Tag Archives: polar studies

Huw Lewis-Jones, Imagining the Arctic: Heroism, Spectacle and Polar Exploration (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017)

Tales of exploration are necessarily shrouded in doubt. Whilst exploration trades in discovery, its truth claims are often ambiguous and reliant on a handful of first-hand accounts. Even when achievement seems clear-cut, its value is often questioned, even before we get to the complex entanglements of exploration and colonialism. Huw Lewis-Jones has written a book about how Arctic exploration was made to seem heroic in nineteenth-century Britain, by returning explorers and their biographers, as well as wider cultural apparatuses of spectacle, display, and performance. He outlines the ways in which heroism was constructed and why Arctic exploration proved so valuable for doing so, particularly in relation to the discussion and promotion of the Navy.

As a cultural history of Arctic exploration and travel, Lewis-Jones’s text sits alongside the work of Robert David, Jen Hill, Hester Blum, Adriana Craciun, and Shane McCorristine, among others, as well as Beau Riffenburgh’s work on exploration and its reception. The book is divided into six chapters, each showing, as Lewis-Jones puts it, “a common theme: to recapture the ways that explorers were imagined and why” (5). These are roughly chronological through the nineteenth century but show the range of the discussions which evoked or constructed heroism. The book is also well illustrated, with almost 100 black and white images. These are mostly contemporary press images, but significantly add to the theme, even if Lewis-Jones could at times refer to them more directly.

The introduction and first chapter set out the ways in which Arctic exploration served a particular type of naval heroism, one which drew heavily on the “romantic and imaginative potential” (24) of travel in the region. In the decades after the Napoleonic Wars, Arctic exploration provided a potent source of heroic peacetime behaviour, as well as a justification for continued material support for the Navy. Moreover, Arctic travel was utilised in the construction of particular kinds of heroism, creating a lineage back to a heroic past of chivalric values whilst simultaneously representing an “energetic, self-confident and patriotic” (34) Britain.

Admiral Lord Nelson was a central figure in nineteenth-century naval heroism and Lewis-Jones’s second chapter considers how he was connected to the Arctic through a famous, and possibly apocryphal, encounter with a polar bear on a voyage to Svalbard as a young sailor. Lewis-Jones’s focus here is the importance of myth to heroism and the recirculation of “Nelson’s bear” as a key moment in Nelson’s life in later biographies. The significance of this as an Arctic encounter also meant that future Arctic exploration could be justified, with more young men given the opportunity to encounter their own bear, metaphorical or otherwise.

The third chapter continues to explore the construction of heroism, focusing on the reception of expeditions and perceptions of success. Here Lewis-Jones considers the aftermath of John Ross’s Victory expedition, which returned to Britain in 1833 after four years away, and the relationship between celebrity and hero, in their permanence and visibility. Ross’s involvement with public spectacles such as panoramas granted him celebrity status, but his poor relationship with key figures in the Admiralty such as John Barrow left him “in the borderland between fame and disgrace” (189), an inspiration to some but not fit to be lauded as a hero.

The subject of the fourth chapter is John P. Cheyne, whose plan to travel to the North Pole by hot air balloon left him similarly isolated from official Arctic exploration. Lewis-Jones emphasises that Cheyne’s failure to realise his scheme was as much due to his inability to convince important figures of its value as its impracticality. Lewis-Jones stresses that public opinion towards Arctic exploration was neither consistently positive nor interested, with each expedition having to convince significant figures of their worth, particularly if they wished to be funded directly by the Admiralty. Despite Cheyne’s prominence as a public lecturer, his expedition remained unrealised. As Lewis-Jones notes, failure can be as interesting as success when considering cultures of exploration.

