In the course of the 19th century, various flotillas of expeditions hastened to the polar regions in little wooden ships which sooner or later expired in the pincers of an ice floe while crewmen ate their shoes. These stories bear retelling for our own age, and Hampton Sides does well to identify the gruesome story of the USS Jeanette, which ended in the greatest American Arctic disaster ever.
The idea began with James Gordon Bennett Jr, the proprietor of the New York Herald (the largest circulation daily in America) and a flamboyant character who enjoyed riding round Manhattan in the nude. He had already sponsored numerous expeditions and popularised the now standard technique of creating news, the more sensational the better. (The phrase ‘Gordon Bennett!’ was minted for him.) In what turned out to be Bennett’s last attempt at an Arctic scoop, in 1879 he despatched Navy Captain George De Long to
rescue the Finnish-Swedish explorer Baron Nordenskiöld (it didn’t matter that the fellow didn’t need rescuing) and, more significantly, to proceed to the undiscovered North Pole by the Pacific route.
De Long, a balding figure with a swanky moustache, was 35 when he steamed out of San Francisco in Jeanette. As soon as he reached the east Siberian coast, he learned that Nordenskiöld was out of the ice and on his way home, and immediately got stuck himself. In June 1881, the ship — which had been reinforced with a network of double trusses and iron box beams — sank after being locked in the ice for 21 months. The 33-strong crew set out for the Siberian mainland 1,000 miles away, first with dogs relaying 800 tons of supplies on sledges, then sailing in three patched-up boats. They were able to hunt: one day they tucked into a 200-stone walrus. But at first the pack ice drove them north rather than south, so they lost valuable time.
Lack of news, meanwhile, electrified the American press. Rescue missions fannedout (one carried John Muir, a wonderful writer who became a founding father of the conservation movement). All failed to find De Long.
One of the three boats was never seen again. The other two arrived, separately, at the mouth of the Lena Delta, a fearsome, uncharted environment which drains a million square miles of Siberia. The two remaining parties abandoned the vessels and set off on frostbitten feet — to where? Obliged to eat not only their footwear but also their trousers, they lost body parts and in some cases their minds: the boatswain announced he was to marry Queen Victoria. Although one party eventually came across a Cossack courier who galloped news to the tsar, precipitating assistance, 20 out of the 33 perished of starvation, including De Long.
Sides’s previous books include Hellhound on His Trail, an account of the hunt for Martin Luther King’s killer. He is a scrupuous researcher who has mined all the primary material, including extensive journals and medical logs carried home by survivors, and he quotes judiously, interleaving the narrative with heartbreaking extracts from letters written by De Long’s young wife (‘I will bear up under any circumstances, and will meet you with open arms however and whenever you return’). The author is also good on context. Polar fever was high in the US when Jeanette set sail, and ‘the fur-clad men who ventured into the Arctic had become national idols — the aviators, the astronauts, the knights-errant of their day’. Similarly, Sides’s depictions of the indigenous peoples of the High Arctic being contaminated, literally and metaphorically, by a succession of ‘round-eyes’ (mostly sealers and whalers), foreshadows the disaster of many of those communitites today, especially in Russia. Sides refers to what was already happening as ‘cultural apocalypse’.
He is less adroit as a stylist. People breathe sighs of relief, ‘converse in the briny mist’ and engage in ‘cloak-and-dagger shenanigans’, while the landscape, inevitably, is ‘awe-inspiring’. Few will wish this book longer.
In the Kingdom of Ice comes out in favour of De Long as a leader, especially when he confronted psychological collapse among the men in tents lit with spermaceti candles. To keep going, he read the Bible. He was deified at home, and the few who returned alive did so as heroes, especially the brave engineer George Melville, one of three who stayed in Siberia to search for colleages, eventually finding snapped limbs poking out of the tundra, because when the men had perished, one by one, those left were too weak to bury them. Melville interred his shipmates with dignity, assisted by a group of Yakuts. In 1883, the bodies were repatriated, and an engraving of their photographs appeared on front pages well beyond America.
One sees human knowledge inching forward in these harrowing pages — after De Long, nobody believed there was open water all the way to the Pole. In the 21st century, however, scientists think that if all the ice melts, the Arctic Ocean might after all become the open-water reality De Long died to discover.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £17 Tel: 08430 600033. Sara Wheeler has written about her travels in both the Arctic (The Magnetic North) and the Antarctic (Terra Incognita).