ARCTIC OBSESSION (Chapter 1)Earliest Explorations
THE EARLIEST WRITTEN record of possible Arctic exploration is that of Pytheas, a fourth-century B.C. Greek astronomer and geographer from Massilia (Marseilles)--"one of the most intrepid explorers the world has seen." Without a doubt, this was a scientist of notable accomplishments, not the least of which, it is thought, was an estimation of Great Britain's circumference to a 2.5 percent accuracy of twentieth-century figures. Additionally, he calculated the distance from Marseilles to northernmost Britain as being 1,050 miles, a figure 6 percent off modern calculations. Among his earlier discoveries was a method for the determination of latitude, and many credit him for having been the first to define the relationship of tides to moon phases.
In his book e ?t ? a ' (On the Ocean), he recorded the events of a voyage undertaken by him to the far North around 325 B.C. Regrettably, the volume was lost in the seventh-century burning of the Library of Alexandria and all that has come down to us are garbled quotations and commentaries by Greek and Roman scholars. Pytheas's account has it that he sailed out of Massilia (Marseilles), bypassed the blockades set up by the Carthaginians of the Straits of Gibraltar, circumnavigated Great Britain, and reached a place called "Thule," or Ultima Thule, a six-day sail north of Britain. What the place actually was continues to baffle scholars, but a number of possibilities present themselves: the coast of Norway, the Shetlands, the Faroe Islands, or possibly Greenland. The most probable guess is that Pytheas reached Iceland, and if he did not actually penetrate the Arctic, he certainly attained a high latitude. His descriptions of the midnight sun and the "congealed sea" indicate that he might well have gotten to, or closely reached, the Arctic Circle.
What are we to make of Pytheas's journey, particularly as scholars and commentators of the ancient world seem divided on the veracity of his account? The Greek geographer Strabo, for example, made no secret of his contempt for his countryman and he poured derisive scorn on the claimed voyage--jealousy, perhaps? In his seventeen-volume Geographica, penned some three centuries after the voyage, he writes, "Pytheas, by whom many have been misled...asserts that he explored in person the whole northern regions of Europe as far as the end of the world--an assertion which no man would believe, not even if Hermes made it." As for Thule, he went on to comment:
[O]f all the countries that are named, [it] is set farthest north. But that the things Pytheas has told about Thule, as well as the other places in that part of the world, have indeed been fabricated by him...any man who has told such great falsehoods about known regions would hardly, I imagine, be able to tell the truth about places that are not known to anybody.1
Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist and encyclopedist, on the other hand, endorsed Pytheas positively and he wrote of him as an authoritative figure. The commentary in Historia Naturalis is illuminating:
The most remote [point] of all is Thule, in which as we have pointed out there are no nights at midsummer when the sun is passing through the sign of the Crab, and on the other hand no days in midwinter. Indeed some writers think this is the case for periods of six months at a time without a break...Pytheas of Marsailles writes that this occurs in the island of Thule, six days voyage north of Britain...One day's sail from Thule is the frozen ocean called by some the Cronian Sea...2
That Pytheas appears to have experienced the midnight sun is one thing--the phenomena is universal of Arctic regions and affects all of Thule's nominated locations. Of the place he writes that there is "neither sea nor air but a mixture like sea-lung...binds everything together," a reference perhaps to the ice packs or possibly to dense sea fog. All told, it is likely that the explorer had come in contact with drift ice, if not icebergs, and this gives Iceland greater credibility in the search for the real Thule. It cannot be discounted, furthermore, that Pytheas sailed the ice-strewn waters of Greenland's east coast. An impressive journey it was, made all the more so by the primitiveness of the vessels at the time. The explorer's broad-beamed, wooden boat of two, possibly three, masts could not have been more than 150 tons. Whether he had came to Iceland or not, the point is that the first Europeans apparently reached, or nearly reached, the Arctic Circle as early as about 325 B.C.
