This dissertation uses methods from history of science and environmental history to understand how British imperialists—politicians, fur traders, and naturalists—rationalized the Arctic between 1550 and 1800. Through early modern understandings of natural history, geography, and medicine, Britons crafted a narrative of the north that positioned it as a British colonial landscape ripe for exploration and exploitation. Beginning with the first English settlement in the New World on a northern island in Baffin Bay, I explore how English imperialists John Dee and Richard Hakluyt used Arthurian legends, classical geography, and the rhetoric of empiricism to cast the north as a place that was in need of British governance and necessary for the success of the British Empire. The second chapter examines how Hudson’s Bay Company employees who made observations about northern wildlife and climate experienced the north in the early eighteenth century. For fur trader-naturalists, provisioning food was a central preoccupation in conveying to Europeans the habitability of northern lands, especially in the context of paternalist attitudes towards indigenous peoples. This is juxtaposed with a debate over the existence of the Northwest Passage, highlighting the political stakes of making knowledge claims about northern climates. The third chapter examines how eighteenth-century Britons overlaid European ideas of health upon northern indigenous peoples to justify Hudson’s Bay Company treatments of Cree and Athapascan employees: in short, cold climates produced dispassionate behaviors in native peoples, making them immune to the effects of illness, pain, and emotional abuse. This contrasted with Britons who attested to the health of northern climates, calling into question European criteria about healthfulness. The last chapter focuses on the late eighteenth-century Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant who viewed the Arctic as part of the British Empire, and wrote a natural history of Arctic Zoology, positioning the north geographically within the confines of British sovereignty over nature. Ultimately, each chapter demonstrates the long history of British claims of possession over the Far North, priming it for exploration in the nineteenth century, and reminding us that scientific knowledge can work to dispossess indigenous peoples and construct monolithic and damaging environmental narratives.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation.May 2019. Major: History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Advisors: Susan Jones, Jole Shackelford. 1 computer file (PDF); iii, 213 pages.
Empire of Ice: Arctic Natural History and British Visions of the North, 1500-1800.
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