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  • February 23, 2021 8:53 AM | David Eddy (Administrator)

    Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age: Senior Service, 1800-1815

    Mark Jessop

    In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Britain’s Royal Navy achieved an apogee of effectiveness rarely achieved by any national military. It mastered the technology of its tools, the sailing warship and smoothbore artillery which was two centuries old by that point. It also mastered the soft skills—administrative, logistical, and operational - needed for the best use of its hardware. It had mastered both in a manner that left most of its rivals far behind. This created a fascination with Britain’s senior service of that era which endures to this day.

    The Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age: Senior Service 1800-1815, by Mark Jessop, is a product of that fascination. In it Jessop examines the Royal Navy at its apogee.

    The book looks at the period from 1800 to 1815. It starts with the end of the French Wars of Revolution which ran from 1793 through the Peace of Amiens in 1801. It ends with the Hundred Days campaign of 1815, covering the Napoleonic Wars and War of 1812. The book opens with the Battle of Copenhagen and effectively ends with Napoleon boarding HMS Bellerophon in the aftermath of Waterloo.

    Jessop strove to immerse readers in the period. Much of the book is presented in fictionalized vignettes, describing major battles or important aspects of life in the Royal Navy circa 1800-1815. These frequently cover topics that are important, but often overlooked. Examples include a description of the Battle of Trafalgar related by three petty officers to the sister of a deceased comrade, dockyard workers’ view of their work, and a diary account of an encounter with an early steamboat.

    Jessop does an outstanding job of using period sources for this book. A good third of his sources are contemporaneous with the period, and significant fraction of the remainder represents postwar accounts by those who lived through the period. The rest date primarily from the late nineteenth century, a period in which naval history could charitably called more romantic than necessarily accurate.

    Additionally, the bibliography lacks late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century sources (such as the work of N. A. M. Rogers or his students, such as J. Ross Dancy) which reexamined primary sources and corrected the misconceptions created by late nineteenth century historians. The result is a skewed view of the Royal Navy, one which exaggerates its ills and focuses on the romance of the sailing era.

    Jessop’s coverage is too cursory for those familiar with the period to benefit from it. Similarly model makers or wargamers will find too little detail in The Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age for their interests, but might read it for color.

    However, The Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age serves as a good introduction to the period for readers unfamiliar with the period. Jessop covers the key aspects of naval history during the period, introducing technical aspects in in a manner accessible to those unfamiliar with them. For those bored by academic histories, this book will be engaging.

    • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2019
    • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xi + 180 pages
    • Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95
    • ISBN: 9781526720375

    Reviewed by Mark Lardas, League City, Texas

  • February 23, 2021 8:52 AM | David Eddy (Administrator)

    Britain’s Last Invasion: The Battle of Fishguard 1797

    Phil Carradice

    The French invasion of Wales in 1797 is one of the more curious events of the Wars of French Revolution. Almost a comic-opera, Clowes’s multi-volume Royal Navy history dismisses it with a single paragraph. The British victory is sometimes attributed to the French mistaking Welsh women wearing traditional red shawls and tall black hats for British Grenadiers.

    Britain’s Last Invasion: The Battle of Fishguard, 1797, by Phil Carradice offers a fascinating and detailed look at this curious invasion, the last time a hostile army landed on Britain’s home island.

    The invasion, part of a larger scheme to invade Ireland, was one of two planned diversion invasions intended to distract attention from a French invasion of Ireland. Carradice discusses these, putting the Fishguard invasion in its historical context. Even before the Fishguard landing, the Irish invasion had fallen apart due to bad weather and ill planning. The other diversionary landing, planned for Newcastle on the North Sea coast never went beyond French-occupied Netherlands before its cancelation.

    The Fishguard attempt should also have been cancelled, It was a no-hope affair. Carradice reveals the 1500 soldiers were largely conscripted from French prisons, dressed in captured British uniforms dyed black, and armed only upon landing. Its officers were mostly foreigners drawn to France by the Revolution, but since disillusioned by its excesses.

