Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Mystery of the "Peglar" Papers

The sight was truly a melancholy one. In the words of Francis Leopold McClintock, “Shortly after midnight of the 25th May, when slowly walking along a gravel ridge which the winds kept partially bare of snow, I came upon a human skeleton, partly exposed, with here are there a few fragments of clothing appearing through the snow. The skeleton, now perfectly bleached, was lying upon its face; and it was a melancholy truth that the old Esquimaux woman spoke when she said, that they fell down and died as they walked along.” And yet this skeleton, remarkably enough, bore with it one of the most enigmatic documents in the whole Franklin mystery. In the words of Allen Young, who published his account in the Cornhill Magazine in 1860, “the Captain’s party found a human skeleton upon the beach as the man had fallen down and died, with his face to the ground; and a pocket-book, containing letters in German which have not yet been deciphered, was found close by."

Whose was this skeleton? And what were these letters? As it turns out, they were not written in German, although the mistake was understandable, given the frequent occurrence of words such as “Meht,” “Kniht,” and “Eht” – but on further examination, it was discovered that they were in fact in English, only written backwards. Why this would have been done is a difficult question – for my part, I can only suppose that there was some desire to conceal the contents of a sailor’s letters from his shipmates, whose rudimentary literacy would have made transposing the letters a daunting task.

The ownership of the letters posed yet another question; because among them was the seaman’s certificate of one Harry Peglar, they have been dubbed the “Peglar Papers” for years, and the name has stuck. McClintock’s description of the body, however, rules Peglar out; on its being turned over, the seaman’s uniform was found to be better preserved on the side that had faced the ground; his neckerchief was tied in the distinctive manner of a ship’s steward – something Peglar, a senior sailor with the title of “Captain of the Foretop,” would never have done. So the assumption now is that this must have been a friend of Peglar’s, carrying letters home for his since-deceased shipmate. An excellent candidate has been proposed in Thomas Armitage, who was the gun-room steward (servant of the junior officers) aboard HMS Terror, and had served alongside Peglar on several earlier voyages.

Backwards writing, it turns out, is only one problem facing anyone who tackles these papers – the paper is blotched and foxed, and has heavy folds, along which in many places pieces of the paper have broken off. At some point, an attempt to darken the ink with a re-agent damaged parts of the writing, perhaps irretrievably. Most frustratingly of all, where they can be made out, the papers consist mostly of a sailor’s reminiscences of warmer climes, particularly in Cunamar, Venezuela, a source no doubt of pleasure while trapped on board an ice-bound ship in the Arctic zone, but of no value in solving the Franklin mystery, and offering scant insight into the state of mind of Franklin’s men.

Nevertheless, scattered about in these letters are passages which are highly suggestive of events on board the ships. Like many writers with limited literacy, Peglar (or Armitage) added in asides about current events right in the midst of the old stories he was recounting. Thus we have phrases such as “brekfest to be short rations,” “whose is this coffee,” and “the Terror camp clear,” which – if only we could know more of their context – would seem enormously significant. Mixed in with these, alas, we have ample shares of doggerel verse, including a mildly obscene parody of the poet Barry Cornwall’s well-known ditty “The Sea,” accounts of tropical parties and turtle soup, and a paean to someone’s dog.

The most intriguing passage of all is one identified early on as possibly having some reference to life on the ships just prior to their abandonment: “We will have his new boots in the middel watch ... as we have got some very hard ground to heave a... shall want some grog to wet houer wissel ... all my art tom for I dont think for ..r now clozes should lay and furst mend 21st night a gread.” The “new boots” are assumed to be boots such as those found by McClintock and other searchers, which had been modified onboard by the addition of nails or cleats – these were clearly meant for the sledge-haulers. “Hard ground to heave” may be a reference to hauling sledges – or perhaps to digging graves (one thinks of the sailor buried by Parry near Igloolik, in the clearing of whose grave six pickaxes were broken on the frozen gravel). The “21st night a gread” is most tempting of all; might this be the 21st of April 1848, four days before the amended record was left near Victory Point?

Richard Cyriax, the founding father of Franklin studies, spent weeks on the papers, and prepared a typewritten transcript of what he could make out which still accompanies them at the Caird Library of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I myself have spent several days going over the original papers, which have been covered in archival gauze to preserve the fragile material, but have rarely been able to improve on Cyriax’s readings; some of the text readable to him has since faded away. It may be possible someday, by use of ultraviolet light or computer-enhanced imagery, to recover something of what’s now illegible, but even then, the enigmatic quality of these papers remains. Their writer never imagined that they would be among the very few written materials ever recovered from the Expedition, and there are uncertainties in their contents that will probably never be resolved. Nevertheless, they add a further sense of wonder to the larger mystery of the final fate of Franklin’s men.

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.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Who “discovered” the Northwest Passage?

The latest row over the Northwest Passage has stirred up a considerable bit of dust in the UK, and may be spilling over into the rest of the world as well. The latest news soberly informs us that Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland, is demanding not only that Dr. John Rae be recognized at the true discoverer of the Passage, but that Sir John Franklin’s claim on public memorials in Waterloo Place and Westminster Abbey be “corrected,” whatever that may mean. But before the Dean of Westminster sends a man ‘round with a chisel, it seems time to take a deep breath and ask very carefully: who, indeed, did discover the Northwest Passage?

The question is less simple than it sounds. What counts as “discovery”? Is it enough to have located the route of a passage, or must one sail through it? What if the discovery, or the route, is partly accomplished on foot? What happens if we add the adjective “navigable” to the question?

