Saturday 25 February 2017

Review: The Man Who Ate His Boots by Anthony Brandt

Jonathan Cape, €23, Hardback

The search for a northwest passage through the Arctic ice along the north coast of the continent of America to link the Atlantic with the Pacific was at one time a national obsession in England.

A succession of dangerously optimistic heroes over a period of 40 years sailed away to the cheers of hundreds of admirers and returned home to fame and celebrity. All regardless of the fact that none of them actually discovered the fabled route, because it didn't exist.

The relentless pursuit of the northwest passage got going once Napoleon's fleet had been decisively put out of the picture after the battle of Trafalgar.

It became urgent for the victorious island nation to find a new worthwhile goal to fuel new legends.

Cue terrifying voyages and endless treks through unforgiving glacial lands and you have stuff of legend for the post-Napoleon period.

The premise for this wave of ships squeezing their way through the Arctic ice was the shortcut, broadly speaking, to the northwest of Britain and Ireland and north of Canada, which logically should have reduced by several thousand miles the voyage via Cape Horn to the Pacific Ocean.

Add to this the then very generous prize money of £5,000 for the first captain to make it through the mythical open sea through the Bering Strait and on to Hawaii and you have the incentive behind a story of tragic hardship matched with incredible stubbornness.

Brandt points out that when Inuits first saw a mirror belonging to a British officer, they naturally thought it was ice. Similarly they were amazed by the wood in the ship as they had never seen wood before.

The Inuit throughout the book are portrayed as unsophisticated but quick to catch on to the uses of new tools made of iron, but it is the British who in turn fail to learn every time they set off for the frozen north that furs are warmer and drier than wool.

And who was The Man Who Ate His Boots of the title? This is somewhat misleading as man of the title was John Franklin, (who, on an early expedition, did eat his boots out of sheer starvation), but he is only actually featured in about one-third of the book.

Although Parry, Richardson and Rae were in their own ways more successful than Franklin in mapping and naming the rivers and coastal features, it was Franklin, the popular and courageous naval officer who had served alongside Nelson at Trafalgar, who was lionised in song and fable when he and his team seemed to mysteriously disappear on his last trip inside the Arctic maze of islands, inlets, peninsulas and straits between 1845 and 1848.

The numerous expeditions to find Franklin and his men became causes celebres in the 1850s.

Brandt doesn't hold back pointing out the irony that it was actually the search for Franklin that provided some of the most valuable information in mapping the North American coast. The repeated geographer's reference to 'Great Britain' instead of the more current 'Britain' does grate and referring to temperatures in Fahrenheit, as is current with Brandt's National Geographic employers, is confusing for the European reader, who will consider four degrees above zero not to be too cold really.

Ultimately the book is meticulously researched and offers the most complete and detailed narrative of the northwest passage, its relevance now stronger than ever as global warming causes the route to open up.

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