Richard Wragg takes an Archive Journey to the poles

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Richard Wragg takes an Archive Journey to the poles

Archivist Richard Wragg delves into another Archive Journeys story box from the Museum’s library. Inside are letters, books and other artefacts that reveal more about the lives of polar explorers.

Natasha Waterson:
Hello, I’m Natasha Waterson and today I’m joined by Richard Wragg, Assistant Archivist at the Museum. Richard, you’ve got a box full of archive documents with you. What’s in it?

Richard Wragg:
Hi Natasha, well, this is one of our Archive Journey boxes and it’s full of documents about polar exploration. So today I thought I’d tell you some stories about two of the coldest locations on the planet. We’ll be in the north considering the search for the Northwest Passage before moving to the very south of the globe as we join Sir Ernest Shackleton as he explores the Antarctic region. To begin with, let’s have a look at this book, part of the Library’s rare book collection. It’s by a 17th century explorer called Thomas James who set sail across the Atlantic in 1631.

Does the book date from the 17th century too then?

Yes, it was printed in London in 1633 and is called The Strange and Dangerous Voyage of Captaine Thomas James, in his intended Discovery of the Northwest Passage into the South Sea. Although the Northwest Passage was only fully navigated in the early 20th century, the possibility of a sea route across the top of the American continent had fascinated explorers for hundreds of years.

So why was James so keen to find the Northwest Passage?

As ever, there would have been a sense of competition and the potential glory of being the first to discover the passage was a big attraction. However, the real draw for men like James was the discovery of a trade route to places like Japan and China. He was tasked with finding the trade route by the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol and his voyage was in direct rivalry with one funded by London merchants.

Does the book give much indication of what sort of man Thomas James was?

The book reads like a true adventure story and James certainly comes across as being a brave man as well as a gifted leader, though he did have a rather unusual approach to the selection of his crew, he writes:

I was sought to by divers, that had been in places of the chiefest command in this action formerly; and others also that had used the Northerly Icy Seas: but I utterly refused them all, and would by no means have any with me that had been in the like voyage, or adventures, for some private reasons unnecessary here to be related; keeping thus the power in my own hands I had all the men to acknowledge immediate dependence upon my self alone.

You’re saying he deliberately picked men with no experience of sailing in Arctic conditions.

That’s right. James was all too aware that on a previous voyage Henry Hudson’s men had mutinied and set him adrift in a small boat. Hudson was never seen again and James was seeking to avoid a similar fate by making his crew utterly dependent on him for their safe return to England. Their loyalty must certainly have been tested because at one point in the voyage the ship was severely battered in the fierce weather conditions. James was so worried it would be utterly destroyed that he deliberately sank it. The crew were forced to winter on Charlton Island before they could raise the ship and were finally able to set sail for Bristol in the summer of 1632. Despite all of the hardships faced, James still found time to write poetry about his experiences. One notable admirer of his work was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in fact some academics have suggested that James’ book helped to inspire Coleridge’s own poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

Was sinking his own boat an unusual and rather drastic step?

James certainly wouldn’t have made the decision lightly and the situation later would have looked even worse as the ship’s carpenter died during the winter. Having to spend months on the ice was a common occurrence though, as the next item demonstrates. It’s a sketch of HMS Assistance trapped in ice and was probably produced by Edward Harrison, the ships clerk, whose papers are in the Museum’s collection. The Assistance was part of a rescue mission lead by Captain Horatio Austin in the Resolute that was searching for signs of Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition.

I can imagine that spending such long periods stuck in ice would have been quite boring for the crews. But I see you’ve got some documents here that show how they tried to keep themselves entertained.

