26 July 2021
Shape-shifting: Creative research and 'The Owner of the Sea'
This blog by Richard Price is part of the Eccles Centre's special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research by scholars and creatives working across the British Library's Americas collections.
In a past life I was a researcher, studying for a PhD. I was investigating the novels and plays of the writer Neil M. Gunn who wrote in the interwar period and just beyond. I used the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection in the Library to see what the state censor of the day had made of Gunn’s play The Ancient Fire (1929). Gunn had located this drama in two politically sensitive places: post-war Glasgow, dependant on warship contracts for the British Empire, and a Scottish Highlands dominated by super-wealthy, super-absent landlords. I suspected there would be crossings-out in blue pencil, blustering annotations – any manner of indignation – and I was right. The Lord Chamberlain’s office was not going to let that play pass across its desk without the sharpening of pencils.
I duly completed the PhD and to this day use “Dr”, mainly to remind myself I actually did it. As it happens the revelations about censorship – it is still quite shocking to see a person’s art damaged by systematic authority – didn’t form much of my thesis. As often in research, specific information you glean doesn’t always, or even usually, make it to the central argument. Mine was more about aesthetics and internal Scottish self-identity rather than British politics, though of course these three components have various kinds of critical relationship with each other.
And, bar a published paper here or there afterwards, that was it. Fairly soon I decided to settle for just two vocations rather than three – Librarianship and Poetry. I let Research go, continued to work for a certain national library then located in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum (among other places), and continued to work in my own time – yes, I have finally learnt to call it work – as a writer.
Or I thought I had left Research. As the years have gone on, I’ve realised that thing that is reading and thinking and conversing about a subject before making something from that activity is still, of course, Research.
Here are some topics I’ve felt the need to study for creative projects over the years: medical and psychological interventions for insomniacs (Rays, poetry, 2009); airborne pathogens (The Island, novel, 2010); stroke and patient care (Small World, poetry, 2012); the Scottish Highlands in wartime (Wind-breakers, Sea-Eagles and Anthrax, radio, 2019); the history of little magazines (Is This A Poem?, essays, 2015); the music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (The World Brims by the Loss Adjustors, album, 2018); and, most recently, Inuit legends (The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold, poetry, 2021). I’ve used a mixture of interviews with practitioners, straight-out purchases of academic books, and of course library-based study for all these.
Writing that paragraph I realise I’ve just missed the most significant segment of research that I have carried out: reading poetry. Contemporary poetry, yes, but poetry from all kinds of territories, times and directions, too; books and magazines about poetry which maintain context and skills knowledge; and of course conversations and correspondence with other poets and with readers including those who may not even know they could like poetry. Any writer, I imagine, is continually and voraciously reading works within their form and discussing them, so much so that they lose sight of it sometimes as study, as ‘Research’. In some ways, I hope that they do lose sight of it. Play, pleasure, enjoyment – immersion – perhaps, these are under-rated qualities in a society driven, at times, by a mixing up of education and the work ethic? In any case, all this is the circulating blood at the heart of research, creatively speaking.
I think there’s another element, and perhaps that is also ‘invisible’ to many as labour, as researching activity. It is developing a practical understanding of the material demands, from physical form to people networks, that one’s art moves in, through, and across. For visual artists this is, say, ‘To know the gallery trade’. For a poet like me, who often works with book artists, it’s knowing the artist’s book market and the kinds of possibilities book artists explore in their work; it’s working with book artists. The same is true for knowing the mainstream poetry publishing world: this doesn’t happen instantly but takes years of finding-out (and luck). Some may say that these are compromising complications for a ‘pure poet’ or equivalent artist but I’m not so sure that one can ever escape the material nature of even such an apparently ethereal art. I’d go further, that the nature of its material form and distribution is a big enough part of its meaning for a poet to devote time to learning it.
