Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Maps, Photos, and Images

On Cannibalism

Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin

In 1845 the Franklin Expedition sailed from England as the jewel of British polar enterprise. With 129 men and two steam-powered, hull-reinforced ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the Franklin Expedition promised to deliver on the centuries-long search for the Northwest Passage.

Sir John Franklin, expedition commander, was one of the toughest, most experienced veterans of the fleet. A previous overland expedition to the polar sea had brought him to the edge of starvation and fame back in England as “The Man Who Ate His Own Boots.”

H.M.S. Erebus

H.M.S. Erebus

Thus it was surprising when Franklin did not return from the Arctic in 1846 or 1847. In 1848, with still no word, the Admiralty sent a series of expeditions to look for him, focusing on the northern coast of America and islands off its shores. They found no sign of the expedition. Lack of news deepened the mystery surrounding the lost expedition and fueled public interest.

In 1850, the discovery of Franklin’s winter camp on Beechey Island gave hope to those that thought the expedition had traveled further west (or perhaps North into the Polar Sea) and was still intact.

But Dr. John Rae, of the Hudson Bay Company, had grisly news to report in his dispatch to the Admiralty on 29 July 1854:

During my journey over ice and snow this spring…I met with Esquimaux in Pelly Bay, from one of whom I learned that a party of “white men” (Kabloonas) had perished from want of food some distance to the westward… From the mutilated state of many of the corpses, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource, — cannibalism — as a means of prolonging existence.

Rae’s report touched off a furor in Britain. Charles Dickens, editor of Household Words, could not believe that Franklins’ men would have resorted to such behavior, even on the verge of death. Instead, he  advanced the theory that the Inuit had probably set upon the dying party themselves.

Remains of the Franklin Party, King Williams Island, 1945

Remains of the Franklin Party, King Williams Island, 1945

To the modern reader, the idea of eating human flesh for reasons of survival seems understandable if rather unpalatable. Why, then, was Dickens so outraged? Thirty years later, Americans would express similar outrage when the New York Times revealed evidence of cannibalism during the Greely Expedition to Lady Franklin Bay (1881-1884).

Of all of the behaviors associated with savagery in the 19th century, none carried the same freight as cannibalism. Since Columbus returned to Europe in 1493 with reports about the man-eating propensities of the Caribes, Europeans viewed cannibalism as a marker of human societies at the lowest rung of civilization. (Even the name cannibalism is indelibly tied to the native peoples of the Americas since it derives from “Canibes,” a variant of Caribes, which is the etymological root of Caribbean).

When Abraham Ortelius published the world’s first commerical atlas in 1580, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World), he included a frontispiece with goddesses for each of the known continents. As Europe sits preeminant at the top of the columns, flanked by the “semi-civilized” societies of Asia and Africa, America reclines naked at the bottom, holding an arrow and cradling a human head.

Frontispiece, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Abraham Ortelius, 1580

Frontispiece, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Abraham Ortelius, 1580

Maps of the New World showed figures of cannibals with the frequency of mountains and palm trees, even though few of these scenes were based upon eyewitness reports.

Cannibals, detail of Diego Gutiérrez, Americae sive qvarta e orbis parties nova et exactissima description, 1562

Cannibals, detail of Diego Gutiérrez, Americae sive qvarta e orbis parties nova et exactissima description, 1562

Cannibals in Brazil, Hans Staden, 1557

Cannibals in Brazil, Hans Staden, 1557

Cannibalism gave New World narratives of exploration a bit of spice. But more importantly, it confirmed an idea that was already widespread: that Europeans existed on a different level of civilization and that the occasional injustices of European colonization still represented a step forward for the “savage peoples” of the Americas.

As the 19th century witnessed an increasing number of accounts of white explorers caught eating their own kind, the dissonance was sometimes too much. Dickens remains convinced that Franklin’s men had fallen prey to some other fate. And as for the decimated, half-eaten corpses of the Greely Expedition? After quick discussion with the Secretary of the Navy, Greely informed the press that the bodies had been used as “bait” for capturing shrimp.

