Saturday, March 1, 2014

Some one had blundered ...

You may well ask, why a post about Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" here on my Arctic blog? Well, as we watch and wait for news of the latest military developments in Crimea, we're in not too different a position than Tennyson was as he sat reading his morning newspaper, in whose columns he read of the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. An order had been given for the British light cavalry to lead an attack a series of gun emplacements; somehow or other, they ended up attacking the wrong guns -- not the nearby ones protecting the harbor, but distant ones, ringed with Russian cannon on both sides. Of more than six hundred men, 118 -- nearly 1/5 of the total force -- were killed, 127 wounded, and 60 taken prisoner.

Tennyson read the news accounts, and set to composing a tribute to the brigade's bravery -- although, tellingly, the line about which he built the entire verse was (by his own account) "some one had blundered." Indeed, someone had, but for Tennyson and others of his day, this did not subtract from the derring-do of the "noble six hundred" -- on the contrary, it magnified it immeasurably. At the suggestion of Lady Jane Franklin (Sir John Franklin and Tennyson were cousins by marriage), Tennyson arranged for hundreds of copies to be printed and given out to soldiers who were hospitalized in the Crimea. And, although it might seem there could be nothing more demoralizing, the effect was reported to have been strongly positive. Many years later, near the end of his life, Tennyson recorded a recitation of his most famous poem onto one of Mr. Edison's wax cylinders, whence it can still be heard.

Aside from Lady Franklin's role in suggesting the poem's distribution, Jane was largely still preoccupied with what she regarded as the incomplete search for her husband and his men. The Crimean War had had an effect on that as well, as no one in Government felt it appropriate to provide funds for what they saw as a futile search, the more so at a time of war, which was why M'Clinock's expedition (technically a private one but in part supplied by the Royal Navy, and retroactively converted into a period of active service for Sir Leopold) was delayed until 1858.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Boat

It's probably the best-known symbol of the failure of the Franklin expedition -- the whaleboat, loaded with all manner of material that added to the weight of the boat, drawn upon an enormous sledge with iron runners -- which some party of survivors dragged to their doom. McClintock described this "melancholy relic" in great detail:
"A large boat, measuring 28 ft. in extreme length, 7ft. 3 in. in breadth, 2 ft. 4 in. in depth. The markings on her stem were —" XXI. W. Con. N61., Apr. 184." It appears that the fore part of the stem has been cut away, probably to reduce weight, and part of the letters and figures removed. An oak sledge under the boat, 23 ft. 4 in. long, and 2 ft. wide; 6 paddles, about 60 fathoms of deep-sea lead line, ammunition, 4 cakes of navy chocolate, shoemaker's box with implements complete, small quantities of tobacco, a small pair of very stout shooting boots, a pair of very heavy iron-shod knee boots, carpet boots, sea boots and shoes—in all seven or eight pairs; two rolls of sheet lead, elm tingles for repairing the boat, nails of various sizes for boat, and sledge irons, three small axes, a broken saw, leather cover of a sextant case, a chaincable punch, silk handkerchiefs (black, white, and coloured), towels, sponge, tooth-brush, hair comb, a macintosh, gun cover (marked in paint "A.12"), twine, files, knives; a small worsted-work slipper, lined with calfskin, bound with red riband; a great quantity of clothing, and a wolfskin robe; part of a boat's sail of No. 8 canvas, whale-line rope with yellow mark, and white line with red mark; 24 iron stanchions, 9 inches high, for supporting a weather cloth round the boat; a stanchion for supporting a ridge pole at a height of 3 ft. 9 inches above the gunwale."
But that was far from all. Most poignant, perhaps, were the books -- those chosen from the shipboard library as worthy of hauling onwards -- and the silver plate, originally that of the officers, which had apparently been distributed to the sailors:
Five or six small books were found, all of them scriptural or devotional works, except the Vicar of Wakefield. One little book, Christian Melodies, bore an inscription upon the title-page from the donor to G. G. (Graham Gore). A small Bible contained numerous marginal notes, and whole passages underlined. Besides these books, the covers of a New Testament and Prayer-book were also found.
And, scattered amidst the rest, a flood of miscellaneous items:
"Amongst an amazing quantity of clothing there were seven or eight pairs of boots of various kinds—cloth winter boots, sea boots, heavy ankle boots, and strong shoes. I noted that there were silk handkerchiefs—black, white, and figured—towels, soap, sponge, tooth-brush, and hair-combs; Mackintosh gun-cover, marked outside with paint A 12, and lined with black cloth. Besides these articles we found twine, nails, saws, files, bristles, waxends, sail-makers' palms, powder, bullets, shot, cartridges, wads, leather cartridge-case, knives—clasp and dinner ones, needle and thread cases, slowmatch, several bayonet scabbards, cut down into knife sheaths, two rolls of sheet-lead, and, in short, a quantity of articles of one description and another truly astonishing in variety, and such as, for the most part, modern sledge travellers in these regions would consider a mere accumulation of dead weight, of little use, and very likely to break down the strength of the sledge crews. The only provisions we could find were tea and chocolate; of the former very little remained, but there were nearly 40 lbs. of the latter. These articles alone could never support life in such a climate, and we found neither biscuit nor meat of any kind. A portion of tobacco, and an empty pemmican tin, capable of containing 22 lbs. weight, were discovered. The tin was marked with an E; it had probably belonged to the 'Erebus.'" (italics mine)
The sheer quantity of material spoke of men, who, in their last necessity, had been unwilling to part with personal items or material that would be of little practical use on land. And then, as McClintock wrote,
"All these were after observations; there was that in the boat which transfixed us with awe. It was portions of two human skeletons. One was that of a slight young person, the other of a large, strongly-made middle-aged man. The former was found in the bow of the boat, but in too much disturbed a state to allow Hobson (McClintok's lieutenant, who'd found the boat first) to judge whether the sufferer had died there; large and powerful animals, probably wolves, had destroyed much of the skeleton, which may have been that of an officer ... the other skeleton was in a somewhat more perfect state, and was enveloped with clothes and furs; it lay across the boat, under the after-thwart."
In a footnote, McClintock notes that -- contrary to period engravings such as the one above -- "No part of the skull of either skeleton was found, with the exception of the lower jaw of each."

