The Journal & Paintings of George Back, Midshipman with Franklin, 1819-1822
by C. Stuart Houston, I. S. MacLaren,
The African Diaries of Captain William G. Stairs
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|When Faith Was in Favour
by Dennison Berwick
PROVIDENCE IS OUT OF favour at the moment, but there was a time, especially in the 19th century, when Europeans unquestioningly believed in a divine grace directing the events of their lives. Today, we may condemn the egotism, greed, and violence of so many of the endeavours committed in the name of Providence, but those who felt touched by its hand also demonstrated great clarity of purpose, acceptance of adversity, and amazing physical stamina.
A seductive sense of playing a part in their god's Big Plan led many men and women from comfortable homes to inhospitable regions of the planet unknown to Europeans last century. To read their diaries is to vicariously share both the ordeals and their faith in the correctness of what they were doing, according to Providence. (Moral arrogance and intellectual smugness -- the stereotypical characteristics of Victorian explorers -- were by no means restricted to the 19th century.)
These two diaries, of an Englishman in the Canadian Arctic at the start of the 19th century and a Canadian in central Africa towards its end, have not been published before. Perhaps because their journals are private accounts, not written for publication, Midshipman George Back and Captain William G. Stairs wrote with a candour and self- revelation rare among the many accounts of Victorian expeditions. The two men were different in character, and their expeditions could not have been less alike -- one a quest for scientific knowledge, the other a vainglorious and more obviously dangerous private outing -- yet both explorers had a great sense of rightness-for-them about what they were doing and, however unwittingly, have written two important Canadian adventure stories.
Back came to Canada in 1819, at the age of 23, on Franklin's first expedition. He very nearly died along with I I other members in their search for a Northwest Passage. His handwritten journal, rough notes, and extracts have been edited into a single account by C. Stuart Houston (editor of the journals of two of the other expedition members). Back's journal is the only one to cover the full period of the expedition and provides new information of importance to Franklin scholars and enthusiasts.
is fascinating to read precisely because Back is uncommonly receptive to the people and land in which he is living. He speaks French (learned while a prisoner in France during the Napoleonic wars) and is sufficiently interested in the voyageurs to learn some of their songs. Perhaps because of his experience in France, Back is comfortable being an outsider and open to learning how to survive from the Metis and Inuit guides, rather than relying on the more common practice of sticking to preconceived notions of foreign places.
The young Englishman acknowledged that he owed his life to his guides. After he complained once about going off course, his Inuit guide explained the necessity of collecting a cache of meat, and Back wrote:
In passing through a strange country it is a saving of time to trust to the local knowledge of your guide in preference to your own -- though his way will not be so direct yet it will be more convenient and without any risque [sic].
Stairs, son of a wealthy Halifax business family, first went to Africa in 1887 as a member of Henry M. Stanley's expedition to find and rescue Emin Pasha, believed lost in north-central Africa. Stairs went again in 1891 as leader of his own Katanga expedition. Miraculously, the diaries of both expeditions returned to Canada, and his Katanga diary was only recently rediscovered by Janina Konczacki, who edited Victorian Explorer.
Stairs's motives were a mixture of curiosity, a lust for glory, and boredom with army life in the barracks. That Emin Pasha was living comfortably near Lake Albert and, like Livingstone before him, did not need to be "rescued" by Stanley but was able to give much needed food to his would-be rescuers, does not take away from the physical and mental ordeal the 2 1 -year-old Stairs records in his diary.
Stairs concerns himself greatly with the day-to-day details of how to survive lack of food, low morale, and poor leadership, and making progress across an unknown land of hostile natives and widespread famine. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the wretched conditions; of 389 men who started from Zanzibar, a total of 214 died of sickness or starvation, deserted, or were lost during the 18-month expedition.
In his diaries of both expeditions, the young officer is greatly conscious of his own role in a Great Adventure directed by Providence and repeatedly writes about himself in the third person. His descriptions of the unknown continent and the peoples he almost died in order to visit seem peripheral to his real interest.
Stairs called Stanley "a despot of the worst sort. Eaten up with pride, vanity, and arrogance, he is incapable of seeing anything good in the doing of others, his own (doings) occupy so much of his thoughts." Yet like his detested leader, Stairs also wrote of himself as the hero of his own diary; though for him this meant living up to the standard of behaviour and ideals of an English Victorian officer and a gentleman.
As many travellers discover, re-entry into the culture of home can be an uncomfortable experience. While Back went home to fame and comfort in England, Stairs did not return to Canada and could not settle down in England. He tired of being a celebrity and soon sailed back to Africa, eager to play whatever part Providence should require. At the start of his second expedition, he wrote:
I haven't let the grass grow under my feet ... I am commander of a rather large expedition, charged with a confidential mission with the prospect of all sorts of difficulties to overcome.
Stairs died at the end of that expedition, one year later, after a bout of malaria, at the age of 28.
As Back observed, "though determined to use our utmost exertions, yet we depended much more on the mercy of providence." Is it thanks to Providence, too, that the journals of Back and Stairs have been rescued from the dusts of oblivion?