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LINES IN THE ICE: Exploring the Roof of the World by Philip Hatfield

  • Written by  Jon Wright
  • Published in Books
LINES IN THE ICE: Exploring the Roof of the World by Philip Hatfield
14 Nov
A jumble of motives has always shaped European exploration of the Arctic. Economic ambition, not least the search for a Northwest Passage, led to repeated intrusion and all manner of unsavoury episodes. Martin Frobisher dragging Inuit captives to Elizabethan England was emblematic of this ‘long history of greed and conflict’

Cultural posturing was important too. By the Victorian era, most British expeditions were aimed at demonstrating an illusionary mastery of the remote North, while during the 20th century a strutting Soviet Union would construct the White Sea-Baltic Canal through a ‘monumental feat of engineering and state cruelty.’ Trade routes were bent ‘to the will of the state’ by Russia’s deployment of ‘brute force, prison labour, and a huge number of explosives.’

Philip Hatfield does not spare us from the lamentable side of Arctic adventure, but his book aims at balance. The region has sometimes inspired intellectual curiosity, a ‘desire to protect and conserve,’ and moments of striking ingenuity and bravery. Hatfield also reminds us that this clash of attitudes and agendas is still very much with us today: a self-serving scramble for Arctic resources competes with burgeoning environmental concern for areas that once seemed ‘supremely resistant to human influence.’

Hatfield draws on a rich legacy of artefacts, images, maps and writings, many from the collections of the British Library, and there are some real treats.” 

Lines in the Ice has many wonderful stories to tell. Some will provoke admiration: the exploits, for example, of the unsung British Arctic Air Route Expedition during the early 1930s. Sponsored by the RGS, this vital mission risked considerable danger to gather data about Greenland’s coast and plateau to allow aircraft to safely traverse the northernmost skies.

Other tales drip with poignancy. Sir John Franklin is not, perhaps, the most sympathetic of characters, but he hardly deserved his unhappy fate. When he set off for the Arctic in 1845 he was, Hatfield writes, ‘past his prime’ and hampered by a ‘hefty dose of personal and nationalistic pride.’ His expedition was well equipped and there was even space for monogrammed cutlery and a self-playing piano, but none of this prevented him and his men from disappearing. The real hero of the piece, though, is Franklin’s wife, who lobbied for rescue missions long after the hope of success had become vanishingly small. She managed to recruit Charles Dickens to the cause and even moved into rooms directly across from the Navy Board to facilitate her passionate pestering.

Hatfield draws on a rich legacy of artefacts, images, maps and writings, many from the collections of the British Library, and there are some real treats. The pictures from William Edward Parry’s 1821–23 expedition, and some of the earliest Arctic photos, snapped by William Bradford, George White and Thomas Mitchell, are fascinating. Taking the laurels, though, is a magnificent Inuit ‘map’ – a piece of carved wood in which the three-dimensional contours of the coastline and landscape could be felt in the artefact’s notches and curves.

It’s a stunning blend of elegance and utility, and also indicative of Hatfield’s determination to place the region’s indigenous people at the heart of his narrative. Thereby hangs another less than merry tale, of course. There was momentary excitement when early-modern outsiders arrived with precious wood and metal, but such encroachment began the process of tying the locals ‘into a system of global economic and cultural exchange.’ The consequences were often parlous, as was the arrival of new diseases. Hatfield is greatly cheered, however, by the more recent ‘resurgence of Inuit political agency.’ Inuit place names have returned to our maps and there is something very satisfying about well-heeled Europeans and Americans paying through the nose for Inuit art.

Hatfield’s well-researched and handsomely illustrated volume should be placed in the hands of anyone who ‘still thinks of the Arctic as a blank space’ with nothing more to offer than ‘spectacular ice formations and dramatic seascapes.’ On the contrary, it has been a contested, dynamic region for a very long time and, as with so many chapters in the annals of exploration, the centuries-long European incursion provokes feelings of both wonderment and regret.                                

This review was published in the November 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Click here to purchase Lines in the Ice: Exploring the Roof of the World by Philip Hatfield

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