    Carradice does a marvelous job of piecing together events following the landing. He follows the actions of the Legion Noire (named for their badly-dyed black coats) and the local Welsh militia. The forces on both sides were rag-tag. The British had a combination of fencibles, militia, and locals willing to take up arms against the invaders—all part-time soldiers. The French were more interested in stealing food and drink than fighting—much less marching to their intended final destination, Liverpool.

    Due to the obscurity of the topic, Carradice occasionally speculates. Speculations are clearly labeled, and seem well grounded in what facts actually exist. It would be fairer to call them extrapolations. They are not guesses.

    He also clears away myths associated with the invasion especially that of the French surrendering because they mistook Welsh women for Grenadiers. A good story, but as Carradice reveals, it was just a story. The French decided on surrender the night before they surrendered, and the women with their red shawls and black hats were first seen the following morning.

    The book is meticulously researched. Carradice draws on a surprisingly large volume of primary sources, including the Cawdor Papers, and documents from the Carmarthen Record Office, Pembrokeshire Record Office and British Public Records Office at Kew. His bibliography includes a dozen previously-published books on the campaign, some dating to the early nineteenth century.

    The book is primarily for those interested the history of the French Revolutionary Wars. Model-makers will find nothing useful in it. Wargamers may find it contains enough information for a miniatures campaign on the subject. Britain’s Last Invasion is a delightful read, offering a detailed and entertaining account of an obscure and curious invasion.

    • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2019
    • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xiv + 217 pages
    • Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95
    • ISBN: 9781526743268

    Reviewed by Mark Lardas, League City, Texas

  • February 23, 2021 8:50 AM | David Eddy (Administrator)

    Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy

    Benjamin Armstrong

    Cutting-out, amphibious raiding, and irregular warfare are firmly cemented in American naval strategy today, and many of the most famous exploits of the modern United States Navy and Marine Corps involve these irregular tactics. The tradition of maritime raiding and irregular warfare is not rooted in twentieth or twenty-first century developments but has its origins in the fledgling American Navy and Marine Corps of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Between the American Revolution and the 1830s, American naval forces experimented with and mastered irregular tactics that allowed their forces to become unpredictable and effectual combat units. In his necessary and insightful work, Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy, Benjamin Armstrong illustrates that United States irregular maritime tactics originated in the first decades of the nation’s existence, and that they played an instrumental role in both military and diplomatic relations that shaped the course of the young country. Armstrong’s book is a valuable examination of irregular tactics that are often overshadowed by studies of traditional tactics in United States naval history, but which were instrumental in the nation’s naval development.

    Drawing on excellent research compiled from primary sources across the globe, including British, Canadian, and American archives, Armstrong has crafted a work which traces the daring raids of American sailors, marines, and citizens between 1775 and 1840. Armstrong examines “guerre de razzia,” or war by raiding, in a series of case studies of irregular naval actions during the American Revolutionary War, Quasi War, Tripolitan and Barbary Wars, War of 1812, and Sumatran counter-piracy actions of the 1830s (p. 5). By tracing the actions of famous raiders like John Paul Jones and lesser known officers like Stephen Decatur who were equally adept at irregular maritime warfare, Armstrong proves that guerre de razzia deserves to be counted amongst larger fleet actions as a deeply ingrained portion of United States naval strategy.

    Armstrong expertly uses case studies to illustrate that technological advancement, civilian-military coordination, and diplomacy were all key elements of early American raiding. His background as a special forces officer gives added insight to his understanding of irregular warfare. He additionally contextualizes his work adequately within existing American naval historiography. Despite a tendency to linger on the minutiae of command structure and diplomatic relations surrounding military actions, Armstrong otherwise uses exciting prose to describe naval raids. The largest shortcoming of Armstrong’s work is that he does little to emphasize that irregular warfare arose out of necessity due to material and manpower shortages within American navies that fought against maritime giants like France and Great Britain, and though it became tradition, it arose from want of proper fleet resources. Despite these minor oversights, Armstrong presents a fine work that is a valuable addition to American naval historiography and which accomplishes his goal of proving that irregular warfare was, and is, a key element of American naval tradition, strategy, and tactics. This work is a valuable addition to the libraries of all those that study the United States Navy or irregular warfare.

    • Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019
    • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xi + 264 pages
    • Illustrations, map, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95
    • ISBN: 9780806162829

    Reviewed by Andrew Turner, East Carolina University

  • February 23, 2021 8:48 AM | David Eddy (Administrator)

    Neptune’s Laboratory: Fantasy, Fear, and Science at Sea

    Antony Adler

    In studying the history of oceanography, humanity’s fears and fantasies about the future are not always aspects of the topic which readily come to mind. The development of marine science as a field and the ways that it has affected conceptions about the future is explained nicely by Antony Adler, currently a research associate in the history department at Carleton College, in Neptune’s Laboratory: Fantasy, Fear, and Science at Sea. Within this work, Adler established five different periods and topics of focus: an overview of early marine science, the development of European costal marine stations, aspirations for international collaboration, later developments within the field during the Cold War, and the ways that boundaries between field and laboratory are currently blurred in marine science. By arranging his book in this manner, Adler was able to expand neatly on each of the areas and give readers a solid overview of the history of marine science with a focus on the imagined futures, anticipations, and anxieties embedded within the field.

    In Neptune’s Laboratory, Adler presented each chapter remarkably well. In the first section, Adler focused heavily on the history of marine science and the way that it developed as a field, including the development of some standard procedures. This history acted as an important foundation to understand the later segments, and the reasons that developments and legal issues arose within marine science. In focusing each of the chapters on the themes of fantasy and fear, Adler’s work created a relatively comprehensive look at the ways in which individual aspirations and societal viewpoints regarding marine science changed from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the present day.

    Along with containing a solid history of marine science’s development along a set theme, Neptune’s Laboratory also has the added benefit of being written in both a scholarly yet accessible manner. Adler’s sources were extensive and clearly referenced throughout the work so that points of interest have the potential to be researched further by interested readers. The book is also accessible to readers who have no previous experience on the subject, due in part to the goal Adler set for his book. Adler explained the development of the themes of anxieties and anticipations throughout the history of marine science, and did not solely provide the technical and legal features of the field.

    Overall, Neptune’s Laboratory contributes nicely to the study of marine science, as it covers a wide range of topics in the broad history of the field, all connected under a unifying theme. Alder’s use of accessible and scholarly language makes it both an excellent starting place and a beneficial addition to current scholarship. Adler’s division of information provided a clear organization of content in a cohesive manner, each portion of which had an important role within the work. These features all worked together to nicely support Adler’s main goal of demonstrating the ways that fantasy and fear fit into scientific research on maritime topics and the ways that humanity’s and individuals’ perceptions of the future have helped to lead to important developments in marine science.

    • New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019
    • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, 241 pages
    • Illustrations, notes, index. $39.95
    • ISBN: 9780674972018

    Reviewed by Bethany Earley, East Carolina University

  • November 20, 2020 12:32 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

    Heroes of Coastal Command: The RAF’s Maritime War 1939-1945

    Andrew D. Bird

    Andrew Bird’s latest work, Heroes of Coastal Command: The RAF’s Maritime War 1939-1945, is an excellent collection of historical narratives from members of the Royal Air Force’s Coastal Command during World War II. Coastal Command’s primary task was the defense of British military interests on the ocean, such as providing protection for the Allied convoys. Bird joined the Army Reserves at the young age of 18, and later the Royal Air Force Reserves. He has presented, written, and acted as a consultant on historical documentaries, and became a member of the Society of Authors in 2003. The book follows the personal stories of different pilots and officers of the Coastal Command. Overall, the book contains nine chapters, with a centralized emphasis on the bravery of these men but does not form a single argument.

