by Pierre BertonI have always been fascinated by polar exploration. Fortunately, there has been no dearth of excellent books on the subject, not to mention film documentaries. Dr. Mosher was kind enough to loan me a tape of the British series The Last Place on Earth, which dramatizes Roland Huntford's book about the Scott and Amundsen race to the South Pole. (If you get a chance, this is a must film — especially during July.)
Pierre Berton has written an absorbing chronicle of the obsession the 19th century civilized (?) world had with the North Pole and the Northwest Passage. By 1817, some 90% of British naval officers were unemployed, and the government needed projects to keep them busy. The Northwest Passage and the vast uncharted territory north of Canada presented an unknown begging to be conquered. Unfortunately, stupidity and negligence caused needless deaths over the next century.
The Eskimos had the knowledge and skills to survive in this hostile environment. The British viewed them as inferior beings but the Eskimos knew otherwise. The term "Kabloona" was an expression of disgust; it was also a synonym for white man. British officers insisted on regulation woolen uniforms and cloth sleeping bags. Because they were tight-fitting, the wool would absorb sweat and then freeze. The same happened to sleeping bags. One party reported it took over one-half hour to thaw out their sleeping bags with body heat.
Eskimos didn't use sleeping bags. They wore loose fitting garments made of deer skin. They didn't sleep in tents but snow houses which had the advantage of not needing to be dismantled. They could also be used on the return trip. They slept together as a group to share body heat, rather than in separate bags.
The English diet consisted of hard tack and salted meat, so naturally they suffered from scurvy. Even after Rae discovered that adopting the fresh meat diet of the natives would prevent scurvy (fresh meat is antiscorbutic) the British insisted on traditional remedies which did not work in the Arctic environment.They refused to use dogs. Scott was forced to pull enormously heavy sledges over terrible terrain by hand after his pathetic disaster with ponies; and his team was still using the ridiculously heavy tents which continuously froze and added weight to the sledges. The Norwegians and some Americans learned the value of dogs from the natives.
One cannot help but see a strong current of racism in all this. It was important for the explorers to maintain a sense of superiority. There was a fear of "going native." Of course, the British celebrate their failures. Franklin's tragic expeditions were symbolic of all that was wrong with traditional polar exploration. His first lost 11 men, the second, all 129. He could not understand the reluctance of the natives to join his adventure. "...their caution forms a singular contrast with the ready and thoughtless [my emphasis:] manner in which an English seaman enters upon any enterprise, however hazardous, without inquiring or desiring to know where he is going, or what he is about." Franklin is still eulogized.
Contrast Franklin's remark with this characterization of the Norwegian Nansen: "daring but never rash; bold but never impulsive; fatalistic but never foolhardy; poetic but never naive." It remained for Peary and the Norwegians (among others) to adopt native skills and successfully adapt to the harsh environment. That is not to say that all became easy. They still suffered (Peary lost most of his toes on one trip), but they survived and returned.
Berton believes that neither Cook nor Peary reached the North Pole. Next to read is Herbert's biography of Peary and the controversy which still rages. (Of course, Herbert may be slightly biased, for if Peary did not reach the Pole, then Herbert was the first to do so in 1983 by dog-sled.
|Title||The Arctic Grail|
|eBook format||Hardcover, (torrent)|
|File size||7.2 Mb|
|Book rating||4.31 (299 votes)