Writing the Northwest Passage: Arctic Media, Past and Future

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In 1845 Briton Sir John Franklin launched a large Northwest Passage expedition aboard the ships Erebus and Terror. When there had been no notice of the 129 men on the voyage after several years, a search began. Not just one search was conducted. At least forty rescue and recovery missions sought evidence of the Franklin expedition’s whereabouts and baffling end within the first fifteen years of their disappearance alone. Investigations continued for decades afterward, helping to propel a new age of Arctic and Northwest Passage exploration. Only in 2014 and 2016—167 years after the first searches—were the Erebus and Terror finally located on the Arctic seafloor.

Sir John Franklin. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada/C-1352.

Relics and other traces of the missing men had been found in the early years of the Franklin searches in the form of Inuit testimony (not always fully credited by Anglo-British prejudices) and in assorted expedition artifacts. In one abandoned ship’s boat, for example, a search party found twine, sailmakers’ palms, needle and thread cases, a copy of the novel The Vicar of Wakefield, several bayonet-scabbards cut down into knife-sheaths, eleven large spoons, eleven forks, and four teaspoons, many of these last bearing Franklin’s crest.

These bits of twine and teaspoons tell a story. They are texts to be read, items that have something to communicate, just as much as the official narratives of the voyages of the search expeditions provide histories. I teach and research nineteenth-century literature and culture, oceanic studies, and the environmental humanities. On the Northwest Passage Project, I will be discussing with students how voyagers to the Arctic attempt to write about—and, crucially, on—the ice, both historically and today. While present in the polar regions, historical expedition members produced an enormous volume of writing—and, eventually, photography, videography, and many other forms of data and media production—in order to document what they saw, felt, heard, missed, experienced, counted, observed, or lost. We will be doing the same as members of the Northwest Passage Project expedition team in 2019.

What forms of technology might connect the present with the future, or the past with the present? I close this post with a hauntingly evocative dream about Arctic communication and the lost Sir John Franklin recorded in the journal of another doomed nineteenth-century explorer, George DeLong (USS Jeannette North Pole expedition, 1879-1881):

The doctor relates a curious dream he had last night. He seemed to be […] explaining to Sir John Franklin there present some of our articles of outfit, such as Edison’s electric machine, the anemometer, and the telephone. Franklin, after listening to the explanations and viewing the articles, tersely remarked, “Your electric machine is not worth a damn, and your anemometer is just the same.” The telephone he seemed to consider a good thing.[i]

The dream-Franklin rejects both the anemometer (a wind gauge) and the electric lights that a young Thomas Edison had offered to the expedition. It is instead the telephone, a communication device reaching across time and space, that attracts dream-Franklin. Prophetically experienced and recorded before DeLong or the ship’s doctor could imagine their own eventual deaths on the ice, the dream sifts through possible technologies of Arctic media for illuminating and communicating in the Far North. The doctor’s dream keeps alive the possibility that a circuit of communication with the past will remain open. This passage reminds us that on the Northwest Passage Project expedition in 2019, we will maintain communication with the present and the future, with an eye and ear to the past, as well.

Hester Blum is Associate Professor of English at Penn State University and the author of The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives (2008), which received the John Gardner Maritime Research award. Her edited volumes include Horrors of Slavery (2008), an 1808 Barbary piracy narrative; Turns of Event: American Literary Studies in Motion (2016); and a special issue of Atlantic Studies. Blum is completing a book entitled The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Ecomedia of Polar Exploration.

[i] The Voyage of the Jeannette: The Ship and Ice Journals of George W. De Long, Lieutenant- Commander U. S. N. an Commander of the Polar Expedition of 1879-1881, Ed. Emma De Long (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1883), 162-163.

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