    Bird portrays service members such as Commander Jack Davenport, the only pilot of the Royal Australian Air Force to be awarded the George Medal for his heroic rescue of a pilot trapped in a burning aircraft. Another is that of Flying Officer Lloyd Trigg, a New Zealand recipient of the Victoria Cross. Trigg’s B-24 Liberator pressed an attack on the German U-468, despite the damage to his aircraft. After dropping its depth charges on the U-boat, the Liberator crashed into the sea with no survivors. Trigg’s Victoria Cross is the only one awarded based strictly on the testimony given by an enemy combatant. Still another story is of Lieutenant Alfred ‘Ken’ Gatward and Sergeant Gilbert ‘George’ Fern. Together, the pair flew a Beaufighter from Thorney Island, east of Portsmouth, England, to Paris. Their mission was to air drop a large French flag over the Arc de Triomphe. They were also to strafe the Ministère de la Marine, and upon flying over it after a successful attack, drop a second French flag before they turned back to England. This was an attempt to boost the morale of the subjugated citizens of Paris. These are just a few examples of the extraordinary actions taken by the men and women of the Royal Air Force described in this book.

    Bird is meticulous with his facts. The book is filled with dialogue and small details that are well collected and researched. However, the chapters can be difficult for the casual reader to follow. Names, places, ranks, and abbreviations were heavily referenced, often with little to no context, making this work less comprehensible to those unfamiliar with history, the Royal Air Force, or British geography. The author is superfluous with details, which causes the overall flow of the historical narrative to be cumbersome. With the limited page count of the book, the author’s inefficient economy of words proves especially detracting.

    The critiques should not amount to a denunciation; quite the contrary. The author’s excellent sources include military documents, unpublished memoirs, private diaries, newspapers, and archival sources. However, the book is not making a historical argument; it is simply communicating a story. Thus, Bird wrote a thoroughly informative narrative of the brave heroes of Coast Command.

    • Barnsley: Frontline Books, 2019
    • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xii + 277 pages
    • Photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $44.95
    • ISBN: 9781526710697

    Reviewed by Tyler David Mclellan, East Carolina University

  • November 20, 2020 12:31 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

    Feeding Nelson’s Navy: The true Story of `Food at Sea in the Georgian Era

    Janet Macdonald

    It is good to see that this fine book has been reissued and is again available. The subject is far more interesting than its bare title suggests, and the author Janet Macdonald writes in an engaging and very readable style.

    As she points out, the ‘horror story’ of ships’ crews subsisting usually and continually on just rotten meat and weevilly biscuits cannot have been the accepted norm in the navies of old; a ship’s equipment and its armament were worked exclusively by muscle-power, for which regular intakes of calories for energy were needed as well as physical health. In the navy, food was at least plentiful, nourishing and served regularly, more so than could be said for that available to many categories of workers ashore. The whole story of what the foods were, how they were supplied, how the men and the officers ate, diet in health and sickness and how other navies than the British Royal Navy ate are covered in lively fashion. For any still intrigued to investigate further, an appendix of sea recipes for food and drink closes the book, from ship’s biscuit and salt beef through sea pie and lobscouse to rum punch.

    An immense amount of research has gone into this work and the result is an account that is both entertaining and very informative to all who have an interest in the ships and seafaring of past eras.

    • London: Frontline Books, 2020
    • 6” x 9”, softcover, 224 pages
    • Illustrations, bibliography, index. $24.95
    • ISBN: 9781848327474

    Reviewed by Roger Marsh, Killaloe, Co. Clare, Ireland

  • November 20, 2020 12:27 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

    Undersea Warriors: The Untold History of the Royal Navy’s Secret Service

    Iain Ballantyne

    Most of the Cold War was not fought on terrestrial battlefields between traditional military units. Instead, the decades long conflict was predominantly conducted covertly via highly specialized and technologically advanced forces designed to track, spy, and, if necessary, destroy enemy targets. Arguably, the most advanced and secretive technology deployed during this period was the submarine. In Undersea Warriors: The Untold Story of the Royal Navy’s Secret Service, author Iain Ballantyne unveils a comprehensive narrative that details the development and utilization of the submarine and submarine forces by Britain over the course of the twentieth century and into the present. The work is particularly focused on the Cold War period that witnessed the most intense submarine developments and actions as both East and West consistently attempted to maintain an edge on the other in the struggle for global supremacy.

