Sunday, September 14, 2014

Photographs from the Bottom of the Sea

One of the most fascinating aspects of the discovery of one of Sir John Franklin's ships is the possibility that they may contain photographic images made by the ship's officers during their ill-fated Arctic sojourn. And yet, although we know that the Franklin expedition had brought along a camera apparatus, one might well ask whether there's any likelihood that the images made with it would, even if recovered, would be intact after more than one hundred and sixty years under water.

The good news is that there's precent for this. The image above, from a 2014 article by Steve Roach in Coin World, shows two Ambrotypes from the wreck of the SS "Central America," a side-wheel steamer that sank in 1857 off the Carolina coast. Although mostly known for its treasures of gold and silver, the wreck has also yielded many touching reminders of the human loss that attending its sinking, these images most poignant among them. Various articles on the wreck mention the recovery of both Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes, although I've been unable to locate any images of the former. By 1857, the Daguerreotype would have been "old" technology, and probably far less common -- finding one in an 1857 wreck would be like finding an original iPhone in a car crash today -- unlikely, but certainly not impossible.

The survival status of such an image would also be very dependent on the technology. Ambrotypes are glass plates, with the image on the interior side of the glass, backed with black paper (the image is negative but appears positive -- in the UK they're sometimes referred to a "collodion positives." Since the collodion emulsion is inside the keep-case, such an image would be somewhat protected from water damage, and that's what we see in the image above; even though the decorative paper of the case has eroded away, the images seem intact.

For a Daguerreotype, though, the odds of survival might well be steeper. They consist of a sensitized copper plate which has been coated with silver and polished to a mirror-like sheen; the silver is sensitized and developed with vapors, and resides on an extraordinarily thin later atop the silver. If you see an original, it still looks like a mirror when viewed straight-on; the image only appears at an angle. As surviving examples show, it's a fragile format; thoughtless attempts to "clean" a Daguerreotype with a cloth have led to irreparable damage.

In commercial use, Daguerreotypes were placed in a  keep-case with a securely fastened glass plate as a cover -- but would Franklin's men have followed this procedure? The officer most closely associated with the apparatus was Goodsir, who as Assistant Surgeon and naturalist might also have found mollusks more interesting than men -- I'm not sure that dramatic finds such as those in Andrée's camera are likely. And lastly, as Goodsir was serving aboard HMS "Erebus," if the wreck turns out to be the "Terror" then materials associated with him probably aren't going to be found anyway.

But still, one can always dream ...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Recovering papers from the Franklin wreck

The book at left isn't in especially good shape. It's a maths book, a bit out of date (apparently having been printed in 1909); the binding has separated and there's some deformation of the pages, wrinkling, and quite a few stains. This damage, though, isn't the fault of a careless owner, but the result of the fact that this book spent nearly eighty years at the bottom of the ocean in RMS "Titanic."

Indeed, numerous paper relics were recovered by the Titanic, including playing cards, menus, notebooks, and business cards. The cold, dark depths of the sea, though hostile to human life, can be reasonably friendly to paper. Old paper is best, because of its high rag content, but any sort of paper might have a better chance at the bottom of the sea than it would in a hot attic closet or a dank basement in any modern city. One of the reasons is not simply the cold and dark, but the low oxygen content of the water; the Arctic waters near where the Franklin vessel has been found are lower in oxygen, and support less sea-life, than in temperate zones.

Care needs to be taken with such items, of course. Leaves of books or documents need to be carefully conserved, and the process is slow and painstaking. But there's no reason not to expect some legible documents could be recovered. Illustrations of Franklin's cabin aboard "Erebus" show a bank of compartments where various navigational charts would be stored, as well as a sort of built-in bureau with a cabinet and nine drawers. Captain Crozier's cabin would have been nearly identical in this arrangement. The damage at the stern of the discovered ship is concerning, but it may well be that, if the fore area of the captain's quarters is intact, at least some of these papers may in place, and accessible to divers.

