Sunday, September 30, 2012

They forged the last link with their lives

Many people have taken issue with the inscription on the Franklin statue in Waterlloo Place, which awards Sir John and his men credit for discovering the Northwest Passage, echoing Sir John Richardson's encomium that "they forged the last link with their lives." In John Walker's film Passage (based on Ken McGoogan's book Fatal Passage), the film's director visits the statue in the company of Inuit politician and businessman Tagak Curley, who laughs as he reads out the inscription, calling it a lie and declaring that "Dead men can't discover anything"!

And yet, ironically enough, it's thanks to Inuit oral tradition that we have an account of men -- yet living -- passing eastward in the vicinity of Washington Bay on King William Island:
Tetqataq and Ukuararssuk tell that they were with Mangaq on the west shore of Ki-ki-tuk (King William Island) with their families sealing, and this a long time ago. They were getting ready to move -- it was in the morning & the sun was high -- when Tetqataq saw something in the distance on the smooth ice, something that looked white; he thought it was a bear. As soon as Tetqataq saw this something white, he told his companions of it, and they all waited, hoping it was a bear. As they watched, the white object grew larger, for it was moving towards them. At length they began to see many black objects along with what they had first espied as white in the distance. The object that they had 1st seen as white proved to be a sail raised on a boat & as they got nearer they saw this sail shake in the wind. As the object grew plainer, they thought of white men and began to be afraid. As the company of men (strangers) & the boat they were pulling got quite near, 2 men came ahead of the others and came across the ice towards where the Innuits were standing looking out, which was on the land, and the 2 men (Kabloonas) came walking up to where they were. Tetqataq and Ukuararssuk started to meet them, walking there on the ice. When they came to a crack in the ice, they stopped for the two white men to come up. The 2 white men came closer; one had a gun which he carried in his arms. This one stopped behind -- a little back -- white the other man came up as close to the 2 Innuits as the crack in the ice would allow him. The 1st man showed that he had an oo-loo (knife) when he stopped down beside the ice crack and made a peculiar kind of circling motion with the oo-loo. Right after that, he put his hand up to his mouth and lowered it all the way down his neck and breast, as if to say he wanted to get something to eat. Then the two white men moved over to the side, till they found a place where they could cross over to the 2 Innuits. Them the 1st man, who was Aglooka, spoke to them, saying "Man-nik-too- me," at the same time stroking 1st one and then the other down the breast, and also shook hands with each, repeating "Man-nik-too-me" several times. Aglooka pointed with his hand to the southward & eastward & at the same time repeated the word I-wil-ik. The Innuits could not understand whether he wanted them to show him the way there or simply to tell them that he was going there. He then made a motion northward & spoke the word "oo-me-en," making them to understand there were 2 ships in that direction. As Aglooka pointed to the N., drawing his hand & arm from that direction, he slowly moved his body in a falling direction and all at once dropped his head sideways into his hand, at the same time making a kind of combination of whirring, buzzing, & wind blowing noise. This was taken as a pantomimic representation of ships being crushed in the ice.
The account was given to Charles Francis Hall in 1869, a little more than twenty years after the events recounted -- and when Knud Rasmussen interviewed Mangaq's son Iggiararjuk in 1923, he recounted the same story, exact in every detail.  He said that the white men "were not met with again, and no one knows where they went to." Hall, like McClintock before him, knew where at least some of them had gone: westward, along the southern coast of King William Island, there lay a string of skeletons, buried and unburied, to mark the way.

The story is significant because of its location; as shown on Gould's map, the encounter took place at the edge of Washington Bay, at Cape Herschel.  And it was here, at this very spot, that Dease and Simpson erected a cairn on August 25th 1829, as they were surveying the northern "coast" of North America, extending the previous surveys of Franklin himself.  Thus, both on the basis of Inuit testimony, and on the skeletons of Franklin's men, we know for a fact that the "last link" between the areas Franklin discovered earlier in his final expedition, and the surveys heading eastward, was traversed by his men.  True, they did not manage to live long enough to relay this discovery to the rest of the world, and true too that the route they'd trudged beside was too choked with heavy, multi-year ice to ever be navigable by the kinds of ships they sailed. But unlike the body of George Mallory, found hundreds of meters below the ridge leading to the summit of Everest, these bodies were found beyond the point at which the two known surveys were connected.

So while of course the Victorian cult of the Polar hero, its themes conducted to a roaring crescendo by the astute and persistent efforts of Franklin's widow, Lady Jane, had everything to do with the erection of this statue and its inscription, I think that it's hard to find fault with its concluding phrase -- Franklin's men did indeed forge the last link -- and paid for it with their lives.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A "Navigable" Northwest Passage?

