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Unlike the South Pole, the North Pole is not a continent. The northernmost point of the earth lies in the midst of the Arctic Ocean, amongst constantly shifting sea ice, at 90° N 0° W. It has long been a focus for explorers, not just because of what might be found there, but simply because it is there; another 'first' to be conquered.
Despite the fact that reaching the North Pole meant little in commercial, scientific or imperial terms, the history of exploration in the nineteenth century is one of constant striving for the Pole. The local indigenous population (the Inuit, formerly known as Eskimos) could not imagine what the expeditions were seeking, but considered that it must be something of great value to require so much effort. The concept of a geographical point was meaningless to them so they named the Pole the 'Great Nail', a name which made sense to them by utilising their own value system.
The immense bravery and immense folly of some of these explorers is remarkable and the cost in lives (both human and animal) seems extraordinary today. Whilst it may be possible to question their motives, it is impossible to deny the hardships they courageously endured.
Many of the Arctic explorers produced journals and published accounts of their travels, although some were released posthumously. The Special Collection at Deakin University Library is fortunate to contain a substantial representation of these works, generously donated by the Victorian Parliamentary Library.
Narrative of the North Polar expedition. : U.S. Ship Polaris, Captain Charles Francis Hall commanding /
Edited under the direction of the Hon. G. M. Robeson, Secretary of the Navy ; by Rear-Admiral C. H. Davis
Washington : Government Printing Office, 1876
Charles Hall (1821-1871) was an erratic and unstable personality who felt he had a God-given calling to explore the regions of the Arctic. He spent many months living with the Inuit until he persuaded the U.S. Government to support a new expedition to the North Pole. He and his crew set out in the Polaris in 1871 but Hall was a poor leader and the crew discontented and undisciplined. However, the ship did reach a 'farthest north' of 82° 11' N. After their ship became caught in the ice near the Greenland coast Hall accused his officers of attempting to poison him and died not long after. Although enquiries at the time decided that his death was due to apoplexy, an autopsy carried out in 1968 found that he had consumed large quantities of arsenic.
In the meantime, order on board had virtually disintegrated and the remaining crew, after breaking free of the ice, turned for home in 1872. However, during a heavy storm, nineteen crew members became separated from the ship and were stranded upon the ice. Remarkably they survived for six months on various ice floes and were eventually picked up by a sealing ship near Labrador. In the meantime, the Polaris had run aground near Greenland and wintered there. The remaining crew were picked up by a whaling ship in the spring. Through good luck rather than good management, Hall was the only member of the expedition to lose his life.
Narrative of a voyage to the polar sea during 1875-6 in H.M. ships 'Alert' and 'Discovery' /
by Sir G. S. Nares ; with notes on the natural history edited by H.W. Fielden
London : Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1878
Sir George Nares (1831-1915) was one of the most capable and highly regarded professional seamen and surveyors of the nineteenth century. He was the captain of the Challenger from 1872-74, a landmark expedition in the history of oceanographic exploration. He was recalled to command the British Arctic Expedition of 1875-76, a voyage of exploration with the aim of reaching the North Pole. This large and well equipped expedition managed to reach 83° 20' N, before Nares decided to finish their journey prematurely because of rampant scurvy. Ironically, the plentiful lime juice supplied to the expedition had been boiled in copper first, thus destroying much of its Vitamin C.
Nares was criticised by the Press and later the Admiralty for his decision to return early, but he undoubtedly saved the lives of most of his crew. The book he wrote about this expedition is noteworthy for its early use of photographic illustrations.
The voyage of the Jeannette : The ship and ice journals of George W. De Long, lieutenant-commander U.S.N., and commander of the Polar expedition of 1879-1881 /
Edited by his wife, Emma De Long
London : K. Paul, Trench, and Co., 1883
Lieutenant-Commander George Washington De Long (1844-1881) and his thirty-three man crew set sail in 1879 for the North Pole via the Bering Strait. The expedition was privately funded although run by the U.S. Navy. The Jeannette became trapped by ice in September of 1879 and remained there until June 1881 when it broke up, having failed to reach farther north than had been achieved previously.
For the next three months De Long and his men dragged their three life boats across the ice to the open water north of Siberia where they planned to sail 700 miles to the Lena River Delta on the north Siberian coast. One boat was lost on the journey, the other two landed at the Delta a great distance apart. De Long’s crew perished in October or November of 1881; the other party survived with the help of the local inhabitants. Only thirteen of the original crew survived the expedition.
Three years of Arctic service : an account of the Lady Franklin bay expedition of 1881-84, and the attainment of the farthest north /
by Adolphus W. Greely
London : R. Bentley, 1886
Adolphus Washington Greely (1844-1935) was a career officer in the U.S. Army who in 1881 was given command of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. The aim of the expedition was to establish a chain of meteorological observation stations and to record magnetic and astronomical data. Although lacking in polar experience, Greely and his crew managed to map many miles of coastline and record much significant data. They also achieved a new 'farthest north', reaching 83° 24' N.
