Arthur Conan Doyle and the Arctic (Part 2)

Taissumani: 2008-09-26

By Kenn Harper

(Continued from last week)

Last week I wrote about the six months that Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, spent aboard a Peterhead sealer and whaler, the Hope, in the waters off Jan Mayen Island and Spitzbergen. This week, I'll return Conan Doyle to land and show how his interest in the Arctic remained with him for the rest of his life.

The adventurous life aboard ship agreed with Conan Doyle. From Lerwick he had written to his mother that "you will be glad to hear that I never was more happy in my life. I've got a strong Bohemian element in me, I'm afraid, and the life just seems to suit me."

In his later letter from the High Arctic, he wrote, "I never before knew what it was like to be thoroughly healthy," adding, "I just feel as if I could go anywhere or do anything." When the Hope returned to Scotland on Aug. 10, he noted symptoms of withdrawal in his diary: "The green grass on shore looks very cool and refreshing to me after nearly 6 months never seeing it, but the houses look revolting. I hate the vulgar hum of men and would like to be back at the floes again."

He never did return to the Arctic, although he spent one spell as ship's doctor off the African coast. But he maintained a lifelong interest in the North. In 1882 he sold a story, "The Captain of the Pole-Star" to Temple Bar magazine for 10 guineas. It drew upon his Arctic adventures aboard the Hope and appeared in January of the following year. That it was in part autobiographical is evidenced by the sub-title, "Being an extract from the singular journal of John M'Alister Ray, student of medicine," although the lunatic master of the title, Captain Nicholas Craigie, bore no resemblance to the kindly Captain Gray of the Hope.

In 1883, Conan Doyle gave a lecture on The Arctic Seas to The Portsmouth Literary & Scientific Society, which was "an unqualified and splendid success." The lecture also gave him "a quite unmerited reputation as a sportsman, for I borrowed from a local taxidermist every bird and beast he possessed which could conceivably find its way into the Arctic Circle. These I piled upon the lecture table, and the audience, concluding that I had shot them all, looked upon me with great respect. Next morning they were back with the taxidermist once more."

In 1884, he submitted an article, "Modern Arctic Discovery" to Good Words magazine, but there is no indication that it was published.

When the Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, lectured at London's Albert Hall on February 8, 1897, Conan Doyle was in attendance. And he attended a luncheon in honour of Robert Peary in May of 1910. He poked good-natured fun at the great explorer's accomplishments. "Writers of romance had always a certain amount of grievance against explorers," he said.

"There had been a time when the world was full of blank spaces, and in which a man of imagination might be able to give free scope to his fancy. But owing to the ill-directed energy of their guest and other gentlemen of similar tendencies these spaces were rapidly being filled up; and the question was where the romance writer was to turn." Ten years later, he met Vilhjalmur Stefansson, whom he described as "a dear fellow and a hero."

Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted in 1902. He died on July 7, 1930, beloved by his countrymen and admired by Sherlock Holmes fans worldwide. The epitaph on his grave marker reads "Steel True. Blade Straight" and describes him as "Knight, Patriot, Physician & Man of Letters."

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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