Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dr. John Rae

Every few months -- partly due to Ken McGoogan's book and John Walker's film -- I hear afresh about the injustice done to Dr. John Rae, the man officially credited with first "ascertaining the fate" of Sir John Franklin and his men. Today, my Google alerts drew my attention to a lovely blog that goes by the name of Shambles Manor, where a fresh tribute to Dr. Rae has been posted. It seems it may well be time to set the record straight, the more so as -- these days at least -- there seems to be little room in the "blogosphere" for any nuanced differences of opinion.

So let me be quite frank and direct: I feel that Dr. John Rae is one of the greatest explorers ever to travel the eastern Arctic, and a man of absolutely unquestionable integrity. That he is not given greater credit for his actions, and the testimony he brought home to the Admiralty, is a lasting stain upon that institution, and represents a loss to the integrity of British Arctic exploration history. Dr. Rae deserves far greater laurels than he has generally been given, and by the by, his birthplace ought to be restored and deserves to be a Scottish, as well as a British, national landmark.

But that said: Dr. Rae did not "discover" the Northwest Passage. He himself would never have made such a claim. He did indeed map a stretch of water -- the "Rae Strait" as it is justly named in his honour -- which constituted the last unmapped bit of the particular "Northwest Passage" as it was navigated many decades later by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Sir John Franklin, believing in the maps of (that other most notable Scot) James Clark Ross, did not believe that there was a Passage through this area, and indeed had he tried to take his enormous "bomb" vessels that way, they would have certainly run aground (Amundsen's Gjøa, which drew less than 1/3 the amount of water of Franklin's ex-warships, did run aground, and had to jettison much cargo in order to make it through). Anyone who wishes to consult the historical record in this regard can readily do so -- Dr. Rae's own writings, and Amundsen's, describe this bit of territory quite ably.

Ken McGoogan feels that, since Rae mapped this section, he ought to be acclaimed the "discoverer" of the Passage. But this neglects two hard facts: 1) There is more than one Passage, depending on ice conditions and what sort of ship one has -- the Rae/Amundsen section is but one option among many; and 2) What was called for in terms of the Northwest Passage in the nineteenth century was not its "discovery" but its "navigation" -- one had to pass through it. McClure had a sort of claim to this, though part of his passage was on foot, and he was only able to complete it thanks to the help of other crews of other vessels; Amundsen had, and has, an indisputable claim. Other ships -- most notably the "Manhattan" in 1969 -- plowed their way through without taking this route, traversing ice that would have been utterly impassible to Franklin or any other nineteenth-century voyager.

Mr Carmichael, the MP for Orkney and Shetland, has in the past expressed his desire to have any memorials to Franklin -- such as that at Westminster Abbey -- removed in favor of Rae. But this would not serve justice; Rae himself was always effusive in his praise and empathy for Franklin and his men, and he never made such a claim in his life. There is no contradiction in honoring Franklin and Rae -- indeed, there is only a history of mutual regard, and enormous achievement on the part of both men in the face of danger. Let us honor Dr. Rae more -- and yet let us honor Sir John Franklin no less.

Monday, September 21, 2009

CBC: Finding Franklin group challenges search permit refusal

According to a story today on the CBC's website, Rob Rondeau and his ProCom Diving Services are challenging the denial of an archaeological permit by the Government of Nunavut:

The Nunavut government has come under fire for denying an archeological permit to a privately-funded group that wants to search for Sir John Franklin's missing ships in the High Arctic. Members of the Finding Franklin Expedition said the reasons they were denied a Class 1 archeological permit by the territorial government do not make sense. "It's extremely important, I think, on a global scale to Canada, to Great Britain, that the wrecks be found," Rob Field, one of the lead archeologists in the expedition group, told CBC News.

You can read the rest of the story here at the CBC's site. The gist is that Rondeau's group feel that they did consult with local Inuit, having spoken with the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, who put them in touch with Inuit in Taloyoak where they had hoped to hire a couple of local guides. They also say that they have plenty of underwater experience, even if most of it has not been in the Arctic, and feel that the territorial Justice minister was unnecessarily harsh in sending a letter threatening their arrest.Rob Field, an archaeologist working with Rondeau's group, is quoted as saying that he's not sure why it is so difficult to obtain permission to simply do a "no touch" search for the wrecks of Erebus and Terror. He says that he hopes to speak with Julie Ross, the Nunavut government archaeologist who was involved in the review of ProCom's permit application

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Not looking for Franklin's ships this year

(click here for the full article)

According to several stories which have appeared on the CBC's website, Rob Rondeau is not looking for Franklin this year:

One of the leaders of a private search for Sir John Franklin's lost ships in the Northwest Passage denies he was planning to look for the vessels this year. The Nunavut government threatened Rob Rondeau of ProCom Diving Services and his team with criminal charges if they searched for the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror without an archeological permit.

