Ancient Mariner: The Amazing Adventures of Samuel Hearne, the Sailor Who Inspired Coleridge's Masterpiece

By Ken McGoogan

New York: Carroll & Graf, $25.00


Reviewed by David M. Owen


Never having read Hearne’s famous account, A Journey from Prince of Wale's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean I was keen to read what Ken McGoogan could tell me of Hearne in his new book Ancient Mariner The Amazing adventures of Samuel Hearne the sailor who walked to the Arctic Ocean.

Fatal Passage, McGoogan’s impressive 2000 biography of Dr. John Rae helped generate renewed respect for that explorer’s great accomplishments. It proved a fine modern biography of John Rae, and an impressive new addition to the literature of the Franklin search. Samuel Hearne is another employee of the Hudson Bay company who much earlier added a piece to the Northwest Passage puzzle by being the first European to follow the Coppermine River to the Arctic ocean. His account of this journey, published posthumously in 1795, is one of the classics of English Exploration literature. His 3-year overland expedition in the company of a band of Cree and Chipewyan Indians and their chief Matonabbee, culminates in a famous massacre. The natives with whom Hearne traveled slaughter some unsuspecting Inuit at a place on the Coppermine River known still as Bloody Falls. The image of an Inuit girl speared to death even as her arm "twisted round my legs" marking Hearne’s moment of triumph as also one of tragedy.

Samuel Hearne is the quintessential example of going native as the successful Arctic survival strategy. He was certainly the first Hudson Bay man to do so on such a scale and with results the British Navy’s expedition down the Coppermine; the disastrous First Franklin expedition, were unable to produce nearly a century later (most of Franklin’s men died) His successful journey leads to promotion within the Hudson Bay Company and Hearne is appointed as Governor of Prince of Wales Fort. A vast fortification (McGoogan describes it "roughly one hundred yards square, with four corner bastions, numerous parapets. And embrasures for forty canons…" (76) built for the fur traders to retire to in case of a French attack, though never seriously manned it was nevertheless the Hudson’s Bay Company center of operations.

McGoogan gives us a glimpse into the world of the18th century fur trader's life in an outpost in sub arctic Canada. McGoogan’s straightforward discussion of country wives and their role in the fur trade is refreshing. He notes a variety of treatment of these native wives: one HBC officer Robert Pilgrim took his Cree wife and child back to England as early as 1750; yet many years after Hearne Governor George Simpson would prove" especially despicable in his treatment" of his country wives.

Yet "another of Hearne’s contemporaries, the surveyor Philip Turnor, would later flatly inform the London committee that the master of any given post would face endless difficulties if he did not take a wife." One wonders if previous bios of Hearne have admitted this so straightforwardly. Particularly since, according to McGoogan, the love of Hearne’s life was his country wife, Mary Norton, the daughter of HBC Governor Moses Norton.

In fact McGoogan portrays Mary Norton as the love of Hearne’s life and after the death of Mary Norton McGoogan never romantically links him to any other woman. In fact the romanticizing McGoogan has her as Hearne’s last thought "as he died he remembered loving Mary Norton in the blazing light of the aurora borealis"

Sections of McGoogan’s Ancient Mariner read as a work of historical fiction. Emotionally nuanced dialogue can legitimately come from a journal or letter where it is recorded but these episodes don’t quote any such sources and the reader is left with the feeling that perhaps a few facts or suggestions got stretched to cover a lot of empty canvas.

Here’s an example. McGoogan has Hearne ask Mary Norton if she will wait to be his wife:

"Perhaps you will wait?"

"Wait for what, Samuel?" Suddenly understanding, Mary blushed and looked away. "I’m late! I must go!" In confusion, she started away down the stairs, but then turned and raced back up. She embraced Hearne and kissed him. "You know I will".

A popular biography of an important figure in Arctic history, or some kind of historical Harlequin Romance? What is the line between likely imaginings and wholesale invention? And has McGoogan crossed it?

Telling a good story is no crime. And a historical narrative, especially a popular one, is supposed to be just that. But I read history instead of fiction because I want to find out what happened, not how the participants felt. Tell the event honestly enough and let the reader will furnish the feeling.

His few years as chief of Prince of Wales are Hearne’s happiest. He practices the gentlemanly pursuits of hunting and natural science. He dissects and botanizes, recording his field notes towards future publication and lives happily with his country bride Mary Norton. It’s an idyll interrupted by the arrival of three French warships on the 8th of August, 1782. Aligned with America against the British at the time of the revolutionary war they had come, incredible as it seems, to sack the Prince of Wales Fort.