This helps in a way to explain how The Owner of the Sea came about, and how it was that this ‘invisible’ aspect of research inspired its creation. It was integration within the materiality of one part of the poetry world – artist’s books – that led to it. For well over twenty years I have, in my time away from the Library, been an appreciator of and collaborator with the Anglo-Brazilian artist Ronald King. Our first book was gift horse (Circle Press, 1999; British Library Shelfmark: Cup.512.b.232). It’s a large off-white book with very few pages and striking images which are not inked – they are ‘blind embossed’. The printing equipment has made an impression on a damped page whose paper has to be chosen carefully for its strength and stretchiness in the process. Because no ink is used on these images the eye relies on slight shadow and light differences to make them out. Ron ‘animated’ the image: he used the central figure of a horse starting from a standing position and gradually going into a gallop by the end of the book. The artist Karen Bleitz set the type of the poem in soft grey.
Decades later, after a series of King-Price collaborations, all duly and proudly now in the British Library collections, we joined up for a return to a blind-embossed book, Sedna and the Fulmar. Ron asked me to write a small set of poems based on one of the legends of Sedna, who is a major sea spirit or god, known by various names across different Inuit territories. As a young man, Ron had lived in Canada and had stumbled across her legend. He had never found a satisfying artistic way of responding until now when he would use blind-embossing as an analogy for Arctic white-space, the images imprinted as it were into the snow of the page.
Following his invitation to work with him again, the more conventional usage of ‘Research’ came into play for me. I began to read (and write) more about Sedna than the project required. I was particularly taken by Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten’s The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic (University of Alaska Press, 2008; British Library shelfmark: YK.2009.b.8589) which offered not only information for me to make narrative outlines but a rich sense of traditions and beliefs surrounding Sedna, including shamanism.
Unlike my encounter with the Lord Chamberlain’s plays, this time I wasn’t going to let the extra research go to waste. I very quickly established a narrative for a poetry sequence which would, yes, incorporate the small number of poems I had been commissioned to write, but would tell a longer story. I sent the whole sequence to Michael Schmidt, my publisher at Carcanet but also editor of the poetry journal PN Review. He offered to publish it in its entirety in the magazine almost by return of email. He also encouraged me to write more poems based on Inuit figures.
My study took me to further mythic accounts, from the more fragmentary ones assembled from various nineteenth century accounts by the anthropologist Franz Boas to Kira Van Deusen’s focussed and revelatory book Kiviuq: An Inuit Hero and His Siberian Cousins (McGill-Queen’s, 2009), based on the stories of living storytellers. This helped me counterbalance the story of the female god Sedna with the one of the male hunter Kiviuq.
I also visited a now tragically defunct website, Kiviuq’s Journey, which Van Deusen had also been involved in, and which featured summaries of the tales of the mythic hunter Kiviuq. Again, these were taken directly from living Inuit storytellers (sadly, at least some have since died). Being Canadian, the site was out of scope for the work of our own UK Web Archive, but it does survive thanks to the US-based Internet Archive.
So there were a range of focussed research resources I used for my poetry collection. But wait, I haven’t given examples of the ‘background research’ (like beneficial background radiation) that I mentioned is a way of life for poets – the collections we read day in and day out and the conversations we have. As my readers will know I am a poet of the sequence – from Tube Shelter Perspective (1993) to Small World (2012) – my poems inhabit connected narratives poem by poem, building drama, jumping gaps whose significance the reader will see as they read on. That is in part from being influenced by and having an affinity with such writers as the Tom Leonard of nora’s place or the Bernadine Evaristo of the verse novel The Emperor’s Babe.
It was adding this, what?, sensibility? towards the poetry sequence to my understanding of the narrative structures in Inuit story (at times trance-like, shamanistic, structures) that was the ‘breakthrough’ for me. In fact, sometimes it felt like writing the poems was being in a trance: I look at The Owner of the Sea and I don’t fully understand how these poems came to be written.
Conversations-wise I also shared my drafts with poet friends, including Nancy Campbell , author of Disko Bay and The Library of Ice, who has lived in Greenland and knows Inuit culture far better than I do. Nancy provides an afterword to the sequences in the book.