This is made clearer in the fifth chapter, where Lewis-Jones considers the legacy of John Franklin and its use at the Royal Naval Exhibition of 1891. At a time when the British Navy felt increasingly threatened by other European powers, Arctic exploration was “relaunched in the service of peacetime naval propaganda” (249). Franklin and Nelson were key figures in the Exhibition and were called upon to serve as symbols of Britain’s enduring naval and imperial power. This use of heroes continues to the present day, as Lewis-Jones shows in his final chapter, with particular focus on Stephen Harper’s use of the discovery of the Franklin Expedition’s ships to underpin Canadian sovereignty claims in the Arctic. This is combined with Lewis-Jones’s personal reflections on exploration and its persistently contingent nature in the present.

Lewis-Jones’s use of a wide range of archival material to consider the malleable and contested formations of heroism linked to Arctic exploration is impressive and allows a nuanced and detailed picture to emerge. However, it would have been valuable to think beyond the limitations of the idea of Arctic “blank space” and consider how this itself was constructed as part of imperial discourse. An overly narrow focus on exploration rather suggests that this “Arctic blank” is real and the absence of any discussion of Arctic Indigenous peoples or sense of the Arctic as a “contact zone” is limiting. A discussion of the strangeness of Arctic exploration, as McCorristine includes in his work on Arctic dreams and hauntings, would have contributed to a richer examination of the contingency of heroism. Lewis-Jones acknowledges the absence of comparison to other national cultures of Arctic heroism, a reasonable and necessary limitation, but the recent work of Max Jones on Fridtjof Nansen as a transnational hero is interesting for thinking beyond just national or comparative frames. Some discussion of the place of gender in heroism beyond naval masculinities would also have been welcome.

Overall, this is a valuable and interesting perspective on the construction of the Arctic as a region in the nineteenth-century British imagination, as well as having wider significance and interest for considering the importance of reception and performance when thinking about travel texts.

Duncan Depledge, Britain and the Arctic (London: Palgrave Pivot, 2018)

Does geographical proximity make you closer to a region than long-standing historic ties? Is Britain a “forgotten Arctic State”? How can Britain find its way in the “Global Arctic”? These are the questions, Duncan Depledge, director of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions Secretariat in Westminster and Special Adviser to the UK House of Commons Defence Committee tries to answer to in his new book Britain and the Arctic. In the field of polar research – in Britain or abroad – Depledge does not need any introduction anymore. His name, alongside his former professor at Royal Holloway, University of London Klaus Dodds, has become synonymous with high-quality research in both international relations and polar studies. Based on a doctoral thesis Depledge defended at Royal Holloway in 2014, this book might be regarded by some as a timely contribution to the field of polar studies, especially at a time where Britain is gauging its involvement in the Arctic. On a more structural level, Britain and the Arctic is written as a collection of six thematically self-standing essays that each tries to assess Britain’s relation to the high north in an all-encompassing and detailed manner. Written in a short, punchy format, each chapter takes the form of an essay (with an abstract at the beginning) that makes the whole book more reader-friendly.

As pointed out at the beginning of the introduction, Britain’s present interest in the Arctic has never been as high since the Cold War. Although one might be forgiven to think that British interests in the North is an offspring of Britain’s colonial past, Depledge posits the Arctic has come into focus based on the need to make sense of how the Arctic is changing and how understanding these changes can help Britain be more productive in terms of science, trade, conservation and national security (p.6). With this new contribution, Depledge endeavours to analyse four overarching themes to better assess Britain’s relation with the Arctic. Drawing on Britain’s long history as a global power, Depledge first shows that Britain has had a massive role in influencing and defining the Arctic for centuries. He then argues that in spite of the “circumpolarisation” of the Arctic where the Arctic Eight (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US) have pushed non-Arctic states such as Britain towards the periphery of Arctic affairs, interests for the region within Britain domestic political, scientific and public landscapes have continued to grow in the last decades. The third theme is linked with the production of new scientific knowledge and the interests of British scientists in understanding how the region is likely to evolve in the future. This comes at the interplay of science, environmental, military and security concerns. Finally, Depledge also assesses the extent to which Britain’s contemporary engagement in the region, mainly due to its colonial past, is shaped by the country’s need to atone and demonstrate sensitivity in engagement in postcolonialism and neocolonialism debates.

