Magazine article The Spectator

Fearful Beauty and Danger

Magazine article The Spectator

Fearful Beauty and Danger

Article excerpt

VOYAGES OF DELUSION: THE SEARCH FOR THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE IN THE AGE OF REASON by Glyn Williams HarperCollins, (pound)15.99, pp. 467, ISBN 0002571811

Dr Johnson was sound on the sea:

No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned ... A man in jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.

In this latest of Glyn Williams's scholarly and vivid accounts of seaborne exploration there is much to bear out the good doctor's judgment. For centuries the search for the Northwest Passage - the supposed sea-- route across the frozen top of the American continent that would provide a shortcut to the East - was the philosopher's stone of traders and nautical explorers, pursued with unquestioning faith and disregard of evidence. Unimaginable privations were endured, many lives lost, many men ruined. One who got off lightly used his finger as stopper for a bottle of brandy, only to find it frozen into the neck by the time he got back to his tent. His shipmates cut off his finger. Presumably they could have broken the bottle but judged brandy more necessary to survival.

Why did they do it and how did it come about? Famously, Dr Johnson also observed that every man `thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea', and there was certainly something of that in it, the spirit of adventure that mushroomed from early Tudor times onwards, with improvements in shipbuilding and navigation. We take for granted the extent of the American continent, but imagine what it must have been like simply not knowing how far north it went, or what was up there. Untold riches, perhaps, as well as a new, quick gateway to the fabled South Seas. Then as now, the desire for money proved the great motivator, and trade and exploration went hand in hand.

Thus, the Hudson Bay Company, established by royal charter in 1670, was named after an explorer but was there to trade. Other evocative names of the region - Baffin Island, Frobisher Bay, Foxe Basin, Cook's River-- also commemorate men who battled against pack-ice, pitiless temperatures and storms lasting for weeks. Nor was it only English seafarers who doggedly believed a Northwest Passage must exist, but French, Russian and Spanish, though the English repeatedly went farthest north. …

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