There is a key point about appropriation here, one that any researcher – creative or otherwise – needs to think carefully about when using the creative labour and common intangible heritage of indigenous cultures. I have, for example, been careful within The Owner of the Sea to acknowledge not just the authors I’ve mentioned but the many individually named storytellers who are cited in the key works. I’ve also emphasised distances in my introduction to the book, in asides contained within the poems themselves, in the jangle of contemporary UK language registers, and the distinctly un-traditional way the book proceeds. No reader could think that the book is anything but a contemporary collection from a Western poet, albeit based on the key moments of Inuit narratives. The original stories are not poems, they are in an entirely different form, the story of oral tradition, a tradition which has its own conventions and needs a set of sophisticated and localised skills for its rendering and which, though I imagine has some overlaps, must be very different from my own poetry tradition. My poems are also not translations and again I emphasise that.
It’s important, I feel, that the reader understands that set of distances and hopefully enjoying the different textures of poetry in The Owner of the Sea can, if they want, lead to the stories the book pays tribute to. I liken this distancing not to scientific or anthropological activity, each fraught with the risks of dehumanisation in such a context where framing is important to the investigating process, but as the distancing that takes places when any one art form, and its culture, tries to relate to another, especially across very different societies and (because the stories are hundreds and probably thousands of years old) across time. Instead of framing, ‘reaching towards’ is what such an activity does. An analogy would be, say, a 16th century painting from Europe depicting the story of Christ’s Nativity many centuries before in ancient Palestine. That artist, whether they are painting for devotion or for patronage or, as may be likely, both, cannot in the making of that painting, I believe, be seen as only ‘appropriating’ the teachings of and folklore around that religion. Rather they are responding in a way that is paradoxically distanced and dedicated: if they are an appropriator in some way they are also and, perhaps more firmly, an apostle. They are also bringing in their contemporary world – the architecture of the stable, the nature of the snow – all European rather than Palestinian (in poetry, we would think of Peter Whigham’s Catullus or Christopher Logue’s Homer, where the world of now glances through the world of the past).
I am also aware that this painting analogy is itself a very Western one, and I use it here to give the opportunity to pause to remember what trauma Christian organisations enacted on Inuit and other indigenous communities in Canada up until very recently, for example through the brutal residential schools systems. In fact in writing these poems I was driven by the sense that these stories -- where creatures are ‘human’’ and humans ‘creaturely’, all within a nature-space that depends on each and their relationship to each other -- were significant not just for their narrative interest but for their reflections on human behaviour. To write the tribute that The Owner of the Sea became was to place Inuit ideas, with all their unsettling challenges and breath-taking beauty, right into contemporary discourse, where they are much needed.
Richard Price is Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library. Richard’s The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold is available here.
13 April 2015
Discovering the Northwest Passage
Above: a lightbox from Lines in the Ice [image by PJH]
Two things you won't find in 'Lines in the Ice: seeking the Northwest Passage' are a map showing the route of the Passage and an authoritative statement as to who, in the end, discovered this fabled path. As for the map, this is because there is no one route that can be rightly called the Northwest Passage, instead there are myriad channels scattered throughout the archipelago of northern Canada. Similarly, discerning exactly who discovered the Passage is akin to navigating a path through an archipelago of competing claims and achievements.
First things first, a rhetorical question; who do you think discovered the Northwest Passage? If you're British you probably think of Franklin himself, lost in the twilight years of his career in an attempt to fill in the last few blanks on the map of the Canadian Arctic. The evidence for what Franklin did or didn't discover is patchy but by reaching the north of King William Island Franklin did connect the exploration done in the Melville Sound with that done on the north Canadian coast (in which he too was involved). As a result, Lady Jane Franklin felt able to argue he and his crew should receive the honour. However, this is not the whole picture and, indeed, a story lies behind Lady Franklin's motivations.
Above: the work done by Simpson and Dease for the hudson's Bay Co. up until 1839 [BL: 1424.h.2]
Before we discuss this, mention must be made of an oft-forgot expedition instigated not by the Navy but by the Hudson's Bay Company. The expedition of Simpson and Dease was an attempt to fill in the blanks on Canada's north coast and it did so very differently from the Navy's standard practice; meaning they travelled overland and lightly in small teams. Thomas Simpson, cousin of the director of the Hudson’s' Bay Company, Sir George Simpson, made great strides in completing the charting of Canada's north coast and also claimed, after an expedition in 1839, to have, 'secured for our ... Company the indisputable honour of discovering the north-west passage...'. Closer analysis suggests Simpson may have been referring, peculiarly, to the completion of the western part of the passage, especially as he wished later to finally complete the survey of the Passage over land. Ultimately Simpson was denied the chance as he died in mysterious circumstances but his and Dease's work, which came so close to completing a charting of the Passage, reminds us how many endeavours were involved in the completion of this work of centuries.
