Harper Collins, £15.99stg
For those who like adventure and the sea this is a good read. This is history made accessible. It is the story of the eighteenth century search for a shortcut route from Europe through the northern part of North America into the Pacific. The hoped for route became known as the Northwest Passage in England. Others knew it as the Strait of Anian. Sadly, the title tells it all. It is a story of wishful thinking fed by hopes of gain.
The potential wealth and political power for those who controlled that imagined route to the Orient was enormous. Expeditions were mounted with scant real evidence for its existence. Maps owing more to the imagination than surveying were often used to drum up support for a voyage of discovery. There were over optimistic interpretations of previous failed voyages. The Northwest Passage took on a life of its own to such an extent that it became real and it was no longer a question of whether it existed but rather a matter of when would it be found?
English, French and Spanish political rivalry further fuelled the passion. The result is a harrowing tale. The winter conditions endured by poorly prepared crews were made worse by bad diet, inadequate clothing and an attempt to compensate for these by over-indulgence in alcohol. In summer, swarms of biting mosquitoes made life unbearable for the pale skinned Europeans. Add some skulduggery and the betrayal of friendships and you have a good yarn. But this book is no fiction. It is based on the experiences of real people, from poor press-ganged sailors to unscrupulous businessmen. Ill informed politicians and high officials of the Admiralty played their parts. Many lives and ships were lost in this futile search.
On the positive side, we also see cases of exceptional seamanship and surveying from some of the ships' commanders. These voyages are well documented and 'Voyages of Delusion' gathers the material into an easy, enjoyable read. It includes a useful index. What a shame that history was not presented in this vivid and credible fashion in my secondary school of the 1960s.