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Voyages of Delusion: The Quest for the Northwest Passage

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"The eighteenth century - the Age of Reason - was characterized by determined attempts by philosophers, scientists and political theorists to dispel myth, superstition and ignorance. But the Age of Reason also witnessed some of the most irrational and vainglorious attempts by sailors and speculators to find a navigable Northwest Passage that would lead through the icy seas of the Arctic from Hudson Bay to the wealth of the Pacific Ocean." "It is a tale of credulity and duplicity, of hopes raised and dashed, of the misdirection of practical seamen by armchair geographers. Lured by the promise of fame and riches, men endured paralyzing cold, malnutrition and terrifying storms. Many lives and fortunes were lost in the quest for the elusive "maritime philosopher's stone."" In this gripping work of narrative history, Glyn Williams explores the adventures and mishaps of successive voyages, including one expedition that disappeared entirely in the Arctic ice. Vividly written and replete with fascinating characters, Voyages of Delusion is a riveting contribution to the history of North American exploration.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Williams brings out the double-edged nature of this achievement, which was emblematic of the entire quest: the triumph of Enlightenment reason also meant the final nail in the coffin of a temperate-latitude Northwest Passage. The manner in which it was done — not by a moment of geographical revelation but through a slow and methodical process of grindingly hard work — was also a foretaste of exploration to come, as the shrinking blank spaces on the globe left ever-decreasing scope for wild imaginings. The realm of geographical fantasy retreated far to the north, where in the following century the successors to that Enlightenment spirit would pursue it to the very top of the globe. — Jonathan Dore
The Washington Post
Williams's scholarly but lively text recounts both the voyages that searched for the passage and the intrigues, machinations and deliberations that lay behind each expedition and spanned the periods between them. The latter inspire some of the best stretches of the book, illustrating the author's observation that "the arguments and intrigues of those quieter years tell us something about the ways in which men can delude themselves that the objects of their desires are easily attainable." The passage was not attainable, a fact hammered home by a century's worth of failures. — James P. Delgado
Publishers Weekly
Although the 18th century was the "age of reason," wishful thinking may better characterize the spirit of the era's adventurers' pursuit of the chimerical Northwest Passage (a sea route from North America's northeast coast through to the Pacific, which had already been a goal of explorers for 200 years). The advantages of such a route-cheaper access to the China trade, the opening of exploration in western North America and national glory-were so enticing, entrepreneurs convinced themselves they could hardly lose by sending out a mission. As University of London history professor Williams painstakingly documents, politicians and financiers eagerly talked themselves into pseudoscientific "proofs" that such a passage must exist, based on the direction of tides, the sighting of whales in inland waters and other factors. More "evidence" could be mustered from hoax voyage journals and conjectural mappings by cartographers willing to treat geography as a speculative art. Williams juxtaposes these wealth and fame seekers with the poor captains and crews of these ill-fated expeditions. Stranded in ice-bound refuges for long winters, they lost body parts from frostbite, died from scurvy or accidents-or if they made it back to Europe, often found themselves the objects of derision (or worse, court-martial) for not having found the passage their sponsors were sure existed. Readers know in advance the passage wasn't discovered then, but the addition of money-hungry patrons to the equation makes it more excruciating than a saga like Shackleton's Antarctic expedition. Williams may be too scholarly for general readers, but students of maritime exploration and 18th-century British politics will find this work engrossing, especially the detailed notes on sources. Illus. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300098662
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 2/15/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 8.72 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Maps
I To Hudson Bay
1 Dead Man's Island: The Doomed Voyage of James Knight 3
2 A Passage to California 46
3 The Controversial Voyage of Christopher Middleton 72
4 The Maritime Philosopher's Stone 125
5 The Disputatious Voyage of William Moor and Francis Smith 152
6 A Parliamentary Inquiry and its Aftermath 189
7 The Edge of a Frozen Sea 215
II The Pacific Approach
8 Maps, Hoaxes and Projects 239
9 The Puzzling Voyage of James Cook 287
10 Entering the Labyrinth 335
11 Last Hopes 371
Conclusion 407
App. I Voyages of the Imagination 411
App. A The Voyage of Juan de Fuca 413
App. B The Voyage of Batholomew de Fonte 417
App. C The Voyage of Lorenzo Ferrer Maldonado 423
App. II: Sources 431
Index 455
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