Thursday, February 11, 2016

Franklin Searcher of the Month: William C. Wonders

It may well have been the most ambitious single Franklin search of all time, and -- although its results were modest -- we now know it came agonizingly close to discovering the wreck of HMS "Erebus." It was officially known as "Project Franklin," and much of what we know of it today is thanks to the accounts written by William C. Wonders, a leading geographer of his day and project participant. What follows is largely based on his article, "Search for Franklin," which appeared in the Canadian Geographical Journal (now Canadian Geographic) in 1968.

The search had its origins in the Franklin fascination of yet another passionate amateur, Mr. W.G. McKenzie. McKenzie, an insurance agent then working in London, Ontario, he had a particular conviction that Franklin's grave, which he believed must have been a substantial one, ought to be able to be relocated, given sufficient manpower. McKenzie write to the Minister of National Defence (Paul Hellyer, who is still living as of this writing), with what turned out to be a very convincing proposal. The original plan called for just eight searchers, drawn perhaps from the Naval Training Division, but it grew in the planning to be a substantial land, sea, and air exercise. Part of this was due to 1967 being Canada's centennial year, but the friendly rivalry between various departments and branches of service also played a role, Ironically, as Wonders noted, "what was originally conceived as a naval expedition became essentially a Canadian Army operation, with support from the R.C.A.F., but without one member of the Navy being directly involved."

The search was planned to focus on the former site of the North Magnetic Pole (on the theory that Franklin's grave might be nearby), the vicinity of Cape Felix (for the same reason), and eastern Victoria Island, on the thought that men from Franklin's ships might have reached there. In the later stages of planning, a five-man diving team was added, to be deployed in the vicinity of O'Reilly Island. Two  CH-113A Voyageur helicopters were assigned for transport and support, and a base camp near the DEW-line station at Gladman Point was established early on August 5, 1967. A total of fifty-two men would ultimately participate in the search.

Weather, as it always will in the north, delayed the deployment of some of the teams, and conditions on the ground limited some of their searches, but by the project's conclusion twenty days later, nearly all the target areas had been visited. The team at Cape Felix re-discovered notes left by Henry Larsen in 1949, along with a boot-heel and some Inuit artifacts; searches at Terror Bay, the Clarence Islands, the west coast of the Boothia Peninsula, Taylor Island, the RGS Islands, and the Adelaide Peninsula found no Franklin materials, though numerous Inuit tent-rings and artifacts were observed. It was, for the land searches, a disappointing result.

The land search of the northern tip of O'Reilly Island, however, came up with a number of promising items -- copper sheeting, spice tins, a block and belaying pin, and an oar -- which testified to the possible presence of a wreck nearby. The divers, in Wonders's account, "discovered nothing" -- but as sometimes happens, that wasn't quite true. On a ridge on the island, one of the divers came upon a substantial piece of wood, which -- with the names of his mates carved into it -- he turned into an ashtray and retained as a souvenir! It was, without doubt, a piece of HMS Erebus, as the diver, Bob Shaw, later realized.

William C. Wonders was one of Canada's most eminent geographers in his day; he served a term as President of the Canadian Association of Geographers, and received both the Order of Canada and the Queen's Jubilee Medal. Sadly, he did not live to hear news of the discovery of Erebus; Dr. Wonders passed away on January 24th, 2011. You can read the full text of his article at the Canadian Geographic website.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Finding Franklin

Many readers have noticed my hiatus here at Visions of the North, with only one new post since October of last year. The reason for this, though, is a happy one: I've been at work on the final touches of my new book Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a One Hundred and Sixty-Five Year Search, which will be coming out this fall from McGill-Queen's University Press.

Finding Franklin brings together much of my research on the Franklin mystery from the past twenty years, but there's also a great deal of brand-new material. I spent much of 2015 digging into the history of the Franklin search in the modern era, from Lachlan Taylor Burwash and "Paddy" Gibson in the 1920's and '30's to Barry Ranford and David Woodman in the 1990's and 2000's. I conducted more than a dozen new interviews with archaeologists, journalists, and amateur Franklin searchers, working to create a more complete and detailed picture of what we know, what each search has added to our knowledge, and what remains unknown, or unknowable. In the process, I found that searches for Franklin had been far more numerous and ambitious than I'd previously realized, and that much of what was once found has since been forgotten, with artifacts and human remains shelved away in obscure collections, or simply lost. In fact, between Burwash's first searches in the 1920's and the last of the private searches before Parks Canada became involved in 2008, there were more than fifty Franklin searches.

