Thursday, May 14, 2015

Artifacts from HMS "Erebus"

After waiting many weeks for news of the results of the ice-dive last month to HMS "Erebus," those of us with a longstanding interest in the Franklin expedition were, once again, caught be surprise, this time by a pop-up exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History. In a press release announcing this event, Parks Canada and the Canadian government gave a brief account of the dive, and mentioned specific artifacts which had been brought to the surface for conservation: one of the six-pounder bronze cannons, several of the rectangular deck prisms, the Preston patent illuminators, as well as personal items including a medicine bottle, china plates, and buttons identified as coming from a Royal Marine uniform. The report concluded by indicating that all of these items would be undergoing a period of conservation.

The philosophy behind this new exhibit seems to be to get everything on display as quickly as possible, which for some items means while they are still in the process of being conserved. And while there's nothing wrong with that -- in fact it's quite exciting! -- the haste with which the exhibit has been mounted has left many questions unanswered: From what part of the ships, or the debris, did these items come? The cannon, we are told, was found on the deck, but as to the others, it's hard to say from what has appeared so far. Why were the illuminators, which might be thought of as integral parts of the vessel, removed? The china plates (of which more anon), were these found in the vicinity of the sailors' mess, or did they turn up in the debris field? Some of the items mentioned do not yet seem to be part of the display; might there be others? How far into the wreck were the divers able to go? Will we be getting more imagery soon?

There are many goals that can be met with a museum exhibit. In terms of "revealing" some aspects of everyday life aboard ship, the plates are standouts -- one a an 1840's-era Whampoa Blue Ironstone plate with the "Island Pagoda" pattern, the other the quite common Staffordshire "willow" pattern still made today, suggest that those who ate from them may have come from somewhat different social classes.  One can also see one of the illuminators which brought daylight -- when there was any -- below decks, and a hook block with its distinctive shape. It's quite fascinating, but while it sheds some light on a few aspects of "Erebus," the exhibit doesn't appear to address the question of what the ship's condition or contents can tell us about the fate of Franklin's men. Was it piloted to the location, or did it drift there? How many of the ship's anchors are accounted for, and is there any sign of their deliberate deployment?

It may just be a bit too early to address these questions, or to bring more context into these seemingly disparate objects. Still, in their form and substance, they have a unique power to evoke the lives of the men who used them, as well as giving us a strong sense of how much more still lies below the icy waters of the Arctic.

UPDATE: Parks Canada's web exhibit of these artifacts is now online!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Lecture from Beneath the Ice

In the decades during and immediately after the search for Franklin and the discovery of the final record at Victory Point, there were many who gave public lectures on what was known -- or unknown -- about the fate of Franklin. The speakers included many leading lights of the day, among them: William Scoresby, Leicester Silk Buckingham, Charles Francis Hall, and William Bradford. Yet none ever spoke from a platform as rich and resonant with history as that occupied by Parks Canada archaeologist Ryan Harris today: the deck of Sir John Franklin's long-lost flagship, HMS "Erebus." There, whether showing viewers the six-pounder cannon, the propellor well, or the double-action Massey bilge-pump, Harris was at and upon the very vessel of his subject, with no need to employ magic lantern slides, panoramas, or PowerPoint presentations to make his gestures real. It's no easy matter giving a talk while diving, but Harris, I think, managed it with aplomb; there has never been a stronger sense of vivid, actual presence, here on the very boards where Franklin and his officers and men once strode.

That said, there are still depths at hand that this video left unplumbed -- what of the Fraser stove, sighted on last fall's dive, and apparently still in situ; what of the ship's engine, which may have much to tell us about whether it was employed to speed the vessel forward in case of calms; and what of any artifacts, whether deep aboard or scattered in the débris field? One has the sense that, just perhaps, there have been some other finds on this series of dives, finds whose full disclosure and significance will have to wait until the Parks Canada and Canadian Naval teams return from their Arctic sojourn.

