Voyages of Delusion: The Quest for the Northwest Passage

By Marschall, Laurence A. | Natural History, May 2003 | Go to article overview
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Voyages of Delusion: The Quest for the Northwest Passage


Marschall, Laurence A., Natural History


Voyages of Delusion: The Quest for the Northwest Passage

by Glyn Williams

Yale University Press, 2003; $29.95

In this age of technical marvels, when satellite images of the globe are only a mouse click away (see, for instance, terraserver.microsoft.com), it comes as a shock to see how sketchy are the outlines of continents on maps of the 1700s. More than two centuries had passed since Columbus's voyages, but so little of the world had been charted that geography was more a matter of speculation than of science. Western sailors knew about just a few islands in the Pacific, had a passing idea of the location of Australia, and only half-believed the rumors of a giant continent in the remote south and an ice-free ocean around the North Pole (only one of which, of course, turned out to be true).

As for the New World itself, a vast northwestern quadrant remained unexplored. Some maps-if they showed anything at all west of the Great Lakes-placed the "Isle of California" off the western coast of North America. Others charted Alaska as the largest island in the Aleutian Islands chain.

The speculative European and American geography of the eighteenth century, according to maritime historian Glyn Williams, was guided by a seductive assumption: an easy, ice-free passage connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But the evidence was scanty; the vastness of the North American continent hindered overland exploration, and ice seemed to block all the sea routes around the continent to the north.

One exception seemed to be Hudson Bay, accessible from the Atlantic Ocean by a strait that, in a good year, remained open throughout July and August. There was tantalizing evidence that beyond the bay was a passage to the Pacific Ocean. Whales, earnestly believed to have swum from the Pacific, had been sighted along the bay's western shores, and some reports of the height and direction of its tides seemed to indicate its connection to a larger body of water.

If you read those signs optimistically, as did the Irish legislator Arthur Dobbs (an ardent advocate of a Northwest Passage), all you needed was persistence. Follow the indented western shoreline of Hudson Bay and an inlet would soon be found that led, after at most a few hundred miles, into the balmy Pacific.

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