Recently, the question of in how Dr. John Rae's charting of the strait that bears his name contributed to the tracing of a Northwest Passage. There can, I hope, be no question that Rae was one of the most skilled and capable Arctic explorers and surveyors, and that his establishing King William as an island was a discovery of great geographical significance. There are those, however, who wish to credit Rae, at the expense of Franklin, as the sole discoverer of the  passage, and for them, a key part of the claim is that the Rae Strait route would have been navigable by Franklin's vessels had he tried this route. And yet, it's also widely known that, although Roald Amundsen managed this route with his tiny Gjøa, he encountered shoals which obliged him to jettison a considerable amount deck cargo in order to avoid running aground.

Ken McGoogan, author of Fatal Passage, recently put his argument this way:
Rae Strait is 14 miles wide. I have sailed through it half a dozen times in ships that are far larger -- longer, heavier, and with much deeper drafts -- than the Erebus and Terror. I did it again last month. Google the Clipper Adventurer and compare. Big ships go through Rae Strait all the time, even in the dark. Amundsen was sailing very near the coast of KWI, that is all. A bit farther out, no problem whatsoever.
For the record, the Clipper Adventurer, a purpose-built vessel for adventure tourism, has a draught of 4.72 meters (15.5 feet); HMS Terror had a draught of 4.47 m (14 feet 8 inches); according to Amundsen's journal, the Gjøa, fully loaded, drew just over 10 feet.

A recognized reference on the subject, The Northwest Passage: Arctic Straits, by Donat Pharand and Leonard H. Legault, puts it succinctly: "Reconnaissance soundings show an uneven bottom with depths varying from 9 to 77 meters and an extensive shoal area in mid-channel of 5.5 to 18 meters. The Rae Strait would hardly seem suitable for deep draft navigation." It's possible of course that a sailing vessel of Franklin's kind might have, with very good fortune, have made it through -- but then there would be the far worse problem of Simpson Strait, which is filled with shoals and hazards.  The modern vessel "Hanseatic" (draft 4.8m) spent three weeks aground there in 1996, and Pharand and Legault class it as "obviously suitable for small ships only."

So how practicable is this route -- which must of necessity include both Rae Strait and Simpson Strait? To get a definitive answer to this question, I turned to Captain Patrick R.M. Toomey, one of the most experienced modern navigators and ice-pilots in these waters; he has made more than 30 voyages to the Canadian Arctic, including 13 complete transits of the Northwest Passage (the most recent just two weeks ago), and has commanded or piloted all manner of vessels ranging from Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers to enormous Russian vessels such as “Kapitan Khlebnikov."Although Toomey shares with me and many others a profound admiration for Sir John Franklin's mettle, he understands well the limits of the vessels of those days, and feels as I do that they would never have been able to manage this route.

In response to McGoogan's claim, he states:
The “Clipper Adventurer” has been through the straits to the east of King William Island, as have other small ships of less than 5 metres draft such as “Hanseatic," and Rae Strait is not the major problem on this route. Further north, the James Ross Strait, and to the southwest the Simpson Strait are far more dangerous, as the “Hanseatic” knows only too well, having spent almost three weeks aground in the Simpson Strait in 1996. If Ken McGoogan considers “Clipper Adventurer” to be a “big ship”, he should try “The World” at 6.7 metres draft, and 196 metres length, or the Russian icebreakers “Kapitan Khlebnikov”, “Kapitan Dranitsyn” and “Admiral Makarov” (all of which I have piloted) at 8 metres draft, which could, technically and theoretically, pass all three of the straits mentioned above, but would be very foolhardy to try.
As to McGoogan's views about Rae, he has this to say:
As for the claim that John Rae was the first to discover a navigable Northwest Passage in 1854, to give him credit he did discover one of the minor channels which form the route, which Franklin might have discovered himself during his three overland and small-boat expeditions from 1819-1823, if he had had more time and better luck. I would suggest that Franklin suspected there might be several routes to the north from Queen Maud Gulf – the south shore of which he had mapped - but that he was more interested in the wider channel to the west of King William Island, due north of his explorations along the coast east of Coppermine River.  With two clumsy Royal Navy warships hardly capable of sailing to windward, with auxiliary steam power insufficient to make any progress in ice, for lack of power and sufficient coal to fuel the boilers, he would certainly have tried a wider channel to offer more sea-room. The full facts will never be known, of course, but I am sure that shore parties went out to King William Island while the ships were beset during the winter of 1846/7, to check out any channels to the east.  I am equally sure that the report back would have been that such channels would not have been recommended, despite the lack of old ice, which is not usually found in those channels, because of the lack of sea-room to manoeuvre between the shoals, especially those of James Ross Strait.  It was in James Ross Strait, I believe,  that Amundsen had his problems, and he was in a tiny little vessel, of much less draft, and much more manoeuvrable when compared to “Erebus” and “Terror”.
So this, I hope, should put an end to claims that Franklin could have sailed the route mapped by Rae. All the same, this route certainly could be and is a valid passage for modern vessels with shallower drafts, equipped with modern charts and electronic sounding devices. And, all the same, Dr. John Rae remains am extraordinary explorer, skilled surveyor, and resourceful hunter, who passed through lands where other white men died of starvation managing not only to keep himself and his party well-fed, but giving food to local Inuit along the way. So let us give him credit to him, alongside Sir John Franklin, not instead of him.

