Captain Bob Bartlett

DESCRIPTION: "A rugged Newfoundlander as ever sailed the seas, He was born and raised in Brigus in the bay." Bartlett's career as a sealer, then as captain, is told, as is his work with Admiral Peary. "He's resting now at Brigus where his grave o'erlooks the bay."
AUTHOR: Otto P. Kelland (1904-2004)
EARLIEST DATE: 1960 (Kelland, Anchor Watch)
KEYWORDS: hunting ship exploration
1875-1946 - Life of Robert Abram Bartlett
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Ryan/Small, pp. 83-84, "Captain Bob Bartlett" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Otto P. Kelland, _Anchor Watch: Newfoundland Stories in Verse_ (privately printed, 1960), pp. 43-44, "Bob Bartlett" (1 text)

cf. "Ballad of Captain Bob Bartlett, Arctic Explorer" (subject)
cf. "The Roving Newfoundlanders (I)" (brief mention of Bob Bartlett)
NOTES [8530 words]: For information about Otto Kelland, the author of this piece, see the notes to "Western Boat (Let Me Fish Off Cape St Mary's)."
Songs which are about Robert (Bob) Bartlett in some capacity or other are "Captain Bob Bartlett" and "Ballad of Captain Bob Bartlett, Arctic Explorer"; there is also a minor mention in "The Roving Newfoundlanders (I)."
He became a hero in Newfoundland, an island which in the 1930s lost its self-government, and was desperate for heroes. It's an interesting and complex question whether he was deserving. He often was involved in important events -- and they often turned out badly.
There was something odd about him, I think. Bartlett was one of the few men on Robert Peary's arctic expeditions who reportedly did not take an Inuit mistress (HHorwood, p. 59) and he never married (Ryan/Drake, p. 77); HHorwood, p. 166, says that his mother was "the only woman, apparently, who was ever important in his life," which makes me wonder a little about his sexual orientation. (In later years, he was like a captain married to his ship -- he declared that the Effie M. Morrissey was "all I've got. When she stops, so do I"; NivenIce, p. 365.) He also seems to have been prone to depression (e.g. HHorwood, p. 79) -- so much so that there was a time when he was sleeping fourteen hours a day (HHorwood, p. 77). He came close to drinking himself to death (HHorwood, pp. 123-124). His inability to understand or control men was obvious during the Karluk voyage. Yet he was also quick to come up with new ideas. There are other hints of unusual behavior; I doubt he was psychologically normal. (I frankly suspect he was autistic -- I'm allowed to say that, since I'm autistic myself -- but it's beyond proof at this date.)
None of that shows up in the songs, which are about Bob Bartlett the Hero. The details in this song are mostly correct. Bartlett was born in Brigus, and Brigus is on Conception Bay, one of the many small outports on the west side of that body of water. Bartlett did indeed command Robert Peary's ship in 1906. He later commanded the schooner Effie M. Morrissey, and he died in 1946 and is buried in Brigus.
The statements in the "Ballad of Captain Bob Bartlett, Arctic Explorer" are similarly correct; Bartlett was born in Brigus, and Peary did employ him on the way to the pole. Bartlett did spend much time on the Morrissey. As a sealing captain, he did command the Nimrod (1903-1904), the Algerine (1905), the Neptune (1912-1913), the Bonaventure (1915), and the Kite (1901) (Chafe, p. 87).
Although if a non-Newfoundlander refers to "Captain Bartlett," it probably means Bob, not every mention of "Captain Bartlett" in Newfoundland songs is to Robert Bartlett; the Bartletts were a Newfoundland dynasty. His grandfather William Bartlett was reportedly the first captain to go sealing on the Labrador Coast, as early as 1800 (Ryan, p. 213 and 272 n. 6, though how a man who was already a captain in 1800 could have a grandson born 1875 is beyond me). Indeed, Robert wasn't the only Bartlett who worked with Robert Peary; so did his uncle John Bartlett (Bob was John's first mate when John took Peary to Ellesmere Island in the Windward in 1898; HHorwood, p. 53). Bob's cousin Sam Bartlett carried Josephine Peary north to meet her husband Robert in the arctic in 1900, apparently because she wanted to check out the Inuit teenager with whom Peary was having an affair (HHorwood, p. 59); Sam took the young Bob was mate on that expedition also (Bryce, p. 212). Sam Bartlett would also take a supply ship north to meet up with Peary's returning expedition in 1909 -- and incidentally take home some people who were sick of Peary's antics (HHorwood, p. 96). A cousin, Moses Bartlett, had an ironic role as the captain the of ship that took Frederick A Cook, Peary's great rival, to the arctic on the trip where Cook claimed to reach the North Pole (Bryce, pp. 298, 849). Bryce, p. 294, says Moses "had a fabulous reputation as an ice pilot, and like many of the Bartletts from Brigus, Newfoundland, including his second cousin, Bob, he had an equal reputation as a hard drinker."
Improbably, NivenIce, p. 40, says that Bob Bartlett was a teetotaler! HHorwood, p. ix, offers this as an example of Bartlett's "taste for embroidery at the expense of historical accuracy," saying that "he was not a lifelong teetotaler, though he often protested that he was." As we saw, he seems to have been an alcoholic in the 1920s -- but he didn't admit it. Bartlett in fact claimed that he once swam across an open lake of sea water during the seal hunt, and refused a drink after concluding it. But, as Horwood notes, the captain who allegedly offered him the drink was Bartlett's own father, a true teetotaler who would hardly offer his sixteen-year-old son a drink!