Above: HMS Investigator to the north of Banks Land, from where McClure would spot the Melville Island [BL: 10460.e.10]
Two other names of note in the final chapters of the discovery of the Northwest Passage are those of Captain Robert McClure and Dr. John Rae. McClure, at this time a Commander, was involved in the search for Franklin and ended up being the first commanding officer to complete the Passage. Having entered from the Pacific and reached Banks Island (before being frozen into the ice) McClure could see Melville Island and the site of Parry's furthest west of 1819. By travelling overland McClure linked the two points of exploration in 1851 and his expedition was the first to connect together a complete Northwest Passage. As a result, on his return home, overlooking having lost a ship and disobeyed the orders of his superior officer, McClure was given a hero's welcome and awarded £10,000 by Parliament.
Above: a map from the account of Rae's 1848 and 1849 voyage. The blank area to the east of 'King William Land' would be charted as sea by Rae in 1854 [BL: 2370.e.4]
Despite the efforts of McClure and his crew, the Northwest Passage discovered in 1851 was, for all intents and purposes, useless due to the amount of ice found there each summer. An ice free route was discovered by Dr. John Rae in 1854, the same year as he discerned the fate of Franklin and his crew from the accounts of Inuit he encountered. Rae discovered that 'King William Land' was actually King William Island. Franklin had become stuck in the ice attempting to navigate the western side of this landmass but the strait discovered by Rae is frequently free of ice and was used by Amundsen during his navigation of the Passage from 1903-1906.
Above: the route of Amundsen's navigation between 1903 and 1906, using the areas charted by Rae, Franklin, Simpson and Dease [BL: 2352.f.4]
Both McClure and Rae's discoveries can be regarded as phenomenal achievements and each are regarded, by various historians, as being the true pioneers of the Northwest Passage. And yet, their names are less well-known than Franklin's. This is, in part, because of the political and popular agency of Lady Jane Franklin who, after McClure's award and Rae's return with a story involving death and cannibalism, sought to salvage what she could of her husband's reputation. While discrediting McClure and Rae, Lady Franklin also set about developing the popular idea that Franklin perhaps navigated the Passage first or at the very least connected together its few remaining dots through his overwintering at King William Island.
Above: Franklin's statue in Waterloo Place [image by PJH]
Such ideas would subsequently be set down in print and memorialised in statues. Franklin's statue today stands tall in Waterloo Place, a site of memorialisation for some of the British Empire's most notable apostles and martyrs, where the accompanying plaque reads, 'They forged the last link [of the Passage] with their lives'. While the inscription does not explicitly state that Franklin and his crew discovered the passage that could instead be interpreted as a testament to the efforts of both Franklins and the many other individuals who, in these last years, navigated the archipelago and charted, 'a Northwest Passage to the sea'.
‘Lines in the Ice’ is, sadly, now in its last week. To see more items from the expeditions of Franklin, McClure and Rae, not to mention myriad rare maps and unique historical accounts, be sure to visit the Library before closing on April 19th.
19 July 2013
Digitised Collections: more Arctic journeys
Above: barracks on the Churchill River. Geraldine Moodie, 1907. From Wikimedia Commons.
These works are free of known copyright restrictions.
Following on from last week's blog about Arctic journeys here are some more recent collection items that connect to the theme of exploration and geopolitics. They also happen to have been part of the recent Picturing Canada project, once again showing the diversity of the Canadian colonial copyright photograph collection.
The photographs shown here are the work of Geraldine Moodie, a photographer originally from Toronto who moved around Canada extensively with her family and husband, North-West Mounted Police officer John Douglas Moodie. One of John Moodie's most significant postings was as part of the Dominion Government expedition to the eastern Arctic and Geraldine accompanied him for part of this trip.
