Why Arctic Whalers Did Not Become Explorers

Refraction

Scoresby’s observation of ships appearing to be inverted by refraction at high latitudes.

The forgotten history of Arctic whaling had something of a boost from the British Library in the form of a blog post by Philip Hatfield on the contribution of William Scoresby Jr. to the exploration of the Northwest Passage. Hatfield is a curator of the Lines in the Ice exhibition at the British Library and his post reproduces some of Scoresby’s beautiful detailed drawings from An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820) to support his view that the whaler and scientist is overlooked in the history of the Northwest Passage. Scoresby’s two volume book was arguably the most important text on the Arctic and Arctic whaling for a century after it was published. It is referenced by Herman Melville in Moby Dick (1851), Charles Darwin had a copy in his library, and the second volume remains the most comprehensive description of the processes involved in Arctic whaling before about 1860. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Scoresby was frequently referenced in newspapers as an expert on the Arctic, and was a champion of Lady Franklin in her attempts to find her missing husband. Her efforts in 1849 included paying Hull whalers significant amounts of money to join the search. Scoresby went with her to Hull to help her persuade them.

I agree with Hatfield that the significance of whalers in Arctic exploration has been overlooked by historians, but their part in the story was necessarily limited by commercial concerns. While some whalers did contribute to exploration, the number who contributed to scientific knowledge from outside of Admiralty-sponsored expeditions is very small indeed. Scoresby of course is the great exception, but as a talented and university educated scientist he was unusual among whalers in any case. Even so, Scoresby struggled throughout his whaling career to square scientific interests with financial obligations to the ship owners and his crew.

Scoresby’s achievements are many. In 1817 his letter to Sir Joseph Banks, informing him of a sudden, significant, and unexplained retreat in the sea ice, helped convince Sir John Barrow that an attempt on the Northwest Passage might then be possible. Although he was to play no part in the failed expedition led by Capt. John Ross in 1818–he sailed instead from Liverpool as commander of the whaleship Fame–Scoresby later became a friend of Ross and in March 1820 visited him at Stranraer when the Baffin took shelter in Loch Ryan on her maiden voyage north. In 1822, Scoresby made the first detailed map of a section of East Greenland, naming it the Liverpool Coast, and noting that it was 70 miles West of where the Admiralty maps suggested.

Like many people at the time Barrow subscribed to the belief that sea near to the North Pole was warm and free of ice. The popularity of this view can be gauged by its appearance in Frankenstein (1818), in which the narrator Walton declares “I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight.” (p.5) Scoresby himself remained sceptical about explorations by ship in the high Arctic. The Caledonian Mercury reported in October 1818 Scoresby’s suggestion that an attempt on the Pole might be made with sledges: “… he proposes to pass the winter in the island of Spitzbergen, and starting in the spring with sledges drawn by dogs, to pursue a direct journey of 600 or 700 miles to the Pole. He might then expect to find a continuous sheet of ice, stretching through his whole track.”

Scoresby’s achievements, however, stand out among whalers, whose priority was to bring home a full ship in the shortest time possible. Whaleship crews became restless, and even threatened mutiny, if they felt time was being wasted. Even the enticement of a reward for any whaler who found a passage through the ice could not persuade captains to take the risk of becoming beset. A ship full of blubber and a winter beside the hearth at home, while by no means guaranteed, was a more attractive prospect. Indeed, Barrow complains in an 1817 Quarterly Review article “On the Polar Ice and Northern Passage into the Pacific”, that whaleship captains, who received a substantial government bounty on their catches, had to swear to the custom house to pursue whales and “other large creatures” and undertake no other activity. Whalers were legally obliged to catch whales, rather than explore. Even Scoresby’s own explorations, notably the 1822 voyage to Greenland, were undertaken alongside commercial whaling (he caught nine large whales that year) and his freedom to go ashore was granted by his Liverpool underwriters. Led by Scoresby’s friend William Rathbone, they gave him more generous insurance terms than other whalers, with the express purpose of aiding his research, but the owners–and the law–still expected him to bring home a full ship if he could. Frustrated, Scoresby gave up whaling the following year.

