Frederick Hamilton – Temple -Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava (1826-1902)
A well-known politician and diplomat during the second half of the nineteenth century, Lord Dufferin was a Governor-General of Canada, and served as Viceroy in India. He was a traveler in the grand tradition, sailing his own yacht and visiting most of the trouble spots in the English Empire. His grand-father was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the somewhat rake-hellish playwright of the 18th century. He had a life-long interest in the countries and culture of the far north and in 1856 undertook an exploratory voyage in his yacht, the Foam, to Iceland, Jan Mayen, and Spitsbergen, with stops in Denmark and Norway.
Dufferin’s account takes epistolary form, consisting of a number of letters to his wife. The expeditionary force left Glasgow and crossed Scotland via the route through Loch Fyne and the Campbell country and Inverness. At Stornoway, they boarded Dufferin’s yacht and before departing, mounted a golden figurehead, a carved wooden bust of a young lady. In addition, they laded supplies, vegetables, chickens, and sheet music and hen coops and sacks of coal. As well as the normal crew, a doctor (so-called “Fitz”) was aboard, and Wilson, Dufferin’s personal valet/servant, Ebenezer Wyze as sailing master, and an Icelandic guide, Sigurdyr. After picking up their guide in Copenhagen, they traveled directly to Iceland, intending to visit representative tourist attractions: Snorri Sturleson’s farm (writer of Icelandic Eddas), Reykyavik, and the Geysers. On the way, Dufferin became sea-sick and Fitz experimented on him, being the curious type, dosing him with brandy,prussic acid, opium, champagne, ginger, muttonchops, and salt water. In spite of these questionable physics, he eventually got well, much to the disappointment of Wilson, an Eeyore type who continually expressed himself in dire terms regarding the hopelessness and certain disaster to which the entire party was doomed.
At Reykyavik, they acquired 26 horses and additional guides and visited Snorri’s place first and the Geysers second. Dufferin’s letters are full of description, detailing the various basaltic forms of lava, aa, and pahoehoe, as well as extensive plains of flood basalts. The most impressive of the latter was the Plain of Thingvalla, the location where the original Icelandic Parliament was instituted. A vast expanse of smooth magma, depressed about a hundred feet below the surrounding plain, leading down to a crystal-green lake, a geological oddity having, apparently, spiritual significance to the early settlers. The party spent several days at the Geysers, admiring the fire fountains and hot water puddles and ponds, and experimenting with the unpredictable Strokr, a boiling pit with a mind of its own. It was normally dormant unless a curious bystander threw things like rocks or dirt into it, at which time, after pondering a bit, it ejected the offending objects back out along with hot water and steam, with the assumed intention of wreking revenge on the reprehensible perpetrators.
Back in Reykyavik, Dufferin met with Prince Napoleon, related to the French royal family, with two steam ships, the Hortense and her sister coaling ship. After a very liquid ball/party, the Prince offered to tow the Foam to the north of Iceland with the Hortense, as that was the direction in which both ships intended to go . Dufferin accepted out of friendship and friendly relations (he was, after all, a diplomat). The departure had to be postponed for a day, though, because the crew of the Foam, wanting their own party, had invaded the doctor’s medicine chest and consumed everything in it, making themselves violently ill and dysfunctional. Arriving at a northern fiord, the Foam proceeded alone, as the Hortense ran out of coal because the coal ship ran aground and tore a hole in its hull. At this point, the days became 24 hours long, and the crew and occupants of the yacht felt as if they were drifting through a silent and misty Valhalla, with black and grey crags and snow fields, a place of “cyclopean disorder”, looming periodically through the ever present fogs.
Maintaining a westward heading the little yacht cruised along the edge of the pack ice, eventually arriving, as was the company’s intent, close to Jan Mayen, an island not too far from Greenland. The first thing they saw was Mt. Beerenberg, replete with seven large glaciers, emerging from the mist, climbing almost 6,000 feet directly from the waterline, like a needle or a spike. I should mention that during the trip, Dufferin, according to his own admission, felt bored, and had Dr. Fitz extract a tooth to relieve his monotony. Anyway, a landing party took the gig and beached on a pyroxene/augite shore (pyroxenes are a common member of metamorphic rocks; augite is one sort of pyroxene) and, taking the figurehead with them, mounted the latter on a nearby rock, with the ensign of St. George to the fore. Back on the boat, they noticed that the pack ice was beginning to surround their location. “Wilson moved uneasily about the deck, with the air of Cassandra at the conflagration of Troy”. So they left, planning on an attempt to reach Spitsbergen, opposite the top of Greenland on the east side.
But first they broke up the trip with a visit to Hammerfest, Norway, the northern-most city in Europe, for a breather and a respite from the struggle to avoid being seized by the ice. Dufferin describes the town as “reeking of rancid cod-liver oil”, but he includes an interesting description of the Lapplanders and their quaint and curious customs. Presented with gifts they were unable to refuse, the crew is augmented with an arctic white fox and a goat. The two spend some time getting to know each other, butting heads and chasing one another around the deck, much to the amusement of the other occupants, excepting Wilson.
Anyway, they finally leave Hammerfest and try to reach Spitsbergen. The expedition sails along the lower edge of the ice, humting for leads or corridors, the only chances of attaining their destination. Sailing as far as Greenland, they find a series of openings which they tentatively follow, hoping they won’t be trapped permanently in the ice, resulting in having to spend the winter, and probably starving to death. But they do find the island(s) and land, using the opportunity to visit the graves of former residents, and to make some desultory inspections of the geology and glaciology of the region. They find mostly gneiss and micaceous slates and other lower class metamorphics.
Having attained the original goal of the expedition, Foam escapes the ice and visits various locales in Norway before sailing home. They almost run aground at the Roost, a rocky islet just south of the Lofotens, and make a brief search for the site of the Maelstrom, to the satisfaction of Wilson, who dreams of drowning in that supposedly infinitely deep whirlpool. They stop at Trondheim and Bergen, where Dufferin includes synopses of some of the Norse sagas and briefly hints at the history of the Vikings along with their battles, kings, and voyages. And finally after a four month voyage of 6,000 miles, they arrive safely home.
I quite enjoyed this book. It requires some mental manipulation, involving transporting oneself back through time, so that inappropriate judgements don’t interfere with the reader’s appreciation of the narration, but Dufferin was a humorist, among other things, and is a lot of fun to read. A nineteenth century indigene, he was an effective diplomat and accomplished many successful interventions in Canadian and Indian political disputes.