Yes, Franklin failed on his last voyage.  But let us recall, in the words of the great novelist (and navigator) Joseph Conrad, the essence of Franklin's contribution, as well as the discoveries of those who searched for him:
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. As gradually revealed to the world, their fate appeared the more tragic in this, that for the first two years the way of the Erebus and Terror expedition seemed to be the way to the desired and important success, while in truth it was the way of death, the end of the greatest drama, perhaps, played behind the curtain of Arctic mystery.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Arctic Blackface

Peter Carney and others have brought up the question of the well-known "Black Men" story reported to Charles Francis Hall.  One possible explanation would be an onboard celebration of Guy Fawkes day, which would involve the blackening of faces as a reference to Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Another explanation, however, might be worth considering: that the men were dressed up for a blackface "minstrel" show for the entertainment of the crews.

We know very well that, following William Edward Parry's success with shipboard theatricals enlivening the long winter darkness, all British naval ships in Arctic service were provided with theatrical props, costumes, and scripts.  One of the features of these shows, we also know, was male cross-dressing into female character.  Such broad burlesque seemed to be just the stuff to warm the hearts of the men on a cold Arctic night.  So why not blackface minstrelsy, which was in fact wildly popular in both the US and Britain from the late 1840's through the 1870's -- just the time of Franklin and the Franklin searches, and the voyages of Charles Francis Hall.  And indeed we have evidence that just these sorts of shows were staged aboard Arctic ships.  The first is from CF Hall's first book, "Life Among the Esquimaux, and describes a minstrel performance aboard the whaler "George Henry":
The following night, November 26th, "theatrical" performances took place on board the George Henry, The cabin was filled to its utmost capacity with Innuits and the ship's crew. "Jim Crow," the son of Artarkparu, occupied the centre of the cabin, and was performing on the "keeloun," while the other Innuits were seated all around, the female portion singing to the music. I made my way to the little after cabin, and there seated myself so as to have a full view of what was going on. 
The keeloun was accompanied by a tambourine made by Mr. Lamb. Another instrument was a triangle, a steel square pendent from a tow string, and struck with an ii-on spoon. The keeloun was played in turn by Annawa, Ooksin, Koojesse, and young Smith, a là negro ! While Annawa was going through the " sweating " process, playing the instrument and dancing the ridiculously wild figures that are indispensable, according to Innuit ideas, his music being accompanied by a full chorus of native female voices, there came bouncing into the very midst a strapping negress, setting the whole house in a roar of laughter. It was young Smith dressed in this character. The tambourine was passed into his hands, and he soon did full justice to the instrument, his or her sable fists soon knocking a hole through the whale's liver skin with which it was covered. 
When Smith first entered some of the Innuit women were much frightened. Jennie, the angeko, was seated near me, and she tried to put as great a distance as possible between herself and the negress, believing the apparition to be an evil spirit. But all shortly became reconciled to the stranger, especially when Smith resumed his place, playing and shouting, Innuit-like, and making so much fun that all our sides ached with laughter. Even the singing women were obliged occasionally to give way and join in the merriment. 
The negress was next called on to act as drummer. Ooksin held the keeloun while ske performed "Yankee Doodle," "Hail Columbia," and other pieces, with admirable skill and effect, using two iron spoons for drum-sticks. The finale was a dance by two Innuit ladies and two of the ship/s crew, the music being furnished by Bailey with his " viddle."
Then this from Elisha Kent Kane's narrative of the First Grinnell:
December 25. Ye Christmas of ye Arctic cruisers. Our Christmas passed without a lack of the good things of this life.  Goodies we had galore ; but that best of earthly blessings, the communion of loved sympathies, these Arctic cruisers had not. It was curious to observe the depressing influences of each man's home thoughts, and absolutely saddening the effort of each man to impose upon his neighbor and be very boon and jolly. We joked incessantly, but badly, and laughed incessantly, but badly too ; ate of good things, and drank up a moiety of our Heidsiek ; and then we sang negro songs, wanting only tune, measure, and harmony, but abounding in noise ; and after a closing bumper to Mr. Grinnell, adjourned with creditable jollity from table to the theatre. 
So clearly, on at least two occasions -- and doubtless many more -- Arctic voyagers of the mid-nineteenth century regaled one another just as they would have had they been "home." Oh, and what of the photograph at the top of this post?  Why that's just "Bones," "Jim Kroo,""Squash," and "Cinders," members of the "Dishcover Minstrel Troupe" aboard RF Scott's Discovery in 1902.