Thursday, March 23, 2017

On Abandoning ship ...

Belcher's Squadron (HMS "Resolute" at far left)
All who visit this blog likely know of more than one ship that was wrecked or abandoned in the Arctic -- Parry's HMS "Fury," the Rosses' "Victory," and -- perhaps best known of all -- HMS "Resolute," abandoned by Captain Henry Kellett, on orders from Sir Edward Belcher, on 28th April 1854. Kellett, as would be any captain, was extremely reluctant to follow this order, but in the end decided that duty required it. We know the other side of that story -- how the "Resolute" was found adrift in the David Straits, brought back to port by a whaling captain, and restored at US Government expense before being re-presented to Queen Victoria as a gift. That gift long accepted, and the time having come for the vessel to be broken up, the Queen gave orders that several desks should be made from her timbers -- the largest and most prominent of these being the "Resolute Desk" that has reposed for most of the past 50 years in the Oval Office of the White House as the desk of the President of the United States.

But what exactly does it mean to "abandon" ship? The question takes on new interest following remarks by Dr. Martin Magne, recently retired as the head of marine archaeology for Parks Canada, and whose work has been instrumental in the discovery of Sir John Franklin's "Erebus" and "Terror," to the effect that the "Terror" had apparently been prepared for abandonment. According to an article about Magne's work in the Prince George Citizen,  the vessel was "well-sealed in accordance with Admiralty instructions, which include sealing the doors with tar."

This appears to have been a misquote on their part -- when I reached out to Dr. Magne, he said that he'd not used such definitive language -- but it certainly got me started thinking. What exactly would the crew of an Arctic discovery vessel have done prior to an orderly abandonment? I have not yet been able to locate any specific printed instructions on the matter, but the example of "Resolute" seems a perfect precursor -- if "Terror" had been deliberately abandoned, surely the crew would have followed  much the same procedure as did that of the "Resolute" just a few years later.

As it happens, we have a fairly detailed record of Kellett's actions on that occasion. On the final evening aboard ship, as the sledges were being loaded for the crew and their provisions, a series of clearly anticipated procedures was followed. The pilot-jack -- letter "D" -- was hoisted at the foretopmast-head, and "the red ensign and pendant displayed, that in the event of her being obliged to 'knock under' to her icy antagonist, she might sink beneath the wave, as many a gallant predecessor had done, with colours flying." As a precaution, the signals books were burned, lest their contents fall into the wrong hands. A final dinner was also held, during which "the carpenters were employed caulking down the gun-room skylight and after companion." After that meal, Captain Kellett raised a glass of wine to the gallant ship, the decks were cleared, and the carpenter "secured" the main hatchway.

So what did this caulking and securing consist of? "Caulking," in naval parlance, meant sealing up the cracks between planks, or -- in the case, one assumes -- sealing up the covers of hatchways and companionways. "Caulk" was tar -- the best sort was, and still is, "Stockholm Tar" -- and could also involve either oakum or marline coated with that same tar. The sealing of these parts of the ship both preserved the interior against intruders, animal or human, and increased the chance, should the ship ever be freed, of her not taking on water (the "Resolute," when found, did have some water in the hold, but this likely came from the lower timbers rather than the deck).

So if tar or tarring of hatchways and companionways was observed on HMS "Terror," it would imply that, at least to some extent, her abandonment was deliberate, and that the preparations were well along. This stands in contrast to Inuit account of a ship that sank suddenly, while its cargo was being unloaded, and taking some of those engaged in this work to the bottom. On the other hand, the sinking could have occurred in the midst of such a procedure, or on an occasion on which some later party had returned to the ship to retrieve supplies. Indeed, since we know from the Victory Point record that both vessels were temporarily "deserted" in 1848, it may well be that caulking would have been done then, and might be difficult to distinguish from similar work done later.

The only way to know for certain, of course, will be when Parks Canada's archaeologists begin their work this coming summer. Hopefully, the well-preserved nature of HMS "Terror" will enable them to find clearer evidence one way or the other; no matter that, surely great things will be learned.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Tookoolito

Of all those who searched for traces of Franklin in the decades immediately after the disappearance of his expedition, no one figure was more pivotal that Tookoolito, also known as "Hannah," who served as Charles Francis Hall's main translator throughout the 1860's. "Too-koo," as Hall often referred to her in his notebooks, had made a powerful impression from the start; describing their first meeting, the usually prosaic Hall waxed poetic: “I could not help admiring the exceeding gracefulness and modesty of her demeanour. Simple and gentle in her way, there was a degree of calm intellectual power about her that more and more astonished me.”

