Book review: Meandering account of 19th-century European exploration of the Arctic still offers insights

Explorations in the Icy North: How Travel Narratives Shaped Arctic Science in the Nineteenth Century, by Nanna Katrine Lüders Kaalund

University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021. 240 pages. $40

Midway through “Explorations in the Icy North,” Nanna Katrine Lüders Kaalund writes, “Science in the Arctic was shaped not only by the training and abilities of the explorers, but also by interaction with Indigenous peoples, the financial context of the expeditions, and the unpredictability of the environment.”

It’s a fair summary of her argument, which she more or less successfully makes in a muddled narrative about the ways scientific and geographical knowledge of the Arctic was acquired through explorations and conveyed through memoirs. If it sounds somewhat dry, it is; Kaalund is an academic who writes like one, and her topic is of narrow interest. But for an understanding of 19th-century Arctic exploration, her book is an important contribution.

Kaalund is interested in what travel narratives of Arctic voyages tell us about how knowledge of the far north was attained, and how those narratives were viewed by readers of the time. As she demonstrates, this took place in an environment where authenticity as an Arctic explorer was a question of considerable dispute, rooted as much in social status and individual behavior as in actual accomplishment. For British explorers in particular, the accuracy or lack thereof in an individual’s observations was often judged more by their class standing than their accomplishments.

The 19th century was the most dramatic period for Arctic voyaging, and most accounts of the era focus on Britain’s role. After the close of the Napoleonic Wars, an idle British Admiralty found purpose in the search for the Northwest Passage, a long-sought shipping route across the northern coast of North America that would provide merchants with a shortcut to Asia. In the standard telling, this culminated in the catastrophic loss of all men assigned to the Franklin Expedition, which departed England in 1845, and the subsequent searches in the 1850s that found only minimal clues to their fate.

This tragedy inevitably dominates any account of European expansion into the Arctic during the century, and Kaalund includes it in her book. But she places it in a different context than most authors do. For Kaalund it was but one piece in a century-long search for knowledge in the north that also consumed her own country of Denmark, which was making territorial claims on Greenland. Meanwhile, the region was already inhabited, primarily by the Inuit, although like Europeans, they too included a diverse collection of cultures.

“It is easy to generalize and create a dichotomy between European and Euro-American explorers on the one hand, and Indigenous peoples on the other. But there was no sense of unity among explorers across national boundaries,” she writes, adding that “there was (and is) no singular Arctic Indigenous culture with which historians can neatly create a dichotomy.”

It’s a wordy way of saying that history is never black and white. Cultures and individuals within those cultures have their own objectives. Sometimes they work in tandem, sometimes they clash, and out of this comes our understanding of how history unfolded and knowledge was gained.

For Kaalund, the knowledge in question is the geographical and scientific nature of the Arctic, how travelogues contributed to collective understandings, and how they were judged during a period of rapid scientific advancement. The journals of Arctic voyages were the de facto scientific writings on the region, but who wrote them often had more influence than what they contained.

The internal dynamics of cultures played into this. Kaalund discusses the Scottish explorer John Rae at some length. Probably the most able European overland traveler in the Arctic, he learned from the Indigenous residents and thrived. He was also the first to uncover the grisly fate of Franklin’s men, which he learned from an Inuit group he encountered.

Rae was uniquely poised to bring the Arctic to readers in England, and his memoir was quite popular. But among elite opinion makers on Arctic matters, he had several strikes against him. He was a Scotsman, and thus, well, not British. By adapting Inuit ways on the land and ice he was extraordinarily successful in his Arctic ventures yet denounced for “going native” back home. He probably could have overcome these hurdles, but as he was the first to discover the cannibalism that the final survivors of Franklin’s men resorted to — which he learned by believing Indigenous residents — he was shameful in British eyes and he and the Inuit were frequently dismissed as liars.

Suersaq, also known as Hans Hendrik, was an Inuit Greenlander who was hired for his expertise on several late-century expeditions. His skills helped 18 castaways from the shipwrecked Polaris survive six months on an ice floe during the winter of 1872-73. Formally educated, he wrote one of the few Inuit memoirs from the era. Yet he, too, was frequently dismissed by armchair critics as lacking knowledge.

During the search for the Northwest Passage, British explorers were tasked primarily with geographic discovery. But science was a close second priority. Much was learned. After the Franklin debacle and numerous failed rescue missions, however, England withdrew from the Arctic. Scientists rushed into the void.

The first International Polar Year took place over 1882-83 and brought researchers from across Europe, the United States and Canada together to gather data. This marked a new phase in global scientific cooperation, and a new conception of what qualified as “scientific.” England, still very class-conscious at the time, joined the effort only begrudgingly. For Kaalund, this marked the true end of British dominance of Arctic science and exploration.

Kaalund meanders her way through “Explorations in the Icy North,” hitting on far more topics than can be summarized here. She brings new perspective on the diversity of cultural interactions of the time. The book falls short not for lack of information, but for poor organization and an inability on Kaalund’s part to stay focused. Again, this is academic writing. Sometimes painfully so. Lay readers will struggle with it. But Arctic history geeks will find a lot to think about. We always do.