Today, the enigma of this boat -- why it was pointed back toward the ships and not to the Fish River, why it was so overloaded with useless materials, and who its last defenders had been -- is one of the most fascinating puzzles of the larger Franklin mystery. One can, though, thanks to the National Maritime Museum, search one's self and find nearly all of the relics described above.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Franklin Cards

I've written before about the marvelous creations of graphic artist Ron Toelke -- his miniature can of Goldner's Ox-Cheek soup, and the portrait series "Sorrower on the Sea of Doubt," based on Richard Beard's haunting portraits made on the eve of Sir John Franklin's departure for the Arctic in May of 1845. Toelke has a gift for combining graphical elements taken from period books and newspapers with shapes and forms that give these images a figurative -- and sometimes literal -- third dimension of sorts. They are as delightful to the hand as they are to the eye, and this has never been more so than with his latest undertaking, the "Playing Cards of Conjecture and Speculation" featuring texts and images from Franklin's expedition.

The cards come in a box, as shown above, which includes a small side-compartment featuring Arrowsmith's charts of the area of the central Arctic into which Franklin was sailing; Franklin's directions from the Lords of the Admiralty are also included on a folded paper. The cards themselves are  drawn from several sources; the court cards depict Franklin and his men, based on Beard's Daguerreotypes; the number cards contain excerpts from an 1852 book entitled "Sir John Franklin and the Arctic Regions: With Detailed Notices of the Expeditions in Search of the Missing Vessels Under Sir John Franklin, by P.L. Simmonds, Many Years' Editor of the Colonial Magazine, etc. etc. To Which is Added and account of the American Expedition Under the Patronage of Henry Grinnell, Esq." This volume, the work of one Peter Lund Simmonds, a prolific author whose works included
The Curiosities of Food, Hops, their Cultivation and Use, and Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances, was an ambitious digest of the Franklin search to date, published to coincide with the news brought back by the first Grinnell expedition. The section of the book from which Mr. Toelke took his texts is aptly entitled "Opinions and Suggestions." Speculation about Franklin's fate was rampant then -- and indeed, it is rampant still; the title of this set evokes the card game known as "Speculation," which was popular in Jane Austen's day. One could, if one chose, aptly play that game with these cards, with the added feature that every card discloses another detail or conjecture about the disposition of Franklin's men.

