The Search for the Northwest Passage
In the Arctic there is a sea route which passes from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It passes up the west coast of Greenland into baffin bay before taking a sharp left turn through a maze of islands that lie off the northern coast of Canada. Once through these islands the route passes to the north of Alaska and then through the narrow straits between Russia and Alaska into the Bering Sea and from there to the Pacific. This ‘Northwest Passage’, the fabled northern route linking East with West, was not successfully navigated until 1906 by Roald Amundsen. Today we talk about the four centuries of exploration before then, when European maritime powers and private companies attempted to find a route to the Pacific and to map to their attempts. It’s a story of exceptional courage, perseverance, folly, competition, greed and culture-clash. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Dr Katie Parker, a historian specialising in Pacific history, the history of the book and the map, and the history of empires in the long-eighteenth century.
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Sam Willis 00:09
From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.
Sam Willis 00:24
Hello everyone, and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. It’s great to hear in the news, recently, that the expedition to find Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance has succeeded; that they have found the vessel at the bottom of the Weddell Sea in the Antarctic in the most fabulous condition, where it has been preserved for over a century in those cold dark depths, and more importantly, depths that are entirely free of wood-eating organisms. The Endurance that was discovered four miles from the last position taken before she was crushed in the ice in 1915. If you want to find out more about the hunt for Endurance, do please check out our dedicated episode in which I talk with David Mearns, a shipwreck hunter who has dedicated much of his life to identifying the position of the Endurance. Now, I was fascinated by this modern take on polar exploration and, in particular, with the geographical challenges that the team faced. And I thought that we could put it into some context. So, today, we’re talking about the challenges of voyaging into the ice, but with particular reference to trying to find the Northwest Passage in the Arctic. So, let’s now head to the Arctic. I want you to envisage a sea route that passes from the North Atlantic, up the west coast of Greenland, into Baffin Bay, before taking a sharp left turn through a crazy maze archipelago of islands that lie off the northern coast of Canada. Once through those, the route passes to the north of Alaska, and then through the narrow straits between Russia and Alaska into the Bering Sea. And from there to the Pacific. The Bering Sea is named for the Danish navigator, Vitus Bering who, operating in Russian service, explored it in 1728 from the Pacific. What we are discussing today are a number of expeditions launched by European maritime powers and private interests in an attempt to reach the Bering Sea from the Atlantic, following that torturous icy path, a route that was not actually discovered until 1906 when it was successfully navigated by Roald Amundsen. The first European to attempt it was John Cabot, of Venetian living in England, who made that first attempt in 1497. He reached somewhere in Canada, but believed he had reached Asia. The Frenchman Jacques Cartier then tried in 1534, the Spanish Francisco de Ulloa in 1539, the Englishman Henry Hudson in 1609, and then an increasing number of explorers. The most famous and most tragic of which was the John Franklin Expedition of 1845, in which Franklin and his 128 men, and two ships: HMS Erebus and Terror, both vanished without trace. I should add here that we have also recorded a podcast on HMS Terror, so do please take the time to listen to that. But for now, let’s hear all about the challenges of mapping these attempts to find the Northwest Passage. I strongly suspect you will never think the same way about a map ever again. I spoke with Dr. Katie Parker, a historian specialising in Pacific history, the history of the book and the map, and the history of empires in the long 18th century. Her current book manuscript examines the production of Pacific geographic knowledge by European empires in the century prior to the voyages of James Cook. She is the research officer at Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps, and a teaching associate at Queen Mary University of London. She serves as the Book Reviews Editor for H-Maps, and the Administrative Editor of the Hakluyt Society. Before we hear from Katie, I need to say that this episode is being published in honour of Glyn Williams, who recently passed. Glyn was Professor of History at Queen Mary in London, and one of those scholars who laid the foundations for so many. His work on exploration, the Pacific Northwest Passage in particular, changed the way that we think about the past. And now here is Katie. As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to her as much as I enjoyed talking with her.
Sam Willis 04:49
Katie, thank you so much for joining me today.