Tookoolito more than lived up to that initial impression; her translation became the key to Hall's work, and she came to share his boundless enthusiasm for the Franklin mystery. Quite frequently, in his notebooks, Hall would note her interpretation and excitement as new pieces of evidence came to light, and her ability to craft follow-up questions to clarify the Inuit testimony is striking. As just one example, it was Too-koo's insight into the infamous "black men" story that suggested the "three great shouts" were in all likelihood three cheers:
These men who were then all around him, had black faces, black hands, black clothes on -- were black all over!  They had little black noses, and this Innuit was very alarmed because he could not get away from these black men, but especially he was frightened when they made three great noises [three rounds of cheers as Too-koo-li-too thinks these great noises were]. 
Tookoolito -- whose Inuktitut name is conjecturally sometimes given as Taqulittuq -- was born in the Cumberland Sound area around 1838. In 1852, no more than fifteen years old, Tookoolito was brought to England by wine merchant Thomas Bowlby, who had taken an interest in missionary work among the Inuit. With her came her husband Ebierbing ("Joe"), along with Akulukjuk (referred to as "Harlukjoe"), an unrelated seven-year-old whom some at the time assumed was their son. Bowlby exhibited the group at a number of locations, and was even able to arrange a meeting with Queen Victoria, which took place on February 3rd 1853. The young Queen was impressed by the meeting, remarking in her journal, "They are my subjects, very curious, & quite different to any of the southern or African tribes, having very flat round faces, with a Mongolian shape of eyes, a fair skin, & jet black hair. They are entirely clothed in skins." Too-koo, for her part, recalled that she "liked the appearance of Her Majesty, and every thing about the place."

Unlike some of the unscrupulous men who lured Inuit away to be shown abroad, Bowlby was as good as his word, returning Tookoolito and Ebierbing to their home. Over the years that followed, their familiarity with English language and customs led to working with some of the whaling crews that wintered in Cumberland Sound, and it was there that Charles Francis Hall encountered them. He'd heard something of them from his friend Sydney O. Budington, and on meeting them, secured their services as guide and translator. They assisted him in his researches around Frobisher bay, and returned with him to the United States afterwards. Hall, well-meaning but unwise, leant them and their young child out for shows at Barnum's Museum and Boston's Aquarial Gardens, as well as bringing them along on his lecture tour, where he sought to raise funds for his return. Very likely as a result, Hannah's son, little Butterfly, became ill and died, and she herself nearly died of grief. And yet, nursed back to health by Mrs. Budington, Hannah returned along with Joe to serve Hall on his next, longer Arctic search, the one which finally brought him to the shores of King William Island. During that journey, Tookoolito gave birth to another son, whom Hall christened "King William," but who died not long afterwards. In what might have been a sort of compassionate gesture, Hall traded a sled and some other valuables for a young girl whom Hannah and Joe called simply Panik (daughter), or Punny.

After Hall finally gave up on his mission of finding Franklin survivors and organized the Polaris expedition in search of the North Pole, the whole family came with him, only to suffer the privations and uncertainty of drifting south on an ice-island after Hall was murdered and the party lost contact with their ship. Thanks in large part to Joe's hunting skills, the group survived long enough to be rescued, and he and Hannah both testified at the inquest into Hall's death. They believed Hall when he told them he had been poisoned, but unfortunately the Board of Inquiry gave more credence to the testimony of the white ship's crew and scientists, and the likely murderer, Dr. Emil Bessels, was never charged. Hannah and Joe moved to Groton and lived in a home not far from the Budingtons, from which, Joe noted proudly in a letter, "Punny go to school every day." Alas, it was not to last; Punny died in 1874 and Hannah followed her in 1876; they are buried next to one another in the Star Cemetery in Groton, where I've often visited them.

There was, in her day, no farther-faring Inuk than Tookoolito, along with her lifelong partner Ebierbing; without her work, none of the detailed Inuit testimony sought by Hall would ever have been collected -- evidence which made the discovery of "Erebus" and "Terror" possible. And yet, at least as of now, Too-koo has never received the sort of recognition her work deserves. Her name was mentioned as a candidate for a woman to appear on Canadian currency, and a couple of years ago there was a Kickstarter campaign for a play about her life, to be written and staged by Reneltta Arluk. It's to be hoped that it will be presented someday, and will not be the last remembrance of this remarkable woman.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Garth Walpole

Once upon a time, there was a man who yearned with all his heart to explore the secrets of the Arctic. And, at his side, there was his wife, who supported him in all he did, even after he had set sail on his final journey to that "undiscover'd country / from whose bourn no traveller returns." And finally, "after long waiting, she herself departed to seek him in the realms of light."

Readers will, I suspect, recognize the familiar elements of the story of Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane, and the words from the monument at Westminster Abbey -- and yet, it is not not of them that I speak, but rather of Garth Walpole and his wife Alison.