    Although not a traditional historian, Ballantyne has spent decades as a journalist and author writing about military affairs, particularly those of the Royal Navy. He has personally spent time embedded as a journalist on most types of naval vessels, providing intimate firsthand knowledge that highly informs his work. Ballantyne does his due diligence with the primary and secondary literature, especially in technical matters, but his writing shines the brightest when he describes the drama of high intensity underwater operations. Through personal interviews and access to the journals and diaries of several key figures, Ballantyne ably places the reader directly in the control room during some of the most perilous missions and events, many only recently declassified, experienced by British naval submariners. Most of the narrative focuses directly on these figures; men such as Tim Hale, Rob Forsyth, Doug Littlejohns, and Dan Conley, whose stories traverse the history of British submarine forces from the early days of clunky diesel-powered vessels to the height of advanced nuclear submarine technology. Ballantyne interweaves their personal biographies into a tapestry that highlights not just the larger history of British submarine forces, but the intimate experiences of the commanders and crews of the vessels that daily braved life and limb to fulfill their duties.

    Undersea Warriors does suffer, however, from a writing style that strikes an uncomfortable balance between history and journalism. Ballantyne’s writing often feels disjointed as he jumps clumsily between traditional historical narrative, which is not his strength, and his more vibrant accounts of the personal experiences of his chosen protagonists. Furthermore, while his firsthand knowledge of naval operations provides excellent detail, Ballantyne often seems to assume the reader knows as much as he and utilizes naval jargon and technical language without always providing full context and explanation.

    Despite such issues, Undersea Warriors succeeds in documenting the importance and drama of submarine warfare during the Cold War era. It maintains a comprehensive scope while simultaneously reveling in intimate detail. It should stand as an important reference point for naval scholars and amateur enthusiasts alike for years to come.

    • New York: Pegasus Books, 2019
    • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xiii + 482 pages
    • Photographs, map, glossary, bibliography, index. $35.00
    • ISBN: 9781643132136

    Reviewed by Eric Walls, East Carolina University

  • November 20, 2020 12:19 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

    America’s Anchor: A Naval History of the Delaware River and Bay, Cradle of the United States Navy

    Kennard R. Wiggins, Jr.

    The Delaware River and Bay hold a special place in the formative history of the United States Navy, an important story that has become increasingly eclipsed as we approach the nation’s 250th anniversary. Philadelphia, as the nation’s first political capital, remains firmly fixed in popular and scholarly imagination, thanks to the twin touchstones of the Declaration and Constitution, and it is widely appreciated that Philadelphia was once America’s most populous and prosperous city. But Philadelphia as young America’s leading seaport and commercial center has largely been forgotten, all but divorcing this maritime city from its location along the Delaware River and vital linkage to the Delaware Bay and the open sea. We forget that Philadelphia was once the largest seaport in North America and probably the largest freshwater port in the world, that more than a quarter of the nation’s total exports during the Federal period passed through the city’s wharves. We forget that Philadelphia led the nation in shipbuilding, with more than twice the tonnage of any other shipbuilding center in the United States. And rarely, if ever, do we associate either Philadelphia or the Delaware River with the birthplace of the United States Navy – which holds true even for those of us who live in the area and regularly cross the Commodore Barry Bridge or drive past the looming presence of the once and mighty Philadelphia Navy Yard.