Katie Parker 04:52
It’s a pleasure, thanks for having me.
Sam Willis 04:54
So, the Northwest Passage. Now, one of the things I’m most interested in, in all of this history of exploration, is how anyone knows that there’s something there to be discovered before they’ve discovered it. How did that work with the Northwest Passage? How did the rumours of there being one first originate?
Katie Parker 05:13
Sure. So, with the Northwest Passage, it’s always a much more hoped-for thing than even I think most people thinking it’s an actual thing, and the ways in which that plays out change over time. But there have always been rumours that are, or I guess more hopes, of either a northeast or Northwest Passage. And the goal is always to get to China. So, China is where we have the very rich markets and the Spice Islands as well so everything that Europe wants is over in the East. And it takes a very, very long time to sail there. Pretty much at the exact same time, we get the Portuguese rounding the Cape of Good Hope, we get Magellan going through Cape Horn; those are very long, very dangerous voyages. And so, there’s always a hope, right from the beginning of European expansion into the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, that there’s a way to bypass this; that it’s going to be faster. And so, we’re going to see a lot of expeditions go in the 16th century, both to the northeast and to the northwest. England is actually going to be a leader in these expeditions. It’s one of the only parts of exploration early on in this age of expansion that they are actually leading in. So, this is when we’re going to get those voyages of people like (eventually) Henry Hudson, we get Martin Frobisher, and then we have James and Fox, up to about 1630. And then there’s a real disillusionment because they haven’t found very much yet. They make it into Hudson’s Bay and that’s as far as they can get. A lot of people have died, ships have been lost. And there just hasn’t been much return on this investment. They are privately funded vessels that are going out and so, without any returns, that’s where we’re going to see this first wave of Northwest Passage searching stop around 1630 in there.
Sam Willis 07:01
Are they not fazed by the ice? We’ve got a lot of very large voyages all going around the world; there’s a wonderful tradition of people sailing, but not necessarily through sea ice, through ice packs, having to break ice. Did they? It almost seems as if they were like “well, you know, let’s just crack on” – was there concern about it?
Katie Parker 07:23
There’s definite concern, and there’s a lot of discussion about which ships are the best ships to take into ice, how you double hull or how you reinforce a ship, to see if it can make it through the ice. A lot of times, the ships don’t make it through the ice, and then you’re going to see the crew is going to have to resort to small boats, or they’re going to have to have an overland journey, or they’re going to perish and disappear. Worries about the intensity of winters, and having to winter in the ice and be frozen in, is a is a theme throughout these voyages. That’s one of the reasons that we’re going to see a mutiny against Henry Hudson on one of his voyages; he kept pushing and wanted to continue on, and his men were so done with being in the cold and with being in the ice and being in these conditions and not trusting his command, that they are going to put him and his son, actually, and a few other crewmen into a small boat and kind of push them out. Then they’re going to take the ship and leave. So, ice is a constant fear. For a lot of the later voyages that we’ll see going into even the 19th century, the actual expedition where they’re going, they don’t always tell the crew that that’s where they’re bound for because they’re afraid that the men are going to desert if they know that they’re headed on an Arctic expedition. So, by the time we get to someone like Franklin, we’re going to see a lot of people actually volunteering for those 19th century voyages because of the prestige and the heroism that the Explorer image has accrued. But earlier voyages, nobody really wants to go to the Arctic, because they are afraid they’re going to die. And because it is so cold.
Sam Willis 08:53
There are links with Russian soldiers not being told they’re going into Ukraine at the moment, which is very interesting, indeed. So, what’s clear from this is that there is a very important narrative that has to be controlled about the Arctic voyages, certainly for recruiting people. But to get to the heart of that, I suppose the question is: who does it benefit? Who is funding these voyages to find the Northwest Passage?
