An argument about Bartlett

Did Bob Bartlett get Robert Peary to the North Pole in 1909, as Peary claimed? Did Bartlett lie about how far north the expedition got? In 1992, a New Brunswick scholar called A.C. Bonga claimed that Peary was not successful in his quest for the pole and that Bartlett knew this but said otherwise. 

Readers of Unchained Man, my new biography of Bartlett,  will know that Bonga was not the first person to make such an allegation. There was controversy from the moment Peary trekked back to his ship, the Roosevelt, after presumably reaching the pole and the arguments persisted for decades. 

Bonga’s assessment of what happened at the top of the world in 1909 appeared in the journal Polar Record. Lord Edmund Shackleton was quick with an angry rebuff. Edmund Shackleton was the son of Irishman Sir Ernest Shackleton who had famously effected a dramatic Antarctic rescue. Edmund himself was no stranger to snow and ice, having been part of the Oxford University Arctic Expedition of 1935–6 in an attempt to live up to his famous father’s legacy. 

Edmund Shackleton was affronted at the slur on Bartlett. Shackleton was “greatly surprised,” having known Bartlett as “the soul of honour.” Writing in the Polar Record, he continued with no small degree of anger, “I cannot believe that [Bartlett] would have in this manner prostituted himself…”

Further, “if Bartlett were alive today, he would have refuted the allegation in unprintable terms. But, if he were alive, it probably would not have been published” Shackleton, who had met Bartlett, might have been right on these two counts. 

But he over-estimated Bartlett in some respects. There was evidence, as Bonga stated, that the captain “stretched the truth on other occasions.” (Readers of Unchained Man will know this.) Yet Bonga concluded, “That Bartlett’s precise role on the Peary expeditions may remain a matter of conjecture does not diminish his stature as a sailor and Arctic explorer.” In this, Bonga was correct. 

It’s interesting that several decades after his death in 1946, Bartlett evoked such passions. Shackleton certainly saw red at Bonga’s statements. A large part of this comes down to the brotherhood of polar explorers, the almost wartime-like cameraderie, the connections between duty, honour, and love of country that so many of them shared. In Shackleton’s view, there is also gender and class loyalty and an abiding nostalgia for the Heroic Age of Exploration. Bartlett (pictured here with Peary) would have recognized and felt at home with all these things and, although he generally couldn’t stand Englishmen, he would have been delighted to read Shackleton’s passionate defense.

Subscribe to the blog All Things Arctic (captainbobbartlett). It’s written by Maura Hanrahan, author of the new biography of Bob Bartlett: Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram BartlettThe book has been endorsed by New York Times best-selling author Jennifer Niven who writes: “A riveting comprehensive portrait of one of the most dynamic and enigmatic sea captains the Arctic has ever seen. Robert Abram Bartlett was larger than life, his adventures the stuff of legends. Maura Hanrahan expertly recounts the long overdue, very true story of this understated polar hero in engaging, dramatic prose.”

Featured photo courtesy of Glen Chaytor.