Friday, November 16th, 2012...12:57 pm

You’ve Got Mail: “My ideal of an Arctic explorer”

Jump to Comments

Parry, William Edward. Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Performed in the Years 1819-20. *59-131 Removed from Houghton’s copy of Sir William Edward Parry’s Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Performed in the Years 1819-20 is a clutch of letters and other papers tracing differing methods of polar exploration in the nineteenth century.

First, a note from Sir George Back to Bishop Edward Parry, dated February 12th, 1878.

Sir George Back to Bishop Edward Parry, Feb. 12, 1878. MS Eng 1510 (1)

Sir George Back to Bishop Edward Parry, Feb. 12, 1878 (p.2-3). MS Eng 1510 (1)

Sir George, a retired admiral in the British navy, was trapped twice in his career. He was detained briefly by the French in the battle of the Bay of Biscay, in 1814, and for 10 months by an iceberg during an attempt to map the Hudson Bay, in 1836. Here the former commander of the H.M.S. Terror again finds himself confined, now to his bedroom. He writes hopefully that “sometime next week I may get down to the drawing room.” Sir George would in fact pass away four months later.

The admiral refers to “your heroic Father” towards the end of his note. This is Sir William Parry, author of the Journal, an English rear-admiral who mounted one of the first successful journeys to the North Pole. Other explorers of the poles had been preoccupied by their desire to expand the British Empire, and less concerned with performing scientific research upon arrival or even mustering adequate supplies for their journeys north or south. Sir William returned to Scotland with thousands of biological specimens and every one of his crew members alive and well.

The purpose of Sir George’s letter appears to have been to invite the bishop and his three sons to visit as well as to opine, “You would find Clements Markham somewhat of an enthusiast and strongly wedded to his own opinions. He has read every work on Polar discovery – writes with great facility – but somehow or other fails to convince.” Indeed Sir Clements was a lifelong fan of Arctic exploration. He is probably best remembered today for a fawning obituary of Robert Falcon Scott, following whose death (by starvation and exposure during the exceedingly ill-organized Terra Nova expedition of 1910-1912, which had no survivors) Great Britain was whipped into a nationalistic frenzy. The hut used by Scott’s expedition is now under the stewardship of the Antarctic Heritage Trust. Among the travel essentials still found in the hut are a crate of Lyle’s Golden Syrup and a bicycle.

In 1897, one of the three boys mentioned by Sir George crossed paths with a very different sort of Arctic explorer. Dr. (not Sir) Fridtjof Nansen was Norwegian, a scientist and an expert skier. Nansen led the team which executed the first crossing of the Greenland interior in 1888, and reached a record northern latitude of 86°14′ during his expedition to the North Pole in 1893-1896. Upon retirement from exploration Nansen would become a renowned humanitarian. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his advocacy work on behalf of people displaced by conflict.

“When I went to the Treasury Chambers that morning,” Nansen wrote to Frederick Sydney Parry after returning to his home in Lysaker, Norway, “I had no idea that I should meet then the grandson of my ideal of an arctic explorer, how kind of fate to arrange it so”.

Nansen, Fridtjof. Letter to Frederick Sydney Parry, 1897 May 21. MS Eng 1510 (3)

The occasion for Nansen’s visit to the Treasury Chambers was a ceremony at which he was presented with a set of the official report on the Challenger Expedition, another multi-year oceanographic excursion. Newspaper clippings included in this file of correspondence note the presentation of the Report to Nansen, as well as the opening, in 1958, of a tinned Christmas pudding which accompanied the Parry expedition to and from the Arctic.

Newspaper clipping on Fridtjof Nansen. MS Eng 1510 (5)Newspaper clipping on Edward Parry. MS Eng 1510 (5)

Houghton’s copy of Parry’s Journal belonged to Captain Matthew Liddon, captain of one of the two ships under Parry’s command in 1819-1820.

Liddon wrote his own observations and information throughout his inscribed copy of the Journal. There are remarks concerning dogs, equipment, crew, whale hunting and many other elements of the voyage. Liddon wishes that Byron were present to describe a scene, to which Parry retorts that a team of horses would have been far more useful than a poet (p. 92). Three raw grouse sustain fourteen disgusted members of a special excursion for three days (p. 162). “A young female [Inuit] child, about 3 or 4 years of age,” is observed “chewing some putrid meat … & sucking it with no less avidity than a child in this country would a comfit; but happening, however, to shoot a raven at this moment, & giving it to the little girl, she laid aside the meat in exchange for the bird, the blood of which she seemed to enjoy with additional relish.”

Parry, William Edward. Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Performed in the Years 1819-20. *59-131

This last is an interesting point of difference between Parry and Nansen’s expeditions. While Parry and Liddon ventured to the North Pole without much interest in adopting the customs of Arctic indigenous peoples, Nansen engaged Inuit advisers for months of advance training before he sailed for the north. Nansen insisted that each member of his crew learn to eat uncooked meat, handle sled dogs, pilot a kayak and build an igloo. A 1932 biography of Nansen, then two years deceased, praised him for this “ability to enter into the life of whatever people he might meet” and suggested that his later humanitarian work was grounded in his open-minded and respectful interactions with these Inuit guides.

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to Christina Linklater, Project Music Cataloger, for contributing this post.]

Comments are closed.