Book review: In a posthumous work, David Roberts details the life of a mostly uncelebrated Arctic explorer

“Into the Great Emptiness”

By David Roberts; W. W. Norton & Company, 2022; 368 pages; $30.

Gino Watkins isn’t among the best-known of Arctic explorers. One of the youngest men to ever lead an expedition into polar regions, he helmed a successful 16-month survey of Greenland in 1930, when the island remained largely unexplored and unknown. And he did so with an egalitarian leadership style unlike that of better-known luminaries.

The story of this quest, from which all 14 team members returned home safely, is the topic of “Into the Great Emptiness,” a posthumous work by bestselling history writer David Roberts and a beautifully written argument for why Watkins, a complicated man difficult even for his friends to come to know, belongs among the upper tier of his polar peers.

Watkins hailed from a once-wealthy British family with a dwindling fortune. Growing up a dilettante with a taste for action, he was drawn more to outdoor adventures than his studies. While attending Cambridge, from which he never graduated, Watkins cast about for direction until attending a lecture about Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal trip to the South Pole. The spell had been cast. Watkins turned his attention to the earth’s polar regions and never seriously looked any other direction again.

Most polar explorers underwent an apprenticeship before leading their own expeditions, and Watkins’ trajectory appeared no different when he signed on with a 1927 summer jaunt that fell through at the last minute due to insufficient funding. Undaunted and inexperienced, Watkins chartered a vessel, scraped together money, and led his own handpicked crew to the unexplored Edgeøya, part of the Svalbard Archipelago. So successful was this trip that the Royal Geographical Society admitted him as its youngest member yet, and placed him in charge of a border survey between Labrador, then still a British possession, and Canada.

Here Watkins’s unusual style crystalized. Never one to give direct orders, he had a talent for simply suggesting what people might do, and his enthusiasm generally led to cooperation. While planning the expedition, Watkins had met James Maurice Scott, a fellow Cambridge student, and within half an hour convinced him to come along. The two became best friends, remaining so through the remainder of Watkins’ short life.


The year-and-a-half-long Labrador excursion, while never quite reaching the Arctic Circle, took place under sufficiently extreme conditions to provide Watkins and Scott with crucial skills, which they gained by carefully following the tutelage of trappers and Indigenous residents.

Upon his triumphant return home, Watkins proposed an expedition to Greenland to include a weather station on the island’s ice cap for gathering a year’s worth of data, the longest yet traverse of the island from east to west, a search for a potential flight path over it to shorten the distance for planes traveling from Britain to Western Canada, and several other objectives, some of which were realized and others, including the flight path navigation, abandoned.

The bulk of this book focuses on this journey, which was titled the British Arctic Air Route Expedition (BAARE). Fourteen men arrived on the island in the summer of 1930, and under Watkins’s laissez-faire leadership approach, began spanning out in differing directions, hoping to cram as much as possible into the coming year.

[Book review: A new edition of a 19th century sea voyage opens a window into the era’s fascination with the Arctic]

Roberts, who was a masterful storyteller, brings the drama to the page, leaving readers with a sense of having been present. He draws heavily from diaries and published writings of the participants, who tended to write with such stereotypically British understatement that readers will often be chuckling out loud (Watkins himself described an incident that nearly led to ruin and starvation simply as “very disappointing”).

The men made their base camp on the eastern shore of Greenland, with their weather station 130 miles west and more than 8,000 feet above them. Getting men to and from the station was the primary work for all involved, and it was harder than expected. So much so that one member of the team, August Courtauld, volunteered to remain in it alone during the coldest months.

It turned into a 150-day stay during which the entire station was completely buried under snow. But for a narrow pipe supplying fresh air, and a Union Jack barely sticking about the surface and only spotted by the second rescue party, Courtauld would have been forever entombed. Courtauld’s ordeal and the desperate efforts at rescuing him comprise the longest section of this book, offering polar exploration junkies another narrative of survival and near madness to enjoy from the comfort of their armchairs.

Roberts also closely examines the complicated relationships between the men and the local Inuit population, which, as so often happened amid European explorations, turned sexual. This topic is thin ice for any writer to wander out onto, as it gets to the heart of the entire European enterprise of exploration, colonialism and cultural domination. Roberts manages to critique actions while looking at them from the broader perspective of both the European and Inuit cultures, utterly alien to each other. While not excusing what began as exploitive relationships, Roberts shows how young men and women both crossed divides. There was genuine affection.

This leads to a broader discussion of Inuit cosmology, which Watkins, despite deeply respecting the technologies and skills of the Inuit, never appears to have grasped. None of the men seem to have appreciated the complex worldview that had developed over centuries among this isolated group.

The book reaches its apogee atop the “infinite blankness of the plateau” where the search for Courtauld took place. For all their preparations, Roberts writes, the explorers “simply underestimated the difficulties that otherworldly frozen void, stretching beyond the horizons, with its violent and unpredictable storms, threw in the face of intruders.”

Underestimating Greenland led to a series of exciting moments on that trip, and would result in Watkins’ death when he returned in 1932. His career was brief, but his accomplishments many. David Roberts pays them honor with “Into the Great Emptiness,” a wonderful capstone to his own remarkable legacy as a popular historian.

[5 questions for David James, editor of the Alaska literary collection ‘Writing on the Edge’]

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at