Some incredible stories of survival are well known, and other less so. Still others have been covered up entirely by the silt of time. I came across one such story in a long out-of-print volume of nautical lore, and was surprised that it had remained so obscure. The experience of Bruce Gordon, who spent years trapped on ice floes in the unremitting hostility of the far north, is an achievement of survival that perhaps exceeds that of his tropical counterpart, Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk, readers may recall, was the real-life inspiration behind Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe.
Bruce Gordon has been forgotten. He deserves to be better known.
In 1757 a young Scotsman named Bruce Gordon signed aboard the whaler Anne Forbes for a cruise from Aberdeen, Scotland into the rich whaling grounds of the North Atlantic. The waters around Iceland and Greenland were at that time choked with ice floes descending from the polar seas; and experienced mariners knew that navigating these waters could be extremely dangerous. In the span of a few hours, a ship could find itself surrounded completely, and from there carried off with the drifting ice; or it might be crushed by shifting ice masses.
The captain, Emmet Hughes, was neither prudent nor sober, preferring the whiskey bottle to the sound advice of his first mate, who cautioned him repeatedly that sailing too far north was risking disaster. Early successes in capturing whales spurred Hughes on to greater and greater follies of navigation, and he plunged ahead, oblivious to the dangers around him.
What the mate feared eventually happened. The Ann Forbes was caught in a current and swept into a treacherous expanse of ice. A fog descended over them, and immense pieces of ice began to press against the ship’s hull. The crew lost control of the ship, and it was smashed between two colliding icebergs. Gordon, who happened to be on lookout in one of the ship’s masts, was thrown onto one of the huge sheets of ice surrounding the ship.
The ship vanished beneath the shifting ice floes, taking all hands with her. Gordon alone survived, but he had nothing with him except a pocket Bible. His only hope for survival would be to reach the ship and try to live off its provisions until he could be rescued.
He eventually found the ship, which had overturned; its undamaged keel was elevated from the surface of a large ice floe, frozen firmly in place. But how to get inside the hull, and to the provisions and shelter inside? He scavenged an old boat hook and harpoon from the debris around the wreck and bored his way into the ship. Making his way to the captain’s cabin, he located salt biscuits and a cask of spirits; then, overcome with exhaustion and the desperation of his situation, he drank himself into a stupor. He awoke, bleary-eyed, to the sound of what he believed were human noises. But these were not the sounds of men.
Gordon peered out of the hole he had made in the ship’s hull and was immediately seized with terror. The ship was surrounded by huge polar bears, apparently attracted by the scent of the whale blubber stored in the hull. They were also eating some of the corpses of his shipmates, and Gordon was even able to identify one or two by the clothing strewn about the ice. He tried to scare them off by making various noises, but this seemed only to attract them to him that much more. To secure himself, he lashed forks and knives to an iron grate, so that they were projecting outward, and sealed the hull entrance he had made.
He now began to assess the dimensions of his situation. He nearly gave himself over to despair. He was alone, with no one to assist him, and he had no idea how he would get himself out of his situation. Why could I not have died like the others, he asked himself. For several nights, he remained in an alcoholic fog, the casks of rum providing little relief.
Finally, he pulled himself together and formed a plan of action. If he could get into the ship’s forecastle and hold, where there was coal and other provisions, he believed he could spend the winter on the ice. But where was he? While he was drifting constantly, he assumed himself to be somewhere between Greenland and the North Cape.
Many days of scavenging in the freezing cold yielded up clothing, an old musket, tools, coal, gunpowder, linens, large quantities of rum and brandy, and food. Gordon eventually learned how to make fire and carry the smoke out of the hull with a makeshift flue. One night, during a blizzard, a polar bear forced its way into the cabin; Gordon could hear it munching greedily on his biscuits. He flew at the animal with a torch and large carving knife; and the terrified brute lodged itself helplessly in the entrance from which it had entered. Gordon stabbed it repeatedly, and it fell down dead, its blood spilling all over the frozen cabin floor.
Gordon skinned the beast, sliced away its meat, and preserved its hide as a rug. It was a large female, and had recently been nursing. That night, another sound came at his door. It was a small, starving female polar bear cub, attracted by the scent of its mother; Gordon took pity on it and brought it into his cabin, where it immediately identified the hide of its mother.
He nursed the wretched animal back to life with bits of whale blubber, glad finally to have a living companion, however insensate and brutish. He named her Nancy. The animal soon took to following Gordon everywhere, imitating him and answering to her name, showing a degree of affection for him quite uncommon for her man-eating species.
As she grew larger, he taught Nancy to fish for him. She even protected him from roving bands of polar bears. On one occasion, she nearly died in combat with other bears while she and Gordon were hiking among the ice floes. Gordon knew that he was drifting aimlessly on the ice, and that at some point he would have to venture out into the sea to try to make for land. But without any training in navigation, he doubted his ability to accomplish this. On several occasions, Gordon and Nancy did encounter remote parties of native seal hunters, but Nancy’s roars always made them believe Gordon to be just an apparition. No man could be “friends” with a polar bear, they were certain.
After various adventures, Gordon’s ice floe drifted to the northern coast of Greenland, and he fell in with a small tribe of natives. Most of them were women. There were thirty-one women and only ten men; the rest had perished through the rigors of hunting and fishing. He and Nancy made a bizarre appearance, but Gordon was able to offer the natives something useful by sharing the spoils of the Anne Forbes wreck with them. One night, Nancy simply vanished; he never saw her again.
He knew he would never return to civilization unless he took the bold step of launching upon the open sea. His chance came unexpectedly one day. Spotting a large vessel on the horizon, he decided to risk the open water, setting off in a sealskin canoe and paddling furiously. He paddled until he nearly collapsed. He finally caught up with the ship—the Briel of Amsterdam—and was taken aboard.
The crew were shocked at the appearance of this sunburnt, bearded foreigner, dressed in sealskins and weeping with joy. From the ship’s captain, he was horrified to find out that he had been away from Scotland for just over seven years. Gordon eventually made his way back home, and there found that his story was initially greeted with skepticism and hostility.
Like Marco Polo, who endured years of taunts from his fellow Italians with the epithet “Marco Millions,” Gordon discovered that he was now a stranger in his own country. Eventually, as knowledge of the polar waters and its topography grew, the details of his account came to be confirmed. His resilience, honesty, and endurance eventually won over his countrymen, just as these same qualities had allowed him to triumph over the shifting snows and ice of the Arctic Circle. He eventually rose to high standing in his community, a figure respected by all. His crucible of suffering had been his redemption.
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