Professor Edward J. Cowan: ‘The Arctic Scots and the Search for the Northwest Passage’

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On 26 January, the Centre was delighted to welcome Professor Edward Cowan, who delivered the seminar ‘The Arctic Scots and the Search for the Northwest Passage’. Professor Cowan began his career in 1967 at the University of Edinburgh and held positions with the University of Guelph and the University of Glasgow before becoming Director of the University’s Crichton Campus in 2004. Dr Martin MacGregor, in his introduction, referred to Professor Cowan’s unrivalled ability to span time periods with authority, the truly Scottish nature of his research (ranging across all areas of the country and its inhabitants), and his endeavours in public engagement, before adding that Scottish history, as a subject, owed him a major debt of gratitude.

In his opening remarks Professor Cowan noted that his aim, through this research, was to recover the Scottish identity of those involved in Artic expeditions (particularly during the ‘golden age’ of Arctic exploration between 1818 and the 1850s) such as Sir John Ross, Sir James Clark Ross, Sir John Richardson, and John Rae. In doing so, Professor Cowan stressed that this did not mean that Scots held a superior position within the annals of Arctic exploration, but that their achievements had often been incorporated within wider British histories that rendered their nationality invisible. Furthermore, beyond the more famous exploits of named individuals, Professor Cowan was keen to highlight the contribution of many Scots (especially from Orkney and Shetland) within the whaling industry, which has gone largely unacknowledged.

Professor Cowan then detailed the exploits of Sir John Ross and the first truly professional expedition to find the Northwest Passage (a navigational stretch of sea connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans) in 1818. This expedition, however, proved disappointing. In short, having arrived at the Lancaster Sound (which would eventually prove the eastern entrance to the passage), Ross looked, saw, and left. Though his crew disagreed, Ross was adamant that there was no way through the sound, and his reputation never truly recovered from this disastrous mistake. The trip was ridiculed by John Barrow, who contended that Ross’ expedition was nothing more than a summer journey around Baffin Bay. Ross, however, secured funding to return to the Arctic in 1829, sailing on the steamship the Victory. In his own writing, Ross described the ‘long imprisonment’ he and his crew experienced when their ship became trapped in the ice for four years. He reflected on the dangers faced by the crew and compared the inevitability of the recurring darkness to death itself.

Undeterred, Ross made his third and final journey to the Arctic in 1850, this time in search of Sir John Franklin and his crew following the ill-fated expedition of 1845. Professor Cowan outlined that the disappearance of Franklin and his crew of over one hundred on the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, while a terrible tragedy, was representative of the Eurocentric and imperialistic attitude embedded within the Royal Navy. However, he also argued that many Scots (such as John Rae, in particular) demonstrated an awareness that the success of expeditions depended on co-operation with local Inuit and a willingness to learn from Inuit culture.

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