Canine Geographical Workers and Companions (Animals of the RGS, Fieldnotes III)

In geographical histories, there are few animals as revered as dogs, who have been vital contributors to expeditions across the world as both workers and companions. Indeed, the sled-pulling husky may be the most recognisable geographical animal to a general public. Their labour is well-known, but their ability to work for humans is not the only reason that they have been so commonplace in geographical histories. “Man’s best friend” is not only a worker, but a friend and companion in the most extreme conditions and in the face of vast unknown terrains. In this blog, I have selected stories from the Royal Geographical Society’s archives which show the breadth and diversity of canine geographical contributions.

The first dog.

The very earliest mention of a dog in the RGS archives is from the Atlases collection, on a late 16th Century tapestry map of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, made by William Shakespeare’s tapestry-makers (images 1 to 3). The intricate tapestry depicts XXX. In the bottom left hand corner (enlarged in image 3) is ‘Medusa with a dog and Perseus alighting to slay her.’

It wasn’t until the turn of the 19th century that dogs steadily began to show up increasingly in the archives. One of the earliest connections of dogs and expeditions is in Sonnini’s 1801 Monograph “Travels in Greece and Turkey, Undertaken by Order of Louis XVI.” In Chapter 30 of the monograph, Sonnini reports on agricultural practices and the animals of Greece and Turkey, including sporting dogs.

Sonnini’s 1801 Monograph “Travels in Greece and Turkey, Undertaken by Order of Louis XVI.” ©Royal Geographical Society

‘I saw no pointers in the islands of the Archipelago; but I there found a very handsome breed of setters, which would be excellent for the field, if they were broken in; they have an admirable nose, and are lively, indefatigable, and very enterprising. I had for a long time a dog of this breed; which, though of small size, possessed undaunted courage. One day I shewed him two goats straying on some rocky hills by the sea-shore. Great as was the agility with which those animals leaped from rock to rock, my dog presently overtook one of them; and strangled it immediately; he then set Out in pursuit of the other goat, which, finding itself pressed, jumped into the sea, and swam near a quarter of a league towards the offing. The dog followed it thither, also overtook it, and, after a contest of a few minutes, in the middle of the sea, which was, nevertheless, agitated by a swell, he killed it, and brought it dead to my feet on the beach, where I was waiting for him. These Greek dogs have, in general, eyes very small, but extremely quick’

Sonnini, S. C. 1801. “Travels in Greece and Turkey, Undertaken by Order of Louis XVI. and with the Authority of the Ottoman Court; by C. S. Sonnini, Member of Several Scientific and Literary Societies, of the Societies of Agriculture of Paris, and of the Observers of Men.” Monographs. Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). 1801.

What is particularly interesting about Sonnini’s writing on the dogs of Greece is his quickness to compare them and relate them to his own canine companion. They are not foreign nor exotic, but immediately adopted into his circle of understanding and concern through their species belonging and their special relationship with humans. This intermingling of personal memoir with the animals of Greece and Turkey feels slightly out of place with the reporting of other species in the manuscript, but completely in step with the special attachment Western European aristocratic men at the time had with their dogs. A rather brutal scene is recounted by Sonnini, but it also reflects his own position as a hunting man, a sporting man, reading the world he is travelling through the gaze of the one he has left behind.

Canine companions and workers feature often in the archives in the guise of hunting or “sporting” dogs. Howard Tripp’s 1903 pamphlet ‘Beautiful Biskra: Queen of the Desert‘ begins with a plea to the ‘very very busy business men who form the heart of our empire [to] take a winter holiday and to bask a while in the rays of a health-giving sun’ (see image 5). Tripp documents his journey around Biskra, in northeastern Algeria, over 100 pages. Around halfway through, Tripp is describing the climate and landscape of Biskra when he begins to talk about a dog in recounting the ‘good quail and gazelle shooting to be had in the neighbourhood’ (page 50).

