Arctic ice has long proved a stern adversary to explorers. Exploring the representation of this fearful foe by explorers across the centuries.
By Dr. Phil Hatfield
Head and Curator
Eccles Centre for American Studies
As Francis Spufford’s 2003 book I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination argues, ice has a powerful hold on the English imagination. Today this is commonly articulated by summoning the names of heroic explorers, Scott, Shackleton and Franklin but ice has long captured popular thought in England and the UK. Indeed, our relationship with ice and, specifically, the icescapes of the polar north has a heritage stretching back to at least the 15th century and has been developed by a huge cast of often forgotten actors. This article looks at how Arctic ice has been articulated by generations of explorers, developed a significant place in our print culture and vexed the desires of politicians, expedition leaders and traders for centuries.
How we picture the Arctic has changed a great deal since early adventurers – sailing for the English crown but not always English born – began their expeditions north. The above map of the Arctic published in George Best’s 1578 account of Martin Frobisher’s attempt to find a Northwest Passage shows a North Pole very different from how we understand it today. Composed of channels through a small ice sheet, open water and with a giant magnetic obelisk at its heart, the high Arctic imagined by Frobisher and his contemporaries is a work of high fiction. But why was it conceived this way?
Consider the answer to be one part natural philosophy (early natural sciences) thinking mixed with two parts economic and political desire. Scholars of the 15th century understood that sea water resisted freezing longer than fresh water and that deeper, disturbed water also stayed liquid beyond the point of freezing. They also understood that compasses pointed to the pole and could be affected by metallic objects; hence making it a small leap to believing that open water and a large metallic object would be encountered at the pole. However, this rudimentary understanding of the laws of nature was also being bent to fit the desires of men. Or rather, the theory was constructed because people wanted there to be open water in the north.
The reasons for this were political and economic. From the late 15th century onwards England and the rest of northern Europe faced being out-competed by Spain and Portugal, the new rulers of the Americas and trade networks to Asia. The discoveries of Christopher Columbus and his contemporaries were making the Spanish and Portuguese crowns fantastically rich, a problem for their competing monarchs in northern lands. With Spain and Portugal’s claims being protected by papal decree, northern European countries, not least England, had to find ways to exploit the Americas and trade with Asia that did not violate the decree of the Pope and some argued Arctic waterways were filled with promise.
With this began the contradictory relationship the English and others had with Arctic ice, often awed by it, frequently terrified by it and consistently, over the course of centuries, frustrated by it. One of the earliest published accounts to capture this relationship visually is not British, it was instead produced to illustrate the account of the adventures of Dutch explorer William Barentsz in 1598. Barentsz, like many others, believed a route to the orient existed via northern waters, his focus being on the Northeast Passage over modern day Russia. Beaten back twice already Barentsz’ third expedition would be his last, his ships becoming stuck in the ice on Novaya Zemlya before he died and his men were forced to cut their way out through the ice.
The plates published with this account of the expedition capture the danger of Arctic ice and the animals that live on it. Barentsz’ men are forced to abandon their ship, locked in an icy grip, and cut a path so their small boats can make it to open water whilst being hunted by resident polar bears. While rudimentary in form, the images capture the dangers of Arctic ice and begin to create an imagination of this for viewers back in the cities of Europe. An English account which also began to articulate the danger and fear of ice was that of Thomas James, a mariner tasked, in 1631, with charting the Northwest Passage via Hudson’s Bay. James and his crew endured a terrible winter in makeshift huts before returning home, convinced the Northwest Passage did not exist, and articulating his hardship at the hands of Arctic ice in his published account, The Strange and Dangerous Voyage of Thomas James in his intended Discovery of the Northwest Passage into the South-Sea (1633). This was widely read and a later writer who it possibly inspired was Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Although Coleridge’s Mariner drifts to the Antarctic, his description of overwhelming cold and the imprisoning ice seems to take many cues from James’ work, not least James’ own feelings of being imprisoned and in a dangerous purgatory much like that experienced by the Mariner. This ability of the ice to imprison and endanger is a common theme in English and, later, British narratives of exploration. It is the unpredictability of the ice and its ability to set crews in a grip which may not relent for years that provides these narratives with a sense of adventure, danger and triumphing against the odds. So dangerous and resilient a foe is the ice that it has even defeated some of the greatest heroes of exploration, such as Captain James Cook.
