Interview with the Author, Ray Edinger
RP - Russell Potter
RE - Ray Edinger
RP What first interested you in Sir John Ross? Is there any single aspect of his character or achievement that in your mind sets him apart from other 19th-century Arctic explorers?
RE As a collector of 18th- and 19th-century books on exploration in the Arctic, I not only collect books, but also I read them. Although that may sound obvious, it's not always the case for us bibliophiles. Anyway, a significant volume of Arctic lore concerns the British efforts that peaked in the early-to-mid 1800s. John Ross's name crops up a number of times in that he made three voyages to the Arctic during that period. Furthermore, his first Arctic voyage, for which he was so vilified, inspired a succession of related expeditions that brought him further exposure. You can't help but read about Ross if you study Arctic exploration. And as I learned about Ross, I felt that he'd received a bum rap. Indeed, one modern writer called him "a real disappointment.... unintelligent, unimaginative, incurious, and lacking in perseverance." Wow, that sounds nothing like the Ross I know. Another called Ross's writing "anything but poetic." Yet to me a significant part of the charm of Ross is the style of his prose. He enjoyed the English language and his writings have a flowery, poetic air that's greater than that typical of someone schooled in the late 18th century. He wrote with humor and passion; more than once his passages evoked my tears. Furthermore, writers of polar history have almost entirely glossed over Ross's wonderful relationship with the Inuit, which to me is such a significant part of the story that it deserved fuller treatment.
RP Where and how did you set about researching your book? Was there anything you uncovered that particularly surprised you?
RE Researching Fury Beach was a joy. My book collection contains Ross's published journals and Barrow's historical chronicles on the Arctic so it was a simple matter to turn to the library shelf to check and recheck the facts. These books formed the core of my research. In fact, as I worked on the book, I discovered others that would be of interest and Fury Beach gave me a great excuse to increase my collection. Of course, books don't tell the complete story, so trips to peruse microfilms at libraries and requests for information from various institutions greatly augmented my work. I would have loved to have visited Fury Beach, but unfortunately, I was unable to arrange a trip. One of the most interesting facts to me, as a scientist, was how James Ross determined that he had reached the North Magnetic Pole. I also found it fascinating that the facts of where this pole was located and that it's constantly on the move were well known at the time. Even newspaper reporters knew the pole moved and laughed when William IV agreed to have its location named after him. I wonder how many persons today are aware of the pole's movement...or even that there is such a thing as a north magnetic pole that's distinct from the North Pole?
RP What is your overall assessment of James Clark Ross? You describe his harsh treatment of some of the Inuit who served him as guides, and later incidents which point to some mutual animosity; how do you account for his behavior?
RE There's no question that Ross's nephew, James Clark Ross, was a skilled explorer and brilliant scientist. Indeed, his presence on the voyage of the Victory was invaluable. I'm afraid that if he hadn't been along that the discovery of the North Magnetic Pole and the detailed mapping of the region would never have been accomplished. On the other hand, he did treat the Inuit harshly and considered them inferior. Yet his pompous attitude of superiority was a product of the times. Even John Ross considered the British superior, yet he tempered his attitude toward the Inuit with compassion, interest, and an open mind. The two Rosses certainly had a clash of the egos, didn't they? I think James considered himself vastly superior to his uncle and it rankled him to play the role of a subordinate.
RP Do you feel that the cultural contact between the crew of the Victory and the local Inuit was mostly mutually beneficial? Or, to ask it another way, do you feel that the exchanges between these two groups were fundamentally equal?
RE Obviously, both the Inuit and the crew of the Victory relished the other's company. But I think that Ross and his men benefited more from the Inuit than the Inuit from them. Indeed, it's likely that the men would not have survived their four winters without the hunting skills of the Inuit. They suffered severely after the Inuit had departed, especially during that fourth winter. For the Inuit's part, there's no doubt that they benefited from the trade with Victory's crew, but, really, the items of wood and metal, as valuable as they were, were items of luxury or convenience. I honestly think that if the British didn't have goods for trade, the Inuit still would have flocked to the ship simply for the entertainment and companionship.
RP Was there a larger lesson to be learned from the Rosses' expedition, and if so do you think that later explorers learned it?
RE If there were a lesson to be learned from Ross's adventure, it was that the way to survival in the Arctic was to either work closely with the natives or adapt to their ways. Did later explorers learn this lesson? Most did not, as witnessed by Franklin's tragedy and the difficulties experienced by those who searched for him. Then there was John Rae who had good success by paying attention to the natives, as well as the American explorer Charles Francis Hall.
RP A great deal has been made by some recent studies of the fact that private Arctic expeditions were generally more successful than government-sponsored ones -- obviously Ross's record is a large factor here. Do you think there's anything to this idea?
RE Well, I'm not sure how you measure success. If it's defined by the miles of delineated coastline, it's not obvious to me that privately sponsored Arctic expeditions have accomplished more. After all, even Ross's expedition mapped a relatively small region, maybe 200 miles as the crow flies. Compare this to the government-sponsored Parry who mapped 600 miles on his first. Elisha Kent Kane, perhaps America's most renowned 19th-century Arctic explorer, penetrated a mere 17 miles farther down Smith Sound at the cost of three men and loss of the brig on his essentially privately-sponsored expedition. The greatest disasters, of course, have been government sponsored: notably Franklin and Greely. I think that developing a theory, which would be greatly weighted by Franklin's tragedy, is risky. It's a mixed bag.
RP Given the undeniable truth of John Ross's statement that the Northwest Passage, if discovered, would be "utterly useless," why do you think the Admiralty under Barrow continued to pursue it? Was it just an idée fixée, or was there something more?
RE While it does seem that the Admiralty was obsessed with the Northwest Passage, I think the pursuit was really driven by the same human curiosity that drove us to land a man on the moon. The respected whaler William Scoresby, Jr. clearly stated in 1820 that the passage, if it existed, would have no practical value. Yet Barrow seems to have believed in its commercial viability and wrote, even at the age of 82, of a passage through which a "whole fleet" could sail. Nevertheless, when you consider that the Admiralty actually launched only two Northwest Passage searches (Back in 1836 and Franklin in 1845) after the voyage of the Victory, it doesn't sound much like an obsession.
RP If, as seems possible, the increasing winter ice meltoff were to render the Northwest Passage commercially viable, would that detract from the romance of the region, or alter our sense of Ross's accomplishment?
RE This is an interesting question. I'm afraid that for me, yes, a commercially viable Northwest Passage would detract from the romance of the region. Not too many years ago, I sailed through the Panama Canal. Before my cruise I read up on the building of the canal and the horrific problems, the wildness of the region, and so forth. You can imagine my disappointment when I finally made the passage and could easily have mistaken it for a cruise up the Hudson River. I expect that a tamed Northwest Passage would produce the same result. Already, GPS, snowmobiles, and the like have jaded us and, I think, make it difficult to appreciate Ross's accomplishment.
RP What's your next project?
RE My next project? Ah, well, I'm currently working on another non-fiction book with a strong Arctic theme. The story is about the American explorer Elisha Kent Kane who made two trips to the Arctic in the 1850s. Although a significant portion of the book will be about his Arctic adventures, Kane's romantic relationship with Margaret Fox, the co-founder of the Spiritualist movement, will command a major role.