I'd come to know Garth via the “Remembering the Franklin Expedition” Facebook group, established in 2008 by Lee Preston. Garth was one of the first to join, and even amidst the many enthusiastic “Franklinites” who formed the core of the group, Garth stood out. He was generous with what he had, eager to obtain articles and imagery that he didn’t, and lively in the occasional, nearly real-time exchanges that were then – and still are – a feature of the site. Through these discussions, I learned a bit more about Garth:  he was had been born in Hobart, Tasmania, known for its large public statue of Franklin, not far from Government House, where Sir John had once served as the colony’s Lieutenant-Governor. Garth, from what I understood, had always had a fascination with the past, but it was only later in life that the Franklin story became for him – as it was for all of us – such a delightfully persistent obsession.

Working on his archaeology degree, he’d written a thesis on the Franklin relics that he was expanding to book-length; he’d shared some sections with me, as I’d shared sections of my own ongoing work. He was always especially eager to obtain new images of the relics, or resolve discrepancies in the archival records about them, and he and I would often exchange messages on such questions. And, when word of the discovery of Franklin’s ship got out, Garth had a strong intuition that it was the “Erebus,” not the “Terror,” but I wagered against him, telling him I’d “eat my hat” if I were wrong. And of course, he was right – I can still recall the taste of felt (though, in the interest of avoiding indigestion, a symbolic nibble had to make do for the whole). Along with the rest of us – perhaps more than any of us – he reveled in that discovery, and it energized his work.

None of us had known, though, that he was already ill. It wouldn’t have been like Garth to say much about it; I imagine that he must have been a fairly private person, and didn’t want to be the recipient of online sympathy. And so we didn’t know, until his wife Alison posted a note to the group, letting us know that he was in the final stages of his illness and expressing his thanks for the companionship and encouragement he’d received from the group. Of course, we all responded with the same feeling, sharing our sense of gratitude and feeling of loss, and it was a comfort to know that Ali (as we came to know her) had passed along our regards. It came as a shock, though, how quickly the end came, and Garth was no longer among us. 

It was then that I undertook, at Ali's request, to find a publisher for Garth's manuscript. She sent it, along with all his notes and two large cartons containing all his Franklin books, so that I'd have all the resources he'd assembled as I edited and prepared the book for publication. I knew that it would be no easy task to find a publisher, and after nearly nine months of writing queries, I was beginning to doubt that I could. It was then that Glenn M. Stein, author of Discovering the North-West Passage: The Four-Year Arctic Odyssey of H.M.S. Investigator and the McClure Expedition, suggested I contact his editor at McFarland publishers in North Carolina. They accepted the project, and I was delighted to be able to let Ali know that I'd found a home for Garth's book.

When I told her the news, Ali was overjoyed, as was I – although, by then, this joy was already tinctured with fresh sadness. For, in the time it had taken to find a home for the book, Ali had had a relapse of her cancer, and had already moved into hospice care.  She was, however, able to pass from this world knowing that Garth’s book would indeed be coming out, and that his many years of work would not be for nought.

And now, at last, it's available to the public. It will, I expect, have a special appeal to those first drawn to the Franklin story by the palpable melancholy associated with the Franklin relics, many of which are soon to be on display for the first time in over a century -- along with newly-recovered ones -- at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. But there are many other aspects of the Franklin story on which Garth's careful archaeological examination sheds fresh light; his analysis of the earliest finds on Beechey Island is invaluable, as is his comparison of the various published accounts of the Schwatka search and its discoveries. The final section of the book offers an illustrated history of the relics as they were depicted in newspapers, magazines, stereoviews, and guidebooks. It demonstrates how significant these relics are, marking as they do the final evidence of Franklin’s men, of their boyish enthusiasm, their fortitude, their willingness to risk all on a voyage of unknown result. In a sense, they are not unlike those relics that mark our own everyday lives: eyeglasses, gloves, a button, or a bit of wool. They are, as with Franklin, only the fragments of a life, the remainders, the leftovers if you will. And yet, though inanimate, they have had, as Garth might say – extraordinary lives of their own. His book is their biography.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

A recently rediscovered poem by Robert W. Service

O gather ye northern voyagers, and gather ye trappers of old
For the snow’s blown off of a curious tale that’s never been truly told
It’s the strangest yarn of the frozen zone that ever I yet did hear
Whether trapper Smith told it true and straight (or maybe ’twas just the beer)

In the winter of ’34, he said, came an Irishman name of Pease
Without so much as a howdy-do, like a man blown in by the breeze
He’d only one great dream, he swore, and it held him in its grip
And that was to find, though the snow made him blind, Lord Franklin’s missing ship

He’d a map, he said, from Rasmussen, and it laid out clear and plain
Where the lost logbooks of the fabled crew nigh a century had lain
X marked the spot! and yet all that he’d brought was a single scrawny dog
Yet ’twas was clear from the start that he had the heart, no matter how long the slog

To hear Smith tell it, they all thought him mad, but at last they figured they’d help
The death of one man was a thing they could stand, but they pitied the loss of the whelp
So Angus MacIver, a fine old dog-driver, a fellow who never felt dread
Went and hitched up his sled, and another for Pease; with a crack of a whip they were fled

Their progress was slow through the blinding snows, for the first hundred miles or so
MacIver was minded to turn back to town, but Pease pleaded onward to go
At last the storm cleared, and their eyelids were seared, by the glare of the midnight sun
And onward they pressed, though they’d never have guessed, what lay at the end of their run.