And so all of us who feel a passionate interest in this great Canadian historical mystery now wait, with bated breath, for such news.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Franklin's Lost Ships

Over the years, there  have been a number of documentaries that have covered some aspect of the Franklin expedition: the NOVA/ITN Factual Arctic Passage (2005) in which I participated, as well as John Walker's Passage (2008), John Murray's Finding Franklin (2009), and Mill Creek's The Northwest Passage: The Last Great Frontier (2014) -- but whatever their good or bad qualities, every one of these documentaries lacked something that Franklin's Lost Ships alone provides: one of Franklin's ships.

The discovery of Franklin's own flagship, HMS "Erebus" in September of 2014 has already changed everything. The mystery of the expedition's failure has by no means been "solved," as some claim, but a vital piece of evidence, missing for more than one hundred and sixty years, is now before us; even as I write this, divers from Parks Canada and the Canadian military are undertaking a series of ice dives on the vessel. What secrets it has yet to disclose may only be guessed.


And so, we have a new documentary, Franklin's Lost Ships, which just aired this evening as an episode of the CBC's series The Nature of Things. I was fortunate to be able to do some historical work behind the scenes, working with the team at Lion TV in the UK, which co-produced the program with Canada's  90th Parallel. I don't appear on camera, which is quite fine by me; having done so for NOVA, I've certainly had my moment in the (Arctic) sun, and am happy to make way for others. My friends Huw Lewis-Jones and Dave Woodman acquit themselves quite well, as do John Geiger, Ken McGoogan and forensic anthropologist Anne Keenleyside (who here completes a sort of Franklin trifecta, having also appeared in both the NOVA and John Murray films).


So how was the story told differently this time? From my own experiences with these documentaries, I've learned just how hard it is to squeeze everything important into an hour, and how many people and how much effort goes into any documentary of this kind. The ITN/NOVA team had more than three years to do their work; Lion TV/90th Parallel had only seven months. The result, given the timeframe, is quite marvelous; despite the occasional glitches that, despite all care, tend to creep into any project of this scope and urgency, we have here a fresh telling of a tale that's never been able to be fully told before -- because this is a story which actually concludes with the actual discovery of Franklin's ship.


I felt that the re-enactment scenes were dramatic and effective, although unlike Passage and Arctic Passage, there was no dialogue. The costumes were well-done -- though the fur hats sported by some officers were a little odd! -- and the shipboard scenes, which used HMS Trincomalee as their setting, were particularly effective. The only thing that jangled a bit for me was that the actors didn't as closely resemble the chief officers as I'd hoped; while the fellow who played Franklin was a fair match (despite a perhaps too-prominent five-o-clock shadow), the actors representing Crozier and Fitzjames didn't look like them at all. Never the less, the drama was well-played, and along with well-rendered CGI versions of the ships, set the stage effectively for what was to come.


The on-camera experts did their job well, though I would have wished for a bit more detailed historical background; one gets the sense that there was an imperative to keep things simple. And there are some treats: we get to see the original Victory Point Record at the National Maritime museum; Anne Keenleyside graphically relates the cannibal cut-marks using a modern skeleton; Huw Lewis-Jones puts his finger, literally and figuratively, on the searches of Rae and McClintock, vividly illustrating "the true horror of this great and miserable discovery." 


John Geiger gives us a strong in-person sense of the 2014 search, and both Ryan Harris and Marc-André Bernier offer vivid first-person accounts of the search for, and discovery of, "Erebus." Dave Woodman is there, too -- I would have liked to have heard more from him! -- and I think it ought to have been made clearer that the "southern search area" that the 2014 expedition turned to was that identified by Woodman from Inuit testimony, rather than just a lucky guess, as some of the voiceover seems to imply.

But of course it's the ship that's the star -- we see it in paintings and in the CGI re-creations; we experience it with the divers as they search through the debris field, and -- best of all -- we have a vivid CGI version of the hull as it lies today on the sea-floor. The ship's bell should perhaps get a credit to itself -- it's been woven into the re-enactments (we see it as the officer of the watch strikes the hour) and now, here it is, on the upper deck, its date -- 1845 -- legible despite silty water and marine growth. It's a sight that evokes the tragedy of other great wrecks, such as that of the "Titanic," and although so far, at least, we can't penetrate the ship's interior with a ROV-mounted camera, the sight of a table-leg in the debris that could have been from Franklin's captain's cabin sends a chill down our collective spines.


