Monday, September 28, 2015

Solomon Tozer, Royal Marine

Some time ago, under the title "The Sword of a Great Officer," I posted an image of the hilt of sword that had been presented to HBC Factor Roderick MacFarlane in 1857 by an elderly Inuk who told him that it was from one of Franklin's men, the "sword of a great officer." I noted that this sword was engraved with "W IV" for King William IV, and therefore dated to his reign (1830-1837). I'd  tracked down the date at which each of Franklin's senior officers might have obtained their lieutenant's commission (the usual date on which one acquired a sword), and found Fitzjames the closest match -- though, in his case, a delay between getting his passing certificate and his commission meant that he wasn't promoted until a year after William's reign ended and Queen Victoria ascended to the throne. Ah well, I thought to myself, what's a year?

To my lasting shame, I didn't take the time to look closely at the guard, which featured an open "basket" style rather than the closed gilt guard that had been standard in the Royal Navy since 1827 (and indeed, is standard still). Seeing one of these sorts of guards among the latest artifacts brought up from HMS "Erebus" pricked my memory -- and that of my colleague Glenn M. Stein as well. In response to a query by fellow Franklinite Regina Koellner -- mightn't a Sergeant of the Marines have had a sword as well? -- he passed along an image of the type of blade that would have been issued to a Sergeant in the Royal Marines (right, above) -- and lo, there was the open style of guard, almost exactly as seen on the hilt given to MacFarlane!

Which leads me to Solomon Tozer. Years ago, my good friend Dave Woodman proposed that perhaps Tozer, whose name may well have sounded to Inuit ears very similar to Crozier (rendered by Hall's informants as "Cro-zhar"), could have been the "great officer" of this Inuit story. I dismissed the idea, my head filled with romanticized notions of Fitzjames among the final survivors -- how could a mere Sergeant of the Marines, the hardest-working (and lowest-paid) of all the Expedition's members, be that man? But now, seeing the sword, I went at once to Ralph Lloyd-Jones's excellent article on the Marines who served with Franklin, and discovered that Solomon Tozer had enlisted in Bath on 12 November 1834, well within the reign of William IV!

There are, as there almost always will be, caveats and contraditions. According to Lloyd-Jones, Tozer had only been promoted to Sergeant in 1844, so if the sword had to wait until then, it's not a match. Still, he was more of a veteran than most, having already risen to the rank of Corporal in 1837, the year of Victoria's coronation. He also received, though he was not to know of it, a promotion to "color sergeant" in 1849 when, as Lloyd-Jones notes, "he was unlikely to be alive in the Arctic." And yet, if he was indeed among the last men standing, he may well have yet been living at that date. I conclude with Lloyd-Jones's epitome of his character:
At the age of 18, Tozer was 5 feet 8 1/2 inches tall with light hair, hazel eyes, and a fair complexion. He was a carpenter by trade and, as befits one who reached the highest non-commissioned rank, had an extremely neat signature. A unique solecism recorded that he was ‘D[ischarged] D[ead] North Pole [sic] expedition under Sir John Franklin’ (ADM 158/69). He appears as a fairly major, brave, and practical character in Robert Edric’s novel The Broken Lands (Edric 1992).
A great officer, indeed.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Henry Larsen

Image courtesy of Doreen Larsen Riedel
Even before he arrived on the shores of King William, he’d already been awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, for being the first man to traverse the Northwest Passage from West to East, in command of the RCMP vessel St. Roch – a feat he repeated in the opposite direction a few years later. His name was Henry Asbjørn Larsen, and no other searcher before him came closer to standing in Franklin’s own metaphorical shoes. Larsen’s experience had been gained on numerous northern patrols over two decades; he eventually rose to the rank of Inspector, in charge of all RCMP detachments in the Canadian Arctic. Both the breadth of his experience and his keen eye for detail served him well; despite poor weather conditions and limited time, his search of the area between Cape Felix and Victory Point produced what may be some of the most significant finds since those of Schwatka.

Larsen’s search took place in the summer of 1949, just before his promotion to commanding officer of the force’s “G” division. He took two RCMP men with him, Corporal Seaforth Burton and Constable John Biench. He’d hoped to squeeze in the mission between his other duties, but news of his trip was inadvertently leaked to the press; as a cover story, an announcement was made that the trip was merely to scout a location for a new RCMP post. Larsen’s pilot, Harry Heacock, flew them over Lind Island and Victoria Strait; despite poor conditions, he was able to land briefly to establish a fuel depot at Terror Bay. Returning the following day, they were able to land and establish a base camp near Collinson Inlet. From there, they proceeded on foot, working their way up the coast to Cape Felix. At Cape Lady Jane Franklin, they found wood-chips and part of a shoe sole; joined there by Bill Cashin (who’d served as Larsen’s mechanic aboard the St. Roch), they began a close search of the area around Victory Point.

