Farthest North

3D front cover of The First Crossing of Greenland by Fridtjof NansenOne of the most popular subjects in which we publish in CLC is polar exploration. Inevitably, given the time period we cover, most of our books are about the Arctic rather than the Antarctic, though many of the early voyages to Australasia and the ‘Southern Ocean’ are represented.

Cambridge is home to the most important UK centre for polar studies, the Scott Polar Research Institute, with its museum and library, which was founded as a national memorial to Captain Scott and his companions, who died in a vain attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, in 1912. We have benefited both from the advice and from the loan of books from the library in building up our polar series; and we were very excited recently to be put in contact with the world-famous Fram Museum in Oslo.

The museum is named after the ship, ‘the world’s strongest polar vessel’, in which Fridtjof Nansen carried out his great Arctic voyage. The wooden vessel is the centre-piece of the complex, which focuses on the exploits of Nansen, Roald Amundsen (who beat Captain Scott to the South Pole) and Otto Sverdrup, the captain of the Fram, who was later instrumental in preserving the vessel and founding the museum.

The museum has not only bought copies of our polar books for its own library, but is also selling them in its shop (it is currently setting up an online shop as well). Even better, they are advising us on further works that we can reissue. To see the complete list of current titles, click here.

The early history of Arctic exploration was a major interest of the founders of the Hakluyt Society, and their First Series offered accounts of many adventurers: Frobisher, Barents, Henry Hudson, John Davis, William Baffin – even the possibly fake Zen brothers. A sea passage to the Indies that did not involve the long and dangerous routes south and round either the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn would have been a huge geopolitical and economic advantage to the nation which discovered and could then control it. The search for a north-west or north-east passage, ‘over the top’ of America or of Russia and Siberia, drew naval expeditions from Britain, Holland, and Russia. At the same time France and Britain were rivals in exploring the Southern Ocean throughout the eighteenth century, most intensively so when the two countries were at war – though it is gratifying to note that specific protection to scientific expeditions was frequently offered by both sides.

British fascination with the Arctic was raised to an unprecedented level by the disastrous Erebus and Terror expedition led by Sir John Franklin. An extraordinary number of attempts at search and rescue were undertaken, by the Royal Navy and by private individuals who were seduced by the impassioned campaign of Lady Franklin to discover her husband’s fate. We have already published more than a dozen accounts, both official and private, of these expeditions, and there are more to come.

A by-product of all this activity was increased interest in the native inhabitants of the inhospitable Arctic lands – the Esquimaux, or Inuit. Earlier scientific expeditions had been interested mostly in the flora and fauna of the region, with occasional comments on the lives of the Scandinavian settlers and the ‘aborigines’, but it was later realised that studying, and imitating, the lifestyle of the natives, rather than relying on conventional European equipment and stores, was the way to survive the Arctic winter. (At least one Inuit, Eenoolooapik, was brought to Britain in the 1830s (rather like Omai, who returned with Cook and Banks, or the Fuegians with Fitzroy) and treated as a celebrity.)

In the late nineteenth century, the Scandinavian countries took up the initiative in polar exploration, largely through the drive and ingenuity of one man, Fridtjof Nansen. His first great exploit was the crossing of Greenland in 1888 (during which he spent several months living with the Inuit), and he went on to attempt to ‘sail’ across the North Pole. He deduced from the discovery on the Greenland coast of artefacts from the U.S. ship Jeannette, which had been lost in 1881 off Siberia, that there was a polar current which shifted the apparently static ice. A strong enough ship, he reasoned, would drift in the pack ice further north than people could hope to ski or sledge, and might even arrive at true north.

The epic story of the building of the Fram and the 1893–6 expedition, with the extraordinary attempt by Nansen and Johansen to ski 660 km from the ship to the Pole was later recounted by both men. It ended in failure, and nearly killed both of them, but the failure was a glorious one and made Nansen a global celebrity. He spent the rest of his long life writing and researching, especially in oceanography, and encouraging the next generation of polar explorers, of whom Amundsen was the most famous.

But Nansen is also remembered as an outstanding humanitarian. He was involved in the political process by which Norway became independent of Sweden in 1905, and became Norwegian ambassador to the United Kingdom the following year. (Unsurprisingly, he spent a lot of his time at the Royal Geographical Society.) His greatest work was carried out after the First World War, when he persuaded Norway (which had remained neutral in the conflict) to become a full member of the League of Nations, and was one of its delegates to the General Assembly.

Tasked by the League with organizing the repatriation of prisoners of war, he was in 1921 appointed High Commissioner for Refugees, including the two million people displaced by the Russia Revolution. He was also deeply concerned with the famine in Russia, and bitterly disappointed that European nations which – literally – had maize to burn, would not supply it to the Communist government. One of his great successes was the recognition by most governments of the ‘Nansen passport’, which allow stateless persons to cross national borders. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were thus enabled to find new homes: among the more famous of these were the composer Stravinsky, the ballerina Anna Pavlova and the artist Chagall. Nansen was also responsible for managing the refugee crisis after the expulsion of Greeks from Turkish territory in the 1919–22 war: his solution of a population exchange has been criticised, but it undoubtedly saved many lives. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922, and donated the prize money to refugee relief.

I have to say I don’t myself get the lure of the frozen wastes, which continue to draw expeditions more sophisticated and hugely better equipped than those of the polar pioneers. But there is a lot to be said for sitting in a comfy chair and reading about the exploits of people who, willingly or not, found themselves in an environment that offered a barely endurable challenge, and yet (sometimes) survived.


This entry was posted in Anthropology, Biography, Earth Sciences, History, Life Science, Physical Sciences, Travel and Exploration and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Farthest North

  1. Pingback: A Tour in Iceland | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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