Tripp, Howard C. 1903. “Beautiful Biskra ‘The Queen on the Desert.’” Pamphlets. Bemrose & Sons, Ltd. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) ©Royal Geographical Society

On his hunting expedition, it was recommended to Tripp that he should hire a pointer for five francs, leading to the following recollection of dogs, horses, and quails:

This dog, with dimly downcast eyes, and a rope round his neck, accompanied us in the little carriage. On arriving at the desired spot we all alighted, when I noticed the dog did not leave the carriage with the alacrity one would expect from a keen sporting dog ; still, having been assured he was a “ wonderful dog,” I did not think much about it. We soon got into line and by the Arabs the dog was coaxed to “ cherchez ” (hunt), I asked Ismael, my guide, “ Why do you not call to the dog in Arabic?” and to my amusement he replied, “ He only speak French.” Almost at once, up got a quail, out of shot, and settled down in a patch of barley a little distance away. We at once made for the place, and in the excitement the Arab coachman left his horses, to join in the hunt. Before we reached the green barley patch, however, the little Arab ponies, left to themselves, took fright, and off they went. All hunting immediately ceased: my three Arabs and the coachman were off like rockets, leaving me, with the dog, alone

After quite an hour’s delay—fortunately without much damage being done—the carriage and horses were brought back, and we resumed our sport, but not with our pointer dog: he had taken advantage of the excitement to “point off home,” and was seen no more. Luckily, an Arab, a friend of one of my men, joined us who had with him a mongrel terrier, with a strain of the Dachshund in him. He was, likewise, reported to be an “excellent quail hunter.” I engaged him, but on the understanding “payment only after result.” He really proved to be an excellent dog. We soon saw him tracking a bird, and there he stood with his tail out stiff, just like any well-trained pointer at home.

Tripp, Howard C. 1903. “Beautiful Biskra ‘The Queen on the Desert.’” Pamphlets. Bemrose & Sons, Ltd. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
Tripp, Howard C. 1903. “Beautiful Biskra ‘The Queen on the Desert.’” Pamphlets. Bemrose & Sons, Ltd. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) ©Royal Geographical Society

In this excerpt, both horses and dogs disrupt their position as workers for the day: the horses took fright when left by the coachman, bolting off and interrupting the quail hunt (no doubt sparing the lives of a few quails). In this uproar, the dog who seemed reluctant to be there in the first place with their ‘dimly downcast eyes’ also took the opportunity to bolt from the scene and instead head home. A further exchange between Tripp, the local friend of one of his employed guides, and a ‘mongrel terrier with a strain of the Dachsund in him’ is much more explicit in seeing the dog as a worker, whose labour is employed and remunerated to their human master. The unequal (colonial?) power relations between Tripp and local men in this excerpt are realised through the dogs and horses, and their resistance.

One dog’s travels

In the above story from Tripp’s 1903 pamphlet, a dog took the opportunity to abandon the man who had employed him when the horses whom he had caught a ride from distracted the humans, who in turn were trying to kill quail. Animals in the archives are often featured in these multispecies assemblage, and one of the most compelling and endearing examples of this I have found is in Jack et al’s 1838-1984 ‘Tibet and Lhasa‘ photographs album, a series of photographs from which are reproduced below.

The dog in these photographs is called T.W, and is captured in multiple pictures riding horseback both with and without his owner, Archibald Frederick Maclean Jack, and looking out over the skies and hills of Chumbi valley in the Tibetian Himalayas in 1938. I think I am particularly drawn to him as he bears a resemblance to my own dog, Charlie (picture attached). Two years earlier, Archibald Jack had competed in the modern pentathlon at the 1936 summer Olympics. In World War II, he served with the Royal Engineers and was honored with the Military Cross for his service in Serbia in 1943. He also served in the Northwest Frontier and in Northern Africa and as the commandant of a mountain warfare training school in Lebanon.

While T.W. features in multiple images and appears clearly as a beloved and devoted companion, there is no mention of the dog in the diaries in which these photographs are contained. Like the chickens, are dogs so mundane and every day that they are not seen as worth documenting in exploration of exoticised foreign lands? In the next section of this blog post, I focus on portraits of dogs who were positioned as members of expeditions.