Whalers have certainly been overlooked in the history of Arctic exploration, but the neglect of twenty-first century historians is less significant than the failure of the governments of the time to take advantage of their expertise and experience. As Barrow himself argues, the presence of large British whaling fleets in the Arctic offered an opportunity for exploration which the Admiralty did not adequately encourage or exploit.


Thomas Hardy’s Ale

Photo by Chris Routledge

In 1968, Dorchester brewer Eldridge, Pope brewed a special ale to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of Thomas Hardy, the novelist and poet who lived nearby. I’ve always had a vexed relationship with Thomas Hardy. The Trumpet Major, the novel quoted on the label of the bottle in the picture above, was one of my set texts for ‘O’ Level English Literature and I found it so tedious and infuriatingly slow that I gave up on it, preferring to read horror and crime novels instead. It’s not a strategy I would recommend for passing exams, though I must say that fifteen year-old me enjoyed it at the time. I like to think I’ve settled my differences with Thomas Hardy since then, but on the whole I still prefer his poetry to his prose. The Trumpet Major, incidentally, was first published in 1880, the year before Eldridge, Pope’s “new” Dorchester brewery opened.

Thomas Hardy’s Ale is a 12 percent ale intended to be reminiscent of the “Casterbridge ‘strong beer'” Hardy describes in The Trumpet Major. Of this beer Hardy writes:

The masses worshipped it, the minor gentry loved it more than wine, and by the most illustrious county families it was not despised.  Anybody brought up for being drunk and disorderly in the streets of its natal borough, had only to prove that he was a stranger to the place and its liquor to be honourably dismissed by the magistrates, as one overtaken in a fault that no man could guard against who entered the town unawares.

According to thomashardysale.org.uk in 1968 Thomas Hardy’s Ale was matured in sherry casks for nine months and sold in three bottle sizes: pint and half pint, sealed with a cork, and ‘nip’ which was sealed with foil over a crown cap. Taking into account the cost of brewing and maturing the beer itself, numbered labels, a ribbon round the neck of the bottle, and a medallion showing a silhouette of Thomas Hardy, this beer must have been a marginal proposition from a business point of view, so marketing was important. Thomas Hardy’s Ale was sold as Britain’s strongest ale and because of its rarity, and the advice that it would last for 25 years, it acquired a mythology all of its own. The 1990-vintage bottle pictured above states on the label that it is “one of the few British beers bottled with its natural yeast.”. It was being sold to the few remaining beer drinkers who cared. Eldridge, Pope brewed it again in 1974 and 1975 and then every year from 1977 until 1999.

From the start, bottles of Thomas Hardy’s Ale carried a quotation from chapter 16 of The Trumpet Major: “It was of the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset; free from streakiness of taste; but, finally, rather heady.” This bottle belonged to my late father in law, Raymond Chapman, who wrote a book about Hardy, and it lay undisturbed in the cellar of his house for almost 25 years. Opening it in 2015, any headiness it once had was gone, but it poured a syrupy dark brown, releasing aromas of dark chocolate and caramelised sugar. It was delicious: slow moving and relaxed, with the soft bitter sweetness of molasses. It had been spending its time profitably, lying there in the dark, and it was a real pleasure to share it with The Ormskirk Baron. The lines that precede the quotation on the bottle put it better than I can:

This renowned drink—now almost as much a thing of the past as Falstaff’s favourite beverage—was not only well calculated to win the hearts of soldiers blown dry and dusty by residence in tents on a hill-top, but of any wayfarer whatever in that land.

Like Sack and Thomas Hardy’s Ale, Eldridge, Pope are also a thing of the past. The brewery went out of business after a failed attempt to become a pub retail chain. Devon brewer O’Hanlon’s carried on with brewing Thomas Hardy’s Ale between 2003-2009, before giving up because of the cost. The once impressive nineteenth-century Eldridge, Pope brewery is now a retail and apartment complex known as Brewery Square.


