|Sir John and I in Spilsby, Lincolnshire (his birthplace)|
I believe that would be a serious mistake. The view of Franklin as nothing but a failure and a cultural ignoramus, which has its origins in the (rather more nuanced) account of his last expedition in Pierre Berton's Arctic Grail, is a very narrow one, and one which does not, I feel, represent his larger cultural significance to Canada or to the world. One voice in his favor might be that of the novelist Joseph Conrad, who in one of his last essays, "Geography and Some Explorers," wrote:
"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."To add to those remarks, made nearly a century ago, I would say that the Franklin story, as another novelist -- Margaret Atwood -- has noted, is part of the essential fabric of Canadian culture and identity; it's been the subject of numerous novels and poems by Canadian writers, and the recent discovery of Franklin's two ships in 2014 and 2016 has electrified the world. As Atwood notes, "every age has created a Franklin suitable to its needs," even if he was not (as she wryly puts it) the "crunchiest biscuit in the packet." His name, and all that its echoes contain, is of enormous and vital significance, both to the past and to the future of Canada.
Those who speak of Franklin as a "failure" misunderstand the very nature of exploration. It is, inevitably, fraught with risk; indeed it is that risk that grants those who undertake it their heroic status. It's as foolish -- and insulting -- to speak of Franklin as a failure as it would be to use that term for a soldier killed in battle, or taken prisoner. He gave his life -- and, perhaps fortunately, did not live to endure the far greater suffering experienced by his surviving crews. They all gave their lives, that this uncharted realm be charted, and it is their sacrifice which earns our respect.
Throughout the ages, Franklin has been admired -- not just by Joseph Conrad, but by writers such as Dickens, Thoreau, and Verne -- and, most importantly, by those who followed in his footsteps. Those who somehow believe that Amundsen, because first through the passage, deserves a greater share of glory, would do well to read his own words:
"When I was fifteen years old, the works of Sir John Franklin, the great British explorer, fell into my hands. I read them with a fervid fascination which has shaped the whole course of my life. Of all the brave Britishers who for 400 years had given freely of their treasure, courage, and enterprise to dauntless but unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the Northwest Passage, none was braver than Sir John Franklin. "I am hardly an impartial advocate of course -- I've spent the past 25 years researching and writing about Franklin -- but I do hope that, despite the questions raised as part of the process of commissioning this new Coast Guard vessel, the name will be retained.