- Peter Steele (Author)
The Man Who Mapped the Arctic: The Intrepid Life of George Back, Franklinâs Lieutenant. Raincoast Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Peter Steele’s The Man Who Mapped the Arctic is an important and most welcome addition to the literature concerning exploration in northern Canada and Arctic coastal waters. In tracing the astonishing exploits of George Back (1796-1878) Steele not only describes the career of his intrepid central figure from boy volunteer (in the
Royal Navy) to Admiral, but clearly reveals the character and idiosyncrasies of Back and many of the other (and often notable) officers, traders, voyageurs, First Nations people, et al., with whom he came in contact. Yet this is not just a book about initiative, courage, and endurance; it is also about the wildness, danger, desolation, and beauty of Canada’s remote northern rivers, its tundra, and its ice-choked Arctic shoreline, all experienced under frequently appalling conditions by men determined to chart the blank spaces of the hinterland in order to ascertain the existence of the elusive North West Passage. Drawing on the journals of Back and others as well as on a wide range of other sources and including black and white plates and print reproductions of drawings by Back (a sensitive and skilled artist in his own right), Steele offers a clearly organized and compelling view of exploration and adventure which, because of its engaging nature, is likely to set readers off on further literary excursions in the literature of the North as well as to stimulate further research and travel in the current era of greater accessibility to remote areas which still need to be experienced and understood better.
Part One of the book deals with Back’s early days in the Navy, including his imprisonment in France during the Napoleonic conflict, and his coming to the notice of (then Lieut.) John Franklin, commanding HMS Trent, on a northern voyage as far as Spitzbergen (1818). Part Two takes up the account of Franklin’s initial journey by land to the Canadian Arctic with Back (1819-1822), reaching (via Hudson Bay, Fort Chipewyan, and Fort Enterprise) Bathurst Inlet and Melville Sound, a gripping tale of privation, lack of supplies, trading company difficulties, and enormous challenges posed by landscape and weather. Yet surely some of the geographic blanks were filled in, and Back’s record and illustrations add immeasurably to the developing picture of the hinterland. Part Three describes Franklin’s second overland foray with Back, now a Lieut. (1823-1827) down the Mackenzie River to the delta and the Arctic ocean, facing not only the hazards of land and water but hostile Inuit as well. Abundantly clear is the fact that return journeys could be as arduous, if not more so, than the outgoing trips not only because of fatigue, damage to equipment, and so on, but because the retreat to the south meant forcing a way upstream against north-flowing rivers.
Part Four dwells briefly, and, on occasion, amusingly, with Back’s short period (1830-1832) out of service and his tour on the Continent, including a visit to Naples (with an excursion to the crater of Vesuvius) and Pompeii before returning to England with the prospect of another Canadian sojourn, this time in search of the missing Capt. John Ross and his nephew, who had earlier set out to find the fabled Passage. This third trip (1833-1835), the subject of Part Five, with Back now in charge, involved a route through New York, Montreal, Fort Alexander (on Lake Winnipeg), Fort Resolution (on Great Slave Lake), Fort Reliance (on Artillery Lake)—for a winter of near starvation—and then, having had news of Capt. Ross’ safe return to England, down the treacherous Thlew-ee-choh (Great Fish—now Back) River to the Arctic Ocean and Cape Beaufort (now Barclay) in order to fulfill his second goal—filling in remaining parts of the coastal map. Alas, weather forced a retreat, but the accomplishment—Back’s “zenith,” according to Steele—was duly recognized in England, and Back was promoted to Post-Captain. Part Six sees Back again in the Arctic (1836-1837) in command of HMS Terror, to fill in more geographical gaps; stuck in the ice off Southampton Island, and drifting, eventually, across Ungava Bay, the ship survived, with its scurvy-plagued crew, just well enough to limp across the Atlantic and beach at Lough Swilly (Ireland) to be repaired sufficiently to sail back to Devonport for refit. The final chapters concern Back’s last years, his marriage, another trip to Europe, his role as a member of the Arctic Council, his accumulation of well-deserved honours, and his eventual promotion to the rank of Admiral. A useful—indeed, essential—select bibliography and an index conclude this impressive piece of work.
Peter Steele’s role, in this well-researched, cohesive account—something of a labour of dedication and love, one might suspect—is also to fill in gaps in our understanding of the North and the sacrifices of those who, without the sophistication and marvels of mod-tech and GPS, managed to piece together a picture of the northern coast and the routes to it. We can cavil, if we must, that the secret of the Boothia peninsula remained obscure or that reaching Welcome Sound south of Southampton Island would have been a better choice than trying to penetrate Frozen Strait, but hindsight is always 20/20, and even apparent failures and near catastrophes can still yield significant insights. This is a splendid, much needed addition to our collection of northern resources. If there are regrets, they have to do, principally, with a scholarly desire for closer documentation of each passage deriving from a principal or secondary source (see page 31, for example), in order to assist those who wish to follow on the multitude of trails the book invites, and a lament, at the end, for the blame for any faults Back may have evidenced in being laid at the doors of his Royal Navy training and his roots in “class-conscious, hierarchical Britain.” One might want to think, conversely, of the strengths, traditions and accomplishments of the Royal Navy and speculate about what Back and others might not have achieved without the support of the nineteenth-century British establishment.
- More Northern Indices by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: Gamblers and Dreamers: Women, Men, and Community in the Klondike by Charlene Porsild, True North: The Yukon and the Northwest Territories by William R. Morrison, Un/Covering the North: News, Media, and Aboriginal People by Valerie Alia, and Across the Top of the World: The Quest for the Northwest Passage by James P. Delgado
- Tragedy of Everyday Life by Laura Robinson
Books reviewed: The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery.Volume V: 1935-1942 by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterson and Marian Engel: Life in Letters by Kathleen Garay and Christl Verduyn
- Ferron and the Other by Mary Ellen Ross
Books reviewed: Le Contentieux de l'Acadie by Jacques Ferron and L'Autre Ferron by Ginette Michaud
- Remembering Fathers by Peggy Martin
Books reviewed: Son's Eye: A Memoir by Charles E. Israel and Slipstream: A Daughter Remembers by Rachel Manley
- Celebrating Lowry by Paul G. Tiessen
Books reviewed: Malcolm Lowry: From the Mersey to the World by Bryan Biggs and Helen Tookey
MLA: Gooch, Bryan N. S. Arctic Exploration. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #190 (Autumn 2006), South Asian Diaspora. (pg. 131 - 133)
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