Katie Parker 09:24
So, until we get to the Middleton expedition in the mid-18th century, these are all going to be privately funded. So, anyone who wants to mount one of these expeditions would have had to find investors, backers, so we see that we have Bristol merchants involved. You do have people like Queen Elizabeth interested in these voyages, but any sort of patronage from a noble person would be a personal patronage. It wouldn’t be a state-funded venture, the way we see and think of exploration in maybe the 18th century as being this big state-funded operation. That’s not how these earlier voyages are working at all. And then, once we get to 1670, with the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company, then you’re going to see a few voyages that are going to be funded by the Hudson’s Bay Company itself. But as the Company is there to make money, the Company is actually very hesitant to fund any voyages that we would call exploratory voyages. But at the time, they were usually marked as voyages that were “to go upon a discovery,” that’s usually the phrase you see in the documents. And so these discovery voyages, which are not meant to be making money, are not meant to be trading, but are only meant to see if there are other passages or other geographical features that might be of use, they don’t have a great return on investment. And so, you’re not going to see the Hudson’s Bay Company willing to invest at all. They do one voyage in 1719, with James Knight, and his voyage is lost without a trace. After that, the Hudson’s Bay Company is really going to pull back. There is another voyage led by a guy named Scroggs in 1722, again, with Hudson’s Bay Company, but they don’t bring back enough interest. It’s very similar, actually, to the two voyages of Tasman in the mid-17th century funded by the Dutch East India Company into the Pacific. Tasman, sure he encounters Te Tai-o-Aorere in New Zealand, he encounters Van Diemen’s Land, which is today Tasmania, but that actually doesn’t return any resources or investment opportunities for the company. So, the company turns away from the idea after the second Tasman expedition. We see the same thing happening with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Sam Willis 11:30
That’s really interesting, isn’t it? So, it’s not necessarily the first person who gets there who actually makes the big breakthrough. You have to stand on the shoulders of giants before you can ever start to make any money out of that. All of these different voyages you’re talking about, were they all going to the same place and getting stuck in the same place?
Katie Parker 11:51
With the Arctic, there’s obsession points and those change over time. So, in the earliest voyages, so Frobisher, Hudson, those guys, the real focus is going to be trying to get into what is going to eventually be Hudson’s Bay. And some of them end up in Baffin Bay. So, getting across the northern Atlantic and then trying to get any way inland or across, that’s going to lead them into Southern Hudson’s Bay, and then up into Baffin Bay. They don’t really see where that can lead from Baffin Bay because of the level of ice in Baffin Bay, they actually don’t know if it is a bay, or if it is (as it actually is) a larger inlet and passage around, except that it’s iced in all the time. So, on maps of the 17th century, you’re almost always going to see Baffin Bay is connected; we actually almost can sometimes see Greenland connecting all the way over, making Baffin Bay a true bay. That’s the first area they’re obsessed with. When we get into the mid-18th century, the main interest is Northern Hudson’s Bay. So, there’s an area called Roes Welcome, and then there’s an island that at this point wasn’t known to be an island or how that geography worked, but called Southampton Island. And so, there was a lot of discussion that if you went along Roes Welcome, that it was very likely you were going to find an inlet, and that that inlet then would lead, via kind of a river and passage, would lead to the Pacific eventually. They’re working on rumours from indigenous peoples that are trading with the Hudson’s Bay Company. There’s just a lot of hope and wink with the evidence that’s being used. So Dobbs, who we’re going to talk about in just a second, Arthur Dobbs, who’s an Irish politician and eventually a governor of North Carolina, he is very interested in tides. And so, he looks at a lot of the reports about tidal flow in the bay. And by looking at this, he decides that there has to be a Northwest Passage, because the change in the tide levels is so big, that there has to be basically a connection to an ocean up in the north, or else the tides would never fluctuate this much. And then the other evidence that’s brought up again and again will be whales; that there are whales in the Northern Hudson’s Bay, and if it was really just a bay, the whales wouldn’t be there, they wouldn’t, because there’s no evidence of whales sailing into Hudson’s Bay in the south. So, they must be coming from the north through a passage.
Sam Willis 14:15
So, they’re not necessarily just trying to find it, but they’re trying to find evidence of it. That surely must open up an entire and fascinating history of the theory of geography, of how people understood that the world was formed. Have you got geographers working on this, and using the discoveries to change the way they think about the world?