At last they made camp, by the light of a lamp, as the polar twilight fell 
Pease bumped into something nearby in the drifts, and suddenly let out a yell!
’Twas a low house of logs, with no window or door, the length and the breadth of a man
In this lonely zone, where so few paths were known, there had ended a human lifespan.  

Strange figures were carved in the uppermost log, that MacIver deciphered, bar none
“The grave of a white man” the legend did read, and the date eighteen fifty and one
“’Tis the grave of the last of Lord Franklin’s bold crew” cried out Pease, with his hat in his hand
And his heart trembled inward, and grief racked his frame, and he found that he scarcely could stand.

Recovering his wits, he dug in with his mitts, and soon cleared the snow off for a space
With an axe in his hand he then broke through the bands that had held the logs firmly in place
He lowered the lamp and peered into the damp, but no sign of a corpse could he find
There were animal bones, rusty nails, cannon shot, and some pieces of cloth and old twine.

Had the grave then been looted? Had wolves tunneled in? Had the body been carried away?
Pease looked at MacIver, but the good old dog driver could hardly think what he could say
’’Tis the Law of the North that a man who goes forth, in a climate that never forgives
Becomes food for the famished, now that his life is done, so that other poor creatures may live

Pease looked for a sign, but saw naught but the stars, that yet shine on the living and dead
And he wondered out loud, but could never say how’d, he e’er got such ideas in his head
So he turned back to town, with his face in a frown, and from there sailed back over the sea
He had yearned to discover the fate of another, but ’twas his own fate he found — mo chroi!

O gather ye northern voyagers, and gather ye trappers of old
For the snow’s blown off of a curious tale that’s never been truly told
It’s the strangest yarn of the frozen zone that ever I yet did hear
Whether trapper Smith told it true and straight (or maybe ’twas just the beer)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Francis Kennedy Pease

Perhaps the least well-known Franklin searcher of the modern era, Francis Kennedy Pease was no stranger to the polar regions -- indeed, one of his first voyages was as a midshipman aboard RSS Discovery, on its way to deliver a permanent headstone for Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave. Like Shackleton, Pease had been born in Co. Kildare; his father, Charles Pease, was a Major in the British Army. Frank Taaffe, one of the organizers of the Shackleton Autumn School in Athy, has an interesting post on his blog Eye on the Past, which gives further details on Pease's life and career.

His voyage south was in 1927, but Pease did not venture north until 1935, when -- having received, by his own account, some kind of map from Knud Rasmussen -- he lit out in search of the logbooks of the Franklin expedition. The story sounds a bit dodgy -- had Rasmussen known of the location of such a treasure, it's hard to imagine his not having pursued it himself -- and then there's the nagging detail that the great explorer died in 1933, two years before Pease's expedition. Pease supposedly took with him one dog -- his Irish terrier! -- although by some accounts he also borrowed or purchased additional dogs in Churchill, Manitoba (including one, "Scottie," whose taxidermied remains may be seen at the Manitoba Museum to this day). It's said that he was accompanied by veteran trapper Angus MacIver, an articulate, capable man who contributed a number of articles on wolves and wolverines to The Beaver. And yet, of this seemingly substantial search, very little remains in the way of published accounts -- indeed, the only one I could find is a lone article from the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser of 12 June 1935 (you can read the full text here).

By Pease's own account, they found "the grave of a white man believed to be the last survivor of the Franklin expedition," located "250 miles north of Fort Churchill," along with a cairn beneath which were buried "the remains of a sea chest." The grave itself, as he described it, was "made in the Indian fashion ... of logs of spruce trees in the form of a tunnel, with both ends sealed by logs and earth" and "bore Indian hieroglyphics meaning 'white man buried here 1851.'" The relics from the cairn included  "rusty nails and cannon balls, some blue cloth, canvas, and rotted wood," while the tomb, though not described as having been damaged, contained only some "animal bones." The article from the Singapore paper says that the items retrieved were put in the hands of the Canadian government -- presumably, in 1935, this would have meant the National Museum -- but searches of the online databases of its successor institutions (the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian Museum of Nature) produces nothing filed under Pease's name.

This was, apparently, Pease's first and last Arctic foray. According to Frank Taaffe's account, "After service in the Royal Air Force in World War II he spent the rest of his life as a landscape contractor dying in 1987." It's hard to know how much credit to give to his claims as to a Franklin grave -- but certainly he fits well within the gallery of obsessive amateurs whose curiosity was piqued by this greatest of Northern mysteries.

Update 12/29: According to this article by historian Tina Adcock, Pease made it "no further north or west than Winnipeg"! The mystery deepens -- or perhaps doesn't. Might he have made the whole thing up?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Franklin for every era ...

