Arctic Labyrinths

In the first issue of Canada’s History, the magazine formerly known as The Beaver, our hero reviews a pair of books. . . .

Arctic Labyrinth by Gwyn Williams,
and Joseph-Elzéar Bernier by Marjolaine Saint-Pierre

Reviewed by Ken McGoogan

In his 1908 book about navigating the Northwest Passage, Roald Amundsen explicitly credited the Scottish-Orcadian explorer Dr. John Rae with having shown him where to sail. “His work was of incalculable value to the Gjoa expedition,” Amundsen wrote. “He discovered Rae Strait which separates King William Land from the mainland. In all probability through this strait is the only navigable route for the voyage round the north coast of America. This is the only passage which is free from destructive pack ice.”

Amundsen, the first to sail through the passage — he went from the Atlantic to the Pacific — would remain correct in this assessment for four decades. Not until 1944 would Canadian Henry Larsen, assisted by later technology, become the first to sail the passage using a different route.

Yet in Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage, you will look in vain for the above quotation from Amundsen. In this otherwise impressive survey, historian Glyn Williams gives John Rae no credit for discovering the channel that made the Norwegian’s historic voyage possible.

He tells us that George Back of the Royal Navy and Thomas Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company suspected the existence of Rae Strait. But instead of crediting John Rae himself at the appropriate juncture, he quotes Amundsen in praise of Royal Navy Captain Richard Collinson and moves on.

History is always subject to interpretation, and here we see that even distinguished scholars have biases. Williams, an emeritus professor based in London, has written several notable books over the decades. These include both academic studies and popular works on Captain James Cook and Arctic exploration in the eighteenth century.

In Arctic Labyrinth, Williams retells an epic saga marked by shipwreck, starvation, scurvy, frostbite, amputations, and Orcadi an expedition,” probability cannibalism. He writes in a tradition that includes In Quest of the Northwest Passage by Leslie H. Neatby, Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton, and The Search for the North West Passage by Ann Savours.

His book is more detailed than Neatby’s and less lively than Berton’s. He essentially follows Savours from the nineteenth century onwards, and con¬tributes most in relation to the earlier periods — some of which he treated in Voyages of Delusion: The Quest for the Northwest Passage.

The author’s decades-long immer¬sion in exploration history enables him to turn up the occasional nugget. With regard to the five men who disappeared from Martin Frobisher’s 1576 expedition, for example, he reminds us that the later reports of Charles Francis Hall, taken from the Inuit, suggest that those sailors were not murdered after all, as is fre¬quently alleged, but lived peaceably for a winter and then tried to sail away home.

Towards the end of Arctic Labyrinth, noting that Britain ceded its Arctic ter¬ritories to Canada in 1880, Williams touches on the three voyages under¬taken on behalf of the Canadian gov¬ernment by Joseph-Elzéar Bernier. He rightly describes Bernier, a French Cana¬dian born in 1852, as sailing “to confirm Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic archipelago at a time when the nationals of other powers were increasingly active in the region.”

Bernier’s greatest moment came on July 1, 1909, when he erected a plaque at Winter Harbour on Melville Island in the Northwest Passage, first reached from the Atlantic by William Edward Parry in 1819. In Joseph-Elzéar Bernier: Champion of Canadian Sovereignty, biog¬rapher Marjolaine Saint-Pierre wisely lets Bernier himself describe that occa¬sion. The captain and his men drank a toast to the Dominion and the prime minister, and “then all assembled around Parry’s Rock to witness the unveiling of a tablet placed at the Rock, commemo¬rating the annexing of the whole of the Arctic archipelago.”

Saint-Pierre’s book includes a rare and spectacular photo of this occasion — one that, had it been spotted ear¬lier, would almost certainly have been included in the recent book 100 Photos That Changed Canada. This group shot at Parry’s Rock is one of more than two hundred black-and-white illustrations included in Saint-Pierre’s work, which looks to be the definitive biography of Bernier.

Ably translated by William Barr, overwhelming in detail, the book traces Bernier’s career from ancestry to legacy. It highlights his hopes of becoming the first to reach the North Pole and the first to sail through the Northwest Passage in a single season. Saint-Pierre shows how government indifference thwarted these dreams.

In his three main voyages, which he undertook between 1906 and 1911, Bernier charted no new lands. But he gathered records left by explorers of the previous century, set up new cairns and monuments, and raised the Canadian flag throughout the Arctic. By these symbolic actions, he strengthened Can¬ada’s claims to the Arctic archipelago.

Both these books belong in the library of any Arctic aficionado.

— Ken McGoogan (Read Bio)

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