Francis Coventry and Pompey the Little

PompeytheLittleI’ve just finished writing a short biographical piece about Francis Coventry, a writer and clergyman from the eighteenth century I had never come across before. Coventry was born in 1725, but between leaving Cambridge in 1749, and his death from smallpox in 1754, he produced a little-known novel that I found very amusing. Pompey the Little is a picaresque tale of eighteenth-century London society very much in the vein of Henry Fielding, the twist being that the ‘hero’ is a lap-dog. It was published anonymously, probably because many of the characters in it would have been recognisable to anyone reading it, and as a result there was much speculation about who the author might be. Fielding was one suspect. Coventry’s novel is funny, lively, and often coarse: a “modish” marriage descends into mutual violence because the wife goes to the theatre to see Hamlet; Pompey pisses on his master’s breeches and “performed a much more disreputable action on a rich Turkey carpet” before being rewarded with a large breakfast.

In his dedication to Fielding in the second edition, Coventry laments the low status of the novel, which was then still a novel literary form:

Scholars and men of learning have a reason to give; their application to severe studies may have destroyed their relish for works of a lighter cast, and consequently it cannot be expected that they should approve what they do not understand. … People whose most earnest business is to dress and play at cards, are not so importantly employed, but that they find leisure now and then to read a novel.

Pompey the Little can be had for nothing from Google Books. It’s well worth a read.


Crime Fiction

Yesterday (July 23) was Raymond Chandler’s 125th birthday. I meant to write a post about that, but as seems to be the case in general with my blogging at the moment, I didn’t get round to it. Anyway, today I found time to add my short biographical piece on Raymond Chandler, which appears in Steven Powell’s 100 American Crime Writers to my Articles pages. You can read all 2500 words of it here. There are quite a few Chandler-related posts and pages on this blog now, so here is a round-up:

Raymond Chandler at Dulwich College

Raymond Chandler’s Early Life

Raymond Chandler on Writing

Raymond Chandler: A Matter of Disguise (an early academic article of mine).

Also, I just posted something about In a Lonely Place (novel and film) over at the Venetian Vase.


The Normality of Beer: Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay

The_Haywain

At the European beer Bloggers’ Conference this past weekend there was a lot of talk about moving on from discussing the ingredients and statistics of beer and concentrating on the people. Beer is a social drink. It needs to be tasty, and that’s all; what matters is the company. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts for a while now and have reached a conclusion that one of the problems beer has is that it’s not normal enough. There are lots of times when drinking beer would be a bad idea, but it struck me reading George Ewart Evans’s Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, that there was a time when beer held the same position in family life as tea or coffee does now, and that it has somehow become too special: not quite a luxury, but not a staple food either. By becoming a “leisure drink” beer has to compete with other drinks, such as WKD; drinks that make no sense at all outside a marketing meeting. In that context, trying to be “special” might not be doing beer any good.

Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay was compiled by Evans from interviews he conducted with the inhabitants of Blaxhall, Suffolk in the 1950s, and looks back a further 50 years or more from there, to the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Farming in postwar England was mechanising rapidly, changing both the work, and the culture of English villages. Evans believed it was important to record the memories of those who had lived and worked in such villages before these changes took place, to make sure that the customs and activities of an era in farming that had lasted several hundred years would not be lost forever.

The book covers many aspects of English village life, from the social structures of masters, servants and agricultural workers, to sheep shearing, bell ringing, superstitions, the church, and the old farming methods. What struck me, reading Evans, was how communal life was in the few decades before World War I, and how interdependent people were. That interdependence still exists of course, but it is less with our neighbours and more through formal infrastructures provided by corporations and governments. We pay our dues largely in cash, rather than sharing effort, and although we depend absolutely on the electricity supply and the stream of trucks supplying  the supermarket, it feels at least as if these things are not precarious. You take a can of beans from the shelf, and before long another will appear.