John Moodie and others who made up the official expedition (such as Albert Low) had a very specific mission, to use surveys, science and other forms of evidence gathering (not least photography) to assert Canada's sovereignty over the far north. While Geralinde Moodie had worked on official government projects before in the context of this expedition she was present as a civilian and the photographs she took were part of her own portfolio of work.
Above: portrait of women and children at Fullerton. Geraldine Moodie, 1906. From Wikimedia Commons.
As a result the photographs provide a view of the spaces and communities she found herself in proximity to that is somewhat different from the images produced by John Moodie and Albert Low. None-the-less they still represent a record of an expedition to the Arctic where exploration, science and technology all combined to assert the continuing sovereignty of Canada over the Arctic north.
The collections held at the British Library, therefore, are not just a window onto the early history of exploration and statecraft in the Arctic, instead these collections carry the story through to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Photographs, maps, newspapers, official publications, scientific journals and academic monographs are all part of telling this later history, a rich set of resources we look forward to the next Team Americas PhD student digging into.
One final thing, the photographs above are part of the Picturing Canada project and therefore in the public domain, with higher resolution images available from Wikimedia Commons. Other photographs by Geraldine Moodie can be found on the British Museum catalogue while work by Albert Low is available from Library and Archives Canada.
11 July 2013
From the collection: Arctic journeys
Above: a map from Beste's account of Frobisher's search for 'a Passage to Cathaya' [Shelfmark: G. 6527]. The image is part of the Library's Northwest Passage feature in the Online Gallery.
On Wednesday we were pleased to host members of the Canadian High Commission and talk about our Canadian collections, especially the extensive holdings relating to the Canadian Arctic. We've blogged about the Poles before but since Team Americas will shortly be hosting a new Collaborative Doctoral Award about exploration, geopolitics and the Canadian Arctic it seemed appropriate to share a few more collection items with you.
Above: an illustration from Ross's narrative of the second expedition to the Northwest Passage [Shelfmark: G.7244]. Also from the Northwest Passage feature.
The Library has a wide range of materials relating to the Arctic in general and the Canadian Arctic in particular, with a major focus on the search for the Northwest Passage. This material cuts across a long historical period, all the way from the 16th century to the searches for Franklin in the 19th century and then into the 20th and 21st centuries (for example, with Canadian official publications relating to global warming and the opening up of the Arctic and the Northwest Passage).
Above: An illustration from McClintock's 'The Voyage of the Fox' [Shelfmark: 10460.d.2]. Also from the Northwest Passage feature.
All the items used in this post are from the Library's gallery ont he Northwest Passage, but there is a lot more Arctic-related material in the collections. Material on exploration, geopolitics, trade, cultural exchange, whaling, seal hunting and many other topics can be found in the collection and we look forward to them being part of the CDA research come September.
Another post on this to follow next week, enjoy these images for now.
20 December 2012
Cold Comfort: Royalty and Polar sovereignty
Artwork for the British Antarctic Territory: 1963-69 3d deep blue. From the Crown Agents Philatelic and Security Printing Archive held at the British Library [copyright restrictions apply]
Wednesday was a busy news day but most will have seen the announcement that part of Antarctica is to be renamed Queen Elizabeth Land in order to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. In a year where tributes have ranged from river pageants to daring entrances to the Olympic Opening Ceremony this perhaps seems an odd or remote decision, but its geopolitical significance is already being noted.
The naming of territory has always been an important part of underscoring sovereignty claims. The history of the Americas, for example, is populated with many instances of names being applied to places in order to stake or sure up colonial ambitions. Within the name game Royal monikers have always resembled top trumps, with the British and other nations using monarchic associations to back up claims.
Such a heritage means that areas of the Arctic and Antarctic named after British monarchs are fairly common. During the nineteenth century search for the Northwest Passage, Victoria Island was named by Dease and Simpson in 1839 and Prince of Wales Island was named in 1851 by Captain T. H. Austin during his search for Franklin. The etching of these names onto the map of the Arctic took place at a time when the geopolitics of the area were intense and the potential gains from locating a Northwest Passage thought to be huge. As a result you can also find many items from these expeditions in the Library’s collections; Simpson writes about the work he and Dease conducted between 1836 and 1839 in a work held at Shelfmark 1424.h.2, and a map of Austin’s discoveries can be found at Maps.982.(48).
