Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A long winter ...

The discovery of HMS "Terror" in Terror Bay continues to make headlines around the world, even as, for the most part, the news stories repeat the same basic information. Now that the Parks team is back in Ottawa, we're learning a good deal more; for the benefit of those who may not have had access to the press event yesterday with Ryan Harris and Marc-André Bernier, I thought it would be useful to share the highlights of their comments and responses to reporters' questions.

Most of the questions centered on the "Terror," though quite a few of the follow-up questions asked after "Erebus" as well. The Parks Canada team confirmed a number of things that had been reported earlier, but with notable new details. Although only able to manage three dives in the short time they had at the site, they also took new side-scan and multi-beam images of the wreck. Silt reduced the visibility, and Ryan Harris reported that the entire deck was covered with a layer of silt which -- though an excellent preservative -- made it difficult to see any smaller artifacts. Larger structures, though, were readily visible; Harris mentioned the flue pipe for the Sylvester Patent stove (this is closer to the forward part of the vessel, and distinct from the exhaust pipe from the engine which was seen in the previously-released video); both sets of davits were in place (in contrast to those of the "Erebus," which had been torn off, with part of one davit being the clue that helped pinpoint the ship). He noted the presence of an anchor cable (rope) coming out of one of the hawse pipes, trailing off a short distance, and what may be an anchor, very close to the hull. He noted the probability of intact ships' cabins, the partitions still in place, the hatches closed, suggesting a "largely sealed environment which would be ideal for the preservation of organic materials" including "otherwise delicate materials, written documents, charts, and material like that," calling the wreck "extremely promising."

Another aspect of the "Terror" is how it got there -- whether it was re-manned, and whether indeed the site where it is currently located is the site where it was last occupied by its crew. Asked about the state of the hull, Harris replied that "certainly from the side scan and multibeam it appears to be remarkably intact from stem to stern," and noted the stunning state of preservation of the bowsprit. There will be, both Ryan and Marc agreed, a "lot of work" to be done, and there's great anticipation of next year's dive season -- as Ryan put it, "it's going to be a long winter."

There were also some fascinating revelations about HMS "Erebus." According to Harris, Franklin's cabin is too damaged to reveal much, and is covered with collapsed beams that may have to be shifted or removed. However, they have had a peep into the senior officers' cabins on the port side -- these would have been those of the 1st and 2nd lieutenants (Gore and Fairholme). In these cabins, Harris described being able to see their bedplaces, including the ornate scrollwork on the sides of their beds or bunks, which according to the ship's plans have built-in drawers. These, along with the previously discovered seaman's chest, offer what Marc described as potentially "pristine pockets" of materials. Both Ryan and Marc also described their efforts to document evidence of Inuit presence aboard the ship, and their "harvesting" of useful materials, much of which ended up dispersed throughout the Arctic via trade.

There was, however, one great disappointment, as it was revealed that the crew of the Martin Bergmann, which is funded by the Arctic Research Foundation, delayed notification of the find of the "Terror" for a week, during which time they apparently were able to return to Cambridge Bay, acquire a ROV, make their video, and provide the information for Paul Watson's exclusive story in the Guardian -- all before they let Parks Canada know of their find. Those eight days, when -- apparently -- conditions were ideal, were lost to the Parks team, and what could be learned this season considerably reduced. The crew of the Bergmann's explanation, that there was not an "updated protocol" in place, seems flimsy indeed. While they certainly deserve credit for the discovery, this revelation begs the question: what more might we have learned, if not for their silence?

Monday, September 26, 2016

HMS "Terror" find confirmed!

Parks Canada photo
As most of us expected, Parks Canada today confirmed that the wreck first located on September 3rd by the research vessel Martin Bergmann is, in fact, HMS "Terror," the second ship of Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition. The Parks team had to deal with rough weather, which churned up a fair amount of silt and made visibility poor, but despite this were able to examine enough of the ship to, having compared it with the detailed plans they have at hand, make the identification definite.

Much of the press release, though, was devoted to highlighting the new degree of co-operation between Parks and various Inuit groups -- Inuit Heritage Trust, the Kiktikmeot Inuit Association, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., and the Government of Nunavut. This is a crucial aspect of the find, and --as I noted in my blog a couple of weeks ago -- is something that has been in the works for a long time. It was evident, in the time between the initial discovery and Parks's statement, that many Inuit still felt anxieties over how the site and the relics found there will be treated, but today's announcement should, I hope, be reassuring. As I've mentioned, my personal view is that the wrecks and their contents technically aren't covered in the Nunavut Land Claims agreement, but the willingness of the present Government to treat them exactly as though they were, and to commit to ongoing cooperation, is nevertheless the right thing to do.  There's property, and then there's cultural property, and it's clear that the "Terror" and "Erebus" are sites which enshrine, embody, and contain, the history of both Inuit and European-origin peoples. Like cords in a vast fish-net, they are too enmeshed in one another to be separated, and for the goal of the proper conservation of these vessels to be met, they must work together.

