Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Englishmen on Ice - concluded

At the end of my last post, I asked myself whether I'd found the North West Passage in the cages of the John Murray Archive, here at the National Library of Scotland.

In a way, I think I did. After all, it doesn't exist anywhere else but on paper...

After this marathon series of Arctic posts, in which I've hoped to form at least an initial response to the long story of courage and irreponsibility that was the search for the North West Passage in the Canadian Arctic, as documented by the publisher John Murray between 1818 and 1859, I want to take a moment or two to reflect before setting back off into the archival wilderness in search of new treasures...

(To get more detail on what follows, I'd refer you back to the beginning of this series...)

First, the heroism and sacrifice involved. Franklin's account of his first abortive expedition to find the Passage by the land route, published in 1822 to his lasting fame, is a memoir of horror, but also one of pride in the moral capacity of 19th Century Englishmen to endure anything in the name of commerce and discovery.

That journey, like its many many successors, was animated by a sense of moral certainty that a trade route around the top of Canada between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would be found, and found by English grit. This was an illusion born of commercial optimism and a sense of Providence...that God had arranged geography in the interests of the Empire. And this sense of destiny was itself mostly down to one man, the extraordinary Rear Admiral John Barrow, who, in turn, was a key figure in the Murrays' expanding empire of print in this period.

All those lives, Franklin's included, were lost for something that was never there to be found. The first person to make the passage...that is, to sail a vessel all the way from one ocean to another, was the redoutable Roald Amudsen, he who later beat Scott to the South Pole...and it took him four years in a specially rebuilt fishing smack...1903-1907...hardly a commercially attractive prospectus...

Anyway, by that time, thousands upon thousands of indentured labourers were hacking their Yellow Fevered way through the ithsmus of Panama...and making the polar route redundant...doing it the hard way, perhaps...but at least not the impossible way.

In the course of my reading on this, I've also come to believe that it was a similar sense of what must be morally possible, even if geographically inept and defiant of such tawdry considerations as evidence, that later was to animate the outrage of Charles Dickens, among others, when Dr Rae returned to London with Inuit tales that Franklin's last expeditioon (in 1845-8) had not only failed and become hopelessy, and fatally lost in the wilderness, but had succumbed to what Rae called "the last resource " of cannibalism before they all perished.

Just as it was a moral certainty that the passage had to be there, so it was, (according to Dickens and the outraged Lady Franklin) morally impossible that Englishmen had become "savages". In both cases, a moral imperative over rode the actual overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Likewise, perhaps, it was a moral rather than a scientific certainty, held by Lady Franklin, that her husband's "sacrifice" should not have been in vain. Her insistance that he had, despite perishing with all hands, somehow succeeeded in finding what he set out to find, infected statuary in London's Waterloo Place, schoolbooks for generations, and his hero's memorial and empty tomb in Westminster Abbey.

(According to Captain Scott, Franklin's memory also inspired him in his own Polar ambitions, with what result, we are acquainted.)

My last reflection is that none of this should make a "modern" feel complacent. We too are afflicted with "morally possible" narratives...These are repeated to us over and over again every time we watch the news or read a newspaper. Every time we think about Al Quaida, for example, we shape the narrative to our own sense of moral comfort. I think we should be just as certain that later times will find the stories we tell ourselves every day just as implausible as we find these Victorian tales of derring do in the Tundra.

Speaking of matters Afghan, that's where I'm heading next...to the first Afghan War in 1838-42...when, possibly with the best of illusory intentions, we took on a spot of regime change, and found ourselves in military occupation of that troubled land.

Once again, there were stories to be told, both of optimism and defeat. And once again, whatever it was we might learn, or choose not to learn, nothing could be allowed to interupt the comforting stories we told ourselves as we buried the dead.

It too, makes uncomfortable reading...and for almost exactly the same reasons...that we humans can tell ourselves any story, and persuade ourselves of the rightness of any action...but we still end up, more often than not, lost in the wilderness, like Sir John Franklin, eating our own boots.