Ask most casual fans of the pioneering journeys in the Arctic and Antarctic regions and the same names are likely to crop up – Amundsen, Scott, Nansen, Shackleton, Peary. You could conceivably perish in the avalanche of literature, films and other media used to tell their stories. The majority of these immortalised the sometimes heroic and sometimes foolhardy early white explorers.
Speak to someone whose interest has evolved into passion however, and many other names begin to appear. Frequently, and rightly, they will represent the full spectrum of polar endeavour, beyond the usual suspects from North America and Great Britain.
Knud Rasmussen is one of the true greats. If you were to attempt the impossible of compiling a ‘Top Five in History’, this one-eighth-Greenlandic Dane would surely stand among them – a writer, a phenomenal leader and traveller of huge stamina, an advocate for the Arctic in Europe and across the Atlantic, and standing out as a true bridge between Arctic native and outsider.
Somewhat unjustly he has attracted few biographies, and even fewer written natively in English, perhaps due to the comprehensive and almost-poetic books he himself penned. Stephen Bown, a Canadian biographer with significant form, took up the mantle with his ‘White Eskimo’ - published in 2015.
Bown deals with both the purpose and personality of Rasmussen – his foundations and how a bewildering succession of experiences shaped him. What results is an insightful account, rather than merely a dry run-down of his major expeditions and their place in the timeline of polar history. It is unsurprisingly stronger for this.
Sometimes susceptible to repetition of pet words and over-summarising – interesting moments can seem glossed over – Bown does capture a fair portrait of a complex individual. He thankfully avoids the trap of hero worship and subtlety paints a picture of an at times hedonistic and even a calculating and narcissistic undercurrent to the young polar explorer - a journalist in his early days with an eye for networking.
Bown’s occasional weakness stems from his inexperience in the minutiae of polar terms and ‘how it works out there’. Parts can seem clumsy and inaccurate to someone with significant northern experience but this is rarely extreme enough to mislead or spoil a passage for a non-niche reader. A caption to a photo fails to identify an ice foot, and he wrongly attributes the first successful over-ice North Pole expedition.
An enormously positive surprise, and one that is more urgent with each passing year, is the way in which Bown deals with race and colonialism. Canada itself is gripped in a sometimes-vitriolic stalemate in terms of native-settler relations and reconciliation/retribution, and the chosen title including the word ‘Eskimo’ is brave, whilst being historically correct. Indeed, to some social agenda hard-liners the title alone would be incendiary. He, as a white, male Canadian scholar of settler descent, walks a minefield. In my view though he does so with balance and objectivity – showing respect for and casting light on good behaviour and allowing for disapproval of the bad – regardless of the place of his subject’s birth. On one occasion he remains impartial whilst describing the seemingly casual act of Rasmussen and his companion planting a Danish flag in a newly discovered Inughuit village – completely regardless of the fact the region had been occupied for centuries and had even had other colonial visitors decades before. Bown stands aside and leaves this bitter taste for the reader to mull over and reconcile.
A core of the narrative is naturally the series of journeys Rasmussen undertook through his life. With some significant skill, Bown manages to pull together the important moments, not overusing diary entries from the participants (a somewhat lazy tactic), and provides a clear account of the toils and personal relationships. Maintaining good pace is tricky when recounting expeditions and Bown does so – all the more impressive given his varied writing back-catalogue.
Points can be laboured – one example being that any attentive reader will have grasped that Rasmussen was charismatic and gregarious, and didn’t need to be reminded of this through each chapter in addition to the illustrations of such facts. Minor quibbles aside though, and they *are* minor, the balance of pace and detail makes ‘White Eskimo’ an easy yet thought-provoking read.
For those of you with more than a passing curiosity about the Arctic and early Western exploration of it, I implore you to take an interest in Knud Rasmussen’s life. To that end, this book is an excellent starting point.