The Kane Diary in Special Collections

April 29, 2020
Tim Edward Noakes
Sketches of Arctic clothing

Many years ago I was fascinated by the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic, and how from 1914-1916 Shackleton and his crew were cut off from the world in their harrowing struggle for survival. A remarkable story of courage and perseverance, this epic adventure story captured my attention and imagination. 

In Special Collections we have a diary of another harrowing adventure, this time in the Arctic, by Elisha Kent Kane on board the ship Advance. The diary spans from June 4, 1854 until May 15, 1855. A senior medical officer in the U.S. Navy, Kane led a second attempt to find survivors of Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition (which set out in 1845) as well as discover the famed Northwest Passage. Being a scientist, Kane appears extremely ambitious, to the point where his desire for acclaim perhaps risked the safety of his crew. On July 8, 1854 he writes: “I hope that…I may advance myself in famous eyes by a book on glaciers and ‘glacial geology’.” Just a few days later, he considered the real possibility of spending another arctic winter on board the Advance: “Several awkward things stare me in the face. First we are not prepared for a second winter…” clearly foreseeing that “…few of us would survive...”. Many of the crew thought they had to venture south while they had a window of opportunity, but Kane decided to stay.

Eventually trapped in an ice flow and forced to endure another winter, a drama ensued stunning in so many ways: nine members attempted to make an escape to the south only forced to return later, one of the crew (a 19 year-old Inuit taken on to help with hunting) eventually left to marry an Inuit woman, and another, William Godfrey, deserted. If not for their interaction with the Inuit, it is probable that none would have survived, for the Inuit provided necessary foods to prevent scurvy as well as ways to effectively combat the cold. While Kane lost three of his crew, his diary intimately describes the trials and tribulations of this arctic adventure.

Revisions to diary 

Regarding our copy, it is interesting to note the many corrections throughout the text (see image). It seems as if, when Kane was publishing his book about this expedition, he edited much of the diary, omitting numerous passages that may portray him in an unsympathetic light. A common practice in the nineteenth century, his revisionist approach leads to an intellectual, if not ethical, discussion about the authenticity of published diaries. Nevertheless, Kane was renowned as one of the great explorers of the nineteenth century. His crew may beg to differ.


Tim Edward Noakes

Head of Public Services
Department of Special Collections