Hearne’s decision to surrender was obvious. The numbers tell the story. Thirty-nine people in the Prince of Wales fort, all civilians who had no training in the defense of the fort, and the French invaders with a landed force of several hundred regulars. His surrender was the sane response. But even though he adroitly negotiated himself back to England and then effected a fairly rapid return the next year, his departure proved a personal disaster. Between 1782 when the French sacked Prince of Wales fort after Hearne’s surrender and his return but 13 months later in September 1783 almost all that Hearne held dear was destroyed, not just the Fort but the life he had had in it.

He returns in the employ of the HBC to found a new trading post and finds his ‘country wife’ Mary Norton has died of starvation in his absence. And shortly after he learns that his great friend Mattonabbee to whom he owed his life, had hung himself in grief learning that Hearne had been captured and presumed killed. It reads like the fifth act of a Shakespearian tragedy.The rest of his life after the revelation of these deaths seems almost a ‘posthumous existence’. He leaves the new fort and the North forever and returns to London in 1787 where he seems to languish working on his manuscript in failing health until his early death of "dropsy" (a kidney infection as McGoogan explains) at the age of 47 in 1793.

When Hearne surrendered the Prince of Wales Fort to the overwhelming French force why did he not take Mary Norton with him? Why indeed. McGoogan’s answer is contained in one of his dramatic set pieces:

"Mary if I tell them, you are my wife, they will take you, too. Perhaps this is our chance. We will live together in England"

"Are you mad Samuel? What about my sisters? No, I cannot leave-not like this."

"We don’t know what the French will do . But one thing you must remember." Hearne seized her shoulders and looked into her eyes. "Whatever happens, I will return. It might take me a year, it might take me two. You must never despair, Mary, You must trust me. I will return."

So Samuel Hearne left the love of his life to her fate based on her protests about her sisters? This girl who he takes to wife after her father’s death when she is sixteen and he thirty-one years old?

McGoogan’ dramatization suggests that Hearne left her behind at her insistence. But what is the basis for this bit of re-creation? Some correspondence or journal or is McGoogan providing excuses Hearne never actually made? Country-wives had been taken home before. Was Hearne afraid of the response in England? Why did Hearne simply not take her with him? Too often in Ancient Mariner one feels plausible melodrama has been substituted for historical fact. Is there any more substance in history to this relationship than the hymn of praise to Mary Norton in Hearne’s Journey which McGoogan points out "stands alone in its emotionality"? Or does his treatment have more in common with Historical Romance?

Assimilating the journals, correspondences, biographies and histories and rendering this material into a single narrative is almost the act of fiction in itself. You have to make choices and your choices reveal your intent. But is it necessary to fill in the gaps of history with ‘likely’ episodes? What you don’t want is to feel like you’re watching a Heritage Moment (short film dramas enacting some bit of Canadian history which the Canadian government shows as ads in theaters and on TV).

And unfortunately sometimes it does.

I do not think this handling is an indictable offense but I do feel that it reduces the impact of the work. The solid historical judgement and masterful use of many sources gives a solidity to a work like Fatal Passage that Ancient Mariner doesn’t manage. Instead of the author pulling back the layers of the past to glimpse some distant truth we find the cover of a pulp novel.

In addition to the soft focus of the Mary Norton romantic narrative there is McGoogan’s claim that Samuel Hearne is the basis for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The entire discussion of Hearne’s Journey as the inspiration for Coleridge’s Rime seems to be grafted onto the book. It is a mildly interesting literary footnote that a classic of exploration literature was partly responsible for inspiring some work(s) by a major-19th century poet, but only that.

Even if this sort of literary detective work was somehow an important revelation what does it mean to discover the source of inspiration for a poem? How does it change our understanding of either man or his work? What insights result? It plays ultimately as some marketing notion that does not represent the work as a whole and is an odd choice for a title. I suppose I’ve always considered literature to include the great exploration narratives, I don’t think they need to be ‘classed up’ by association with other types of literature (e.g. poetry).

The book’s strength is as a fresh well-researched popular biography of a man whose short life accomplished one of the greatest journeys of exploration ever made across North-western Canada. It weakness is its regular lapses from a historical narrative into a historical fiction/detective story where the history is not the point.

Ken McGoogan tells a good story there’s no doubt of that. It’s just a question of whose story it is.