And that brings me to what Evans has to say about beer. The people he spoke to, mostly born in the late nineteenth century, made or grew almost everything they owned or consumed. What happened on the farm, or in the kitchens of cottages, affected everyone. Surrounded as they were by fields of barley, beer was the usual drink for most people in the village. Sometimes the farm brewed beer centrally for the men who worked there, but most families brewed beer too, a task that fell to “the wife” of the household. The yeast was shared between households, each brewing in turn and taking yeast from whoever had brewed most recently and had the freshest supply:

…home-brewing was an important event, demanding the utmost care and vigilance; for there would be a great loss to the household if the brew went wrong. Moreover, beer at that time was recognized as an essential part of the farm-worker’s diet; and at times of extra work on the farm allowances of hops and malt were made by the farmer to his men. Robert Savage, for instance, got a “lambing ‘lowance” of two bushels of malt and two pounds of hops so that Prissy often made two brews during the lambing season.

One lady from a nearby village remembers how, as a child, she hurried down with her brothers and sisters on the morning after brewing to see whether the crown of yeast had spread all over the top of the beer. The children that if they saw the welcome froth of yeast the brew had been successful; and they were glad …

Back in the nineteenth century the status of beer was different from what it is now; it was drunk by just about everyone. It was a drink for the workplace and the family table, and a staple part of the diet. Imagine the joy of seeing that “the beer was smiling” on the morning after brewday, and knowing that the ingredients you had grown yourself, or shared with your neighbours, had not gone to waste. Quite a different experience from dropping a few bottles in a shopping trolley. What we gained in convenience we’ve lost in magic.

Curiously, beer was replaced as a family staple, according to Evans, not by another alcoholic drink, but by tea. Tea became cheaper in the late nineteenth century and was promoted by the Temperance movement. It is an intriguing idea that if things had gone differently commuters who now carry takeout tea and coffee might instead be toting mugs of bitter beer.

By Chris Routledge


Epilogue: The Future of Print

This short documentary is about the future of printed books, and their practical and aesthetic differences from electronic books. It is beautifully done, to the extent that it makes me want to go immediately to an antiquarian bookshop. I agree with the conclusion that the two formats can–and should–co-exist, but it is interesting that not one of the advocates of print appears to be under the age of thirty.


Bookshelf Book

Alex Johnson, of Shedworking fame has a great looking new book out this week, called Bookshelf, based on his popular blog of the same name. The blog is always worth a quiet browse, and the book promises a similarly pleasurable experience. Alex kindly came out of his hut at the bottom of the garden to answer a few questions and tell me about it. Don’t miss the video at the bottom of this post, where Alex shows off the book, and the wonderful book-related domestic architecture inside.

What’s in the book?

A huge variety of bookshelves, bookcases and things that look like them from designers around the globe. So there are bookcases shaped like animals (including porcupines, dogs, elephants, humpbacked whales, cows and polar bears), ones made out of elastic, some built into armchairs, and others which are circular. And there are single shelves, some which only hold one volume, others in the shape of cartoon bubbles. It’s quite amazing how ingenious designers can be using something as simple as a bookcase as their starting point. Oh, and there are two bookends.

Where did the idea come from?

On my Shedworking blog I’ve always covered interior design of garden offices and sheds and about five years ago I started noticing that there were increasing numbers of incredible bookshelf and bookcase designs emerging. Rather than flood Shedworking with these, I felt it would be fun to start a new blog, Bookshelf, really for my own pleasure and this inspired the book. Over the last few years the blog has really snowballed and is now almost as popular as Shedworking.

Why are bookshelves important?

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Penguin Group CEO John Mankinson made the distinction between the ‘book reader’ (who is as happy to read digital books as paper ones) and the ‘book owner’, who wants to ‘give, share and shelve books’. It’s an important distinction – there is still a very strong emotional attachment to the printed word.