There will be other versions of this documentary -- the UK one will have a different text and voice-over, and there's to be a 90-minute one designed to be shown at film festivals. By the time that's out, there may well be new discoveries to add to that of the ship, and which may indeed require a change in the way the story is told. At the end, as with the NOVA documentary, we trace the fading footprints of the last few men who abandoned the "Erebus," and Lewis-Jones offers a fitting epitaph to "that last surviving band, the final fire before the flame goes out ... these man have in effect completed the final link in the chain of the Northwest Passage."

I couldn't have put it better myself.


UPDATE: Check out this very informative interview with director Andrew Gregg about the documentary.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Wrong Cylinder

In a clip from the soon-to-air documentary Franklin's Lost Ships that's being co-produced by 90th Parallel (in Canada) and Lion TV (in the UK), Claire Warrior, a curator from the National Maritime Museum, show us the original Victory Point Record, which is -- so far -- the only official record containing any account of the ships from 1848 or later. It's an exciting moment -- as is the one where the curator points to the large tin cylinder nearby, explaining that "the notes were placed in tubes like these."

Except that they didn't look very much like this one. I was surprised to see the large size of the cylinder, which didn't correspond with the ones Franklin used. We know, having lined up the stains on the VP record, that it was tightly rolled in a small cylinder, and indeed an image of this cylinder is available in the NMM's own image database of relics. In contrast, this tube is many times larger in diameter, if not in length. Thanks to Peter Carney, who was able to get a proper frame grab of this moment (see above), we can see that the cylinder shown has the number "4" as well as the mostly-chipped off inscription .... [REC]ORDS. These indications, painted in white, suggested to Peter that they were the sort applied to items by archivists in the past -- and to me, I thought at once of the Royal Naval Exhibition of 1891, in which the Franklin relics brought back by Rae, McClintock, Schwatka, and others were all on display. The Victory Point Record, with its cylinder, were exhibited then -- but their number was 22, not 4. Searching further, I found a section in the original catalog -- which can be had easily at archive.org -- #116, "Articles used in the Expedition of 1875-76." And there it was: "CYLINDER FOR RECORDS." The catalog numbers of these items are a little irregular -- they appear to all be numbered "I," but the wording is a perfect match.

It's a small matter, I suppose. But small things matter in a mystery such as this. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ice Diving on HMS "Erebus"

Ice-diving HMS "Breadalbane" © 2014 DND-MDN Canada
In just a few weeks, divers will return to HMS "Erebus" for a series of dives under the ice, opening a new and promising chapter in the Franklin search. Last fall's dives were severely limited by poor weather and the approach of new-formed ice; now, the very things that were disadvantages then will be advantages. Having a stable, secure platform on which to place equipment and support teams will enable a robust schedule of dives, and no surface weather will interfere. Beyond that, as lead archaeologist Ryan Harris has noted, the water under the ice, protected from surface winds and turbulence, will be calmer, and visibility better.

So what can we expect? A thorough survey of the ship, for one; using lasers, a precise map of the vessel and the surrounding debris can be assembled in three dimensions. We'll know the nature and extent of damage to the vessel, the location of the ships' anchors (which may give us clues as to whether the ship was piloted to this location and deliberately anchored, or drifted), and it's quite possible that additional artifacts in the debris field will be identified and mapped. The dives aren't planned for artifact recovery, but it's possible that, if something is found in plain view and it's already been mapped and photographed, it could be brought to the surface for study and conservation. I would not expect, though, that there will be any attempt to enter deep inside the vessel itself, although a ROV might go in to take some images and measurements. The stability of the vessel will need careful study before divers can enter, and a safe route and protocol established -- so this will likely wait until the late summer dive season.

