In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides: Summary & Notes

Front cover of In The Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides.

In short

In the Kingdom of Ice is a narrative non-fiction book on the Jeannette expedition to reach the Open Polar Sea, an widely held believe in an ice-free sea in the North Pole. Of course this sea being non-existent results in the crew being stuck on the ice for 2 years before their ship sank. What follows is their journey to, and through, Siberia in small boats.

Book Summary & Notes

All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.


“It was a spot on the globe where, if you could stand there, any direction you headed in would be, by definition, south. It was a place of perpetual darkness for one half of the year and perpetual sunlight for the other. There, in a sense, chronology stood still, for at the pole all the time zones of the world converged.”

“But in 1867, the United States had purchased Alaska from the czar for the paltry sum of $7.2 million, and this enormous new frontier lay untapped and largely unknown. Thus the national movement west, having reached California, had taken a right turn and become a movement north.”

“It was not unusual to find among the young men of the immediate post–Civil War generation a kind of inferiority complex, a sense that history had passed them by, that their brothers and fathers and uncles had participated in something momentous while they had not. The magnitude of the previous generation’s sacrifice made young men like De Long feel inadequate — and irredeemably green. If De Long could not win glory on fields of battle, then perhaps he could earn it in fields of ice.”

“Throughout his career, De Long would prove to be a man unafraid to badger his superiors in order to get things done. “He got what he wanted,” Emma said, “because he dared to ask for it.”

“The idea, widely believed by the world’s leading scientists and geographers, went like this: The weather wasn’t especially cold at the North Pole, at least not in summer. On the contrary, the dome of the world was covered in a shallow, warm, ice-free sea whose waters could be smoothly sailed, much as one might sail across the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. This tepid Arctic basin teemed with marine life — and was, quite possibly, home to a lost civilization. Cartographers were so sure of its existence that they routinely depicted it on their maps, often labeling the top of the globe, matter-of-factly, OPEN POLAR SEA.”

“No one had ever seen this fantastical Open Polar Sea, but that did not seem to matter. Somewhere along the way, the idea had gathered a logic of its own. Fixing it on maps had fixed it in people’s minds. Like Atlantis or El Dorado, it was a beautiful vision based on legends, rumors, and tenuous scraps of information. Layer by layer, decade by decade, scientists and thinkers had contributed to the plausibility, the probability, and finally the certainty of this chimerical notion. No amount of contrary evidence could dislodge it from the collective imagination.”

“Unlike his miserly father, Bennett Jr. was willing to spend huge sums of money to gather the news, and he sent his reporters farther and farther afield to do it. In 1869, he came up with the idea of sending a reporter to search for David Livingstone in Africa, and he is said to have dispatched young Henry Morton Stanley with an almost laughably laconic command: “Find Livingstone.” Stanley did, of course, and the exclusives he sent back expanded the Herald’s circulation even further.”

“Bennett’s reaction to being ostracized was curious, or perhaps it was just Bennettesque. If the May family did not want him, if New York society shunned him, if the district attorney was determined to pursue him, then Bennett would take a plague-on-all-your-houses approach: He would leave New York forever. Just as his mother had done, with him and little Jeannette in tow, he would forsake his life in America and exile himself to Paris. He would have nothing to do with the city affixed to his newspaper’s name and would instead run his business empire from an ocean’s remove, relying on exorbitantly expensive transatlantic cables to communicate daily with his editors and convey his every bizarre wish.”

“If they had not really gone anywhere, they had journeyed into regions of the psyche where few men had ever been, interior spaces that brought out aspects of themselves they’d never known existed. In ways few could imagine, the true grain of their characters had been revealed.”

“Then, in a final whirl of water, the Jeannette plunged out of sight. Nothing remained, said Danenhower, “of our old and good friend, the Jeannette, which for many months had endured the embrace of the Arctic monster.” She had sunk at latitude 77° 15 N, longitude 155° E, a little more than seven hundred miles south of the North Pole. The feeling was indescribable. The men were completely alone, Melville said, “in a sense that few can appreciate. Our proper means of escape, to which so many pleasant associations attached, [was] destroyed before our eyes. We were now utterly isolated, beyond any rational hope of aid.”

“In less than a decade, this industrially efficient slaughter had largely destroyed the Yupiks’ primary source of food and the seasonal hunting life upon which it was based. By the 1880s, the walrus was nearly extinct in large swaths of the Bering Sea. It was the Arctic version of a story already well known to Americans, the story of the buffalo and the Indians of the Great Plains. Here, as there, the wholesale slaughter of a people’s staple prey had led, in a few short years, to ruinous dislocations, terrible dependencies — and a cultural apocalypse.”

“Alaska had been an American possession for slightly more than a decade. The czar’s influence, weak in the first place, had faded. While it could not be said that contact with Russian trappers and traders had improved the lives of Alaskan natives — far from it — the Russian fur concerns had rarely reached the level of entrepreneurial organization and ruthless efficiency pursued by American whalers, trading agents, and fur companies. The systematic introduction of just a few things — repeating rifles, booze, money, industrial methods of dismantling animal flesh — had caused the native cultures of Alaska to collapse at record speed.”

“Yet it was extraordinary how content most of them were during the first weeks of the march, living like mules, suffering so. Nearly everyone commented on it. They slept soundly, developed ferocious appetites, and functioned each day with a clarity of purpose they had never known in their lives.”

“Just now we are living royally… and are in glorious health,” a surprised De Long wrote at the outset. “Everybody is bright and cheerful, and our camp has a lively look… singing is going on all around.” Melville observed that the men were always “whooping” and often fell into “roars of laughter and good-natured banter… No ship’s company ever endured such severe toil with such little complaint.”

“This system of smaller crews would be the defining idea for the long march home. Each team hauled together, rested together, cooked together, ate together, slept together, and, if necessary, would die together. De Long was quite deliberate about the arrangement. He hoped to inject an element of esprit de corps, of group loyalty, into this great effort: A man wouldn’t want to let his fellows down, and he’d want his own gang to outperform the other gangs. Clever in its simplicity, it was a system that tapped into pride of person but also pride in the group.”

“In a way, Wrangel was a land out of time — life here was like going back many thousands of years. Because the island was never completely glaciated during the ice ages, and never completely inundated by seawater during periods of ice retreat, the soils and plants in its interior valleys offered remnants of undisturbed Pleistocene tundra unique on the planet. When the pharaohs were constructing the pyramids, elephants were walking around on Wrangel: This was the last place on earth where woolly mammoths lived. A dwarf subspecies thrived here as late as 1700 B.C.E., more than six thousand years after mammoth populations elsewhere became extinct. Their large curved tusks could be found everywhere on the island, lying on the gravel beaches, in ravines and streambeds.”

“The Yakuts were a proud and openhearted people who had long ago figured out the puzzle of the delta and had spent centuries perfecting techniques for thriving in extreme cold; indeed, it seemed to some that they preferred the extreme cold, for the solitude it brought and the independence it gave them from the long reach of the czar. Much of their freedom came from their ability to live in a place where no one else much wanted to be. In the land of the Yakuts, the expression went, “God is high up and the czar is far off.”

“Over and over again, she asked herself whether the Jeannette expedition was worth it — the suffering, the anguish, the loss of life, for what could only be measured as an incremental advance toward the ultimate attainment of the Arctic grail. “Is it said that too high a price in the lives of men was paid for this knowledge?” she asked. “Not by such calculation is human endeavor measured. Sacrifice is nobler than ease, unselfish life is consummated in lonely death, and the world is richer by the gift of suffering.”


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