The spectral Arctic

Dr Shane McCorristine

Posted: 15 June, 2017

Image of Arctic?

To continue our theme for the month of June, ‘Uncharted Territories’, we welcome guest blogger Dr Shane McCorristine, an independent scholar and former Irish Research Council CARA Postdoctoral Fellow.

My postdoctoral research, funded by an Irish Research Council CARA award from 2010-13, focused on the relationship between Arctic exploration and supernatural experience. I was concerned that common knowledge about Arctic exploration — all manliness, mapping, and heroism — was just the tip of the iceberg. From expedition journals and diaries, to novels and dream visions, audiences in Europe and North America consistently imagined the far North as a strange and ghostly realm: the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen described the Arctic as a “dreamland”, while Arthur Conan Doyle mentioned the “peculiar other-world feeling of the Arctic regions — a feeling so singular, that if you have once been there the thought of it haunts you all your life”. This idea of an Arctic otherworld became increasingly powerful in nineteenth-century Britain, circulating among explorers, authors, artists, and especially women — traditionally denied access to this region.

My research on the “spectral Arctic” centred on the disappearance of the expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin in 1845. Franklin led 128 officers and crew onboard HMS Erebus and Terror in search of a Northwest Passage to Asia. In their second winter, the ships became locked in the ice near King William Island and in 1848 the survivors abandoned the ships and launched the first of several doomed attempts to reach the Canadian mainland.

The disappearance of the expedition, a loss perhaps comparable to the recent MH370 plane disaster, sent shockwaves through Victorian Britain, inspiring an outpouring of gothic speculations on the mystery and causing the Admiralty to downsize its subsequent polar expeditions. Revelations about cannibalism among the survivors led to further dark imaginings. The Frozen Deep, an 1854 play written by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, emerged from this confluence of Arctic exploration and supernatural experience.

In my research I was interested in how individuals and societies dealt with the disappearance of explorers. Through what techniques or experiences did people manage to draw lost Arctic explorers closer to them? The archival sources at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, indicated that many turned to dreams and the supernatural for answers to the mystery. When the Admiralty search and rescue missions proved unsuccessful, in the 1850s members of the Royal Geographical Society, as well as Franklin’s wife Jane Franklin, consulted crystal-gazers and clairvoyantes. These young women were placed into trances by male mesmerists and “sent” to the Arctic to report on the condition of the explorers and the location of the ships. Others reported strange dreams and omens. These visionary journeys were widely discussed in the press and were seen by Lady Franklin and several naval experts as complementing, rather than undermining, official naval and land journeys in search of Franklin.

In bringing these histories to the surface I argued that ideas about supernatural or intangible forces have social power. In the context of Arctic exploration they inspired people to action, creativity, and reflection. To me, they played central role in the complex history of Western engagement with the far North.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.