When European merchants, navigators and chancers began searching for a northern sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Henry VIII was still a bachelor. The mazy waterways were navigable for a scant three months a year, and as late as 1819 only two white men had seen the north coast of Canada. By the time a wooden ship finally pushed through, an indifferent world was looking elsewhere. But the fabled Northwest Passage has returned to the news pages as a warming climate unlocks its deep channels, allowing access to hydrocarbons below the seabed. Anthony Brandt anchors his robust new history, “The Man Who Ate His Boots,” in that modern context. The editor of narrative anthologies of both polar regions, Brandt concentrates on the first half of the 19th century, a period in which the search for the elusive passage gathered momentum in the slipstream of post-Napoleonic peace. Having set the scene with reference to the Far North and its occluded waters in myth and tradition, he works chronologically through the expeditions, analyzing a range of cultural and social influences on the naval panjandrums who dispatched so many little ships to high latitudes. Science, for example, had become increasingly important, especially terrestrial magnetism, the climate change du jour.
more from Sara Wheeler at the NYT here.