There is one fact worth mentioning at the outset: There is more than one “Northwest Passage” – depending on the melting of the ice, the size of the vessel, and the ability to break through older, denser floes half a dozen could easily be traced, depending on a variety of choices as to which route one takes.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the “discovery” of such a passage was always understood as proving its existence. Attempts and surveys had been made from the east and from the west; to locate a water route between them was universally understood as the goal. Ships coming from the east had managed to penetrate as far west as Parry’s Winter Harbour on Melville Island, but the route beyond that point was clogged with heavy pack ice, an unlikely to be navigable in any year. From the west, ships had enjoyed considerably less success, and indeed most of the discoveries in this direction had been accomplished by land, or by small parties using canoes. Sir John Franklin had completed the larger portion of these, stretching from Prudhoe Bay in the west to “Point Turnagain.” In the late 1830’s, Dease and Simpson, surveyors for the Hudson’s Bay Company, had extended Franklin’s map to its furthest westward point, a river they named the “Castor and Pollux,” after the sons of Zeus. Their survey was included in the very latest Admiralty charts supplied by Arrowsmith to Franklin’s 1845 expedition – a detail of the westernmost survey is shown above.

There was, however, a significant problem with Dease and Simpson’s survey, although no one realized it at the time. They incorporated their findings with James Clark Ross’s maps, which showed “King William Land” as contiguous with the Boothia Peninsula (Ross had in fact crossed over an ice-covered strait, of which more anon). They then, being unable to sight land to the westward, extended a dotted line connecting the waterway they saw with the “G[ulf] of Boothia (supposed).” Franklin would naturally have assumed two things from this: 1) To sail east of King William Land would lead him into a dead-end bay, shown as “Poctes Bay” on his maps; and 2) if his men needed to reach the Gulf of Boothia, they could have done so by boat if the waters were free of ice.

Franklin therefore steered to the west of King William Land, encountering a dense floe of heavy, multi-year ice, ice which entombed his ships within in its slow-grinding maw. He was in a “passage,” certainly, but one which would only by safely traversable in years of extraordinarily light ice, or else by modern, fortified icebreakers not yet available to him. He is often blamed for this, since we now know that there was indeed another passage to the east of King William, which was in fact an Island. This was established by Dr. John Rae in his survey of 1854, the one for which Canadian author Ken McGoogan feels that Rae, not Franklin, should be given the laurels of the Passage for surveying. And indeed it was by this route that Roald Amundsen, early in the twentieth century, sailed his little vessel the Gjøa.

It should be mentioned at this point, however, that had Franklin tried to sail to the east of King William, he would almost certainly have run both his vessels aground. The tiny Gjøa drew only about 1/3 as much water as Franklin’s heavy “bomb “vessels “Erebus” and “Terror,” and yet even Amundsen was obliged to throw large quantities of cargo overboard to lighten his vessel when he entered these waters, so close were the soundings to the draft of his ship. A “navigable” passage, yes – but not for ships of the sort which the British Admirality had been sending.

So back to our definition: had Franklin established a water route through the passage? Not yet, indeed, but during the lengthy period – two years at least – in which his ships were trapped, he and the commanders who succeeded him after his death certainly dispatched land parties. We have the original “Victory Point” record, as well as one other paper found further up the coast of King William, as evidence that such a party was dispatched. And, having Arrowsmith’s charts on board his vessels, Franklin surely knew that, at the southern extreme of the land off whose coast he was trapped, lay the “Cairn erected 25 Aug. 1839” by Dease and Simpson. It takes little conjecture to imagine that he would have made every effort, over a two-year period, to have a party reach this point and close one map with the other.

But we need not trust to conjecture – we can instead turn to Inuit evidence, and the evidence of the bones of Franklin’s men themselves. There are multiple stories reported by Inuit hunters, told not only to Charles Francis Hall but to Schwatka and even to Rasmussen in the 1920’s, of an encounter with survivors of Franklin’s expedition at Washington Bay. Cape John Herschel, the site of Dease and Simpson’s cairn, stands at the eastern edge of this bay; even if no party sent earlier had made it this far, clearly these survivors, who were hauling their sledge over the coastal ice, would have passed this point. For evidence of this, we need not rely solely on the Inuit; Francis Leopold McClintock found a skeleton at Gladman Point, westward of this site, and he and other explorers noted that the remains of Franklin’s men were scattered over the remaining coast, with the last few on the Todd Islets. And these bones are still there; they were shown to the crew of the St. Roch II by Louie Kamookak, whose grandfather, an RCMP officer, had found them there in the 1930’s.

So it is clear, that in the sense of “discovering” – that is, establishing a water-route connection between eastern and western surveys, that Franklin’s men must have done so. It is on this basis that the inscription on Franklin’s statue in Waterloo Place says that they “forged the last link with their lives.”

But it is objected; this route was not navigated; indeed it was not even navigable. This is true enough, but no one claims Franklin’s men navigated a passage, only that they found one. Nunavut politician Tagak Curley may proclaim loudly that “dead men can’t discover anything” – and yet by the Inuit testimony alone, it is clear that some living men did indeed pass this very point. Franklin himself, we now know, was dead (though he might have been alive if indeed an earlier party reached this point in 1847), but in any case, men from the expedition he commanded surely did do so. Ken McGoogan has argued that in order to truly "discover" something one must return with news of this discovery -- but I disagree. To discover is to find, to know, and to recognize.  Would Rae's discovery of the strait that now bears his name be invalid if he were to have met with an accident on his way home before he told anyone about it?

