But there has always been a sense that, particularly from the view of the people who were already living in places that European explorers sought to penetrate, that some of these men were less than heroic, or that -- even if their intentions were benign and scientific -- that they brought with them presuppositions about the inferiority of the peoples and cultures they encountered. And then, of course, there were those who came after: the whalers, loggers, and (before too long) missionaries, seeking to impose their religion. Their self-presumed superiority often led to misunderstandings, mistrust, and abuse, all of which tended to increase as the cultural balance shifted and more and more strangers arrived.
John Franklin's second Arctic expedition -- his first made mainly by land -- was in some ways a paradigm for all these problems. He had been charged by the Royal Navy with locating and mapping the shores of the "Polar Sea," a presumed body of water which, as of that time, very little was known. He was accompanied by only four naval personnel: Dr. John Richardson, who was to be the expedition's surgeon-naturalist; George Back, a junior officer known for his endurance and resourcefulness, Robert Hood, a midshipman (a sort of cadet in the Royal Navy system), and John Hepburn, the sole ordinary sailor of an officer-rich party. To actually transport them and their supplies, a group of hired voyageurs -- French-speaking trappers who knew their way around a canoe -- were employed, but were regarded as no better than servants. It was, even before the expedition
|Charlie eats his boot (The Gold Rush, 1925)|
Wiebe recounts the story via multiple narrators, each with his or her own distinct voice and presence. A student of indigenous history, he fictively re-creates the native perspective on the arrival of these demanding strangers, but he also gives the explorers -- prejudices and all -- license to tell their tales as they see fit. Even hapless Hepburn, who emerges as a man of strong personal character despite his humble upbringing and the low expectations of some around him, gets to add his testimony. The result is a multi-faceted narrative -- shifting, recounting, re-telling -- that resists being boiled down to a single story. At the same time, though, it leaves little doubt that the hubris and sense of cultural superiority of the English were, deep down, the main cause of the catastrophe.