N.B. Although Simmond's 1852 book doesn't appear to be available online, a revised and updated version, published to coincide with the British Arctic expedition of George Strong Nares, is available at

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


There's been plenty of speculation -- and disagreement -- over the possible role of internecine conflict among Inuit bands in the fate of the Franklin expedition. There certainly does seem to be evidence that, by the early 1860's if not somewhat earlier, a particular band of Netsilingmiut were acting aggressively toward neighboring bands, scaring away many members of (for instance) the Utjulingmiut, and raising such fear that Hall's guide Ebierbing at first refused to conduct him further into the more westerly areas. This hostility may well have originated, I suspect, with the conflict over the enormous wealth that even a single Franklin vessel would have represented to the Inuit, in terms of metal, wood, and other useful items.

But there is another possibility: conflict between Inuit and the more southerly sub-Arctic tribes that they called the "Itqilit" (a word Hall mis-transcribed many ways, most often as "Et-ker-lin"). The animosity between Inuit and their southerly sub-Arctic neighbors was of great age and well-known -- Hearne witnessed an example of it firsthand at the Bloody Falls -- and pervasive. It's also possible the these sub-Arctic tribes had conflicts with some of Franklin's men who wandered into their hunting areas; indeed, there are a several stories in Nourse's edition of Hall's second expedition narrative in which Inuit described an attack on Franklin's men by "Et-ker-lin." In one story, "Aglooka" is said to have gotten a cut on his face during such an attack. These stories are somewhat vague, and are tied up with the problematic second-hand evidence offered via "the cousin" (Too-shoo-art-thariu) so I'm not sure how much faith can be put in them -- but still, they are suggestive. There's even an account, written by Hall at the end of his second expedition, which suggests that he believed that the last two survivors -- "Aglooka" and one other man -- may have been murdered while trekking down the western shores of Hudson's bay by Et-ker-lin. Could Franklin survivors have been mistaken for Inuit by hostile neighbors? David Woodman has shown that it's quite possible that small  groups of Franklin's men were mistaken for Itqilit by Inuit; certainly the reverse is possible.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Kenn Harper Lecture, Thursday November 14th

This Thursday evening, I hope followers of this blog who are in the New England area will join me in attending my friend Kenn Harper's lecture, "Inuit and Whaling in the Bradford Era," at the New Bedford Whaling Museum (see here for more details). Kenn brings a rare degree of expertise and understanding to the history of the eastern Canadian Arctic and Greenland; he's lived there for decades, gathering firsthand the stories and traditions of the Inuit, and unlike most other historians, he's fluent in Inuktitut. His book, Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, The New York Eskimo, remains one of the most eloquent and well-researched accounts of Inuit encounters with Western science and society, and early next year, his new collection, In Those Days: Collected Writings on Arctic History, will be published in Iqaluit by Inhabit Media. The book collects many of his articles that have appeared in the Nunatsiaq News in his Taissumani column, where he's detailed the history of everyday Inuit life, Arctic explorers and their foibles, and notable incidents in the long tale of encounters between them.

On Thursday, Kenn will focus on the profound effect that the whaling industry had upon Inuit in Canada and Greenland, with particular attention to the period during which the artist William Bradford was active, from the 1860's through to the 1880's. Although Bradford himself wasn't personally connected with whaling, almost everything he was able to do -- the ships he chartered, the ports he called at, and the Inuit people he visited, had been profoundly shaped and altered by the whaling trade. Kenn's talk will be illustrated with images from his personal collection, one of the best private collections of Arctic history in the world; it will be a rare opportunity to, as it were, get under the skin of Arctic history, and trace the complex interrelations between different cultures that are its essence.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

How to search for Franklin

In the wake of the disappointing results of this year's Park's Canada search for traces of Sir John Franklin's lost Arctic expedition, it seems timely to reflect on how this effort has been directed over the past several years, whether it's worth continuing, and how it might be done better. None of this is meant to reflect badly on Parks Canada, whose team, led on Ryan Harris, did exemplary work scanning the sea-bed and covered a larger area than in any previous year. The land search, alas, co-ordinated by Doug Stenton and the Nunavut government, was far less effectual; this time, we didn't even find a toothbrush, only a couple of scraps of cloth and an Inuit cache of metal pieces; instead of searching significant, known sites that haven't been examined before, they looked again at Erebus Bay, probably the most combed-over area on King William Island.