I'll be particularly interested in the anchors -- were they deliberately deployed? If they were, that would be a key confirmation of Inuit testimony that they saw fresh tracks and deck sweepings near the vessel, and that it was manned when it arrived. And, if it was -- as Ryan Harris recently observed -- then we may have to re-assess Franklin's achievement: reaching the point it did means that the vessel passed Cape Herschel and entered an area already charted by Dease and Simpson -- effectively linking the eastern and western surveys and traversing the last link in the Northwest Passage.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Erebus Medal

It's a handsome design, with elements -- such as the octagonal edge -- from the British Polar Medal, and others, such as the tilted compass rose, that draw from the Victoria Strait Expedition patch. The "Erebus Medal," as it's called, was awarded by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society at a special ceremony yesterday at the Royal Ontario Museum, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper (a recipient) and other dignitaries in attendance.

There are two hundred and twenty recipients in all -- a remarkable number -- with the announced intent of recognizing everyone involved in the 2014 search and the work that made it possible. In that light, of course, it recognizes the crews, the dive team (led by Bernier and Harris), and support staff, along with Doug Stenton and the helicopter pilot whose discovery of ship's remains on land helped point the way to the final discovery. It also recognizes key figures without whom this discovery would never have been possible, such as David C. Woodman -- the first to compile, analyze, and trust the record of Inuit testimony -- and Gjoa Haven resident Louie Kamookak, who has helped guide searchers for many years. And yet the omissions from the list are (in my view) a bit glaring: where is Robert Grenier, who led the very first of the Parks Canada searches? Where are the archaeologists who did pioneering work analyzing Franklin sites, such as Margaret Bertulli, Anne Keenleyside, and John MacDonald? Where are early searchers such as Bob Pilot, Stu Hodgson, the late Barry Ranford, or John Harrington? Why are -- besides the environment minister -- Louie, geographer Caitlyn Baikie, and Peter Taptuna the only Inuit recognized? And then of course there are scholars, us humble blokes -- I was happy to see Shelagh Grant's name, but where are the many others whose research over the past decades has given us new insights into the Franklin search?

Of course, as with any award, there will always be some who are unhappy about those who did -- or didn't -- receive it. It's not quite clear, though, exactly what criteria the RCGS used -- did the recipients have to be living? Did they have to be Canadian? Will there be additional medal recipients in the future? Finally, while there is certainly much to celebrate, there's still a great deal to be done, starting with locating the wreck of the "Terror" and continuing through the just-announced April dive, and many dives to come. And, as I've noted frequently on this blog, there are still some sites on land -- particularly the Todd Islets and Starvation Cove -- which are sorely in need of modern archaeological study; the ships can only tell us the tale of what happened before they were abandoned, and Franklin's men may well have struggled on for many months, or years, after that.

That said, congratulations to all of the recipients are in order -- it's certainly a great honor.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Boat Place(s)?

Anyone with an interest in the Franklin expedition has read a great deal over the years about the "Boat Place" on King William Island. It's identified with the site where Hobson, McClintock's lieutenant, discovered an abandoned whaleboat from one of Franklin's ships, a boat which famously contained two skeletons, as well as an abundance of items, judged "a mere accumulation dead weight" by McClintock, which he catalogued at length: sheet lead, carpet slippers, waterproof canvas, tea, chocolate, a large array of silver utensils, and many books, Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield among them. The boat was also pointing in what seemed the wrong direction: not toward escape, but back toward the last known location of the ships.

Today, the story is a bit different: most Franklin experts, myself and Dave Woodman among them, regard the Erebus Bay site as one which was used for some time, and near which which one or both of Franklin's ships were, for a time, anchored. The period of longer use would explain some of the items the Inuit found there, including heavy metal stoves that would not likely have been dragged overland all the way from Crozier's landing; it would also explain the presence of a boat, not then in use for escape but rather for conveying items to or from a ship not far distant, the contents of which would of course not represent what the men would have laden it with had they anticipated a long journey.

