Archive for Americas
In 1845, Sir John Franklin and 128 men sailed into the Arctic aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in search of the Northwest Passage. They were never heard from again. The mystery of the search for Franklin took decades to solve. Theories about the causes of the expedition’s demise continue to the present.
The irony of the Franklin expedition is that it accomplished more in failure than it ever could have in success. The disappearance of the party sparked dozens of relief expeditions from Britain and led to a comprehensive survey of the Canadian Arctic archipelago and its native peoples.
For the United States, which entered the search effort in 1850, the rescue of Franklin became the driving force for U.S. exploration of the Arctic, a 60-year effort that established the polar regions as next frontier after the American west.
Last week an expedition organized by Parks Canada found HMS Investigator which set out to find the Franklin party in 1850. In taking up the search for Investigator, Parks Canada made itself a part of the 150 year old legacy of the Franklin search. It also established a place in a much larger lost-explorer theme that became dominant in the 19th century as explorers set out to find other explorers who had gone missing.
Yet in his editorial about the discovery, Canadian Minister of the Environment Jim Prentice is eager to point the different, distinctly modern, uniquely Canadian elements of the Parks Canada search.
First, it was done on the cheap:
This modern-day expedition was typically Canadian: quietly conceived and carried out on a modest budget from an unassuming cluster of 10 orange Mountain Equipment Co-op tents scattered on the rocky shore of Mercy Bay.
Second, the crew was quintessentially Canadian:
The senior marine archaeologist manning the sonar was Calgary-born Ryan Harris. Alongside him were archaeologists Jonathan Moore, who hails from Kingston, Ont., and Thierry Boyer of Montreal. Also present was soft-spoken John Lucas, a Canadian of Inuit ancestry and the senior Parks Canada officer for Aulavik National Park.
With some substitutions of names and technology, this statement sounds a lot like the patriotic boosterism of the British Admiralty or the American Geographical Society 150 years ago.
Ultimately Prentise’s interest in showing this effort as ‘exceptionally’ Canadian make it sound a lot like other efforts in 19th century frontier conquering. While their are the usual nods to the importance of archeology and the history of indigenous peoples, he ends his editorial on the subject that was of highest importance to the Great Powers in the late 1800s: territorial rights.
Most importantly, however, the quest for the Investigator celebrates our Arctic heritage and speaks to the exercise of our sovereignty in the Arctic Archipelago today.
Things change, things stay the same.
Firsts have always been important in exploration. This seems rather straightforward, even tautological, to say since being first is woven into the definition of exploration. After all, traveling to unknown places is doing something that hasn’t been done before (or at least hasn’t been reported before). And this is how the history of exploration often appears to us in textbooks and timelines: as lists of expeditionary firsts from Erik the Red to Neil Armstrong.
In truth, though, firsts are fuzzy.
Some fuzziness comes from ignorance, our inability to compensate for the incompleteness of the historical record. This is a perennial problem in history in general and history of exploration in particular. (I call it a problem but it’s actually what makes me happy and keeps me employed).
Was Christopher Columbus the first European to reach America in 1492? Probably not, since evidence suggests that Norse colonies existed in North America five hundred years before he arrived. Was Robert Peary the first to reach the North Pole in 1909? It’s hard to say since Frederick Cook claimed to be first in 1908 and its possible that neither man made it.
Some fuzziness comes from the different meanings we give to “discovery.” The South American leader Simon Bolivar called Alexander von Humboldt “the true discoverer of America.” Bolivar did not mean this literally since Humboldt traveled through South America in 1800, 17 years after Bolivar himself was born there, 300 years after Columbus first arrived in the Bahamas, and about 16,000 years after Paleo-Indians arrived in America, approved of what they saw, and decided to stay.
But for Bolivar, Humboldt was the first person to see South America holistically: as a complex set of species, ecosystems, and human societies, held together by faltering colonial empires. Being first in exploration, Bolivar realized, meant more than planting a flag in the ground.
At first glance, we seem to have banished fuzziness from modern exploration. For example, there is little doubt that Neil Armstrong was the first human being to set foot on the moon since the event was captured on film and audio recordings, transmitted by telemetry, and confirmed by material artifacts such as moon rocks. (Moon hoax believers, I’m sorry. I know this offends.) Were the Russians suddenly interested in challenging Armstrong’s claim to being first, they would have a tough time proving it since Armstrong could give the day and year of his arrival on the moon (20 July 1969) and even the exact hour, minute, and second when his boot touched the lunar surface (20:17:40 Universal Coordinated Time).
But this growing precision of firsts has generated its own ambiguities. We have become more diligent about recording firsts precisely because geographical milestones have become more difficult to achieve. As a result, there has been a shift from firsts of place to firsts of method. As the forlorn, never-visited regions of the globe diminish in number, first are increasingly measured by the manner of reaching perilous places rather than the places themselves.