Rounding out the Bartletts who achieved some fame in the Arctic was Bob's uncle Isaac Bartlett, who in 1871 had captained the Tigress and rescued George Tyson's party of survivors of Hall's ill-fated Polaris (Henderson-Fatal, p. 220; Feltham, pp. 140-141; Chafe, p. 42). According to Loomis, p. 265, Isaac Bartlett told the story of the Hall rescue story so often to young Bob that the youth snuck away whenever Isaac showed up -- but Bob still went on to become a sealer and arctic explorer. (For more on these expeditions, see the notes to "Hurrah for Baffin's Bay.")
Isaac Bartlett was a bit like Bob: A rather mixed bag of success and dramatic failure. The Tigress had suffered a fatal explosion in 1874, killing 22 sailors, although the ship made it home and was repaired (Feltham, p. 142); she sprang a leak and sank the next year (Feltham, p. 143). Funny to note that Isaac was the only sealing captain ever to have a boiler explode, and Bob was with the Viking when she too suffered an explosion.
Uncle John Bartlett's style may also have contributed to Bob's future behavior; John "seems to have been been a foolhardy driver of a captain, even by Bob's standards, which weren't very exacting, for he himself was no paragon of caution when it came to handling a ship" (HHorwood, pp. 55-56).
Much of the fame of the Bartletts seems to have been generated post-Peary. Chafe, pp. 31-32, has a list of the most noteworthy sealing captains. There are no Bartletts in the list, although there is a one-word mention in a list of dozens of sealing families. But DictNewfLabrador, pp. 16-17, has biographies of five members of the Bartlett family, although Bob's is half again as long as the other four combined.
Until Bob Bartlett became involved in arctic exploration, his fame was local, as a sealing captain -- an activity which usually didn't involve much navigation or real ship-handling; the ship went a few dozen miles to the ice and sent out the watches of sealers and waited for them to return. Bartlett's family wasn't nearly as entrenched in sealing lore as the Kean family (for which see "Captain Abram Kean") or the Barbours or Winsors (for whom see "First Arrival from the Sea Fishery S. S. Fogota, 1912"), but they certainly spent a lot of time at the ice. Other Bartletts who commanded ships mentioned in sealing songs include (this is mostly from Chafe, p. 87):
* John Bartlett Sr. commanded the Wolf ("Captain Bill Ryan Left Terry Behind") in 1867 -- his only command of a sealing steamer.
* John Bartlett Jr. commanded the Bloodhound ("The Sealer's Song (II)") in 1869-1870 -- his only command of a sealing steamer. (He did command the Panther -- a ship which had a Bartlett in command every year from 1867 to 1895 -- on an arctic expedition in 1869; DictNewfLabrador, p. 16).
* Abram Bartlett (1819-1889) commanded the Panther ("Captain Bill Ryan Left Terry Behind") 1867-1883 -- his only command of a sealing steamer; he retired after that. There is a photo of him facing p. 93 of Chafe. He was one of the first Newfoundlanders to command a sealing steamer.
* William Bartlett Sr. (1851-1931), Bob's father, first went fishing at the age of 15 (Tarver, p. 228), served on the Panther starting in 1867 (DictNewfLabrador, p. 17), commanded the Panther ("Captain Bill Ryan Left Terry Behind") 1884-1894 (Bob Bartlett would serve on the Panther in 1892, 1894, and 1895; HHorwood, p. 181), the Iceland 1896-1897 (with Bob as his "second hand" or first mate), the Hope 1898-1901 (losing her in the latter year), the Algerine ("Loss of the S. S. Algerine") 1902-1903 (Bob Bartlett was the Algerine's first mate in the first of those years; HHorwood, p. 182), the Viking ("To the Memory of the Late Captain Kennedy") 1904-1913 and 1916-1923, and the Terra Nova ("The Terra Nova") 1914-1915. There is a photo of one or the other William Bartlett -- I would guess it's the senior -- facing p. 92 of Chafe.
* William Bartlett Jr. commanded the Viking ("To the Memory of the Late Captain Kennedy") 1914-1915 and the Ranger ("First Arrival from the Sea Fishery S. S. Fogota, 1912") in 1916.
* Henry Bartlett commanded the Nimrod ("The Nimrod's Song") 1890-1892 and the Algerine ("Loss of the S. S. Algerine") 1893-1894.
* Moses Bartlett commanded the Nimrod ("The Nimrod's Song") 1893-1894, the Panther ("Captain Bill Ryan Left Terry Behind") 1898, and the Southern Cross ("The Southern Cross (I)") 1909.
Isaac Bartlett (c. 1821-1906), interestingly, never commanded a ship mentioned in song. Neither did Sam Bartlett. In fact, Isaac commanded sealing steamers for just eight years (1867-1875; Ryan, p. 495), and Sam for just three.
In any case, there are a lot of stories the songs don't tell....
Robert Abram Bartlett (born 1875 in Brigus, Newfoundland; died 1946 in New York City, but his grave and monument are at his home in Brigus) is now remembered mostly as an arctic explorer -- Robert Peary, the alleged discoverer of the North Pole, took him on three expeditions; in 1913-1914 Bartlett, as commander of the Karluk, was wrecked, and saved his expedition by a sledge trip to Alaska; in 1926, he was on the ship that carried Robert Byrd's plane to Spitzbergen for Byrd's flight toward the pole, though Bartlett was not to be in the plane.
It was those sorts of exploits that led HHorwood, p. 28, to write, "If Bartlett was a hero in the nineteenth-century mold... he was a hero with certain flaws and certain persistent failures. One of his failures was his inability to accept blame, even when he was wrong."
As a boy, Bartlett apparently was small and sickly, but he worked very hard to strengthen himself. He also developed the habit of being extremely profane while still a boy (HHorwood, p. 33). His mother allegedly said he was "never dry" from all the time he spent around water and ice, and he had no respect for rules (HHorwood, p. 44). He was "never dry" in another sense, too -- all through his boyhood and teens, he continued to wet his bed at night, which caused him to give up on education (HHorwood, p. 43) -- although he didn't earn much academic distinction (HHorwood, p. 45), so this might have been an excuse for why he didn't go to college. He first went sealing at age sixteen with his father. On the voyage in which he made it to Able Seaman, the ship was wrecked (HHorwood, pp. 47-48). It wouldn't be the last time he had a ship destroyed under him.