Photographing Dogs

It is not a coincidence that the increase of mentions of dogs in the archive follows the introduction of photography, reaching a climax in 1909 with 258 mentions of dogs. In this section, I have selected a few portraits of dogs to trace geographical relationships between humans and their canine companion/workers on expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th C.

In the Antarctica expeditions (1910 to 1913), Cecil Meares is photographed sitting with his dog Osman; making a dog harness; chopping seal meat for the dogs. Similarly, Fridjtof Nansen poses with his dogs in 1880, and the image of two smiling porters fording a river carrying a dog (1933) reveal how humans and dogs have explored the world together (Frank S. Smythe Collection). Portraits of dogs on the Endurance Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition (1914-1917) such as ‘Saint’ (n.d), and ‘Sugger’ (1893) on Fridjtof Nansen’s 1893 Fram North-East passage expedition reveal these dogs as more than workers. The documentation of the dogs who laboured with expeditions memorialise the vital multispecies codependence of geographical knowledge.

Osman and Cecil Meares

Osman, pictured above, was a husky who was employed on the Terra Nova Expedition, formally known as the British Antarctic Expedition, from 1910 to 1913. Osman was one of several dogs who worked on the expedition, with responsibilities for pulling sleds and leading expeditions. Unlike the other dogs on the expedition, the archives seem to illustrate a special affinity between Osman and the chief dog handler (and Russian interpreter) on the expedition, Cecil Meares (1877-1937).

The Expedition was in some ways successful, securing the British the title of being the first in a race to reach the South Pole; Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who led the expedition, was determined to be the first at the expense of all else. His decisions and determination was at the expense of all else, and came at a great cost. On the return journey, he and his four teammates died, and their journals and diaries were found along with their bodies some eight months later (see Cherry-Garrard, A. (1970) [1922]. The Worst Journey in the World. London: Penguin).

British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13. Track Chart of Main Southern Journey. (1910–1913). Retrieved June 15, 2021, from Map website: ©Royal Geographical Society

On May 21st 1913, Commander Edward Ratclife Garth Russell (ERGR) Evans, who succeeded Captain Scott as leader of the expedition following Scott’s death, gave a lecture at the Royal Albert Hall on ‘the leading events of the expedition. As context, immediately following Scott’s death, he was memorialised as a tragic hero who had unknowingly led four other men into an unavoidable disaster in the bravery of conquering the world’s most extreme place. Scott was, for a long time, beyond reproach despite discontent amongst those close to the expedition and relatives of the dead, but public perception remained positive until the 1970’s, when most members of the expedition were dead (Fiennes, R. 2003. Captain Scott. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. ISBN 9780340826973). Reports of Scott’s authoritarian leadership, poor judgement, and organisational failures certainly paint his choices in a different light (Roland Huntford‘s book Scott and Amundsen (1979, re-published and televised in 1985 as The Last Place on Earth).

These futures were, of course, unknown to Evans on the night of his lecture, although he would certainly have had his own judgements from the expedition. His opening gambit, as memorialised in the Royal Geographical Society’s collections, supports Scott’s competency and judgement:

So much has been published concerning the British Antarctic Expedition, the tragic loss of its gallant leader and his four brave companions, whose names we know so well, that there is no need to preface the story by telling you at length how Captain Scott prepared his Expedition. His organization was complete, his equipment splendid, and no expedition ever left our shores with a better outfit or a more enthusiastic and determined personnel. Thanks to Captain Scott’s fine organization our expedition remains self contained, even after his death. On June 1st, 1910, the Terra Nova left London with most of the members of the expedition. She finally left New Zealand on November 29th. Captain Scott had with him the fifty-nine officers, scientists and seamen. The Terra Nova left New Zealand a very full ship; besides 400 tons of coal she carried provisions for three years. Two huts, 40 sledges, fur sleeping bags, bales of clothing, all kinds of instruments, and the hundreds of little items of equipment necessary to a Polar expedition with an ambitious scientific programme. Besides these things which filled our ship’s holds and the between deck spaces, we carried 19 Siberian ponies, 34 dogs, 3 motor sledges, 2,500 gallop of petrol, and our paraffin on the upper deck. The animals were under the charge of Mr. Cecil Meares, who with Lieut. Bruce had brought them down from Siberia. The ponies after we left New Zealand were taken charge of by Captain Oates, of the Inniskilling Dragoons.