Finding Franklin sets the stage for these searches by recounting the essential details of the Franklin mystery, and the questions raised by early searchers such as Rae, Hall, and Schwatka. A focus throughout is the Inuit testimony, widely credited for helping to find HMS "Erebus" in 2014, but seldom discussed, or understood in detail. The book also showcases the new ways in which old evidence is being freshly examined, from the question of lead poisoning to that of identifying specific human remains. And, along the way, I offer my own reflections on the meaning of such a search, and reminiscences of my encounters with my fellow-searchers, whether on the glistening  ice of Resolute Bay or in a dim-lit booth in a pub in County Kildare. My book will, I hope, interest and engage both those who've long been curious about the Franklin mystery but have been unsure where to start, as well as those who, like myself, have long ago been bitten by the bug that leads to 'Franklinitis' -- a so-far incurable condition that spurs its sufferers to undertake their own personal pilgrimages to the books, the places, and the artifacts in which the Franklin story resides.

As the book's publication draws nearer, I'll share some of the fruits of my recent work, including a revival of my "Franklin searcher of the month" feature, this time highlighting those whose contributions, though significant, have been largely forgotten. I hope that all who have followed my earlier posting here will continue to do so, and can promise fresh news, and new approaches, to this storied mystery.

Friday, December 25, 2015

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.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Charles Francis Hall and Robert Kruger

Sometimes it happens that the Internet, derided by some as a great time-waster, enables the sort of serendipity that would never otherwise be possible. Such is the case with Mary Greulich Moran and her great-grandfather, Johann Karl Kruger (known at the time as Robert Kruger), one of the seamen who served under Charles Francis Hall on the ill-fated "Polaris" expedition. In her comment on my earlier post about Hall's murder, she spoke of family stories of her great-grandfather's survival with the party stranded on the ice-floe, in the company of Hannah and Joe, under the command of George Tyson.

And, even more remarkably, her family still had the letter that Hall had addressed to the sailors. Some background: While the "Polaris" was still underway, some distance from her rendezvous with destiny, the regular sailors had complained, with some justice, about the poor fare they were served, while the officers and the German scientific staff enjoyed fine meals. Hall, who had apparently been unaware of this arrangement, immediately ordered that 'thenceforth, all differences between the officers' and enlisted men's messes would ceasel they were brothers in a common cause and would eat the same food' (Loomis). The grateful men penned a letter of thanks:
"The men forward desire publicly to tender their thanks to Capt. C.F. Hall for his late kindness, not, however, that we were suffering want, but for the fact that it manifests a disposition to treat us as reasonable men, possessing intelligence to appreciate respect and yield it only when merited; and he need never fear but it will be our greatest pleasure to so live that he can implicitly rely on our service in any duty or emergency."
This letter deeply touched Hall -- so much so that he penned a reply, appending a list of all the crew and signing it with his traditional flourish. This letter must have been greatly valued by Kruger, and it has since been kept in good care by his family for three generations: "Sirs: The reception of your letter of thanks to me of this date I acknowledge with a heart that deeply and fully appreciates the kindly spirit that has prompted you to this act. I need not assure you that your commander has and ever will have a lively interest in your welfare. You have left your home, friends, and country—indeed, you have bid farewell for a time to the civilized world— for the object to aid me in discovering these mysterious hidden parts of the earth; therefore, I must and will care for you as a prudent father cares for his faithful children. "Your commander, “C. F. Hall."

It's not quite clear whether Hall made eleven copies of the letter (but then why list all their names and give only the general salutation "Sirs"?) or whether it was simply circulated among the men, and Kruger ended up with it, which would make its survival even more remarkable.

