Pulling Our Boats: When Culture and Technology Hinder

arctic-overview1I was watching PBS recently (as always) and saw a great episode of Nova titled “Arctic Passage“. It detailed the failed Franklin Polar Expedition from the 1850’s.

Outfitted with the best 19th century technology, Sir John Franklin set out on a journey to navigate a northwest passage through the Arctic waters north of Canada. It was a journey with a thousand horrible decisions and even worse outcome.

As the ships were crushed under the immense pressure of the surrounding ice, Franklin and his men decided to abandon them and set out on foot to safety. They were able to convert the dingys into sleds which they used to haul their gear and belongings. One of these sleds was actually recovered by archeologists.

What might you expect to find in a sled of polar explorers making their way overland to safety? How about brass buttons, button polisher, books, and silver plated silverware? Rather than focus on the things needed to survive in their new environment, they continued to hold on to the trappings of Victorian England. So much so, that archeologists estimate that each of the sleds weighed more than 1400 pounds.

But there fate was almost officially sealed before they even left port. Their choices of provisions reflect the popular tastes of the time, but were grossly unable to sustain the men in their time of need. Among the provisions were 9450 pounds of chocolate, 3684 gallons of concentrated spirits, 7088 pounds of tobacco. All things to be enjoyed and make life better, but not able to fuel a crew of men pulling 3/4 ton sleds across arctic wilderness.

If this was not bad enough, the literal killer was found in the technology that they thought would actually be their life saver. Included in the provisions were 33, 289 pounds of tinned meat. The revolutionary canning method would allow meats to be transported without spoiling and guarantee the men sustenance in the gravest of conditions. With one major drawback.

Forensic testing found that the men did not only die of exposure to the Arctic weather, but that most of the men were struck with severe lead poisoning. Studies proved that the food they had consumed had been tainted with lead. The lead came from the tinned meats.

The cans would be soldered closed and the soft metal used to seal the cans would taint the meat with lead. The men were already poisoned and sentenced to death before the ships were ever encased in ice.

I watched in amazement at the thought of trying to tackle foreign environments and situations from a traditional, cultural mindset. Sitting in London, the answers to their needs would be easy to solve. Faced with frostbite, scurvy, and lead poisoning, they quickly found that the culture of London did not translate to the Arctic.

It’s easy to scoff at the idea of dragging 1400 pound sleds full of novelties and trinkets across the frozen ground, but I wonder if we don’t often do the same thing? Why do we burden ourselves with so many needless weights when we are trying to survive in a new culture/environment?

How much of our own cultural irrelevance is found simply in the fact that we refuse to stop pulling our boats?


2 Responses

  1. surely something to think about… nicely done!

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