Of course, the most vitally interesting material would be written documents -- the ship's logbook, or any accounts written by the officers and men of their experiences. We know that McClure, on abandoning HMS "Investigator," ordered his men to leave personal journals behind; a similar command may have been issued here. Whatever was left, it's going to have immense human interest, even if -- like the famous folded page of the "Student's Manual" -- it consists only of a fortuitous crease in the paper.

And then there's the ships' libraries. Estimates as to the number of books range from the hundreds into the thousands, and at one point Fitzames and other officers compiled a catalog of the books on board "Erebus." Working from existing records -- actual books recovered from the Arctic, books mentioned by officers and family members as having been brought aboard, the claim that all the previous important explorers' narratives were included, and lists of certain standard sets such as the "Seaman's Library," it's possible to guess at what this library contained. And so we might find Nicholas Nickleby, or perhaps An Old Chaplain's Farewell to Seamen, or some odd early volumes of Punch. And there may be some unexpected books, too: Samuel Green's Life of Muhammed, The Ingoldsby Legends, and Josiah Woodward's A Kind Caution to Profane Swearers (one thinks of Franklin's aversion to swearing). I've created a modest list here at LibraryThing's Legacy Library Project, which includes a number of better-documented shipboard libraries (including that of HMS "Beagle"), and even a list of all the books aboard the International Space Station. Have a look! And perhaps, soon, we'll be able to compare my list to some actual books recovered from one of Franklin's ships.

Inuit Testimony and the Franklin Ship

It's good to see that there's been plenty of news coverage which has acknowledged that the Franklin ship discovered a few days ago was found in a place (off Hat Island) and in circumstances (in shallow water, such that the tops of its masts could be seen, at least until the ice broke them off the next season) that exactly match Inuit oral traditions. Few, however, have quoted much from the historical record of Inuit testimony. I believe that these records still have something to tell us, and one aspect of that testimony could soon be tested again: which ship is this?

According to the Inuit, the ship aboard which they had often seen "Too-loo-ark" (Franklin) was "overwhelmed with heavy ice in the spring of the year. The men all worked for their lives in getting out provisions, but before they could save much the ice turned the vessel down on its side, crushing the masts and breaking a hole in her bottom, She sank at once, and has never been seen again. The other ship, spoken of as seen near Ook-goo-lik, was in complete order. For a long time the Inuits feared to go on board. On the report of one of them that he had seen one man on the vessel that was alive, many of the Inuit visited it, but saw nothing of the man."

It's clear from this testimony that it was HMS "Erebus," Franklin's ship of command, that sank first -- which would mean that the ship discovered by Ryan Harris and his Parks Canada team would be HMS "Terror." If they can get divers, or a ROV, in position at the stern of the ship (part of which appears to have broken away) they may be able to get images of the ship's engine. And we know quite a bit about the engine that was installed on the "Terror" -- thanks to research by blogger Peter Carney, it now seems most likely that it was a "Archimedes"  2-2-2 engine built by G & J Rennie, although some records suggest it could have been an 0-4-0 Stephenson goods engine.  Either engine has enough distinct features that, even missing their original wheels and carriage, they ought to be fairly easily identified if clear images can be obtained.

And there are a number of other details that might be verifiable with good imagery:
Puhtoorak told how the Esquimaux, not understanding how to get into the ship, cut through one side. When summer came and the ice melted the ship righted herself but the hole in her side being below the water line she sank as the water poured in. After the ship sank, they found a small boat on the mainland. When he went on board the ship he saw a pile of dirt on one side of the cabin door showing that some white man had recently swept out the cabin. He found on board the ship four red tin cans filled with meat and many that had been opened. The meat was full of fat. The natives went all through the ship and found also many empty casks. The found iron chains and anchors on deck, and spoons, knives, forks, tin plates, china plates, etc. When the ship finally sank her masts stuck out of the water and many things floated on shore which the natives picked up. He also saw books on board the ship but the natives did not take them. He afterwards saw some that had washed ashore. He never saw any stone monument or cairn on the mainland near where the ship sank. There was one small boat hanging from the davits which the natives cut down. Some of the ship's sails were set.
We're seeing some of these iron chains today. Will we see a hole in its side below the water-line, one deliberately cut? Only time well tell.  But it's very hopeful that the ship was said to be "in perfect order"; this suggests that those who abandoned it took care to set things in order before they left, even sweeping out the cabins. Let's hope that they made sure to leave behind a secured copy of the ship's log and other papers indicating the events before its abandonment. And books? How I would love to browse that library. If these kinds of paper materials can be recovered, the Franklin story will have a completely unexpected new chapter.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Found: Vessel #1 of Franklin's two ships

