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  • Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage
  • Ingo Heidbrink
Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage. By Glyn Williams. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 462 pp. $45.00 (cloth); $22.95 (paper).

Decreasing ice coverage of the Arctic Ocean due to global warming has generated an increasing interest in Arctic shipping routes during recent years. Global shipping companies are speculating if and when the Northwest Passage might become an alternative for global cargo transportation between the Atlantic and the Pacific, and legal aspects of the passage in the context of the Law of the Sea are causing tensions between the United States and Canada—altogether a good time for a new historical book on the Northwest Passage despite the huge number of already available books and articles on the wider context of the search for the passage and in particular the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin.

But simply categorizing Glyn Williams's new book as just another book on the topic would completely undervalue the book. Arctic Labyrinth is in fact the first really comprehensive and analytical book written by an authority on the subject that is not limited to a single aspect of the story. The book not only provides a chronology of the search for the passage or sheds light on particular expeditions but places the whole story from the first expeditions by Martin Frobisher in the 1570s to the first successful completion of the passage by Roald Amundsen with the FRAM (completed in 1906) and the following passages up to the American tanker Manhattan in 1969 or the German research icebreaker Polarstern in 2008, in a global framework. Williams explains in detail why the Northwest Passage never lost its attractiveness over more than three centuries of unsuccessful attempts to find a northern sea route between the two oceans and why in particular the British Empire became nearly obsessed with the search for the passage.

Chronologically organized, Williams provides convincing evidence why the search for a Northwest Passage was never abandoned although the long list of failures to find a passage must have turned the chance [End Page 844] of finding an actual navigational passage through the labyrinth of solid pack-ice and remote unknown Arctic islands nearly into a myth for contemporary people up to the first successful passage.

Without any doubt Arctic Labyrinth is not only a fascinating book but a most welcome addition to the bookshelves of all maritime and Arctic historians, but what about the global historian without a special interest in maritime or Arctic history?

The most relevant contribution of the book to global history in a wider sense seems to be the thorough analysis of how changing concepts of geographical research and knowledge of the physical world have influenced the search for that particular seaway. This analysis will help not only to understand why the quest for a Northwest passage was continued over centuries of failure but furthermore serve as a template for an analysis of how exploration of white spots of the globe by European nations were always a direct mirror of scientific knowledge contemporarily available. In addition it will help to understand why European nations and in particular the British Empire became obsessed with exploration of certain areas of the globe even if there was no direct commercial success or strategic benefit to be expected. In final consequence the analysis of the ongoing quest for the Northwest Passage provides the explanation why European nations and in particular the British Empire dominated the exploration of the globe over centuries while other empires limited their efforts to regions with benefits directly to be expected or did not participate in the exploration of the globe at all.

As such the book is without any doubt a relevant contribution to the field of world history and provides a good example how the detailed analysis of a kind of regional history—in fact the story of the Northwest Passage is to a certain degree a regional history of Arctic Canada—can generate knowledge that not only can be globally applied but can directly serve as a case study for the understanding of structures and mechanisms that shaped global history...