Following recent journeys to Arctic and near Arctic regions ourselves, these two books took our eye when they appeared on the list for rebinding and repair. They date back almost to the founding of the library and are important not least because they contain the first recorded drawing of Okanagan marmots and very well fed they look too! Having gone to the trouble of adopting the books, it seemed appropriate to make the effort to read them, which took numerous visits to the library, because obviously in view of their value they are not allowed to leave the premises, but fascinating they proved to be.
The books are an account of this journey, paid for by public subscription and by a government grant in order to extend the knowledge of the Northern Coast of Canada, at that time still a British colony. Much of the account consists of a description of the places discovered and in true colonial style, often such lakes, rivers and other geographical features are named after the British royal family and prominent politicians e.g Victoria Headland (after the then Princess Victoria), Backhouse Point (after John Backhouse, foreign secretary) and Cockburn’s Bay (after the chairman of the Arctic Committee, Admiral Sir George Cockburn. Similarly buildings they used en route have stirring names like Fort Resolution and Fort Reliance.
However, in other respects the writing is surprisingly enlightened for the period, particularly with regard to the indigenous people. In their encounters with the expedition party, they are treated with sympathy and respect. The effect of previous contact between these people and the colonialists is often described unfavourably, for example with regard to the introduction of diseases and the effect of the fur trade. The Hudson’s Bay Company comes in for particular criticism in that the effects of the alcohol and firearms it has provided in exchange for furs have led to addiction and violence amongst previously peaceful people and loss of their traditional hunting skills.
Another interesting subject covered is the Northern Lights. King describes the sight graphically: “Sometimes appearing in the form of a splendid arch flitting across the heavens with inconceivable velocity and resembling the spiral motions of a serpent. Then suddenly disappearing, the veil of night would be at once diffused around, when quick as the flash of a star, a thousand dancing lights would again be seen playing mysteriously through the sky.” He also mentions myths: “The North American tribes believe it to be the spirits of their departed friends dancing in the clouds and when the aurora is brighter than usual, they say their deceased friends are very merry”. However, at a time when the understanding of electricity and magnetism was in its infancy, his explanation of the phenomenon is surprisingly scientifically accurate in associating it with the earth’s magnetic poles.
To get back to the marmots, King’s main role in the expedition was the observation of wildlife. He found Okanagan marmots to be very friendly with some settlers keeping them as pets. He identified them as a distinct species and collected some to be displayed at the recently opened Regent’s Park Zoo, recommending the conditions in which they should be housed. Sadly, their descendants are no longer there, but healthy populations still exist in Canada, especially British Columbia. King describes countless species of mammals, birds, fish and insects. Obviously he was unable to bring back live specimens of all of these, so he preserved them and brought them back in a large packing case, which at one anxious moment was almost lost overboard. This was the heyday of collecting and classifying and eventually in the 1860’s the Natural History Museum was built to house them all, so it is likely that King’s collection found its way there.
As far as this journey was concerned, they did not reach their objective of the ‘Polar Sea’, so the last chapter of the book is devoted to a justification for another overland trip to complete that mission. It would appear that this did not in fact take place, because the government was set instead on sponsoring journeys by sea to find the North West Passage, with disastrous consequences for the expedition led by Sir John Franklin in 1845, when all 129 crew were lost.