So word now is that a vessel has been found. Let's call this "vessel #1" -- it's certainly either the "Erebus" or "Terror" -- and apparently, as I'd always suspected, it's the more southerly of the two vessels, the one that was piloted or drifted well south of Victoria Strait, that's been discovered. This is the ship that was anchored not far offshore from an island and sank after being frozen in for a season in shallow water such that the tops of the masts could be seen.  The exact location, sensibly enough, is not being disclosed, but seems to lie to the southwest of King William Island, off the western or northwestern extreme of the Adelaide Peninsula, in what Parks Canada refers to as their "southern search area."

This must be the very ship that was talked about in Inuit tales for many years, the one they visited and explored after it had been abandoned, the one in which they found the body of a very tall man in one of the cabins. The current years' searchers can thank the ice that prevented them from searching for the more northerly wreck which, though it may be found, I believe will be in a very fragmentary condition, if anything survives of it at all.

Judging from the images, I'd say that it's intact enough that I would expect to find the boiler in situ, which will enable definite identification of the vessel. And we should also, I think, expect that a considerable amount of material representing life aboard the ship may be recovered, if the items found in the preliminary search of HMS "Investigator" are any clue. This could, potentially, include objects of metal, wood, leather, or even paper (the last of which would be a sort of "Holy Grail" to be sure).

I'm going to go back for the moment to checking the news reports, and e-mailing various people who've sought this vessel or are part of this year's team. They certainly all deserve our hearty congratulations! But let's also remember that this vindicates Inuit oral tradition, which had described a ship in just such a situation, and mentioned items from a ship found near Hat Island. It's a big day.

The Inuit Knew It

With apologies to the late Alootook Ipellie (The Inuit Thought of It), it's worth noting that the fragments of a vessel found on Hat Island by Doug Stenton's archaeological team were already known about by the Inuit. As oral historian Dorothy Eber relates it:
In the Arctic Islands Lodge, I hear again the stories Frank Analok, Moses Koihok, and Mabel Angulalik pass 'from generations before us' of the exploring ship at Imnguyaaluk in the Royal Geographical Society Islands and the ship the Inuit say sank, perhaps with the help of shamans. As a child, Mabel heard that her own relatives came upon what they thought were pieces of a ship's wreckage buried in sand, she believes, to the east of Hat Island.
The full story is in Eber's Encounters on the Passage: The Inuit Meet the Explorers, on page 132. Mabel may, for all I know, still be living in Cambridge Bay. Someone should give her a call and let her know her family tradition was right.

New Franklin find

The news is all over this morning of the two new Franklin expedition finds made on Hat Island by a GN-directed team of archaeologists: a davit (pictured at left) and a "wooden object, possibly a plug for a deck hawse." The davit is of special interest as it's marked, twice with the broad arrow and also with the number 12. It's been hailed as the first find of Franklin artifacts "in modern times," a claim which is only accurate if you add "from the ships." Nearly all of what has been recovered, either in the original Franklin search era or since, has been from material found on land, and associated with the crews, rather than actual parts of either expedition vessel.

Indeed, as William Battersby points out aptly in his blog post, this would seem to mark only the fourth find ever of any part of the ships, the others being 1) A part of a flag staff and oak stanchion found on Victoria Island in 1851 by Dr. John Rae; 2) Two pieces of the frame of a ship's hatchway, found by a party dispatched from HMS Enterprise in 1853; and 3) A piece of pine, possibly deck planking, recovered from King William Island in 1954 by Paul Cooper. Battersby has proposed a sort of triangle, its points defined by these finds, within which he suggests that one of the vessels might be found.

