From Shackleton to Nansen — the lives of the great explorers
On 7 December in New York Christie’s will auction a fascinating selection of books and manuscripts from the library of Martin Greene, offering a tangible connection to some of the most dashing — or foolhardy — adventurers in modern history
The library of collector and keen mountaineer Martin Greene includes books, atlases, letters and other primary sources from groundbreaking polar and Russian and American expeditions. Collectively they describe narratives of triumph and failure, camaraderie and competition, scientific excellence and raw human courage in exploratory missions undertaken between the 16th and the 20th centuries.
On 7 December highlights from the Martin Greene Library come to auction at Christie’s in New York. Here, we take a look at key 19th- and 20th-century explorers whose dramatic discoveries and near misses expanded the boundaries of the known world.
Charles Wilkes led the United States Exploring Expedition from 1838 to 1842. One of the most ambitious scientific expeditions ever attempted, it was instrumental in America’s global expansion.
Significant American contributions in the fields of geology, botany, anthropology and linguistics came out of the work done on that expedition, and specimens gathered by its scientists became the foundation of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.
Wilkes’s survey of the Pacific Islands resulted in over 200 new charts for 280 islands, notably Hawaii, the Fiji group, the Philippines and the islands of Micronesia. The charting of the Northwest American coast was equally important: Wilkes surveyed the entrance to the Columbia River and all of Puget Sound.
Sir John Franklin’s final expedition in search for the Northwest Passage began in May 1845, when he sailed from England with two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, carrying 128 officers and men. The vessels were last sighted by British whalers north of Baffin Island, in present-day Canada, in late July of that year; in 1847, when no further word had been received, search parties were sent out.
For decades, various expeditions sought to find out what had become of the explorers. Their fate remained unknown until 1859, when a search mission reached Canada’s King William Island and found skeletons of the vessels’ crews and a written account of the expedition up until 25 April, 1848. The sunken ships themselves were discovered in October 2014 and September 2016, and their contents are currently undergoing salvage and study.
In 1850 Irish explorer Robert McClure took command of the Investigator, one of two ships sent to find Sir John Franklin. McClure entered the Bering Strait from the Pacific and discovered two entrances to the Northwest Passage around Banks Island, now part of the Northwest Territories of Canada.
The Investigator became trapped in ice just north of Banks Island, forcing McClure to abandon the ship; he and his party were subsequently rescued nearby. McClure continued north and east to meet ships which had come in from the east, completing a transit of the Northwest Passage. For abandoning ship, McClure was court-martialled, but was honourably acquitted and finally knighted as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage.
In July 2010 the Investigator was found, eight metres deep, in the Beaufort Sea just off Banks Island.
British naval officer Edward Belcher, commander of the Resolute, led an expedition in search of Franklin’s party starting in 1852. In April 1854, the Resolute was abandoned in the slow-moving ice in which it had been trapped for months (the men on board walked across the ice to join other expedition ships).
It was not until September 1855 that the Resolute was rescued by an American whaler. The ship was returned to Great Britain, and as a token of thanks Queen Victoria presented American president Rutherford B. Hayes with a desk made from its wood. The ‘Resolute’ desk remains in the Oval Office of the White House to this day.
In 1893, Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen set out for the North Pole. Against all advice, he deliberately froze his ship into pack ice and allowed it to drift north across the Arctic. In March of 1895, he set out from the trapped ship on a dogsled and reached the highest latitude then attained by man.
The expedition became famous worldwide, and upon his return Nansen settled into a career as a professor of oceanography, a member of the Norwegian independence movement, and a patron of refugees — for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.
From 1903-06, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen led the first-ever expedition to cross the Northwest Passage in a single ship. Over the course of several years on the ice, Amundsen learned survival skills from the Netsilik Inuit, who lived on Canada’s Arctic coast.
Years later, this knowledge would enable him to endure the journey to the South Pole, which he and his team became the first to reach in December 1911. In 1926, Amundsen led the first air expedition to the North Pole, making him the first person to reach both poles.
American explorer and navy officer Robert Peary made several expeditions in the Arctic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He claimed to be the first to have reached the North Pole, along with his team, in 1909. Peary’s account of his expedition was embroiled in controversy when another American explorer, Frederick Cook, countered that he had reached the North Pole the year before.
Despite winning a high-profile lawsuit against Cook, recent scholarship has cast some doubt on Peary’s ability to accurately measure his own location on the ice.
African-American explorer Matthew Henson accompanied Robert Peary on six expeditions, including the final sledge journey to the North Pole in 1909. Henson was the only member of Peary’s party to master the Inuit language and method of driving dogsleds.
Henson was also the first man to break the colour barrier at the Explorers Club, the New York society founded in 1905, when he became an honorary member in 1937.
Cook’s claim to have reached the North Pole on 21 April, 1908 was dismissed after close inspection of his records by the University of Copenhagen. He was expelled from the Explorers Club, of which he had been a founding member, and served as its second president.
Modern scholars have cast doubt on Peary’s own account, however, and as a result Cook has to some degree been vindicated.
From 1901, Irish-born British explorer Ernest Shackleton participated in and led three British expeditions to the Antarctic. During the Nimrod expedition of 1907-09, Shackleton’s team reached the constantly shifting South Magnetic Pole, ascended the volcano of Mount Erebus, and pushed to within 97 miles of the South Geographic Pole. Famous for his strength under pressure and devotion to his team, Shackleton’s only comment to his wife on not reaching the South Pole was, ‘A live donkey is better than a dead lion, isn’t it?’
On his last expedition, in 1914-17, Shackleton’s ship was crushed by ice, stranding the crew over the Antarctic winter of 1915. Shackleton led a small team on an 800-mile open-boat journey to mount a rescue of the remaining men, all of whom survived. Four years later, he purchased and outfitted yet another ship for a fourth expedition to Antarctica, but died of a heart attack en route.