The Man Who Ate His Boots

Bookshelf: The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage – Anthony Brandt

The Man Who Ate His Boots
The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Northwest Passage  is a sea route (routes, actually) running between Canada and Greenland, across the top of the North American continent through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and through the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. At its end is the Far East, for hundreds of years the destination of the thousands of sea voyages that made their way around the Cape of Good Hope, and later through the Suez Canal. Its existence was an enormously appealing idea to Europeans, because if the east could be reached by sailing along the top of the world, great savings of sailing time and expense would result.

For a long time the existence of the Northwest Passage was merely a hypothesis, and in the 1800s the British expended vast quantities of energy exploring the Canadian Arctic in search of a sea route. The passage was first traversed in 1850-54 by Robert McClure, by ship and sledge. Roald Amundsen traversed it entirely by ship in 1903-1906.  Until this century, the route was not navigable for most of the year owing to the presence of sea ice. Now, thanks (?) to climate change, there is far less ice to contend with.

Sir John Franklin was one of Britain’s most eminent Arctic explorers. He made several trips to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. His final expedition, starting in 1845, ended in the disappearance of his two ships (HMS Erebus and HMS Terror), Franklin himself, and all 128 of the men with him.

The story of his expedition, and the searches for evidence of its fate (upwards of 30 expeditions were mounted to look for him), and the subsequent discovery of what had happened (no spoilers here – it was awful) is related in gripping detail in The Man Who Ate His Boots. Brandt also provides ample historical context, describing prior expeditions which serve to illuminate the British motivations behind their exploration of the Canadian Arctic.

There was a curious mixture of stoic heroism and wild arrogance at work during this period of British history. The rigors endured by early Arctic explorers cannot be overstated – the environment is almost entirely hostile to human survival. The British did not believe that there was anything to be learned from the Inuit, indigenous people who live widely spread across the area, and suffered as a result. As one of the Inuit pointed out when the awful lengths Franklin’s men had gone to in order to try to survive were revealed, his people “know how to starve.”

There is a strong thread throughout this book relating to the colonial attitude towards colonised peoples. A belief prevailed in Britain that, equipped with a shotgun and a good pair of shoes, an Englishman could survive anywhere, and that his Christian piety would serve to protect him and speed his endeavours. (On one of Franklin’s earlier expeditions, which was a complete fiasco largely owing to poor planning, the British officers survived whereas the mixed-race local fur traders – who were doing all the manual work and carrying the supplies – perished. This was attributed to the protective influence of the Christian beliefs of the British men.) It was further reckoned that there was nothing to be gained from studying the techinques of the Inuit. Eyewitness accounts from Inuit turned out to hold the key to the fate of Franklin’s party, although their account was not believed initially (they were dismissed as habitually lying “savages”).

Last year, one of Franklin’s ships, HMS Erebus, was discovered by Canadian archaeologists in Queen Maud gulf, where it sank after being trapped in the ice. They are still studying it (the area is only accessible a few months each summer), and I am watching this story with intense interest. There’s more on the discovery at National Geographic.

You can read reviews of The Man Who Ate His Boots at the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. If you enjoyed Endurance, then I recommend you investigate this book. In light of the developing findings of the excavation of HMS Erebus, the material has refreshed relevance today.

Get the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Want more Arctic? Check out True North. There’s also this article on what lives under the ice, and this one on what happens on top of it!

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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