In The Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of The U.S.S. Jeannette.
Nonfiction bestsellers occasionally improve historical understanding by correcting our memories of events that took place a century or longer ago. Hampton Sides' corrections are noteworthy and rare: noteworthy for balancing contextual with factual understanding of the 1879-81 Jeannette expedition, and rare for featuring hard-won Arctic understanding.
Before In the Kingdom of Ice corrected my memory, I was perhaps representative of North American Arctophiles. I thought that Jeannette's destruction off Siberia in 1881 connoted inadequacies in 19th-century planning, navigation, or hull reinforcement against sea ice forces. Jeannette flotsam found in western Greenland in 1884 was the misfortune's one redeeming outcome. That flotsam's trajectory inspired Fridtjof Nansen to test theories of transpolar drift with the ice-strengthened, ice-borne Fram in 1893-96. Soviet pagonauts later used aircraft to occupy drifting ice floes as research platforms, vastly amplifying Nansen's observations.
Documents discovered by relatives of the commander of the Jeannette expedition (p. 413, 444) inspired Sides. He researched contemporary news, post-expedition Naval and Congressional inquiries, and numerous secondary sources. Many (e.g., Illustrations, p. 236-237) had faded from public recall. During Mark Twain's "Gilded Age" (-1867-98), intense "polar fever" gripped both the public and the shapers of the Jeannette expedition. The globe was shrinking at lower latitudes. Telegraphy spread within and between continents. After 1869, the Suez Canal shortened Eurasian shipping distances. Transcontinental railroads reduced transit times between Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America. But higher latitudes resisted such shrinkage. The Western Hemisphere's Northwest Passage, the Eastern Hemisphere's Northeast Passage, and the Northern Hemisphere's apex (90[degrees]N) remained tantalizingly "unconquered."
Lt. George Washington De Long, U.S. Naval Academy graduate, turned 29 on USS Juniata's mission to northwestern Greenland in the summer of 1873. Juniata sought survivors of Charles Francis Hall's ill-fated U.S. expedition, which in 1871 had passed 82[degrees]N in northern Greenland. De Long performed brilliantly. Emma De Long noted that her husband returned infected by "polar fever" (p. 10; De Long, 1938:85). Dispatches telegraphed to the New York Herald from St. John's, Newfoundland, praised De Long's feats before Juniata reached home. Advance acclaim vaulted the young polar aspirant into rarified social circles. He gained audience with pillars of Gilded Age influence and philanthropy, including New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett, Jr.
Bennett's own polar fever inclined him to underwrite a promising attempt to reach 90[degrees]N. Two remarkably dissimilar men thus became collaborators. Studious, guileless Lt. De Long depended on the impulsive and secretive patron, Bennett. By 1879, De Long's meticulous preparations, sanctioned by the Navy, nudged the U.S. toward the comity of nations competing to reach 90[degrees]N. Bennett's promissory agreements with the Navy included purchasing an ice-worthy ship, rebuilding, provisioning, and fueling her, paying non-naval participants' salaries, and underwriting any necessary rescue operations. The expedition was scaled to last three years. (Imagine Rupert Murdoch underwriting a NASA mission to Mars!)
Strategically, De Long and Bennett agreed to approach 90[degrees]N using the most persuasive oceanography and geography available. Jeannette was to hurry from San Francisco via Alaska to Wrangel Land, an unvisited mountainous feature occasionally glimpsed from northern coastal Chukotka. Three beliefs favoured that approach: 1) the central Arctic Ocean was imagined to be ice-free, surrounded by a sea ice ring; 2) the Japanese warm-water current (Kuro Siwo) should flow northward through the Bering Strait, facilitating penetration of the weaker Chukchi Sea ice; 3) Wrangel Land should be the tip of a transpolar peninsula, attached to Greenland. Travel poleward overland by dogsled was to begin in autumn 1879. Lest these concepts seem farfetched, Tammiksaar et al. (1999) explored origins of these geographic hypotheses. When the Jeannette expedition's findings circulated in 1882, elements 2) and 3) of wishful Arctic geography evaporated.
Imagine De Long's dismay at receiving revised Navy orders in July 1879: Before hastening via Wrangel Land to the North Pole, he was to visit harbours along the northern coast of Chukotka. Prof. Nordenskiold, unheard from since August 1878, was attempting the Northeast Passage. De Long never suspected his devious benefactor of arranging this revision and delay. Bennett's hope to break a story on Nordenskiold, as when publishing Stanley's 1871 "discovering" African explorer Dr. Livingstone, had trumped his philanthropic inclinations. After obeying orders, Jeannette became icebound in September 1879, still east of Wrangel Land. Ice-borne generally northwestward for the next 21 months, her crew watched Wrangel's peaks pass south of them, thus revealing an island, not a peninsula. Orderly and generally harmonious routines developed aboard Jeannette under DeLong's command. The expedition's engineer, George W. Melville, impressed everyone with his abilities to solve each mechanical problem that arose.
Violent drift-ice surges in mid-June 1881 crushed Jeannette among the New Siberian Islands. All participants redirected efforts to reaching inhabited mainland and rescue 1000 km to the southwest. The 33 expedition members struggled over moving pack ice for 90 days, before finally launching three small open boats to sail the last 150 km to mainland Siberia. A severe gale sank the smallest boat with its eight men off the Lena River delta. Superb seamanship brought the other two boats to widely separated mouths of the Lena. Johnson (2014:50) notes that experienced Russian explorers disappeared attempting this route to Siberia's mainland in 1902. Of the 25 Jeannette participants attaining mainland Siberia, 13 survived hardships en route south to Yakutsk. Commander De Long and all but two of the men from his boat had died from exposure and starvation near the head of the Lena Delta by the end of October 1881. Survivors trickled home between May 1882 and March 1883, via Irkutsk and Atlantic ports, with continuing support from Bennett and Imperial Russia's military.
Further expeditionary outcomes are left for readers to discover, then to ponder: How did North Americans' awareness of the Jeannette expedition fade so far as to need memory cdrrection? Mirsky ( 1970) downplays Jeannette's accomplishments, as if Nansen's Fram expedition eclipsed rather than extended De Long's observations. Guttridge's (1986) account focuses on assigning blame for the expedition's loss of life. Roberts (2005) documents the biases and preconceptions of 20th-century authors concerning polar exploration events. Sides' fresh, thorough review of contemporary practical realities and expeditionary adaptiveness should revive interest in De Long's and Melville's feats. Jeannette's painstakingly repatriated logbooks, after all, have become valued sources of 19th-century climatic and sea ice data to compare with recent observations (A.R. Mahoney, pers. comm. 2015).
The publisher left topic-finding by an index to whatever search functions its e-book versions afford. Readers needn't be Arctophiles to enjoy the narrative (quoted on its dustjacket are two who read it twice). On the other hand, Arctophiles who neglect it risk being sidelined during lively discussions of its contents.
De Long, E.W. 1938. Explorer's wife. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.
Guttridge, L.F. 1986. Icebound: The Jeannette expedition's quest for the North Pole. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press.
Johnson, C.W. 2014. Ice ship: The epic voyages of the polar adventurer Fram. Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England.
Mirsky, J. (1934) 1970. To the Arctic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Roberts, D. 2005. Four against the Arctic: Shipwrecked for six years at the top of the world. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Tammiksaar, E., Sukhova, N.G., and Stone, I.R. 1999. Hypothesis versus fact: August Petermann and polar research. Arctic 52(3):237-243. http://dx.doi.org/10.14430/arctic929
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