At that ambiguous turn in periods from the Late Medieval to the Early Modern, Europe was broadening its horizons in a way that only the Vikings had approached previously. The Italians dominated the Mediterranean; the Spanish the central and southern Atlantic; the Portuguese the Indian Ocean. In northern Europe, France, England and the Dutch wanted in on the game. Once the whole global idea started to set in for the wider European set, it became clear to many in these northern countries that logically a northwest passage should exist to link northern Europe to the lucrative markets in the Far East.
Many tried. All failed. Some survived, but many did not. Emerging from the medieval world’s Little Ice Age, ice blocked the route from the northern Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic north of modern-day Canada. Those who ventured out were motivated by adventure, wealth, prestige and royal charters. This failure led to the French demise in North America since they chose not to pursue colonization as fully as did the English (and the Spanish to the south). Their leave-[little]-trace approach to colonization of their New World holdings, reinforced by the lack of a northern trade route enabled England, fresh off the colonization of Ireland, to overwhelm them. Unlike the French, the English would build a formidable Navy unhindered by the obvious obstacles: a) its northerly position and b) its distance from the obvious trade routes to the East.
The need to get from North America’s east coast to the Pacific more efficiently remained relevant. This is obvious by America’s interest in the Panama Canal. In the first couple decades of the 20th century (1904-1914), America invested millions of dollars and (estimated) over 30,000 lives (lost) in building the Panama Canal. (For more information on the Panama Canal visit the Canal de Panama website with English translation.) Western Civilization may have advanced since the Age of Discovery, but shipping remains as essential now as it ever has been–and, likely more so than it ever was.
With the dual advents of the Cold War and the nuclear submarine, movement in Arctic waters–or, more accurately, under Arctic waters–actually turned the region into a pretty warm zone. In fact, the Arctic was arguably the hottest point outside of actual war zones in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan–perhaps even hotter than outer space during the Space Race! Of course, this was due to simple geographic proximity during the Cold War’s bipolar chess match.
Now, once again, nations are competing for the Northwest Passage. Today, the major players are Canada and the U.S. with a few other competing claims. There are also pressing concerns by Inuit cultures who have long lived in the region and are somewhat better recognized today than during the period of European “Discovery“. Other than the nationalities represented and their existing establishment in the New World, the competition has changed very little in the intervening years since the Age of Discovery. Is this evidence of that period ushering in the modern era? Is it proof of the relevance history has in current affairs? Is it yet another opening for social, economic and political discussions of trade or environment? Yes.
Check out the links below for more on the development of the issue and the history of the fabled passage.
Of Maps and Men: In Pursuit of a Northwest Passage (Princeton online exhibit)
Arctic Passage (NOVA)
Canada boosts claim to Northwest Passage (Financial Times)
Northwest Passage (Forbes)