“Tony Brandt is a superb and profound writer who leads us through a tale of such hardship you feel as if you’ve been aboard ship with them. It’s no small feat to use a bit of history to illuminate the future, but Brandt pulls it off. This is narrative history at its absolute gripping best.”—Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and War
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The enthralling and often harrowing history of the adventurers who searched for the Northwest Passage, the holy grail of nineteenth-century British exploration.
After the triumphant end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the British took it upon themselves to complete something they had been trying to do since the sixteenth century: find the fabled Northwest Passage, a shortcut to the Orient via a sea route over northern Canada. For the next thirty-five years the British Admiralty sent out expedition after expedition to probe the ice-bound waters of the Canadian Arctic in search of a route, and then, after 1845, to find Sir John Franklin, the Royal Navy hero who led the last of these Admiralty expeditions and vanished into the maze of channels, sounds, and icy seas with two ships and 128 officers and men.
In The Man Who Ate His Boots, Anthony Brandt tells the whole story of the search for the Northwest Passage, from its beginnings early in the age of exploration through its development into a British national obsession to the final sordid, terrible descent into scurvy, starvation, and cannibalism. Sir John Franklin is the focus of the book but it covers all the major expeditions and a number of fascinating characters, including Franklin’s extraordinary wife, Lady Jane, in vivid detail. The Man Who Ate His Boots is a rich and engaging work of narrative history that captures the glory and the folly of this ultimately tragic enterprise.
Anthony Brandt is the editor of the Adventure Classics series published by National Geographic Society Press, and the books editor at National Geographic Adventure magazine. Formerly the book critic at Men’s Journal, Brandt has written for The Atlantic, GQ, Esquire, and many other magazines, and is the author of two previous books. He lives in Sag Harbor, New York.
From our Q&A with Anthony Brandt:
Q: In The Man Who Ate His Boots you tell the rousing and often horrifying story of the search for the Northwest Passage, the holy grail of nineteenth century British exploration. Why did so many people invest such time, energy and effort in to this search?
A: There’s no simple answer. In part it had seemed since the sixteenth century—when the Spanish and the Portuguese were claiming all the easier routes to the Far East—like a peculiarly British mission to find this great unknown route to the East via the north; and after 1815, when the Napoleonic Wars ended with such a decisive British victory and the seas were theirs, the chance to use idle ships and idle seamen to find it became too attractive to resist. The British now thought they could do anything, no matter how difficult, especially at sea. But it was also to some degree the product of one man’s enthusiasm, and that was John Barrow, the powerful second secretary of the Admiralty, who believed in an open, i.e. unfrozen, polar sea; and he had an ally in the first lord of the Admiralty, the second Lord Melville, who supported the idea and was able to gather Parliamentary support. The British people were excited by the idea, too, and got behind it.
Q: Was the mission a fool’s errand?
A: It proved to be so, and there were skeptics from the beginning. But at the time the Arctic was completely unknown. The map was blank above 80 degrees north in all areas, and above 70 degrees north in most. Nobody knew what the Arctic Ocean was like, or whether there even was an Arctic Ocean for that matter. For all they knew Greenland might extend to Asia, and some mapmakers thought it did. Others firmly believed that salt water could not freeze. The Greenland whalers knew better, but they weren’t scientists, they were commercial fishermen, and men like Barrow paid no attention to them. They weren’t gentlemen. In retrospect, then, it certainly seems like a fool’s errand, but life does not happen in retrospect, and what seems foolish now seemed like a noble effort at the time.
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