For example, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were the first to ascend Mt. Everest in 1953, but Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler were the first to climb the mountain without oxygen in 1978. In 1980, Messner achieved another first, by ascending Everest without oxygen or support.
Now as “firsts of difficulty” fall, they are being replaced by “firsts of identity.” James Whittaker was the first American to summit Everest in 1963. Junko Tabei was the first woman (1975). Since then, Everest has spawned a growing brood of “identity first” summits including nationality (Brazil, Turkey, Mexico, Pakistan), disability (one-armed, blind, double-amputee) and novelty (snowboarding, married ascent, longest stay on summit).
It would be easy to dismiss this quest for firsts as a shallow one, a vainglorious way to achieve posterity through splitting hairs rather than new achievements. But I don’t think this is entirely fair. While climbing Everest or kayaking the Northwest Passage may have little in common with geographical firsts in exploration 200 years ago, this is not to say that identity firsts are meaningless acts. They may not contribute to an understanding of the globe, but they have become benchmarks of personal accomplishment, physical achievements — much like running a marathon — that have personal and symbolic value.
Still, I am disturbed by the rising number of “youngest” firsts. Temba Tsheri was 15 when he summited Everest on 22 May 2001. Jessica Watson was 16 last year when she left Sydney Harbor to attempt a 230 day solo circumnavigation of the globe. (She is currently 60 miles off Cape Horn). Whatever risks follow adventurers who seek to be the oldest, fastest, or the sickest to accomplish X, they are, at least, adults making decisions.
But children are different. We try to restrict activities that have a high risk of injury for minors. In the U.S. for example, it is common to delay teaching kids how to throw a curve ball in baseball until they are 14 for fear of injuring ligaments in the arm. Similar concerns extend to American football and other contact sports.
So why do we continue to celebrate and popularize the pursuit of dangerous firsts by minors? What is beneficial in seeing if 16-year-olds can endure the hypoxia of Everest or the isolation of 230 days at sea. Temba Tsheri, current holder of youngest climber on Everest, lost five fingers to frostbite.
We must remember that to praise “the youngest” within this new culture of firsts, we only set the bar higher (or younger as it were) for the record to be broken again. In California, Jordan Romero is already training for his ascent of Everest in hopes to break Tsheri’s age record. He is thirteen.
The word “Frontier” lives a double-life. In the public world of bookstores and Star Trek episodes, it carries itself with bearing, symbolizing something wild and lawless, a place of promise, adventure, and renewal. Within the Academy, however, “frontier” carries the whiff of the disreputable, a word that has fallen into disuse. Once praised and powerful, it now stoops on stair-landings to rest.
The decline of the “frontier” within the Academy has been long and precipitous. Made famous by Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” it’s been the inspiration of dozens of books and hundreds of articles.
Why? Because Turner linked the frontier to the story of American progress, arguing that it rejuvenated American culture by placing pioneers into contact with the wild, savage world at the edges of civilization. In the process, pioneers had to break from the strictures of the civilization they left behind and re-imagine life from the ground up. In the process, Turner argued, they recapitulated the long arc of human society from savagery to civilization, infusing American society with the energy of their innovations.
The frontier thesis was (and in some quarters, still is) seen as a compelling story of American uniqueness. In it, supporters found a story to justify a view of Americans as a special, exceptional people.
Still, the frontier thesis found itself under attack from many quarters. In the 1980s, New Western Historians argued that the frontier thesis did not accurately present the progression of changes in the West, nor did it explain the broader arc of American progress. Moreover, frontier was a word that privileged one perspective in the story of the West: the pioneers who viewed these lands as wild and savage rather than the indigenous peoples who called them home.
Between those supporting the thesis and those criticizing it, discussion of the Frontier Thesis seemed to be everywhere, a subject so fecund that it threatened to overwhelm all other subjects within the discipline. All of this ultimately led historian Patricia Limerick to label “frontier” as the F-Word, a term that had become a hindrance, rather than a help, to historian scholarship.
What to do? In her 1992 book Imperial Eyes, Mary Louise Pratt abandoned the term frontier, replacing it instead with the phrase “contact zone,” a less loaded term for the place of encounters between indigenous peoples and Euro-Americans.
I see the wisdom in Limerick and Pratt’s decisions. And yet still, I think there’s still a place for frontier, particularly within the field of the history of exploration. Limerick is right to argue that frontier is a loaded term, one that brings with it a particular tilt. It shares this ground with other loaded terms such as “discovery” and “exploration,” concepts which only make sense from the perspective travelers rather than natives.
Yet by definition, stories of exploration adopt the perspective of people traveling into the field. For expeditionary scientists — such as Alexander von Humboldt, Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Russell Wallace — the grand stage of global travel did represent frontiers, places of profound mystery, inspiration, and otherness.
That their perspective represented a limited frame of reference is clear. Still, within this frame of reference, we see powerful transformations of thought and identity. Expeditionary letters and field sketches express the weight of these events, the frontiers of new experience.