It may be supposed that Pytheas's book and the commentaries on him were sufficiently controversial to discourage further interest in Arctic exploration for quite some time. Subsequent texts by Roman and early medieval scholars for the most part speak of the Arctic in speculative or fanciful terms. A widespread ocean surrounded the habitable world--beyond that, nothing. The polar region was the kingdom of the dead. It was a bottomless pit where perpetual darkness reigned. It was the dwelling place of the Cyclops. The pole was a gigantic magnetic rock rising out of the ocean. It "is a place of chaos, the abysmal chasm." A place inhabited by people with swine heads, dog's legs, and wolf teeth. And so on.
One tradition has it that the first of the medievals to venture into the far northern waters were Irish monks and it is they who discovered Iceland--or, if you want, rediscovered it. One such monk, Dicuil by name, in his book De mensure orbis terrae (Concerning the Measurement of the Globe), written in 825 A.D., tells of meeting up with fellow monks who claimed at one time to have lived in that same unidentified spot called Thule. Their descriptions of the place are vivid, for example: darkness reigning throughout the winter day, and summer nights being bright enough "to pick fleas from my shirt." While the veracity of Dicuil's report is open to question, it is more than probable that the monks of Ireland and Britain did know of some large land mass far to the north. After all, the Faroe Islands, which they had visited in the sixth century and were settled by the Norse a hundred years later, are a mere 280 miles from Iceland--a relatively short sail even for early medieval mariners. Whichever way one looks at it, the possibility is real that these intrepid monks may have set foot on Iceland before any Norseman.
A fanciful 1606 map of the greater Arctic region produced by the Flemish cartographer, Gerhard Mercator. The North Pole is shown as a vast rock surrounded by open seas, while the magnetic pole is pictured as a mountain protruding through the waters separating Asia and America. The Northwest and Northeast Passages are clearly visible.
The Norsemen, or Vikings, stemmed from the Teutons, whose ancestors migrated north through Denmark into Norway and Sweden, a part of the world until then outside European history. The new arrivals took up settlements along the viks, or bays of the rugged coastlines and their populations swelled. These were pagans whose ideas of conscience and sin were in direct variance to Christianity. Drink, women, and song were embraced with the same fervor as war, pillage, and slaughter. Such was the disposition of the "Northmen," but additionally, these people were creative craftsmen and hard workers. Their structured society was based on a divinely ordained class system, within which prevailed a curious blend of monarchy and democracy. Kings were selected from royal blood; landowners acted as legislators and judges. The laws were strict and harsh punishments helped to keep law and order--a parricide, for example, would be suspended by the heels side by side with a starved wolf similarly hung. Literacy was not universal, but it was highly respected and a rich literature came to be written. A vast collection of sagas has been bequeathed us--narratives written on sheepskin that detail heroic episodes of Norwegian and Icelandic history, accounts considered among the finest of medieval literary achievements.
Vikings were polygamous, which only exacerbated the high birth rate. With the rapid growth of settlements, the limited agricultural possibilities of the coastlines were insufficient fully to meet community needs. Hunger eventually became a fact of life in many parts of the regions--or as one historian put it, "the fertility of women...outran the fertility of the soil." The Vikings were master woodworkers whose talents were brilliantly reflected in the construction of sturdy sea-going vessels. Shipbuilding and accomplished seamanship were essential for the maintenance of intercommunity contact along the vast coastlines, made difficult otherwise by generally high mountains. Those who now found themselves in want, or simply the young and restless, took to their boats to forage for sources of food farther afield.
The hunt for food, coupled with the seemingly insatiable thirst for plunder expanded into a pursuit of slaves, women, and gold. Accounts of Viking invasions of the nearby British Isles and of continental coastal towns are legion, and within a century the scourge of the Norsemen was strongly felt in most coastal parts of northern Europe. The rich monasteries of nearby Britain and Ireland, with their gold chalices and silver plate, offered especially attractive targets for plunder; the depredations wrought by the Viking invaders were horrific.
