Had enough of the summer heat? Come over to Special Collections and cool off with some books on polar exploration and travel in the high latitudes. Here are a few suggestions from the Rare Book Collection to get you started…
Elisha Kent Kane’s The U. S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin (1854) relates to the mysterious disappearance of one of the most famous Arctic explorers. Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) had served with the British Navy in the Napoleonic Wars and at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Between 1819 and 1827, he led two expeditions to the Arctic Ocean, mapping much of Canada’s northern coastline for the first time. In 1845, he returned to the Arctic to prove or disprove the existence of the fabled Northwest Passage. Franklin’s expedition was spotted by a group of whalers in July of that year, after which they were never seen or heard from again. An initial search was launched in 1848, and over the next four decades, at least 25 other search parties set out to discover Franklin’s fate. The graves of several crewmen were found (shown here in this engraving from Kane’s book), as well as three clothed skeletons, a large amount of equipment, and many books, but nothing that gave a definitive answer about what happened.
A book from the other end of the world is Captain James Cook’s A Voyage towards the South Pole (1779). Although geographers had theorized about the existence of Antarctica since ancient times, no one had ever seen it. Cook made the first serious attempt to reach the continent, but was turned back by sea ice when he was only about 75 miles away. However, on the same journey, he charted South Georgia Island, depicted here in a plate from Cook’s narrative. In 1916, the island played a role in of one of history’s most amazing tales of survival. After their ship, the Endurance, was crushed by ice during their attempt to be the first men to reach the South Pole, the explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew found themselves stranded on a barren island off the coast of Antarctica. In a desperate rescue effort, Shackleton and five others sailed a modified lifeboat 800 miles across the stormy Atlantic to South Georgia, where there was a whaling station. Their trek across the mountainous, glacier-covered island was as grueling as their sea journey.
One book in the collection will appeal to anyone interested in climate change. Daines Barrington, author of The Possibility of Approaching the North Pole Asserted (1818), argued that it was possible to reach the pole by ship. Although it was not, in fact, possible at that time (and still isn’t without an icebreaker), scientists now believe that if global temperatures continue to rise, Barrington’s ideas will be proved correct in the near future.
David Crantz (1723-1777) was a Moravian missionary who visited the Danish colony of Greenland in 1761-62 to conduct research for a history of the island. His book, Historie von Grönland, was published in German in 1765 and is based on interviews with Danish merchants, fellow missionaries, and local Inuit. It is richly illustrated and was translated into several languages, including English. We also recommend having a look at Travels in the Island of Iceland during the Summer of the Year 1810 (1811). Its author, Sir George Steuart Mackenzie, was an amateur scientist who studied many of Iceland’s intriguing geological features, including volcanoes and geysers. Mackenzie also described the history, culture, dress, and culinary traditions of Iceland, and visited what must have been one of the northernmost libraries in the world. “A library is attached to the establishment at Bessestad,” he wrote, “containing probably twelve or fourteen hundred volumes; among which are a few good editions of the classics. The greater part of the library consists of Icelandic and Danish works; beside which there are a considerable number of volumes in the German language, and a few in the English and French.”
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