Reflections on "A Dangerous Voyage."

Last summer (2008), Bruce Peel Special Collections marked the University of Alberta's centennial and the International Polar Year with, "an exhibition of books and maps documenting four centuries of exploration in search of a northwest passage."1 A Most Dangerous Voyage2 was on until August and, despite being wholly ignorant of any details of the subject, I popped in, late July, to see the maps. 

I recognised the Polar Projection from the Gentlemen's Magazine the second I came in the door.RamusioRamusio

The earliest map in the exhibit was Ramusio's western hemisphere of 1565, which includes information from the voyages of Jacques Cartier. "The double-page woodcut map of the western hemisphere is the most complete of its time" and is bound into the third volume of Navigationi et viaggi. Bruce Peel holds the second edition of a set which "is the bedrock work for any significant collection of world voyages and exploration." (p. 17)

Two subtly different maps by Herman Moll touched on the northeast passage. In a powerful example of the map as textual argument, "This Draught of the North Pole..." has no less than three depictions of Nova Zemlya. The lower rThis Draught...This Draught...Main mapMain mapight inset, baMoll - LRMoll - LRMoll - UCMoll - UCMoll & BowlesMoll & Bowlessed on Russian sources, shows it as a peninsula, though Moll includes reasons why, "we dare not fully depend upon the truth of it."3 The upper centre inset shows only a western coastline. Below, on the main map, he has drawn in a complete island. On "A True Map of the North Pole..." Moll again shows an island, this time with a less elongated northeastern tip. I'm fairly sure that one of these two maps used to hang in the inner sanctum of the UAB History & Classics Department Office.

A large polar projection by Emmanuel Bowen dominated the second case. Somehow I missed a decent photo of the whole map. Textual notes mention the many voyages of Christopher Middleton and Francis Smith. The cartouche title is below, along with the rather Ptolemaic-looking map from Dobbs', An Account ofthe Countries adjoining to Hudson's Bay,... (1744). Dobbs "accused Middleton of falsifying his records and taking a bribe from the Hudson's Bay Company." The map from Dobbs' An Account... shows his mistaken conviction that "a passage could be found from the northwest angle of Hudson's Bay."(p. 20) Two shots of a 10"? desk globe by Cary (1845) and one of Barrington's The Possibility of Case 2Case 2Bowen titleBowen titleDobbsDobbsCary globeCary globeReacGlobe titleGlobe titlehiBarringtonBarringtonng the North Pole Asserted. (1818) round out my photos of the maps. I have to admit that after I had poured over these, my interest dropped off a bit.

I politely looked at the title pages and the pictures, some of which were truly stunning. Bruce Peel's German first edition of Kotzebue's, Entdeckungs-Reise in die Sud-See und nach der Berings-Strasse... (1821) "includes a suite of hand-coloured butterfly specimens." (p. 43) The aquatint portraits of several Inuit are really very striking, as are those by Choris. Other images, of ships rigged out for a ChorisChoris KotzebueKotzebueParry & RossParry & Rosswinter in the ice with their gangways and decks covered over by tarpaulin tents, have stayed with me. One of thosethings that seems obvious, once you've seen it. I'm still not quite sure what to make of the image of Ross and Parry greeting the Inuit - it's almost a cartoon and seems too stylized to hold much accuracy.

I dawdled over the globe, took up Jeannine and Rob's time telling them map stories, snapped some photos, and took off. I went back a few days later to grab a catalogue and I'm really glad I did.

It was only after I had some time to go over the catalogue and compare it with a couple of timelines on the net, that I began to realize what a remarkable exhibit I had seen. As I say, I'm pretty sketchy on the NW Passage - a few of the broader trends but thin on details. However, after pulling one chronology and comparing it with the catalogue, I found that Bruce Peel had displayed a first-hand, contemporary account from almost every British ship to sail in the region (and return) between 1741 and and 1850. Often they are by principal players (Hearne. Ross, Beechey, Kane) and there are multiple accounts from several voyages. In total, they seem to offer a fairly comprehensive list of the most important publications.

Too bad I was so focused on the maps. Once I merged a chronology with the catalogue (here), it was pretty obvious that the show was about the books.

1 Green, Jeanine M. and Robert J. Desmarais. A Most Dangerous Voyage: an exhibition of books and maps documenting four centuries of explorations in search of the northwest passage.   Linda Distad, ed. (Edmonton: U. of Alberta Library, 2008) 96p. soft cover, illus. ISBN 978-1-55195-203-1 All quotes and page numbers are from the catalogue, unless otherwise noted. Catalogues are available from Bruce Peel Special Collections through:


3 The b/w inset maps are from a copy which recently sold on eBay.

See also for news of UAB's recent acquisition of the papers of Sir Sam Steele. Support your local library, s.v.p.