The art of Viking shipbuilding produced the finest vessels ever to that time. Their slender and flexible boats were capable of withstanding the roughest North Atlantic seas, and at the same time of navigating rivers and shoals. The drawings are of two freight ships, one fifty-three feet in length and the other forty-five feet.
Around 890 A.D. one Viking expedition sailed to the northernmost reaches of Scandinavia, and rounding Lapland it passed the North Cape at 71°N, the Kola Peninsula, and penetrated the White Sea. One of its stated objectives was "desirous to try how far that country extended north," while another was to hunt for walrus whose ivory tusks were greatly valued throughout Europe. Heading the expedition was a Norwegian nobleman called Othere and since the North Cape and most of the Kola Peninsula are well above Arctic Circle, to him falls credit for being the first European to explore the Arctic in that part of the globe. Othere found himself not only at the backyard of the Slavs--soon to be overcome by his kin--but at the mouth of what was to become known as the Northeast Passage, or the Northern Sea Route.
Fatalism was as much a part of the Norse character as tenaciousness and daring. Their gods would attend them one way or another, for they were allies and companions in adventure and battle, not paternal guides to behaviour and right conduct. It is unsurprising, therefore, that in the quest for food and plunder these fearless seamen eventually braved the open waters of the Atlantic, westward and to the north, into the unexplored where others had feared to sail--into the "bottomless pit where perpetual darkness reigns."
Credit for the penetration of the Atlantic's Arctic regions and for the discovery of the "New World" is popularly given to the Viking chieftain, Erik the Red, of whom much is written. Erik did indeed uncover the New World, but his springboard was the already discovered and populated Iceland, lying in mid-Atlantic at the Arctic Circle. If claims to earlier discovery of Iceland by Irish monks are discounted, the credit undoubtedly falls to the Vikings, and in particular to a certain Floki "of the Ravens." It is this bold seaman who first ventured into the far reaches of northwest Atlantic and who in 870 made landfall in Iceland two centuries before Erik's arrival. Floki was pleased to find that sections of the land's coastline were cultivatable and suitable for cattle grazing, and he also judged the climate hospitable. (Climatic conditions were at the time more clement than they are at present.)
Within a few short years of Floki's landing, Viking settlers arrived in numbers and successfully established themselves at Reykjavik and along the island's western and northwestern coasts. These were not the hungry nor the restless; these were political refugees who quit their Scandinavian homes to escape the tyrannical hand of King Harold, "The Fairhair." Harold, having "murdered, burnt and otherwise exterminated all his brother kings who at that time grew as thick as blackberries in Norway," went on to abrogate the udal rights of landholders and to impose every sort of restriction on the population. The landowners were men "with possessions to be taxed, and a spirit too haughty to endure taxation"--individuals who cherished liberty and for whom freedom of possession and of movement was a sacred birthright. Lord Duffern describes an aspect of these astonishing early settlers:
They were the first of any European nation to create for themselves a native literature...almost all the ancient Scandinavian manuscripts are in Icelandic. Negotiations between the Courts of the North were conducted by Icelandic diplomats. The earliest topographical survey with which we are acquainted was Icelandic...The first historical composition ever written by any European in the vernacular was the product of Icelandic genius.3
And what was this land that beckoned to the Norwegian emigrants? Iceland continues today as a country of startling contrasts--a geologist's paradise. The irregularly shaped island is home to rugged mountains, roaring rivers and waterfalls, subterranean thermal springs, geysers, and sparkling glaciers. With the exception of a small island off the north coast, the entire country lies just below the Arctic Circle, but in structure, relief, and climate, the land is definitely sub-Arctic. The settlements then and now are found along the island's periphery where conditions are quasi-maritime and where farming is possible with careful cultivation. Iceland is one of the few Arctic territories in which no indigenous population existed at the time of European discovery.
