“To be, or not to be”: Writing to survive in the Arctic

21 September 2018

Empire and Globalism | History | Theatre

On the 21st December, 1852, whilst enduring extreme temperatures and surrounded by nature at its most treacherous, a group of Royal Navy men stranded in the Arctic seemingly put on a production of Hamlet. At least, that’s what the local Arctic news source of the time, The Queen’s Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette, informs us. Granted, this news source was written by the Royal Navy men in question, but their write-up of the play’s success, complete with play bill and illustrations, make it difficult to imagine otherwise.

Image © The British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection click the images in the blog.

Taken from the recently published Age of Exploration, this news source is actually a unique manuscript, hand-written and illustrated by the crews of HMS Assistance and Pioneer whilst they were stranded at Northumberland Sound from the winter of 1852 through to the summer of 1854. The crews were part of a larger search expedition by the British Admiralty which was tasked with exploring various parts of the Arctic in the hope of finding traces of Sir John Franklin and his lost crew. However, as was a common risk for ships in the Arctic’s icy seas, HMS Assistance and Pioneer became trapped in an ice pack at Northumberland Sound, and the stranded crews were left to their own devices.

As inertia set in, survival became not only about battling the elements, but also about battling two equally dangerous bedfellows – hopelessness and boredom. Offering a source of stimulation, entertainment and normalcy, this is where The Queen’s Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette, and theatrical productions (fictitious or no), came in to play. The Gazette features a mix of accounts of the expedition so far, reports on everyday life or fictional occurrences at the Northumberland Sound winter quarters, and a mix of carefully crafted, tongue-in-cheek reader correspondence, reviews, notices and advertisements.

Image © The British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection click the images in the blog.

It’s fantastical, humorous and at times gruesome: one correspondence piece addressed “To the editor” laments that polar bears, being presently too easy to kill, “are not now what they used to be”, before going on to relay a gruesome tale of a bear attack during one of the Willem Barentsz expeditions. Another reader describes the details of an ‘Atrocious Murder’ in the heart of the crew’s small community, with the editor commending the swift actions of the local magistrate, “Admiral Walrus”, in confronting the situation. The victim is revealed to be an unfortunate Arctic fox named “Reynard”.

Image © The British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection click the images in the blog.

Tales of the productions put on at the tastefully dubbed “Queen’s Arctic Theatre” however, are a highlight of the Gazette. Preceding the production of Hamlet are performances of “The Inimitable Comedy of the Irish Tutor” and the “perfect Farce of the Silent Woman”. The complex preparations for the opening night, as well as the verdict on the success of the plays, are all detailed in the Gazette. Complete with musical interludes, the performances must have been a sight to behold, even if, at the very least, they were destined solely for entertaining a bored mind’s eye.

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About the Author

Amy Hubbard

Amy Hubbard

Since joining Adam Matthew’s editorial team in January 2015 I’ve had the privilege to work on some fantastic resources including ‘World’s Fairs: A Global History of Exhibitions’, 'Race Relations in America‘ and 'Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda’. My academic background is in literature and film and my main academic interests lie in visual culture, in particular anything to do with David Bowie.

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