Sir John and I in Spilsby, Lincolnshire (his birthplace)
This morning I happened on an article in Hakai magazine in which Canadian officials and scientists were described as seeking a new name for the new coast guard vessel hitherto anticipated to carry Sir John Franklin's name.

I believe that would be a serious mistake. The view of Franklin as nothing but a failure and a cultural ignoramus, which has its origins in the (rather more nuanced) account of his last expedition in Pierre Berton's Arctic Grail, is a very narrow one, and one which does not, I feel, represent his larger cultural significance to Canada or to the world. One voice in his favor might be that of the novelist Joseph Conrad, who in one of his last essays, "Geography and Some Explorers," wrote:
"The dominating figure among the seamen explorers of the first half of the nineteenth century is that of another good man, Sir John Franklin, whose fame rests not only on the extent of his discoveries, but on professional prestige and high personal character. This great navigator, who never returned home, served geography even in his death. The persistent efforts, extending over ten years, to ascertain his fate advanced greatly our knowledge of the polar regions."
To add to those remarks, made nearly a century ago, I would say that the Franklin story, as another novelist -- Margaret Atwood -- has noted, is part of the essential fabric of Canadian culture and identity; it's been the subject of numerous novels and poems by Canadian writers, and the recent discovery of Franklin's two ships in 2014 and 2016 has electrified the world. As Atwood notes, "every age has created a Franklin suitable to its needs," even if he was not (as she wryly puts it) the "crunchiest biscuit in the packet." His name, and all that its echoes contain, is of enormous and vital significance, both to the past and to the future of Canada.

Those who speak of Franklin as a "failure" misunderstand the very nature of exploration. It is, inevitably, fraught with risk; indeed it is that risk that grants those who undertake it their heroic status. It's as foolish -- and insulting -- to speak of Franklin as a failure as it would be to use that term for a soldier killed in battle, or taken prisoner. He gave his life -- and, perhaps fortunately, did not live to endure the far greater suffering experienced by his surviving crews. They all gave their lives, that this uncharted realm be charted, and it is their sacrifice which earns our respect.

Throughout the ages, Franklin has been admired -- not just by Joseph Conrad, but by writers such as Dickens, Thoreau, and Verne -- and, most importantly, by those who followed in his footsteps. Those who somehow believe that Amundsen, because first through the passage, deserves a greater share of glory, would do well to read his own words:
"When I was fifteen years old, the works of Sir John Franklin, the great British explorer, fell into my hands. I read them with a fervid fascination which has shaped the whole course of my life. Of all the brave Britishers who for 400 years had given freely of their treasure, courage, and enterprise to dauntless but unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the Northwest Passage, none was braver than Sir John Franklin. "
I am hardly an impartial advocate of course -- I've spent the past 25 years researching and writing about Franklin -- but I do hope that, despite the questions raised as part of the process of commissioning this new Coast Guard vessel, the name will be retained.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Tale of a Nail

Just as those of us obsessed with Franklin's lost expedition were settling in for our nice winter naps, with visions of next year's dives on "Erebus" and "Terror" dancing in our heads, we've been rudely awakened by a fresh scientific study that's making the rounds. Its subject, in fact, is both old and new -- John Hartnell, exhumed from his grave at Beechey Island in 1986, and two samples collected and stored, but not studied until now: one thumbnail and one large toenail. The press stories have tended to vary between thumb and toe in their accounts, but in fact it was both -- and no "clipping" either -- that a team of Canadian scientists used to trace, over a longer period of time than had been possible before, young Hartnell's intake of various chemical elements.

In preparing a voodoo spell, a person's fingernails and toenails are thought to be powerfully efficacious; just so here, science has constructed what the team has dubbed "Hartnell's Time Machine." For, while the visible part of the nail is only of relatively recent growth, the full nail -- from root to tip -- has a longer story to reveal: 19.5 mm in the case of the thumb, 22.5 in that of the toe. Combined, the nails have been used to trace Hartnell's food intake all the way back to June of 1845, just after the ships sailed, through to his death on 6 January 1846 -- nearly seven months. In particular, the team looked at lead, zinc, and copper exposure, as well as at nitrogen stable isotopes. The findings were then compared to a "reference toenail," one associated with a modern individual whose diet included red meat.

The conclusions of the study are fascinating: from the isotopic nitrogen analysis, it was possible to show that, throughout the period, Hartnell consumed no seafood (it's too bad that someone with a knowledge of sailors' eating habits wasn't consulted -- "there needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this"). As to lead, the results, consistent with other more recent studies, suggest that Hartnell's exposure continued, but didn't increase significantly, during the expedition, though it did rise in the last few weeks of his life, possibly due to his having been given extra rations of tinned food, or some of the "wine for the sick" on board (wine was known for lead contamination at this time). It's also possible that weight loss and illness accounted for the higher relative concentrations. Copper was more of a constant, as was zinc -- though in the latter case, it seems that Hartnell began the expedition and finished it with a severe zinc deficiency. This condition would have increased his susceptibility to illnesses, including TB, and thus could have been a factor in his death. Unfortunately, nails from Hartnell's two grave-mates at Beechey were not available for comparison.