New Worlds

Life cover from 22 February 1954 featuring shot of film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Life cover from 22 February 1954 featuring shot of film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

At times I think about getting rid of my laptop, dumping it into the trash or tossing it over the guardrail on I-84. It works perfectly fine.  But its role in my life increasingly bothers me. It feels invasive, a tool that has become a crutch, mediating almost all of the activities of my life: my communications with students, friends, and colleagues, my meeting place for committees, spreadsheet for calculating grades, library for reading newspapers and searching archives, store for ordering books, entertainment center for films, sports pages, and blogs.


I find myself thinking — dolefully, wistfully — of paper and pencil, of writing notes on index cards, thwacking out papers on a typewriter, writing letters on rough-edged stationary, reading books slowly and deliberately on my couch rather than gutting them like fish on the deck of a ship.

Most of all, I don’t like what my laptop does to the way I think. I used to spend a great deal of time tunneling in on subjects, digging into the arcana of history like a wood bore. Now I feel I spend a great deal of time skittering over subjects, a flat rock thrown over a calm pond. I cannot place all of the blame on my laptop. It comes from having too many things to do.

Being too distracted is a lament common to Americans and Europeans since the 18th century. Do our lives benefit from the conveniences of modern life? Or are these conveniences a subtle gloss that separates us from the vibrancy of raw experience? A laminate that protects us from the authentic life? Or, as Thoreau puts it:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear… [Walden, ch. 2]

I think Thoreau draws this dichotomy a bit too starkly. My feeling is that all of life is authentic; experiences are real no matter how mediated they are by technology or modern convenience. Still I’m not letting my laptop completely off the hook.  For all of its impressive powers, the networked computer is crack cocaine for the skittering mind, the gateway drug of associational thinking.

Still, I won’t throw it away. First, it doesn’t belong to me and I would have to pay back my dean. Second, it has brought me into contact with fascinating people and amazing places, a New World of information that I absorb in bits and pieces.

Ok, enough deep thoughts. Here are some new links I’ve uncovered in my skittering hops across the pond.

Google recently worked out a deal with Life Magazine, scanning decades of photos and putting them in a historical archive online. This is a fabulously rich collection of twentieth-century images, particularly in the field of exploration. Try out, for example, terms such as expedition, voyage, underwater, capsule, and planet. You can also search Google for life photos directly – just enter your search term followed by “source: life”. When this returns a list, specify “images” in the tab at the top.

The Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library offers a much smaller set of archival images, five to be exact. But the five images in question, European maps of discovery from 1520-1792, are too rich to be missed. Each map offers a snapshot of European geographical knowledge of the world, from the shape of continents and novel modes of map projection, to elaborate cartouches showing the lifeways of native peoples.


Finally two sites  I just learned about today. The first is Big Dead Place, an online journal devoted to Antarctica, edited by Nicholas Johnson, author of a book of the same name published by Feral House Publishing in 2005.  Johnson has some great interviews and analysis of South Polar exploration.

For an impressively massive list of all things Antarctica, also check out Dr. Elizabeth Leane’s Representations of Antarctica which breaks up the subject into categories of fiction (juvenile and adult), short stories, poetry, films and television, as well as literary and cultural criticism.

Digital Archive: AfricaBib

Mary Kingsley, African explorer, ca. 1890

Mary Kingsley, African explorer, ca 1890

For me, graduate school was a happy time, of long days in the archives and long afternoons in the Ratskeller. To be fair though there were also moments of fear: fear of discovering some document that would blow apart my thesis like a howitzer shell. Or worse, fear of finding some book that supported my thesis, indeed supported it so closely that it would render my project superfluous, a poor knock-off of the original. Neither of these happened, though I did have my queasy moments of discovery in the card catalog.