I am deeply indebted to Mary Greulich Moran for her forwarding a scan of the letter and her permission to publish it; on future blog posts I'll pass along more information about her great-grandfather and his role in the "Polaris" expedition. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Last Leaves of a Sorrowful Book

Appearing, as fate would have it, just a few weeks before McClintock's news of the fate of Franklin reached England, "The Last Leaves of a Sorrowful Book" captured the elegiac public sentiment about the lost explorers, picking up on passages from letters home from one of Franklin's officers. Their author, of course, was James Fitzjames, Franklin's second aboard HMS "Erebus," and easily one of the most capitvating figures on the expedition -- young, full of energy and passion, and (at one point) expressing his hope to spend 'at least one winter in the ice.' The letters had been reprinted before, in a nautical journal (without Fitzjames's name), though it was fairly clear then that the author must have been one of Franklin's officers on Franklin's vessel. Many years later, these letters formed the inspiration, as well as the opening passages, of John Wilson's novel, North With Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames.

This version, published in Charles Dickens's journal All the Year Round, opens with a lyrical elegy to the letters' author, framed in terms of the common fate of death that awaits us all, and the ways in which small relics of the departed still testify to their presence:

At every point of the dread pilgrimage from this world to the next, some domestic trace remains that appeals tenderly to the memory, and that leads us on, from the day when the last illness began, to the day that left us parted on a sudden from our brother or sister-spirit by the immeasurable gulf between Life and Eternity. The sofa on which we laid the loved figure so tenderly when the first warning weakness declared itself; the bed, never slept in since, which was the next inevitable stage in the sad journey; all the little sick-room contrivances for comfort that passed from our living hands to the one beloved hand which shall press ours in gratitude no more; the last book read to beguile the wakeful night, with the last place marked where the weary eyes closed for ever over the page; the little favourite trinkets laid aside never to be picked up again; the glass, still standing by the bedside, from which we moistened the parched lips for the last time; the handkerchief which dried the deathly moisture from the dear face and touched the wasted cheeks almost at the same moment when our lips pressed them at parting—these mute relics find a language of their own, when the first interval of grief allows us to see them again.
It's quite an astonishing passage, and for many years, its author was unknown. Unlike Dickens's previous journal, Household Words, the contrubutors' book for ATYR was lost, and until quite recently no one had any means of verifying who had written a given piece (there were no by-lines). But recently, with the discovery of a set of ATYR annotated by Dickens himself, these hundreds of little mysteries have been at an instant solved -- and, though I'd long guessed that Dickens himself was the writer, it turns out that it was Wilkie Collins, whose play, The Frozen Deep, had served as a more public, dramatic elegy for Franklin some three years previous.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Dr. Kane and the Bear on an American Banknote

Having enjoyed the sometimes fanciful game of imagining how Arctic explorers might look on banknotes, it occurred to me that perhaps, in the past -- especially in an era when private banks often issued their own notes -- it might have been possible that Dr. Elisha Kent Kane appeared on a banknote back in the mid-nineteenth century. I was amazed to discover that indeed this had happened, and more than once; first in 1856. with a vignette of "Dr. Kane and Party in the Arctic Regions" (of which I have not yet found an online image), and secondly in 1860, when this fanciful depiction of Kane and his men fending off an attacking bear from a boat graced a $3 note issued by the Continental Bank of Boston. The scene was engraved by DeWitt Clinton Hay after a design by Felix O.C. Darley, and is regarded even today as #24 of the top 100 nineteenth-century notes ever issued. It's a striking scene, in which Kane himself seems almost to be snarling back at the bear, hatchet in hand, while one of his comrades prepares to launch his spear.

Of course no such scene ever occurred, nor was Dr. Kane ever in the sort of small rowboat depicted in this engraving -- but nevertheless, after the fashion of previous heroes (one thinks of the dozens of engravings of of a  young Horatio Nelson's encounter with one), such an image seemed an ideal way to lionize (or perhaps one should say, bear-ize) a Polar hero.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Sir John Franklin a Freemason?

In researching the history of Sir John Franklin's last expedition and its aftermath, there have from time to time been a number of surprises. In quite a few of these cases, it's been because a fresh look at what we already "know" about Franklin has shown that we were, in fact, wrong: wrong about which railway engines were likely installed in his ships, wrong about which archive held which of the Daguerreotypes made of him and his officers; wrong about the extent and significance of lead poisoning among Franklin's men. To this list may now be added another discovery: the statement that Franklin was a Freemason -- often repeated in the literature of the 1850's, particularly in the United States -- can now be shown to be wrong, and on the best possible authority: Lady Jane Franklin herself.

