Mountains of Greenland

I read that twenty-eight of the mountains of Greenland are ‘named’ for Cambridge Colleges. A 1963 expedition organised by climbers at St. John’s College pioneered a number of peaks in the Greenland Alps and, in the great but by 1963 rapidly fading tradition of European explorers, named those peaks for the colleges of their alma mater.

I do not know that the names persist, or were ever used in anger. A cursory Googling throws up a lot of Inuit name for mountains in Greenland, and a handful of Danish ones; not a lot of Cambridge colleges.

These things are lost in time. Naming what is, to you, a wilderness, but is, to the people who live there, assuredly not a wilderness, is a futile business.

German explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), in his voyage to the watershed of the Orinoco and the Amazon and his tracing of the Casiquiare which joins them, followed the river and recorded the position of small missionary stations or trading posts as he went. In May 1800 he and his travelling companions reached Esmeralda, last Christian settlement on the Orinoco. It was little more than a few huts, home to a few natives of the jungle and some missionaries and traders.

Humboldt dutifully marked it on his map. In 1958, two botanists who retraced Humboldt’s route found no trace of the place: it had been sucked back into the jungle, wholly effaced although, as they then noted, it is still to be found on every modern map.

The mountains of Greenland – Trinity College Mountain, Mount Corpus, Mount Sidney Sussex – persist, of course; but I assume the names are gone the way of Esmeralda.

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Blast Off

Why, someone wondered in class yesterday, was the transit of a Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station being relayed live on the BBC? Was this not routine space business? It was, of course, mercifully routine; except for the fact that Tim Peake, one of the astronauts making the trip, is the first British astronaut.

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Mozart, Magic Flute, Entry of the Queen of the Night, design by Karl Friedrich Schinkel

Except that he is not. He is the seventh. In 1991 Helen Sharman, a 27-year-old chemist from Sheffield, spent eleven days in the MIR space station, funded by a consortium of British companies. She was chosen, live on ITV, from among 11,000 applicants, and trained for 18 months in the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia.

And between Helen Sharman and Tim Peake, five other astronauts, all flying the American flag of convenience, have spent time in space: Micheal Foale (374 days in space and four space walks), a graduate of Cambridge University, who considers Cambridge to be his hometown; Piers Sellars from Kent (three separate ISS missions and six space walks); Nicholas Patrick (Harrow and Cambridge); Gregory Johnson (South Ruislip); and Richard Garriott (space tourist, American parents but born and raised in Cambridge).

So, seven astronauts. That’s very nearly a space colony. None of them, however, wore the Union Jack on his or her space suit, so far as I know. And perhaps that goes to the heart of it: the sight of a man in a spacesuit with a Union Jack on the sleeve is disjunctive, like seeing a British cowboy; and it conjures memories of Scott perishing in the Antarctic or Captain Cook in the Pacific. It is a flicker of the old greatness, a time in popular imagination when Britain explored and bestraddled the globe.