Richard Brydges Beechey

British, 1808–1895

Captain Markham’s most northernly encampment, 1877
oil on paper, 22.8 x 34.3 cm
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

The role of native peoples in the narrative of discovery has often been ignored. Until the twentieth century’s “heroic age” of polar exploration, most expedition crews refused to adopt indigenous clothing, food, transportation, and shelter that would have saved lives.

Richard Brydges Beechey, an accomplished painter who exhibited at the Royal Academy, offers a fascinating glimpse into the British style of expedition. In Captain Markham’s most northerly encampment, he shows that explorers preferred wearing tight wool and flannel with no hoods rather than warm fur or sealskin parkas. Their heavy expedition sleds, pulled by men, contrasted with the Inuit’s light, flexible sledges powered by dogs. Explorers lived in freezing tents instead of learning to build igloos.

Beechey documents George Nare’s North Pole expedition, sponsored by the British navy in 1875– 76, which achieved the farthest footprint north. The ship Alert spent the winter on the north coast of Ellesmere Island at the record latitude 83 ̊20.’ From this point, Albert Markham and his team man-hauled their sled to the spot depicted here.