Longtime adventure author and editor Anthony Brandt has just released his latest work, The Man Who Ate His Boots. The intensely researched book examines the search for the Northwest Passage, the holy grail of 19th-century British exploration for the shortcut it could provide to Asia. Too "civilized" to adopt any of the customs of the Inuit, these brave, yet sometimes foolish British explorers faced fates that included starvation, freezing to death, and cannibalism. Sure, hindsight is 20-20, but was the sterling silver flatware and fine china really necessary? Or insisting on frozen tents instead of by keeping cozy in an igloo? Or pulling their 2,000-pound sleds themselves, instead of hitching up some dogs? Here Brandt shares ten surprising items, ideas, and, attitudes the Brits brought to the Arctic.—Mary Anne Potts
On the first voyage north after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1818, the British took umbrellas with them as a trade item for the Hawaiians. They were confident they would sail right over the North Pole and spend the following summer in Hawaii, where the natives would no doubt be happy to have British umbrellas.
2. Canvas tents.
The British repeatedly watched the Inuit build igloos for themselves during the winters they spent in their ships in the Arctic. An igloo can be built in a little over an hour by a practiced Inuit, and it will house a family of four in considerable comfort in the worst possible weather. The temperature outside might stand at 40 or 50 below zero; inside an igloo it would typically reach 50 above. Canvas tents invariably freeze in very cold temperatures and cannot be folded, the wind frequently knocks them down, and they are very poor at retaining whatever body heat emanates from the people inside. Yet the British never learned to build igloos.
3. Mustard seeds.
On the first major expedition he commanded Capt. Edward Parry of the Royal Navy brought mustard seeds with him. When, after a winter in the Arctic, the first signs of the dreaded scurvy appeared among his men, he planted the seeds in flats in his cabin and fed the seedlings to the victims in salads. Although the seedlings were white and had no chlorophyll, they cured the men. Scurvy results from a lack of Vitamin C in the diet. Although Vitamin C was not discovered until the 1920s, it was known that fresh vegetables and fresh meat prevented scurvy. Very few other naval captains, however, followed Parry's example.
4. Central heating.
Parry was also responsible for helping to develop a system of central heating for ships wintering in the Arctic. A stove maker named Sylvester sequestered a stove in the hold of the ships, then ran a system of pipes throughout the ships to pipe warm air to the living quarters. After three or four expeditions this system was refined to the point where Capt. Parry's own cabin would be comfortably in the 60s while the temperature outside was a full hundred degrees below that figure. The system was so efficient, indeed, that it ran on about a bushel of coal a day. Curiously, the British were extremely reluctant to adopt central heating in their houses in England.
The Royal Navy conducted most of the expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage in the 19th century and it did so in wool uniforms, despite the fact that they are not nearly as warm as furs. The Inuit wore sealskin clothing in winter, a combination of sealskin and caribou hide in the short Arctic summers. Frostbite was common among the British in winter, rare among the Inuit.
During the search for the lost Franklin expedition in the period after 1848, the British made innumerable sledge journeys from their iced-in ships to surrounding islands and coastlines, hoping to find a trace of the missing explorers. All of these sledge journeys, some of them over a thousand miles long, used men to haul the sledges, which frequently weighed well over 2,000 lbs. Each man might be pulling 250 lbs. over ice, through deep snow, or through a foot or more of slush. It might take a year for the men to recover physically from these extraordinary ordeals. The Inuit used dogs to haul their sledges. The British never used dogs. They didn't think it was sporting. Man-hauling sledges became a tradition among British explorers, and it cost Scott and his party their lives on their return from the South Pole in 1912.
7. Canned food.
The English invented canned food in 1812, and they brought it to the Arctic with them from 1818 on. A marvelous idea. The only problem was that the cans were sealed with solder, which contains lead. The English could not have known the consequences at the time, but lead poisoning was the result. It did not kill them, but it did affect their health.
8. Sterling silver flatware.
When a British naval officer took to sea he brought with him as many of the comforts of home as he could manage. No British officer traveled without his kit, which would include his own silver, usually marked with his initials or his crest, his china, similarly marked, his private stash of tobacco, his own firearms, and his supply of tea, canned delicacies, and other foodstuffs. When the surviving British seamen, most of them already starving, abandoned the iced-in Franklin expedition ships in 1848, many of the officers took their flatware with them on the two or three ship's boats they hauled on sledges behind them, thus adding their weight to the other useless items stacked in these boats.
The promoters of Arctic exploration back in England in the Admiralty offices were pretty much all convinced that the Arctic Ocean, which none of them had ever seen, could not freeze. Known as the "open polar sea," this idea had been around since the early 1500s, despite centuries of exploration in the north, despite, indeed, the experience of the many expeditions sent into the Arctic after 1815. In the channels and straits of the Canadian archipelago, these theorists argued, yes, the waters froze, but not in open sea. The open sea was incapable of freezing; storms and wave action would break up any ice that formed. As early as 1810 a whaling captain and budding scientist named William Scoresby had watched the sea freeze in stormy weather to a depth of a foot; but he was only a whaling captain, and therefore not to be credited. In fact the open polar sea was a myth. Until global warming sea ice normally froze in the winter to a depth of eight feet.
10. A superior attitude.
The British truly believed that they were a superior race, fully justified in ruling as much of the world as they could manage. This attitude was evident in their refusal to learn from and adopt Inuit survival techniques in the Arctic. The Inuit had been living in the Arctic for thousands of years, but the British persisted in believing the Inuit were mere savages, and, as people like Charles Dickens, and most of the Admiralty, argued, wherever a savage could survive an English seaman could not only survive, but thrive. They were dead wrong, and the fate of the Franklin expedition amply demonstrated this fact.