Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Resolute Desk and the Northwest Passage

Image from feelguide

The history of the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office is rooted in the Canadian North. The desk upon which President Obama was criticized for resting his feet was given by Prince Charles's ancestor Queen Victoria to then U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. Two desks in Buckingham Palace were made from the same wood.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin set out from England with two ships in search of the Northwest Passage. In those days, it was normal for an Arctic expedition to take three or four years. There was no Panama Canal, so Franklin had to sail around Cape Horn. He restocked his ships with water and supplies in Hawaii before turning north toward the hoped-for passage. Though years passed with no word, confirmation that all the men had perished was a long time in coming.

Meanwhile, many ships sailed out to try to learn the fate of the Franklin expedition. In 1852, HMS Resolute was one of a group of five sent out on this assignment. Four of these ships froze into the ice and had to be abandoned. The Resolute was one.

A year later, an American whaler from Connecticut came upon HMS Resolute off Baffin Island, where it had arrived after it come free of the ice and drifted 1200 miles. After boarding the ship and determining that it had been abandoned, Captain Buddington towed it back to New York. The U.S. government had it refitted at a Brooklyn shipyard, and in a sensational gesture, sailed it across the Atlantic and returned it to the British Crown.

Confirmation of the death of Franklin's entire crew reached London, and the search was called off. HMS Resolute returned to regular naval service. In 1879, it was finally decommissioned and broken up. Queen Victoria had three desks made from the ship's timbers, and one of these was given to the U.S. President as a memorial to the "courtesy and loving kindness" of America's return of the ship twenty years earlier.  Here's a closeup of the desk and the wording of the plaque.

The small settlement of Resolute, in Nunavut, was named in honour of the ship. Brian Payton's 2010 book The Ice Passage uncovered more of the related history of the search for the Northwest Passage. After his publication, the remains of the Investigator, one of the ships that searched for Franklin, was found off Banks Island, now nearly bare of snow and ice. Royal Naval records at Greenwich reveal that in 1845, one ship was frozen in place at a 45 degree angle for many months. Then, open water came only for a few weeks in August.

On Monday night at the SFU Community Summit, Nunavut native and spokeswoman for polar peoples, Sheila Watt-Cloutier expressed concern that in the rush to use the opening Northwest Passage for oil tankers and to exploit the mineral wealth of the melting north, the Inuit people and culture will be forgotten and dismissed yet again.

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