Initial Perceptions

  1. Moxon, Joseph. A Brief Discourse of a Passage by the North-Pole to Japan, China, &tc. London: Printed by J. Moxon, 1697. (title page) [Stefansson G640 .M69 1697]

This pamphlet was produced and sold in Joseph Moxon’s shop in 1697 for the benefit and education of the public. The theories outlined in the pamphlet are based on the results of three fishing expeditions: one from Amsterdam headed north to the pole, one from Japan towards the North Pole, and one sailing north from Russia. The theories are that the 24 hours of sun at the poles make it constantly warm and that Greenland and Russia are only cold because of the wind over land (whereas the air above the ocean would remain warm). Essentially, Moxon overheard the details of the three voyages by word of mouth in an Amsterdam pub, which speaks to how much he (and all of England) was willing to believe anything that they heard from anyone. Even in 1697, the search for the Northwest Passage was a matter of national fascination and pride.

  1. The Great probability of a north west passage. London : Printed for Thomas Jefferys, at Charing Cross, M DCCLXVIII. [1768] (map) [Stefansson G650 1640 .G7]

Published in 1768, The Great Probability of a Northwest Passage both discusses and illustrates the search for a Northwest Passage. Included in this work is a map with different Northwest Passage routes attempted by various explorers including Spanish admiral Bartholomew de Fonte. The Great Probability of a Northwest Passage references many different aspects about the search, starting with the observations from de Fonte’s voyage. Jefferys and Drage work serves as an argument for the feasibility of the Northwest Passage, refuting critics of past observations. The Great Probability of a Northwest Passage does this while incorporating important context about this particular time, including Spain’s inability to enforce their claim to Northern territory due to war with France. The Great Probability of a Northwest Passage is both informative and interesting, providing a solid introduction into the search for the Northwest Passage.

  1. Scrutator. The Impracticability of a North-West Passage for Ships, Impartially Considered. London: Printed by A. J. Valpy, 1824. (pg. 10) [Stefansson G640 .S43]

This source questions the commentary surrounding the Northwest Passage in the early 19th century. Scrutator’s incisive analysis uses logic and scientific reasoning to probe both at the reality and practicality of any such waterway; even if the Northwest Passage was real, Scrutator hypothesized it would not be thawed for enough of the year to fully traverse it. This piece references dozens of writings that influenced the public perception of the North by posing the likelihood of the passage’s existence. Men like Franklin, Ross, and Parry all committed their lives to exploring the North because of their belief in the existence of the Northwest Passage, and Scrutator offers a necessary dissenting opinion against the dominant narrative of the time. Especially given the spike of interest in polar regions after Franklin’s demise, this book is crucial in understanding there were strong skeptics amidst polar mania.

  1. Theory of the North-west passage to India. Paisley, Scotland: Printed by J. Neilson, 1827. (pg. 16) [Stefansson G640 .T4]

This text was written by an author with a pseudonym, “The Last Trump.” The book was published in 1827 and discusses the possible existence of the Northwest Passage. The author draws upon observations from early explorers and navigators, including Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, Captain Cook, and Captain Lyon, as well as observations from natives from the Americas, Siberia, and Japan. The author ultimately concludes that while there is a possibility that the Northwest Passage exists, the passage will not be navigable and “of no real benefit to mankind” (16). In addition to discussing the motivations and justifications behind the search for the Northwest Passage, this source adds complexity by ultimately advising against further attempts to discover the Northwest Passage.

  1. Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. New York: the Limited Editions Club, 1934. [Rauner Presses W165sh]

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein presents the general perception of the Arctic during the early 1800s. Shelley’s novel emphasizes the isolation and mystery of the Arctic by having Frankenstein associate the cold region as separate from mankind. This emphasis is especially interesting because years later explorers like John Franklin find the Arctic’s mystery and isolation intriguing and a reason for exploration. The contrast between the general perception of the Arctic and the explorers’ reactions to it creates an interesting dynamic and room for discussion on exploring the unknown.