Taissumani: March 2, 1876 – The last entertainment this winter
One of the most challenging tasks for the captain of an exploration vessel wintering in the Arctic in the days before electricity and radio was knowing what to do to keep the crew active and alert during the dark period of the winter. Of course, good food was important because scurvy was a constant threat.
But mental well-being could not be overlooked. The dark period could be depressing, and the farther north one was, the more intense was the dark. The officers would at least be kept busy with scientific observations, but for the ordinary seaman, who was often illiterate, there was little to do. Sledge travelling was generally out of the question. And the period when the light was beginning to return always seemed to be the time when the already-frigid weather turned even colder. Yet it was important that the men not degenerate into lethargy and torpor.
Sir Edward Parry, who passed the winter of 1819-20 at Melville Island, started an evening school aboard his ship, with the officers acting as teachers. This had the advantage not only of keeping the men busy but of educating them as well. He also started a manuscript newspaper, to which crew members contributed, and which was passed from hand to hand.
In the winter of 1875-6, the Alert, under the command of Captain George Strong Nares, wintered at Floeberg Beach on Ellesmere Island, at 82º 28’N, the highest latitude that any ship had ever reached. Here the winter would be very long and very dark. Establishing a school was an important order of business. Classes began in the lower deck on Nov. 1, and operated each evening thereafter for an hour between 8 and 9 p.m. Attendance was regular until the sun began to reappear in mid-February.
After classes, the men had the rest of the evening to themselves. Chess and cribbage were among the popular pursuits. Unlike in Parry’s time, half a century earlier, on Nares’ ship, there were only two men who could not read and write, so books were also a source of entertainment and relaxation. Many men also kept their own journals. This ship also carried a piano, and was fortunate in having a talented musician among the officers.
Thursday nights were special nights on the Alert. They were devoted to dramatic entertainments, magic lantern exhibitions, lectures, readings and music. Nares called this series of entertainments the Thursday Pops.
During the search for the missing expedition of Sir John Franklin, many ships had begun to carry printing presses. The presses had a strategic purpose — they were used to print messages to be left so that the missing men might find them and know of the rescue attempts. But they were also used in promoting the popular entertainments carried out aboard ship — programs like Nares’ Thursday Pops.
On the Alert, two crew members, George Giffard and Robert Symons operated the press. Their first production was a tongue-in-cheek notice, announcing that “The Arctic Printing Office” had been set up in Trap Lane “within half a minute’s walk of the foremost Quarter Deck Ladder, and easily accessible to all parts of the city.”
The first of the Thursday Pops was announced a few days in advance by a printed notice, which stated:
“On Thursday, the 11th of November, 1875, will commence a series of popular entertainments, that will consist of lectures, readings, recitations, and music… No trouble or expense have been spared in obtaining the services of a great number of the most talented men of the day. The entertainment will be given in the airy and commodious hall situated in Funnel Row.” That evening featured a lecture on astronomy by Captain Nares, and a number of songs. Other evenings had lectures on magnetism, geology, meteorology, steam, history, and Arctic plants.
The second Thursday featured the first dramatic performance. The men — for the crewmembers were all men — put tremendous effort into making these performances amusing and entertaining. Costumes were sewn, wigs were made from muskox hides, and men dressed in drag when a female role was required. Indeed, in the very first play, the engineer, George White, played the role of Dinah Gruffin, and made “a fascinating little Dinah of six feet high, dressed in a Dolly Varden costume, whilst the other ladies were all that could be desired, and looked charming in their gorgeous silk and muslin dresses.”
The flyer produced for the evening of March 2 announced that that production would be “Positively the last Entertainment this Winter.” The reason was simple — the light had returned with the advent of spring and the men would shortly be away on sledging expeditions. As if to prepare them for this flurry of spring activity, Nares gave a final lecture that evening, “The Palaeocrystic Sea and Sledging Experiences.” It was followed by songs, readings and recitations. The evening ended, as did all these evenings, with a hearty rendition of “God Save the Queen.”
Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.