Some have argued that all this searching is just a colossal waste of public funds, a search for quite possibly long-destroyed shipwrecks that takes resources away from where the Inuit and other people in Canada's north most need them -- for housing, healthcare, drug treatment, education, and other areas. Others have argued that, though worthwhile, the search would be far better conducted by private parties rather than by the government. The internal kickbacks between Parks Canada and the CBC certainly didn't help matters.

So I thought I'd outline a few ways that next year's search -- if there is one -- could be made more likely to succeed, performed at a lower cost, and take fewer resources from either Federal Canadian agencies or the budget of the Government of Nunavut.

1) The search for the ships, if continued, can and should be conducted by private parties working in co-ordination with Parks Canada. There have been a number of outfits who have proposed their own side-scan sonar searches in the past, many of whom have had their permits denied. The search for the ships is a matter of covering a larger area; more scans mean more area covered and more chances of success. It would not be difficult to co-ordinate searches, and having just one additional private support vessel, and boats to tow the sonar, would immediately double the area that could be covered in a season.

2) The land search should be concentrated on yet-unsearched areas known to contain human and other remains. The graves near the Todd Islets have been known about for decades, and Gjoa Haven resident Louie Kamookak has taken numerous parties to see them. They are likely the remains of the very last survivors of one party of Franklin's men, and may contain other kinds of artifacts  that would give us clues as to the expedition's final fate. This is a land site easily suppoted by skidoo or ATV from Gjoa Haven, and one very likely to produce valuable finds.

3) Satellite telemetry should be explored as an avenue for narrowing the search area. There are satellites today which can map underwater features, and with ice in retreat, even a high-resolution visual spectrum scan could reveal valuable clues. The cost of obtaining this data would be far less that simply methodically tracking back-and-forth over the whole search area; it could identify potential targets or help eliminate some area.

4) Involve not just archaeologists, not just government staff, but other experts on Franklin's expedition in the search. Dave Woodman should be invited to participate, and there should be Inuit elders and historians from the area as well. I can't think of a better outcome than that of a significant find being made by a team that included Inuit and qallunaat searchers.

5) Instead of spending vast sums of government money, use the limited resources available to speed up and assist with the permitting process. Right now, Doug Stenton routinely turns down requests for private searches based solely on their lack of having accredited archaeological staff on the team; why not instead help arrange for such archaeologists to join the team? Offer ground support and other services through local Inuit hamlets? Welcome rather than reject private searchers? All could be required to report any findings and secure significant discoveries for a government team to examine further.

I don't know if any of these suggestions will be pursued -- experience suggests that they won't -- but if they aren't, the search for Franklin's fate is in all probability going to take longer. And if it stretches on for too many more years, the public support and interest are almost sure to wane.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Old Dartmouth Lyceum Lecture

This Thursday, September 19th, I'll be giving a lecture, "Frozen Zones: William Bradford, Arctic Photography, and 19th-Century Visual Culture as part of the Old Dartmouth Lyceum series at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I'll be taking all those who attend on a virtual tour of the ways in which, before and after the advent of photography, the public visual representation of the Arctic changed and evolved, from engravings, painted panoramas, and magic lantern shows through to early photo processes such as the Daguerreotype, the Calotype, and Wet-plate collodion, and the ways in which these new kinds of images underwrote the unquestionable truth of the photographer's art. I'll conclude with a look at the ways in which William Bradford both used photography as a guarantor of the veracity of his painted canvasses, and later -- as a lanternist himself -- projected these same images as part of a multi-media presentation he dubbed the "Bradford Recitals."

The lecture is open to the public, and tickets are $20 ($15 for Museum members); there's a reception before my talk at 6:00 p.m., and the lecture begins promptly at 7.

I also hope you'll mark your calendars for the next three lectures in this series; on October 3rd, Dr. Kevin Avery will speak on "Sea of Ice: The Art of Arctic Exploration"; on October 24th Douglas Wamsley will address the subject of "William Bradford's 1869 Expedition in the Context of Arctic Travels of the 19th Century, and on November 14th, Kenn Harper will speak on "Inuit and Whaling in the Bradford Era."

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Wax Figure of Dr. Kane

Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, the intrepid American Arctic explorer, enjoyed tremendous fame in his day; he was celebrated in moving panoramas, depicted in medallions, and his accounts of his expeditions were runaway best-sellers. This wax relief is one of the more unusual -- and seldom-seen -- portraits of Dr. Kane; preserved in the archives of the United States Naval Academy, it resembles and may have been based on the popular CDV image by Matthew Brady (although if so, it's reversed). It's possible that it was made for use in a medallion or plaque (it's just 8 3/4 by 6 3/4 inches in size).

