Sunday, 14 April 2013

Read in 2013 - 11: In the Arctic Seas

This must be, if I remember correctly, the oldest (or at least one of the oldest) books I have read so far. Sir Francis Leopold McClintock compiled it during 1857-1859, and it was published in 1859 shortly after his return to England from the Arctic Seas.
The full title of the book is rather impressive: "The Voyage of the 'Fox' in the Arctic Seas: A Narrative of the Discovery of the Fate of Sir John Franklin and His Companions."

This picture shows, of course, not the cover of the free kindle edition I have read, but the original title leaf of the first edition. 

Let me briefly take you back to the 1980s, when a teenager in south Germany became fascinated with the fate of the lost Franklin expedition, induced by Owen Beattie's book "Frozen In Time", which I borrowed from the school library where my Mum worked. If back then we would have had the internet as we know it now, I am certain my teenage self would have delved into profound research about the topic. As things were back then, other interests and aspects of daily life soon took over, but the story always survived at the back of my mind. About 20 years later - I already lived in this flat, therefore it must have been after 2003 -, there was an article in my weekly newspaper, "Die ZEIT", reminding me of Beattie's book, and I had my Mum get it for me from the library once more. I was again as fascinated as I had been the first time around, but those were pre-blogging years for me, and therefore no written review exists.

When last year in March I was on my kindle downloading spree, I found McClintock's book and happily added it to my ever-growing collection. And now I finally got round to reading it, completing it last night, cosily tucked in my warm bed with duvet and woolly blanket on top.

McClintock was born in 1819 and 38 years old when he was asked by Franklin's widow, Lady Jane Franklin, to head the last search party for her late husband, his men and the scientific records they had undoubtedly accumulated during their ill-fated voyage in the 1840s. By then, nobody hoped to find any survivors of the expedition, but understandably, Lady Franklin wanted certainty, and the authorities were not willing to fund yet another (mostly) unsuccessful search for the two ships and their crews.
The widow rallied round all her friends (today, we would say that she was a most active networker), and by combining their private funds and what they were able to collect from public subscription, managed to buy and equip the "Fox", a schooner with a crew of 25, with everything they deemed necessary for a two-year-voyage to and in the Arctic Seas.

McClintock was indeed successful; not only did he find plenty of relics (sold to him by Inuit who had found one of the abandoned ships, and also found by him and his men at the places the original expedition had come across) and chartered hundreds of miles of up-to-then unknown coast line, but it was one of his companions who found the only written document left by Franklin's expedition, confirming Franklin's death on the 11th June 1847.

Piecing together all the evidence he had, he drew the conclusion that all men from both ships' crews had perished, and returned to England.

His account was originally not meant to be published, but merely his personal journal, written on board and during his land-travels (using sleds pulled by men and dogs). In the foreword he states that he had written the journal originally for Lady Franklin, and that it was she who insisted in him having it published. It became a bestseller in Victorian times, adding to McClintock's fame (he was knighted upon his return).

The journal is written in an unexcited, almost unemotional style, not excluding either hardships or reasons for hope and joy, but all in a manner that allows the reader to grasp the general atmosphere of a mixture of scientific coolness and spirit of adventure. Without the latter, McClintock would never have accepted the task; without the former, he would not have been successful.

I learned many words from this book, a lot of them relating to Arctic fauna and phenomenons: ptarmigan, dearth, mock moons, paraselenae, haswers, snow bunting, fulmar petrel, rotchies and auks, to name but a few.
Pemmican and sugar beer featured in the book, as well as the beautiful word "vicissitudes", which I recognized from Italian ("vicissitudine"). 
Details such as McClintock's question to himself, "Does Bellot Strait really exist?", reminded me of how unsure travelling in those days was - they really had no way of knowing the true shape and outline of any coast line unless someone had been there before them and drawn up reliable charts. 

Reading a good portion of this book while standing around on snow-covered platforms, waiting for the train to or from work, I appreciated even more the comforts I can avail myself of - central heating, hot showers, adequate clothing and wholesome nutrition.

It does have its lengths, admittedly, but it was a fascinating glimpse into a life and times that could hardly be more different from my own.


  1. Sounds really interesting, I love coming across stories like this and being surprised, and am fascinated by lives so different from my own.

    Great post :o)

  2. Oh my goodness, you know this is my kind of book!
    Funny thing, I am working on a post about "Frozen In Time", a book that I read last month! (The book is not out just yet, I was able to get an advanced reader's copy, it will come out later this month.) Wait for the post! :-)
    Like you, when I was reading about the cold (my book is set in Greenland) I felt grateful for heating, hot showers, warm clothes and fresh food!

    1. Funny that someone else would write a book with exactly the same title, Kay!
      Yes, while I was doing research for my review, I thought of you and that you'd probably find it interesting, too :-)

  3. Whilst I've read little about Arctic or Antarctic exploration per se I am always aware when reading about navel history of the Nelson era (my favourite historical subject) of the massive difference between conditions then and now. When it comes to preparing for the cold, for example, Sir Edmund Hillary'e era (the 1950s!) climbed Everest in tweed jackets. Franklin's achievements were truly amazing.

    1. They did it in style, Graham, and survived! By what I could gather from McClintock's account, they were rather sensible when it came to clothing up there in that icy world. By that time, they were also aware of the importance of certain foods to avoid scurvy; some of them still got it on that voyage, though.

  4. Wow, it kind of puts the traveling most of us do to shame, doesn't it? It's interesting to speculate what drove these men, who must have known there was a very good chance they might never make it home again. I'm not sure I'd be brave enough to set out to deliberately face such incredible odds. xoxox

    1. I'm sure I'd NOT be brave enough, Carol! When it comes to the cold, I am not very good at all... Can't deal with it, and this gets worse the older I get.