Voyages of Delusion: The Search for the Northwest Passage in the Age of Reason

by Glyn Williams

London: HarperCollins UK, 2002


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


With Voyages of Delusion, Glyn Williams has filled in a significant blank in the maps of our understanding of the British obsession with the prospect of a northern passage across the Americas. Most readers know something of Frobisher's early voyages, and the great mania for the Passage in the early decades of the nineteenth century has produced a plethora of historical studies, but the search for the passage in the eighteenth century has received scant attention. One might be forgiven for assuming that the search was not pursued at all -- and yet, as Williams amply demonstrates, the period saw some of the most ambitious -- and sometimes foolhardy -- ventures in the history of Arctic exploration. Across this neglected territory, one could ask for no better guide than Williams, whose first book, The British search for the Northwest Passage in the Eighteenth Century, opened the subject forty years ago, and who returns here as a veteran with a practiced eye for new materials and nuances.

The vast bulk of hitherto unremarked materials comes from the archives of the Hudson's Bay Company, which only recently have been made available to researchers in an organized, centralized fashion. This seems perfectly in keeping for a company as old, powerful, and (in its early years) secretive as HBC, and indeed the central drama of Voyages of Delusion is the intrigue between competing factions outside and inside the Company, and the debate over how the dissemination of geographical knowledge might affect their ancient monopoly. For, from nearly from the beginning of European colonization,the primary ideological justification for the taking over of lands and resources was that the indigenous peoples had failed to make full use of the vast resources of the land. The Hudson's Bay Company, whose income was derived primarily from the fur trade, was able in its early years to justify its monopoly with the claim that it was the only entity suited to exploit that trade. But what lay beyond the outposts and frontiers of their forts and factories? By the mid-eighteenth century, the accusation was publicly being made that "the Company have for eighty years slept at the edge of a frozen sea," showing no desire to "penetrate farther," and indeed often obstructing the efforts of others to do so.

This complaint, though long to surface, was hardly a new one, as Williams documents. He begins with the tale of James Knight, whose ill-fated search for the storied copper mines of the north brought him and his entire crew to their deaths in 1719-20. Knight was in fact an HBC official, though his voyage was not undertaken until he had departed from his post. The Company supplied him only grudgingly, and their lack of haste in searching for him once he failed to return may well have been the result of internecine grudges. Williams gives a surprisingly detailed reconstruction of Knight's mission, and aptly summarizes the varied attempts to account for the loss of him and his men. That Knight made it as far as Marble Island, where at least one of his two ships ran aground in a shallow harbor, seems certain -- the rest, a case of insufficient and contradictory evidence. Williams rightly sets a high value on Inuit testimony that some of Knight's men survived one or more winters with the help of native-supplied seal meat, but acknowledges that the paucity of graves or other human remains on Marble Island leaves this account open to some doubt.

He next relates the "controversial voyage of Christopher Middleton" in 1741-2, an expedition which in many ways is the most dramatic recounted in the book. With the insight offered by newly identified materials from the HBC archives, Williams is able to paint a remarkably accurate picture of Middleton's expedition, including the political jockeying which preceded and followed it -- a scenario which set the tone for most of the rest of the century. Unlike his immediate precursors, Middleton sailed under the auspices of the Royal Navy, which had been persuaded to authorize the venture at the behest of Arthur Dobbs, an Irish MP with a relentless passion for the Passage who was the eighteenth century equivalent of Barrow. Dobbs, like Barrow, had precious little first-hand knowledge of the hazards involved, but held unshakably to the belief in a vast inland sea which might communicate both with Hudson's Bay and the (as yet ill-known) Pacific Ocean. The belief in this chimerical body of water, like Barrow's in the Open Polar Sea, gave commercial prospects to Middleton's voyage which drew the interest of potential investors, and made the Hudson's Bay Company understandably anxious.

Middleton, a capable navigator and former HBC pilot, was sensible of the animosity of his former employers; he anticipated in advance that he might have to winter over, and had the foresight to bring along copies of official letters commanding "the best assistance in your Power" from Company representatives. With the aid of these letters, he was able to obtain the necessary help -- grudging and minimal though it was -- from James Isham, the Factor in charge of Fort Prince of Wales at Churchill, where he planned to secure his ships and winter his men on land. Isham, in fact, was sympathetic with Middleton's needs, and in addition to allowing him to construct a temporary settlement near the recently abandoned Old Factory near the fort, supplied him with a small party of friendly Indians to hunt and provide him and his men with game. Fur clothing was also supplied, along with a limited number of pairs of snowshoes, some lumber and old brick -- scarce commodities at the edge of the wilderness in those days. Despite Isham's cooperation, animosities of various kinds frequently broke out between Middleton's men and the Fort, and indeed between the crews of Middleton's ships, the Furnace and Discovery. The astonishing labors associated with protecting the ships from winter freezing and spring floods make Parry's wintering over at Melville Island more than sixty years later look like a picnic, and that his men survived at all is a credit to Middleton's abilities as a commander. He was a stern task-master, and a lesser man might well have been unable to keep his poorly-trained men disciplined enough for the task.