There is a belief among the Rae faithful that he has been slighted, and this all evolves from the fact that, in 1854, he clearly established that King William was an island. His own name, in the form of the “Rae Strait,” marks the southern end of this passage. Does this make him the “discoverer” of the passage? Well, he certainly discovered “a” passage, and one which, as Amundsen proved, was indeed navigable by a small vessel. But this does not subtract from Franklin’s achievement. Scottish national feeling aside – and one could as easily blame one Scot (James Clark Ross) for mis-naming a strait as “Poctes Bay” as credit another with showing this to be mistaken – there is no reason to argue that we should honor Rae instead of Franklin. Instead, I believe, we should honor him as well as Franklin. Neither man, while living, would have wished it any other way.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Finding Franklin

Although it is one of the less well-known Franklin documentaries, John Murray’s “Franklin’s Lost Expedition” (a.k.a. “Finding Franklin”) is also one of the best. Considering that it was made with something like one-tenth of the budget of the NOVA/ITN Factual program, it’s a remarkable achievement. Murray doesn’t go in for much in the way of staged re-enactments; the few he uses are brief and in the background. He couldn’t hire a full-size sailing ship, and so makes do with a miniature model. Nevertheless, his film does a far better job than the NOVA program of setting the Franklin story in its cultural context, while also vividly highlighting some of the more disturbing aspects of his story. Directed by Peter Bate, it originally appeared in the UK in a one-hour version on Channel 5; later, a 90-minute “festival” version was released.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve done some (unpaid) background research over the years for Murray. He and I met in Dundalk at the Leopold McClintock Winter School in January of 2008, and had a lovely time talking matters Franklin. I don’t appear in the documentary, but a number of pivotal figures do, among them David C. Woodman, the most tireless searcher of modern times, Rudy Wiebe, author of the brilliant Franklin novel A Discovery of Strangers, and Owen Beattie, who exhumed the Franklin crewmen buried on Beechey in the 1980’s (Beattie appears in footage licensed from the older NOVA show, “Buried in Ice,” which surprisingly was not used in NOVA’s own 2004 effort). As his continuity expert throughout the film, Murray has Andrew Lambert, a naval historian from Cambridge. With his beard and Oxbridge accent, Lambert – whose biography of Franklin is due out in the summer of 2009 – proves an agreeable guide.

The main story is quite similar in its broad outlines to that of the NOVA documentary; the differences are in the sidebar segments about the more controversial bits of the Franklin saga: Inuit testimony, the fate of the final survivors, and cannibalism. Working closely with David Woodman, Murray has a much better handle on the nature of the Inuit oral tradition; we see and hear testimony given to Hall, then follow Woodman on one of his expeditions based on that evidence, where he drills through the ice with an auger and drops a sonar boom.

With the final survivors, Murray decides to re-enact not their dress but their duress; he manages to get a volunteer crew of RCMP cadets to haul a sledge loaded with the likely weight of those hauled by Franklin’s crews. The cadets start out bold and strong, but by the end of the day, they are utterly exhausted, stumbling in to the nearest Tim Horton’s with dazed looks. How much harder must it have been for Franklin's already famished and scurvy-ridden men! The dramatic evidence of this segment clinches the argument almost without the need for narration.

And yet it’s the cannibalism segment which proves the most dramatic of all. It opens with an interview with Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Dundee; stationed at a local butcher shop with knife in hand, Black cuts through a pig’s side in a manner which both demonstrates and uncomfortably evokes how cut-marks end up on defleshed bones. A few drops of blood are shown spilling onto snow, intercut with a skeleton illuminated with red light; this is all we need to put it all together. Anne Keenleyside, who studied the Franklin expedition bones, speaks from a cabin somewhere in snowy Canada, and the indefatigable Ernie Coleman makes a pitch for his ‘murderous Inuit’ theory. Best of all, in the extended cut, the segment concludes with a close-up view of Sir Edwin Landseer’s “Man Proposes, God Disposes” with its bone-chomping polar bears, an image which clearly had the same disturbing connotations for its original Victorian viewers.

Murray’s film is unique in that it provides both an element of sensation, dramatically visualized, as well as a rich variety of historical and cultural contexts. Unlike the NOVA show, which walks its viewers through the story in a guided-tour fashion, Murray’s film manages, as it were, to lift the velvet ropes and draw us behind the conventional scenes of the Franklin story, feeding the viewer’s imagination and enriching the sense of mystery. I recommend it highly.

Finding Franklin is not currently available on DVD, as far as I know, but does air occasionally on the History Channel. At the present moment, it's also watchable on YouTube in six segments, beginning here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

PASSAGE -- A John Walker Film

John Walker’s new documentary PASSAGE is among the most unusual documentaries I’ve seen on any subject. Unlike the vast majority of documentary films that followed in the wake of Nanook of the North, PASSAGE doesn’t fictionalize its facts, nor does it entirely factualize its fictions. The opening sequence, which you can see online here, is the tip-off: Rick Roberts, who plays the Scottish surveyor Dr. John Rae, is seen walking in present-day garb through present-day London, passing such iconic sights as St. Paul’s, the Millenium Bridge and Trafalgar Square. As he enters the Admiralty building in Whitehall and ascends the stairs, there is a certain dramatic tension – what next? The answer comes as he knocks and enters; as he steps into the room, we see the Lords of the Admiralty in full period uniform, then realize that Dr. Rae, too, has traded in his nylon backpack and windbreaker for a frock coat and an oversize bow tie. We know where we are, but when are we?

