VOYAGES OF DELUSION: The Quest for the Northwest Passage

Glyn Williams, Author, Glyndwr Williams, Author
Glyn Williams, Author, Glyndwr Williams, Author . Yale Univ. $29.95 (496p) ISBN 978-0-300-09866-2
Reviewed on: 03/03/2003
Release date: 02/01/2003
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Although the 18th century was the "age of reason," wishful thinking may better characterize the spirit of the era's adventurers' pursuit of the chimerical Northwest Passage (a sea route from North America's northeast coast through to the Pacific, which had already been a goal of explorers for 200 years). The advantages of such a route—cheaper access to the China trade, the opening of exploration in western North America and national glory—were so enticing, entrepreneurs convinced themselves they could hardly lose by sending out a mission. As University of London history professor Williams painstakingly documents, politicians and financiers eagerly talked themselves into pseudoscientific "proofs" that such a passage must exist, based on the direction of tides, the sighting of whales in inland waters and other factors. More "evidence" could be mustered from hoax voyage journals and conjectural mappings by cartographers willing to treat geography as a speculative art. Williams juxtaposes these wealth and fame seekers with the poor captains and crews of these ill-fated expeditions. Stranded in ice-bound refuges for long winters, they lost body parts from frostbite, died from scurvy or accidents—or if they made it back to Europe, often found themselves the objects of derision (or worse, court-martial) for not having found the passage their sponsors were sure existed. Readers know in advance the passage wasn't discovered then, but the addition of money-hungry patrons to the equation makes it more excruciating than a saga like Shackleton's Antarctic expedition. Williams may be too scholarly for general readers, but students of maritime exploration and 18th-century British politics will find this work engrossing, especially the detailed notes on sources. Illus. (Apr.)