Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.
If you’ve ever thumbed through back issues of National Geographic, or browsed the “travel and exploration” or “adventure” section of a North American or European bookstore, you’re probably aware that there is a huge amount of media about historic polar explorers out there. Today, books, documentaries, and museum exhibits about European and settler polar explorers of the past and their exploits – especially explorers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries like Ernest Shackleton, John Franklin, and Robert Peary – still regularly become bestsellers and draw large numbers of viewers. And as work from scholars like Michael Robinson and Max Jones has shown, these white men were even more famous during their lifetimes. They were celebrities, seen as embodiments of normative white, masculine values and national might. Their faces adorned advertisements and magazine covers, and their public lectures drew thousands of attendees. At a time when European and settler nations competed to set records like reaching the geographic North Pole or bring back scientific findings from the Arctic, these explorers were greatly admired in their home countries. While researching my Ph.D. on nineteenth-century explorers, that was the narrative I learned too.
So, when a friend alerted me to a series of cartoons from Puck – nineteenth-century America’s leading humor magazine – criticizing Arctic exploration, I was immediately intrigued. Puck, whose English-language edition ran from 1877 to 1918, was famous for its scathing satirical cartoons. Issues often featured a centerfold cartoon drawn by the magazine’s founder Joseph Keppler spread across two pages, thick with textual and visual details and printed in vivid colors, a novelty for the time.1 In the issue for January 4, 1882 the centerfold was titled “The Moloch of Arctic Discovery: The World’s Sacrifices to a Whim of Science.”
The bulk of the image depicts Arctic explorers struggling in a frozen landscape; dragging sleds across dangerous crevasses in the ice or seemingly laying down to die. Behind them, under towering icebergs, are ships bearing the names of Arctic expeditions where lives were lost to the “whim of science”: those led by John Franklin (1845 – ?), Charles Francis Hall (1871-1873), and Elisha Kent Kane (1853-1855). An inset drawing labeled “The Poor Sailor’s Sacrifice” depicts a distraught woman holding a baby, presumably a stand-in for the widows and children of dead expedition members. Another inset, labeled “The Rich Man’s Fancy,” shows a man in a smoking jacket and slippers lounging in a plush chair by a roaring fire, with one map in his hand and another hanging on the wall behind him. He stands in for the wealthy benefactors who funded Arctic expeditions but did not join them. These men were, in Puck’s estimation, the ultimate armchair adventurers: enjoying the social cachet that came from funding expeditions and the vicarious thrills of reading about them, but never putting their own lives at risk. The cartoon’s title, “The Moloch of Arctic Discovery,” alludes to Moloch, an ancient Canaanite deity associated in the Jewish-Christian Bible with child sacrifice.
Suffering men, sorrowful widows, oblivious patrons who sacrifice their fellow humans for their own satisfaction: cartoonist Keppler wasn’t trying to mask his opinion about the destructiveness of Arctic exploration, especially since he repeated this assertion in other cartoons. Later that same year, in the May 31 issue, he produced another centerfold that depicted dying explorers floating on an iceberg in front of a crowd of spectators, as if their cold grave was in the middle of a Roman coliseum. Inside a viewing box labeled “In the Name of Science,” spectators clamor for more expeditions. Another box, labeled “crowned heads,” contains allegorical figures for Western nations that backed such expeditions, as well as one figure wearing a crown marked “Herald” for James Gordon Bennett, Jr., publisher of the New York Herald newspaper. (Bennett, Jr. had organized the 1879-1881 Jeannette expedition in search of the North Pole, on which twenty of the thirty-three crew members had died.)
Puck was not the only nineteenth-century periodical that skewered Arctic voyaging. British satirical publications such as Punch (founded 1841), Fun (founded 1861), and Judy (founded 1867) had also satirized these endeavors; often portraying Arctic explorers not as courageous heroes but as laughable bumblers in search of useless prizes, as Heidi Hansson has written. And critiques of the value polar exploration generally or of the organization of specific voyages emerged from more serious quarters as well, including the Times of London and members of the British Parliament and U.S. Congress. While the Anglophone public generally regarded polar explorers as heroes, there were detractors. These included highly-placed critics like Keppler, who used the new but influential medium of political cartoons to try to influence American discourse on the Arctic.
And Keppler wasn’t the only cartoonist at Puck who used his pen and sketchpad to critique Arctic exploration. In August of 1884 Puck ran a cartoon by Friedrich Graetz that labeled the Arctic “The World’s Morgue,” with a caption that asked “When Will There Be An End to These Sacrifices to Sham Science?”
And a few years earlier, Frederick Burr Opper had created a cartoon for the magazine showing polar bears celebrating while “contemplating the futility of all efforts to invade their domain.”
Notably, the Puck cartoons don’t critique specific, particularly disastrous expeditions, as this drawing from rival American magazine The Wasp did of the Jeannette expedition:
Instead, the Puck cartoons lambasted the entire notion of Arctic exploration. They criticized it as an unjustified loss of life in the service of “sham science” – expeditions that purported to have lofty research goals but were often equally or more concerned with planting national flags in the Arctic, or with besting an expedition from a rival nation to some geographic record. How did Keppler, who directed the magazine until his death in 1894, come to develop the attitude reflected in Puck’s cartoons?2 I haven’t yet been able to find out, but the cartoons themselves survive as a notable contemporary visual argument against the idea that white explorers suffering and dying in the Arctic was inherently heroic.
Yet there is a crucial part of this perspective that is missing. Keppler and his colleagues at Puck may have mourned the senseless loss of life among these white men, who had promising lives ahead of them (similar to how the British public at the time mourned the deaths of elite white mountaineers, for example). But unlike in the real Arctic, Indigenous people are entirely absent from Keppler’s depictions. Not only do the Puck cartoons perpetuate the idea that the Arctic is a barren landscape, devoid of all life save for a few polar bears, they completely ignore the impact that exploratory incursions had on Indigenous circumpolar communities. This impact ranged from individual lives lost in the service of working for these expeditions (such as Jens Edward and Frederik Christiansen, Kalaallit guides who died on the 1881-1884 Greely expedition) to the wider impacts of colonial incursion that explorers facilitated.
It’s important to keep in mind contemporary European and settler critiques of Arctic exploration, like those visible in the Puck cartoons. But we can further enrich our understanding by seeking out Indigenous visual depictions of these expeditions too – or the ways in which Inuit attitudes towards their homelands dispel the idea that the Arctic can only be an icy morgue. Arguably, these illustrations from Puck also presage modern scholarship on polar exploration, which seeks to pick apart the idea of the inherently heroic white voyager, and reveal the tangled web of colonialism, chauvinism, and gendered and racialized worldviews that supported such ventures.
The author thanks Charlotte Abney-Salomon for first introducing her to these images.
1. Keppler was the son of Austrian immigrants. He initially began publishing Puck in 1871 as a German-language magazine, for the large population of German-speaking immigrants in the U.S. His magazine was one of the first to take advantage of chromolithography, a recently-developed technique that made it possible to print images in color quickly and cheaply.
2. Puck didn’t seem to feature any more explicitly anti-Arctic exploration cartoons after the 1880s. However, the cover of an issue from 1909 did critique explorers Frederick Cook and Robert Peary and their rival claims of having been the first to the North Pole, arguing that what was really at stake for the two men were book and lecture royalties and not scientific distinction.