Some background on this question: next week, I'll be giving a talk at the fabled Kane Lodge, so named in honor of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, the noted American Arctic explorer who served on one and commanded another of the "Grinnell" expeditions in search of Franklin and his men. Kane was a Freemason, and the outpouring of grief that attended his death in 1857 was  -- though nationwide -- particularly felt among Freemasons. A memorial volume was published by the Grand Lodge of the the state of New York, filled with encomiums as to Kane's virtues, and frequently mentioning that he had gone in search of a brother Mason, Franklin himself. Curious about this, I wrote to the Library and Museum of Freemasonry in London, asking whether they could confirm Franklin's membership in a Masonic lodge. They wrote back that they could find no record of his being a Mason, but did have one clipping, dated only with the year 1858, in which Lady Franklin herself, in response to a letter from the officers of the Kane Lodge, regretfully corrected their assumption:
Till I read of your honourable notice you have taken, and intend taking, of my dear husband, in connection with Dr. Kane as a brother Freemason, I am ignorant that he could have any claim to that noble friend's sympathies, or to your particular regard, on the ground of fellowship in your mystic art. I could almost wish that it could be proved this was the only secret my dear husband ever preserved towards me, so unwilling am I to forego the distinction conferred on him, or to appear ungrateful for, or indifferent to, past or coming kindness.
The news may have arrived too late to correct this assumption in tributes already printed, or perhaps it was simply overlooked by the public press, which continued to refer to Franklin as a Mason in the years following. Certainly, it does not in any way diminish -- nor would Lady Franklin wish it to -- the sincere spirit of Kane, whom she considered a dear friend, or his brother Masons, in wishing to draw attention to the bond that, in so many other ways, connected these two men.

And indeed there is a connection; while we can't attribute it to Franklin, a purple glass Masonic seal was among the relics recovered by McClintock from the boat in Erebus Bay, and is preserved to this day at the National Maritime Museum. From it, we may be fairly certain that one of Franklin's officers or men was in fact a Mason, and that in his quest to find them and bring them succor, Kane was acting with a particular benevolence toward at least one of his Brothers.

I am grateful to Mr Peter Aitkenhead, Assistant Librarian at the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, for his assistance and generosity in forwarding this clipping.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Solomon Tozer, Royal Marine

Some time ago, under the title "The Sword of a Great Officer," I posted an image of the hilt of sword that had been presented to HBC Factor Roderick MacFarlane in 1857 by an elderly Inuk who told him that it was from one of Franklin's men, the "sword of a great officer." I noted that this sword was engraved with "W IV" for King William IV, and therefore dated to his reign (1830-1837). I'd  tracked down the date at which each of Franklin's senior officers might have obtained their lieutenant's commission (the usual date on which one acquired a sword), and found Fitzjames the closest match -- though, in his case, a delay between getting his passing certificate and his commission meant that he wasn't promoted until a year after William's reign ended and Queen Victoria ascended to the throne. Ah well, I thought to myself, what's a year?

To my lasting shame, I didn't take the time to look closely at the guard, which featured an open "basket" style rather than the closed gilt guard that had been standard in the Royal Navy since 1827 (and indeed, is standard still). Seeing one of these sorts of guards among the latest artifacts brought up from HMS "Erebus" pricked my memory -- and that of my colleague Glenn M. Stein as well. In response to a query by fellow Franklinite Regina Koellner -- mightn't a Sergeant of the Marines have had a sword as well? -- he passed along an image of the type of blade that would have been issued to a Sergeant in the Royal Marines (right, above) -- and lo, there was the open style of guard, almost exactly as seen on the hilt given to MacFarlane!

