Sunday, 5 May 2013

Penguin no. 133: Watkins' Last Expedition
by F. Spencer Chapman

Read this book and you will know something of the life of that fantastic land, of its ascetic nakedness, of its strong weather, of its laughing people and of the feelings of an impetuous Englishman who has lived there. To know more: throw away your job, your friends, your cares, beg a quarter of the money you will need and an eighth of the food you will eat, learn the language and go there; not as a great white man to teach, but as inferior to learn from these people something of their way of life: how to get a living from their barren country, how to share as they share, how to endure as they endure, to live for the day caring nothing for the morrow, as they have have done since before the time when we were painted blue.  (Augustine Courtauld)

In 1932, after a disappointing year spent trying and failing to raise sufficient funds for an expedition to Antarctica which would have attempted to establish if it was comprised of one continent or two, Gino Watkins was offered 500 pounds by Pan-American Airways to take a small party to East Greenland to undertake meteorological work. He asked ornithologist and photographer Freddie Spencer Chapman, meterologist Quintin Riley and surveyor John Rymill to accompany him.

The four men had all been there the previous year as members of the British Arctic Air Route Expedition, and Watkins had followed this with a 600 mile journey in an open boat surveying Greenland's southern coastline. Their preparations for the substantially smaller 1932 expedition were hurried and underfunded, but by July 14th they were all sailing to Angmagssalik, a small settlement on the east coast of Greenland, on the only boat making the journey that year. They intended to base themselves 112 miles away at Lake Fjord as Watkins believed this region had potential as a future landing site for aircraft.

But even with the additional funds which had been offered by the Royal Geographic Society and The Times newspaper, it was necessarily a budget operation. Their plan was to take advantage of the abundant local resources and to hunt using both harpoons and guns in order to provide sufficient food for themselves and their sledge dogs.They had learnt many of the hunting techniques of the local native population during the previous expedition, principally how to use a harpoon and how to roll a kayak. They would also be able to rely on the assistance of a local native named Enock who had decided to establish a winter home near their base, lured by the prospect of hunting for polar bears.

It was this need to lay by sufficient provisions before the dark winter months which led to the death of the expedition leader. Gino Watkins was only 25 when he died a month into the expedition. He was hunting seals in a kayak on his own, which was known to be a dangerous undertaking, and no one was present to witness what occurred. His fellow expedition members came across his unoccupied and drifting kayak later in the day, with the harpoon still loaded, his gun missing, and his paddle floating 150 yards away. They also located some of his abandoned clothes, but despite searching for days they never found his body. Their theory is that he stepped out of his kayak, perhaps after it was knocked by falling ice or perhaps for some other reason, only to have it wash away, and was then overcome by the cold when he swam to retrieve it.

Chapman tells the story of how the expedition progressed after the death of its most experienced and skilled member. Rymill took over leadership of the expedition, and they continued with the daily meteorological work which was their primary task, but they had to abandon some of their surveying plans. With much improvisation and practice they became adept at hunting, but it took most of their time. They found that their ability to successfully hunt seals was determined by the season, as some parts of the year a dead seal is more likely to float so that it is easy to retrieve, while at other times it will sink immediately. They also hunted for sea birds, sharks, foxes and (with the assistance of Enock) polar bears. During winter they used dynamite to blast holes in the ice covering the nearby lake in order to establish a permanent net under the ice and supplement their diet with fish.

Chapman quotes heavily from his journal giving at times day by day descriptions of the weather, the appearance of the ice, the success of their hunting, the behaviour of their dogs, and the varying nature of the plants, animals, insects and birds they encountered over the course of the year. While the story itself was broadly interesting, I found these detailed daily descriptions fairly tedious to read, and I would have preferred a shorter summary of their experiences, rather than a day by day account of their observations. However, these duller passages were interspersed with a few interesting discussions including one on the implications of population growth in the region for the traditional East Greenlander lifestyle. The first few chapters were absorbing, but it was a difficult book to read all the way to the end.

Penguin Cerise Travel


  1. Spencer Chapman is mostly remembered for writing the quintessential 'behind enemy lines' story of the Pacific War, 'The Jungle is Neutral'. One of the curious asides to that story is his use of an Eskimo dialect to prevent the Japanese decoding his diaries. But while that is a very well written and fast paced book, it has to be said that his earlier works are exceedingly dull. In his 'Memoirs of a Mountaineer' which should have been an engaging story of a mission to pre-WWII Tibet he managed, as possibly no other author has ever managed, to convey the tedium of climbing up big piles of rocks, and very little else. For the best of British adventurer-explorer-diplomat writers I'd recommend instead Peter Fleming, Fitzroy MacLean or Gertrude Bell. By all means visit Spencer Chapman in the 'Jungle' - particularly if you have an interest in the Pacific War, or in the conflict in Malaysia between the Communists and the British throughout the 1950's - and then preserve your good impression of him as an author by avoiding just about every thing else he ever wrote.

  2. I read this a few weeks ago and expected it to be dull, but actually found it to be a really interesting read and I reviewed it on my blog:



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