He didn't necessarily have much sense, once jumping into freezing water to cross a lead between ice patches (HHorwood, p. 50, who mentions that there are many false versions of this story). And, early in life, he was accused of theft, though in the end another was blamed for the crime (HHorwood, pp. 49-50).
His first, brief, command was of the family fishing schooner Osprey(HHorwood, p. 181), but he apparently generally had poor luck in the fishing trade (HHorwood, p. 51). He went on to be a Master Watch (leader of one of the groups of sealers on a ship), then a Second Hand (the sealer's equivalent of first officer or second-in-command), preparing him to become a captain (HHorwood, p. 51). He formally passed the exam for ship's master when he was 22 (HHorwood, pp. 51-52).
Locally, he first generated notice as a sealing captain -- though his experience as a sealing captain was limited at the time he hooked up with Peary, and he never became a true "regular" at the ice (he first went north with Peary as first mate on the Windward in 1898; HHorwood, p. 182). From 1901, when he had his first command, through 1923, he only eight times commanded a sealer. His first command was the Kite in 1901 (see see "The Kite Abandoned in White Bay"); she hit bottom on that voyage, but survived (HHorwood, p. 182). But he had to go back to being first mate on the Algerine in 1902. In 1903-1904, he was given command of the Nimrod (for which see "The Nimrod's Song") in 1903-1904 -- and had a bad voyage in 1903, then violated the law by taking seals on a Sunday in 1904, those being the only seals he got. In 1905, he as back as commander of the Algerine (for which see "Loss of the S. S. Algerine"). He missed the 1906 season to go with Peary, then received command of the Leopard in 1907 -- which he promptly wrecked. Admittedly 1907 was a bad year for sealers, and many Newfoundlanders were wrecked at one time or another (note that it had already happened to Bob when he was a seaman) -- but it wouldn't be the last time Bob commanded a ship that he wrecked. Then he had charge of the Neptune (for which see "Neptune, Ruler of the Sea") in 1913, then went on the Karluk expedition (HHorwood, p. 182). His last time in command of a sealer was in the Bonaventure in 1915.
I find it funny that Bartlett, the self-proclaimed great sealing captain, when in the ice with the Karluk, seems to have left his men (who knew nothing about seal-hunting) to do the hunting, and he doesn't seem to have been able to tell his cook much about how to prepare seal (NivenIce, p. 48).
Bartlett was proud of his work as a sealer; in his book Sails over Ice, he wrote, "I have always been a high liner, never coming back without the seals, always with the best ship, and with the best crew, and it was my proud boast that I had never lost a man" (quoted by Busch, p. 65).
The last of these claims is genuine grounds for boasting, but the bit about always having the best ship is pure bunk. To take just one example, his command in 1912-1913, the Neptune, was by then four decades old (Feltham, pp. 92-93). The best ships at the time were Bowring's liners Florizel (for which see "The Wreck of the Steamship Florizel") and Stephano. So Bartlett was exaggerating his memories, although probably by accident.
He wasn't particularly successful as a sealer, either. In his eight trips from 1901-1915, he averaged only 10,009 seals per trip, at a time when the best sealers would hope for at least 15,000 per trip and might get close to 40,000 on a truly great trip. And that's his average, much magnified by his two and only two good years (23,160 in 1913, and 25,985 in 1915). His median haul was just 6062 seals. His brother Will said he was too impatient to be a good sealer (HHorwood, pp. 113-114). He actually averaged fewer seals per trip than his father, despite having much better ships, although he did do better than any other Bartlett (HHorwood, p. 183; Chafe, p. 97).
As for being a high liner -- that is, the first to return to port (Busch, p. 77), so called presumably because they occupied a high line in lists of returns such as those in Chafe -- that's bunk too. In 1901, he was the next-to-last sealer to return, and the only one to come in after him had more than twice as many seals (Chafe, p. 68). In 1903, he was again next-to-last (Chafe, p. 70). In 1904, he was dead last (Chafe, p. 70). In 1905, he "improved" to #13 out of 22 sealers (Chafe, p. 72). In 1913, he was #11 of 19. In 1915, and only in 1915, was he high liner (Chafe, p. 82). Apparently that was the only year he was capable of remembering, because that was also the year he hit the mother lode -- his 25,985 seals were not only the best in the fleet, they represented more than half the total seals taken, and almost three times the next-best ship total. (Chafe, p. 44, says that an ice barrier blocked the other steamers from the seals.) But to put this in perspective, four sealers in 1916 exceeded Bartlett's 1915 total, and a fifth came close; he had come in first in one of the worst years on record.
The song's mention of Bartlett and Robert Peary is significant and should perhaps be gotten out of the way next. Bartlett figures very strongly in the question of Peary's 1909 trip to the pole. Bartlett served as commander of the Roosevelt, Peary's ship, and the explorer gave Bartlett much credit for keeping the ship afloat in his 1905 expedition, when the ship barely made it home with her hull badly damaged. (I can't help but note how often Bartlett got involved in poorly-built Arctic ships. The Roosevelt was built for Peary's expedition, but with defects, and went to the ice without ever being given proper trials; HHorwood, pp. 64-65. And when two of her three boilers blew up, Bartlett refused to turn back; HHorwood, p. 66. When Roosevelt went north again in 1909, she was "still underfitted"; HHorwood, p. 80. Whereas other Arctic ships like the Terra Nova and the Fram still had long, useful careers ahead of them, the Roosevelt became a tug not long after Peary was done with her; Paine, p. 436. As for the Karluk, she was hopeless....)