"Der Bücherworm" by Carl Spitzweg, 1850

“Der Bücherworm” by Carl Spitzweg, 1850

I calmed my fears by mastering the ways of the database: Historical Abstracts, America: History and Life, the Making of America, Poole’s Periodical Database, Periodical Content Index, Dissertation Abstracts International, the American Periodical Series, etc, etc etc. Database companies market their products as tools for research and networking. And indeed they are. But for the paranoid graduate student, databases are used as radar, informing them when another scholar is flying too close. Happily those days are gone. But I still get a warm, cozy feeling inside when I find a good database. It is researcher’s version of a hot toddy.

Thomas Ewing, Africa, 1830

Thomas Ewing, Africa, 1830

Such was my feeling last night when I found AfricaBib, a set of three databases about Africa, the most exciting of which is Women Travelers, Explorers, and Missionaries to Africa. The databases are a thirty-year labor of love by research librarian Davis Bullwinkle who started working on the project in 1974, using, no doubt, index cards. As the project grew, Davis began to upgrade to a computer filing system, one designed by the precocious computer-whiz son of a colleague. After Bullwinkle retired in 2008, the database was taken over by the African Studies Centre (ASC) in Leiden, the Netherlands who keep it up to date. The database currently boasts 1800 items. What does this mean in terms of finding material on women explorers? Playing around with the database last night, I entered “Mary Kingsley” into the keyword search. It pulled up 109 records, including published dissertations, scholarly articles, books, and online essays. Very impressive. Nice work Davis.

For more on women travelers and explorers, see my post on Gertrude Bell and Women Explorers

Digital Archive: Strange Maps

NASA map of astronaut routes over the Moon, superimposed over soccer field

Blogs are living things. They have their own cycles of growth, promiscuity, maturity, and senescence. Some rise above the tangled bank to reach the sunlight of popularity. Most crowd against each other in fits of collective navel-gazing. They soon decline in daily hits (the holy measurement of blog vigor) and die quietly in the shadows of the over-committed author. Given this instability, do blogs have the staying power to be archives?

Thomas Jefferson’s proposal for dividing territories into ten states

Certainly not. While the political blog DailyKos may outrank the Library of Congress in daily web traffic, I am confident that L of C will still be hosting their Lewis and Clark materials in 2020. I don’t know what DailyKos will be doing (running a small country near Seattle perhaps). In short, blogs are not archives. Now that this is established, let me announce an amazing blog archive: Strange Maps. It is weird, historical, and snappy. If its mondo collection of bizarre maps is not exactly comprehensive, it is far-reaching in scope.

Not all of these maps have to do with exploration of course. So why feature Strange Maps here? A few weeks ago I wrote a post in which scholars weighed in on the various meanings of exploration. William Goetzmann and others view it as a process of continual re-discovery rather than a single moment of impressive flag-planting. In this spirit, Strange Maps is a place which discovers and rediscovers information about the world and projects these ideas in space. Perhaps this is an abstract and delirious way to describe the site – so to get a better idea, visit it yourself.

Strange Maps

Dutch map showing the oceans of Mars

Reading the Map

Jerusalem World Map, Heinrich Bunting, 1581 (courtesy of the Osher Map Library)

For the last two weeks, we’ve been on a long road trip: from Connecticut to Ohio, Illinois, upstate Michigan, and back to CT. As journeys go, it was not perhaps as impressive as, say, Scott’s trek to the South Pole. He ate pemmican, we ate cheetos. He drove sledges, we drove an Odyssey. His party suffered from scurvy, ours sunburn. Yet we achieved our own kind of glory: 2600 miles, 50 hours in a minivan, with two adults, two children, and one toddler, aged 1.5. No one perished from strangulation or defenestration, none were committed to asylums, none have talked to the press. Victory is ours.