Katie Parker 14:38
Yeah, so actually if you look in the publications or the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which is the journal of the Royal Society, they have a lot of articles on just this topic. And actually, Arthur Dobbs, who is our politician who’s going to become obsessed with the Northwest Passage, he publishes in the Philosophical Transactions, and he actually publishes in the same issue as a guy named Christopher Middleton, who was one of the Hudson’s Bay Company captains. Middleton is interested in magnetic variation, but he also has 20 years of experience in the bay, and he is also very interested in the idea of a Northwest Passage and agrees with Dobbs in that he thinks there might be an inlet in the north of the passage that will lead to the Pacific. So, there are people: we have a captain, we have a politician, you have other fellows of the Royal Society who are usually richer men. And then you do, to some extent, have mapmakers who are also interested. Within Britain at the time, we don’t really have academic geographers, that’s not really a field that’s developed yet. In other European countries, you do have state-funded mapmakers and geographers, or in Spain you might call them cosmographers in an earlier era. But in Britain, they don’t really do that; there is no state funding for mapmaking. And so, you’re going to see that most of the mapmakers are actually trained engravers that then shift to making maps over time. You do have a few of them who become a lot more academic in their focus, but most of the maps at this point are going to be compilations of past ideas. That’s where you get the idea of Baffin Bay being connected, of Greenland being connected to North America and things like that. There just isn’t a lot of detail in the maps of this period in Hudson’s Bay at all. And that has to do with Hudson’s Bay Company having a very strong monopoly on information. People didn’t know who the investors in the Hudson’s Bay Company were, they didn’t know who the governor was, which at this point is a guy named Bibi Lake, which is an excellent name. The Hudson’s Bay Company keeps a very close lid on all of their information, so that’s also another frustration for people like Dobbs who think there is a passage, but they can’t crack into the information that would be really helpful to them which, in terms of more evidence, would be like logbooks from the Hudson’s Bay Company which are not public. So, there is enough evidence to make it of interest to people but not enough evidence to necessarily convince investors and/or the Hudson’s Bay Company to put money behind this insane voyage is out.
Sam Willis 17:07
It’s amazing that the British don’t have a state-sponsored mapmaking department. One of the most important things with a discovery is that you draw what you’ve found, otherwise people can’t go back there. When did that start happening? Who was it left up to? There are so many questions I’ve got! How did they police the accuracy of what was being done?
Katie Parker 17:35
So, the government doesn’t police it, they leave it up to industry, really. I guess they think it’s a free market activity. So, it’s not going to be until 1795 that the Hydrographic Office will be founded in the UK. It’s one of the last of the state-run hydrographic offices that will be founded. We have the Dépôt de Marine in France in 1724. You have the Casa de Contratación in Spain, which is hundreds of years old at this point. Similarly, Portugal has had one of these centralised repositories for centuries. So, the British instead depend on the private mapmaking industry, which is flourishing by the mid-18th century, but naval officers would have to go to mapmakers, usually near St. Paul’s churchyard is where most of them had their shops, and buy their own charts before they went on expeditions. That’s why you see a really healthy discussion amongst mapmakers at the time about the quality of maps because if you bought a map or a chart that had erroneous information, or had even speculative information, that could cause an expedition, either on land or at sea, to go the wrong way, to not find what they need, to not get the support they need, and then people could die. So, maps were very important at the time but they weren’t absolutely unregulated and that’s why we see such a healthy discussion about places like the Pacific, where there’s so little information available, that even maps in voyage accounts are going to be used on vessels going into the Pacific later. There’s a lot of responsibility involved with creating these maps, but then, like you said, surprisingly little regulation of something that is so important.
Sam Willis 19:11
And they’re maps, not charts? So they’re maps, they show the geography but they’re not linked with sailing directions or depth of water or tidal streams or anything like that?