I'm not quite so sanguine, though I remain hopeful. It might be observed that all of the items from the ships so far recovered over more than a century come either from the deck area or above, and show no signs of having been re-purposed by Inuit, or in any way deliberately removed. This suggests strongly to me that they are the result of a ship having been crushed in the ice, and that the items may well have drifted a considerable distance in the pack from where this event originally occurred. That some made it so far as the eastern coast of Victoria Island suggests the violence and utter decimation of the ship, with bits and pieces carried in various directions as the pack broke up in the vicinity of Queen Maud Gulf. They may, indeed, more probably be from the first ship to founder, rather than the second vessel which according to Inuit testimony seems to have been piloted further south, and sunk in shallow water near an island.

But it's also possible that the island in that case was Hat Island. To account for that possibility, the search should be intensified in the area around it; I hope that ice conditions and other circumstances will permit some assets to be deployed there before the window has closed on this year's search.

p.s. -- if you've come to this posting via an outside link, don't miss this update.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Another record of McClintock's findings

It's known that, in addition to the Victory Point record with its sombre postscript, there was at least one other copy of a note with the same original message. Much to everyone's surprise, there recently surfaced another full copy of the Victory Point record, along with notes of the objects found at Crozier's Landing, the "Boat Place," and the body next to which the "Peglar" papers were found. It was sold at auction in July, and certainly presents a unique historical perspective on Hobson's, and McClintock's discoveries.

It was made by Richard Shingleton, the officers' steward aboard the "Fox," who was thus present at the moment the original record was brought back to the ship. Mr. Shingleton took, perhaps, a more inquisitive and active interest in the business of the expedition than most men in his situation; among the artifacts he brought back was a Snow Bunting nest with three eggs, now in the collection of Norfolk Museums. He will also be known to those who have read Bill Barr's Arctic Hell-Ship, for he was the gunroom steward aboard HMS Enterprise as well, and his private journal was one of Barr's sources for his reconstruction of Collinson's chaotic command. It would seem from this image that Shingleton's penmanship was quite good, and his copy accurate; there are no substantive variations, although he does write "Back's Great Fish River" where the VP record has simply "Back's fish river."

The second leaf of the document lists the artifacts found "at the spot where they landed," at the later "Boat place," and a brief account of the "Peglar" body: "Found in Simpson's Straits, the skeleton of a man and near him a pocketbook, brush & comb, and half a sovereign."

The copy may have been made for personal purposes -- or perhaps simply to help ensure that, should the original be lost, there was another chance for the information to survive.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Honoring Dr. John Rae

Stromness Museum
I've written many times in this blog about the remarkable career of Dr. John Rae. His achievements place him in the first rank of Arctic explorers, and yet for much of the past century, his name has not been placed among them. He had the misfortune to be the bearer of bad news -- that some of Sir John Franklin's men had resorted to cannibalism, which Rae called "the last extremity" -- and to defend his Inuit friends and contacts for their veracity against a lengthy diatribe by, of all people, Charles Dickens. Although officialy awarded the reward for ascertaining the fate of Franklin he was shunned by many of his contemporaries. Never the less, Rae never became a bitter man, and throughout the remainder of his life he never expressed anything but admiration for Sir John Franklin, and pity for the terrible fate faced by the last survivors of his expedition.

Now, at last, Dr. Rae is to be honored by a plaque in Westminster Abbey, where there has long been a memorial to Franklin, and where -- ironically enough -- Charles Dickens is interred. I should like to listen in on the lively conversation of those three ghosts! The campaign for a plaque for Rae, which has been led by Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael, has won the agreement of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster for a plaque to be placed; the John Rae Society is presently seeking funds to pay for the plaque in time for a September 30th dedication, which would be Rae's 201st birthday. I urgently ask that anyone who is a regular reader of this blog consider a contribution, however modest, to this fund. By honoring Rae we honor many -- including the countless Scots who so often served with high distinction in the Arctic. And, at the same time, we honor the spirit of friendship that was so strong between Rae and the Inuit among whom he lived and worked.