Evans, E. G. R. (1910–1913). The British Antarctic Expedition. Retrieved June 14, 2021, from Journal Manuscripts website:

As well as being suggestive of his loyalties, this introduction the lecture reveals more about Osman and the other canine members of the expedition and the journey they had before the expedition.

Cecil Meares and dog Osman, Herbert Ponting, RGS Images Online, 16/8/1911 ©Royal Geographical Society

On the journey from Siberia, Meares would have got to know the dogs closely. As the dog-leader, it would have been vital that he understood not only their individual personality traits, but also their social relationships with one another. In the archives, it is clear that Osman was Meares’ favourite of the sled dogs. They are pictured together often, as well as Osman having several portraits of himself taken. The staging of Osman is not as one of a pack of dogs, but as an individual who contributed to the expedition as both a worker and a companion. His portrait depicts him as calm, friendly, and obedient, rather than foregrounding his strength or endurance.

Ponting, H. (1911, January 3). Meares and dogs on ice-house. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from RGS Images Online website: ©Royal Geographical Society

Meares had also been a fur trader in the wildest and furthest flung parts of Russia and travelled to a number of little visited places such as Tibet until his companion was killed at which point he returned to England and volunteered for Scott’s expedition.

Scott’s by-the-book naval command structure didn’t sit too comfortably with him.

He was tasked by Scott to buy 34 dogs and 20 ponies for the expedition, he knew little about ponies though went to Siberia as instructed to obtain them and transported them to New Zealand

While Meares may have been fond of the dogs, his personal history is not one that reveals an animal lover. Prior to the expedition, he was a fur trader and he left the expedition before it ended in 1912. There was a two month period after his resignation before he left on the summer relief ship where he did not work. Whilst the images show a man surrounded by dogs, and one who he seemed particularly close with, there is a lot more to be uncovered about the social lives of dogs and their place in the expedition as more than workers.

Nansen, Johansen and the Dogs of the Fram Expedition

Sugger and Kaigao were both Samoyed dogs who laboured as sledge drivers on the Fram Expedition (1893-1896) between 1894 and 1895. This Expedition was led by the Norwegian explorer, scientist, and diplimat Fridjtof Nansen (pictured below in portrait and on the expedition) and set out to reach the North Pole by harnessing the natural east-west current of the Arctic Ocean. Nansen’s journey north on the ship Fram began by sailing to the New Siberian Islands in the eastern Arctic Ocean, where he froze the boat into the pack ice (see image below) and waited for this current to carry the boat North. After 18 months, Nansen and Johansen (who we’ll meet in a moment) left with their dogs and sledges to head for the pole. They didn’t make it, but did get to the Farthest North latitude at the time, reaching Franz Josef Land whilst the Fram drifted west into the North Atlantic Ocean.

Digging out the ‘Fram’, Arctic Slides, Nansen, Fridtjof. 1894–1895. “The Arctic.” Lantern Slides. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). 1894–1895. Accessed June 18, 2021. ©Royal Geographical Society

Writing about Nansen and his Arctic journey in The Journal of Modern History, Max Jones (2021) asks,

Why did so many women and men around the world celebrate the exploits of a foreign explorer at the climax of the age of empire? The Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen’s lectures about his recent Arctic expedition on board the ship Fram drew huge audiences across Europe and America in 1897 and 1898. The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) booked London’s Albert Hall for only the second time in its history; the first was for Henry Morton Stanley’s return from Africa in 1890, “but even then,” reported one periodical, “there was nothing like the rush for seats that there has been to hear Nansen.”1 The Daily Chronicle claimed the circulation of its exclusive reports “was unprecedented . . . in the history of London journalism.”2 Nansen’s book about the expedition was published in at least fifteen languages, and he received honors in person from the Prince of Wales, the presidents of France and the United States, the kaiser, the tsar, and the Habsburg emperor. Following his visit to Vienna, Sigmund Freud observed that the “whole household” was now “hero-worshipping” Nansen. Nansen would become one of the most celebrated figures of his age, his polar exploits launching his subsequent endeavors as a pioneering marine scientist and statesman.