Katie Parker 19:24
It depends on the object, and it depends where you’re going. For certain areas, there would be a lot of extent charts that would have sounding depths that would have room lines that would help with navigation itself. For some areas, especially the Pacific, there is so little information available that any kind of geographic object that includes any information – so we that’s why we see a rehashing of any sort of voyage account that’s gone there that might have sailing directions that might have even just a little sketch map – they’ll kind of grasp at straws because there’s so little information available. Some areas are very thickly charted; the Atlantic obviously is an example of this, in which you could buy very high-quality charts themselves. Other areas, charts are just not going to be an option and so you use whatever is extant there. And just because a chart has a lot of sounding depths and looks really good, doesn’t mean also that it is the most updated or also correct. So, there’s a healthy discussion amongst mapmakers but then also naval officers, government officials, about where charts are coming from, how they’re made, and how they’re reviewed. And actually, Samuel Pepys, in his position with the Royal Navy, is one of the foremost discussants of this in the late 17th century. So, the fact that maps are not regulated, and that maps and charts could be used interchangeably if they’re the only information available (in a place that doesn’t have much geographical knowledge), that is going to feed into these wider discussions about imperial expansion, and about government regulation, really. So, it’s a much wider conversation.
Sam Willis 20:57
With all of that lack of regulation, and also lack of knowledge of where people have been, are there any examples of deliberate manipulation of knowledge -people making stuff up because it’s a good story?
Katie Parker 21:09
Oh, definitely. I think it’s not usually a deliberate manipulation, but there are definite different levels of comfort with evidence. So, I think the best example of that is a map that was published first in 1752, in January of 1752, I do believe. This was going to be published by Philip Buache and Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, who are two of France’s foremost geographers. They are state sponsored, so they are paid by the government. They’re also members of the Académie Française, so the scientific body of France. They published this map that shows these fantastical lakes that basically connect from 63 degrees north latitude, all the way over to Baffin Bay. And so, they say that the information for these fantastical lakes that basically suggest a Northwest Passage, they say that the evidence for this comes from these two letters by a guy named Admiral De La Fontaine. And Fontaine is apparently a Spanish Admiral who went on an expedition in the North Pacific in the mid-17th century. At 63 degrees north, he found an inlet and he followed it through these lakes. Another one of his vessels went up to 79 degrees north latitude where they did not find a passage. But Fontaine did eventually run into a Boston ship captain, he says, a guy named Shapley. These two letters are used as evidence by Buache and Delisle to support this rather fantastic map. The problem is: these letters, the first time there’s any evidence of them is in 1708. They’re published in The Monthly Miscellany in London, and then they’re kind of kept alive. Some people know about them, some people don’t. They’re going to be revitalised, actually, in 1744, by our friend Arthur Dobbs. He’s going to include them in one of the many books he’s publishing at the time, because he is now actually fighting with Christopher Middleton, about a voyage that Dobbs was able to convince the Admiralty to send to Hudson’s Bay. They get into what Middleton calls a paper war, in which they write a total of eight books about each other’s understanding of the geography of Hudson’s Bay, and in one of those, Dobbs is going to include these letters from Admiral De La Fontaine. The map is immediately criticised from many, many angles by Roberto Volgen, deed and Berlin, who are the French geographers, and by an Irish geographer named John Green, whose actual real name is Braddock Mead, he’s a fascinating guy. So, John Green is very upset with all of these reasons we’ve been discussing about the responsibility of map and chart-makers that they could send a voyage awry. But he also points out that if you read these supposed letters, Fontaine doesn’t have an inlet at 63 degrees north; the inlet’s at 53 degrees. The reason Dobbs is interested in them is that there’s an inlet at 53 degrees that will lead to Hudson’s Bay, where he’s put his flag in the ground to say that the passage must be through Hudson’s Bay. Whereas if it’s at 63, a passage will go into Baffin Bay. So, Dobbs kind of throws himself into the fray of criticising this French map. But then, very quickly, we’re going to see that Delisle will react to this criticism, and he issues another map in September 1752, in which he’s brought those discoveries down to 53 degrees. However, Buache never renounced this. He does this really