Archive for Visual Materials
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Congratulations to Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver, winners of the 2008 Banff Mountain Book Award for Mountaineering History. Their excellent book, Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes , does not merely chronicle the harrowing ascents and colorful personalities of high-altitude climbing. It also offers a look at mountaineering as a cultural project that blossomed in the 19th and 20th centuries. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am friends with Stewart and an acquaintance of Maurice).
David Chaundy-Smart, editor of Gripped Magazine, states:
Tilman speculated that a chronicle of the “fall of the giants” of the Himalayas would not be as interesting as chronicles of the failed attempts. He never anticipated that Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver would eventually paraphrase him in the title of an exhaustive and entertaining history of Himalayan mountaineering. This is a standard-setting work that credibly accounts for the struggle to summit the 8000 metre peaks with a seamless discussion of politics, economics and the development of climbing technique backed by a mind-boggling list of sources.
If this isn’t enough to satisfy your Himalayan appetite, visit the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Tibet Album. Here you’ll find a collection of British photographs in Central Tibet from 1920-1950. The collection totals 6000 photographs by Charles Bell, Arthur Hopkinson, Evan Nepean, Hugh Richardson, Frederick Spencer Chapman, and Harry Staunton among others. Taken together with Everest expedition photos of the Bently Beetham Collection (listed in my links and profiled here), one gets a vivid picture of British-Nepali-Tibetan encounters in the early 20th century.
You can also find the journal of Cecil Mainprise, medical officer of General Sir Francis Younghusband’s expedition to Tibet in 1903, dutifully published in blog form by his great nephew Jonathan Buckley.
Reading all of this material may give you a bit of altitude sickness. Best to descend for a while and acclimatize. I’ll be here with more after the New Year.
Before I starting working on the frost-bitten, scurvy-riddled, dog-eating world of Arctic explorers, I researched more inviting places, such as Valparaiso Chile, “the Vale of Paradise.” In the 19th century, Valparaiso was a popular port for European and North American voyagers, a place for crew to load up on provisions, repair hullwork, mend sails, and dive into debauchery before the long sail across the Pacific.
The U.S Exploring Expedition stopped here, as did the U.S. Astronomical Expedition, and even HMS Beagle, disembarcking a sprightly young, recently-graduated Charles Darwin into town for some quick surveys of the Cordilleras before heading out into the Pacific (with a minor port-of-call in the Galapagos on the way). My masters thesis “Describing the Vale of Paradise: Valparaiso Chile in the Years after Humboldt” looked at the way these various scientific expeditions talked about Valparaiso, and more importantly, how they rendered it in images.
Darwin did not leave much in the way of illustrations of the town, but the Beagle’s draughtsman, Conrad Martens did. Martens’ landscapes are quiet, almost languid, places, a world apart from the pulse-pounding wind-swept, volcano-erupting landscapes of his fellow Romantics. As I sat in the stacks of the Wisconsin Historical Society looking at these far away places, they gave me a feeling of Darwin’s world…an imperfect impression to be sure, but a feeling nevertheless. Thanks again to the Beagle Project Blog, great conduit of all things Darwin, I have learned that Martens work is now available for all to see at the Cambridge University Library’s website. They have scanned two of the four extant Martens sketchbooks made from the voyage. They include, be still my heart, lovely Valparaiso.
As I’ve said elsewhere, exploration is a term that is almost too malleable to be useful, a word that has can be almost anything you want it to be. This point was driven home as I watched this Chevron advertisement at the beginning of the PBS Newshour:
We are explorers, humans are, endlessly curious, always looking for answers. Today there is a new frontier: the search for energy. Where is it? How do we find it? We’re trying to answer those questions in ways once unimaginable: cleaner ways, smarter ways, mapping uncharted territory five miles below the sea, long before a single mark is ever put in the ground so we drill more intelligently, more efficiently, more respectfully, finding energy in places thought impossible as people demand more energy we must look everywhere for it… to power the new explorers. This is the power of human energy.
The Chevron ad begins with images of iconic explorers, Admiral Richard Byrd and an Apollo astronaut, in regions well known to those of us living through the late 20th century, Antarctica and the Moon. These images are juxtaposed with an African man, perhaps Maasai, walking on the Sahel and a European or Euro-American man biking along the side of the road. The ad builds an argument of inclusiveness: explorers are not simply at the polar regions or out in space, they are us.
The ad now shifts its focus to speak about the search for energy, a “new frontier.” The shift is subtle. From speaking about this large, inclusive group of explorers, the ad now urges us to see exploration itself as a large, diverse project. That is, its not just about Antarctica and the Moon, but about places beneath the earth. There are no drills to be seen here. Indeed, the narrator tells us that Chevron is “mapping uncharted territory five miles below the sea, long before a single mark is ever put in the ground.” Guiding this narration is a montage of school children, jellyfish, and sea divers. There is a mother and child on a moped (petroleum helps get child to school, mom to work?). The ad ends with two students in a science class watching their teacher conducting a demonstration with bunsen burner (using natural gas?) as the narrator tells us that energy is required to “power the new explorers.”
No surprise that Chevron would put out an ad emphasizing how green its oil exploration has become. Chevron’s got a pretty spotty record, including an 18 billion dollar toxic wastewater dump in the Amazon rainforest by one of its acquired businesses, Texaco; poor control of toxic sites in Richmond, California which have lead to hundreds of accidents, along with 95 other Superfund sites tagged by the EPA as requiring clean-up.
This being said, Chevron seems to be trying to change the way it does business, increasing its funding of R&D in alternative energy sources. It’s own site claims that it has become the biggest supplier of geothermal energy in the world.
The ad is very forward-looking, but in emphasizing that we should think about resource extraction as a viable form of exploration, it harkens back to the 19th century where governments would routinely demand economic payoffs to “discovery expeditions” to unknown parts of the globe. Most of these economic arguments for exploration were shelved around the turn of the century for more symbolic, nationalistic goals, a practice which continued through the Soviet-NASA space race in the late 20th century.
So perhaps the Chevron ad signals that we are coming back full circle, moving into a new phase of exploration which is based upon multi-national commercial goals rather than unsustainable national competitions. Or perhaps its just a good way to sell more oil.