Monday, 7 June 2010

Englishmen on Ice Part Two - War Surplus

This is Part Two of a series of posts about the polar exploration narratives published by the Murray dynasty throughout the nineteenth century, with special emphasis on the search for the North West Passage, and on the exploits of John Franklin, whose relics are a highlight of the John Murray Archive. (See my treasures gallery).

Rear Admiral Barrow wrote in 1816: "To what purpose could a portion of our naval force be, at any time, but more especially in time of profound peace, more honourably or more usefully employed than in completing those details of geographical and hydrographical science of which the grand outlines have been boldly and broadly sketched by Cook, Vancouver and Flingers, and others of our countrymen"

In other words, now that the war against Napoleon was over, how do we keep the Navy big? By keeping it busy. How do we hang on to all those newly promoted officers? By offering them rewards and promotion for mapping the unknown world.

And as he writes in the Quarterly Review the next year, with the first expedition to Baffin Bay about to be on its way under Parry and Ross to search for the Northwest Passage, the Russians are coming...there are rumours that the Russians might try to cross via the Berring Straits the other way, the swine:

"It would be somewhat mortifying if a naval power but of yesterday should complete a discovery in the 19th century which was so happily commenced by Englishmen in the 16th...there is, however little to fear on this score"

Besides the imperial was the spiritual imperative. The testing of the self. Which was even better done by icy wastes than by tropical diseases. As I've said elsewhere, it was "clean".

As an example of the genre, here's Henry Morely in a piece called "Unspotted Snow" he wrote for Charles Dickens' Household Words at the height of the "Find Franklin" mania in 1854 which drew this period in the unhappy history of exploration to a close: (Franklin and his final expedition had gone missing in you'll see in much more gory detail later) :

"For three hundred years the Arctic seas have now been visited by European sailors; their narratives supply some of the finest modern instances of human energy and daring, bent on a noble undertaking, and associated constantly with kindness, generosity and simple piety. The
history of Arctic enterprise is stainless as the Arctic snows, clean to the core as an ice mountain."

And a clean bad time was had by we shall see...

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