complicated dance to try and explain why it makes sense that 63 degrees is where the inlet would be. And so, actually, Buache and Delisle end up splitting and they don’t work together anymore, even though they’re related by marriage. They no longer work together because Delisle, when he changes the inlet, he says that Buache is the one who misread the letters, and so it’s Buache’s fault. Buache obviously doesn’t like that. So, we see this really big kerfuffle, and it sounds like an academic discussion, but it was printed in the gentleman’s magazine in London, all these maps were seen by a lot of people. So, it was actually part of a much wider discussion. And again, the reason for that, especially in England, is going to be Dobbs. He’s everywhere. He is going to point out that if these Fontaine letters are real, and if there’s an inlet at roughly 53 degrees north, that would suggest the passage to Hudson’s Bay goes through New France, and that the reason that Buache and Delisle wanted to obscure where the actual passage is, why they put it at 63 degrees, is because France was moving in on the passage in Hudson’s Bay, and that France was going to get there before England. And of course, he even adds in digs at the Hudson’s Bay Company because he doesn’t like them and says, “See, the Hudson’s Bay Company, if they’d been doing their job, would have already found this, but now it’s just going to have to be up to the state government, to the crown itself, to find this.” The crown is not actually interested in this, but it does add to the cacophony of the bells of war as we lead into the Seven Years War, because this is right in the mid-1750s, at this point. So these discussions, while they do seem kind of pedantic, they actually connect directly back into larger geopolitical discussions about which Empire is going to be predominant in North America.
Sam Willis 26:24
Bit of deception, bit of xenophobia, bit of fear of war. It sounds like there are some people who are pretty worried about this, they’re worried, there’s a kind of an anxiety over it as well, isn’t there, about who’s going to find it?
Katie Parker 26:38
There’s a huge amount of anxiety, and actually the reason that I’m so interested in both the Middleton expedition, and then in this map war that happens a little bit later, is because I think this is a shift in the search for the Northwest Passage, going from a focus on investment and money and that if it can just be found, then all the ships can flood through and there’ll be open trade, and they’ll be much faster, so that it’s a money-making opportunity. In the mid-18th century, there has been enough voyages, and enough people in-the-know realise how difficult a passage will be, even if it is found, going back to ice and how difficult ice is to deal with. Each year, some places are iced over, some places aren’t. And so, people realise that if a passage is found, it might not be navigable most years. And if it is, it’s going to be a terrible navigation that won’t be much easier at all than going either around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. I think we see a shift in the search for the passage in this mid-18th century time, where we see a shift from the idea of investment to national pride, and that for whoever finds this, it’s going to be a big boon to their empire and to the reputation of the English people or the French people. And I think you can actually see that with how the Fontaine letter controversy finishes up. So, in 1757, we’re going to get a book called Noticia de la California, and it’s published by a guy named Burriel in Spain. It’s going to be translated into English as well. From the English translation, there’ll be a Dutch and a French translation. In the Spanish, Burriel points out that he has searched all through the Spanish archives and can find no mention at all of Fontaine. So, this should have been enough information to put the Fontaine letters to rest and to prove that they were fakes. However, in the English translation, the appendices that explain about the Fontaine letters have been eliminated entirely. And, if you look in the introduction, the English translator and the editor say that the Northwest Passage is a matter of national pride, and that whoever finds it is going to be forwarding trade and commerce, but also going to be helping their nation. And so, you see that this was a deliberate editorial choice to leave out this information, because the passage now has to exist, not so much because it’s going to make everyone money, but because it has been tied up with people’s reputations like Dobbs, but also the reputations of entire nations like, in this case, England. That national pride, that wanting to be the first, is really what’s going to drive all of the expeditions in the 19th century.
Sam Willis 29:17
It’s fascinating, isn’t it? I love this idea of there not being perhaps one passage and that actually there may be several or there are several leads, and it’s going to be a shifting geography. I suppose part of that history, then, is the public latching on to it being a simple idea, and perhaps experienced mariners knowing it is a complex and difficult one.