A zinc deficiency could also cause other symptoms -- "depression, anxiety, lethargy, impulsivity and irritability," according to the study. The only remedy would have been fresh meat, which we already know was very scarce indeed; the last time any of the crew would have enjoyed any would have been shortly after arrival in Greenland, when oxen brought on the transports were slaughtered. At the same time, it would be too bad if a zinc deficiency were to be taken -- as, unfortunately, it seems to have been in some press accounts -- as the new "single-explanation" theory. The lack of fresh meat, and conditions of the sailors, on board Franklin's ships would have been very similar to other British naval expeditions of the day, none of which suffered the catastrophic losses of Franklin's, and indeed a recent study (one of whose authors was the late William Battersby) suggests that other causes -- accidents, exposure, scurvy, tuberculosis, and other respiratory conditions -- played a far more prominent role, on the whole, in Arctic expeditions of the period generally. So this new study, while certainly welcome, doesn't necessarily change our prevailing understandings.

The curious can consult the full study here -- it's available for purchase, or can be had via the libraries of subscribing research institutions.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Misleading CBC story on Franklin relics

In my news alerts this morning, I found that CBC reporter Dean Beeby has come out with what I feel is a misleading story about the status of the new Franklin relics brought up, or to be brought up, from HMS Erebus and Terror. Beeby, drawing from government documents obtained under the Access to Information act, shows that there was, indeed, some considerable back-and-forth over the status of these relics in the past -- but neglects to mention that the ongoing talks have, in fact, produced broad areas of consensus. And, even when he (accurately) notes that, although Parks Canada had received legal advice that the new relics were not covered by the Nunavut Act, they decided to invite Inuit groups to co-administer their conservation and display, he then repeats the assertion that the UK insists that they are their property, which they don't.  So let's go over the basic facts:

• As items from the navy of a nation, these newly-recovered Franklin relics would have been the unquestioned property of Her Majesty's Government -- but in the 1997 memorandum of understanding between the UK and Canada, the UK transfers all claims in the wrecks and their contents to Canada (an exception being made only for any gold found on the wrecks) as soon as they are positively identified.

• For similar reasons, because a naval vessel is considered the property of the nation under whose flag it sailed, the materials are not covered by the Nunavut Act. And yet, as I've often said here, it is entirely right and just that the GN and relevant Inuit groups take a very active role in determining the disposition of these materials, in which Inuit histories are very much bound up with those of the UK and Canadians generally. Parks Canada agrees, and has taken major steps to create this dialogue and cooperation, and a plan to co-administer them, and yet the impression Beeby gives is that none of this has yet happened.

• Although Beeby implies that it's some sort of injustice that the items will be displayed in the UK prior to being shown in Canada, that's not at all the case. The 2017 exhibition there will come to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau in 2018, and indeed the entire exhibit is being curated by the CMH. While, due to various individual issues, some items on display at one of these exhibits may not be present at the other, the whole thing is being undertaken in the spirit of cooperation, not contention, and fulfills the language of the 1997 memorandum that objects "of special significance to the history of the Royal Navy" be made available to the UK for display. They are, in essence, one exhibition, not two. And, although it will be in the UK during the sesquicentennial year of 2017, that's actually to Canada's benefit, as they will be the centerpiece of a series of events in London, co-ordinated by Canada House, marking this important anniversary there.

• It's important to note that, even with the new co-operation between Parks Canada and the GN and Inuit groups, these new objects require conservation and careful storage prior to, during, and after display. At present, Nunavut does not have any facility capable of these tasks; the official Nunavut Collection at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre is full, and does not have an on-site administrator. The GN has a current agreement with the Canadian Museum of Nature to serve as its repository in the meantime, and it's to there that the Franklin relics would most likely go. Their potential display in Nunavut is certainly desirable, but will require building or leasing new facilities; it's to be hoped that the often-spoken-of heritage centre in Gjoa Haven, once constructed, will have that capacity, and will become a regular stop for Franklin-related tourism.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Guest post: Symbol of Empire

Evidence from two Polar Bear Paintings

Michael Engelhard

Analyzing the heroic quest narrative, the American mythologist Joseph Campbell pointed out that it is crucial for the protagonist to face unknown dangers and to gain some spiritually or physically valuable thing. As a placeholder for Arctic adversity, the polar bear perfectly embodied such a thing. Captured alive, pictured, described for science, or slain for its meat or skin, it signified the hero’s trophy, his travails and rewards.

Two English nineteenth-century paintings that fall well within the Heroic Age epitomize the polar bear’s role in visual mythmaking: Richard Westall’s apotheosis "Nelson and the Bear" (1806) and Edwin Henry Landseer’s memento mori Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864).