Within seventy years of Floki's arrival, the population of Iceland had blossomed from naught to forty thousand, and the figure doubled in the century that followed. In that lawless society the need for some form of political organization became apparent, and in order to attain this, the resourceful citizens established the Althingi, the world's first parliament. The "Thing" lasted for over three centuries until 1262 when the island's unique status as an independent republic was lost by a Norwegian takeover. It remained under the colonial rule of Norway until 1944 when it regained its independence, at which time the Althingi was re-established. (As an aside: if the British Parliament founded in 1295 is regarded as the "Mother of Parliaments," surely Iceland's Althingi may legitimately lay claim to being its godmother.).
The thirteenth-century Saga of Erik the Red tells us that Erik's family had been forced to flee Norway on account of "some killings," and that they fled to Iceland where the boy was raised. In 980, Erik became involved in a heated dispute with a neighbour--over a shovel, of all things. One confrontation led to another and the short of it is that Erik killed his antagonist just as he had earlier murdered a second neighbour in another dispute over slaves. Convicted of the killings, he was declared an outlaw and sentenced to banishment for a three-year period. But where to go? A return to Norway was not possible, so the only alternative was to move farther west where, he was certain, other lands would offer refuge. (It might be noted that on exceptionally clear days, Greenland is visible from the mountaintops of western Iceland, a distance of 175 miles.) Thus it was that around the year 982 that the hot-blooded exile sailed off on what must be regarded as one of the most notable voyages in the Arctic's biography. A thirty-three year-old, accompanied by his young family and some retainers, set sail in an open boat with no compass and scant provisions into unknown Arctic waters--quite literally "into the setting sun"--propelled only by courage, determination, and a promising wind.
His vessel eventually reached Greenland, the landfall being made near Julianehaab on the southwest coast. The bay and the surrounding coastline were ice-free, groves of stunted birch dotted the area, and the summer vegetation seemed plentiful. Since topographic and climatic conditions appeared promising and closely resembled those of Iceland, Erik determined to establish his party at that spot.
Barns were erected, hay was made, and the group took to their new surroundings. Three years passed and with his sentence of banishment completed, Erik returned to Iceland to gather more settlers for the land he had uncovered. Erik was a sharp salesman, for in his call for colonists he cunningly named the place Green Land, thus colouring it in significantly more alluring tones than Ice Land. Twenty-five shiploads of emigrants signed on to sail west--men, women, and children, who for the most part had been living on the poorer tracts of the Icelandic coast. Horses, sheep, cattle, serfs, and every sort of household goods and building material were loaded onto the ships before heading out to sea. And then disaster hit. A vicious storm arose and the small flotilla was walloped by three gigantic waves--"taller than mountains and they are like lofty pinnacles"--that slammed the heavily laden ships with particular force. Nine of the vessels foundered or returned to Iceland, but fourteen succeeded in making it to shore and discharged 350 colonists.
"Green Land" proved to be something of a misnomer; life was seriously more difficult than anticipated. Sufficient tracts of arable land were few and far between, the soil was generally inferior to that of Iceland, and wood was hard to come by. Of necessity they resorted to fish which were abundant in the local waters. In summer months the colonists regularly travelled 625 miles north along the coastline as far as Disko Bay at latitude 70°, well above the Arctic Circle. Here they hunted for walrus and seal, not only for the blubber content, but for ivory and sealskin, which they used to fashion rope. A saga written in 986 relates that "they found many settlements, toward the east and west, and remains of skin boats and stone implements, which shows that to that place journeyed the kind of people...whom the [Norse] called Skrælings [Inuit]."4 It was not long thereafter that the colonists came face to face with the indigenous people, who, much to their surprise, proved welcoming and hospitable. Initial relations between the two peoples were warm, but friction was not long in coming and lamentably the relationship soon deteriorated, eventually growing so antagonistic that bloody encounters became common.
A rendering of the ninth-century Viking village at Hedeby at the southern reaches of the Jutland Peninsula. By the eleventh century, the settlement had developed into Denmark's largest at the time.
