Migration, Expedition, and Inscription

In his address to the Association of American Geographers in January 1937, W.H. Hobbs began a familiar historiography of ‘Exploration within the Arctic Region’ around the year 330 BC, when a Greek geographer named Pytheas began a 6 year voyage to the north coast of Britain. There, Pytheas heard about a land called Thule, which he then claimed to reach after a 6 day voyage. Although discredited, the name ‘Thule’ has since gained mythic status as the designation for an unknown country at the northern end of the world.

The degree to which that inscription continues to fuel fantasies of a strange world awaiting discovery is remarkable, given that we have overwhelming evidence that Pytheas was not the first to discover the Arctic. North Sea trade was common in his time, and archaeological sites now date human presence in northern Scandinavia to 8100 BC. In North America, a few stone tools left in the Yukon Territory date to 10 000 BC. On Russia’s Wrangell Island, the extinction of the last mammoths followed the first arrival of hunters in roughly 3000 BC. At the same time, Tuniit hunters (whose tools resemble those found in Chukotka) began to leave camp remains in Alaska, then east across the Arctic to Greenland, where they likely became the first indigenous people the Norse encountered. Tuniit culture was later displaced by a new Inuit culture, a complex society of large coastal villages found originally around the Bering Strait. At this bustling nexus between continents, an Inuit culture emerged and came to control the flow of iron products – possibly from China – into the Americas more than 2000 years ago. Inuit people soon created the technologies needed to hunt large bowhead whales, and archaeologist Robert McGee believes it may have been a desire for smelted metal that drew Inuit adventurers to a second new source, the Norse in Greenland.

Between Pytheas and Inuit travelers, scholars face potent differences in the way each communicated their discovery. Yet researchers can readily overload the explanatory burden of writing, because there are sometimes ways around communicative barriers. With secondhand records, recent essays present accounts of the Inuit who first traveled to Europe, as well as whalers who crafted material records well in advance of the usual litany of explorers. Such work has moved the scholarship away from stories of technological progress and heroism, to examine instead the context within which certain narratives and images – and not others – gained circulation, privilege, and trust. Mercator’s polar projection could have disappeared in 1569, for instance, had it not been useful (as scholars now suggest) to British and Dutch merchants who were seeking a new route to East Asia. While most of its coastlines were speculatively drawn, Mercator’s new map nonetheless made it a simple matter to consider three much discussed alternatives – a northwest passage around North America, a northeast passage around Siberia, or straight across the Pole through an open polar sea – with the almost effortless movement of hands and eyes if not ships.

If the context of document production served to privilege some images, it also obscured other knowledge. The opening of the White Sea route to Moscow after 1553 boosted the fur trade between Europe and Siberia, especially for sable. That became a major source of wealth for the Muscovite state, and local depletions of these resources fuelled Russian conquests eastward across Siberia. Small vessels began to traverse many of Siberia’s north–south rivers and its arctic coast in a long distance trade network. By the 1640s, Cossack fur traders operated from the Kolyma River. In 1648, one started to work his way further east along the coast. With six small boats, Simon Dezhnev passed through the Bering Strait, eventually to reach his destination at the Anadyr River. There, a century before Vitus Bering sailed in the opposite direction, Dezhnev filed his report with a company of ficer, where it disappeared from circulation, only to be discovered later in Yakutsk. It serves to illustrate a context in which one narrative about the Arctic remained obscure, while that of Bering gained wide recognition.

Nationalism and the popular press were later forces to privilege some narratives of arctic exploration over others, and this is the context in which the 1845 Franklin Expedition is understood. By then, it had become clear that potential profits were too slim, and risks too costly, for privately funded expeditions to locate a northwest passage to the Pacific. After the Napoleonic wars, the British Navy took up that ambition as a matter of national prestige. Pride was not the only impetus. From accounts of earlier explorers, the Arctic had come to be associated with mystery, grandeur, and austere beauty in British literature. In 1845, that mystery merged with patriotism in support of Britain’s best equipped expedition to date. The disappearance of Franklin’s ships, and the 40 rescue expeditions that followed, coincided with the emergence of sensationalist journalism. Such newspapers were in wide circulation when reports surfaced about the fate of Britain’s finest. The news was doubly disturbing because it challenged two discourses at once: that of British ‘mastery’ (especially when Inuit testimony suggested the crew had resorted to cannibalism), as well as that about the glorious and sublime landscapes of the far North. Both challenges generated volumes of press in Great Britain about the Arctic.

In the nineteenth-century, imaginative geographies of the Arctic emerged in juvenile literature as well. In The young fur traders, for instance, Robert Ballantyne used the Canadian Northwest as the setting for his first adventure story for boys. The nephew of Sir Walter Scott, Ballantyne’s first job with the Hudson Bay Company had taken him to Canada. Fifteen years later, he embellished his own experience with tales of trapping to create a rambling story of boyish exuberance, masculinity, and mastery. Amidst news about the Franklin Expedition, The young fur traders was a success and by 1884, Ballantyne was ranked among the ten most popular writers of juvenile literature. Arctic landscapes often served as the setting in which he constructed his vision of adventure, and with Ballantyne, Jack London, and other writers, adventurous white masculinity also started to become the popular lens through which the Arctic was understood. That literature inspired another generation of explorers to a quest for the North Pole, notably Frederick Cook and Robert Peary in 1909. In the absence of commercial value, their privately funded expeditions were legitimated as the pursuit for scientific knowledge. Yet Peary’s endeavor remained co constitutive with national conquest as he proclaimed the Anglo Saxon male body as a virtuous and rational scientific device, at the same time his desire to plant an American flag at the pole projected an older imperial agenda. Framed through a language of nationalism, masculinity, and science in the US press, Peary then positioned himself – not his African American partner, nor the Inuit guides whose vital knowledge he reduced to that of mere laborers – at the leading edge of scientific enterprise, literally clothed in American colors.