Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Writing on the Wall

When little Weesy Coppin's ghost was called upon by Anne and her surviving siblings to show the fate of Sir John Franklin, the vision she gave was of a sort which was likely familiar to all the children and their parents: an enigmatic message, the 'writing on the wall' from the feast of Belshazzar in the book Daniel:

In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king's palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. And then the king's countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.  The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. And the king spake, and said to the wise men of Babylon, Whosoever shall read this writing, and shew me the interpretation thereof, shall be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom. And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.

Quite probably the scene had been related in a sermon or Bible reading in the family, and even if it had not, the same scene had been the subject of a number of moving panoramas -- one of them displayed in 1833 alongside Sir John Ross's Arctic paintings -- as well as cartoons in Punch; the phrase "writing on the wall" was already proverbial.

And writing on walls seems always to be enigmatic; the Hebrew words on Balshazzar's can be literally translated as mina, mina, shekel, half-mina, with both mina and shekel being common coins.  The prophet Daniel, summoned to interpret them, decreed their significance to be "Mina, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; shekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; half-mina, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians."  This was not what Balshazzar wanted to hear, no doubt, but since he was killed later the same night, he had little time to ponder it; in the proverbial sense, "writing on the wall" comes too late to be a warning, and is more of a sentence of fate.

We also learn in reviewing Skewes's account of the vision, along with what survives of correspondence about it, that at least one of the Coppin children had the 'gift of tongues.'  This supposed gift has to do with that given to the Apostles in the Book of Acts to speak in the tongues of many nations -- but in practice, it too means that one person speaks in "tongues" -- usually inscrutable in terms of earthly languages -- and another has the gift of interpreting these arcane utterances.

So it is little surprise that we have again an enigmatic text: B.S. = P.R.I. = N.F. = S.J.F. = B.V.F.R.G.R.L.S.P.F.M.F.M., with Victory and Victoria also "frequently written." The first few clusters immediately suggest a polar voyage, with Barrow Straits, Prince Regent Inlet, and "Sir John Franklin" -- N.F. eludes me -- and as to the remaining letters, the possibilities are too numerous to count.  On a later occasion, the child's ghost, asked for clarification, came forth with fuller phrases: "Erebus and Terror, Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel." This seems a good deal more straightforward, and does indeed suggest a definite polar itinerary, as well as implying a passage from Prince Regent Inlet -- the Bellot Strait -- which was not yet discovered. It also, however, is problematic, as there was no "Victoria Channel" in 1849, this not having been given its name -- derived from Victory Point -- until Captain Collinson did so in 1852.

This last point is certainly evidence that the 'revelation' as such was augmented and altered over time, though perhaps unintentionally.  It is also, in any case, flawed in two other regards: Franklin does not appear to have ventured Prince Regent Inlet or traversed Bellot Strait -- the latter of which would have been quite tricky for ships with the draught and beam of "Erebus" and "Terror" -- and, although Weesy showed him waving his hat, he had already in fact been dead for some months.  Never the less, the fact that these revelations not only played a role in Arctic discovery, but also in at least some of their particulars proved uncannily accurate, cannot be disputed.

1 comment:

  1. I´ve been squeezing my brains trying to deduce what is the meaning of "N.F." but i´ve concluded nothing. There are too "perhaps". Althought i´ve been searching thoroughly in the maps from that time I haven´t recognized any geographical feature or place with those initials.

    Perhaps "Near (Cape) Felix", perhaps "North Felix".

    But what if this is not a location, there are already two locations, "Bellot Strait" and "Prince Regent Inlet", and one name "Sir John Franklin". Perhaps it is a date or a season. We already have the "Who", "Two Where", but we don´t have any "when".

    Could it be "N.? February" or "N?. Fall (autumn)" an important datum to deduce where the explorers could have moved during the period of preparations for a subsequent searching exploration.