As Lassi Heininen suggests in one of the blurbs, the idea of that Britain might be a “forgotten Arctic State” definitely comes as a surprise at first. The layperson might indeed wonder how a State whose northernmost tip (Out Stack, Shetlands) lies a bit further north than Bergen, Norway but still south of the Faroe Islands  could be an Arctic State, let alone a forgotten one.  In Chapter Two (Britain: The Forgotten Arctic State), Depledge cleverly demonstrates that closeness is not only a matter of topographical proximity. In the Arctic, a geopolitical region that is being construed as more and more global, Depledge highlights the problems with creating an arbitrary dichotomy between Arctic and non-Arctic States that relies solely on geographical proximity. Such closeness, he argues, is also a matter of topology. While acknowledging that Britain’s longstanding history in the Arctic comes as a result of its colonial past, Depledge demonstrates that topography and topology offer two different ways of thinking about Britain’s proximity to the Arctic. Although topography might play a more important role in the contemporary geopolitical landscape and also makes the Arctic look further away from Britain – demonstrated in framing Britain as “The Arctic’s Nearest Neighbour” in successive government policies since 2010 -, Britain, he argues, share deep and extensive topological links with the Arctic. From a topographical perspective, Depledge points out that the Arctic as a regional construct would still be vulnerable to further changes if and when the Faroe Islands and Greenland ever chose to become independent. In this changing Arctic landscape, Depledge also briefly mentions  the “spectre of Scotland one day becoming independent” and how, he argues, “few would seriously question whether the rest of Britain’s interest in the Arctic should be at all diminished or that Scotland should have a greater role than the rest of the Britain in Arctic affairs” (31). However, this analysis might come as oblivious of Scotland sharing a similar set of commonalities with northern/Arctic European states. Scotland’s growing role in Arctic affairs over the past few years from its involvement in para-geopolitical fora such as the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik to being one of the driving Arctic forces within British politics.

Elsewhere in 2011 and 2012, Depledge had already made the case for the UK government to develop an overarching formal Arctic framework which would help Britain and other stakeholders reflect on what actually matters for Britain in the region. Following the release of the Arctic Policy Framework in 2013, British involvement in the Arctic has not ceased to grow. Depledge highlights the challenges the Polar Region Departments have encountered in their attempts to communicate Britain’s Arctic interests at home and abroad and the need for a new British Arctic strategic document. Such challenges include the recent short-term vision that has been dominating British foreign policy making. In Britain and the Arctic, Depledge argues for a review of the Arctic Policy Framework and for a new strategic document to be published. Since Britain and the Arctic’s publication however the UK Polar Regions Department did publish a new Arctic policy (Beyond the Ice: UK policy towards the Arctic) in 2018. However, the 2018 policy did not surprise much and had a rather conservative approach to Britain’s relation to the region.

Britain might not be a forgotten Arctic State, but the book’s overall raison d’être appears less to be putting Britain on the Arctic map once again and more a statement for Britain to become even more involved in the Arctic than it already is. As Depledge argues if Britain wants to have a bigger role and an impact on Arctic affairs, the focus should be less on claiming topographical proximity (“Britain as the Arctic’s nearest neighbour”) and far more on making Britain the Arctic’s closest neighbour through science, defense, trade and cultural links (127). This kind of involvement from contemporary non-Arctic actors is to be welcomed as the Arctic is being construed as a more global and evolving region. Cooperation between Arctic and non-Arctic stakeholders is key to build a better integrated region. Britain and the Arctic is an exemplar of quality research about the globalisation of the Arctic. With its practical outlook, Depledge has made many positive contribution to academic research in the field of polar studies and Britain and the Arctic offers the most recent example of such contributions. Its concise format and affordable price tag make it a must-read for everyone interested in Arctic affairs, from decision-makers and politicians to senior academics and undergraduate students.