But Bartlett didn't want to be "Peary's captain"; he wanted to be part of the group that made the Pole. Peary developed a system -- really, the only possible system at the time -- of working with a large support crew that wasn't intended to reach the Pole; they just shuttled supplies. In 1909, using this system, Peary made his final attempt for the Pole. (He had made several failed attempts in the past, but this was almost sure to be his last; Peary was too old and broken-down, and his financial backers too tired of the whole business, for him to have much hope of another chance if the 1909 expedition failed.)
When Peary reached up his northernmost supply stop, Bartlett was with him, and expected to be one of those on the crew that went to the Pole. But Peary left him behind -- disappointing the young captain so much that he actually started to set out for the Pole himself, on foot, before coming to his senses.
The fact that Peary left him behind is highly indicative. There are no proper witnesses to the last part of Peary's journey. As noted, Peary dropped off various men along the way, resupplying the remaining sledges from theirs.
As the expedition reached the final stages, only three men were left who could read a sextant and hence measure the latitude: Peary, Bartlett, and Ross Marvin. Marvin was dropped at the next-to-last stop, leaving Peary with a signed statement of his position -- but he never made it home; apparently he was murdered by the Inuit (see Bryce, p. 698; Henderson-True, pp. 218-219). Then Peary got rid of Bartlett. Peary's crew on the last leg of his trek consisted of "Commander" Peary himself (whose correct Naval title was not "Commander" but merely "Civil Engineer"), his servant Matthew Henson, and a handful of Inuit. In other words, by leaving Bartlett behind, Peary had made sure that no one could verify his claimed position.
Peary's justification is that he could only take one companion, and he had to take Henson. Somewhere in Bryce (I lost my note on this, and the book's index is no help) is Henson's explanation for this: Bartlett was a slow sledger, and had damaged his legs, meaning that he should not continue. There are very strong reasons to think this not true: Bartlett was in good enough shape that he actually started to walk to the pole, and he had broken trail for much of the trip north, strongly implying that he was a better sledger than the others with Peary. Peary had also had him break trail on the 1905 expedition (HHorwood, p. 68). On p. 878, Bryce notes that Bartlett made it back from where he parted with Peary in 24 days. Another of Peary's sledgers, Borup, needed 23 days to sledge back from a point more than two degrees further south. And Bartlett sledged just fine during the Karluk voyage. In fact, when Peary temporarily made Henson the lead sledger, he did so badly that Peary took him off the job (Larson, p. 200). So Henson's (self-justifying) explanation simply doesn't hold up.
Peary also suggested that Henson couldn't navigate his way home using a sextant -- which is true. But, according to Rawlins, p. 104, Bartlett wasn't given a sextant or the data to calculate his position on the way back, so Bartlett could no more navigate than Henson could; he just had to follow the path back home. There is no reason Henson could not have done the same.
Incidentally, those records of position used by Bryce are from Peary, and while Peary noted the positions where the others left, he listed his own return time without listing his own farthest north! It's as if he hadn't yet decided whether to pretend he had reached the Pole. As HHorwood, p. 90, says, the latitude of 87 degrees 47 minutes north recorded by Bartlett is "the highest confirmed latitude" reached by humans before aircraft explored the arctic.
And, once the National Geographic Society had accepted Peary's alleged proofs, he kept them under lock and key; not even a congressional committee was allowed to keep them overnight. And Peary's records, it was noted, show none of the grease and grime one would expect of someone keeping a diary while on a polar trek, eating greasy pemmican and having no way to wash. (Though Bryce, p. 879, says that Peary's diary is so full of egotistical statements that it's hard to imagine why he would have included them in a fake record. His only explanation is that Peary was unwilling to throw anything away -- unless it argued against his polar claim.)
The map in Roberts, p. 141, is strongly illustrative. Peary left land at a northern point on Ellesmere Island, roughly 500 miles south of the North Pole. Bartlett turned back 133 miles south of the Pole -- roughly a quarter of the remaining distance. It took Bartlett 18 days to cover the distance back to land, and six more to return to the Roosevelt. Peary, who would have had to cover at least 250 additional miles had he reached the pole, arrived back at the ship two days after Bartlett (Roberts, pp. 142-143).
To manage that, Peary, in that last part of the trip in which he travelled with no other companion who could read a sextant, claimed to cover distances which no other sledging party ever managed; indeed, they were more than twice his own average for the rest of the trip. For part of the distance, he was claiming fifty miles a day (Roberts, p. 148). Roberts notes that the best average distance ever recorded on a verified trek was 36.6 miles per day. Peary justified the claims on the grounds that the ice got better -- which would indeed have allowed him to move faster if it were true, but Henson said that the ice remained just as bad for the next several days; it took four days before Henson felt that they made even thirty miles in a day! (Rawlins, p. 110).
And Peary, who had damaged his feet and lost eight toes due to frostbite, made this claim even though he generally had to ride in a sledge rather than operating under his own power (see Bryce, p. 442, Henderson-True, p. 214, HHorwood, p. 91); Bryce, p. 852, writes, "as Henson attested, he was not much more than a load of freight." O'Neill, p. 979, claims that Bartlett was ahead of Peary on the next-to-last leg of the trip; "Bartlett blazed the trail which Peary followed across the frozen wastes of the north. In this way the American travelled in ease, after the Newfoundlander carried the burdens and the risks.... [Bartlett] could have gone on to the pole with little difficulty and claimed the glory for himself, but he stopped just short of the 88th parallel and waited for Peary to catch up. Instead of allowing him to share in the final reward, Peary ordered Bartlett to stay behind because he was not an American."