Walker delights in these sorts of anachronistic transitions in which, again and again, we are invited to pay attention to the proverbial ‘man behind the curtain.’ We see “Dr. Rae” speaking with such luminaries as James Clark Ross and John Richardson; the next moment we see them out of costume, seated around a table in a modern room discussing story ideas for the film. One moment, we are presented with a brilliant turn by Geraldine Alexander as Lady Franklin; the next we see her out of costume, looking like Annie Lennox on a bad hair day. In and out of these transitions, we meet with a few figures who remain in the present and – at first – outside the main action of the film: the director himself, author Ken McGoogan on whose book the film was based, and perennial Nunavut political figure Tagak Curley.

The re-staged scenes from the past – Captain Coppin revealing his daughters’ visions to Lady Franklin, Charles Dickens proposing his article in Household Words to Lady Franklin and a skeptical Dr. Richardson, Dr. Rae trudging across the tundra – work wonderfully, but are punctuated with lengthy sequences set in the present, beginning with a visit by Rick Roberts to the Orkney home of Dr. Rae, practicing his Scots brogue and how to cock and raise a rifle with local experts. Gradually, we come to see the historical pieces as the interludes, and the present action as the play itself, a tangent which comes to a head when Tagak Curley arrives in London. Curley, a charismatic politician who’s better known around Nunavut for his evangelical campaign slogans (“Jesus is Lord over Nunavut!”), happily plays the native informant to Walker, who guides him to the foot of the Franklin statue at Waterloo place. “They forged the last link with their lives,” he reads – and Curley hurries to disagree. “That’s a lie. Dead men can’t discover anything.”

And thereon hangs a tale, though it is one the film never quite tells explicitly. The belief among Franklin’s admirers has been that men dispatched from his ship in 1847 almost certainly reached Simpson’s Cairn, erected near the strait of the same name by an eastward survey of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Doing so would have united eastern with western maps, in effect “discovering” the, or at least a, passage. There is no absolute evidence of this, but both the records left by land parties and Inuit testimony agree that some men of Franklin’s party, whether as explorers or bedraggled survivors, certainly reached the extreme southwestern edge of King William Island, and some crossed over to the mainland.

Dr. Rae’s claim, championed by McGoogan and loudly echoed recently by Billy Connolly, comes later – in 1854 – and has to do with the Rae Strait on the southeastern corner of King William. Since the western side was rendered impassable nearly every year by heavy pack ice, the shallower but clearer eastern side is seen as a truer “passage”; indeed it was the route taken by Roald Amundsen when he became the first to sail the passage from end to end. Rae, as the surveyor of this alternative “last link,” is heralded as the true discoverer of “the” passage. Rae’s superior skill in surveying, and in living off the land, is undeniable; that he was snubbed by the Admiralty and attacked by Dickens indisputable. Yet the snub came, not because of any geographical claim, but rather on account of the Inuit testimony, brought home by Rae, that the final few Franklin survivors had turned to the “last resource” – cannibalism – in their efforts to stay alive and escape their frozen prison.

Tagak Curley, though hailed by some as the “Father of Nunavut,” is certainly no expert on the Inuit testimony about the Franklin expedition, or he wouldn’t so readily dismiss Franklin’s claim. One need not admire the Royal Navy, or Franklin himself, to credit the evidence that his men did indeed reach a point at our near the furthest eastward survey. He’s on firmer ground with his criticism of those who attacked Rae for bringing home the evidence of cannibalism, particularly Dickens who believed the Inuit attacked the Franklin survivors, and spoke of their having a “domesticity of blood and blubber.” And here again, Walker does not disappoint; he brings two unlikely people into the discussion, which by now has moved into the Admiralty board room: Ernie Coleman, RN (ret.), and Dickens’s own great-grandson. Coleman happily launches into his defense of the idea of bloodthirsty Inuit, which gets the whole room, especially Curley, shouting. Then comes the heir of Dickens, a man who’s made some study of his ancestor’s claims, and is more than willing to admit that Charles Dickens acted out of prejudice and ignorance. When he apologizes to Curley and Curley accepts, the moment is both deeply moving and somewhat absurd – and yet it is a moment that could have happened in no other film.

The movie has earned strong reviews in Canada, and is now available in the U.S. from Bullfrog Films. It’s not a perfect film, but it is provocative, and no one who has any knowledge or feelings about either Franklin or Rae should miss seeing it.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Both Sides of the Lens: Franklin in Documentary Film

For inexplicable reasons, cultural phenomena often come in bunches. Maybe it’s something in the collective zeitgeist, maybe everyone is watching everyone else, maybe it’s simply chance. So it was that, when the Franklin expedition finally got its day on camera, not one but two documentaries were produced and released almost simultaneously in 2005 and 2006. Since then, two more documentaries have been made which touch closely on the Franklin tragedy. As an on-camera expert in one, and an avid viewer of all these programs, I thought I might offer my comments on these films in a way that I hope will give viewers some insight into how and why they were made, and how to judge between their sometimes conflicting stories.

A documentary film has an aura of fact. After all, our friend the Narrator wouldn’t mislead us – or would he? Ever since documentary films began in the 1890’s, when they were called “actuality” films, this has been a vexed question. Thomas Edison’s film company, for instance, knew that there was tremendous demand for footage of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The cost, and risk, of sending cameramen and equipment to the battlefield was prohibitive; it was far more cost-effective to stage battles in New Jersey with hired actors and costumes. Thus was begun the noble tradition of re-creating scenes that the camera had missed, one which has enjoyed a resurgence of late. When it came to the Arctic, much the same rule applied; despite the successes of pioneers such as Frank Hurley, whose footage of Shackleton’s expedition electrified audiences, the big studios usually found it far more economical to send a camera crew to the Sierras and use the snow and mountains there as their backdrop. With Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty reversed that trend, but in the process he managed to open a whole new can of muktuk.