    Restoring Philadelphia’s role as early America’s leading maritime, commercial, and political center gives new meaning to the Delaware River and Bay as “the cradle of the United States Navy.” Kennard Wiggins’ naval history of the Delaware estuary—a basin that flows south from the falls at Trenton and encompasses Cape May on the New Jersey side of the bay and Cape Henlopen on the Delaware side—does that and more. Wiggins brings to life over three hundred years of a surprisingly active history, detailing the important men and ships as well as the shipbuilders and infrastructure that made the Delaware vital to the history of the United States Navy from its beginnings through the end of World War II.

    Wiggins, a retired military officer and author of five regional books on military history, lives in the Delaware Valley and knows his region well. His clear and concise writing style makes for an enjoyable read, and the book includes a vast array of interesting and insightful information about the colorful ships, men, and deeds that contributed to the progress of the United States Navy in both war and peace. The subject matter produces a sprawling story that suffers a bit from lack of seamless continuity, but the author recognizes this weakness at the outside and works to place the individual stories into larger chronological and topical patterns.

    The narrative is generously supported by fascinating and rarely seen maps, charts, drawings, and photographs, all excellently selected by the author. Four appendices provide lists and brief sketches of Delaware Valley Sailor and Marine Medal of Honor Recipients as well as vast numbers of naval vessels built in the city of Wilmington and other Delaware shipyards. The contributions made by these Wilmington shipbuilders, especially the firms of Harlan & Hollingsworth and Pusey & Jones, who led the nation in iron-hulled ship construction through much of the nineteenth century, is a welcomed inclusion and often overlooked feature of the maritime heritage of the Delaware River and Bay.

    • Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2019
    • 7” x 10”, softcover, vii + 288 pages
    • Illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $45.00
    • ISBN: 9781476671970

    Reviewed by Samuel Heed, Kalmar Nyckel Foundation

  • August 28, 2020 12:00 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

    1545: Who Sank the Mary Rose?

    Peter Marsden

    There have, to date, been several published volumes focused on the sinking and archaeological excavation of Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s great warship, and a number of them have been helmed by the author of this new publication, Who Sank the Mary Rose?. This text does not fall within the line of technical volumes published by the Mary Rose Trust, but instead provides a more general summary of the history of the service career of the vessel and the final moments on board as reconstructed from the archaeology. The most significant stated goals of the book, however, are to prove that Mary Rose had one more deck than previously thought, which meant the vessel would have been more unstable than previously acknowledged, and that it was actually King Henry VIII who was responsible for the instability that resulted in the loss of the vessel.

    Who Sank the Mary Rose? provides a thorough, and easily accessible historical timeline of the lengthy thirty-plus years of service of the vessel, as well as detailed historical contexts for the shifting political and military situations of the early sixtenth century. For those readers who are not already well-versed in the history of Mary Rose, this book provides a clear overview in a handful of chronological chapters. The first half of the book is taken up by this historical overview, which for some readers might feel overburdened with details that do not contribute to the overall narrative of the sinking of the vessel, however the clear organization of the chapters into distinct historical periods make it easy for the reader to focus their attention on the desired information.\

    While Who Sank the Mary Rose? provides a detailed historical context and an archaeological summary, it is a text that is more suited to a lay audience than an archaeological professional searching for technical explanations of the theories proposed by Marsden. The author does summarize his arguments for proposing an additional deck for the vessel, but some of the supporting pieces of information for these arguments seem to be glossed over, and not given the space for the technical detail that would invite archaeological discussion, and only two appendices are included: the dimensions of the masts and spars (with no discussion of the source of the ratios that produced them), and a catalog of the skeletal remains.

    The overall conclusion of the book, that Henry VIII was ultimately responsible for the sinking of Mary Rose, feels at times like a grasp for sensationalism, tenuously connected with the rest of the narrative of the vessel. The myth of the meddling king is always a popular one, demonstrated by the specter of King Gustavus Adolphus haunting the doomed warship Vasa in many retellings of the history of that particular vessel. However, taking into account the service history of Mary Rose, and the realities regarding vessel stability (including the scientific understanding of vessel stability of the period), it is difficult to buy into the idea that the blame for the sinking of Mary Rose really does unequivocally lie at the feet of the English monarch.

