibition. That being said, given the restricted length of exhibition labels, maybe Equiano's interesting journey is better suited to the extended space of a blog post. For those of you who'd like to read more about Equiano you can find copies of 'The Interesting Narrative' as well as Vincent Carreta's biography, 'Equiano, the African' [BL: m05/39533] here at the British Library.

[PJH]

11 September 2014

Finding Franklin

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Franklin overland camp

Above: a camping scene from one of Franklin's earlier overland expeditions [G.7397]

With 'Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage' coming up in November it would be remiss not to pass a few comments on Canada's locating one of Sir John Franklin's ships. When news of this year's search came through I must confess I hoped they would find something (perhaps a spoon?) but I was doubtful something as significant as a ship would be found.

A few *spoilers* for 'Lines in the Ice' are in the following but rest assured there will be plenty more to see when it opens. So, for those reading on, a potted history of why Sir John Franklin found himself in the Arctic as executive officer of the ships Erebus and Terror. Leaving Britain in 1845 this was Franklin's third time in charge of an Arctic expedition and his fourth aboard one of the many voyages of exploration championed by Sir John Barrow. His previous two Arctic expedition commands had seen some success but also great hardship and starvation (leading to he and his men, famously, eating their boots).

Franklin artefacts

Above: Previously found Franklin artefacts (including a spoon) [Shelfmark: 1781.a.6].

In all these expeditions Franklin was searching for the Northwest Passage, a new trade route to Asia that would dramatically cut journey times for British sailors. English and, later, British sailors had been searching for the route at least since the time of the Tudors, largely hoping to break Spanish and Portuguese trade monopolies with the Asia. By Franklin's time, however, the aim was more broadly political, as much a way of expressing British power over the seas as it was an attempt to find a trade route that may, or may not, be practically viable. Indeed, while we think of this story as being one of Arctic exploration (and of Franklin as an Arctic explorer) it's perhaps worth thinking about the broader context at play here.

After all, Franklin was not just a polar explorer. He was a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, deafened by the roar of conflict but otherwise unscathed, and in between Arctic journeys he served in the Greek war of independence and was Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land. Further, by 1845 he was a fixture of Lincolnshire and London society. In short, his career spanned the globe and he was as much a citizen-officer of the British Empire as he was anything else.

So, when Franklin went missing with his ships (which had also seen a diverse and international series of duties) this was not a disappearance of an Arctic specialist on the edge of the world; instead a British officer vanished trying to bring a space into the service of the globe-spanning British Empire. While the distinction is subtle it helps explain the significance of this event, why we remember it so strongly and why such bad-feeling ensued when Dr. John Rae announced the grim fate of Franklin's crew.

Investigator sledge party

Above: a man-hauling party from HMS Investigator. Dragging huge weights across the ice was a fate awaiting a number of Franklin's crew, as well as those searching for them [Shelfmark: 1259.d.11]

Parks Canada's locating of a Franklin ship also operates in a wider context than the narrow geography of the Northwest Passage. It allows Canada to perform geopolitical sovereignty, display technical expertise and set a media agenda on a global scale - this story is being read far and wide beyond Canada and the U.K. For 'Lines in the Ice' this is quite a happy development as it is a further example of the exhibition's main point, that the Northwest Passage and Arctic Ocean exploration in general are areas of global significance. Embedded in all of this are complex networks of cause and effect, especially considering that the Arctic is not an unpopulated space for Europeans and Americans to express their desire for exploration.

Indeed, Inuit who lived in what is today Canada have played an integral role in other nation's exploration of the Northwest Passage - and paid a heavy price for it. A great Franklin search example of this was sketched out by Ken McGoogan in the Globe and Mail and there are many more such stories to tell; but that is for another blog post and the exhibition itself.

[PJH]

05 September 2014

Farthest North Cricket (and other Arctic sports)

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Cricket on the ice

Above: HMS Fury and Hecla in winter quarters near Igloolik (1822-23). Frontispiece to vol. 1 of Parry's account, 'Journal of a second voyage for the discovery of a North-West Passage...' [BL: G.7394]

Last week two Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers reached the North Pole. In and of itself there's nothing unusual here as planes, ships and subs have been reaching the Pole for a long time now. What made the news story, though, was how the Canadian crew celebrated - with a game of hockey at the North Pole.

Interestingly, while this is a news-worthy pastime, it is not a new way of celebrating a milestone or just filling time in the High North. For many years sports have been played to celebrate reaching notable locations (when the German ship Polarstern reached the North Pole in 1991 a game of football ensued) or just to pass time while locked into the ice. Such was the case during the search for the Northwest Passage where the monotony of long periods of time spent locked into the ice were broken up with many activities, not least a bit of sport on nicer days (i.e. when not snowing, foggy, blowing a gale, etc.).

At the top of this post you can see a plate depicting a scene near Igloolik in 1822-23, where sailors pass the time standing around, hunting, working with local Inuit (right in the background) and playing a spot of cricket. We can only imagine how it must have felt, so far away from home and in such an alien environment, to break out the cricket bat and be taken back to memories of leisure time cricket on the green wickets of an English summer.

Farthest North Football (Cameron)

Above: Inuit children from the Arctic Red River area play football during the summer. In, 'The New North' (p.232) [BL: 010470.ee.18]

A later photograph from the travels of Agnes Cameron captures what she calls, 'Farthest North Football' and it's a reminder of how much cultural exchange was instigated by whalers, traders, prospectors and explorers making their way north in ever greater numbers. Unfortunately Cameron's work doesn't make it into 'Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage' but Parry and his cricket playing crew do; so for more on them, the history of cricket in the Arctic and the expedition's interactions with local Inuit make sure you come along to the exhibition once it opens on November 14th. 

Finally, it's worth noting that Santa has also (unseasonably) visited the icebreakers' crew, but that is a story for another blog post and for his (more timely) appearance in 'Lines in the Ice'.

[PJH]

07 August 2014

Coming up: Lines in the Ice

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HMS Assistance and Pioneer

Above: 'HMS Assistance and Pioneer in Winter Quarters' [Shelfmark: 1781.a.23]

For the last few months Tom Harper (from the Library's Maps team) and I have been working away on a new exhibition for this winter, 'Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage'. It's been an exciting process and we've come across some fascinating material, so we're pleased to start talking about it.

The exhibition looks at why Europeans have been drawn to explore the Arctic, focussing specifically on the charting of the Northwest Passage, and questions the significance of this search in the making of the modern world. I won't give away much about what you will see but suffice it to say there will be maps, books, photographs and more on display.

Franklin artefacts

Above: artefacts from Franklin's lost expedition, found during the long search for his crew and ships [Shelfmark: 1781.a.6]

We're in the process now of working through an initial selection of material, having spent the last few months accumulating a surprisingly lengthy long list. The sad part is know there is so much great material that won't go on display but at least we have the option of blogging about it! 'Lines in the Ice' will open on November 14th in the Library's Folio Society Gallery, make sure you come along and keep an eye here and on the BL Maps blog for some 'Curator's Cut' extras.

[PJH]