Continuing this theme, Queen Elizabeth II also has the honour of providing a name to an Arctic territory with the Queen Elizabeth Islands being re-named to mark the coronation in 1953. These islands had been noted by William Baffin in 1616 and were rediscovered in 1818 by Sir John Ross. Again, books and maps relating to these expeditions can be found in the collections. It is worth noting that the 1953 re-naming of these islands coincided not just with the coronation but with a resurgence of Canadian interest in the Arctic as a result of its status as a theatre of the Cold War.
Going back to the Antarctic, we should also note that Queen Elizabeth II is not the only British monarch to have part of the continent in her name. In 1841 Captain Ross took a break from splashing his name (and that of his ships) across the land and named a large part of the continent Victoria Land. Published works by Ross are also held here, with his 1847 ‘A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions’ [Shelfmark: 2374.f.6] and other works available for consultation in the reading rooms.
This work (Frontispiece from J. Ross, A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, 1847) identified by British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions. [BL Shelfmark: 2374.f.6]
Needless to say, I will be trying to acquire anything relevant to the naming of Queen Elizabeth Land - and our new Broadcast News service in the reading rooms will have already picked up the news reports.
26 January 2012
Picturing the Great Alone: photography and the Antarctic
Robert Falcon Scott on the 'Terra Nova' expedition, by Herbert Ponting. Image from Wikipedia.
Last year was a busy one for Team Americas and one of the many things we managed to do was take on some responsibilities for materials relating to Antarctica, thus adding a whole extra continent to our domain. This being the case, when an opportunity to view 'The Heart of the Great Alone' at The Queen's Gallery came up a couple of us jumped at the chance.
'The Heart of the Great Alone' covers various early twentieth century expeditions to the Antarctic, including that of the 'Terra Nova' during which Scott and his team perished. The main exhibition focus is the photography of Frank Hurley, photographer for Shackleton's 'Endurance' expedition, and Herbert Ponting, who produced the official photographs for the 'Terra Nova' expedition. I could write a lot here about these photographers and the expedition but the best thing to do would be to recommend a visit the exhibition itself or the e-gallery.
'Midnight in the Antarctic Summer', by Herbert Ponting. Image from Wikipedia.
However, as always with these trips, I had a mind to mull over the Library's materials relating to the Antarctic when I got back. The Library's collections from this area are not the largest in the world, with institutions such as the Scott Polar Research Institute and the Royal Geographical Society (to name a few) holding a wealth of material, but there is a noteworthy body of material which is well supported by the wider collection of Official Publications and Newspapers (especially in the case of an expedition such as the 'Terra Nova').
That said, there are some stand out items and a notable collection of miscellaneous materials held here. Captain Scott's diary is one of the Library's star collection items and the journal 'The South Polar Times' (shelfmark: Tab.444.d.6.) was the first publication printed on the Antarctic continent. Publications by Frank Hurley and Herbert Ponting also feature, including Ponting's 'The Great White South' (1921, shelfmark: 010460.g.1). These items contribute to a wealth of published material relating to the Antarctic and explorers such as Scott and Roald Amundsen.
As well as holding materials relating to the initial exploration of Antarctica, the Library has a significant collection regarding the continent in the later twentieth century; where scientific progress and international co-operation become the order of the day. Materials arising from events such as the Antarctic Treaty or organisations such as the British Antarctic Survey, as well as many academic texts and articles regarding the continent, are insightful on their own but also suggest an evolving relationship between global society and the frozen continent.
08 October 2010
Polar resources: 400 years of exploring the final frontiers
The voyage of the "Fox" in the Arctic Seas: a narrative of the discovery of the fate of Sir John Franklin and his companions / Francis Leopold McClintock. London: John Murray, 1859. BL: 10460.d.2.