Yesterday, at the end of a particularly long leg, we found ourselves on Rte 80 in northern Ohio, looking for a meal that would please all and could be had fast. In other words, pizza. But where to look in the rolling cornfields of Ohio? We got off 80 and asked the toll booth attendant. She couldn’t think of any place that made pizza. What planet had we landed on? Michele and I consulted our road atlas, a misshapen, parchment-colored thing, to see if we could glean a site out of the black and red lines and place names.

After some debate, we decided upon the town of Sandusky, about eight miles off of the highway from the exit. While it might have been possible to find pizza closer, it seemed unlikely to us that these small, silo-dotted towns would produce a pie to satisfy our elitist, bourgie palate. Without knowing anything else about the town of Sandusky, I liked the name, it sounded old, Polish perhaps? If so, I would imagine that it was settled in the early- or mid-19th century. Old Midwestern towns, I knew, were often built small and compact to accommodate walking traffic. These towns, with main street and thick brick commercial buildings, are now favorites of urban renovation, of ice cream shops, restaurants, and gourmet pizza. Sandusky, is this you? Moreover, the town was right on Lake Erie, at a point very close to the Canadian coast due north of the city. I saw them in my mind: hungry Canadian tourists climbing off the boat to celebrate summer at their favorite waterfront pizzeria.

This was all a wild, sherlock-holmesian, stab in the dark. There was no evidence to back up this speculative conjuring from a 1996 Ohio road map. Yet in the end, we were right to head to Sandusky. It was indeed a place we imagined: an old city with downtown, sidewalks, old buildings, and waterfront. Local residents told me that it was struggling to become the renovated, gentrified place that sometimes take root in down-on-their-luck industrial towns. More importantly, we found our parlor, the “Mona Pizza” on the main street perpendicular to the waterfront.

Mona Pizza, with its “Welcome Bikers!” sign, was was not quite the bourgie place I had imagined. But it counted where it mattered, offering up a tasty, New-York-style, thin-crust pie in 20 minutes.

All of this got me thinking about maps. Historians of many stripes are savvy in how they read visual documents, from pictures, paintings, and illustrations to maps. However precisely surveyed, however carefully rendered, maps and landscape are subjective documents, painted with the hues of culture as well as pigment. A long look at one of the landscapes of Frederic Church, for example, tells a great deal about Church’s vision of the country and of the United States as an emerging empire.

Frederic Church, “Our Banner in the Sky,” 1863

Yet it seems from what I’ve read (and from the visual analysis that I’ve done myself) that much of this analysis is focused on the object. That is, the question most commonly asked is “How do the historical artifacts carry culture?” Reading the road map of Ohio, I realized that many of our decisions had to do with our own cultural baggage as viewers, of our knowledge of Midwestern towns, our study of American history, our snooty notions of good pizza. Put more broadly, the Sandusky experience made me wonder how the individual subject encounters the map. How does the subject shape the map’s reading? This is a difficult question to answer. We all bring different things to our interpretation of maps, documents, indeed, virtually everything we come into contact with.

But it brought me back to issues of exploration.

For many academics, especially in the humanities, the world is a place divided into those-who-do (them) and those-who-interpret-what-others-do (us). Generally, relations tend to fall apart on the subject of “experience.” In the eyes of explorers, for example, historians can never fully understand events in the field because they weren’t there themselves. Historians, on the other hand, point to the importance of this distance from the field – of the biases that naturally result from close involvement in a project – in portraying events even-handedly. As one of the chronicler-class rather than the doer class, my sympathies have always been with my academic posse in this debate.

But reading the map of Sandusky, I realized the importance of the viewers’ perspective in reading the map. And in terms of my work, I realized the great gulf that separates the experience of explorers (both western and indigenous) from those of us who seek to figure them out. How, for example, did Robert Peary’s experience of the ice cap, or the Greenland ice sheet, shape the way he viewed such places inscribed on paper? How did James Cook’s knowledge of Atlantic currents shape the way he read his sketchy maps of the Pacific? Looking at these same maps, what did Cook’s Tahitian guide Omai see rendered there?


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