N. K. Lüders Kaalund: Explorations in the Icy North

Explorations in the Icy North. How Travel Narratives Shaped Arctic Science in the Nineteenth Century

Lüders Kaalund, Nanna Katrine
Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century
Anzahl Seiten
240 S.
$ 40.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Ulrike Spring, Dept of Archaeology, Conservation and History, University of Oslo

The Arctic has been a hot topic within the humanities for the past two decades, leading to numerous publications on Arctic exploration before the First World War. Kaalund's monograph follows in this vein. On roughly 200 pages she discusses a range of expeditions that set out to the Arctic from Great Britain, Canada and Denmark in the period from c. 1800 until the 1880s. It is commendable that Kaalund breaks with the "national container" thinking that often prevails in research on polar exploration, and not least with the dominant focus on Anglo-American expeditions in English-language research.

As the subtitle of her book indicates, Kaalund's central aim is to analyse "how explorers constructed the Arctic, their scientific practices, and themselves in their travel narratives" (p. 4). Here she follows a recent trend in Arctic exploration research to move away from the expedition itself to its narrative framing and reception.[1] To this she adds a number of other questions, such as "how the concept of the Arctic explorer shaped and was shaped by changing notions of scientific fieldwork and imperial and financial interests" (p. 6), "how the stories of Arctic exploration and scientific fieldwork [...] take on new meanings when considered as part of their international context, rather than as national projects" (p. 19), and to "show how abstract notions about the Arctic became tangible in the nineteenth century" (p. 24). Whilst these many questions allow for an intriguing immersion into various facets of 19th-century Arctic exploration, they also make it difficult to follow Kaalund's train of thought and her main aim of analysing travel narratives. Indeed, it is hard to see how they connect to one of her main arguments – that is, that scattered nationalised scientific research in the Arctic developed into an increasingly transnational Arctic science during the 19th century. The book then is at its best when read as an inspiring mosaic that is held together by certain threads, such as the gradual move towards an international Arctic science and the change in the perspectives of what constitutes a polar explorer.

The current debate of decolonisation and Eurocentrism is not new in scholarly discussions of the Arctic, and in the past decades researchers have integrated perspectives of Indigenous populations and introduced broader topics such as the global impact of the Arctic.[2] Kaalund situates herself within this approach and critically reflects on her own choice of a Eurocentric and nation-centred approach, and her focus on outside voices rather than on Indigenous Arctic ones. As she rightly observes, this allows her only to see the Arctic in relational terms, and not in its own right. Her ambitions to counter this tendency, by deconstructing this approach from within through the application of narrative analysis to expedition accounts and by opening for the many facets of Arctic exploration, necessarily have to fall short to some extent.

The book consists of a long introduction, four chronologically structured chapters and a brief epilogue. Each chapter analyses three representative expeditionary endeavours. Chapter 1 has uncertainty as its main theme: In the early 1800s, little was known about the Arctic in the West, and there was as yet no unified design for Arctic expeditions or scientific research there. As a result, no consensus existed on which narrative strategies the explorer could use to establish credibility and authority. Collaboration with Indigenous peoples and trading companies helped to reduce the uncertainty, and British expedition leaders could draw on Great Britain's long tradition of using foreign lands as laboratories for acquiring scientific knowledge. These early British expeditions, which dominated early Arctic exploration, Kaalund observes, created a kind of blueprint for other Arctic expeditions and narratives, and most of all for the person of the Arctic explorer.

