"The Eskimos knew better": representations of arctic whaling in Charles Brower's Fifty Years Below Zero.

Author:Schell, Jennifer
Position::Critical essay

Abstract: In this article, I examine Charles Brower's Fifty Years Below Zero (1942) with respect to its depictions of Inupiaq subsistence whaling practices. Elaborating a theoretical framework that draws on scholarship produced by those working in the field of masculinity studies, I locate Brower's memoir within the tradition of the American whaling narrative and compare it to two of its contemporaries, John A. Cook's Pursuing the Whale (1926), and Hartson H. Bodfish's Chasing the Bowhead (1936). I argue that, as a man familiar with Inupiaq culture, Brower possessed an attitude toward the Indigenous inhabitants of northern Alaska and Canada which was very different from that of Cook and Bodfish. I demonstrate that Cook and Bodfish go to great lengths to represent themselves and their employees as being isolated from the Yupik, the Inupiat, and the Inuvialuit. I also show that, throughout their narratives, they celebrate the achievements of white, American whalemen and dismiss the accomplishments of their Indigenous counterparts. Brower's descriptions of Arctic whaling, meanwhile, praise these individuals for their courage, their boat-building technologies, and their knowledge of the behaviour patterns of bowhead whales. As I conclude, Fifty Years Below Zero ultimately reveals the remarkable impact that the Yupik, the Inupiat, and the Inuvialuit had on the American steam whaling trade and the significant amount of cultural exchange that occurred when individuals from these disparate communities interacted with one another.


Sometime in the winter of 1884, Josiah N. Knowles of the Pacific Steam Whaling Company asked Charles Brower to travel to Cape Lisburne, Alaska, a remote promontory jutting into the Chukchi Sea, situated roughly 170 miles (274 km) north of Kotzebue, Alaska and 270 miles (434 km) west of Barrow, Alaska. Knowles wanted Brower to investigate the accessibility of a recently discovered coal deposit and determine the feasibility of establishing a recruiting station for whaling vessels at this location. Because he wanted to travel to Africa as an able seaman with the merchant marine, the twenty-one-year-old sailor from Bloomfield, New Jersey hesitated to accept Knowles's offer. After consulting some friends and mulling over the situation, he decided to defer his African adventure and accept the Arctic commission {Fifty Years 6-7) (1)

Thus, in May 1884, Brower boarded the steam schooner Beda in San Francisco and embarked for the Far North. When he returned to California almost a year later, he reported that because of the instability of the soil and the remoteness of the location, extracting the coal and building the recruiting station was impractical (Fifty Years 13-14). Though a commercial failure, Brower's trip to Alaska had a dramatic impact on the trajectory of his life, because it exposed him to the Arctic whale fishery and introduced him to the Inupiat of northern Alaska. (2) In 1886, he returned to Alaska--this time to Barrow--to open a shore whaling station for the Pacific Steam Whaling Company. After marrying an Inupiaq woman named Toctoo, Brower decided to make a permanent home for himself and his family in this remote Arctic village. (3) As his memoir Fifty Years Below Zero: A Lifetime of Adventure in the Far North (1942) demonstrates, Brower became a prominent member of the Barrow community, who was well-respected by both its Inupiaq and American residents.

Though valuable as an autobiographical and historical document, Fifty Years Below Zero is also important insofar as it reveals Brower's regard for Inupiaq whalers and their traditional, subsistence hunting practices. In his memoir, he praises these individuals for their courage, intelligence, and ingenuity, as well as their prowess with their hunting implements, their knowledge of boat-building, and their insight into the behaviour patterns of bowhead whales. Throughout the text, Brower also demonstrates the remarkable amount of cultural exchange that occurred when the Inupiat interacted with the other American whalemen who travelled to Barrow in search of oil and baleen. With a keen eye for detail and a good deal of empathy, he records the impact of this exchange on both Inupiaq subsistence whaling practices and American steam and shore whaling activities.

