The Magnetism of Antarctica: The Ross Expedition 1839-1843
By JOHN KNIGHT
(Whittles Publishing – £18.99)
ISBN 978 184995 501 0
“The first thorough account of this expedition”, so runs the head-line on the back cover. ‘Thorough’ is well justified. The author declares that it has taken years to put this book together and it is a worthy effort. It is good that there are outlets that enable such an enthusiast to publish the results of intensive study and research. Whether they, and more importantly, their readers are best served by a light editorial touch is another matter. How can “unchartered waters” slip through twice on the very first page of text! More seriously, the reader can be left to trudge along by-ways and push through thickets of padding, reflecting the desire of the author to leave out none of the fruits of his sleuthing.
The rest of the ‘puff’ is unmerited. Rear Admiral M. J. Ross, great-grandson of the expedition’s leader, produced a meticulous and eloquent account with fine illustrations, that was beautifully published by Caedmon of Whitby in 1982. Though copies are now quite scarce, this remains the recommended text for NR readers, who will be well aware that the suggestion that the voyage is ‘under-documented’ does not stand up. There has been ample coverage in accounts of polar exploration, especially since the discovery of the wrecks of Erebus and Terror (e.g., Malcolm Betts, HMS Terror, – see NR On-line Book Reviews).
So, what does the book offer? There is a clear explanation of the purpose and preparation of the expedition and a detailed narrative of the voyage, in which substantial diversions, such as a description of Chatham Dockyard, probably offer benefit to a general reader with no background knowledge. So too will be the description of life onboard, which is generally sound. The account carries the reader along more smoothly once in the Southern Ocean, and here the author’s wide knowledge of the history of Antarctic exploration is beneficial.
The title is a neat reflection of the main objective of the voyage, namely the extension of measurements into the southern hemisphere that would build up a picture of the Earth’s magnetic field. This work is well-covered, although a more detailed explanation might have been given at the outset, rather than later in the book. Here the slender apparatus is pertinent, for there is no index helping a reader to track down pertinent content. Ross had located the North Magnetic Pole, and his personal enthusiasm and skill come though clearly. Whilst he was disappointed to find that the South Magnetic Pole lay beyond the inaccessible ice, he set up important observatories, particularly that at Hobart, where measurements could subsequently be compared with those made at Toronto, almost the antipode.
The accolade of ‘thorough’ certainly reflects the detail in the second and third parts of this book, comprising almost half of its content. Under the headings ‘The Sailors’, Stories’, and ‘The ships and their sailors’, they are a repository for the information culled mainly from Wikipedia websites (“a veritable fountain of information”) and Ancestry.com (“the incomparable site for family history and so much more”). There is much repetition here, and also much peripheral matter, including descriptions of the full life of every HM ship that passes across the pages of the narrative. There are undoubtedly nuggets of new information to be found, but, without that index, there is no aid to doing so. It is hard to imagine the dense text holding the reader’s attention. Whilst an apparatus of endnotes would not be appropriate, neither acknowledgements nor bibliography give help to a reader who might wish to follow up a trail in original documents at The National Archives, National Maritime Museum, or Scott Polar Research Institute. This book can be recommended as a reliable and affordable account for the general reader, but it is not an easy read.
M. K. BARRITT