On his third journey to the Pacific, 1776–1780, Captain Cook carried with him secret orders. Publicly he was tasked with returning the Ra’iatean visitor Mai to his Pacific Island home and conduct more surveys in the region but this was a cover for his main objective, to chart the Pacific entrance to the Northwest Passage before attempting to sail through the channel and back home. Cook failed in his task, beaten back by the ice and poor weather. The ice was, again, depicted by Cook and others from the expedition as an implacable, capricious foe, always threatening to snare the ships in its grasp, as suggested by the title of the figure above. The Northwest Passage was not Cook’s only encounter with polar ice. His exploration of the seas around Antarctica had also driven home to him the sublime beauty of these icescapes.
The sublime beauty of Arctic ice captured the attention of Cook and many other sailors, not least later explorers such as Sir John Ross and Sir John Franklin. In their accounts icescapes and, particularly, icebergs are depicted as towering statements of nature’s beauty, cathedrals of ice towering above the ships used by the naval explorers of the 19th century. Again these depictions and descriptions added to the popularity of explorers’ published accounts, with readers marvelling at the beauty described and displayed in prints. However, it is possible that this slippage between the sublime beauty and terrifying danger of the ice is somewhat contradictory.
Here we must look to the tropes of gothic story telling to explain this slippage. Within gothic literature and, latterly, painting and film the sublime and the gothic (which is to say, dark and terrifying) have a symbiotic relationship. That which is sublime in its grand, overwhelming beauty can, through a change of situation or even light, quickly shift into the gothic and the dangerous. Such is the case with Arctic ice; what under a beautiful sunset and viewed from a distance can seem to attest to the wondrous, beautiful power of nature can, through the passing of a cold and a shift in the wind, suddenly bear down on a ship in a terrifying display of the power of the ice and human frailty.
This is well captured by the depictions of ice in the early accounts of Sir John Franklin’s expeditions. Leading two expeditions to chart the northern coast of Canada over land, Franklin and his men frequently encountered and narrowly escaped the danger of the ice. The above figure captured perfectly icebergs threatening Franklin’s overland expedition party (1819–1822) in a moment where the bodies of ice straddle the border between sublime and terrifying; the icebergs are rendered so they almost appear beautiful, but their proximity to the tiny boats and their crews attests to the danger they pose.
For viewers of these icescapes it is this depiction of the ice, as shifting between the sublime and the terrifying, that captures the imagination. For the English, the obsession with ice and the heroism that arises from besting it is rooted in this duality of the icescape. Without its reminder of the beauty of nature and simultaneous threat to trap human bodies and take away life, it would not have the imaginative power that makes accounts of Arctic exploration so engrossing. It also means that when men such as Franklin and Scott take on these landscapes, and despite their bravery and endurance, are undone by them, the story of their attempts live long in our history and culture.
- Berton, P., The Arctic Grail: the quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818 – 1909 (Toronto: Anchor, 2001)
- Brandt, A., The Man Who Ate His Boots: Sir John Franklin and the Tragic History of the Northwest Passage (London: Jonathan Cape, 2010)
- Davidson, P., The Idea of North (London: Reaktion, 2004)
- Driver, F., Geography Militant (London: Blackwell, 2001)
- Hatfield, P. J., Lines in the Ice: exploring the roof of the world (London: British Library Publishing, 2016)
- Lopez, B., Arctic Dreams (London: Vintage, 2001)
- McCannon, J., A History of the Arctic: Nature, Exploration and Exploitation (London: Reaktion, 2012)
- Potter, R. A., Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818 – 1875 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007)
- Spufford, F., I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 2003)
- Williams, G., Arctic Labyrinth (Berkley: University of California Press, 2011)