Landseer’s monumental canvas alludes to the fate of Sir John Franklin (Nelson’s subaltern at the battle of Trafalgar), “the man who ate his boots,” who with his sailors disappeared sometime after 1845, while seeking to conquer that other chimera, the Northwest Passage. Using dark tones throughout this painting, Landseer, who’d studied live polar bears at the menagerie at the Exeter Exchange in London’s Strand, cast long shadows upon “an English optimism and triumphalism, which was particularly apparent at mid-century.”

Franklin’s had been the largest and best-equipped Arctic expedition to embark until then. His wife, Lady Jane Franklin, who never stopped hoping for his return, attended a soiree at the Royal Academy at which the “offensive” painting was shown. Her indignation was caused by the inclusion of two polar bears that, in Landseer’s imagining of the aftermath, gnawed on a human ribcage and shredded a red British ensign, symbol of national pride. Lady Franklin’s shock at the sight of the disgraced flag could have been exacerbated by the fact that she had sewn it (or one very much like it) for her knight-errant before he embarked on his last journey. Allegedly, at home, she had thrown that silken flag over Franklin, who was stretched out on a divan, and he had startled, reminding her that the Navy covered corpses with the Union Jack before burial at sea. Superstition also surrounds the painting itself. Man Proposes, God Disposes now hangs in the study hall of the Royal Holloway (a college of the University of London) where administrators long felt it necessary to cover the work with a large Union Jack during exams. Rumor had it that a student who had looked directly at it went mad and committed suicide and that those who sat next to it would fail their exams or die.

Every animal painting is also always a self-portrait, a story we tell about Nature and thereby reflective of our own nature. The red ensign in Man Proposes, which draws the viewer’s gaze, recalls Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw”—but to pious Victorians, the horror of men having become bear prey was nothing compared to the evil whose name few dared to speak.
In 1854, word had reached London that Dr. John Rae of the Hudson’s Bay Company had met some Inuit who had learned from others that about forty white men had been seen in 1850, dragging a boat south, and that later, the bodies of those men had been found. They most likely had died from cold and starvation, but John Rae’s report included a disturbing detail mentioned by his informants. “From the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles,” he wrote, “it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means for sustaining life.”

That the men who had been commanded by the man who once ate his boots had allegedly resorted to this outraged the civilized British. To be known as men who were savaged by polar bears was tragic, if rather interesting—“to be known as men who ate each other, unthinkable.” In light of Dr. Rae’s news, the ravenous bears in Landseer’s work became interchangeable with men, identical to them—too close for emotional comfort, which Darwin’s ideas had already disturbed.

Landseer’s monumentalized animal stands firmly in the tradition of seventeenth-century vanitas still-life paintings. In this art form, bodily remains and sundry objects symbolize vanity and the fleetingness of wealth, power, and fame—indeed, of all human endeavors—in the face of death. It is unlikely that Landseer suggested that bears had killed any of Franklin’s men; rather, he portrayed them in the scavenger mode that explorers often observed. To one reviewer, the painting’s characters looked like “monster ferrets,” which must have pained Landseer, who had gone so far as to borrow a polar bear skull from a Scottish museum in order to get the animal’s face and dimensions right.

Westall’s Nelson and the Bear reflects a younger, more confident empire. It poises the plucky, fifteen-year-old midshipman and future hero of Trafalgar at the edge of the pack ice, in a frockcoat, with buckled shoes and a bonnet resembling a chef’s hat—not really dressed for such an outing. Nelson wields his musket like a club against an opponent that has flattened its ears against its head and looks more like a scared sheepdog than a polar bear.

In 1773, young Horatio’s ship, HMS Carcass, like many before it on the search for the Northeast Passage, ground to a halt in the ice near Spitsbergen. Carcass and a second ship, Racehorse, were sailing under the command of Commodore Constantine Phipps, who on that same voyage named the polar bear Ursus maritimus.

Together with a shipmate, Nelson went after the bear, whose skin he wished to give to his father. That, at least, is the story the ship’s captain, Commander Skeffington Lutwidge, started telling decades later. He added the companion and the loyal filial element only in 1809, four years after Nelson had bled to death on the deck of HMS Victory. In Lutwidge’s story, Nelson’s rusty, borrowed musket misfired and he was saved only because a rift in the ice had appeared, separating him from the bear. Westall’s painting, however, shows only Nelson, a single, steadfast Briton facing the epitome of the hazardous North. Obviously, a companion on the ice would have diminished Nelson’s glory. Westall also included, in the background, Carcass helping to scare of the bear by firing a cannon. Besides adding to the hagiography of a national hero, the work celebrated Britannia and its mariners, tougher than walrus hide.