    Who Sank the Mary Rose? is an excellent summary, and entertaining read, for those who wish a manageable dive into such a complex subject. With a lack of jargon, and a clear narrative, it presents a compelling tale for the lay audience interested in the great warship of one of the most famous Tudor monarchs. 

    • Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2019
    • 7” x 10”, hardcover, 304 pages
    • Illustrations, drawings, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95
    • ISBN: 9781526749352

    Reviewed by Annaliese Dempsey, Texas A&M University

  • August 28, 2020 12:00 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

    Arctic Mirage: The 1913-1920 Expedition in Search of Crocker Land

    Winton U. Solberg

    On explorer Robert Peary’s 1906 expedition, he looked out over the Arctic icescape and thought he discerned a large landmass to his northwest, one which he called Crocker Land after a major donor to his expedition. On his return and the publicization of his findings, the question of Crocker Land’s existence became an urgent one in Arctic-minded circles. 

    Winton Solberg’s Arctic Mirage covers the entire arc of the expedition sent to discover the reality or unreality of Crocker Land. This covers not just the difficulties and dangers of the expedition itself, but the work it took to get it together, the journeys out and home, and the aftermath. The attention paid to the institutional politics behind the voyage is one of the book’s valuable resources, showing not just the small-scale intergroup dynamics that shape the character and content of such an effort, but the larger-scale flows of money and prestige that bring it into existence in this particular form and shape how and by who it will be remembered afterward. One of the last chapters of the book, for instance, goes into detail about the troubled publication history of expedition leader Donald MacMillan’s geographical report—it was not published by the American Museum of Natural History until 1930, long after other expedition members (including MacMillan) had published narratives of their experience. Readers interested in the ecology of the polar regions will also be drawn in by extensive descriptions of polar flora and fauna, and how they were charted and described by members of the expedition.

    What the book lacks at times is a certain degree of critical or analytical distance from its source material, so that at times the reader is jerked back and forth between different attitudes toward the people involved with little authorial guidance. On page 138, for instance, American Museum of Natural History curator of geology Edmund Hovey is “a tactless, impolite person” and on page 139 he is a “poor old man,” with no clear distance or distinction between whose points of view these are. This juxtaposition of perspective could be quite interesting, but it is not fully made explicit or analyzed and thus is often confusing.

    Where this tendency becomes especially unfortunate is in the description of the Inuit. Solberg seems to take the Americans’ characterizations of them as fact, so in his prose they retain the “childlike” qualities attributed to them by the explorers. In Solberg’s own prose they are hysterical, sulky, superstitious; the Americans have to learn their “tricks” (p. 43). No attempt is made to move far beyond this framing, and later in the book expedition member Elmer Ekblaw’s screed on the racial characteristics of the “Polar Inuit” is paraphrased in long stretches as if it were pure fact. To his credit, though, Solberg treats expedition member Fitzhugh Green’s murder of accomplished Arctic guide Peeahwahto (Piugaattoq) with full seriousness, devoting an entire chapter to it, though it might perhaps be wished for this incident to be connected back to the meat of the expedition and the knowledge it attempted to produce.

    On the whole, this is an in-depth and interesting narrative of the expedition in search of an unreal place, one which should however be read with a skeptical eye.

    • Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2019
    • 6” x 9”, softcover, vii + 255 pages
    • Photographs, map, notes, bibliography, index. $35.00
    • ISBN: 9781476638096

    Reviewed by Brooke Grasberger, Brown University

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The Nautical Research Guild regularly publishes reviews of books about naval/maritime history and ship modeling.  Each issue of the Nautical Research Journal includes several book reviews, but there are often more book reviews than the Journal can accommodate. 

The listing below includes book reviews for each issue of the Journal starting with Volume 58.  You may browse the reviews by the issue of the Journal, by book title, or by author.

Book reviews marked 'Journal Only' (and are not clickable) are found in the pages of the listed issue of the Nautical Research Journal.


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