Any objective observer would say that it was Bartlett, not Peary, who should have made the final run to the Pole. He was fitter, younger, as determined as Peary, at least as competent -- and less obnoxious. But even if Peary wasn't planning to cheat about reaching the North Pole, he wanted to be the only "white man" to reach the Pole. (Bryce, p. 296. And, yes, Peary does seem to have been that sort of a racist; in years of traveling with the Inuit, he never learned their language, and some of the things he said about his faithful Black assistant Matthew Henson are frightful -- even though Henson, as his memoirs show, was in many ways a wiser and better man than Peary.)
(I'll offer a wild speculation here: perhaps Peary thought that Bartlett -- who was young and rather a doofus -- was not yet skilled with a sextant and could be influenced to give the reading Peary wanted. When he realized that Bartlett wouldn't play such games, Peary sent him home. And that leads to the further speculation that perhaps Peary hinted that it wouldn't be bad if Marvin didn't make it home, either. But I have no evidence for either of these points, and don't really believe them -- especially the one about Marvin; that Bartlett had a peculiar set of abilities and lacks thereof can hardly be doubted.)
It must have been truly wearing for Bartlett, who accompanied Peary on many speaking tours -- and was given a bunch of silver medals at the time when Peary was given gold (Bryce, p. 489). Talk about adding insult to injury! If Peary did in fact make it to the pole, then Bartlett certainly could have done so also -- and Peary could not have piloted the Roosevelt far enough to make the run for the pole possible. So who deserves more credit?
It appears Peary had pulled the same trick on Bartlett during his previous (1905-1906) expedition toward the Pole (HHorwood, p. 70; Fleming, pp. 340-343). Little is made of Peary's lack of documentation on that trip, since he did not reach the Pole, and apparently had no hopes of reaching it by the time he left the last of his support crew behind. The best he could hope for was a new "Farthest North," to encourage his financial backers -- and even his claim to that is dubious (Rawlins, p. 68, who notes that, just as in 1909, Peary claimed to have covered the most distance sledging at times when he was rid of anyone who could read a sextant; Bryce, pp. 853-854, who notes also the inadequacy of his equipment).
The classic book on this subject, according to Berton, is the already-cited Peary at the Pole: Fact or Fiction? by Dennis Rawlins. See also Berton, especially pp. 577-582. Rawlins convinced Berton -- and Rawlins's extremely negative tone may have contributed to Berton's own harsh statements. Indeed, Rawlins's violent anti-Peary tone may have lessened the book's effect (Bryce, p. 757; I can testify that it's a tough book to read). Still, the evidence is strong: Peary never made the Pole. And, unlike other Arctic expeditions, he didn't gather any useful scientific data. Nor did he care.
But that's Peary's story, not Bartlett's. (Although HHorwood, who is sure that Peary did not make the pole, declares his certainty on p. 91 that if it had been Bartlett, not Peary, who made the final run north, Bartlett would have reached the pole.) Even in Peary's story, and in Peary's war with Frederick Cook over who reached the Pole first, Bartlett stands out (e.g. when Peary tried to destroy Cook's equipment to render his claim unprovable, Bartlett helped hide some of the equipment from Peary's wrath; Bryce, p. 415).
The flip side is, Bartlett in 1910 took another ship, the Beothic (another well-known whaling vessel), north to investigate some of Cook's records (Bryce, pp. 908-909) -- although the voyage also let him take some rich tourists north; HHorwood, p. 105, believes Bartlett was simply playing celebrity captain to some rich fools. Whatever Bartlett's real reason, his work was not constructive. Bryce thinks Bartlett was doing Peary's dirty work at this point, destroying rather than investigating. Bryce, p. 920, goes so far as to state, "If Peary had a 'co-conspirator' in his fraudulent claim to the North Pole, it was Bob Bartlett, and his autobiography shows that he either was a clumsy liar or had an incredibly poor memory." Bryce, it will be clear, favors the former interpretation. I am inclined to disagree; the impression I get from Bartlett's writings is of a man who often acted before he thought, and suffered for it; this would help explain why Peary was able to lead him around by the nose. This is somewhat similar to Horwood's view that Bartlett was simply prone to wild exaggeration. But Horwood has no alternative explanation for how Cook's records were found missing after Bartlett and Company opened Cook's cairn (HHorwood, p. 107).
After messing with Cook's records, Bartlett and Co. continued their tourist trip around the Arctic, engaging in such silliness as capturing a live polar bear and starting into the Northwest Passage -- and nearly losing their ship in the process (HHorwood, pp. 108-109). "They touched bottom an uncounted number of times -- Bartlett literally didn't bother to note all the minor groundings in his log -- and ran solidly on the rocks on five different occasions" (HHorwood, p. 111). The repair bill for the ship ran to the equivalent of millions of dollars today. And their hunting "probably did permanent damage" to the local wildlife which lived so precariously in the Arctic Archipelago (HHorwood, p. 110).
HHorwood, p. 112, says that Bartlett hadn't even had the sense to make an arrangement with the hunter/tourists to get paid. Fortunately, they gave him a very big tip.
In World War I, he was given a commission in the U. S. Navy, but apparently hated the work he had to do (HHorwood, p. 115). In 1917, after one of Peary's associates went on a voyage to confirm the existence of Peary's "Crocker Land" northwest of Ellesmere Island (which turned out not to exist) Bartlett took the Neptune on a relief expedition -- and managed to smash a hole in her bow (HHorwood, pp. 115-116). He tried to sell more expeditions, and even designed what he thought would be an ideal arctic ship, but he couldn't get the money he needed (HHorwood, p. 117).
He didn't stop trying. HHorwood, p. vii, counts in total 28 voyages by Bartlett to the arctic (although most of them went over well-travelled waters and added little to our knowledge); HHorwood, p. 110, declares, "From the age of twenty-three until his death at the age of seventy, he never spent a summer anywhere else [other than the Arctic] if he could help it." Frankly, Bartlett looks like an obsessive.