However, their two relief ships failed to reach them, so the entire crew decamped to a new headquarters to await rescue. After a fifty-one day journey by small boat, they arrived at Cape Sabine. A relief expedition finally arrived in 1884, only to find eighteen of the twenty-five man crew dead. They died of starvation, hypothermia and drowning although one had been executed by Greely for stealing food. Another died on the journey home. Greely was a by-the-rules martinet who was disliked by his crew, and the expedition was tainted by rumours of cannibalism, which overshadowed their very real scientific achievements.
Farthest north : being the record of a voyage of exploration of the ship 'Fram' 1893-96, and of a fifteen months' sleigh journey by Dr. Nansen and Lieut. Johansen /
by Fridtjet Nansen; with an appendix by Otto Sverdrup, Captain of the “Fram”
Westminster : Archibald Constable, 1897
Dr Fridtjet Nansen (1861-1930) was Norwegian by birth and a zoologist by training who was fascinated by the polar regions. In 1888 he became the first man to ski across Greenland. The resultant nationalistic fervour in Norway (Norway was then the lesser partner in a union with Sweden) led to the funding of a new expedition to reach the North Pole.
Nansen and his crew set out in 1893 in the Fram with the idea of allowing her to be frozen in the ice so that she would drift with the ice over or close to the North Pole. However they started drifting too far south, so Nansen and Lieutenant Johansen set out on skis to reach the North Pole. Drifting ice and a lack of food forced them to turn back and after an epic fifteen month journey by ski, sled, foot and kayak they returned safely. Nansen and Johansen reached 86° 14' N, a new 'farthest north'.
With Nansen in the north : a record of the Fram Expedition in 1893-96 /
by Hjalmar Johansen ; translated from the Norwegian by H.L. Brækstad
London ; New York : Ward, Lock, 1899
Nansen’s lieutenant, Hjalmar Johansen (1867-1913) also wrote a book about his experiences in the Arctic. He too was an experienced polar explorer. He had been on expeditions with Nansen in the Arctic in the 1890s, and later accompanied Amundsen in the Antarctic.
Farther north than Nansen, being the voyage of the Polar Star /
by H.R.H. the Duke of the Abruzzi
London : H.W. Bell, 1901
Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi (1873-1933), was a scion of the House of Savoy and an explorer and mountaineer. He left for the North Pole in 1899 on board the Polar Star. Unfortunately, he lost two fingers to frostbite on the journey, so was unable to participate in the sled ride to the Pole. Captain Cagni instead made the trip, reaching 86° 34' N, a new 'farthest north' and, as the somewhat ungracious title of this book states, 'farther north than Nansen'.
New land; four years in the Arctic regions /
by Otto Sverdrup ; translated from the Norwegian by Ethel Harriet Hearn
London : Longmans, Green, and Co., 1904
The captain of the Fram during Nansen’s 1893-96 expedition was Otto Sverdrup (1854-1930). Whilst Nansen and Johansen were making their attempt on the North Pole, Sverdrup was faced with the task of freeing the Fram from the ice and navigating back to Norway. He managed this successfully and the entire crew survived.
His success led to his captaining a further expedition on the Fram. Between 1898 and 1902 he went north again and explored and mapped several new territories in what is now Canada's Arctic Archipelago. Approximately 260,000 square miles were charted, more than any other polar expedition.
The North Pole /
by Robert E. Peary ; with an introduction by Theodore Roosevelt
London : Hodder and Stoughton, 1910
Robert Peary (1856-1920) was a member of the U.S. Navy and a polar explorer who is generally regarded as the 'discoverer' of the North Pole. His Arctic exploration techniques were remarkably effective and efficient, relying on systems of support teams, food caches and Inuit survival techniques. He took part in numerous expeditions to the Arctic and Greenland between 1886 and 1909, and it was during his final expedition of 1908-09 that he claimed that he had reached the Pole.
However his claim has long been clouded in controversy. He was not accompanied by anyone skilled in navigation who could independently verify his claim and his diaries indicate distances travelled that appear to be impossible in the time taken.
The first flight across the polar sea /
by Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth; with additional chapters by Joh. Höver, Hj. Riiser-Larsen, Gustav Amundsen, Finn Malmgren, B. L. Gottwaldt
London : Hutchinson & Co., [192-?]
The well-known Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) was the first person to reach both the North and the South Poles. Amundsen’s expeditions were noteworthy for their careful preparation and appropriate equipment. He went to Antarctica in 1897 with a Belgian expedition, the first to spend the winter there. In 1903, he was the first to successfully navigate a boat through the Northwest Passage, a journey which took three years. In 1910, he was the first to reach the South Pole, beating the disaster-ridden Scott expedition by a month.
In 1926, Amundsen and the Italian aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile flew the airship Norge across the North Pole. This was the first undisputed crossing and sighting of the North Pole; the previous claims (Cook, Peary and Byrd) are all considered dubious. Sadly, in 1928 whilst taking part in a rescue mission to locate the crew of a missing aircraft, Amundsen was killed in an aircraft crash in the Arctic.