Current Institutional Affiliation
University Associate, University Of Tasmania

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2009
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
History, University of Illinois / Urbana-Champaign
Mastering the Ice to Rule the Waves: British Imperial Mythologies and the Search for the Northwest Passage, 1817-1854

If the Arctic taught the British anything, it was how to fail. Between 1817 and 1854, dozens of Naval expeditions attempted to chart the Northwest Passage between British and Russian territories in the North American Arctic. These expeditions introduced the British public to the image of the starving, freezing English explorer whose physical fragility was celebrated as proof of the nobility of the national character. My dissertation examines how this British national and imperial mythology was constructed and informed by a developing Anglo-Russian rivalry, the shifting politics of indigenous societies, and networks of knowledge and kinship that included naval officers, naturalists, Scottish whalers, Inuit people, and Russians. Though hybrid in their origins, the tales born in the Arctic ultimately undergirded a story of British exceptionality that in turn informed the "civilizing mission" at the heart of the imperial narrative. Combining archival study with anthropology and ethnohistory, my research challenges the interpretation of imperial masculinities as polarized between "strong" white Englishmen and "effeminate" indigenous others, focusing instead on the useful and unsettled meanings of British vulnerability. Drawing on the insights of the "new imperial history" I argue that British national and imperial identities were as deeply informed by competition with their imperial rivals (especially autocratic Russia) as by a strident narrative of conquest and domination. Finally, I argue that the Arctic was not a static, peripheral concern of the British state, but rather a hybrid and highly contested space in between the boundaries of sovereign empires. My work fundamentally complicates British imperial historiography by arguing that British imperial culture was one that recognized and rationalized the fact of failure, and saw itself imbedded within a competitive imperial landscape that included the harshest peripheries of the globe.