Arthur Conan Doyle and the Arctic (Part I)

Taissumani: 2008-09-19

By Kenn Harper

Arthur Conan Doyle is one of the best known writers in English literature, famous for his creation of the detective, Sherlock Holmes. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1859, he studied medicine in that city between the ages of 17 to 22. But in early 1880 he interrupted his studies for a journey to the Arctic as medical officer aboard a Peterhead-based whaler, the Hope, under the veteran captain, John Gray.

Conan Doyle went on to establish a medical practice and make a name for himself as a writer, known for a large number of works, not only his crime fiction work so well-remembered today in the Sherlock Holmes stories. One of most popular authors of modern times, he was also a sportsman, a crusader for social and criminal justice, a war correspondent, and a military historian.

In 1880, Holmes recorded his time aboard the Hope in two letters that he sent home to his mother, Mary, and in a hand-illustrated diary. As well as attending to sick crew members, he took an active part in sealing and whaling. He turned 21 years of age at 80 degrees north latitude.

The first letter home was written from Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, where vessels routinely stopped to hire the remainder of their crews and to wait out the time before it was reasonable to head farther north. There was no point in reaching the sealing grounds too early as an Act of Parliament prevented the killing of a seal before April 2.

He wasn't impressed with Lerwick, describing it as "the town of crooked streets, and ugly maidens, and fish. A most dismal hole, with 2 hotels & 1 billiard table. Country round is barren & ugly. No trees in the island."

But he liked his fellow seamen, whom he characterised as "fine honest fellows" and "such a strapping lot." He was astonished at how informed and self-educated some of them were, writing, "The chief engineer came up from the coal hole last night & engaged me upon Darwinism, in the moonlight on deck… The captain is a well informed man too."

There were thirty whalers waiting at Lerwick while Conan Doyle was there. Only two of them, the Hope and the Windward, were from Peterhead, and rivalry ran strong between their crews and those from the rival Scottish port, Dundee. Conan Doyle recorded a barroom brawl in which the Hope's first mate, Colin Mclean, tired of hearing his ship denigrated, wreaked havoc on half a dozen Dundee officers. "He floored a doctor & maimed a captain & got away in triumph," wrote Doyle. "He remarked to me in the morning, ‘It's lucky I was sober, Doctor, or there might have been a row.' I wonder what Colin's idea of a row might be."

His second letter home was written on April 7, from 73 degress north latitude, after sealing had commenced. They had left Shetland on March 10 and by the 20th had reached ice laden with basking seals.

"They were lying in a solid mass upon the ice," he wrote, "about 15 miles by 8, literally millions of them. On the 22nd we got upon the edge of them and waited. 25 vessels were in sight doing the same thing." But still they had to wait until the season opened, and in the meantime a gale arose on the 29th, breaking up the pack and dispersing the seals. When hunting finally opened, the results were poor.

He wrote about this first experience of sealing: "On the 3rd the bloody work began and it has been going on ever since. The mothers are shot and the little ones have their brains knocked out with spiked clubs. They are then skinned where they lie and the skin with blubber attached is dragged by the assassin to the ship's side. This is very hard work, as you often have to travel a couple of miles, as I did today, jumping from piece to piece before you find your victim, and then you have a fearful weight to drag back."

They were off Jan Mayen Island and here Conan Doyle was exhilarated, despite falling into the water five times in the first four days, earning himself the nickname, "Great Northern Diver." He frightened his poor mother with a description of his first tumble into the frigid water, "The first time I tried to get on to the ice, there was a fine strong piece alongside, and I was swinging myself down on to it by a rope, when the ship gave a turn of her propeller sending me clear of the ice and into the sea with 28° of frost on. I was hauled out by a boat hook in my coat, and went on the ice again when I had changed, without mishap."

The following day he fell in three more times. His diary told a hair-raising story about one of these falls, one in which he could very easily have lost his life: "I just killed a seal on a large piece [of ice] when I fell over the side. Nobody was near and the water was deadly cold. I had hold of the edge of the ice to prevent my sinking, but it was too smooth and slippery to climb up by, but at last I got hold of the seal's hind flippers and managed to pull myself up by them."

With the young sealing finished, the Hope steamed for Spitzbergen and the long-awaited whaling. Unfortunately no letters resulted from that part of the adventure.

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 [email protected].

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