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The Strangers On The Map

The Strangers On The Map

A history of Western imperialism as seen through the Arctic Archipelago’s place names
By Herb Mathisen
Mar 15
From the March 2017 Issue

To study the clusters of names spread across the entirety of the Arctic Archipelago map is to bore through layers of history like sedimentary rock.

Explorers from Western empires visited, charted and named the Arctic in stages, moving from areas that had become familiar into the total unknown. The map we have today is an illustration of how different countries successively rode waves of patriotism northwards, until they eventually tired of it.

The names of land- and seamarks west from Baffin Island and Hudson Bay, through Lancaster Sound west toward the Parry Islands, are a who’s who of 250 years of British royalty and naval might. (William Baffin, Henry Hudson and William Parry were all Arctic explorers; James Lancaster, a backer of Baffin’s 1616 expedition, was a privateer—essentially, a state-sponsored pirate.) If you scan northeast from the Coronation Gulf (named by John Franklin in 1821, for the crowning of King George IV), through the Northwest Passage and toward the top of the world, you notice fewer British lords, captains, admirals and monarchs, as the empire retreated from the Arctic, weary of the continued expense in money and men.

The Americans moved in to fill the void, hoping to plant their stars and stripes at the North Pole as a show of its growing stature on the international stage. Capes, basins and camps along eastern Ellesmere Island, all the way up to the polar Lincoln Sea (designated so by American Adolphus Greely in 1882, after U.S. Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, son of assassinated president Abraham Lincoln), were named by the often-disastrous expeditions that pushed further and further north.

Head south and west from Ellesmere and the names abruptly become Scandinavian: there’s Prince Gustaf Adolf Island, and King Christian Island, named after “the father-in-law of Europe,” Denmark’s King Christian XI. Explorer Otto Sverdrup had no interest in what he saw as the solipsistic polar pursuit. Instead, he sought to explore—and claim—territory for a Norwegian nation desperate to break from its union with Sweden. (Norway wasn’t really interested in the islands though—in 1930, Canada bought them from Sverdrup for $67,000. The explorer died two weeks later.)

William Baffin didn’t give Baffin Island its name; William Parry did, in 1821, more than 200 years after Baffin’s first voyage.

Of the relatively few Canadian names on the map, most come from Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s 1913-18 Canadian Arctic Expedition, a sovereignty exercise that explored uncharted territory east of the Sverdrup Islands. Borden Island was named after then-Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden, but in 1947, an aerial survey discovered a strait cutting through that island. The larger, southern island was named after prime minister of the time William Mackenzie King. Following the Queen’s coronation in 1953, Canada gave its newest head of state’s name to all of its High Arctic islands—the Queen Elizabeth Islands.

These designations were meant as a show of respect, but also as compensation to expedition sponsors. Robert Peary, the American polar fanatic who obsessed about being first to reach the North Pole for the fame it would bring him, understood this better than most. In 1900, he pitched his latest trip to a group of businesspeople that would eventually form the Peary Arctic Club. In a letter, he appealed to their vanity by telling them “the names of those who made the work possible will be kept through the coming centuries floating forever above the forgotten and submerged debris of our time and day.” 

Western imperialism has for centuries been powered by business interests, with the earliest forays into the Arctic seeking new shipping routes to Asia and undiscovered bounties of natural resources to exploit. As a result, the Arctic map is pockmarked with obscure businesspeople from centuries past.

The Boothia Peninsula and the Gulf of Boothia, for instance, were named for Felix Booth, the British gin magnate and chief sponsor of John Ross’s second Arctic expedition. Around the northern portions of Ellesmere Island and Greenland, you’ll find the names Crocker, Jesup and Hubbard (respectively a railroad director, a banker, and lawyer-cum-financier), who were Peary club-members. Ellef Ringnes and Amund Ringnes islands, in the Sverdrup Islands, are called so after the two Oslo beer-making brothers who backed Sverdrup’s expedition. (And another large island was named after Axel Heiberg, a backer of the Ringnes brothers’ brewery and later Sverdrup’s expedition.)

Place names reflected the zeitgeist of the times, highlighting, in some instances, competition. The United States Range on Ellesmere Island were named thus in 1861; in 1935, the British Empire Range name was given to a set of mountains to the immediate west.

Names were doled out to allies too. Take Cape Tennyson, on Baffin Island, for Great Britain’s poet laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, who played no small part in building the Franklin myth and keeping Arctic exploration in the fore of the empire’s consciousness. And on the southern coast of Prince of Wales Island, you’ll find Charles Dickens Point, after the author, whose services were successfully employed by Lady Jane Franklin to discredit the story of the cannibalistic last days of the Franklin Expedition brought back by John Rae.

With so much land being charted, some explorers were clearly running low on inspiration, as evidenced by names like Royal Geographical Society Island, Committee Bay and Astronomical Society Islands. And
inspiration could come from some odd places. Take Rae, who may have been under the influence of a pop-star crush when he named Jenny Lind Island after Sweden’s internationally acclaimed singer, “whose sweetness of voice and noble generosity have been the theme of every tongue,” he wrote in his journal.

Having a place named after you was seen as an honour, a way to live on forever. (“There is nothing worth living for but to have one’s name inscribed on the Arctic chart,” noted Tennyson.) It’s why, even today, star-naming has become a cottage industry—you spend a nominal fee to have a distant celestial body named after a loved one.

But, as Pierre Berton notes in the afterword of his comprehensive history of Arctic exploration, The Arctic Grail, there are glaring omissions to the map—Inuit heroes who were the saviours of doomed expeditions and without whom none of the lionized white explorers would have made it so far, or made it home. “They had their own names for the snowy peaks and the frozen inlets that formed their world,” writes Berton. And it’s everyone’s loss that the map ignores them.

But if the map is proof of the colonization of the North, with seas and islands named after the pals of long-dead explorers,  things are slowly changing. The community of Holman, NWT had taken its name from Holman Island, named after J.R. Holman, a crewmember from an 1853 expedition seeking Franklin. In 2006, the community officially became Ulukhaktok (“where there is material to make an ulu,” in Inuinnaqtun) a recognition of the people who live there, rather than a scarcely known, foreign seaman who stopped through once, 153 years before.