In chapter 2, on financial opportunities in the Arctic, Kaalund studies how three different types of funding bodies – private patrons, trade companies and religious missions – affected the way expedition narratives were written and perceived. As she critically remarks, because of their relative lack of scientific results, non-government-sponsored expeditions have received little attention by historians of science, yet they are vital to understand the tensions between scientific and economic aims in the Arctic. This and in particular the part on missionary narratives in Greenland makes for fascinating reading when juxtaposed with the typically male dominated heroic Arctic exploration narrative of the 19th century. Since Lisa Bloom’s classic study Gender on Ice[3], researchers have highlighted the presence of women and different gender experiences, challenging the myth of the "male" Arctic. Kaalund contributes to this discussion by examining two Danish missionary narratives, by a woman and a man respectively, and their relations to the Indigenous population. She touches upon several highly interesting aspects, such as the intersection of credibility, economics, science, gender, missionary work and Indigeneity. Here however, one of the drawbacks of the monograph’s structure becomes explicit. Whereas it is commendable that Kaalund takes the reader on a tour through numerous expeditions and narratives, she cannot study them in-depth, leaving the reader with many unanswered questions. Can we talk about a universal missionary approach that crossed gender and geographical lines, or did the Danish missionary reports have more in common with other Arctic expedition narratives? Was geography, gender or the project’s aim most important in the creation of the writer's credibility?

In chapter 3, Kaalund follows well-established research in arguing that the lost Franklin expedition (1845) led to a new stage in Arctic exploration. The search for the expedition made it easier to get funding and many more expeditions embarked to the North. Kaalund’s contribution to existing research lies most of all in her analysis of two narratives produced after the McClintock expedition, one by McClintock (in English, 1859) and another one by the Danish explorer Johan Carl Christian Petersen (in Danish, 1860). Here, Kaalund demonstrates how productive it is to use expedition reports by different explorers and in different languages in order to tease out different perspectives and traditions of perceiving the Arctic.

In her fourth chapter, Kaalund traces the path from collecting fragmented scientific knowledge in the Arctic to the development of an international Arctic science. Her highly interesting case studies include the Danish exploration of Greenland and the first Inuk Arctic travel narrative published by Suersaq, also known as Hans Hendrik, who participated in a number of Arctic expeditions. Her analysis of reviews of Suersaq's narrative in English and Danish illustrates how they oscillated ambivalently between racism (because he was considered part of Arctic nature) and ascriptions of authority (exactly because of his close links to nature and therefore deep knowledge of it). Here, Kaalund truly shows the ambivalences and tensions involved in creating authority in the Arctic.

In her final case study, she shows how the First International Polar Year (IPY, 1882/83), with its static research stations in the Northern and Southern polar regions, broke with previous "heroic" Arctic enterprises and challenged established norms of publishing about Arctic exploration, by separating travel accounts from scientific reports. The IPY also marked the shift to a division of labour that would dominate discourses of Arctic exploration in the future: between the heroic Arctic explorer and the scientific observer.

Explorations in the Icy North provides a convincing narrative of how the Arctic became part of a growing scientification of the world. With its focus on various forms of expeditionary enterprise, it adds a much-needed perspective to Arctic research. One of Kaalund's most interesting findings is that the shifting trustworthiness of the explorer played a crucial role in determining the reception of the expedition, its scientific results and its narrative. However, while she offers the reader many relevant pieces of information, she tries to address too many questions on only 200 pages. One would have wished for a more comprehensive conclusion, in which the many threads in the book could have been woven together, e.g. the differences in narrative writing and reception between missionaries, heroic explorer, indigenous explorer and scientific fieldworker. It is a missed opportunity that there is no summing-up of her highly interesting research question as to how Arctic explorers established authority in narrative. It is left to the reader to trace the role aspects such as funding, references to previous explorer narratives, scientific knowledge and research, geographical findings, narrative style, visual aids such as tables and illustrations, the explorer persona, and aims had in establishing authority. One would also wish for a more thoroughly transnational analysis of the various expeditions, including 19th-century receptions and reviews on a larger scale, in addition to the substantial research on Arctic exploration that has been written in Scandinavian languages. But all this does not detract from the many inspiring vistas this book opens for future polar research.

[1] E.g. Adriana Craciun, Writing Arctic Disaster. Authorship and Exploration, Cambridge 2016.
[2] See Michael Bravo, The postcolonial Arctic, in: Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings 15 (2015), pp. 93–111; Matthias Finger / Gunnar Rekvig, Global Arctic. An Introduction to the Multifaceted Dynamics of the Arctic, Cham 2022.
[3] Lisa Bloom, Gender on Ice. American Ideologies of Polar Expeditions, Minneapolis 1993.

Veröffentlicht am
Redaktionell betreut durch