The Boundaries of Arctic Map-Making: Exploration, Environment and Marginalia

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Editor’s Note: This is the second post in the Northern Borders and Boundaries series. You can read other posts in this series here.

“Can it be possible that this water communicates with Barrow’s Strait, and shall prove to be the long-sought North-west Passage?”[1]

Posing this question within the pages of his 1850-1854 expeditionary account, Sir Robert McClure was the first from the Anglosphere to document a successful navigation of the fabled Northwest Passage. Historically defined by impenetrable sea ice, the many gulfs, straits, sounds and channels that compose the Northwest Passage are, however, becoming increasingly navigable as sea ice extents and thickness reduces.[2] Recognising the prolonged history of imperial attempts to “discover” the Northwest Passage, John Hugh Johnson’s The Arctic Regions, showing the North-West Passage as Determined by Cap. R. M. McClure and Other Arctic Voyagers (1856) converges temporalities and histories in its collaborative visual, textual, and cartographic details. Published in The Royal Illustrated Atlas of Modern Geography, Johnson’s compilation of maps and imagery is in fact an exploration of multiple Arctic geographies. Subsuming a local, Inuit geography the settler-colonial construct of the Arctic manifests itself in cartographic lines and scenes of domination and expansion. The Inuit and local wildlife are visualised as tools in the imperial project. Pressuring the boundaries of map and picture-making, this double-map looks ahead to the illustrative properties of exploratory and environmental history.

  John Hugh Johnson, The Arctic Regions, showing the North-West Passage as determined by Cap. R. McClure and other Arctic Voyagers (1856). Originally published as part of The Royal Illustrated Atlas of Modern Geography. London, Edinburgh: A. Fullarton and Co. York University Historical Map Collection, Canada.

Presenting two maps on one sheet, one of the Wellington Channel and Parry Islands, crossing Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, the other of the wider Arctic Circle, Johnson’s compilation offers insight into the cartographic representation of Arctic voyages and the transnationalism of settler colonialism. In the large map, the achievement of McClure is documented through a track-line following the route the H.M.S. Investigator would have navigated, had it not been trapped in sea ice for three years (1850-1853). Beyond this, bands of arrows mark the descending polar current, or ascending Gulf Stream, as experienced by the British whaling captain Dr. William Scoresby off the coast of Svalbard in 1815-16, alongside which another row of arrows marks the “probable extension” of the Gulf Stream. Across northern Siberia, into Alaska and the Northwest Territories, a thick band of dots delineates the upper extent of boreal forest coverage.

With bodies of water and land labelled with settler-colonial names at every point, as well as the locations of abandoned ships, the upper map, itself derived from an 1835 Admiralty chart, similarly alludes to scientific discoveries alongside exploratory endeavours in the Qikiqtaaluk Region. Here, we see where the Assistance and Resolute were both abandoned in 1854; and where Sir Henry Kellett and Sir Francis McClintock wintered in 1852-53 aboard the Resolute, following which they aided McClure and the entrapped Investigator. The Resolute was later recovered and returned to England in 1856, and upon its retirement in 1879 was salvaged for timber. At least three desks were commissioned by the British government, including what would later be known as the “Resolute desk” in the Oval Office.

Detail from John Hugh Johnson’s The Arctic Regions (1856)

Specific detail is also given to the varied topography and biodiversity of each region. To the far right, the cartographer records the location of “Lagoons along Coast and petrified trees,” where “Musk-Oxen, Rein-Deer, Hares and Ptarmigan found in all parts of the coast of Banks Land.” Once home to one of the largest endemic populations of muskoxen in the world, Banks Island’s population is now experiencing rapid decline.[3] On Prince Patrick Island, historically icebound and first “sighted” in 1853, the lack of game or existence of wood is marked along the coastline, while further north a very low sandy coast is mentioned where the map escapes the surrounding border. Notes on collections of Arctic plants compiled during the search for the Franklin expedition between 1852-54, were later published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, among others.[4] 

Where a recording of “Open Water, May 20th, 1853,” to the far left of the image, alludes to the relative ease with which ships were able to pass through springtime waters, above this the cartographer notes how “Many Islands eastward [are] obscured by haze.” Sara Spike writes on the ubiquity of fog in Atlantic Canada, where the convergence of hot and cold air creates “vaporous low-lying clouds that can veil the coasts for hours or days at a time.”[5] Described as “steam fog” or “sea smoke,” the white, perhaps frozen space of the sea, in contrast with the colouring blue of coastal waters, might further suggest the obscuration of the wider landscape.[6] We might also look to a chart included by McClure in his published account of the Northwest Passage, which in the first edition labels a “A Great Water Space in which the Ice appears to have accumulated very much for want of an outlet.” [7] A vast nothingness hindering further settler colonial expansion. This in-turn was featured in John Everett Millais’ painting The North-West Passage (1874).