Flaherty had managed to film the Inuit easily enough. But actual footage of everyday events, narrated with title cards, had little dramatic value. How much better to write a script, cast Inuit in the main roles of an idealized family, and use the title cards to tell a dramatic story with twists, turns, and a happy ending! Which was just what Flaherty did. The result packed cinemas, earned accolades, and is often hailed as the “first” true documentary, but the tale it told of the “happy-go-lucky Eskimo” was not, strictly, true. The Inuit of Ungava had long before traded their spears for rifles, but Flaherty wanted to show the old ways, so spears it was. They also smoked pipes, used western as well as traditional clothing, and went to church – none of which Flaherty permitted to be shown in his film. The result pleased “southern” audiences, but distorted the lives it purported to reveal.

Of course that was 1922 – and here we are in 2009. Surely we’ve come a long way from the “Nanook” era. And yet, in many ways, these same practices persist today. To explain, I’ll tell you a little about my work on the documentary, “Search for the Northwest Passage,” as it was called in the UK (the US  title was the more lurid “Arctic Passage: Prisoners of the Ice”).  I’d worked as a consultant on the film for more than a year before it finally got the “green light” for production. As a co-production between Britain’s ITN TV and WGBH/NOVA, this was to be a big-budget affair, as documentaries go. The producers sent an advance crew to Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, to scout locations and lay plans; back in London, scripts were prepared for the historical recreations. The scenes on board Franklin’s ships would be shot at Greenwich aboard the venerable Cutty Sark; these would be followed by a day at sea for exteriors using a replica ship. The scenes with Lady Franklin and Sir John were completed in London, and those playing Crozier, Fitzjames, and the rest were flown to the Arctic for location work. What remained was to line up the “talking heads” – the on-camera experts – and interweave their footage with the re-creations. I was lucky to be one of just two of these “heads” who would be filmed on location.

It was a strange business. As soon as we arrived in Gjoa Haven, the first order of business was to film my “arrival” – another plane was filmed landing, and we did several shots of me getting of this plane and heading to the hotel. After about the fourth take of this sequence, I turned to the director of photography, Harald Paalgard, and remarked “there sure is a lot of fiction in these documentaries.” He laughed. “It’s all fiction,” he declared. What he meant, of course, was that it’s all about the story. If some expert is to arrive at a remote location to conduct research, he or she must be shown arriving; the viewer will want and need this thread in order to accept the overall truth of the film. The small “fiction” of the staged arrival was in the service of the larger truth of the overall story.

By the time we got to Gjoa Haven, most of the dramatic actors had gone home. The only remaining scenes at that point were with local Inuit, who played their own ancestors. A call had been put out to any adult men and women who possessed caribou-skin outfits and could speak Inuktitut; a wage of $100 a day was offered. Quite a few showed up, and the best were set to work, speaking to the “explorers” from within an igloo the townspeople had built on the town’s “beach” (odd to call anything a beach in twenty-below zero weather!). After a week in Gjoa, it was off to Resolute, and to Beechey Island, that mythical centerpiece of the Franklin saga. There, we did numerous shots of me riding on a snow machine piloted by the crew’s guide and safety officer, polar veteran Paul Landry. I wondered why, given that we’d chartered a helicopter to Beechey, but when I saw the film I had to agree that a 10-mile trek across the ice in a skidoo was far more dramatic than 15 minutes in a chopper.

Unlike the dramatic actors, I didn’t have a script. Instead, I had “talking points” – themes, facts, and observations, many of which I’d submitted myself, which the producers had sorted out in terms of where and how they wanted them placed. It was awkward at times, since I had to improvise my lines from these points, but had to make sure I did not add any asides or wander from the key points. We were shooting on 16mm film, so every moment meant money; it wasn’t until the second or third day that I really grew comfortable with the arrangement; there is something in a scholar’s disposition that resists absolutes and cautions against conjectures.

One of the experts the producers wanted, the late Roy “Fritz” Koerner, was to meet us in Resolute a few days in. He was a true Arctic veteran, having worked on the ice almost continually since being a part of Sir Wally Herbert’s trek across the Arctic ice-cap on the British Trans-Arctic Expedition of 1968-69. A few years ago, he’d written a scholarly article that suggested ice-core evidence suggested that the years of Franklin’s expedition had been unusually cold. In the article, he cautioned that the type of cores he’d looked at had a +/- 5 year margin of error, and that it was therefore difficult to be precise about the connection with Franklin. The producers, for their part, wanted something definitive: would you say that the period 1845-50 was so cold that Franklin’s ships couldn’t possibly have gotten through? “Well, possibly,” he demurred, “but all we can say with certainty was that the average temperatures over the nearest ten-year period … “ “CUT” called the producer. “Let’s try that again.” Finally, frustrated that Fritz would not offer up the right soundbite to fit the script, the producer switched to more general questions about ships and ice, which she hoped she could edit into something useful later. At the end of the day, Fritz declined a ride back with the crew on our skidoos; instead, he walked the two miles from the location out on the frozen bay back to Resolute, wanting the time, I’m sure, to “cool off”!

Once all the footage was shot, then comes the next phase of truth-telling – editing. It’s not uncommon to have a great many hours of footage for a single hour of finished film, so a good deal can happen at this stage, for better or for worse. Even though all the shots have been pre-planned to fit the puzzle, there are dozens of slight variations to every piece, and just the right ones must be chosen. At this stage, I was called upon to re-record some of my comments, and add others that could be used as voiceovers for existing footage; this gave the producers the flexibility they needed. Like the rest of the cast, of course, I had no idea exactly what choices were being made, I could only guess what was in the stew from the ingredients I’d added myself, or seen filmed. It wasn’t in fact until nearly six months later when I received a videocassette in the mail that I had the least idea how it had all come out.

