BOOK REVIEW / Cold facts about the profit motive: 'The Arctic: A History' - Richard Vaughan: Alan Sutton, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IN THE face of the paper blizzard of Arctic histories - the far north attracts attention from almost as many disciplines as there are types of snowflake - it seems strange at first that Richard Vaughan's should be the first attempt at an integrated human history of the whole region. What, only one book shaped like this? But the novelty of the project is less surprising than it appears.

There are good reasons to wonder how well the many specialised histories - of Arctic whaling, Arctic empire-building and Arctic ecology - tessellate together. Unlike the Antarctic, which is geographically distinct, the northern polar lands are joined to the continents of the old world and the new. They're the frozen margin of Asia and America. Rather than being locally prompted, much of what has happened there has referred southward, and makes sense as part of, say, Russian or Canadian history. The kind of gathered historical study Vaughan has in mind was pioneered for regions such as Latin America or the Middle East, which form their own centre of gravity, and whose history, even if it is a history of conquest or colonisation, is united by common responses to environment. If the Arctic had remained in the hands of its native inhabitants, such a coherent account might have been possible. But Arctic history is schizophrenic. Two radically incompatible sorts of human behaviour figure in Vaughan's narrative of the mass of acts and consequences framed by the horseshoe of cold shore around the polar sea.

Before they had any contact with the great world to the south, the native peoples of the Arctic expected the seasonal metamorphosis of land and sea, but little other change. They devoted themselves to getting and spending calories: getting them from caribou, seals, birds and whales, spending them on love, art, religion, blood feuds and gossip. Their zero-sum existence, expertly adapted to the terrain but seeking no net gain from it, held no attractions for the newcomers, who inaugurated an Arctic history of dates and events. Whether the outsiders came to settle or only to 'discover', they meant by definition to win things from the ice.

Some of these were straightforward and concrete, because the Arctic was a storehouse of marketable riches, once the link could be made between the oil and gold and furs and the customers eager for them. (The Russian government, writes Vaughan, now plans to dig up 10 tons of fossilised mammoth tusks a year from Siberia.) Other objectives were less tangible - meteorological data, the conversion of the Eskimos to Christianity. Each was a benefit extracted. Though they collided, these two purposes in the landscape, and hence fundamentally different experiences of the Arctic, were scarcely even comprehensible to one another. They were as incomparable - to use Orwell's phrase for something else entirely - 'as a sausage and a rose'.

Vaughan solves the problem by confining the subject of the Arctic peoples (with apologies) to his first chapter, summarising their pre-contact history, and his last, which surveys their present state and the modest signs of hope for their future. Indignant at the ravages inflicted on Inuit and Chukchi, Sami and Nentsy, he remains detached, and so does his way with the material. He lets the pace and chronology of academic discoveries about those peoples set the structure of his account. He recounts prehistory by adding what was concluded in 1930 to what was suggested in 1905; magically strange details, like the presence in the Alaskan permafrost of bodies buried with artificial eyeballs of ivory and jade, never coalesce into whole pictures of ritual and survival.

Perhaps the archaeology of the north is too speculative and fragmentary to allow for a narrative from local points of view. It seems a shame, though, that they should be given quite so little autonomy. In any case, Vaughan is not principally an analytical historian. He puts his emphasis on inventively sourced facts: vigorous, Valuable data, not a pattern. The ten packed chapters give a wonderful digest of Arctic activity over ten centuries, by the Vikings, the Dutch, the Elizabethan English, the trappers of Quebec, tax-collecting Cossacks, Yukon miners and Bolshevik commissars. The pace is brisk, and the use of evidence engaging; you can't get far without learning that walrus hide was on sale in Cologne in the mid-1200s, or that the Hudson Bay Company (founded 1670) now exists as a chain of department stores. The illustrations evade the usual menu of expedition photos and whale woodcuts: 'KNOW YE', booms a Canadian poster of the Twenties, directed at the Inuit, 'The King of the Land commands you, saying Thou Shalt Do No Murder.' But each necessary switch of focus, each jump to a telling detail, reminds you how segmented this 'Arctic history' is, and how centrifugal. It keeps pointing - well, away from the Arctic, to the regions which produce kings and retail empires.

(Photograph omitted)

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