Yes, many of the ships carried quite extensive libraries and we can see from this copy of the Assistance’s newspaper that the reading matter included works by Charles Dickens and a copy of Robinson Crusoe which is rather appropriate given the isolated nature of the crew. Keeping morale up was a priority and ships would put on theatre productions and other entertainments. This document from the Harrison papers is an advert for the ‘Royal Arctic Casino’ and a masque ball. It’s clear from reading the advert that the men were able to maintain some sense of humour during the long winter nights as it states:

A brilliant band will attend. No admittance unless masqued or in fancy costume. The M.C. holds himself responsible for all young ladies during the ball only.

The page itself was actually printed on the Resolute’s printing press whilst in the Arctic which demonstrates how well stocked these ships were. Another of the items printed in the Arctic is this song called ‘The Arctic Mariner’. It’s dedicated to a Mrs Austin and begins:

I’m walking on the floe Bessie,

Where I hope you ne’er will be;

I’ve been out since ten O’clock,

And we don’t dine until three:

Quicksilver’s freezing, and my nose,

Is quite white with the cold;

Ah! I long to roam again through fields,

With you, and friends of old.

Although it is quite light-hearted I think there is also a sense of the hardships faced by the men on these expeditions.

I can see that the terrible cold must have been a constant threat but what else did the crews have to endure?

Yes, the cold was a great danger along with everything we associate with it such as frostbite. Thomas James’ crew was actually plagued by mosquitoes at one stage during their voyage and scurvy was an often present disease. In fact, the expedition connected to this next item had to return to England due to the effects of scurvy. The item is a saucer made especially for the Discovery which, along with the Alert, was sent on an expedition of 1875 lead by George Nares. Attempting to reach the North Pole, Nares reached what was at that time the most northerly point ever achieved. Sledging parties were sent out but due to logistical problems they carried no lime juice which was a vital source of vitamin C. As scurvy and bad weather conditions took their toil Nares made the decision to end the expedition and return home.

And did he return to England as a hero?

No, I’m afraid it was quite the opposite. Although his actions probably saved the lives of his men he was roundly criticised for the outbreak of scurvy and the failure of the expedition. It was said that he even reprimanded a man for shooting a seal and disturbing divine service even though the animal would have provided some desperately needed vitamin C.

That does seem rather petty.

It does doesn’t it. Although it was also said that in the wardroom later he congratulated the man on his marksmanship. It gives the impression that Nares was a reasonable and humane leader but also a product of a fairly rigid Victorian navy. The theme of hardships faced on expeditions is continued in these two documents relating to Ernest Shackleton. The first is a letter written by Shackleton whilst on the National Antarctic Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. The letter is dated 20 September 1902 and is clearly to a family friend. In it, Shackleton describes how “for 123 days the sun was absent”. Although he was initially taken on the expedition to analyse sea-water samples and look after the ship’s stores, Shackleton impressed Scott and he was selected for one of the sledging parties trying to reach the South Pole. The letter was written just before his departure and takes quite an optimistic tone, he writes of how despite his surroundings being:

One of the most desolate parts of the world, winter and the long Arctic night are now over and we have the good old sun growing daily in strength so that even now we feel the heat from him and the temperature which rarely went above -10oF … sometimes creeps up to nearly zero.

It makes you wonder why people were so keen to set off on these expeditions in the first place.

Yes, it was definitely a certain sort of person who volunteered. Sadly, like Scott, Shackleton died at the Antarctic in 1922 aboard the Quest. I’d say this last document best sums up the attraction for Polar explorers. It is an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ poem which was hung in the wheelhouse of the Quest. It is signed by a number of the crew and reads:

If you can stand the Quest and all her antics,

When all around you turn somersaults upon her deck,

And go aloft when no one has told you

And not fall down and break your blooming neck,

If you can work like Wild and also like Wuzzles

Spend a convivial night with some old bean,

And then come down and meet the boss at breakfast,

And never breathe a word of where you’ve been

If you can fill the port and starboard bunkers

With fourteen tons of coal, and call it fun,

Yours is the ship and everything that’s in it,

And you’re a marvel, not a man my son.

Richard, thanks for telling me these stories.

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