And the "boat place" itself is becoming more uncertain. Hobson and McClintock found only one boat, with two bodies -- both, it should be noted, missing their crania. Hobson also saw, on examining one body, that the small bones of the hands and feet had been left behind in the gloves and socks. There was a rifle and some shot, and one body was wrapped, or rather seated in, a heap of furs.

And yet, one of the first Inuit to visit this area, In-nook-poo-zhee-jook, seems to have found quite a different boat, one which he described to Charles Francis Hall in great detail; in it, he found
Six paddles; many table-knives, white handles; one watch; a spyglass ... something like my (Hall’s) compass, but no glass about it; tobacco that had been wet and was in flakes or thin pieces; very many tin dishes; one whole skeleton with clothes on, —the flesh all on, but dried; many skeleton bones; three skulls. Alongside of the boat a big pile of skeleton bones that had been broken up for the marrow in them; they were near a fire-place; skulls among these. The number of them ama-su-ad-loo (a great many) — cannot tell how many. It is certain that some of the men lived on human flesh, for alongside of the boat were some large boots with cooked human flesh in them.
In addition to many items -- a spy-glass, table-knives, and a compass (all of which, had this boat been the one Hobson and McClintock found, would surely have been taken by them), there are many human remains here, not only in the boat but beside it, and many skulls. Clearly, this was a different boat entirely; it may well have been hidden in the snow back in 1859.

Recently, a study -- not yet available to non-subscribers -- appeared in ARCTIC, written by Anne Keenleyside (one of the first archaeologists to study human remains from this area), Doug Stenton, and Robert Park. They studied the site of a memorial, erected in 1879 by Frederick Schwatka, at what he believed to be "the" boat place. The memorial (see above) had long been taken down, but the packet of bones Schwatka had reburied was still there and in its original arrangement: a squareish cavity with the longer bones stacked side by side, topped with a human cranium like a cherry on some macabre sundae.

Their study shows clear evidence that this is indeed Schwatka's memorial. They found the remains of three individuals, all male and Caucasian, one of whom was probably quite a young man. There were very few cut marks on them, although one bone showed a curious small oval hole, as though it had been punctured by a somewhat blunt pointed instrument. The small bones of the feet and hands were largely missing.

Their study speculates that these may indeed be the bodies from Hobson's boat -- the missing small bones correspond with this, and one of the skeletons was, just as Hobson had noted, unusually large. The small hole might have been made long after their deaths, as a pick-axe was required back in 1859 to free up the bodies from their frozen surroundings.

I think that's quite possibly true, although one would still have to account for the three crania (Hobson's boat itself having zero), and indeed a third body not previously reported. Which means that In-nook-poo-zhee-jook's boat was not this boat. The Schwatka site, tagged NgLj-3, is not very far from NgLj-2, which is on a small, low-lying island surrounded by mud. There, the great abundance of remains, already catalogued back in the 1990's by Margaret Bertulli and Anne Keenleyside, corresponds more closely with a "pile" of bones, skulls among them.

The article, however, makes no mention of any other boat place. It's just one example of the kind of uncertainty which the Franklin search on land faces, with studies all done nearly a century and a half or more after the initial events. Still, it shows how the close, careful work of archaeologists is absolutely vital if we're going to put together the incomplete pieces of this mighty puzzle.

Friday, January 23, 2015

John Powles Cheyne

Lieutenant (later Commander) John Powles Cheyne was without doubt a valiant Arctic officer. As a young midshipman, he accompanied J.C. Ross in his search for the Franklin expedition with Enterprise and Investigator in 1848-49, returning as Mate under Captain Austin aboard that ill-fated ship of destiny, HMS Resolute, and then as Lieutenant under Admiral Belcher aboard the Assistance. He also gained some experience in amateur theatricals, and on his return to London took up the relatively new art of photography, producing a remarkable series of stereoscopic views of the Franklin relics brought back to England by Sir Leopold M'Clintock in 1859.