Alberto Manguel’s portrayal of reading at home in The Library at Night (2007) is one of the most evocative descriptions of how a collection of books becomes more than a pile of papers, how even the very smell of his wooden shelves relaxes him. This is the library as emotional sanctuary. Of course there are many online bookcase sites but what they cannot provide is that sense of public display, offering visible pointers to guests and clients of who you are (or who you would like to be perceived to be). Your bookcase design says (almost) as much about you as the books on show.

Do they have a future?

Absolutely, though their presence in the home might change a little. With fewer physical volumes to be housed, perhaps readers will look for more exciting ways of storing their home libraries than a mere shelf, with the bookcase becoming closer to a trophy cabinet. The determination to save the book may also see people move towards treasuring their volumes in fitting surroundings (special edition furniture, including bookcases, is now being sold in galleries that were once the domain of the artist). And I take heart from a survey by Legal & General (‘The Changing Face of British Homes’, 2008) which suggests that many people really do value this kind of space.When asked which feature room they would most like to have in their new home, 15 per cent said they wanted a library, compared to 13 per cent who chose a gym, 9 per cent a music studio and 8 per cent a home cinema. I think the bookshelf is in rude health.

Find out more about the book here, and view a slideshow of images from it here.


Michael Hart, 1947-2011, inventor of the ebook

Last year I wrote a piece for the Reader magazine about ebooks, which explained to the relatively conservative and technophobic readership what they are, and how to go about reading them. The world of ebooks is changing fast, but they have been around much longer than most people realise–since 1971, in fact. That was the year that Michael S. Hart, who died on September 6th, aged 64, published the first ebook (the Declaration of Independence) to his Project Gutenberg. There are now 36,000 ebooks on the site, all of them free to download, and available in various formats. Hart was not well known, but his legacy is a revolution in the way we edit, publish, and distribute books. He saw the potential for electronic reading, and the widespread dissemination of literature and knowledge, at a time when computers lived in large, air-conditioned, and sealed facilities, and when handheld computing devices existed only in science fiction. An early obituary is here. Hart’s Wikipedia page is here.


Cheap Oil and the Hunting of Whales

Andrew Nikiforuk has a piece over at the British Columbia-based web magazine The Tyee about whaling and the oil industry, reviewing a book about Moby Dick by energy banker, Robert Wagner Jr. Wagner’s reading of the novel in the context of the modern oil industry and its unwillingness to countenance alternatives offers an interesting perspective on our reliance on cheap oil, and the lengths to which we are prepared to go to defend it. As I’ve noted before, the hunting of whales in the Arctic, before Moby Dick was written, also has parallels with the oil industry in the twenty-first century. By about 1820, as the whales began to be ‘fished out’ in the Greenland sea, whalers moved on to the Davis Strait, to the West of Greenland, which, coincidentally, is where modern oil companies are preparing to drill for oil as their desperation for new reserves increases. The Davis Strait proved lucrative for a while, but a lot more dangerous, and even that, in the end, was fished out:

A couple of years ago Robert Wagner Jr., a well-known Houston energy banker, read the famous novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, a former whaler. It’s a rambling and gritty tale about the 19th whaling industry and America’s first energy boom.

The narrative, which richly details the nature of an economic obsession, squarely harpooned Wagner, a good friend of the late energy critic, Matthew Simmons. “I was blown away by the synergies and the comparisons of whaling with the oil and gas industry, ” says Wagner.

For more than 40 years the 69-year-old banker financed Texas oil deals and had a front row seat to the world’s most volatile commodity while working for the likes of Bear Stearns and Arthur Andersen.

And so the maniacal pursuit of a white whale to illuminate North American homes haunted Wagner. It also reminded him how every age irrevocably passes into another whether people are prepared for change or not.

“The rampant obsessive exploration, production and consumption of hydrocarbons that saturates our society today can be read much like the situation for the men on the Pequod,” notes Wagner. The world of “There she blows” and “Give it to him” actually led, if not descended to “Drill, baby, drill.”

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