Westall had conceived the painting as one of a series of episodes illustrating Robert Southey’s Life of Nelson, begun in 1809 and published in 1813. Southey gave his hero a line ripe with braggadocio. “Do but let me get a blow at this devil with the butt-end of my musket, and we shall have him,” Nelson supposedly shouted to his comrade after his shot had missed the bear. It gets stranger yet: Westall’s painting was copied as an engraving for the Life of Nelson by John Landseer, the father of Edwin Henry Landseer.

"Nelson and the Bear" and to a degree even "Man Proposes" follow conventions of the exploration narrative, a genre seeking to terrify and to titillate. Such dramatizations of the quest—hand-to-paw combat, hull-crushing bergs, scurvy, and starvation—hallowed soldiers and explorers, especially in premature death. By the time Landseer finished "Man Proposes," more ships and men had been lost in search of Franklin. The futility of Arctic exploration was starting to register, but British hubris and vainglory persisted until 1912, when another hero—Robert Falcon Scott—perished at a pole, and an iceberg ruined both an “unsinkable” ship and the confidence of a nation.

Michael Engelhard is the author of the just-published book Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon and American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean. Trained as an anthropologist, he lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and now works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Of Franklin and Fellowship

Having just experienced a fantastic series of Franklin-related events in Ireland and England, I was reminded anew of how, at a very fundamental level, the Franklin fascination is a collective undertaking. Each and every person who falls under the spell of this story finds his or her own path into it, and once there, discovers specific areas of interest. Once that's happened, the space opens into one of collaboration: some learn all they can about one figure, one aspect of the story, while others focus on transcribing manuscripts, studying ships' plans, re-interpreting Inuit stories, or poring over satellite photographs. With the aid of modern technology, the pace of what's possible increases, and at every turn, collaboration can solve some of the most difficult enigmas. Some of this happens in the congenial company of the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group, but it also happens via e-mail, notes and comments on online blogs and forums, and through visits to far-flung archives and museums. Over the past several years, many enigmas have been solved -- or at least, had their basic questions clarified and evidence re-examined -- through this large and growing online community.

All of which makes in-person gatherings all the more special. I was fortunate to be part of two of these while on my trip: first, the 16th annual Sir Ernest Shackleton Autumn School in Athy, County Kildare, Ireland, and second, the RTFE meetup at the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich. The Shackleton School, which I was delighted to return to after my first lecture there in 2009, was organized around specific talks and events: Huw Lewis-Jones launched and lectured on his and Kari Herbert's new book Explorers' Sketchbooks, while I was fortunate to do the same for Finding Franklin. I'm particularly grateful to the folks at O'Brien's pub in Athy, who hosted my book launch, accompanied by a fantastic print representing John Torrington by local artist Vincent Sheridan, introduced by the incomparable Joe O'Farrell, followed by a lovely a capella rendition of "Lady Franklin's Lament" by Frank Nugent -- and concluding with the singular honor of being permitted to pull my own pint of Guinness at the sacred tap. 

Good fellowship and lectures on a variety of subjects from both poles followed, filling the weekend with new stories and new friends, and concluding with a fabulous literary reading at the Athy Arts Centre. There, Gina Koellner and I read from Gewndolyn MacEwen's "Terror and Erebus," while novelist Ed O'Loughlin treated the audience to readings from Wallace Stevens and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, followed by a section from his remarkable new novel, Minds of Winter. And yet, as delightful as my time in Athy was, the weekend finally came to a close, and I flew off to England for a new series of wonders, including a visit to Sir John Franklin's birthplace in Spilsby, Lincolnshire, research on the "Peglar" papers at the Caird Library, and a meeting with curators at the National Maritime Museum who are involved in plans for next year's large-scale exhibition of Franklin materials, scheduled for July of 2017.

And yet, despite the value of these more "official" doings, it was the unofficial "meetup" of the RTFE at the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich which was, for me, the highlight of my time in the UK. For, despite our collaborative work and long history of shared interests, almost none of us in the group had ever met in person before. It's funny how well one can now know a person one has never so much as shaken hands with, and what odd details the online world leaves out. How tall is someone? What's their voice sound like? The gathering began early, at two in the afternoon on a rainy Friday, and continued late into the night, as, one by one, each of us had to leave to find our way to home and hearth. By the end, our bonds of fellowship had only grown greater, and now, when we see our profile pictures on Facebook, we'll know a bit more about one other.

There was but one sad note in the midst of our conviviality: the loss of our dear friend William Battersby. All of us had known him, quite a few had met him in person, and some had worked quite closely with him on research related to the Franklin expedition. His had been a jovial and thoughtful presence, and somehow it seemed as though his spirit remained with us, as his friend Peter Carney rose, as did we all, with a toast in his honor. The good work that he did, and the memory of his constant questioning of what we supposed we knew but hadn't checked on, will forever be remembered among us.

As the evening drew to a close, the talk was of the the large exhibit of materials related to the Franklin expedition, which will be opening in July of 2016 at the National Maritime Museum, before heading over to the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa in January of 2017. For those of us who clinked our glasses at the Trafalgar, those dates can't come soon enough!