The fact that "Terror" owes its discovery not simply to the historical Inuit testimony collected by Rae, Hall, and Schwatka in the 1850's, '60's, and '70's -- but also to that of Sammy Kogvik, a present-day Inuk who led searchers to the site -- underscores the rightness of this arrangement.

But there is work to be done. It's encouraging now to know that the Parks Canada team can spend the still-brief search window next summer actually working on both ships rather than searching for them. The apparently much better state of the decks and great cabin of the "Terror" suggests that this might be the place to start; what we need now is not only the everyday items that have already been spotted, such as a bottle of wine or a desk drawer -- but the written records that will certainly be found. Will they be as enigmatic as the infamous Peglar Papers? Or will we get an accurate ship's log or other official record, which would certainly change what we know about the final fatal months or years of the expedition? For those of us who have already spent a large chunk of our lives wondering, it will be a long year!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Inuit testimony about HMS "Terror"

As we await further word about the finding of HMS Terror, I thought it useful to collect together the principal Inuit witness as to its fate. Now that we know, at least, its general location, we can use that to help us separate out some stories from others, and eliminate from consideration accounts which place the ship elsewhere.

The first person to hear reports that now clearly correspond with the Terror was, ironically enough, Francis Leopold McClintock -- the man who discovered the last known written record, and the man who gave "Terror Bay" its name, apparently unaware that one of the ships he sought so dearly lay beneath the surface only a few miles from where he stood! I should caution that this testimony has an issue -- Petersen, McClintock's translator, was clearly not familiar with the local dialects, and so one has to build in the possibility of misunderstandings.

On King William island, about "halfway down the east coast," McClintock came upon a village of 30 or 40 natives, apparently well-supplied with wood as well as sundry artifacts from Franklin's men; McClintock saw there a sledge with large, curved wooden runners "which no mere boat could have furnished them with," a sure sign that they had come from the wreck of one of the ships.

After obtaining items in trade -- six silver forks and spoons, some buttons, and "bows and arrows of English wood," McClintock asked about the ships. They had seen two ships, yes, one of which sank quickly before they could get anything from it, and the other of which had been "forced up on shore" and much broken -- it was from this latter ship that the wood had come.

The other stories McClintock heard came from "old Oo-na-lee," who initially told of only one ship, but on a second occasion -- after a younger member of the band mentioned a second, admitted its existence:
"Oo-na-lee now answered our questions respecting the one forced on shore; not a syllable about her did he mention on the former occasion, although we asked whether they knew of only one ship ? I think he would willingly have kept us in ignorance of a wreck being upon their coasts, and that the young man unwittingly made it known to us."
The young man added further details:
"The latter also told us that the body of a man was found on board the ship ; that he must have been a very large man, and had long teeth: this is all he recollected having been told, for he was quite a child at the time. They both told us it was in the fall of the year — that is, August or September — when the ships were destroyed ; that all the white people went away to the " large river," taking a boat or boats with them, and that in the following winter their bones were found there."
It's easy to imagine why Oo-na-lee might have wished to conceal the second vessel, as that one had been a source of immeasurable wealth in wood, metal, and useful things. So here in this earliest account, we have two ships: one that sank quickly in deep waters with nothing recovered, and one that was, for a time, forced up on land and "much broken." It's clear that the one that sank rapidly must be the Terror, and the latter the Erebus -- a correspondence further confirmed by the mention of the dead body with the long teeth, which is nearly identical to the account of the one eyewitness we have who actually had visited this vessel: Puh-too-rak, who spoke with Schwatka some twenty years later. The quick sinking of the one vessel was also later corroborated by Kok-lee-arng-nun when interviewed by Charles Francis Hall:
"[Kok-lee-arng-nun] and his wife agreed in saying that the ship on board of which they had often seen Too-loo-ark was overwhelmed with heavy ice in the spring of the year. While the ice was slowly crushing it, the men all worked for their lives in getting out provisions; but, before they could save much, the ice turned the vessel down on its side, crushing the masts and breaking a hole in her bottom and so overwhelming her that she sank at once, and had never been seen again. Several men at work in her could not get out in time, and were carried down with her and drowned. On this account Ag-loo-ka's company had died of starvation, for they had not had time to get provisions out of her.
Again, this can only by the Terror, since the vessel which had been the source of wood was not seen to sink, but discovered after it had been abandoned. And yet, now she has been found, and apparently in good condition! But looks can be deceiving, as I mentioned in my previous post; a sudden breach in the hull would minimize the time that ice pressures would have to damage the deck and superstructure. What we really need to do next is to get a full survey of the Terror site, including a complete view of the hull; based on the extraordinary accuracy of the Inuit testimony so far, I'm willing to bet that it will show signs of sudden crushing, not unlike that which sank the Breadalbane.

