In Britain the North Pole no longer enjoys the iconic status of its southern counterpart. We celebrate the men who slogged their way across the bloodless Antarctic ice fields, battling fathomless crevasses, withering blizzards and pesky Norwegians to plant the Union Jack at the South Pole. Yet in the nineteenth century, and at the beginning of the twentieth, the North Pole was the grail. ‘In the history of exploration’, writes Fergus Fleming in his lively and robust history, ‘– perhaps in the history of the world – no point on the earth’s surface has aroused such intense curiosity or been the object of such desperate desire.’
Ninety Degrees North is in many ways a sequel to Fleming’s first book, Barrow’s Boys, the story of British exploration in the first half of the nineteenth century. Unlike that accomplished volume, however, this one deals exclusively with the Arctic. Beginning with the missions dispatched to rescue Sir John Franklin, who vanished into the mists of the North West Passage in 1845, Fleming describes the multitudinous band of loons, villains and brave sailors who steered their tiny wooden ships into the jigsaw of islands and unforgiving ice of the High Arctic. His cast embraces such legendary figures as Elisha Kent Kane, an American hero at a time when that country was hungry for pioneers, and little-known adventurers like the mountaineering Duke of Abruzzi, scion of the House of Savoy, and the doughty Russian Gregoriy Yakovlevich Sedov.
The explorers found glassy bergs and luminous icescapes, herds of caribou wandering in the buttery sunlight, and the brooding darkness of the long polar night. Once they had battered their way through the pack, they fanned out over the ice on epic sledging journeys, silk pennants fluttering wildly, searching for the Open Polar Sea (if there was one) and a route to the Pole itself. The shriek of dogs on the march, the swish of the sledge runners and the bite of freezing air in the lungs: ‘There is nothing worth living for’, wrote Tennyson, then Poet Laureate, ‘but to have one’s name inscribed on the Arctic chart.’
Yet as Fleming shows, many expeditions ended in disaster. Digits snapped off with relentless frequency. Each winter, as the ships froze within the pincers of a floe, the men faced the ennui of the Arctic darkness while stocks of meat diminished and the baleful spectre of scurvy solidified in the pale glimmer of the kerosene lamp. The psychological demands were heavy: ‘It has got to the point where we can hardly stand the sight of each other’, Sigurd Scott Hansen wrote on board Fram in 1895.
The heart of Ninety Degrees North deals with the dramatic events of 1908-9, when two Americans claimed to have conquered the Pole. Fleming says that one of them, Robert Peary, was ‘probably the most unpleasant man in the entire history of polar exploration’, a hotly contested field indeed. Peary at least had staying power: on expedition after expedition he smashed his way through Smith Sound to the top of Greenland, collecting Eskimo families as he went. On 6 April 1909 he stood on the ice at the North Pole – or so he said.
Did Peary reach the Pole? Fleming quite properly doubts it, the most conclusive evidence against him being the absurd speeds he boasted of achieving on his return sledge journey. In any event, Peary learnt before reaching home that another American, Frederick Cook, claimed to have forestalled him at the Pole.
The Peary–Cook controversy initiated one of the most bitter newspaper wars of all time. The New York Times backed Peary, while its mighty rival the Herald supported Cook. In fact, nobody reached the North Pole by sledge until 1969, and it was the British explorer Wally Herbert who scooped the honour (Herbert’s The Noose of Laurels, as Fleming acknowledges, offers a definitive analysis of the Peary–Cook controversy).
Fleming takes the story through to the attempts on the Pole by air, ending with the fly-past made in 1926 by Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile and Lincoln Ellsworth (these men were almost certainly the first to see the Pole, though their achievement was also disputed). It has a dying fall, after all those creaky little ships. But overall, Fleming’s flair for narrative and trademark larky tone bring the dead men alive, and his humour overcomes the inevitable catalogue feel of what is, essentially, a list of expeditions. He flags only with his weakness for cliché (‘Kane made a mint when his journal was published’), the occasional anachronism (Kane was also ‘stressed by the prospect of rival journals’), and speculative padding (‘How he would have raged if he had known!’).
Why did they do it? National rivalry played a significant role, though in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, according to Fleming, Britain lost interest (‘ran out of puss’). ‘On the streets of London,’ he reports, ‘cockneys thought so mockingly of the North Pole that they adopted it as rhyming slang for “arsehole”.’ Was it then the prospect of material gain? ‘The Pole’, writes Fleming, ‘was a place whose commercial benefits outweighed potentially all of the Old World’s colonies put together.’ But was it really this? I think the power of the landscape probably had a part in it: it would have been impossible, looking out at the incandescent band of purply light that lies between ice and sky on a polar horizon, not to think about forces beyond the human plane. It is this sense of mystery that has been lost, now that every corner of the globe has been conquered and a Japanese man has been to the North Pole on a Yamaha motorbike. I am glad to see some of the old wonder celebrated here.