Despite the challenges of the harsh life, Greenland's Norse population continued to swell, and by the thirteenth century it numbered 3,500 inhabitants. Christianity came to the land at the time that the Norwegians converted, and by 1125 a bishopric had been established, having within it sixteen separate churches, a monastery, and a nunnery, all of which, incidentally, contributed--rather, were levied--funds for the Crusades. Following Icelandic and Greenlandic acceptance of Norwegian rule in 1262, the king granted a trade monopoly to a coterie of Bergen merchants, who in quick time demonstrated indifference to the far-off island by imposing such extortionate terms upon the Greenlanders that commercial relations withered and all but died. Records indicate, for example, that at one time seven or more trading vessels arrived from Norway each year. In the six-year period following the takeover by the Norwegian merchants, only one ship entered Greenland waters. As the island's traders suffered, so did the farmers. For centuries, these stalwart tillers of the soil had worked the coastal lands, but then a severe worsening of climate set in, bringing exceptional cold--the "New Ice Age." For the people, the entire way of life had become altered.
The short of it is that by the early 1500s, settlements on eastern and western Greenland ceased to exist. The people had quite simply vanished, and what it was specifically that befell them remains a mystery. Quite possibly it was the worsening of climate that caused a disruption in the food supply and brought famine to many parts. Perhaps the tyranny of the Bergen merchants impacted the Greenlanders more severely than acknowledged--their denial to the island of an adequate supply of essential goods. Disease in one form or another was unquestionably a factor in the population's decimation, with one hypothesis stating that the Black Plague that so devastated Europe at the time eventually hit Greenland. And undoubtedly, the deterioration of relations with the Inuit had become so severe that many European settlements were simply exterminated by them. A saga written in 1379, for example, mentions an incident when "Skrælings assaulted the Greenlanders, killed eighteen men and captured two swains and one bondswoman."5 But most probably the disappearance of the early Greenlanders was a result of all these factors.
For over two hundred years Greenland lay barely inhabited. The Europeans were gone, and for whatever reason the Inuit who at one time had been scattered along the central and southern coastlines, migrated to the far north, with a goodly number crossing the sixteen-mile trait to Ellesmere Island in Canada.
The country to which Erik enticed settlers and called home is a unique corner of the globe. Greenland is the world's largest island with a coastline of some twenty-five thousand miles--nearly the same length as the equator--and in area it is approximately the same size as Mexico or Saudi Arabia. Its northernmost point is less than five hundred miles from the North Pole, and the southernmost is on the same latitude as St. Petersburg, Oslo, and Churchill, Manitoba. North-south it stretches 1,700 miles or a distance equal to that of New York to Miami. As part of the Laurentian Shield, the island structurally is part of the North American continent, but historically and politically, it is European, while geophysically and in ethnicity it is undeniably Arctic--virtually all of it lies above the Arctic Circle.
For the most part, the island is bordered by mountains and fjords, although in some places the coast rises straight up to considerable heights; the highest elevation is 12,200 feet. A vast, asymmetrical, dome-shaped glacier covers 80 percent of the surface, extending over seven hundred thousand square miles, in some places reaching depths of ten thousand feet. It is of such massive weight that a depression has been created in the central part of the island, forming a basin one thousand feet below sea level. Little wonder that the sixteenth-century explorer, John Davis, called the place "the land of desolation."
The first Vikings reaching Greenland had travelled west from Iceland; the first reaching Iceland had travelled west from Norway. For the Norse, the lure of the west seems to have been no less strong than for many restless Americans of the nineteenth century--"Go west, young man, go west!"--some irresistible force tugging. The first Greenlander heeding the call was the eldest of Erik the Red's four children, Leif Eriksson. His boyhood friend, Bjarni Herjolfsson, had once been severely driven off course while sailing from Iceland to Greenland, and in the process he spotted in the far distance an unfamiliar mountainous land, one that was forested and ice-bound. It was an intriguing report, and word of trees was particularly tantalizing as Icelanders were wood-starved. Curiosity got the better of Leif and about the year 1000 he persuaded his elderly father to lead an expedition in search of the mysterious place. Erik agreed with some reluctance, but as preparations for the journey got under way, he tumbled from his horse and sprained an ankle. Deeming this to be an ill omen he begged off the voyage, leaving Leif on his own. Thus it was that the restless young man, accompanied by thirty-five others, sailed from home to explore the prospects of the viewed, but untouched land. The congenital need of Vikings for fame and posthumous reputation was unquestionably as much a motivation for the quest as any.