E.A. Inglefield and W.H. Fawekner, Chart Showing the North-West Passage Discovered by Capt. R. Le M. McClure, H.M. Ship Investigator: Also the Coast Explored in Search of Sir J. Franklin (1853), Rex Nan Kivell Collection of Maps, National Library of Australia.

Exploring the spatial fluidity of the map in its entirety, Johnson’s amalgamated map facilitates a narrative of the human and non-human Arctic through vignettes surrounding the cartographic space. Mark Cheetham writes how “Arctic voyages functioned fully only when the circle was complete, when voyagers return and recount their exploits, when images of the Arctic are disseminated, and when scientific data are presented and discussed.”[8] Where the upper map breaks the confines of the border, with the Prince of Wales Strait and Polynia Islands floating in the emptiness of the margins, the surrounding imagery offers contrasting scenes of Inuit, the lone polar bear, walruses (or “horse”) lounging on the shore, a lemming masquerading as a chipmunk, and seals being hunted for their skins and blubber. These in turn exist alongside images of exploratory successes and failures.

Detail from John Hugh Johnson’s The Arctic Regions (1856)

Assembled from other contemporaneous sources, this marginalia depicts the Canadian Arctic as a space subjugated by settler colonial demands. Wildlife is juxtaposed as sources of scientific observation and resources intended for trade and consumption. The Inuit woman, man and child, meanwhile, derive from an image published in the Illustrated London News on 18th February 1854. In fact, these three Inuit, Tookoolito (Taqulittuq), Ebierbing (Ipiirvik) and Haralukjoe, are not the unnamed “Esquimaux” they are represented as here, but were rather brought over to England in 1853 to be introduced to Queen Victoria. They subsequently became guides and interpreters involved in the search for Franklin and the U.S. Polaris Expedition in 1871-1873.[9] Often removed from their homes to act as guides and to perform key laborious activities including hunting and the construction of shelters, clothing and sledges, the involvement of Inuit in colonial endeavours is evidenced further in the surrounding illustrations.

Conflating ideas of map-making, narrative, and record in the illustrations and geographical labels within and beyond the boundaries of cartographic space, Johnson’s map is not simply concerned with documenting exploratory voyages, but also evidences how localised environmental discovery and history are cartographically represented. Ripe for further investigation, beyond the scope of this essay, this map represents an example of the interrelationship between map-making, art, and environmental history, while also indicating how settler-colonial depictions of Inuit have visually removed them from their own territories both physically and cartographically.

Feature Image Source: York University Historical Map Collection.


[1] Robert McClure, The Discovery of a North-west Passage by H.M.S. Investigator, Capt. R. M’Clure During the Years 1850-1851-1852-1853-1854, 4th edition, (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1865), 82.
[2] Christian Haas and Stephen E. L. Howell. “Ice thickness in the Northwest Passage,” Geophysical Research Letters 42, no. 18 (2015): 7673-7680. DOI: 10.1002/2015GL065704
[3] Christine Cuyler et al., “Muskox status, recent variation, and uncertain future,” Ambio 49 (2019): 805-819. DOI: 10.1007/s13280-019-01205-x
[4] J.D. Hooker, “On some Collections of Arctic Plants, chiefly made by Dr. Lyall, Dr. Anderson, Herr Miertsching, and Mr. Rae, during the Expeditions in search of Sir John Franklin, under Sir John Richardson, Sir Edward Belcher, and Sir Robert M’Clure,” Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 1, no. 3 (Nov 1856): 114-124.
[5] Sara Spike, “a salubrious, saline exhalation”: Fog and Health in Colonial Newfoundland and Nova Scotia,” NiCHE, August 27, 2020.
[6] P.M. Saunders, “Sea smoke and steam fog,” Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 90, no. 384 (April 1964): 156-165. DOI: 10.1002/qj.49709038405
[7] Mark A. Cheetham, “Millais’s Metapicture: The North-West Passage as Distillate of Arctic Voyaging from the Anglosphere,” British Art Studies, no. 19 (2021). DOI: 10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-19/mcheetham
[8] Ibid.
[9] “’Esquimaux’ on Display,”, March 10, 2021.
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Isabelle Gapp is an Interdisciplinary Fellow in the Department of Art History at the University of Aberdeen. Her research and teaching considers the intersections between nineteenth and twentieth century landscape painting, gender, environmental history, and climate change across the Circumpolar North.

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