The atlas of 1816 was littered with blanks. What was the North Pole? Was there a Northwest passage? What lay at the heart of Africa? Did Antarctica exist? In his quest to find the answers to these questions John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, launched the most ambitious programme of exploration the world had ever seen.
Between 1816 and 1845 his hand-picked teams of elite naval officers scoured the globe's empty spaces.
Often at odds with each other and working in utterly surreal conditions - cocked hats in the Arctic, frock coats in the Sahara - they entered the void.
Their ignorance of the conditions they would encounter, allied to Barrow's insouciant way with maps, make this a tale of absurdly dangerous comedy as well as harrowing personal endeavour.
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 500 pages, 16pl
- Publisher: Granta Books
- Publication Date: 22/08/2001
- Category: Biography: historical, political & military
- ISBN: 9781862075023
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Review by john257hopper
This is a companion book to the author's Ninety Degrees North, which focuses exclusively on Arctic exploration in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. This book covers exploration in the Arctic, Antarctic and Africa in the first half of the 19th century, centred around those explorations sent out by the Second Secretary to the Admiralty, the very wilful and determined Sir John Barrow. These expeditions were largely to the Arctic, which I found the most interesting destination, and indeed the digressions to Africa rather jarred for me, though they petered out half way through the book (they would no doubt have fitted much better in a book devoted to the important topic of African exploration). The early visits to the then almost entirely unknown Antarctic were very intriguing and one can share their wonder at perceiving for the first time the massive Ross Ice Shelf and the volcano Erebus. Overall, what struck me in particular was the sheer amateurishness of so many of the early efforts, carried out in a death or glory frame of mind, sometimes ignoring the fact that the explorer in question might have had no previous marine experience, have a dislike for cold weather (or hot weather in the case of going to Africa), or a lack of leadership skills. This even applied to explorers who became very prominent such as Sir John Franklin, the mysterious disappearance of whose last expedition in the 1840s, and the numerous attempts at rescue, offer an eerie few chapters near the end of the book. Another feature that is prominent throughout is the sheer brutal length and misery of the Arctic winter that appears to last from about September to July, and the fact that many crews overwintered for a number of years in succession and might move very little distance in the interim. They had tremendous courage and stamina, whatever else one might say about some of mistakes and casual attitudes towards life and health that form prominent features of this fascinating saga.