Posting a claim

The crew of the "Neptune" claiming the eastern Arctic.

The crew of the “Neptune” claiming the eastern Arctic. Andrew Halkett is third from right. Library and Public Archives Canada.

Writing is an iterative act: editing always follows a draft, which is usually followed by further re-writing and re-editing. The goal is a well-shaped arrangement of words—a narrative with a sense of direction and purpose. This makes writing kin to gardening and in bad moments to clear-cut forestry. Sometimes one has to completely root out a section: when that excision works, the relief is palpable. But there’s always the question of what to do with the written cast-offs. Do you burn them? Throw them on the compost?

One long chunk of writing that I have left out of a recent chapter was an account of my protagonist, fisheries museum curator Andrew Halkett, and his experience as official naturalist on the Geological Survey of Canada’s Neptune Expedition of 1903-04. The Neptune’s mission was to establish Canadian sovereignty over the eastern Arctic, which the United Kingdom had transferred to Canada in 1880. American whalers and Scandinavian explorers undermined that claim with their pesky presences. The Neptune expedition would settle the matter: Halkett was aboard to collect natural history specimens, an integral element of validating Canada’s territorial claim, and formed part of what Trevor Levere called an “advance guards of government.”

The Neptune left Quebec in August 1903 and cruised the Arctic archipelago between Hudson’s Bay and Ellsemere Island and overwintered in Fullerton Harbour. Throughout the voyage Halkett collected specimens of invertebrates, mammals, birds and some fish. To Halkett, whom expedition leader Low described as “indefatigable in the work of collecting specimens in all branches of natural history,” fish seemed the least interesting animals he encountered. This was a bit of a problem for me as Halkett was the fisheries museum curator: why was he not collecting fish? Birds and invertebrates were more interesting to him and he finished the expedition with a larger bird collection than that of fish. Sigh. Why don’t historical actors behave like they’re supposed to?

The more interesting aspect of this expedition wasn’t so much the collecting but the performances that declared Canadian sovereignty. At several points during the voyage Low, accompanied by the ship’s company, landed to carry out the formal symbolic performances of sovereign possession. “It took little time to attend to the duties of the landing at Cape Herschel,” reported Low, “where a document taking formal possession in the name of King Edward VII, for the Dominion, was read, and the Canadian flag was raised and saluted. A copy of the document was placed in a large cairn built of rock on the end of the cape.” At another location the performance was repeated: a flag was hoisted and a copy of the territorial proclamation and the customs regulations were left in the wreckage of a ship left by an earlier expedition. These are acts of social magic (as Pierre Bourdieu called them): a spoken-word performance entailing the burial of a sheet of paper under some rocks or in the shattered remains of a boat. It’s like a play by Beckett and as absurd that it was only these acts that were required to consecrate the Arctic as Canadian.

I just wish the Halkett had collected more fish…


About Will Knight

I am PhD candidate in Canadian environmental history at Carleton University in Ottawa. I am currently writing a dissertation on Canada's fisheries museum. Never heard of it? That's because it was demolished in 1918...My thesis explores this short-lived institution and the conceptual and material modeling of fish and fisheries in late 19th and early 20th century North America.
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