His photographic bug was a lasting one, and so was his interest in Arctic exploration. After retiring in 1870 with the rank of Commander, he took up the idea of an expedition to the North Pole using specially-equipped balloons. This was decades before Andrée's similar plan, but the public, having seen balloons in use in earlier (unpiloted) attempts to locate Sir John Franklin, were very receptive to the idea. Unable to secure any official backing, Cheyne turned to the exhibition circuit, appearing with several large series of Magic Lantern slides, projected by means of lime-light onto enormous screens in public meeting halls and lecture rooms. Many of the slides showed scenes in which he had personally taken part, and he became through presenting them the first Arctic explorer in Britain to seek to use his personal experience to lend authenticity to a lantern exhibition (back in the United States, survivors of Kane's second expedition had for some time been associated with such shows in the late 1850's and 1860's). Here you can see a handbill for a show he gave in Princeton, New Jersey.

Some years ago, Dr Huw Lewis-Jones and I spent quite a good deal of effort tracing Cheyne and his family through online records. We found that Cheyne himself had eventually retired to Halifax NS, where he died in 1902; he’d left his lantern and slides with his sister, in whose family’s care they still remained — the slide above is from his original set, and depicts the artist — Cheyne himself — at work in his studio. The Arctic interest -- and the family habit of naming children after explorers -- continued in the British branch of the family; after posting a query on a genealogy forum, I was delighted to hear from Elizabeth Cheyne, whose father the Rev. John Franklin Cheyne was a grandson of the explorer-showman!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tookoolito

Photo by Russell Potter © 2008
One hundred and thirty-eight years ago today, in her home in the town of Groton, Connecticut, Tookoolito ("Hannah"), one of the greatest of Inuit guides and translators, died at the sadly young age of thirty-eight years. She was predeceased by her infant sons Tarralikitaq ("butterfly") and "King William," as well as her adopted daughter Panik (known affectionately as "Punny"). Her husband, "Joe" Ebierbing's name is also on this stone -- but, borrowing Tennyson's line on Franklin's cenotaph, Joe is "not here" -- he died some years later in the Arctic under mysterious circumstances, having returned there as a guide for the American explorer Frederick Schwatka.

Hers was an adventurous life. In 1853, she and "Joe" and a unrelated young boy, Akulukjuk, were brought to England by a whaling captain by the name of Bowlby, where they were exhibited at several locations, and even brought to Windsor Castle, where they took tea with Queen Victoria. Tookoolito's talent for languages enabled her to learn English with a remarkable degree of fluency; what she had picked up in England she developed further through converse with the whalers. Ebierbing, the quieter of the two, could get along tolerably in English, but distinguished himself more as a guide and hunter.  Hall was introduced to them aboard ship; while he was quite taken by them both, it was Tookoolito who made the strongest impression; as Hall noted in his journal, “I could not help admiring the exceeding gracefulness and modesty of her demeanor. Simple and gentle in her way, there was a degree of calm intellectual power about her that more and more astonished me.”

Tookoolito and Ebierbing endured much with Hall, accompanying him on his extensive Arctic searches for traces of Franklin's men, and appearing with him in at his lectures in the United States, as well as at Barnum's American Museum and Boston's Aquarial Gardens, where they were exhibited as curiosities; the death of their first child may have been in part a result of these frequent public appearances. On the Polaris Expedition, they faced an even sterner test, as Hall was poisoned by one of the ship's scientific staff, and in their escape they ended up among the group stranded on the ice floe for six months before their rescue. At the inquest that followed, Tookoolito and Ebierbing both defended Hall and supported his belief that he had been poisoned, but no action was taken.

