Today I will talk about a fantastic exhibition I saw in British Library, called ‘Seeking the Northwest Passage’. It presented the history of the Arctic exploration from the Western perspective.
The Europeans started looking for the fabled Northwest Passage after they became aware of the existence of America (I really don’t like the idea of ‘discovering’ America – it was there and it had thriving civilizations way before we put our hands on it). They suspected there was a connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific and so the expeditions to the North begun.
Obviously, I won’t summarize 500 years of Arctic exploration here – if you’re interested, the Internet is full of information and you can read about the exhibition here. But I’d like to share with you the main three points I took away with me from the day in British Library:
- When you’re venturing into the unknown, the lack of correct visualization of the world is a big problem. All maps before mid-18th century were based on the assumption that sea can’t freeze. With this in mind, imagine the explorers’ surprise when they reached great masses of ice where they were expecting water. The realization that the scientists and geographers of the time didn’t get their facts quite right cost many, many lives (plus, plenty of time and money).
- The change in the attitude towards the native people of the Arctic, the Inuit, was striking. For a long time the explorers went North to kind of ‘conquer the savages’. It took decades of unsuccessful endeavours to stop and think: “Wait a minute, if they live here it surely means they know how to be successful in the Arctic conditions – maybe we could learn from them?” Unfortunately, Europeans (in particular the Imperial British) those days were anything but humble. I really want to believe that now, in 21st century, the understanding of the Inuit culture and global effects of the actions we take (or not) in Europe is much better. However, while the Arctic has unceasingly been a subject of world’s politics – many countries tried to claim it, from the UK to the Soviet Union to Canada – the Inuit are still largely ignored.
- The main motivation for finding the Northwest passage in 16th century was the idea of a quicker and presumably easier trading route to the Orient. Nowadays, in the age of climate change, the interest is still the same – people already calculated how much time, fuel and money melting Arctic would save the trade. One would have thought that as humanity we are advancing, but on the other hand – some things will never change.
The story of the Arctic exploration left we with many questions. Is the legacy of Europe’s colonial/imperial past bigger than we thought? How did ‘the conquering’ of unknown lands and depriving them of their wealth shape the world as we see it today? If the Northwest Passage is completely ice-free due to climate change, what will be more important to the global community – trade or the native people? How much has change in the past centuries, and how much has remained the same?