Emelin Miller is a 2017-2018 Research Fellow and a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota.
In 2016, Andrew Stuhl’s Unfreezing the Arctic: Science, Colonialism, and the Transformation of Inuit Lands set the stakes for the history of science in Arctic Studies, stakes highlighted by Sverker Sörlin’s History of Science Society Meeting 2017 keynote, “The Northern Turn.” For both historians, the significance of the north as a place of historical study is not rooted in the Arctic’s portrayal as a metric for climate change, but in that it has been too long overlooked as a peopled place. Against this historiographical background, my project attempts to trace the early history of Great Britain’s awareness of, interaction with, and characterization of not only the people of the circumpolar north, but its unique nature.
The British described the north using descriptions that intersected natural theology, empiricism, and imperial aspirations. Guided by the belief in the connection between health and climate, the British perceived the north to be “the healthiest part of the known World.” Fur traders, like Samuel Hearne, who explored the Hudson Bay region, speculated that the north was so healthy as to have a life-prolonging quality, the sweetness and pureness of the air making it so that the residents of the Arctic “never grow any older.” Despite these descriptions, this belief was not fully internalized, as evidenced in Britons’ failed experiments to grow crops and the requirement for climate sabbaticals that returned British bodies to Great Britain. The professed healthfulness overlooked, as well, the frequent complaints among Hudson Bay Company men about their experiences with ill health.
Nevertheless, this conception of the north’s healthfulness significantly influenced the relationship between British residents and indigenous peoples in the north. The Hudson Bay Company had its own social hierarchy contingent upon medical climatology. Indigenous peoples, it was argued, were best suited to the harsh climate because the coldness of the weather rendered them insensate and apathetically stoic. It was also believed they were immune to disease and possessed magical remedies if they were to become ill. This belief in their immunity to illness and apathy for their own personal well-being allowed the British to dismiss maltreatment and epidemics in one breath. This social hierarchy also developed in relationship to Orcadians and Scots. For Britons from more northerly places, their perceived native northernness predisposed them to success in northern job postings; however, their presumed rough-and-tumble backgrounds also predisposed them to unruly behavior and drunkenness, qualities which English HBC officers considered odious and unprofessional. For the British, success and survival depended upon modifying their bodies, rather than ‘improving’ such a difficult landscape. They adopted indigenous clothing and lifestyle strategies that required them to compromise dignity for comfort, becoming themselves more like animals. Despite testimonies of good climate, the Far North was not really considered a land made for the British body, leading to accounts that amplified the challenges of northern living, despite the cultures that thrived in these same landscapes.
We can also see the British perspective of the north as a barren and unlivable landscape taking shape in their descriptions of food, a prominent feature of Hudson Bay Company correspondence. The British of the HBC rationalized their relationship dynamic with indigenous peoples by depicting the north as a place of chronic famine. The portrayal of the north as unsupportive of animal species suited to eating ran contrary to the very activities that supported Great Britain’s northern empire: the fur trade. As has been shown elsewhere, the fur trade displaced traditional subsistence practices of indigenous peoples in order to work for the HBC for western goods like weapons, ammunition, and spirits. The HBC, despite their awareness that sometimes fur trade activities prevented indigenous peoples from hunting for their own food, described the indigenous peoples as being in a state of constant starvation. This normalized the British attitude to distribute food only sporadically to hungry indigenous peoples, as famine was made to become part of a narrative of normal operations in the North.
By the end of the eighteenth-century, however, some of these understandings of the north were beginning to change. In 1784, Thomas Pennant published the first British natural history of the Arctic, Arctic Zoology, which demonstrated the haven-like quality of the summertime Arctic to birds and explored the other species that could thrive in the north. Pennant, who had written generously, for perhaps the first time, of Scotland in 1769, turned his naturalistic perspective to the Arctic, portraying the “Arctic World” as a contiguous “ecosystem,” a term I use loosely, that included northern Britain. Pennant’s unique epistemology and framework for natural history illustrated a northern world of which Britain was a part.
Pennant’s migration from descriptions of a harsh, barren Arctic to one that could support life like any other part of the globe could perhaps have been informed by his heavy reliance upon continental European and Scandinavian authors. His close friendship with Peter Simon Pallas, who travelled extensively through Siberia, as well as his connections in Scandinavia introduced Pennant to a more familiar perspective of the Far North, one less remote than had previously been described. For instance, the Danish author, Erich Pontopiddan, who wrote a 1704 Natural History of Norway, invoked natural theology to explain how God had provided for “harsh” northern climates as much as God had of the idealized temperate zone. Such influences upon Pennant could have altered the perception of the Arctic as a harsh, frozen wasteland, an idea which would be reclaimed by the masculine explorations of the nineteenth century.
British descriptions of the north largely pivoted around the idea that the Far North was barren and insufferable and that the British had to carve out some usefulness from it. Natural historical descriptions of the north thus worked to justify imperial activities in the north, invoking natural theology, imperialism, and empiricism. Ultimately, these invocations can be used to explain how the Britons were able to describe the Far North as both favorable and unfavorable to them, while justifying certain aspects of their relationships with northern indigenous peoples.