Thursday, March 26, 2009

Maps of Disaster

How exactly does one map a disaster? one may well ask. In the case of the lost Franklin expedition, where there is such a plethora of evidence, so widely scattered, and based on such differing and sometimes vague testimony, the task would seem almost impossible. That is, of course, unless one were Lt. Commander Rupert Thomas Gould, dubbed “the man who knew (almost) everything” by his biographer, Jonathan Betts. Gould, who came to the Hydrographer’s Department at the Admiralty during World War I while on medical leave due to a nervous breakdown, went on to become an acclaimed draughtsman, mapmaker, and the restorer of John Harrison’s famed chronometers, now on view at the Greenwich Observatory.

In 1926, Gould was given the job of preparing charts of the Canadian Arctic, and found himself naturally drawn to the mystery of Franklin’s lost men. He researched the subject voraciously – this was well before Richard Cyriax’s work had made much of the information readily available – and set to work on what became Admiralty Chart No. 5101 (detail above). The immediate impetus for its publication was a visit from none other than Major L.T. Burwash of Canada’s interior department, a character well-known for his keen interest in Franklin’s fate who would eventually lead three expeditions in search of further evidence.

The chart, published in 1927, shows the actual sites of all physical remains,including – for the first time – the ship whose masts were seen, but not reported by Anderson’s guides on his HBC expedition of 1855, a fact which had been uncovered by Burwash himself. It’s also notable that the map included Inuit testimony about ships given to Charles Francis Hall and others, although the map’s color key was designed to mark this evidence as of lesser authority. Finds by McClintock and other Royal Navy and HBC personnel were marked in red as authoritative; Inuit claims were underlined in blue.

Seen in the light of modern researches, this chart still holds up very well. The reported site of the ship searched for by David C. Woodman is plainly shown north of O’Reilly Island, and even the site to the east of King William Island near Matty Island, subject of some accounts in Dorothy Eber’s new book of Inuit testimony, is clearly marked. Of course, none of these ships has yet turned up in any of the places shown, although it’s entirely possible that either or both of them were eventually crushed to splinters by the ice. Even then, Gould has thoughtfully provided a dotted line showing the direction in which debris from such an event would likely have been carried.

It’s a beautiful chart, and was entirely drawn by hand by Gould himself in order to prepare it in time for Burwash’s use. This meant, of course, that the regular cartographers at the Hydrographic Office were bypassed; they indignantly insisted that the resulting chart be listed as “compiled by” rather than “drawn by” Gould (see Bett’s biography, p. 73). Gould continued his interest in the Arctic in later years, and is said to have given a number of lectures on the subject. One could hardly imagine how delightful and instructive they must have been.

For the detail of the map above, I am indebted to the McClintock family, who as ever have kept up their interest in the Franklin matter. They, and I, remain keenly hopeful that this map of disaster may someday be filled in with the actual locations of one or both of Franklin’s ships.


  1. Wow! Fascinating stuff.

    Not only does it show how Franklin's men dispersed (and struggled to get that far), but it also shows the amount of effort that went into finding out what happened.

    It also raises some rather morbid and horrifying questions that I hadn't thought about before ... as if the story isn't morbid and horrifying enough ... questions such as: Franklin's men headed East along King William Island's southern shore leaving graves behind them ... something I can't even imagine ... what happened to the last survivor(s), who made the grave at Booth Pt? They disappeared into history, doomed.

  2. The Inuit testimony describes it poignantly; they said that the men "fell down as they walked." If one traces the graves, the burials became more and more rudimentary, as the survivors grew more exhausted; by the end -- somewhere near the Todd Islets -- the last few men died with no one to bury them.

  3. As someone who loves maps, thank you for posting this one, and for all of your efforts so far on this blog.

  4. Thanks for posting this map. It is very interesting and I hadn't seen it before.

    It appears possible that the Erebus and/or Terror could have drifted or sailed South of KWI. The map at: appears to show a narrow channel of sufficient depth between the RGS Islands and KWI. The map shows plenty of room between the RGS Islands and Victoria Island. It is less clear that either of the ships could have been sailed to the area of Paulet Papanakies' sighting but I always try to keep an open mind with respect to the Franklin Expedition. I expect to be surprised.

    The current search method of studying the ice drift and using that data to establish a probable drift path would be my first choice. The Inuit testimony seems to indicate that a ship sank to the West of KWI.

    Prior to its discovery, many people believed that the wreck of Titanic would be completely intact and in a remarkable state of preservation. Given this I don't want to get my hopes too high. Even if the ships were reduced to splinters there is still way too much material for every trace to vanish. There should be a great wealth in information no matter what.

  5. Great thoughts, and thanks for the link to the NOAA site. I agree that the channel on either side of the RGS islands had enough depth for a ship to pass, and of course wreckage -- provided it stayed on the the surface -- would have drifted with the ice. I have a stack of old charts from Ice Services Canada which suggest that the movement shown on Gould's chart is accurate. How a ship could have made it up the west side of KWI, though, is far less clear.

    I suspect that the bits that Grenier has found in the vicinity of the RGS islands may be the shreds of the ship that sank first, not signs of the second, inhabited ship, with the famously big man with "long teeth." The second ship would, I think, be more likely to be entire, as it was piloted and anchored at its site, and away from the channels where ice-scours on the bottom make it unlikely that anything organic would not be ground to bits.

    Your mention of Paulet Papanakies has me going back to Barr and Woodman -- PP's exact wording was "two sticks" which it seems were understood as "masts." There's also reference in his story to a smaller vessel, a whaleboat, which had been dragged up on the shore and partly broken up. Inuit testimony shows that these boats had been rigged up with masts and sails -- one wonders whether PP's sighting might have been of a small vessel deceptively close, rather than a larger one far away ...

    So many possibilities!

  6. Very nice! Would it be possible to scan it for entry into a geospatial application? I love the map but am curious as to what it might be like with a bit of shading for the water and maybe a different projection.

    When I look at the map, I am reminded that everyone dies alone.