Steering by the sun and stars, Leif headed in the direction indicated by his friend and in time a barren country came into view, largely covered by glaciers, "but from the sea to the glaciers was, as it were, a single slab of rock." The ice-bound land bore little resemblance to Bjarni's description, for it was neither mountainous nor forested. This disappointing place Leif called Helluland, or "the Land of Flat Rocks," reckoned to be the southern reaches of Baffin Island. Three more days of sailing brought him to a place that "was flat and covered with forest, with extensive white sands wherever they went and shelving gently to the sea," and this he named Markland, thought to be southern Labrador.
Continuing south along the coastline, Leif finally came to a point of land with rolling grassland, spruce forests, and a stream "that glistened with salmon." So pleasing was this discovery that he determined to winter at the spot, and with no small delight the party set about constructing houses and barns. As they were settling down, one of the crewmembers, thought to be a Hungarian or a German, came upon "wine berries" growing freely. It's popularly believed that these were grapes, but caution must be exercised here for the Norse called most berries vinbery. Most likely the discovered were cranberries, but be that as it may, Leif called the place "Vinland." And here the first European settlement in the New World came to be established, nearly four centuries before Columbus "sailed the ocean blue" to America. The life of Leif's settlement was short-lived, for within two years the would-be colonists forsook the place and returned to Greenland. A further attempt was made by the Vikings to establish in the New World, but here again it was met by failure. The sagas tell us that in both cases fighting broke out with the hostile "Skærlings," which simply proved too much for the Norse. Today the remains of Leif's site have been preserved by the Canadian government at L'Anse aux Meadows, at the northernmost point of Newfoundland nearly across from Labrador.
At about the time that Erik and Leif were planting footprints in the Arctic regions of the New World, other Norsemen were pressing east and infiltrating the territory soon to become known as Russia. Othere's penetration of the White Sea had been made nearly a century-and-a-half earlier. In the decades that followed, his countrymen arrived in numbers not only into Arctic regions, but into more southern areas below Kola and the White Sea. This was the land of the Slavs, a semi-Asiatic people scattered about in small settlements within an unframed world of endlessly stretching spaces, a harsh land of empty plains, miasmic marshes, forbidding forests, parching summers, and arctic snows. So focused were these people on coping with hostile nature that little energy remained for more refined activity or for the development of social organization. While the Latin and Teutonic peoples were developing dynamically in the west, the Slavs, as one historian put it, "slumbered in oriental seclusion...and pursued their way without Latin or scholasticism, without parliament or university, without literature or political debate, or a sustained challenge to religious belief."6 The Slavs were in Europe without being European.
It was in this land, where abundant river systems offered ideal avenues for trade, that the Norse merchant-warriors focused their energies. Trading posts were established, the natives engaged, and with the passing of time a burgeoning commerce developed with Novgorod serving as the pivotal point. This city is one of Russia's oldest and at its height, along with Kiev in the south, it was the richest. From this eastern-most outpost of north Europe's Hanseatic League, goods were shipped to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean along the connecting river system, to places as far away as Sicily. Furs, amber, wax, honey, and slaves streamed south in return for spices, wines, silk, and gems, which were then forwarded on to northern European markets.
Novgorod expanded rapidly from a prosperous commercial hub into a flourishing independent city-state that reached far out into neighbouring territories. By the thirteenth century, its expansionist-minded merchants found themselves hemmed in. To the west the threatening Swedes and the Teutonic knights were well entrenched. To the south and east, the fierce Mongols had established themselves--Genghis Khan's "Golden Horde" in the world's largest empire ever. The only direction remaining for Novgorodians to expand was north into the Arctic.