Which leads me to Solomon Tozer. Years ago, my good friend Dave Woodman proposed that perhaps Tozer, whose name may well have sounded to Inuit ears very similar to Crozier (rendered by Hall's informants as "Cro-zhar"), could have been the "great officer" of this Inuit story. I dismissed the idea, my head filled with romanticized notions of Fitzjames among the final survivors -- how could a mere Sergeant of the Marines, the hardest-working (and lowest-paid) of all the Expedition's members, be that man? But now, seeing the sword, I went at once to Ralph Lloyd-Jones's excellent article on the Marines who served with Franklin, and discovered that Solomon Tozer had enlisted in Bath on 12 November 1834, well within the reign of William IV!

There are, as there almost always will be, caveats and contraditions. According to Lloyd-Jones, Tozer had only been promoted to Sergeant in 1844, so if the sword had to wait until then, it's not a match. Still, he was more of a veteran than most, having already risen to the rank of Corporal in 1837, the year of Victoria's coronation. He also received, though he was not to know of it, a promotion to "color sergeant" in 1849 when, as Lloyd-Jones notes, "he was unlikely to be alive in the Arctic." And yet, if he was indeed among the last men standing, he may well have yet been living at that date. I conclude with Lloyd-Jones's epitome of his character:
At the age of 18, Tozer was 5 feet 8 1/2 inches tall with light hair, hazel eyes, and a fair complexion. He was a carpenter by trade and, as befits one who reached the highest non-commissioned rank, had an extremely neat signature. A unique solecism recorded that he was ‘D[ischarged] D[ead] North Pole [sic] expedition under Sir John Franklin’ (ADM 158/69). He appears as a fairly major, brave, and practical character in Robert Edric’s novel The Broken Lands (Edric 1992).
A great officer, indeed.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Henry Larsen

Image courtesy of Doreen Larsen Riedel
Even before he arrived on the shores of King William, he’d already been awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, for being the first man to traverse the Northwest Passage from West to East, in command of the RCMP vessel St. Roch – a feat he repeated in the opposite direction a few years later. His name was Henry Asbjørn Larsen, and no other searcher before him came closer to standing in Franklin’s own metaphorical shoes. Larsen’s experience had been gained on numerous northern patrols over two decades; he eventually rose to the rank of Inspector, in charge of all RCMP detachments in the Canadian Arctic. Both the breadth of his experience and his keen eye for detail served him well; despite poor weather conditions and limited time, his search of the area between Cape Felix and Victory Point produced what may be some of the most significant finds since those of Schwatka.

Larsen’s search took place in the summer of 1949, just before his promotion to commanding officer of the force’s “G” division. He took two RCMP men with him, Corporal Seaforth Burton and Constable John Biench. He’d hoped to squeeze in the mission between his other duties, but news of his trip was inadvertently leaked to the press; as a cover story, an announcement was made that the trip was merely to scout a location for a new RCMP post. Larsen’s pilot, Harry Heacock, flew them over Lind Island and Victoria Strait; despite poor conditions, he was able to land briefly to establish a fuel depot at Terror Bay. Returning the following day, they were able to land and establish a base camp near Collinson Inlet. From there, they proceeded on foot, working their way up the coast to Cape Felix. At Cape Lady Jane Franklin, they found wood-chips and part of a shoe sole; joined there by Bill Cashin (who’d served as Larsen’s mechanic aboard the St. Roch), they began a close search of the area around Victory Point.

Here they had better luck, turning up two iron knees (almost certainly from a ship’s boat of the kind used by Franklin’s men), along with other small fragments of wood, nails, and wire. Continuing to Cape Felix, they made their most significant find: embedded between two mossy stones, they came upon a human skull. On their return, the artifacts were brought back to the National Museum (the precursor institution to both the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Canadian Museum of History). There, the bones were examined by Dr. Douglas Leechman, one of Canada’s pre-eminent archaeologists, who identified them as “definitely that of a white man, and a fairly young one at that.” Larsen and his companions had found the most northerly grave of one of Franklin’s men on King William Island.