On his death in 1857 in Havana, Cuba -- where he had gone in a futile attempt to recover his health -- his remains were returned by steam-ship, and his  funeral train journey was the longest in American history to date (exceeded only by Lincoln's in 1865). His body was returned to Philadelphia and given an elaborate processional funeral, and he was laid to rest in the family fault at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

An Arctic Affair

With the impending opening of Ralph Fiennes' film The Invisible Woman, based on the affair between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, my thoughts drifted back to the amateur theatricals, staged by Dickens and his protégé Wilkie Collins, which led -- unintentionally -- to their meeting. The first, Collins's "The Lighthouse," had a painted backdrop by no less than Clarkson Stanfield, RA (an old Dickens chum whom he liked to refer to as "Stanny" and "Old Salt"); a section cut from this backdrop can be seen at the Dickens House Museum in London (see image above). But it was to be the next Collins/Dickens project, "The Frozen Deep," a melodrama about ill-starred Arctic explorers loosely based on the Franklin expedition, that brought Ternan -- hired when the play moved on to  public benefit performances in Manchester -- and Dickens together. How I would love to see the backdrop that Stanfield painted for that play -- but it, alas has gone missing. You can, however, see a view of the original private production, which was engraved in the Illustrated London News.

Dickens, as I've written about at length in my book Arctic Spectacles, was fascinated with Arctic exploration, following every detail of the search for Sir John Franklin and his men, and endearing himself to his wife Lady Jane Franklin by defending her husband's reputation in the press. He was obsessed with some of the darker themes of Arctic endeavors -- isolation, madness, and even cannibalism (see Harry Stone's magisterial The Night Side of Dickens for more on those). He took an active hand in Collins's plans for "The Frozen Deep," revising many parts of the script and managing all the stage scenery (which was made not only by Stanfield, but William Telbin, famous for his role in the panorama of the "Overland Mail to India"). And, perhaps more importantly, he cast himself in the central role of Wardour, a Heathcliffian figure (another reason Fiennes should be perfect for this role) who agonizingly finds himself paired on an Arctic voyage with his more polished, gentlemanly rival for the great love of his life.

The play was a tremendous hit; Queen Victoria asked for (and received) a command performance for her and her family, and the benefit performances in Manchester reduced not only the audiences, but the cast members and stage-hands, to tears. And yet, despite many attempts at revival, "The Frozen Deep"never regained its original fame, although Collins made a narrative version a central part of his lecture tours in later years.  Dickens, feeling his amateur actresses might not be able to project effectively at the Free Trade Hall where the Manchester performances were staged, hired professional actresses -- among them Ellen Ternan, with whom he fell deeply in love. He left his wife Catherine, and spent the last thirteen years of his life with Ternan, taking care to hide their relationship from the public (see Claire Tomalin's The Invisible Woman, on which the film is based).

Monday, August 26, 2013

Erebus Bay Sites

With the news that this year's Parks Canada archaeological work will include both water and land searches, and that the land search will be concentrated around Erebus Bay, I thought I'd share this page from the 1995 report on NgLj-2, the site from which numerous skeletal remains and hundreds of physical artifacts were removed for study. Personally, I feel this area is already fairly-well scoured; last year's highlight -- a toothbrush -- may have shed some light on 19th-century dental hygiene, but not much on the fate of Franklin's men. A far more promising site would be the Todd Islets, where we know that the very last members of one group of Franklin survivors stopped and went no further/

Still, I understand the logistics of such a search -- having the support of research vessels and so forth in accessing remote sites is certainly important! -- so I have a few suggestions.  First off, how about NgLj-3? Two skulls, a knee-brace, and a human femur visible on the surface indicate graves which, as the report notes, may well be of Franklin's men.  The skulls were missing much of their facial portions, so positive identification of them as Caucasoid wasn't possible -- but today, using other techniques it may be possible to say more. That these bodies were at least given something of a burial suggests that they may have died before the final extremities, and the graves may contain other useful materials laid to rest with the men.

NgLj-4 might also be worth a look -- two pieces of copper found there are promising indicators of the presence of men, and perhaps ships, nearby.

I wish the Parks Canada archaeologists all the best -- we all hope they will find things of significance! --  and the land, like the water, may yet have some secrets to disclose.