They had been through a great deal together, and Ebierbing was with her on the night of December 31st; she was laid to rest in the Starr Burying Ground, where this marker may still be seen.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Repost: Christmas in the Frozen Regions

At this time of year, many of us are seeking a bit of Christmas past by revisiting Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." There are innumerable local productions, dozens of film versions (I'm most fond of the one starring Alistair Sim, or else the Muppet Christmas Carol, which I actually feel is the best recent adaptation), and of course the book itself is always available. But most today are less acquainted with Dickens's other Christmas tales -- at one point he was writing a new one every year -- or with the many special Christmas numbers of his magazines Household Words and All the Year 'Round, which Dickens personally selected and edited with great care. It was, in fact, in 1850 -- the very first year of his first magazine, Household Words -- that Dickens, hoping to revive the fading hopes that Franklin and his men might yet live, selected a piece describing an Antarctic Christmas aboard the "Erebus" and "Terror" -- the very ships that Franklin had taken on his expedition a few years later. Making this connection was important enough that Dickens wrote a fresh introduction to the article, as well as a brief coda, himself, and his words are animated with all his usual spirit:

"THINK of Christmas in the tremendous wastes of ice and snow, that lie in the remotest regions of the earth ! Christmas, in the interminable white desert of the Polar sea ! Yet it has been kept in those awful solitudes, cheerfully, by Englishmen. Where crashing mountains of ice, heaped up together, have made a chaos round their ships, which in a moment might have ground them to dust; where hair has frozen on the face; where blankets have stiffened upon the bodies of men lying asleep, closely housed by huge fires, and plasters have turned to ice upon the wounds of others accidentally hurt; where the ships have been undistinguishable from the environing ice, and have resembled themselves far less than the surrounding masses have resembled monstrous piles of architecture which could not possibly be there, or anywhere; where the winter animals and birds are white, as if they too were born of the desolate snow and frost; there Englishmen have read the prayers of Christmas Day, and have drunk to friends at home, and sung home songs."
The account that follows is by Robert McCormick, who had recently served under James Clark Ross as surgeon and naturalist aboard HMS "Terror," and describes the first Christmas of their Antarctic voyage. McCormick seems to have been an excellent writer, and this account is all the more notable as it's his earliest publication; he found himself unable to write up the expected naturalist's report for the Ross expedition, and his own account of his career, Voyages of Discovery in the Antarctic and Arctic Seas, was not published until 1884. As Dickens hands the narrative off to McCormack, the mystery and anxiety then surrounding Franklin's name is directly evoked:
"In 1819, Captain Parry and his brave companions did so ; and the officers having dined off a piece of fresh beef, nine months old, preserved by the intense climate, joined the men in acting plays, with the thermometer below zero, on the stage. In 1825, Captain Franklin's party kept Christmas Day in their hut with snap-dragon and a dance, among a merry party of Englishmen, Highlanders, Canadians, Esquimaux, Chipewyans, Dog- Ribs, Hare Indians, and Cree women and children.
In 1850, some commemoration of Christmas may perhaps take place in the Frozen Regions. Heaven grant it! It is not beyond hope ! and be held by the later crews of those same ships ; for they are the very same that have so long been missing, and that are painfully connected in the public mind with FRANKLIN’S name."
You can read McCormack's account in full here. Of course, much of the resonance of his story is how it shows the explorers keeping the traditions of home, evoking an elaborate Victorian Christmas even in the most desolate regions of the world. On this occasion, the ship was redecorated as a "hotel," and the drinks were kept cold by being served atop an enormous block of solid ice. McCormack, oddly, says very little about the food, but other explorers were far more voluble; you can follow the links here to read of a feast of "Banks Land Reindeer" in "Christmas-Keeping in the Arctic Regions, 1850-51," relish Elisha Kent Kane's Christmas on the Second Grinnell expedition, at which mere "pork and beans" were disguised as all manner of delicacies by the men's scurvy-fed imaginations, or devour A.W. Greely's luxurious first Christmas with the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition at Fort Conger, which featured mock-turtle soup, salmon, tenderloin of musk-ox, plum pudding with wine sauce, dates, figs, cherries, egg-nog, and an extra ration of rum -- a sad contrast with the meals of the last few survivors three years later, who endeavored to support life by fishing for brine-shrimp through a sieve.

Wherever readers of this blog may find themselves this Christmas, I hope that your evening meal is enriched by all the warmth and spirit of domestic tranquility that these men's meals -- whether in reality, or in their imaginations, or both -- sought to evoke so far away from home.