Friday, 2 October 2009

North-West Passage

A story in last Saturday's Independent recounted how two sailors navigated the North-West Passage, the fabled sea route along the northern Canadian coast believed to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, in a 17-foot open sailing boat. Until very recently this journey would have been impossible as the way was clogged with thick ice. However, due to global warming, the route is nearly ice-free for the first time since records began.

Early European navigators sailed north into the Arctic during the 16th and 17th centuries in search of the passage. The British parliament offered £20,000 to the first person to complete the passage, in 1744, and over the following years expeditions gradually discovered parts of the Canadian Arctic archipelago as they pursued the prize. John Franklin, a veteran of arctic exploration, set out in 1845 on a well equipped north west passage expedition but when no news was heard from the crew, more than 40 parties were launched in search of them. Eventually is was discovered that the Franklin party had died from scurvy and starvation, along with evidence that the sailors had resorted to cannibalism - a fact reported with glee by the press.

According to polar historian, Beau Riffenburgh, in Myth of the Explorer, this marked the beginning of a sensational style of journalism that promoted and exaggerated exploits. Heroic myths were created to enthrall the general public, while less eventful, but more useful, scientific expeditions of the latter part of the 19th century were ignored.

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