Thursday, 7 January 2010

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

With much of Britain under a thick blanket of snow, the nation's press has been hard at work trying to come up with clever headlines and different ways of writing about the white stuff. Snow problem, in today's Guardian, is an interesting essay by Charlie English in which he argues that society's determination to try and carry on as normal under these conditions is dangerously foolhardy. English, author of The Snow Tourist, starts off with the example of Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson relating how when an Inuit becomes lost in a blizzard he will make himself comfortable and conserve energy. When the storm has passed he will carry on to his destination. A European, by contrast, will instinctively want to thrash on.

Stefansson was a noted explorer and ethnologist who spent five consecutive record-making years exploring vast areas of the Canadian Arctic after adapting himself to the Eskimo way of life. However, he was also a controversial figure, particularly with regard to his 'blonde Eskimo' theory. This, he explained to members of the Royal Geographical Society, as reported in the Guardian March 11 1913:

'The thing that roused greatest interest is his account of his five years' trip has been his discovery of some Eskimo tribes of an unusual type. These tribes have never seen white men, at all events in recent times. The had distinct European characteristics (light , blue eyes, brown beards, and so on) , and tonight Mr Stefansson suggested that they might be descendeds of some Scandanavian settlers from Greenland who disappeared from there in the fifteenth century and may, he thinks , have made their way westward into these remote snowy places. He scouted the idea that these people might be descended from survivors of Sir John Franklin's expedition'.

Stefansson later regretted making the comments and recent studies have discredited the theory.


  1. Stefansson is certainly a noteworthy Arctic character. But even beside his theories of "White Eskimos" being discredited, there are many deaths which, in my view, should be held to his account. Stefansson was brilliant at surviving himself, but very poor at leading others. Eleven people perished after he left the ship Karluk, supposedly to hunt but in fact never returning. The ship was crushed by the ice and the few survivors owed their lives to Bob Bartlett, the captain, who stayed with his ship and its people to the last. And then, in 1921, he sent four inexperienced young men, along with an Inuk seamstress, to "colonize" Wrangel Island; only the Inuk, Ada Blackjack, survived. I am eternally puzzled as to why Stenfansson is held up as a beacon of Arctic achivement. He himself did very well -- but those he led, and then abandoned, did far more poorly.

  2. I too am puzzled as to why the man gets such a good press.

    Thanks for the introduction to your blogs/website.