Thus it was that a migration of sorts got under way with merchants, peasants, and churchmen leaving the city to plant themselves on the shores of the White Sea or along the banks of the numerous rivers flowing into it. For the most part these pioneers were experienced rivermen and now they adeptly navigated the waterways pushing ever north and creating settlements. By late fourteenth century, most of the Arctic regions west of the Urals had come under Novgorod's control--a continuation of Russian expansion.
Of Arctic coastal nations today, Russian territory extends along the longest global spread of any--nearly half the world, across ten time zones from the Norwegian border to the Bering Sea. Twenty percent of that immense country is situated in the Arctic with over 10 million Russians calling it home. It has always been the most populated of Arctic lands, not only with indigenous peoples, but with Europeans. The city of greater Murmansk at 68°30' N boasts a population of 850,000.
The medieval pioneers arriving in those parts were inexperienced in the ways of the Arctic, but they managed masterfully, enduring all the adverse conditions the pitiless Arctic threw at them. Winter temperatures steadily reading -40°F were one thing, but psychologically, imagine the isolation: "As far as the eye could see in the gathering gloom, in every direction lay the barren steppe. There was not a tree nor a bush...only silence and desolation. The country seemed abandoned by God and man to the Arctic Spirit..." It was the early hunters and trappers who penetrated that "gathering gloom," paving the way for others, and it was they who most forcefully coped with the early challenges of daily life--shelter, food, clothing, firewood, and transport. Lessons were learned through trial and error and one might well wonder why it took these hardies decades to adapt to the ways of the indigenous peoples, the Nanets, who for millennia had been surviving brilliantly in the same demanding conditions. All the while that the trappers and hunters suffered at their tasks, Novgorod merchants, comfortably ensconced in the warmth of their homes, toyed with bottom-lines and hatched fresh schemes for further development and deeper thrusts into the Arctic.
The Arctic, however, did smile upon these arrivals, and she showered them with rich rewards of luxuriant furs. The exceptional cold of the place is such that fur-bearing animals like ermine, marten, fox, and hare develop thicker coats than those of their southern cousins, therefore making them more desirable and valuable. In addition to furs, walrus tusks were harvested, as well as polar bear skins and the occasional nugget of some esoteric mineral, all in high demand in the parlours of Novgorod, Moscow, and throughout Europe.
With the impetus of Columbus's discovery in 1492, the "Age of Exploration" quickly got under way. No seafaring nation of importance failed to dispatch one explorer or another to seek out fresh channels to fabled Cathay (China) or Cipango (Japan), or to claim new lands. Relying mostly on the talents of Genoese navigators, Spain and Portugal grabbed the early initiative and before long the two countries had claimed vast areas of South America and Africa. And it was upon these two countries that Pope Alexander VI lavished his munificence in 1494. With a stroke of a pen on a primitive map, he divided the world into two parts, allocating the western hemisphere to Spain and the eastern hemisphere to Portugal--the Line of Demarcation. To these kingdoms now fell the onus of bringing Christianity to the indigenous of lands discovered and uncovered, but in return the two countries were accorded exclusive rights to trade and commercial development in their respective parts. With their advanced fleets and determination of purpose, the Spanish rapidly established supremacy over South America and the Portuguese over Africa--as the navies of the two patrolled the coasts guarding Vatican-granted monopolies.
Aspiring maritime nations of Northern Europe--England, France, Holland, and Denmark--found themselves locked out from trade as well as exploration in southern regions. If a trade route to the east was to be had, it could only be via a northern passage. The sixteenth-century historian Richard Hakluyt declared, "Beside the portion of land pertaining to the Spaniards...there yet remaineth another portion of that main land reaching toward the northeast, thought to be as large as the other, and not yet known...neither inhabited by any Christian man..."
Thus a fresh chapter in the biography of the Arctic came to be written as a series of explorations got under way with the English, French, and Danes knocking at the gate of the Northwest Passage, and the Dutch (and later, the Russians) pressing the portals of the Northern Sea Route.
ARCTIC OBSESSION Copyright © Alexis S. Troubetzkoy, 2011