There is more to be done, of course. The John Rae Society is seeking begin work to stabilse and eventually restore the Hall of Clestrain, Rae's birthplace and ancestral home. A membership in the Society will support this work as well, and members will also receive a regular News Letter with the most current account of its efforts to gain recognition for Rae's achievements and the preservation of his home. A membership form can be downloaded online, and the Society welcomes members from around the world.

Today, too, marks another anniversary -- that of Dr. Rae's death on 22 July, 1893. Andrew Appleby, the head of the Society, has shared with me an account of their marking of this occasion. It was simple ceremony of remembrance, with a piper and the laying of a wreath; a few words about Rae's life and career were spoken by Mr Appleby, words echoed by Rev. Fraser McNaughton, Minister of St Magnus Cathedral.

And so today let all of us, wherever we may be, pause a moment and recall the singular admixture, the rare alloy of character and skill, out of which Dr. John Rae's achievements were wrought.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

2014 Franklin search

Everyone has heard the news -- this time, there was no need to use Vessel Finder maps to seek out the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, or to sift through online rumors: the government announced it in advance. Perhaps significantly, this time the press release came from an Inuk, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, whose surname recalls the name given by the Inuit to Francis Crozier, Franklin's second-in-command, usually transcribed in 19th-century documents as "Aglooka."

Still, despite this auspicious association, one wonders: what will be different about the 2014 search for Franklin? I was pleased (and somewhat bemused) to see that it seems as though this year the plan has incorporated a number of things that I've repeatedly argued for in this blog: 1) A larger number of support vessels; 2) Significant public-private partnerships; and 3) Use of relevant satellite and other remote imaging technology. In fact, I think it would be accurate to say that this is largest and most ambitious single-season search for Franklin's vessels since the early 1850's. According to the press release, not only will it involve the Laurier, along with the venerable scow Martin Bergmann, but the warship HMCS Kingston, a 55-meter long vessel with side-scan sonar capabilities, along with the "One Ocean Voyager," a.k.a. the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a still larger ship originally outfitted as a research vessel, but more recently chartered by One Ocean Expeditions as a passenger ship taking a mix of researchers and "extreme tourists" to the polar regions. It's not every ice-strengthened vessel that can boast a formal dining room, a fitness center, a bar, a library, and a lounge, all conveniently accessible by elevator! It's not clear, though, whether the Vavilov will be actively participating (launching, as it is capable of doing, Zodiacs or submersibles) or serving more as a floating platform for those who wish to share in the adventure. The Parks Canada launches (Kinglett and Gannet) will be there as well, along with their research vessel Investigator -- all in all, more personnel, more tonnage, and more equipment than has ever before been dedicated to the search.

We're also fortunate that, this year, we've been told something about the search area, as the very name  indicates: the Victoria Strait. This is, when not filled with old ice, a quite large body of water (see map above) and so the specificity conferred by the name is limited. Earlier searches seem to have taken place near the Royal Geographical Society Islands (visible at the lower right of this map), so in a sense this is an extended search of an area already identified in past seasons. But is it the right place to look?

Not to go into too many tedious details, we have some good information about Franklin's ships, both from the Victory Point Record and Inuit testimony. We don't know which is which, but either the Erebus or the Terror was apparently crushed in the ice within visual distance of the coast of King William Island. The second vessel, either drifting or re-piloted, succeeded in getting further south, where it sank, according to the Inuit, near an island where the water was shallow enough that its masts were still visible; this is the wreck sought years ago by David C. Woodman and others in the Vicinity of "Utjulik" -- with several islands, such as O'Reilly Island, off the western shores of the Adelaide peninsula among their key targets.  So it's safe to say that, if they're looking in the Victoria Strait, it would be this first vessel that Parks Canada would be seeking. Although crushed by the ice, it may -- as was the HMS Breadalbane -- still be reasonably well-preserved, particularly if it sank in deeper water untouched by passing ice, which annually scours on the sea-floor in shallower areas. If not so lucky, it may have been reduced long ago to more of a débris field than a ship. Despite this, the ship's engine -- Erebus and Terror used two re-purposed railway engines -- would likely be intact, and would serve to identify the vessel immediately (the two engines were of different designs).