After the war, he became more than obsessive; he became a drunk and a depressive, according to HHorwood, p. 123 -- even though he was living in America in the Prohibition era! In 1924, he suffered a broken leg and ribs when hit by a laundry wagon; he spent three months in the hospital -- and finally cleaned himself up (HHorwood, p. 124).
But I would argue that the real key to Bartlett's reputation, and the criticism of the same, is the Karluk voyage. This time, there was no Peary; the expedition was chartered by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, but he abandoned the ship early on, leaving Bartlett in charge of the show -- without ever having gotten his supplies and personnel onto the right ships (McKinlay, p. 19, says that all that was supposed to be organized when the expedition's three ships rendezvoused at Herschel Island, adding "Heaven help us all if we failed to reach Herschel Island." And, of course, they never did reach it. In fact, none of Stefansson's ships reached it, and two of the three were lost, and so was one of their captains, later on; McKinlay, p. 31).
The Karluk was intended to take Stefansson and his scientists to explore the western portions of the Canadian arctic, where Stefansson expected to find uncharted islands. Bartlett was Stefansson's second choice to be captain (McKinlay p. 12), which means he didn't have any real part in the planning. The ship was trapped in the ice, and Stefansson proceeded to take a few scientists and leave. Bartlett, his sailors, the remaining scientists, and the Karluk were trapped, drifting west until they were close to Wrangel Island off Siberia, where the ice smashed the ship's hull. Bartlett managed to get the men on the ice, brought them (or most of them) to Wrangel Island, then set off for Alaska to find rescue.
This probably wasn't the original plan; he wanted to go to Wrangel Island only as a stopping point on his way to Siberia. But so many of the men suffered injuries just getting to Wrangel that Bartlett decided to leave them there and go on alone (McKinlay, p. 91).
Not all the men he left behind lived, though. Three scientists and a sailor, who apparently did not trust Bartlett, had set off on their own (NivenIce, pp. 147-149). Niven calls it "mutiny," which is sort of true, but I thing "terminal disgust" might be a better phrase; they'd been handing Bartlett formal letters for months (McKinlay, pp. 37-38), and apparently Bartlett and their leader were not speaking to each other (McKinlay, p. 56). They died without reaching land. (Bartlett demanded that they leave a written document saying it was against his advice and absolving him of responsibility; HHorwood, p. 16.)
Bartlett's decision to let the three scientists go off on their own contributed to the disaster; one of them was the expedition's physician, and in his absence, most of the men on Wrangel Island -- though not, interestingly, the Inuit -- suffered constant illness and frostbite and gangrene, and the men, with no medical training, had to do their own amputations and such (McKinlay, p. 105, etc.).
Four sailors, including the Karluk's first and second mates, were sent by Bartlett on a side trip to uninhabitable Herald Island, and died there -- and Bartlett never admitted he had ordered them there (HHorwood, pp. 15, 29-30; NivenIce, pp. 133-151, etc. claims that they were supposed to go to Wrangel Island but went astray. Bartlett's role here is at best peculiar; even though he sent his second-in-command, he put the party under the command of a junior scientist; McKinlay, pp. 72-73. It looks as if he was playing favorites with his best friend among the scientists. It doesn't seem as if he was able to write coherent orders, either).
Nor did Bartlett have much of a backup plan. If he didn't get through, the men would die. He left *one* message in a capsule, and didn't drop than until long after the ship was wrecked (McKinlay, p. 81). Admittedly messages in capsules hadn't much chance of working (observe the fate of the Franklin expedition) -- but they didn't take much effort, either!
The bodies of the men lost on Herald Island would not be found until 1924 (NivenIce, pp. 368-379; NivenAda, p. 344, notes the supreme irony that they were discovered during an expedition which was trying, without much success, to rescue the men of another Viljalmur Stefansson expedition to Wrangel Island) -- and their absence left Bartlett with no competent officer to leave on Wrangel Island to manage the men left there -- which raises the real question of why he sent both of his junior officers. Did he not trust his second mate?
It sounds as if his failure to properly arrange for the Herald Island party caused Bartlett to make a too-hasty trip to Wrangel Island as well (McKinlay, p. 79).
It wasn't much better for those who made it to Wrangel Island with Bartlett than for those who went to Herald Island. Two scientists died there of dietary diseases, and one sailor died of a gunshot wound (probably murder; NivenIce, pp. 387-293); nearly everyone else, except for the expedition's handful of Inuit, ended up with severe frostbite and lost teeth or toes or other flesh. Of six scientists, 13 sailors including Bartlett, one trapper, and five Inuit (including a family of husband, wife, and two young daughters) on the Karluk when she sank, only one scientist, seven sailors, the trapper, and the five Inuit lived to return home.
How much of this is Bartlett's fault? This is debatable. Mirsky says on p. 289, "Had Bartlett not been there, it is doubtful if any would have come out of that nightmare alive." In his defense, he *did* lead the sledging voyage which eventually resulted in the rescue of the survivors, and this was certainly heroic. Not one man died in his presence, and only four were under his orders at the time of their deaths (and even they were on a sledging trip, and were lost due to an order given by one of the scientists, not Bartlett).
The other side of the coin is, he left his men on Wrangel Island with no proper authority (the only officer left was an engineer, who seems to have had no skill in handling men and who separated himself from the majority of the survivors once they started slipping out of control -- though the orders Bartlett left him, as quoted on p. 94 of McKinlay, were almost impossible. The orders for where the men were to assemble were not obeyed, nor was Bartlett able to keep his own timetable). It is true that Bartlett had few junior officers; shortly before the Karluk sailed, he had fired his first officer (NivenIce, p. 21, though she does not explain the circumstances; HHorwood, p. 15, points out that the new first officer was only twenty years old!). This left him without competent assistance, and caused him to spend most of his time on duty -- which cannot have helped his performance under crisis.