And I have to say, I like the film. The recreations are as good as they get – solid acting, excellent costume design, and at least 90% of the words were ones actually written by the people the actors were portraying. I found that I didn’t look as bad on camera as I’d feared, and the magic of editing had whisked away my flubs and hesitations, and made me seem far more clear and decisive in my views. And there were pleasant surprises – seeing the scene of Franklin’s funeral, with the Service for the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer very meaningfully read by Bohdan Poraj, who played Francis Crozier; the sweeping aerial shots of ice and snow; the appropriately north-country-inflected narration of Colin Tierney. There were places where things were seen which I knew had been added later – the “Erebus” and “Terror” making a digital appearance in the ice near Beechey Island – and places where I could laugh at the illusion, as when I and my fellow “passengers” (actually, the film crew) look meaningfully out the window of an airplane which was, in fact, firmly parked on the tarmac.

There were further changes in store – the US producers decided to re-write the script, and re-shoot a series of additional interviews with me – and of course they made quite a few different choices in the editing room. The result, though equally satisfying, made me once more conscious of the intricacies and inflections of filmmaking. The film aired in England in 2005, and in the US in 2006, where it has since be shown several more times. It’s now available on DVD, and I’ve gotten used to seeing it, even though the thrill of being there still feels fresh.

Search for the Northwest Passage” was the first full-length film ever made about the Franklin expedition. But it was not to be the only show in town for long. There have since been at least three others: a 2006 documentary by the Irish filmmaker John Murray, “Franklin's Lost Expedition,” which aired on the UK’s Channel 5 and toured the festival circuit in a longer version; Canadian John Walker’s 2008 film "Passage,” which highlights the contributions of Dr. John Rae. The same year saw the BBC’s “Wilderness Explored: Arctic,” which featured interviews with Margaret Atwood as well as Huw Lewis-Jones of the Scott Polar Research Institute. Lastly, for comic relief, Billy Connolly’s “Journey to the Edge of the World,” which while it does nothing to enhance the facts, captures something of the ‘spirit’ of the Arctic, has just aired this past week.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing aspects of each of these films. Although I only appeared in one, many other installments feature friends of mine whom I’ve met along the way on the trail of Franklin’s men, such as Dave Woodman, Huw Lewis-Jones, Anne Keenleyside, and Ernie Coleman. I’ll also assess the factual claims of each, and give some sense of where a grain – or more – of salt is needed. They’re all worth watching, of course! So stay tuned.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Franklin in Fact and Fiction (Part 2 of 2)

Sir John Franklin: Fact and Fiction (Part 2 of 2)

(photo by John Dalton)


From the first moment his ships were missed, the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin has fired the imagination poets, dramatists, and novelists. At last count there were no fewer than nine book-length poetic treatments between 1856 and 2005, two plays (including Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens’s The Frozen Deep in 1857), and 24 novels, ranging from Jules Verne’s The Adventures of Captain Hatteras in 1864 to Richard Flanagan’s Wanting, which is being published later this year. Essays by writers as diverse as George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and Margaret Atwood, have tackled the Franklin fascination, and a full collection of all the historical studies, monographs, and illustrated books on the expedition would easily fill a room (my own collection, which is very far from complete, already fills one). There have also been at least five full-length documentary films, although not yet a feature film of a purely dramatic sort (although I know of at least three screenplays for proposed films). For this entry, I’ll focus on the fictions – and the differing ways they draw upon the basic outlines of the Franklin story.

Franklin himself has fared rather unevenly in this body of work; he has been portrayed, variously, a sort of saint of “slowness” (Nadolny), a neckless nabob fleeing from a domineering wife (Flanagan), a dim-witted leader known to the Indians as “Thick English,” a snowbound abbot of a shipload of polar monks (MacEwen), and the first victim of a bloodthirsty Wendigo (Simmons). To some, he was a hero – but to some (to paraphrase Johnny Cash) his score was ‘zero’ (or perhaps one should say, sub-zero).

Franklin’s officers, too, have proven attractive subjects for fiction; Fitzjames has most frequently been singled out, as in John Wilson’s North With Franklin: The Journals of James Fitzjames, and Crozier has proven an equally attractive figure, bringing with him as he did the shadow of a failed romance with Franklin’s niece Sophy Cracroft. At the same time, some of the poetry and fiction deliberately takes a different tack, as with Rudy Wiebe’s A Discovery of Strangers, which is told largely from the view of the Dene peoples who witnessed Franklin’s first land expedition. Time-travel stories, in which characters from the present are transported to Franklin’s ships, have served as the premise for books as diverse as John Wilson’s young-adult novel Across Frozen Seas and William T. Vollman’s postmodern epic, The Rifles. Those who have searched for Franklin have sometimes ended up with their own novels, as do Charles Francis Hall and his Inuit guides in Steven Heighton’s Afterlands. Polar potboilers such as Dan Simmons’ Terror and Elizabeth MacGregor’s The Ice Child round out the list.

So what is it about Franklin that appeals to such a wide array of authors? Was it his strange and tragic loss, along with two great ships and 128 men? Was it the abundant confidence and hubris his officers expressed as they sailed to their doom? Or was it the surreal setting of the endless fields of ice and snow, hundreds of miles from the nearest outposts of so-called civilization, that struck a chord in the imagination. All of the above, I would say.