Because he was familiar with Inupiaq culture, Brower's attitude toward Barrow's Indigenous whalers was very different from those of his contemporaries John A. Cook and ITartson H. Bodfish, both of whom were captains of Arctic steam whaling vessels and both of whom composed memoirs of their experiences in the fishery. Unlike Brower's book, Cook's Pursuing the Whale (1926) and Bodfish's Chasing the Bowhead (1936) depict the officers and crewmen of American whaling vessels as members of distinctly different, hierarchically stratified communities, organized according to their members' racial identifications and class affiliations. In these texts, the Inupiat represent a third community, primarily operating in isolation from the others. Not insignificantly, Pursuing the Whale and Chasing the Bowhead also indicate the authors' investment in the idea that the white men who occupied ranks in the upper echelons of the whaling industry were hypermasculine national heroes, exemplary Americans whose physical talents, personal character, and hunting acumen were absolutely awe-inspiring. (4)

Given that they focus, albeit to varying degrees, on the Arctic steam and shore whaling fisheries, Pursuing the Whale, Chasing the Bowhead, and Fifty Years Below Zero can be classified as whaling narratives. These kinds of texts have a long history in the United States, for they first emerged in the American literary marketplace in the 1600s. The publication history of early American whaling narratives parallels the development of the New England whaling industry, which dramatically expanded its scope prior to the American Revolution and the War of 1812. After these two disruptive international conflicts, the fishery became globally dominant, and it maintained its monopoly on the trade throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. By the 1870s, foreign and domestic markets for whale oil began to decline because viable substitutes had been discovered and cetaceans had become increasingly scarce (Schell ix-x). Whalebone was still in demand, however, and bowheads were still plentiful in the Beaufort Sea. With the advent of steamships in the 1880s, which made Arctic travel faster and safer, the trade relocated its centre of operations from New Bedford, Massachusetts to San Francisco, California, where it enjoyed a roughly thirty-year period of prosperity before it finally collapsed (Bockstoce 20-21, 52). Published between 1926 and 1942, Cook's, Bodfish's, and Broweds memoirs address the twilight years of this once powerful and profitable American enterprise.

Perhaps because of the whaling industry's fairly rapid decline, Pursuing the Whale and Chasing the Bowhead possess a hefty sense of nostalgia for the fishery's storied past. Functioning as elegies lamenting the passing of one of the first globally dominant business enterprises in the United States, these narratives promote the notion that New England whalemen were mythic, hyper-masculine heroes, who sailed across the widest oceans in order to confront some of the planet's largest creatures with hand-tossed harpoons and lances. As Allan Forbes, author of the preface to Cook's narrative, puts it: "The whaling days are gone, to be sure, but the romance is left and Pursuing the Whale will do much to keep that romance alive" (x). According to Roy Chapman Andrews, author of the forward to Bodfish's narrative, "Those men were real explorers who wrote a glorious chapter in the history of the United States" (v). Significantly, these passages applaud the white sailors, who built the New England whaling industry into a global powerhouse, not the many non-white and foreign-born mariners who worked alongside them. They also do not include North America's Indigenous hunters who practised subsistence whaling, using methods and tools developed before they came into contact with Europeans and Americans. Playing into the intense emotions nostalgia produces, Pursuing the Whale and Chasing the Bowhead celebrate the heroism of white mariners in order to inspire readers to take pride in their remarkable exploits and gain a greater appreciation for the United States, its men, its industries, and its history. Although it was produced at roughly the same time, Charles Brower's Fifty Years Below Zero refuses to depict white, non-white, foreign-born, and subsistence whalers according to these well-established, racially- and nationally-inflected paradigms, and this is precisely what makes it such a remarkable text.

  1. American Whaling Narratives and Masculine Identity

    As archival evidence indicates, whaling novels, poems, songs, orations, memoirs, and stories proliferated across time, and they remained popular with American readers up through the early twentieth century (Schell 2-6). Many of these texts position white whalers as perfect specimens of American manhood. In his Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex (1821), Owen Chase describes nineteenth-century Nantucket whalers as possessing "exemplary private character, uncommon intelligence, and professional gallantry" (17). Speaking before the Senate in 1852, William H. Seward proclaimed:

    I wish to converse with you now of the chase, and yet not of deer, or hawk, or hound, but of a chase upon the seas ... of a nobler sport, and more adventurous sportsmen than Izaak Walton, or Daniel Boone, or even Nimrod, the mightiest as well as most ancient of hunters, ever dreamed of--the chase of the whale over his broad range on the universal ocean. (236) After likening white whalers to these famous anglers and hunters, Seward added that the success of the New England whale fishery...

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