But the Karluk expedition was not a military command; he could have put someone else in charge. In that racist age, the men might not have accepted one of the Inuit as their leader, but he could have appointed trapper John Hadley, who knew how to live in the Arctic. Bartlett didn't do that; instead, he put the engineer in charge, with no junior officers -- and told them to split up, so there was no unified command. Under the pressures of arctic survival, the effect of leaving the men without a real commander was disastrous.
I can't help but note how much the whole story resembles that of the Jeannette, told in the notes to "Hurrah for Baffin's Bay" (and more fully in Guttridge). Bartlett and crew also noted the resemblances (see especially Bartlett-Karluk, pp. 93-94). But they did little to avoid that fate, except that Bartlett made the decision to leave most of his men at Wrangel Island (where their chances of survival were best) and seek rescue on his own; the Jeannette crew, by contrast, had all sought to return to land together, and ended up with even heavier casualties than the Karluk.
To be fair, Bartlett had little voice in the selection of his crew; they were offered low pay and recruited rather late in the game; NivenIce, pp. 20-21, says they were inexperienced, of poor character (two were under assumed names and one was an open drug user), and mostly ill-equipped. But this was actually one of the charges brought against him by the admiralty commission that examined the Karluk affair: he should never have let such a poorly-prepared ship go to the ice. He shouldn't have let the mutinous scientists leave, either (NivenIce, pp. 365-366). HHorwood, p. 114, says that the findings were "clearly unfair," but they seem entirely reasonable to me. Bartlett messed up big time, and the fact that his heroism saved the survivors doesn't change the fact that he created a disaster. He came close to a disaster even before the big mess-up. Even before the Karluk was finally trapped, Bartlett had once run her aground (NivenIce, p. 33).
Bartlett would eventually publish several books, including two about his arctic experiences, The Last Voyage of the Karluk (cited here as Bartlett-Karluk) and The Log of "Bob" Bartlett (1928). Both are highly dramatic; Bartlett-Karluk begins "We did not all come back," while the Log tells us that "I have been shipwrecked twelve times. Four times I have seen my own ship sink, or be crushed to kindling against the rocks. Yet I love the sea as a dog loves its master who clouts it for the discipline of the house." Several of the Karluk survivors (and one of the dead scientists) left journals; the one surviving scientist, William Laird McKinlay, also produced a heavily-researched book praising Bartlett. Bartlett's own books, however, "were heavily edited by a professional ghost writer, who tried to meet certain preconceived literary standards" (HHorwood, p. viii; he claims the ghost writer did Bartlett a disservice -- and that Bartlett's manuscripts, where preserved, are more interesting than what was published).
On the whole, the impression I have of Bartlett is of a man of some skill but rather greater enthusiasm. He saved the Roosevelt, he rescued many of the men from the Karluk -- but if he had not gotten into such fixes in the first place, he wouldn't have had to save anything. His navigation of the Roosevelt, as described by HHorwood, pp. 74-76, strikes me as a little crazy; certainly he should have gotten better use of his sails.
Stories from Bartlett-Karluk further illustrate this. In chapter III, Bartlett saw a polar bear and actually took the Karluk off her course to shoot it. Shooting at bears was pretty natural at the time -- a seal hunter certainly had no worries about ecology! -- but it was a waste of time and fuel with no particular reward except that he had a hide to take home and a little extra food for the dogs. (And it's worth remembering that the Karluk was wrecked because the ice trapped her before she had made enough distance east. Anything that delayed her added to the disaster.) Similarly, in chapter VII, he reports refusing treatment after a bad skiing accident lest everyone realize that he was "such a duffer." This was typical of his clumsiness; on the way to the pole in 1909, he at various times nearly cut his own throat, and almost impaled his foot, chopping ice.
Perhaps my favorite, though, is from chapter IX, where he decided to clean out his clogged cabin stove by firing it with flashlight powder. He ended up blowing pieces of the stove all over the room. The astonishing thing is, he tried it despite having had a somewhat similar disaster on the Roosevelt in 1909, when he set a fire in his cabin (Rawlins, p. 97). There is also a story of a reporter feeding Bartlett dinner to try to get his opinion on whether Peary had reached the Pole in 1909. Bartlett thought he probably had, or near enough -- but his language in describing being left behind was so salty that he was kicked out of the club where they were dining (see Fleming, p. 384).
Another story from his sealing days may perhaps illustrate both his ability to get into scrapes and his ingenuity in getting out of them. In 1907, he commanded the sealer Leopard, and rather than work her through the ice, he tried to take her through the narrow lane of open water just off-shore (HHorwood, p. 79). Instead of finding a shortcut to the seals, he ran the Leopard ashore off Ferryland. But he and his crew managed to tear up her deck and build a bridge over the ice that let them get ashore with their kits before the ship sank (Ryan/Drake, p. 22).
When it came to describing how the Karluk was lost (Bartlett-Karluk, chapter 11), Bartlett is surprisingly reticent; he devotes a single paragraph (p. 88) to the subject, simply noting that the ice crushed the ship's side and the pump. No explanation of why the Karluk was so damaged when few other ships suffered such damage in Arctic exploration (the Arctic was a graveyard of ships, but few were destroyed solely by ice; usually they were trapped and abandoned). NivenIce (pp. 117, 123) shows that the Karluk stayed afloat for about 21 hours after her hull was breached, without help of pumps; was it not possible that the ship could have been saved? Why, after months on the ice, was the ship not better prepared to be evacuated? Much that was useful went down with the vessel. And yet, once the water entered her, Bartlett spent much of the time listening to music on his victrola rather than doing anything useful; he apparently set things up so that the victrola was playing Chopin's Funeral March as the ship went down (McKinlay, p. 67). A cute gimmick, but didn't it mean that he was at risk of going down with the ship when he didn't have to?
