By Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, August 23, 2009
The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson -- A Tale of Mutiny and Murder in the Arctic
By Peter C. Mancall
Basic. 303 pp. $26.95
Chronicles of exploring the far north and south are full of erratic behavior by men suffering from the staggering cold, little or no sunlight, and a lack of the right food. Boredom, frustration, claustrophobia, petty jealousy and raving madness lie in wait for those stuck on a ship or a barren coastline for the long winter; and few physical conditions are more debilitating than scurvy, which sets in as the body runs out of Vitamin C. Most sufferers just stick it out, but historian-anthropologist Peter C. Mancall's "Fatal Journey" covers one of the rare instances when expeditionary tensions led to outright mutiny. Timed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of English mariner Henry Hudson's last voyage, the book recounts the puzzling episode of a captain overthrown by an enraged faction of his own crew.
In his mid-40s at the time, Hudson had commanded earlier voyages aimed at carving out a passage around northern Europe and Russia to India. Foiled in these attempts, he turned west, hoping to reach the same end-point the other way 'round. In either direction, the underlying goal was the same: a shortcut to flavor. As Mancall puts it, "The spices grown on the tropical islands in the Southwest Pacific had become not just a commodity but an obsession for people across England. Physicians sought them to harvest their medicinal value; cooks wanted the zest that enlivened otherwise dull dishes; social elites wanted to extract their scents to help deflect the common smells of their world. The desire for exotic and rare flora was permeating all strata of society." To reach the hot, fecund spice-belt, these seekers sought to penetrate the frigid, stark north.
The third of Hudson's four voyages took him up the "goodly river" that now bears his name: He turned around near the future site of Albany, N.Y., after a party sent ahead returned with the news that "only 25 miles farther . . . the river was only 7 feet deep." Obviously, the piquant lands could not be reached that way.
By this time, in Mancall's estimation, Hudson had proved himself no slave-driver, but a level-headed planner who knew better than to push his men too hard. Mancall sums up this knack as balancing one's "sense of honor with the intensity of his ambitions." All of which makes one wonder how, on his last voyage, Hudson could have run afoul of the men to whose welfare he devoted so much care.
The blame may go partly to a gap in human knowledge. Collective wisdom could tell seafarers how to dress for the deep cold, steer the ship around icebergs and ward off scurvy (raw meat would do it). But there was no book on how to manage uprooted and confined men. Benefiting from 300 more years of stored-up experience, the 20th-century Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott took care to keep his crew amused during periods of forced inactivity -- having them collaborate on a newspaper, for example, and put on plays. The men of Hudson's last crew seem to have just sat around and sniped at each other.
On this trip Hudson sailed farther north, discovering the immense bay that took his name. But he made a tactical mistake, although one understandable among hierarchy-minded Englishmen of his era, by squirreling away food and then sharing it with his favorites. A savvier leader might have recognized the tremendous importance -- both actual and symbolic -- of food and forgone the perks of position in favor of share-and-share-alike.
Hudson's pilferage and favoritism exacerbated his men's misery, and after hotheads seized control of the ship, they set the captain and a few others adrift in a small boat and made for home. Henry Hudson was never seen again. The only way the abandoned men could have survived, Mancall believes, was by attaching themselves to, and learning from, the local Inuit; but nothing in Hudson's background or character suggests he would have "stooped" to that. Back on board the ship, several men, including the chief mutineers, were killed during an Inuit attack; the others made it back to England, where they gave self-serving testimony to various tribunals looking into the case.
Mancall tells his story in a flat style, without much regard for its drama. Fortunately, the material is so compelling that this uninspired approach detracts from it only a little. "Fatal Journey" is a short and dependable guide to what befell a great but flawed explorer.
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World. His book "Mile-High Fever: Silver Mines, Boom Towns, and High Living on the Comstock Lode" has just been published.