Rondeau received a letter to that effect from the territorial Justice Department last week while he was in the hamlet of Taloyoak. Nunavut government archeologist Julie Ross said Rondeau's team was trying to launch a search for the ships — which have been missing in the High Arctic passage for more than 160 years — even though the group had been denied a territorial archeological permit this year ...


It's difficult, at this point, to say how much of this story reflects the Government's own desire to keep its mission pre-eminent, or how much is due to political resistance on the part of Nunavut authorities. Since the establishment of Nunavut, many researchers say it's been more difficult to get archaeological and other permits; while the requirement that local Inuit communities be consulted is certainly understandable, it can add costs and delays. I've talked with Dave Woodman about this, and he's certainly had a few frustrating experiences with "officialdom" up there. That said, it certainly would be most unfortunate if Rondeau's team had indeed -- as some reports suggest -- attempted to skirt the proper processes in order to do a quick, unpermitted search.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chauncey Loomis, 1930-2009

I was saddened yesterday, on looking at the table of contents for the latest issue of Arctic, to come upon an obituary notice for Chauncey Loomis. I'd known he was ill, but the last few e-mails I'd had from him were as lively and irascible as ever. From a man who would often be away on fishing trips to such far-flung places as Tierra del Fuego, an absence of a few months seemed unremarkable; just last summer, he'd told me of a trip to New Brunswick, where, by his own account, he had enjoyed "the best salmon fishing I've ever had in almost 40 years of fishing for the creatures." It's especially strange in this electronic age, when e-mails remain in one's in-box, the "reply" button clearly visible -- to suddenly discover that no reply will ever be possible again.

The obituary notice in Arctic, written by Loomis's longtime friend Constance Martin, struck all the right notes. Still, in the sudden realization of his passing, I couldn't help but be struck by how much my work owed to his, and wondering how many people today are aware of it. It wasn't his delightful book on Charles Francis Hall, Weird and Tragic Shores, which I first stumbled on, but rather his essay "The Arctic Sublime," published in 1977 in the anthology Nature and the Victorian Imagination. This single essay, with the illustrations and color plates (!) that Loomis managed to have printed with it, was in many ways the spur for all of my work on the Arctic in Victorian painting, illustration, and photography. Many of its images, such as Friedrich's Das Eismeer, William Westall's engraving, after Beechey, of the Hecla and Griper at Melville Island (I never did find out where Loomis had found his lovely blue tinted version) , and of course Sir Edwin Landseer's "Man Proposes, God Disposes" have remained central to my work from that moment. While Loomis was certainly correct in his famous apothegm that "The Sublime cannot be mapped," his writing surely served as a map of all the places I would need to go in pursuing my own researches into the Arctic and visual culture. It was also a welcome sign that an English professor could cross over old disciplinary boundaries, and do so with verve and style.

Loomis could be bold -- but he was also, when he felt it right, cautious. Despite his discovery of arsenic in tissue samples taken, at his behest on an expedition he'd organized, from the grave of Charles Francis Hall, he refused to jump to the conclusion that Hall had been murdered, or say who was to blame, without more than what he considered, at best, circumstantial evidence. In that case, I once thought he was a bit too cautious, but having had the experience of seeing a few of my own bold conclusions founder upon the sands of presupposition, I see his views in a somewhat different light. When it came to the important things -- bringing a character such as Hall to vivid life -- there was no one better than Loomis. The Hall papers offer a daunting cart-load of contradictions, the remains of a life he never lived to set in order; that Loomis was able from such jumbled materials the narrative he did is an exemplary work of humane scholarship, and a book which to this day my students find among the most readable and engaging on my list of texts. Weird and Tragic Shores has been re-issued by the Modern Library, although I've found that, year to year, it seems to go in and out of stock at the publisher's. If for some reason any of you who are reading these words have not read it, you owe it to yourself to obtain a copy, and head directly to a comfy chair to read it. It is a book which, as Cervantes once said of Tirant lo Blanc, deserves to be kept in print forever.