Voyage of the Iceberg: The Story of the Iceberg that Sank the Titanic by Richard Brown is a small book unlike any other about the Titanic disaster. Brown, a specialist on seabirds, has written a compact tale about the journey of icebergs, specifically the Iceberg with a capital I, that entered immortality on 14 April 1912. From the Iceberg’s formation in the Jakobshavn Ice Fiord in Greenland, to its migration north near Ellesmere Island then south past Baffin Island and the east coast of Labrador to the north Atlantic, Brown paints a natural history of all icebergs of the region. Originally published in 1983, Voyage of the Iceberg was reprinted with a new preface on the centenary of the Titanic’s sinking.
Brown writes more than just about the journey of a hunk of ice from Greenland to the time the Titanic collided with it. Brown also writes about the avifauna and the habitat and migration of all arctic species, and how they depend on icebergs as storehouses of vast food reserves. The Canadian and Greenlandic Inuit also feature in Voyage of the Iceberg as they rely on icebergs when fishing or hunting for seals. As European and North American explorers ventured further north than ever before during the early part of the twentieth century, the Inuit were vital for their guidance and expert advice. The native arctic population however could not understand why these strange people would trudge ever northward:
“What Big Nail were they looking for? Old Mequsaq knows the men who went there with Cook and the men who went with Peary, and none of them saw any Nail. All the white men did was to travel so far out on the ice that the Inuit were afraid they would never get back to land. When they stopped, they put up a post with a cloth on it, turned around and came home again. And that was all?”
In this context, the Big Nail = the North Pole (a literal pole). Inuit like Mequsaq saw no point in walking so far north, if there wasn’t any practical reason for doing so. The explorers were not hunting for musk ox, fox or polar bear.
I had a laugh when Brown described polar explorer Bob Bartlett:
“This big, tough, horse-faced seaman is oddly shy and sensitive underneath, with an eccentric taste for books and classical music which goes very strangely with his remarkable talent for blasphemy.”
Brown provided a valuable map of the arctic and of the Iceberg’s migration. I flipped to the map constantly, as I wanted to follow the route as well as see all the places Brown wrote about. The points were all marked on the map and I felt that I was travelling along with the Iceberg as it continued its journey, as it melted and flipped over, as it grounded and as it threatened whaling ships in the region.
The last chapter, on the fateful night of 14 April 1912 when the Titanic struck the Iceberg, kept my eyes riveted to the page. Brown included many illustrations and photos showing not only arctic bird species, but also of whalers and trappers, explorers and of course images of the Titanic.