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Seeking the Passage: Folly, not fortune in futile search

Posted on 25 February 2010

Tony Brandt

By Annette Hinkle

As long as there are places left to discover on earth, there will be explorers eager to put life and limb on the line in order to get there first.

“Everest, the moon, the poles, the deep ocean — it’s all an adventure,” says Sag Harbor’s Anthony Brandt. “People are always dreaming of new ways to put themselves at risk.”

Brandt should know. As an author and the editor of the Adventure Classic series published by National Geographic Society Press, he has compiled anthologies and written books about a number of great sea and land expeditions, including Lewis and Clark’s search for the illusive Northwest Passage, a water-way through the western United States that does not, in fact, exist.

In Brandt’s latest book, however, it’s another Northwest Passage that takes center stage. — that rumored, ice-bound shipping route at the top of the world which possessed the efforts of the British Royal Navy (and imagination of the British public) for much of the 19th century. The discovery of the Northwest Passage, it was reasoned, would reduce by thousands of miles the distance ships would have to travel in order to trade in the Orient.

Though in his book, Brandt traces the history of the many Northwest Passage missions launched by the British as far back as the 1500s, he focuses on the period of passage fever which began in 1818 and reached a climactic end with a doomed expedition led by Royal Navy officer Sir John Franklin in 1845.

“The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage,” (Knopf) is the title of Brandt’s book and it refers to the limited dining options during Franklin’s first expedition to the region in 1819, in which he set out to chart the north coast of Canada from Hudson Bay to the Coppermine River. Along the way, 11 of the 20 men in his party died of starvation.

“They went in birch bark canoes onto the Arctic Ocean,” says Brandt. “But they went too far, and turned back after the caribou had left the tundra. They weren’t good hunters anyway, and had to walk 250 miles with no food. That’s where they ate their boots. They were not tanned boots, these were rawhide and you can cook them in a fire and eat them.”

Given the evidence from history, it would seem there was a great deal these intrepid explorers didn’t know about Arctic conditions. Though they have long been admired for possessing a dual dose of courage and national pride, Brandt has come to believe that much of the determined doggedness in these explorers was actually stubborn ego and a refusal to yield to common sense, even in the face of solid evidence to the contrary.

And in this case, solid evidence came in the form of thick, impenetrable ice.

Despite what they heard from whaling crews, many British explorers clung to the ill-conceived notion that the Arctic Ocean did not freeze beyond a thin perimeter at its edges. Whalers were not gentlemen, they reasoned, nor were the indigenous Inuits, so their advice was not to be heeded. For Brandt, therein lies the futility of the effort.

“There are no natives on the South Pole, but near the North Pole there are natives to watch the idiocy,” says Brandt. “That’s where I saw the story, and I was drawn to it. I’m drawn to tragic stories where things don’t end well due to human folly and stupidity.”

And no voyage was more tragic than the Franklin Expedition, which set out in May 1845 with a crew of 120 aboard two ships carrying enough food and provisions for three years. Neither ship nor crew ever returned to England. Early in the voyage, both vessels became hopelessly mired in ice during one of the coldest Arctic summers on record. More cold summers followed, and the ice did not yield. Franklin is believed to have died by 1847, before the first search party was sent out to find him. After two years living aboard the ships, crew members finally abandoned them and took to the ice by foot, hoping to walk to civilization. Among the items aboard were fine furnishings, china, and, ironically, silverware, some of which survivors pulled behind them on a sledge when they began walking.

“This was a plush Royal Navy expedition,” says Brandt. “When they left the ship, they took a lot of the stuff with them — including the silver.”

They also took along the canned provisions (which gave them lead poisoning) and dried food stuffs, which did nothing to stave off scurvy. A deficiency of vitamin C, scurvy attacks the connective tissue and as it deteriorates, muscles start to fall apart. Walking great distances in the cold with scurvy while pulling sledges would have been a difficult proposition for the crew.

“Although they had plenty of food, they had no fresh food,” says Brandt. “Scurvy was a very serious problem. You get progressively weaker. The most obvious symptom is blackened gums. You start losing teeth, you become so weak you can’t get out of bed, and die. I think it greatly weakened the crew even before they got off the boats.”

The only cure for scurvy is fresh food, and beyond the little seal meat the men may have gotten from passing Inuits, there was not much to choose from. Human bones believed to have been remnants of the crew found years later show cut marks, indicating that survivors likely turned to cannibalism on the ice.

Unfortunately, the disdain the British felt for the Inuits meant that they never did learn survival skills from them. It was an attitude that also fed the subsequent, yet fruitless, searches for Franklin and his crew which were initiated as long as 15 years after they had vanished.

“They felt finding him was a national duty, some thought he was alive,” says Brandt. “It was that British attitude — if an Inuit savage can survive in the Arctic, a British navy officer could survive.”

“This voyage sealed the fate of the search for the Northwest Passage,” adds Brandt. “The search for Franklin and his men was so intense, there were at least 20 expeditions. And in the process, they ultimately found the passage and mapped it. It was impassable, but they found it.”

But why did the British expend so much effort searching for the passage at all? In the end, was it simply about commerce and the shipping of goods?

“They did this because they thought they could and they should,” says Brandt. “They saw it in an idealistic sense. They had command of the oceans and the biggest navy in the world. They had defeated Napoleon and no one dared to face them. This was going to be the exclamation point to that.”

But beyond national pride, there was also personal ego involved. Finding the passage was the obsession of a nation — any sea captain who conquered it could expect great fame and riches.

“There was money, glory and social acceptance,” notes Brandt. “It’s one thing to be a captain in the navy, yet another thing to discover a new passage. Suddenly you receive invitations from dukes, meet kings and get rewards. People point you out on the street.”

But after the demise of the Franklin expedition, hunger for navigating the passage waned.

“The passage was not navigated until 1903, when Amundsen did it,” notes Brandt. “He took his herring boat and it took three years. It wasn’t navigated again until 1945 when a Canadian ice breaker did it.”

Ironically, the mystery of the Northwest Passage is now a distant memory. Today, wealthy tourists can book passage on ice breakers and take the trip for themselves — and thanks to global warming, it’s likely to get even easier in coming years.

During the summer of 2007, the Northwest Passage was completely ice free for the first time in recorded history. Brandt expects that within 10 years, an ice free passage will become the norm, rather than the exception — a boon for commercial shippers looking to save on transportation costs, but doom for the rest of the world which will bear the brunt of the consequences of an ice-free Arctic. Beyond the harbingers of climate change, Brandt also sees in this story a warning against human hubris and conceit.

“History for me is almost always a lesson in prudence and caution,” says Brandt. “Prudence, caution and patience are what saves your ass.”

Yet some people never learn. Men, it seems (and it is mostly men) will always feel the need to leave their mark on a place no one has been before. The U.S. may have put a flag on the moon, but Brandt notes it was the Russians who, in that warm summer of 2007, planted their own flag at the bottom of the ocean directly beneath the North Pole.

And the race goes on…

Anthony Brandt reads from “The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage” on Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 6 p.m. Canio’s Cultural Café, 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor. 725-4926.

Above: Anthony Brandt (Michael Lionstar photo)

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2 Responses to “Seeking the Passage: Folly, not fortune in futile search”

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