- The Arctic Fox: Francis Leopold McClintock
David Murphy's book is a biography of Leopold McClintock, the man often credited with determining the fate of John Franklin and the missing crews of Erebus and Terror. McClintock enjoyed a lengthy career in the Royal Navy, although when he commanded the Fox to search for Franklin survivors, he did so aboard a vessel sponsored by Franklin's widow, Lady Jane Franklin. The Fox expedition led to the discovery of the most crucial document to have survived Franklin's ships, a tersely worded message scrawled in the margins of a standard printed form supplied to discovery ships in the nineteenth century. It revealed that, after two winters of being frozen in the icepack off King William Island, the ships had been abandoned and the surviving crew had walked south towards the Great Fish (now Back) River in hope of finding sustenance. The message itself was found by Lieutenant William Hobson, under McClintock's command, but McClintock himself located concrete evidence of that pitiful landward struggle - skeletons, an abandoned boat, discarded books, clothing, and silverware belonging to Franklin's officers. With the Fox's return to Portsmouth in 1859 came some closure to the mystery that had haunted [End Page 302] Victorian Britain for nearly a decade and a half, although even today, investigations are still underway to learn more about the expedition's demise.
Previous to commanding the Fox, McClintock had been on three prior Franklin search expeditions under the aegis of the Royal Navy. During those expeditions, he evolved a method of travel that proved a useful innovation to British notions of Arctic exploration - the man-hauled sledge (or sled). Murphy outlines much of this evolution, celebrating McClintock's keen attentiveness to Inuit techniques of travel, his experiments with sled dogs, and his practice of establishing supply depots that enabled sled parties to travel hundreds of miles from ships that were frozen in for the winter. Indeed, the relics of Franklin's party were discovered using McClintock's methods, and McClintock was unquestionably Britain's leading proponent of the man-hauled sledge.
Murphy, however, never interrogates this brutal and perverse practice, which McClintock spearheaded and which really only enabled the British to perpetuate the notion that they should take everything with them. The sleds were huge, carrying massive loads of supplies that enabled the men to live much as they did on board ship. But in order to do so, they manually had to haul these several-ton loads over immense pressure ridges in the ice. If this was progress, it wasn't much progress. Murphy, nonetheless, is content to celebrate McClintock's role in developing the practice.
The author's failure to view critically the achievements he claims for McClintock is, in fact, symptomatic of the entire book. The raison d'être of The Arctic Fox is that 'despite having been a Victorian icon, McClintock is now virtually forgotten. Aside from a handful of polar-history enthusiasts, very few will have heard the name.' Yet this text does nothing to reassess and renew interest in the man. Instead, it merely celebrates McClintock according to the same heroic virtues by which his Victorian contemporaries measured him - his capability and perseverance, his commitment to personal and national ideals, and his sense of duty. Murphy's book turns a blind eye to any human foibles that might chip the gild from this piece of Victorian statuary, and sadly, such a dated approach to biography holds little interest for modern readers. Viewed from Murphy's perspective, McClintock will remain 'virtually forgotten,' which is regrettable, because his life was probably one of interest.
Like any biography, The Arctic Fox is constructed out of hundreds of facts about the subject's life, facts the reader can only assume are accurate. Accordingly, one must hope that a several-page description of John Franklin's two land expeditions is not typical of the book's overall precision. In a scant three pages of text, Murphy manages to move Fort Enterprise to 'the mouth of the Coppermine River,' equip the retreating...