And why, why, why did he not make better command arrangements when he left the crew behind to seek rescue? The troubles on the island were almost solely due to bad leadership -- plus the fact that the people who knew something about survival in the arctic (the Inuit and the trapper John Hadley) had no authority.
Some of this was initially the fault of Viljalmur Stefansson, the expedition commander who had purchased the Karluk as part of his arctic expedition, but who then had bought many of the wrong supplies and caused them to be loaded in an extremely haphazard manner. He also assembled most of the inadequate crew. He would show this sort of sloppiness in the future, too, assembling his own expedition to Wrangel Island without securing funding (NivenAda, pp. 39-43, etc.); four of the five people involved would die. (Stefansson had a deep vein of showmanship and compulsiveness -- the man was born "William Stephenson" but changed his name to sound more arctic-explorer-ish; NivenAda, pp. 18-19.) But Stefansson had abandoned the expedition shortly after the Karluk was frozen in, giving Bartlett the opportunity to straighten things out. So why the mad rush at the last moment? He had ages to make proper plans. And why did he have so much trouble with so many members of the ship's company?
To be fair, Bartlett seems not to have liked speaking ill of anyone. He never publicly questioned Peary's claim to have reached the Pole, and in the Last Voyage he does not say much about the problems he had with the scientists. Maybe the ship's problems were worse than he lets on. NivenIce, pp. 8-9, notes that Bartlett considered the Karluk completely unsuitable for the voyage, demanded (and got) many repairs done on her, and had repeatedly told Stefansson that he would need additional equipment.
I'm truly not sure what to think. Given those shipboard frictions, perhaps it's not a surprise that not everyone wanted to follow Bartlett back home. But his record is certainly more contradictory than these poems would indicate -- or than Bryce's blanket condemnation would allow.
In later years, Bartlett's primary ship was the schooner Effie M. Morrissey (the Effie May Morrissey according to AHorwood, p. 92), built in 1894, which Bartlett bought as a derelict in 1925 -- or, rather, a rich man, James B. Ford, paid for the ship and gave her to Bartlett (HHorwood, pp. 125-126). He sailed her all over the place (mostly to Ellesmere Island and northern Greenland in the 1930; HHorwood, p. 183) but it's not clear that he accomplished anything except to control his own itchiness; he made a lot of "scientific" collections and took wealthy young men on board as paying apprentices (HHorwood, pp. 127-128). The book about that, Sails Over Ice, was a flop. The Effie M. Morrissey was still around in 1970, but Newfoundland wouldn't buy her to use as a museum ship (O'Neill, p. 980).
Incidentally, Bartlett ran her hard aground in one of his first voyages (HHorwood, p. 134). Bartlett came up with one of his typical screwball answers: he lightened the ship as much as possible, and put up her sail in a storm -- and although he came within a hair of capsizing her or breaking her keel or both, it got her off the rocks (HHorwood, pp. 135-136). The next trip, he ran her aground again, near Cape Dorset, although this time, it was just tidal effects, so she got off without major damage (HHorwood, p. 141). On another trip, he headed into a hurricane and barely escaped going on the rocks (HHorwood, pp. 153-158.) Still, you have to wonder how many times a guy could get in trouble and not lose his funding.... He did manage to slightly extend the charts of the Arctic, correcting some errors around the west coast of Baffin Island (HHorwood, pp. 142-143). Also, he provided data that showed substantial declines in the populations of some arctic species -- but, in typical Bartlett fashion, dreamed up a hypothetical creature on which to blame it rather than accept that human hunting, much of it HIS OWN hunting, was responsible (HHorwood, pp. 151-152).
His other source of income was commercial endorsements -- Winchester guns, Wheaties, Pullman cars. He apparently didn't negotiate these very well, since he had problems collecting at least some of the payments (HHorwood, pp. 160-161). He also hunted up animals for zoos, and frankly didn't care for them very well (HHorwood, pp. 163-164. Not that the zoos treated the animals much better).
Bartlett also managed to get a job as a movie actor in the 1930s, when a production eventually known as "The Viking" was made. Bartlett was to play a sealing captain -- not quite himself, but close. Bartlett caused the crew some amusement at his difficulty in learning his lines (Ryan/Drake, p. 69). For more about the film and the disaster which occurred during its making, see "To the Memory of the Late Captain Kennedy."
His last major job came in World War II, hauling supplies around the Arctic for the allies (HHorwood, pp. 166-167).
Fleming, p. 422, sums up the later part of his life as follows: "Robert Bartlett never got over his experience with Peary. He returned to the Arctic again and again. Some of his voyages were successful but others -- like the Karluk expedition -- were harrowing failures. He wrote a few books, the last of which sold so badly that its earnings failed to cover his tobacco allowance.... He died on 26 April 1946."
In the last years of his life, he seems to have become an obsessive writer, even though writing had never earned him much, but he doesn't seem to have made any real attempt to finish what he was working on (HHorwood, pp. 170-171). In April 1946, he came down with pneumonia, but regarded it as just a "spring cold," and refused to have it treated. By the time a relative got him to the hospital, it was too late; he died three days later.
HHorwood, p. vii, calls him the "greatest Canadian ice captain who ever lived -- the greatest, by general consent, of any nationality in this century." This even though he wasn't a Canadian; Newfoundland was a separate dominion until shortly after his death (and he was an American citizen by then anyway. According to HHorwood, p. 114, Bartlett changed nationality because no one but the Americans would finance his Arctic expeditions). ButlerHanrahan are even more one-sided; their article (pp. 89-93) describes his love of flowers, and of classical music, and his bravery, and never mentions his ineptitude.
I'd personally call him a menace. But a CHARISMATIC menace, at least as long as you didn't have to serve under him. A good hero, as long as you didn't look too closely. And Newfoundland didn't. Hence pieces like this. - RBW
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