Nansen was celebrated as a hero after the Fram expedition, but what I found particularly interesting was, again, the framing of dogs as companions as well as workers. Nansen, Johansen and the Samoyeds spent a long journey north together, battling extreme conditions. How did they bond? What did their community look like? How did they rely on one another? And how did they take up these multiple roles of companion and worker? In the portraits at the opening of this section, Nansen and Johansen each had a “last dog” who appears to have been their own favoured companion.

Johansen had joined the Fram as a stoker, employed to tend the furnace of the Fram, but when the Fram froze, and Nansen chose to head north with the dogs, Johansen was an obvious choice as an expert dog driver. On their return from their journey north, Johansen and Nansen had to spend the winter on Franz Josef Land, he narrowly escaped death twice, when falling through the ice and being hit by a polar bear (

Even before this small group of dogs and humans went ahead alone, it is suggested from photographs of the expedition that dogs and humans were living in close quarters, and also that Nansen had been focussed on fostering a close relationship with the dogs. In the below images, dogs and humans and dogs are intermingling, playing, and communing around the Fram from the beginning of their shared journey.

Does the inclusion of these dogs offer them membership of the expedition community? Were they granted special treatment or companionship? How did they shift between labourer and companion? The ‘special relationship’ between dogs and humans is stark and heightened in these images. The men clearly had affection for their dogs, particularly having been living in close and extreme quarters for a significant amount of time. But would they have learned to love these dogs outside of that labouring relationship? And what happens to dogs after their work is done? These stories are mostly omitted from the archive. However, in the below image of an article in The South Polar Times, there is an insight into what happens to the animals who did not make it:

Arctic Sledge Journey, The South Polar Times, “Arctic Sledge Journey.” 1902. RGS Images Online. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). April 1, 1902. Accessed June 18, 2021

The clipping above is was from the Windward vessel, which was, ‘sold in 1894 to Captain Joseph Wiggins, she was bought later in the same year by Alfred Harmsworth for the use of Frederick G. Jackson in his exploration of Zemlya Frantsa-Iosifa (Franz Josef Land). Windward was Jackson’s ship for three years, including one winter beset in the ice; journeying from her, Jackson substantially recharted Zemlya Frantsa-Iosifa, and the ship brought home Fridtjof Nansen after his epic drift with the polar ice’ (Buchan, 2009). In the clipping, the author reveals that they lost ponies and several dogs, but that the former had made very good “beef” for the men.

Keeping dogs on expeditions: A multispecies story

Expedition dogs worked hard, and accordingly need a lot of fuel and equipment to keep them able to work. The portraits of the dogs above (all images ©Royal Geographical Society) Osman, Saint and Sugger, paint a privileged picture of the expedition animal. Their closeness to human, straddling companion and worker, affords them privileges that animal studies scholars have long studied in the hierarchy of species (see, for example, Erica Fudge’s 2008 book, Pets, and Zoei Sutton’s critical work on companion animals, 2020). Their existence and work, which is itself exploitation, despite the image that portraits paint, rely on wider multispecies exploitations.

In the images above, Cecil Meares is pictured undertaking some of his dog-work. In the first (L-R), he is sat by the blubber stove with his colleague Dimitri. In the next, he is chopping up seal meat for the dogs to eat. The final image shows him making leather harnesses for the dogs. Each of these tasks relied on violence towards and killing of other animals, to sustain the dogs as workers that the human expedition, itself a result of colonial expansionist violence and geopolitical competition, relied upon.