Katie Parker 29:41
Yes. And this is something you see with perceptions of the wider Pacific as well, but especially with the Northwest Passage. It’s very easy for people to say, “oh, yeah, let’s just go out and search for it” which is very different than if you are going to end up like Franklin does before he dies. But then there’s something like the McClure expedition that goes to search for Franklin. They end up spending four whole winters in the ice. And that is a terrible experience for anyone, even if they did have, like in the Collinson Expedition, they have a billiard table made out of ice. And they also make a skittle alley made out of ice. So, there are moments of frivolity, but it is a terrible, terribly difficult situation to be living in. And again, that’s why I think we have people in the know who realise this isn’t going to be navigable or useful, but there’s been, at this point, two centuries already of searching for it. The need to finish this quest, and the fact that the quest is now brought up, is wrapped up into this idea of the heroic explorer, who is very much the vanguard of empire. That becomes something that people can’t leave alone; it has to be solved.
Sam Willis 30:46
I do love the idea of people investing so much time and effort into something which they know is not useful. I think that will really change the way people think about the Northwest Passage. Just before we go, I’d like to talk about the interaction between indigenous peoples and those explorers. What do we know about that kind of culture clash?
Katie Parker 31:04
Oh, definitely. In many ways, it’s not a culture clash. We have many, many, many records and evidence to show that the Inuit are hugely helpful to pretty much any poor, white men they come across who are wandering around the ice, which happens quite a lot. And so, the best evidence we have of Inuit helping and Inuit evidence is, of course, with the Franklin Expedition in the 19th century. The reason that Terror and Erebus have now been found, finally, which happened in 2014, and 2016, is based on Inuit oral history and Inuit evidence and commentary at the time. And so, I think the main issue with the Inuit is that, usually, the white explorers weren’t willing to believe the information that was being given to them, because it didn’t conform with their pre-existing understandings and assumptions about Inuit people, but also with their pre-existing assumptions about the Northwest Passage itself. So, on the Collinson expedition, one of the many to find Franklin, he’s actually ridiculously close to, and eventually charts, a Northwest Passage. His fellow McClure has actually just beat him to being the first one to get the money for it. But he asks, at one point, an Inuit person to draw a map. And on that map, they say that they’ve seen a ship of a Westerner, and they locate it just to the east. Collinson, after he sees this, it’s given to one of his officers, a guy named Arbuthnot. He says that “no, no, this map can’t be real. The guy was just drawing what Arbuthnot wanted to hear.” It turns out that, if they had gone slightly to the east, that is precisely where Franklin’s men, most of them, we now think, ended up dying. And so, there’s a lack of belief and credibility for the Inuit peoples. I think if people could have swallowed their pride and realised the value of the knowledge of the people who lived there earlier, the Franklin Expedition certainly would have been found earlier. But also, throughout, I think there would have been more understanding of the hardships of certain routes and the fact that certain routes were not viable earlier. There are issues of translation, but there are also real issues of worldviews that were not working together in this situation.
Sam Willis 33:29
I remember when they found HMS Terror, there was a thing in the newspaper that said that they found HMS Terror in Terror Bay! And it does seem like the most sensible place to look for it I couldn’t believe it.
Katie Parker 33:40
Terror Bay was going to be named only about 100 years before. So Terror Bay, that name is not because they knew Terror was there, it’s where Terror had been looked for before, but they didn’t find it. So, that one, they didn’t already know it was there and then forget about it. That name came from a different voyage, one of the many voyages trying to find Terror. But it is quite ironic that that is where Terror was sitting in relatively shallow water.
Sam Willis 33:42
I got the impression that the indigenous people had somehow named it Terror Bay; they found out about it and knew about it, and we just hadn’t asked them. But anyway.
Katie Parker 34:02
I wish that was how it was. But indigenous oral history did know precisely where it was and an Inuit person, as of very recently it said that he’d actually seen a ship with a mast in that area. And then when they went to look, it was precisely there.
Sam Willis 34:30
Fascinating stuff, Katie, thank you very much indeed for talking to me. And I’m sure I’ll come back and find out more about Pacific navigation another time.
Katie Parker 34:37
Happy to help. Thanks.
Sam Willis 34:43
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