Friday, 6 July 2012

the far passage

The Northwest Passage is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways amidst the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
 The various islands of the archipelago are separated from one another and the Canadian mainland by a series of Arctic waterways collectively known as the Northwest Passages or Northwestern Passages.
Sought by explorers for centuries as a possible trade route, it was first navigated by Roald Amundsen in 1903–1906.
 Until 2009, the Arctic pack ice prevented regular marine shipping throughout most of the year, but climate change has reduced the pack ice, and this Arctic shrinkage made the waterways more navigable.
 However, the contested sovereignty claims over the waters may complicate future shipping through the region: The Canadian government considers the Northwestern Passages part of Canadian Internal Waters,but the United States and various European countries maintain they are an international strait or transit passage, allowing free and unencumbered passage.
The tales of North American exploration and westward expansion have often been painted in tones of manifest destiny, heroic bravery, and divine providence. While such portrayals surely prove insightful in some cases, they do not paint the whole picture. A more accurate depiction of American exploration would include the driving forces of economic gain, na•ive optimism, overeagerness, and the hasty acceptance of geographical misinformation. The strength of these motives and forces was so strong that for centuries adventurers continued to explore the continent despite constant disappointment and financial loss. In particular, the closely related myths of the Strait of Anian and the Northwest Passage were the impetus for numerous expeditions. The promises they held were more than enough to fuel not only imaginative thought, but discoveries that would forever affect North American exploration and history.

The origin and dissemination of the theories about the Northwest Passage and the Strait of Anian alone would be enough for a lengthy study. Yet beyond mere origins, the manner in which explorers reacted to, and eagerly believed their times. From the myths' advent to their eventual rejection, explorers and governments placed surprising faith in these geographical concepts. In consequence, exploration was both generated and sustained by the hope of finding a passage to the Orient. Without these legends and the explorers' nai•ve eagerness to act upon them, America would have continued to lay unexplored for unknown years.
In 1745, readers of the Virginia Gazette, a weekly newspaper published in Williamsburg, learned that back in England Parliament “had resolved to bring in a Bill to grant a Sum of Money to any Person or Persons who shall discover the N. West Passage.”
 Seven years later, the Gazette informed its audience that “an Officer of the Marine who has been twice or thrice at Greenland” had given “Reasons for supposing there is an open North West Passage into the South Seas.” After fifteen more years had passed, the newspaper said, “Great discoveries have been made relative to the North West passage.” After five additional years, subscribers saw that “the Government is preparing to send out Major Rogers . . . in Pursuit of the North West Passage.” Two decades later, the Gazette reported that the empress of Russia had dispatched three ships to attempt “the Discovery of the north west Passage to China.” A year later, two British ships were sailing “at the End of Spring . . . to discover a Northern Passage to the South Sea”—as the Pacific was called. When spring arrived, the paper said two French frigates were “fitting out at Brest . . . to attempt the north west passage” ahead of the British
Throughout the eighteenth century, explorers from Great Britain, Denmark, France, and Russia tried and failed to find the Northwest Passage, that is, a practical route from the Atlantic seaboard of America to the Pacific that would shorten the trade route between Europe and the Far East. All failed, but they were in storied company. Long before and long after their ventures, sailors and trailblazers tried to find the passage. In the twenty-first century, nature may be opening the way. The New York Times reported in October 2007, “The Arctic ice cap shrank so much this summer that waves briefly lapped along two long-imagined Arctic shipping routes, the Northwest Passage over Canada and the Northern Sea Route over Russia.”
For at least four centuries, finding the Northwest Passage was a dream like finding the golden fleece, the Holy Grail, the fountain of youth, and cities of gold. Uncovering a route from Europe to the Far East by sailing west inspired explorers, churchmen, businessmen, and governments seeking an easier path to glory, converts, goods, and power. John Logan Allen, author of Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest, wrote that the quest endured so long because the desire for such a route trumped its nonexistence. By the way, Lewis and Clark were looking to find an all-water route to the Pacific, too.
“A lot of geographical ideas,” Allen said, “are born out of desire: If you want something to be organized in a certain way, it will be—in your head. If you have a strong geographical imperative, you can say, ‘I don’t want to be confused by geographical facts.’
“The desire in this case belonged to European powers and businesses that were eager for a way to get their goods cheaply and quickly to the East, and return just as quickly and cheaply with Asian supplies.” Europeans “knew it was a rich area from the reports of Marco Polo and other travelers,” Allen said. “With the increase in agricultural production and population in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, Europe was looking for a source of raw materials, like lumber, and new markets.”
The sources included China, Japan, and Indonesia. The lure of the passage was that it offered a means “of getting the riches of the Orient for the markets of western Europe” and vice versa, said historian James Ronda. The western route seemed to guarantee “wealth and imperial power. Those are strong motives and enormously influential forces.”
In the late fifteenth century, the search motivated such navigators as Christopher Columbus and John Cabot. Cabot was attempting to find a simple way to the East when he ran into a 3,000-mile-wide obstacle: North America. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw efforts by Martin Frobisher, Francis Drake, John Davis, Henry Hudson, William Baffin, and others who probed the eastern and western edges of the New World to find a waterway that connected the oceans.
In the seventeenth century, England established Jamestown in part to “gain the rich trade of the East India, and so cause it to be driven through the Continent of Virginia, part by Land and part by Water, and in a most gainfull way and safe, and far lesse expenceful and dangerous than now it is,” in the words of the 1649 Perfect Description of Virginia. Many of the Northwest Passage explorers would focus on the northern regions of North America in the belief that a polar passageway existed. Belief in it was so common that cartographers put it on their maps and named it the Strait of Anian.
The phrase “northwest passage” first appeared in print in the reports of Richard Hakluyt, a geographer who published Voyages in Search of the North-West Passage in 1587. He sought to prove there was a passage through America “to go to Cathay and the East Indies.” Cathay was another name for China. Citing Plato and Aristotle in support of his argument, Hakluyt said that learned men of the past “would never have so constantly affirmed” such a passage “if they had not had great good cause and many probable reasons to have led them thereunto.”
As the eighteenth century dawned, the long-sought-for route was as elusive as ever. In the Age of Reason, with its emphasis on scientific evidence and provable facts, the idea that the passage might be wishful thinking seemed to have occurred to few. A Spanish admiral recorded in his diary that the passage had “no other foundation than the madness or ignorance of someone devoid of all knowledge of either navigation or geography.” But he was an exception to what Ronda termed “the tenacity of illusion” and “the geography of hope,” which posited, “Because you want it to be there, it will be there.” And people wanted it to be there.
Scholar Philip V. Allingham said that “the matter of a direct sea route to Asia was always foremost in the minds of those controlling British naval exploration. . . . As Britain acquired colonial possessions in the Pacific and the former thirteen colonies became a national rival to British power on the North American continent, Britain’s discovery of a viable Northwest Passage loomed even larger in the minds of government officials.”
In the 1700s, adventurers, scientists, and military leaders had a couple of notions of what the passage was, John Allen said. “By the 1770s, it evolved into a configuration which includes either a large lake or inland sea in the middle of the continent, or a large river navigable to the interior,” where a pyramidal rise in the land would lead to another river rushing to the Pacific. With that notion and others in their minds, eighteenth-century explorers headed into terra incognita:

  • In 1753, the Pennsylvania Gazette reported that Captain Charles Swaine had returned from his search for the passage with the news that “there is no communication with Hudson’s Bay through Labrador where one had here to fore imagined.”
  • In 1778, Captain James Cook was ordered to “explore such rivers or inlets as may appear to be of a considerable extent and pointing towards Hudson Bay or Baffin Bay.”
  • In 1789, Alexander Mackenzie set off on a trek across Canada in an attempt to find a combination of rivers, straits, and other waterways that would unlock the doors to Asia. He failed, but he did not give up.
  • In 1781, J. Carver wrote in Travels through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768 that “a Northwest Passage, or a communication between Hudson’s Bay and the Pacific Ocean” could be found and result in “many useful discoveries.”
  • In 1793, Mackenzie made it to the Pacific with a handful of Indian guides and fellow voyageurs. He painted his name on a rock to prove his arrival, but he had proved something else: how torturous the journey was, involving many portages and much walking, impediments to swift trade.
Colonial Williamsburg’s Willie Balderson as Meriwether Lewis discusses with Bill Barker’s Thomas Jefferson the proposed Lewis and Clark expedition to find, among other things, a usable water route through the continent to the Pacific. They did not find it. Colonial Williamsburg’s Willie Balderson as Meriwether Lewis discusses with Bill Barker’s Thomas Jefferson the proposed Lewis and Clark expedition to find, among other things, a usable water route through the continent to the Pacific. They did not find it.

The search for the Northwest Passage, so fascinating to explorers, has intrigued authors and filmmakers, too. Allingham said, “Polar exploration captured the British imagination, as the opening of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness suggests. Dickens’s The Frozen Deep also attests to popular fascination with polar exploration.”
The search motivated Walt Whitman to pen an epic poem, “Passage to India,” a celebration of exploration and global unity. The mention in the Virginia Gazette of the real Major Robert Rogers undertaking a search for the passage has a fictional counterpart in Northwest Passage, a popular novel of the 1930s by Kenneth Roberts. When it was made into a 1940 movie starring Spencer Tracy as Rogers, the search for a passage was lost in a tale about the French and Indian War.
Among the books the Lewis and Clark expedition inspired was 1996’s Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. In 1997, Ken Burns, a documentary filmmaker, produced Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. The duo’s trek got a fictionalized Hollywood treatment in The Far Horizons, a 1955 film starring Fred MacMurray and Charlton Heston as the explorers

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