The animals in the archive are sometimes positioned as friends or companions, such as the dogs discussed in this post. But can a friendship rely on such dynamics? Would these dogs have chosen this life, were they given a choice? How much autonomy did they have within the expedition. In the concluding section of this blog post, I think a little more about these questions.

Dogs: Workers, Companions, Friends?

In a 1905 monograph about The British National Antarctic Expedition (Discovery Expedition, also led by Captain Scott), Albert Armitage, who was the second-in-command for the expedition recounts Two Years in the Antarctic. Writing about the preliminary sledge journeys of the expedition, Armitage observes:

One of the peculiarities of the Siberian sledge-dog is that, on the return of those that have been away, they are treated as strangers by the dogs that have remained at home, so that battles and murders result unless precautions are taken. All the dogs were therefore chained until they became accustomed to one another once more.

Armitage, B. Albert, & Nansen, F. (1905). Two Years in the Antarctic: Being a Narrative of the British National Antarctic Expedition. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from Monographs website:

The dogs, Armitage writes, have to spend time getting used to one another and this must be managed by their human trainers. The Siberian Husky is, as a breed, energetic and athletic, and have a double coat that protects them against harsh winters. Their size, temperaments, and characteristics made them appealing as sled-dogs. However, as evidenced above, they are not totally domesticated or malleable to human desires. They do not fall easily into line, and have their own preferences and distastes that shaped practices and spaces on the expedition.

Dog Harness, page 152, Armitage, B. Albert, & Nansen, F. (1905). Two Years in the Antarctic: Being a Narrative of the British National Antarctic Expedition. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from Monographs website: ©Royal Geographical Society

Working with dogs in geographical expedition is not a simple matter of keeping them fed and happy. Dog leaders needed experience with dogs, to understand their biology and social relationships, as well as to have the skills to provide care and make equipment for dogs. In 1975, the keeping of sled dogs was phased out by the British Antarctic Survey. Up to this point, dogs were kept at the base year round but due to changes in the journey of scientists, and the focus of expeditions on ‘more detailed scientific work’ has made it impractical to keep huskies.

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has relied on sledge dogs as the main form of transport for field parties since its predecessor, the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), imported them in 1945, when it created a permanent presence on the continent. Over the years dogs have been used for extensive work over a very wide area. In 1975 BAS changed its policy with respect to work in the southern Antarctic Peninsula. In future seasons scientists will not winter in this area but will be flown to Adelaide Island and then into the field. They will carry out more detailed scientific work in particular areas of interest. This means that it is no longer practical to maintain huskies on base as they could not be kept fit and well disciplined during the winter for a short summer season. The scientists, similarly, could not be expected to learn to work the dogs efficiently in the time available, and the change in the nature of their work means that they will not move camp so frequently. The dogs, since they must be fed even if they are resting, would be uneconomic in such a situation. Finally, most of the work will be in areas that are thought to be safe so the dogs will not be needed to probe for crevasses.

Bostelmann, R. (1976). The management of sledge dogs in the Antarctic. Polar Record, 18(112), 25-35. doi:10.1017/S0032247400028680

The end of dogs in geographical expeditions does not end the curiosity of researchers and geographers in the role that they have played in geographical knowledge. In this blog post, I have told the story of a few dogs in the archives, and troubled their position as workers and companions. Through all of these stories, there have been troubling undertones of choice and freedom, as well as exploitation. Dogs in particular (often along with horses) are presented as choosing close lives with humans, thus justifying these complex relationships as ones both parties have chosen. However, the role of dogs in geographical knowledge production relied on the exploitation of other species: for food, equipment, and warmth. Do those animals also have a role in geographical exploration? How might it be represented? How should this exploitation sit in the geographical archive against committed interspecies relationships in which humans found joy?

As I continue to work through the RGS archives, I hope to continue reflecting on these questions, challenging not only who is represented in the archives, but who I am looking for and how. The categories of friend, companion, conflict, and worker that I set out with are becoming ever further entangled and unclear.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s