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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Surviving the Arctic

When William Edward Parry was sent to search for the Northwest Passage through the Arctic in 1819 he was given two ships, ninety-four sailors, and enough provisions to last two years. Included among these provisions were hundreds of tins of canned meat and vegetables, an innovation that went a long way towards ensuring the safe return of the expedition.

In the 18th century, the traditional diet aboard a British naval vessel consisted of three staples: beer, biscuit, and meat. Since water did not stay fresh, thirsty sailors received a ration of beer. Flour was served in the form of ship's biscuit, which tended to be as hard as a rock and infested with insects. As for the meat, it was salted, stored in barrels of brine and as tough as an old boot.

Canning changed all this. The process was pioneered in France using champagne bottles and adapted for tin cans in Britain early in the 19th century. Because it was expensive, canned meat did not penetrate the consumer market for several years, but naval ships were supplied almost immediately. This, combined with fruits and vegetables to avoid scurvy, allowed vessels to range over great distances and remain at sea for many months -- even years -- without their food supplies spoiling.

Canned provisions did not guarantee a crew's safety, of course. The experience of John Franklin's expedition showed that. Three of Franklin's men died during the first winter in the Arctic when the ships were at Beechey Island. When these bodies were exhumed for study in the 1980s, scientists discovered that the men had been suffering from lead poisoning when they died. The probable source of the lead was traced to the solder used to seal the tins of food. While lead did not kill Franklin and his men, it has been suggested that their judgement and stamina may have been impaired because of it. Still, the advent of canned food proved to be an important milestone in the history of Arctic exploration.

Just as important as any provisions sailors brought with them were the survival strategies that they learned from the Inuit. The Inuit visited the ships at their winter harbours, bringing skin clothing, sled dogs, and fresh meat and fish to trade. Europeans eventually adopted the Inuit diet, clothing, and method of sled travel to extend their explorations beyond the summer season of open water. This gradual adoption of the Inuit lifestyle, as well as growing knowledge of the northern map and adaptations made to ships exploring Arctic waters, increased the survival rate of explorers in the Arctic.

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