Monday, 7 June 2010

English men on Ice Part 7 - Parry was the best of Barrow's Boys

I've been coming across some more material on the epic story of the search for the Northwest Passage that formed a minor sideline in the publishing output of the firm of John Murray throughout the nineteenth century. This is at least in part derived from 'Barrow's Boys' by Fergus Fleming, which is a witty and racy account of the period I'm touching on in this series of blogs.

I thought that before proceeding to the story of John Franklin's second Arctic disaster (for the first see previous entries) I'd say a bit about what happened in between, and refresh what I've said earlier about the man who was behind it all.

As Franklin and William Parry mounted their two-pronged assault on the wilderness in 1819, they had the scathing words of their chief, Sir John Barrow, the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, (and an important friend and supporter of many, many aspects of the Murrays' output for nearly fifty years) about Sir John Ross's trip to explore the region the previous year ringing in their ears. Ross had rather sensibly turned back and didn't lose a man, but Barrow was furious, and went as far as to aver that what was lacking in Ross was simply the pluck and endurance required. Not a single man had died, which was a sign of cowardice...a 'summer cruise' he called it.

Here's the quote from Barrow in the January 19th number of the Quarterly Review: "A voyage of discovery implies danger...but a mere voyage like this, in the summer months, may be considered a voyage of pleasure".

Which gives you a clue. For Barrow, suffering was the measure of moral success, and it was moral success that counted for most...luck didn't enter into it.

While Franklin and his men were starving on the Coppermine River, Sir William Parry, (who also wrote his material up for Barrow and Murray), was doing rather better by sea. Parry was a planner...the most successful of all the expedition leaders that Barrow dispatched...On his many expeditions through the 1820s and 30s, for example, scurvy was combated with lemon juice in pastilles...and casualties were minimal.

On that first trip, Parry took the Northern route through Lancaster Sound...and got much further west than anyone else was to do for many years. He and his men wintered on Melville Island on their very first attempt in 1819...which ironically raised expectations that this thing might be possible after all.

But no one ever got that far again... not with an intact ship anyway...The ice just happened to be open that far that summer...and was open again on the way back. That is, Parry got lucky...but there was something in the collective mindset that couldn't believe in his comparative success raised future expectations. Fatally.

When Amudsen finally DID make a continuous trip across the top of Canada by sea in 1907, it took him four years, on a tiny purpose built boat. The Northwest Passage as a trade route was a chimera... and will remain so until the ice melts in Arctic summers more permanently. Like it's doing now...

Another entertaining feature of Parry's journey for a playwright (and grist to the mill if I was writing a play) is that, like the officers in Botany Bay in the 1790s, or the besieged cantonments in Kabul in 1841, or the Colditz Story, come to that, amateur theatricals helped to pass the time over the winter. James Ross in particular spent a lot of time in drag, apparently...

(It was his uncle John's disgrace in turning back in Baffin Bay, discussed above, that cut him out of the Admiralty running...but it was John Ross who made the money later on...with Theatrical Arctic Panormas in Vauxhall Gardens based on his own execrable water colours...)

Parry knew he had been lucky to get as far as he did...but saw they were iced in...and was dubious about the south...though he tried that route in 1820, while Franklin's land based expedition that year was falling apart...

But Parry, for all of his professional pragmatism demonstrated over and over again in his three trips was ultimately eclipsed by Franklin...not because of publication as such...Murray published all their accounts, but because of suffering. Franklin suffered. Franklin ate his own boots. So Franklin sold more books, and conformed more closely to the rear Admiral's sense of morality. Rather as if a moral compass was more important than an actual one, or than the geography and ethnography of the region as it actually existed.

In any case, to continue the main thrust of the narrative in this series of posts, Franklin, rescued by Inuits, did survive, but not having found what he was looking for, made another trip up North before heading down South for a prestigious posting as Governor of the penal colony of Tasmania, or Van Diemen's Land. It wasn't going to work out for him, however...and it was the Arctic that years later would be the culmination of his career and the repository of his bones...And another Murray publication of course. The next posts will, I hope, get us closer to the heart of his story. I'm beginning to feel iced in by all this material myself...

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