courtesy of Doreen Larsen Riedel
Yet, as with earlier searches, the vital documentary evidence of this discovery has been misplaced and scattered. Larsen’s report, if indeed he submitted one, has gone missing, although R.J. Cyriax’s article about the search in the Geographical Journal was clearly based on some sort of fairly detailed communication from Larsen. Cyriax thought very highly of Larsen’s account, declaring it “much more detailed and precise than any of the published accounts with which the [present] writer is acquainted.” No trace of the report is known, and the artifacts themselves appear to have been misplaced; the curators that I’ve contacted to date have no record of them, and they were never entered into the archaeological databases of either the Northwest Territories or Nunavut. Had it not been for the assistance of Doreen Larsen Riedel, Larsen’s daughter, I might never have learned the details of their discovery. They were, fortunately, photographed, and the images deposited in the National Library of Canada; spread out on of white surface, these mossy bones glimmer with an eerie presence, frozen in the camera’s eye even though they, too, have since vanished from our sight.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Politics of Exploration

I had originally planned to be posting on my blog this fall about the new finds from HMS "Erebus" that I'd hoped would be announced by Parks Canada. Archaeology is a patient science, though, and though news is scarce now, I'm sure there will eventually be much more to hear about this remarkable discovery and the secrets it yet has to tell. But alas, the politics of exploration have once more taken over the headlines from actual exploration itself, journalist Paul Watson's would-be exposé -- the one he says the Toronto Star wouldn't let him publish -- has now been plastered over the Internet thanks to Buzzfeed. Ordinarily, I wouldn't want to comment on such an article, but now that major news outlets such as the Ottawa Citizen have picked up the story, I fear that I need to set the record straight again. While Watson's article certainly shows that there was a fair amount of squabbling and bitterness among some of the parties involved in the 2014 search, and that some details were, at first, imperfectly conveyed to the public (understandable in the great excitement of the moment), the evidence for any deliberate deceit -- especially on the part of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society's John Geiger -- is simply nonexistent.

A large part of Watson's article hinges on remarks made by Mr. Geiger as part of the CNC documentary on the Franklin find. As the lead historical consultant for the Canadian, UK, and US versions of this program, I've reviewed scripts and checked historical facts for all three, and so am very closely aware of the many slight differences between each version. The directors, using the same available "elements" -- video sources that, added together, would fill many times the length of the program -- made a variety of different choices. The moments that Watson points to, when John Geiger uses collective pronouns, such as 'we,' and 'our efforts,' and contrasting 2014 with previous years, are moments in which he's referring to the whole history of the modern Franklin search. Here are his exact words, from the final production script of the upcoming NOVA version of the documentary, which will air in the U.S. on September 23rd:
This is a great moment for exploration. We’ve been searching for, you know, a hundred and sixty years for answers to what happened to the Franklin expedition, the best equipped, most finely prepared and trained expedition that had ever set out for the Northwest Passage — and to have it literally obliterated, end in mass disaster, no survivors and no ships. It's just … it's been a confounding mystery.
Clearly, the "us" of this "we" is us -- all the people, Canadian and American and British, Inuit and non-Inuit, who have been a part of the long search, whether as researchers in libraries, writers/scholars, or people walking the ground or probing Arctic waters.

A shorter version of Mr. Geiger's remarks was used in the Canadian and British versions, where their intended meaning might not be as clear -- but in any case it was never, so far as I am aware, Mr. Geiger's intent to claim any credit as the discoverer. These false criticisms, made by Mr. Balsillie (see here for my earlier blog post pointing out that his letter of complaints about the CBC documentary has no foundation in that program's actual contents) and echoed in Mr. Watson's article, are without any basis in fact. The credit has been given, from the very start and consistently going forward, to Ryan Harris, Marc-André Bernier, and their divers, and I am absolutely certain that, whichever version of the documentary one views, there couldn't possibly be any confusion about this fact.

I agree with Madeline Ashby's op-ed piece in the Citizen -- it indeed matters who discovered the ship! -- but Mr. Geiger has never made any claim of having done so. While we are at it, though, the Parks Canada divers themselves have often acknowledged the importance of earlier work to their find -- to Inuit testimony, both still living in the person of Louie Kamookak, and that collected and analyzed from the historical record by David C. Woodman, and to all the searches and researches, adding up to nearly fifty searches between 1926 and 2008. As with all great discoveries, it's the ultimate result of the efforts of many. Among whom I would certainly include Mr. Geiger, whose book Frozen in Time, co-written with Owen Beattie is quite often the first volume that has caused a Franklin searcher-to-be to develop a deep and lasting fascination with the Franklin story -- and that's what fuels us all.