Is it a perfect search? None could be. I always wish that some land-based archaeological work will be done, but the odds of that seem low this time -- and no one who's really tried to puzzle out all the surviving evidence -- Inuit testimony, physical relics, ice cores climate histories, and the reports of nineteenth-century searchers should be sanguine about any plan. Still, I hold out some hope that this year, if ice conditions and weather allow, a good deal more progress will be made -- even if it turns out to be simply establishing where Franklin's ships are not. And, whatever the political hoopla, I still put some confidence in the extraordinarily persistent, careful, and well-trained teams at Parks Canada; everyone who cares about Franklin, whatever their politics, should wish them well.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Essential Franklin Bookshelf (repost)

Recent Facebook discussions, along with a goodly percentage of my daily e-mail, center around which books about Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition are the ones that an interested reader should begin with, and which are essential to further study. There are hundreds of possible candidates, and although little new has been learned about Franklin's fate over the past decade or so, that hasn't stopped new books from coming. And so I hope it will be useful for me to name the best of these books, in an informal manner -- I have no prizes or medals to hand out! -- in the hopes that those who are bitten, as I have been, by the Franklin "bug" will find what they need to steer themselves in the right direction.  And, having thought long and hard about the question, it seems to me that there are eight books -- just eight -- that I would wholeheartedly recommend.  Not all are easy to find, but every single one is worth the price of admission.  I give them here in the order in which I hope they might ideally be read, though knowing that the accidents of discovery may or may not correspond with such an ideal sequence.

First and foremost, anyone who cares at all about Franklin should get hold of the Arctic Press's facsimile edition of Richard Cyriax's study.  Was Cyriax an apologist for the Royal Navy? Are some of his conclusions mere 'conventional wisdom' that ought to be questioned?  Yes, surely, but his careful and meticulous study is filled with essential information, without which no meaningful speculation, and no sensible opposition to conventional wisdoms, can be made.

Secondly, I would recommend Roderic Owen's The Fate of Franklin.  Owen was a Franklin collateral descendant, and spent time with all kinds of sources which would be difficult, even in this Internet age, to pull together. The depth and breadth of his study make it worthwhile, despite a few minor errors and an annoying habit of not giving complete sources.

Third, I believe that David C. Woodman's Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony remains by far the most significant assessment of the Inuit accounts, which provide the best hope we will ever have of learning where to look, and what to look for.  Some of Woodman's ideas have evolved, and his second book Strangers Among Us would also be a worthy purchase, but without Unravelling there is little one could hope to do to truly understand the scope of Franklin searches, then or now.

Fourth, Dorothy Eber's Encounters on the Passage: The Inuit Meet the Explorers, is a very important supplement to Woodman's work.  It is remarkable to see how long the oral tradition endured, and Eber is an expert guide to a broader understanding of how such traditions work.

Fifth, I can't help but recommend Ken McGoogan's Fatal Passage.  McGoogan has an axe to grind, and whether or not one agrees with his assessment of Rae, there is not better tonic for a person suffering from what I like to call "Franklinitis" than to have one's views cast suddenly and energetically into the kind of sharp argumentative relief provided by this landmark book.

Sixth, of course, would be Beattie and Geiger's Frozen in Time or its reprints.  Despite the limits of what their studies disclose -- after all, the three graves on Beechey are too early to tell us much about the last days of Franklin's men -- but theirs is, without question, the most dramatic and vivid investigation into the Franklin expedition ever made.  No one who has looked into the eyes of John Torrington will ever forget the experience.

Seventh, my late friend Chauncey Loomis's Weird and Tragic Shores gives us the most memorable portrait we are ever likely to have of the method and the madness of the greatest of Franklin searchers, Charles Francis Hall of Ohio.

Eighth, and last, I cannot recommend John Wilson's biography of Sir John Franklin too highly.  It was written as a YA (Young Adult) book, but it is by far more eloquent, more captivating, and more succinct than any of the several recent "adult" Franklin biographies to be issued.  It's an excellent final course in a Franklin meal, and one which aptly pulls together the whole picture of the man.