Information about the Polar Regions is currently being accumulated in vast quantities by governments and scientific bodies across the globe. This is not a new phenomenon as the history of human interaction with the Arctic and Antarctic is one littered with paper, maps and other notations. The British Library collections are a significant repository of these materials, with holdings relating to the Arctic dating back at least as far as the sixteenth century. In the current geopolitical climate these materials can provide us with insights into how current interactions of government and corporate interests with the Polar Regions may develop.
The North West Passage has long been a subject of fascination to explorers, profiteers and geopolitically minded governments and the history of its exploration by British interests is well documented at the British Library. In sixteenth-century accounts of the search for a passage to the East via the north of the Americas, by the likes of Sebastian Cabot and Martin Frobisher, we see concerns familiar to current interest in the Arctic. Rights of access to profitable trade routes and prospecting for resources are significant concerns to these explorers, set against a background of major geopolitical change as Europe’s power balances shift in the aftermath of Columbus navigating to the Caribbean.
Nineteenth-century collections in the Library bear out a similar tale, although by this point the major actors in the sphere of Arctic exploration and exploitation are the British Navy, Canadian government and Hudson’s Bay Company. The writings of Sir John Barrow are spread across the Library’s collections and his accounts of the significance of the Arctic to the British empire are punctuated with warnings about threats to sovereignty posed by business interests and geopolitical concerns raised by the actions of countries such as Russia. We also begin to clearly see the importance of science as a tool for envisioning, delimiting and enforcing control over the Arctic, as evidenced by the significant role of factually accurate illustrations and detailed cartographic charts in writings from this time.
Historical collections are a significant resource to contemporary researchers interested in today’s Polar geopolitics. Scratching the surface of the Library’s collections reveals a long history where exploration and science are used to assert sovereignty and define borders. It also suggests cyclicality to these events and highlights the significance of wider geopolitical pressures, motivated by periods of change, to the intensification of interest in the Arctic across a broad historical transect. More information on these resources can be found here should you wish to use these collections to supplement your research.
14 May 2010
The Future of the Polar regions
Mounted Police Barracks, Churchill (Geraldine Moodie, 1907): Building Arctic Canada
Recently the British Library was host to a panel discussion on ‘The Future of Antarctica.' Chaired by Dr Gabrielle Walker, with Professor Klaus Dodds, Robert Culshaw and Sara Wheeler contributing, the event focused on what the 21st century might hold for Antarctica.
The panellists discussed the significance of the Antarctic as a wilderness, site of science and exemplar of international co-operation. They also highlighted the potential threats facing the continent, from global warming to resource exploitation and tourism, as well as the challenge of maintaining international co-operation, and the high standard of science done there in the 50 years since the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.
My thoughts were inevitably turned to how the Arctic can provide clues as to how things may turn out in Antarctica, since it has been explored and used by humans for much longer. Accounts such as William Baffin's journal of a search for the North West Passage, which is to be found, along with many other accounts, in Purchas' Pilgrimes (1625, Shelfmark 679.h.13), or John Barrow's Chronological History of Voyages into the Arctic Regions (1818, shelfmark 303.i.4) illustrate just how much probing has been done of the Arctic in the last 400 years.
One need only look at how the massive 20th-century developments in geo-mapping and submarine technologies have affected access to the Arctic to envisage how further advances could begin to affect a Pole considered more inaccessible. The increasing exploitation of the Arctic (not to mention flag planting), facilitated by environmental and technological change, is a persistent reminder of how even the most remote of places are inexorably drawn under human influence.
With this in mind, historical collections on the Arctic, such as those at the British Library, provide insight and even warning about how dramatically humans can impact on these most inhuman of environments. Over the coming months, the Library will host ESRC-supported discussions of the 'New Geopolitics of the Polar Regions' and this interaction of thinkers and relevant historical materials will continue to be invaluable.
Americas and Oceania Collections blog recent posts
- Shape-shifting: Creative research and 'The Owner of the Sea'
- Discovering the Northwest Passage
- Digitised Collections: more Arctic journeys
- From the collection: Arctic journeys
- Cold Comfort: Royalty and Polar sovereignty
- Picturing the Great Alone: photography and the Antarctic
- Polar resources: 400 years of exploring the final frontiers
- The Future of the Polar regions
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