The first Franklin “fiction” – if the term applies here – was a fantastical narrative which appeared in 1851 under the capacious title, The extraordinary and all-absorbing journal of Wm. N. Seldon one of a party of three men who belonged to the exploring expedition of Sir John Franklin, and who left the ship Terror, frozen up in ice, in the Arctic ocean, on the 10th day of June, 1850 ... together with an account of the discovery of new and beautiful country, inhabited by a strange race of people ... As had Edgar Allan Poe with his Arthur Gordon Pym, Seldon deliberately evoked all the language and apparatus of an actual sea-story, while retaining a wry and winking eye to the gullibility of his audience; the book was prefaced with a “Life of Sir John Franklin,” and sprinkled with lurid illustrations of men wrestling with ice, polar bears, and each other. Ultimately, alas, it was a fairly conventional piece of frozen melodrama, written to cash in quickly on the current fascination with Franklin’s fate – and of this species, it would not be the last.

Our next candidate is a work by that master of the fantastic, Jules Verne. Those familiar with his other “extraordinary voyages” – Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – may be forgiven if they’ve never heard of this work, which appeared under various titles including The Field of Ice, The English at the Pole, and The Voyages of Captain Hatteras. The book had been out of print until a new translation by William Butcher was published by Oxford University Press in 2005. And yet despite its lengthy hiatus, the book reads as well as Verne’s better-known classics, and includes many of the same elements – a half-crazed captain, a mad quest to some unobtainable goal, and a mixture of known and imaginary technological wonders – as do they. The “Captain Hatteras” of the title does not himself encounter Franklin or his men, but he retraces their steps with reverence, making the same pilgrimages to King William Island and Beechey Island that, a few decades later, Roald Amundsen would make in fact. Verne’s conclusion, however, owes little to Franklin or to any other history, save for the old chimera of the “Open Polar Sea.” Verne’s sea is open because it has at its center an active volcano – one can imagine the rest.

From Verne’s novel – which first appeared in English in 1865 – to the next is a gap of nearly a hundred years. And yet it is not entirely without surprise that a descendent of James Fenimore Cooper – he whose books Mark Twain derided as the “broken twig series” – who brought this subject to the fore. With Island of the Lost (1961), Paul Fenimore Cooper laid out the basic elements which would feature in many subsequent fictions: the desolate island, the last march of the starving men, and color commentary on the faded glory and misplaced confidence of the men who sailed so bravely into an icy wilderness. The book has been out of print for some years, although a used copy may be found with an ease that suggests it sold reasonably well.

Four years later, the Australian novelist Nancy Cato entered the field with her book North-West by South. The particular importance of Franklin to Australians is hardly coincidental; as a crewmember on Matthew Filnders’ first circumnavigation of the continent, as well as one of the early governors of Tasmania, Franklin looms nearly as large in the history of Australia as he does in that of Britain or Canada. A prominent member of the “Jindyworobak” movement which sought to promote Australia’s indigenous cultures and histories, Cato deliberately chose subjects for her fictions which evoked the southern continent’s complex histories. Her portrait of Franklin is neither heroic nor anti-heroic, but rather iconic; he ends up representing all the crooked histories of his several pasts, even as his crew inters him in an immense tomb of translucent ice in the midst of the Victoria Straits.

Cato’s was the last word on Franklin in fiction for nearly a decade, until Caroline Tapley’s 1974 young adult novel John Came Down the Backstay. Just as would John Wilson’s YA novel Across Frozen Seas twenty years later, Tapley focused on one of the cabin “boys” aboard the Erebus and Terror, and the natural fears such a lad would have on embarking on such a perilous voyage. The perspective of a young person makes for compelling storytelling, and yet is not quite consistent with the facts, since all four of the “boys” entered into the muster rolls for Franklin’s ships were at least twenty-one years of age upon sailing.

Perhaps the most daring, resonant, and influential of all Franklin fictions, Sten Nadolny’s Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit, appeared in German in 1983. Under the title “The Discovery of Slowness,” a brilliant English translation by Ralph Freedman appeared in 1987, and for the first time British and American readers could experience a book which, among other things, launched a televsion series, an opera, and a business philosophy whose seminars dominated the executive suites of German corporations throughout the 1980’s. The keu concept here was “langsamkeit” – slowness – a word whose previous associations had been with mental retardation. Nadolny imagines Franklin as a “slow” child, but sees this not as an impairment but a brilliant gift. The same boy who stood by the schoolhouse wall, unable to catch a thrown ball because he always reached for it after he arrived, found his perfect career in the ice, in a region of the world where being “slow” was just what was called for. Nadolny's novel is notable for the way it combines the carefully-researched actual life of Franklin with the strange conceit of Franklin's "slowness" in such a way that, fanciful though it is, one at times feels as though one is reading his true life story -- or even a truer one.

A lively sense of humor and historical irony were melded in the next Franklin-flavored yarn, Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s sprawling and inventive Solomon Gursky Was Here (1990). In Richler’s playful animadversion on all that has come before, one of the frozen bodies of Franklin’s men excavated by archaeologists turns out to have been given an Orthodox Jewish burial. In the ensuing ruckus, the arrival by sledge of a mysterious man named “Toolooah” (a westernized spelling of the name given Franklin by the Inuit) in the outlands of northern Ontario passes almost without notice – until someone realizes who he might actually be. Although both characters eventually are absorbed within the crazy quilt of the Gursky family, the Franklin connection brings a distinctively Canadian twist to the tale; Richler admitted having been inspired in part by the exhumations of the graves on Beechey Island by Owen Beattie.