Here they had better luck, turning up two iron knees (almost certainly from a ship’s boat of the kind used by Franklin’s men), along with other small fragments of wood, nails, and wire. Continuing to Cape Felix, they made their most significant find: embedded between two mossy stones, they came upon a human skull. On their return, the artifacts were brought back to the National Museum (the precursor institution to both the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Canadian Museum of History). There, the bones were examined by Dr. Douglas Leechman, one of Canada’s pre-eminent archaeologists, who identified them as “definitely that of a white man, and a fairly young one at that.” Larsen and his companions had found the most northerly grave of one of Franklin’s men on King William Island.

courtesy of Doreen Larsen Riedel
Yet, as with earlier searches, the vital documentary evidence of this discovery has been misplaced and scattered. Larsen’s report, if indeed he submitted one, has gone missing, although R.J. Cyriax’s article about the search in the Geographical Journal was clearly based on some sort of fairly detailed communication from Larsen. Cyriax thought very highly of Larsen’s account, declaring it “much more detailed and precise than any of the published accounts with which the [present] writer is acquainted.” No trace of the report is known, and the artifacts themselves appear to have been misplaced; the curators that I’ve contacted to date have no record of them, and they were never entered into the archaeological databases of either the Northwest Territories or Nunavut. Had it not been for the assistance of Doreen Larsen Riedel, Larsen’s daughter, I might never have learned the details of their discovery. They were, fortunately, photographed, and the images deposited in the National Library of Canada; spread out on of white surface, these mossy bones glimmer with an eerie presence, frozen in the camera’s eye even though they, too, have since vanished from our sight.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Politics of Exploration

I had originally planned to be posting on my blog this fall about the new finds from HMS "Erebus" that I'd hoped would be announced by Parks Canada. Archaeology is a patient science, though, and though news is scarce now, I'm sure there will eventually be much more to hear about this remarkable discovery and the secrets it yet has to tell. But alas, the politics of exploration have once more taken over the headlines from actual exploration itself, journalist Paul Watson's would-be exposé -- the one he says the Toronto Star wouldn't let him publish -- has now been plastered over the Internet thanks to Buzzfeed. Ordinarily, I wouldn't want to comment on such an article, but now that major news outlets such as the Ottawa Citizen have picked up the story, I fear that I need to set the record straight again. While Watson's article certainly shows that there was a fair amount of squabbling and bitterness among some of the parties involved in the 2014 search, and that some details were, at first, imperfectly conveyed to the public (understandable in the great excitement of the moment), the evidence for any deliberate deceit -- especially on the part of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society's John Geiger -- is simply nonexistent.

A large part of Watson's article hinges on remarks made by Mr. Geiger as part of the CNC documentary on the Franklin find. As the lead historical consultant for the Canadian, UK, and US versions of this program, I've reviewed scripts and checked historical facts for all three, and so am very closely aware of the many slight differences between each version. The directors, using the same available "elements" -- video sources that, added together, would fill many times the length of the program -- made a variety of different choices. The moments that Watson points to, when John Geiger uses collective pronouns, such as 'we,' and 'our efforts,' and contrasting 2014 with previous years, are moments in which he's referring to the whole history of the modern Franklin search. Here are his exact words, from the final production script of the upcoming NOVA version of the documentary, which will air in the U.S. on September 23rd:
This is a great moment for exploration. We’ve been searching for, you know, a hundred and sixty years for answers to what happened to the Franklin expedition, the best equipped, most finely prepared and trained expedition that had ever set out for the Northwest Passage — and to have it literally obliterated, end in mass disaster, no survivors and no ships. It's just … it's been a confounding mystery.
Clearly, the "us" of this "we" is us -- all the people, Canadian and American and British, Inuit and non-Inuit, who have been a part of the long search, whether as researchers in libraries, writers/scholars, or people walking the ground or probing Arctic waters.

A shorter version of Mr. Geiger's remarks was used in the Canadian and British versions, where their intended meaning might not be as clear -- but in any case it was never, so far as I am aware, Mr. Geiger's intent to claim any credit as the discoverer. These false criticisms, made by Mr. Balsillie (see here for my earlier blog post pointing out that his letter of complaints about the CBC documentary has no foundation in that program's actual contents) and echoed in Mr. Watson's article, are without any basis in fact. The credit has been given, from the very start and consistently going forward, to Ryan Harris, Marc-André Bernier, and their divers, and I am absolutely certain that, whichever version of the documentary one views, there couldn't possibly be any confusion about this fact.

I agree with Madeline Ashby's op-ed piece in the Citizen -- it indeed matters who discovered the ship! -- but Mr. Geiger has never made any claim of having done so. While we are at it, though, the Parks Canada divers themselves have often acknowledged the importance of earlier work to their find -- to Inuit testimony, both still living in the person of Louie Kamookak, and that collected and analyzed from the historical record by David C. Woodman, and to all the searches and researches, adding up to nearly fifty searches between 1926 and 2008. As with all great discoveries, it's the ultimate result of the efforts of many. Among whom I would certainly include Mr. Geiger, whose book Frozen in Time, co-written with Owen Beattie is quite often the first volume that has caused a Franklin searcher-to-be to develop a deep and lasting fascination with the Franklin story -- and that's what fuels us all.