Once under sail the following summer, Middleton assayed nearly all the potential sites of a Passage in the area around Repulse Bay, Roe's Welcome Sound, and the Wager River. As with other early explorers, Middelton's search was shaped by the belief that tides and currents could be used to discover points of egress to other large bodies of water, a belief that led to all kinds of erroneous conjectures in the tidal eddies and backwaters of the Hudson's Bay coast. Despite this, Middleton's experience made him a cautious man, and his charts of the area proved to be remarkably accurate, particularly his finding that the Wager River was a dead end, and that the tides in the area could be explained by water from the Bay coming in via a "Frozen Strait" to the east. Unfortunately, the news that these outlets disclosed no signs of the expected Passage was a terrific blow to Dobbs and his supporters -- so great a blow, in fact, that they were unable to accept it. Instead, in a series of intrigues which ultimately discredited them, associates of Dobbs enticed several of Middleton's officers and crew into making contrary statements and charts in an attempt to prove that the possibility of a passage had not been foreclosed. After testifying to the Admiralty, and engaging in a long and trying series of argumentative pamphlets, Middleton won the battle -- but not, alas the war. He was never given command of another exploring ship, and despite the fact that the Admiralty believed his account, those who followed Dobbs financed further private expeditions, this time on a more frankly commercial footing, to pursue their hopes for a passage from Hudson's Bay to the Pacific.

The most notable of these Williams dubs "the disputatious voyage of William Moor and Francis Smith," a well-earned sobriquet by all counts. Neither Moor nor Smith had much experience piloting ships in the Arctic, and they and their crews were from all accounts as mercenary as their masters, most of them having been hired at the last minute, or even at various stops up the British coast to replace others crewmembers who had deserted. Unfamiliar with the ice in the Davis an d Hudson straits, Moor and Smith lost track of the Hudson's Bay ships which were supposed to be their escorts, and arrived so late in the season that even their preparation for wintering was begun late. They sought out refuge on the Hayes River near York Fort, but were utterly unprepared for the hostility they encountered. The local factor -- Isham, again, at a new posting -- sent men to cut the marker buoys that marked the best harborage, and came close to ordering his men to fire on the ships -- his later excuse was that he thought they might be French. Moor and Smith had also neglected to bring with them any copy of the Parliamentary orders commanding the Company to assist them, and the statute book kept at the Fort had apparently been taken by the previous Factor. Added to this problem was the fact that Moor and Smith distrusted each other even more than they mutually distrusted the Company; an already difficult task such as warping the ships into a protected inlet was rendered almost impossible.

Despite constant bickering, the ships and their crews somehow managed to survive the season. A notable aspect of their stay was that Captain Smith's wife, Kitty, accompanied her husband, thereby becoming the first European woman to winter in the Arctic, a fascinating detail in an otherwise tawdry tale. The exploratory voyage the next summer, despite a modicum of peace between the commanders, did little more than prove Middleton's charts to be accurate -- the Wager was a river after all, and not a strait. A brief side-trip by one of the ship's boats resulted in the discovery of Chesterfield Inlet, which was the only bit of news in the otherwise discouraging report that Moor and Smith presented to their backers on their return.

Mid-century marked a pause in maritime expeditions, but by no means an end of exploration. As often happened in the subsequent history of the Arctic, discoveries by sea led to discoveries by land, and vice-versa. Isham, the beleaguered HBC factor, himself sent out one of the first of these land expeditions under Anthony Henday, who in 1754-55 traveled as far as the Rocky Mountains with his Cree and Assiniboine guides. This, though, was but a prelude to the greatest of the overland expeditions of the era, that of Samuel Hearne in 1769. Wiliams gives only the briefest of description of Hearne's trek, perhaps because it has been so often retold elsewhere, but he does disclose one astonishing fact: Hearne's reports and maps were kept secret by the Company for decades, during which time all manner of maps of imaginary inlets and chimerical seas, nearly all of which could have been invalidated at a stroke had Hearne's discoveries been made known. Indeed, this one singularly misguided act might rightly be said to have delayed any meaningful search for the Northwest Passage by fifty years, since it was clear from Hearne's findings that no possible passage existed south of the Arctic Ocean or its inlets.

The latter third of Williams's book has the least new material, though what is there is compellingly told. The role of maps -- even and perhaps especially erroneous ones -- in the extension of the international passion for exploration has never been more dramatically indicated. Williams' book is graced with more than two dozen maps, ranging from native outline maps to explorer's charts to wildly fanciful (but beautifully engraved) maps of the world. Indeed, the only regret I have as the reader of this book is that the pages -- at least those with maps --were not at least twice as large, so rich is every one with the foibles and peculiarities of geographic discovery. Through it all, Williams proves himself the most able navigator of the century, skillfully directing us through frozen straits, past tidal pools and reversing falls, all the way through to the voyages of Cook and Vancouver at the century's end. It's not always easy going; Williams has drawn from such a variety of sources, and lays such a vast canvas before us, that we may even on occasion feel a bit lost. Help soon arrives, however, in the form of a humorous anecdote or telling juxtaposition, which immediately gives us back our sense of bearings.

Williams' book is, in fact, a magisterial and yet highly engaging account of what he rightly views as a crucial period in the history of the exploration of the Arctic by Britain and other European powers. It is one of those books whose presence makes us realize what a great gap hitherto existed, and how ill we understood what came after before we read it. It is to be hoped that a North American edition of this book will not be long in coming, for it will bring at last to the inhabitants of these western shores a far richer sense of this fascinating chapter in their own history.