The year 1994 saw two ambitious new Franklin fictions: Rudy Wiebe’s A Discovery of Strangers, a provocative historical novel based on Franklin’s first land expedition of 1819-21, and William T. Vollmann’s postmodern pastiche, The Rifles. Wiebe’s book takes a new tactic in having almost the entire tale told from the view of the indigenous peoples and animals of northern Canada; his portrayals of Keshkerrah and Greenstockings are particularly poignant. Wiebe did extensive research on the Tetsot’ine people of the Dene confederation, a group with which his own ancestors, early Mennonite settlers in the area, had enjoyed friendly relations. He was criticized in some quarters for romanticizing his First Nation narrators, and demeaning Franklin, who is known by his Dene nickname “Thick English” throughout the novel. And the same time, the less-famous members of Franklin’s party, particularly midshipman Hood and ordinary seaman Robert Hepburn are sympathetically recalled, and Hepburn takes a turn as the novel’s central narrator.

Vollmann’s The Rifles, published as the sixth of his “Seven Dreams” novels which cover different historical aspects of the colonization of the Americas, is perhaps the most unromantic of all Franklin fictions. The book’s main narrator, like all of Vollmann’s antiheroes loosely based on himself, is a northern vagabond with an Inuk girlfriend, Reepah. The novel hints that they are the reincarnations of Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin, though if true, this must mean that there must have been a considerable karmic debt to be paid off, as these new lives are fraught with poverty, bad teeth, and a profound aimlessness of purpose. Woven in are small sections which halfheartedly re-create the events of the Franklin expedition, as well as a somewhat narcissistic postscript describing Vollmann’s self-arranged sojourn at an abandoned military base on Ellesmere Island. The overall effect is, for me, far from satisfactory, though sprinkled throughout are the usual Vollmann moments of scattershot genius.

The last few years of the twentieth century witnessed several new fictions with elements of the Franklin disaster at or near their center, among them Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal, Brian Hopkins’s Cold at Heart, and John Wilson’s North With Franklin: The Journals of James Fitzjames. For my purposes, Wilson’s is the most intriguing of these, since it attempts something hitherto untried – the extension of an existing historical document. Fitzjames’s last letters home to his sister, posted from Greenland in 1845, were published in part in the 1850’s, and Wilson tracked down the originals. Together, the form a sort of diary, and Wilson imagines in rich and evocative detail how that diary might have been continued, in letters Fitzjames never lived to post. A beautifully written and produced book, it is still well-known in Canada, though less so here in the US; it’s a volume worth tracking down.

The next great moment in Franklin-related fiction is drawn from the lives of those who searched for him in vain. In his 2006 novel Afterlands, Steven Heighton, with what Kenn Harper has called “powerful descriptive talent,” re-imagines the experience of the crew of C.F. Hall’s ship the “Polaris” after Hall’s death and the stranding of much of her crew on a southward-drifting icefloe. Drawing from the recollections of George Tyson, the party’s nominal leader, and adding in elements from the lives of Hall’s Inuit companions Tookoolito, Ebierbing, and their daughter Panik, Hieghton manages to be both lyrical and clear-headed in his paean to human folly and human endurance, and does so in a historical novel whose factual backgrounds he meticulously researched.

From Heighton’s heights, we descend quickly into the world of Dan Simmons, known for writing historical potboilers in which everything – not excluding kitchen sinks, officers gone mad, and cannibalistic Wendigos scratching at the door – is tossed in for maximum dramatic effect. His Terror (2007) may be both the biggest and the best-selling of Franklin-inspired fiction, and has clearly brought a great deal of pleasure to his devoted fans, despite historical inaccuracies and the heaping of the impossible on top of the improbable. The Wendigo – a legendary spirit of the Canadian north whose bite confers an appetite for human flesh – is of course perfectly fitted to the Franklin expedition, evoking the Inuit testimony given to John Rae and the cut-marks found on the bones of his men, so although it’s highly fantastical, it’s not entirely without historical antecedent.

Most recently, with Wanting, Richard Flanagan has returned to a chapter in Franklin’s life largely ignored in fiction – his time as the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. Flanagan, a Tasmanian writer with a long resumé, is particularly interested in Mathinna, an aboriginal girl adopted by Sir John and Lady Jane. For a time, this young girl was lavished with attention, given a room in Government House and sent to a private school. On the Franklins’ departure, however, she was essentially abandoned, and returned to the poverty and outcast status which were the natives’ allotment in those times. Flanagan interweaves the Tasmanian story with that of Charles Dickens, always a fervent follower of Franklin and Arctic exploration. In one of those historical coincidences which, on examination, seems anything but accidental, Dickens has at the same time just lost his daughter and become estranged from his wife. In an endeavor to dramatize the Franklin tragedy, and raise funds for the newly-widowed wife of his old friend Douglas Jerrold, Dickens and Wilkie Collins wrote and staged The Frozen Deep, a play about lost love and lost explorers which was the toast of London. In assembling a cast for a Manchester performance, Dickens cast Ellen Ternan, a young professional actress who would soon become his – possibly platonic, possibly not – companion for the rest of his life. Like Wiebe and Heighton, Flanagan’s story is marked by lyrical nuances and careful use of historical research; it may be in its way the finest of all recent Franklin fictions – even though Sir John himself is a very minor and very much deprecated character within it.

There will, doubtless, be further tales to come which draw from these same ice-choked yet fictionally fruitful waters. I’ve come almost to expect it. And yet, even if Flanagan’s should turn out to be the last, a worthy shelf of fiction spanning more than a century stands beside the historical and biographical work on Franklin, and no account of his continuing cultural and historical interest would be complete without them.