Author: Matthew Holmes, University of Leeds
With the threat of climate change looming, the Polar Regions have never seemed so pertinent to our everyday lives. Yet historians have long considered such environments influential beyond their borders in a myriad of ways. For instance, nineteenth-century Arctic exploration and scientific work relate to broader themes of state power and expertise. For those of us in the humanities and social sciences, examining the formation of imagined landscapes and scientific knowledge is revelatory of both past and present human self-conception.
By the early nineteenth century, the appointment of a naturalist to collect and catalogue specimens had become routine in British exploration – a trend characterised by historians as part of an imperialist drive to classify, quantify and comprehend the universe. The expedition acted as a simultaneous harbinger of empire and research tool (Sörlin, 2000, p. 51; MacLeod, 2009, p. 45). Understanding a region’s fauna and flora can be seen as a form of resource assessment. Browne (1996, pp. 313-314) considered the collection of natural history specimens and their return to British soil representative of “the whole culture of imperial enterprise.”
The hostile environment of the Canadian Arctic was of great interest to Britain’s government and scientific institutions. When John Franklin’s (1786-1847) first expedition began preparations for its journey in 1818, with the ostensible aim of surveying the coastline east of the Coppermine River, a naturalist was practically a prerequisite. This role was fulfilled by John Richardson (1787-1865), a Scottish surgeon. Richardson was commanded by the British Admiralty to collect specimens of plants, minerals and birds. Naval surgeons of the period often received their training at Edinburgh University, home to renowned natural history facilities (Browne, 1996, p. 307).
Yet in an era before the word “scientist” had even been coined, “professional” came with unwanted connotations. A professional was someone who investigated the natural world without a suitable aristocratic background or financial base (Allen, 2009, pp. 15-16). Yet imperial ambitions require expertise. Sending naval personnel to far-flung corners of the globe was one means of acquiring informed experts, without associating with those who found professional employment in scientific work. As one historian described the situation:
The nearest thing to a paper qualification for a post in the life sciences was a medical degree and the nearest thing to postgraduate training was a journey to little-known parts of the world as the naturalist attached to a voyage or expedition, perhaps as a surgeon on a naval vessel (Allen, 2009, p. 17).
Naval surgeons collected specimens which became Crown property, or published field observations with the aid of Admiralty funding (Browne, 1996, p. 310). Richardson’s zoological specimens from Franklin’s first expedition were deposited in the Edinburgh university museum and the British museum (1). Upon his return to England in 1822, Richardson found himself courted by the Linnean Society and private clubs (2). Fame and entry into the scientific establishment came in spite of repeated failings during the expedition, which faced starvation on numerous occasions. Hardship imposed by the Arctic environment warped the scientific goals imposed by the Admiralty, as Richardson was forced to abandon the specimens he had collected during the summer months (Levere, 1993, p. 108). Meanwhile Franklin manipulated Richardson’s natural-historical remit for non-scientific purposes. Upon his party experiencing a shortage of grog, Franklin wrote to the one of his officers, George Back:
Some of the mighty strong [liquor] would not only be equally acceptable to the Canadians and Indians but is necessary for preserving any specimens which the Doctor [Richardson] may have which require Such means of preservation. Ours is not sufficiently strong for that purpose, and if you have not already got a Supply, I must request you to demand two galleons from each house at Great Slave Lake, and if they demur, a statement of the reason for this demand [specimen preservation] will procure their compliance (3).
In fact Richardson only carried a few jars for preserving specimens. A tax on glass meant that British naturalists did not favour preservation in alcohol until 1845 (Larsen, 1996, p. 360). Despite harsh conditions, Richardson attempted to continue his natural history work. In lean times and during a heavy gale, he ventured down to the coast off Cape Barrow in an attempt to identify fragments of seaweed. Collection practices were shaped by external factors, including the Arctic environment itself.
Cultural and scientific beliefs were also imposed upon the Arctic by British expeditions. Exploring the geology of the Barren Lands, Richardson framed his findings in Wernerian terms, supporting existing theories of a dynamic earth (Zeller, 2000, p. 88). In other areas of knowledge, naturalists were not so forthcoming, gripped by a fear of generalising systems and theorisation (Barber, 1980, pp. 64-65). In his later career, Richardson adapted biogeographical models to represent Arctic flora, based upon the reports of other travellers, particularly fur traders (Zeller, 2000, p. 89).
From the biography of a single nineteenth-century naturalist, a plethora of historical attitudes towards the Arctic are exposed. The Canadian Arctic may have been geographically “peripheral” to centres of European power, but engaged states, science and society. In the case of natural history, the Arctic was an untapped resource, place of training for future experts and testing ground for scientific theories. Two centuries on, these same values are still attached to the Polar Regions.
NOTES 1. GELL MS, LETTER #8, Franklin, “Letter to John Richardson, 24 July 1823.” 2. GELL MS, LETTER # 4, Franklin, “Letter to Richardson, 24 October 1822.” 3. SPRI MS 395/70/4, Franklin, “Letter to George Back, 31 January 1821.” BIBLIOGRAPHY Allen, David E., “Amateurs and Professionals,” in Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Vol. 6. (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 15-33. Barber, Lynn, The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980). Brown, Janet, “Biogeography and empire,” in Nicholas Jardine, James A. Secord and Emma C. Spary (eds.),Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 305-321. Larsen, Anne, “Equipment for the Field,” in Nicholas Jardine, James A. Secord and Emma C. Spary (eds.),Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 358-377. Levere, Trevor H., Science and the Canadian Arctic: A Century of Exploration 1818-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). MacLeod, Roy, “Discovery and Exploration,” in Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Vol. 6. (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 34-59. Sörlin, Sverker, “Ordering the World for Europe: Science as Intelligence and Information as Seen from the Northern Periphery,” Osiris 2nd Series 15 (2000), pp. 51-69. Zeller, Suzanne, “The Colonial World as Geological Metaphor: Strata(gems) of Empire in Victorian Canada,” Osiris 2nd Series 15 (2000), pp. 85-107.