Last year around this time, one of my colleagues was asked to be a special commenter on a showing of a documentary on campus. The film, Passage, focuses on a 19th century failed search for the Northwest Passage (the Franklin expedition) and its aftermath, which played out in the British admiralty, and in the press. The film focuses on one aspect of this: the question of whether the crew of the British ship turned to cannibalism before succumbing to the elements (which was the story told by Inuit informants to the HBC [Hudson's Bay Company] explorer John Rae), or whether no true Englishman would do such a thing, and they were actually eaten by the Inuit (which was the story Charles Dickens pushed in a rather awful piece of “journalism”). The film is rather firmly on the first side, and builds its argument in odd and ingenious ways.
As we talked about the film, we realized that there would be a lot to talk about by looking at a different kind of oceanic history: by looking at Arctic world history. And so, this year, we’re co-teaching a course called “True North: Circumpolar Histories.” (The syllabus is here, should anyone be interested.)
Teaching the course has been eye-opening. My colleague, a specialist in Canadian aboriginal history, and I are both regularly struck by things that either are consistent beyond the national borders of the places we research, or that are actually unique to them.
One thing that’s really struck me is, I suppose, really a confirmation, or a re-emphasis, on something that in principle I already knew: rivers are important in Russian history. It’s not just an abstract thing–though, seriously, go look at google maps of the Eurasian and the North American arctic, and see how different the river structure is–but is important in (and here I’m trying to build off John’s recent post) imagining space, and reconstructing how people of the past built their knowledge of the world.
I’ve realized that rivers have always been there in my images of Russia’s past (and present): people fishing in them, traveling on them (or pulling barges along them!), damming them, building canals between them. But it’s taken seeing them on old maps to make that realization pop, somehow.
This is some of the work of Semën Remezov, a cartographer from Tobol’sk, who mapped that city and eventually drew the first (detailed) map of Siberia. The big map above was based on a whole series of other smaller maps of individual rivers… and they’re now all visible in gorgeous scanned versions at Harvard’s Houghton Library, here.
It’s not surprising that rivers were the basis for mapping, really, given their importance for movement (I vividly remember being told to watch out for all the rivers in Avvakuum’s autobiography when I first read it as an undergraduate). But what’s really interesting, I think, is what that means for knowledge of the Arctic.
This is a 1775 English map (higher resolution version available here) based on a 1754 map by Gerhard Friedrich Müller originally published in Russia. It was the height of cartographic knowledge of the northern Pacific part of the Arctic–and very obviously, the (European, map-making) knowledge of Siberia and the American Arctic is dramatically different. Is this just because Europeans were “closer” to Siberia? Is it because the HBC only authority over rivers that fed into Hudson’s Bay itself, and so just didn’t make it that far? Is it the different geography of the two Arctics? Or is is something else about Russians and rivers?