Oh, and one other thing: there will be bodies. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

HMS Terror: What we know -- and what we don't

With the excitement around the discovery of HMS "Terror" -- a discovery yet to be fully confirmed by Parks Canada -- there's been all kinds of speculation in the press and online as to the meaning of this astonishing find. Scholars, such as myself, are as eager for new revelations as anyone else, but we've learned to practice caution, and to distinguish speculation from careful reasoning based on direct observation. Even then, what we see must be corroborated with what we know from other sources, be they ship's plans, historical documents, or (in this case) Inuit testimony. It's a process which doesn't happen overnight -- but of course the news must, and does.

None of this work has yet been done, but here we are, presented with dramatic images and video. Of course, the imagination is stirred by such sights: there is the deck upon which Crozier must have stood, the wheel where the helmsman would have executed his commands, and -- though we've no photo of it yet -- perhaps his desk, with something hidden in the recesses of a drawer. The remarkable state of the preservation of these things has led many to say the ship was found almost intact -- but that's not necessarily the case. The hull, particularly the keel, has yet to be properly examined by Parks Canada's marine archaeologists, and given the lateness of the season -- new ice is already forming in the shallow areas along the coast of King William Island -- that may have to wait until next year. In fact, it's not clear from the current reporting that Ryan Harris and his team have yet had access to the ship at all.

Some reports this morning speak of Parks Canada perhaps not having 'reached' the area, which is troubling. It appears that they were, at the time of the discovery, searching further north in the Victoria Strait; one would have expected that they would have been immediately alerted to the find, and could have arrived fairly quickly -- but the only video, the only descriptions we have so far are all from the crew of the Martin Bergmann. The video is narrated by almost every one of them -- including the ship's cook! -- but the context that a trained archaeologist could have provided is missing. The crew apparently deployed a ROV (remotely operated vehicle) and poked about all over, but the narrative of what they saw, like the discovery itself, remains uncorroborated.

There's been a claim that the "Terror" was listing to starboard -- then a statement that it was actually upright -- then a claim that she must have "gently slipped to the sea-bed." There's even speculation that her presence in Terror Bay is evidence that she was abandoned in an orderly manner so that the men could be moved to the "Erebus," which as we know made it further south. But we have absolutely no evidence for this; the hull has not been examined. I might mention at this point, the Franklin search ship HMS "Breadalbane," which was nipped by the ice and sank in scarcely twenty minutes -- and yet, strangely, when found by Joe MacInnis in 1981, she was similarly found erect on the sea-bed, her masts intact -- one of them still with a sail or two -- and the ship's wheel intact. It may in fact be the rapidity of the sinking which had the effect of preserving certain features; being found intact on the sea-floor, it would seem, is not necessarily evidence of having arrived there gently.

And there is another vital piece of evidence as to how HMS "Terror" sank -- the Inuit testimony which, in nearly every other case, has proven reliable. And the Inuit tell of a far more chaotic and sudden event, one in which a number of the crew were trapped in the vessel and drowned. In my next post, I'll give their account.

Monday, September 12, 2016

HMS "Terror" found at last!

It's hard to overestimate the significance of this new and magnificent find: the second ship of Sir John Franklin's expedition, HMS "Terror," has been found. Initial images show her to be in far better condition than her sister ship, the "Erebus" (found by Parks Canada searchers in 2014), with her hatches battened, her bowsprit still in place, and many of the glass panes in her captain's cabin still intact, it's enough to warm the heart of any marine archaeologist -- or perhaps give them a heart attack! -- certainly a discovery that exceeds anyone's (mine included) wildest imaginings as to the vessel's state of preservation.

Initial accounts are short of precise details, and it's far too early to speculate as to exactly how this might revise our understanding of the final stages of the Franklin expedition. The ship-shape status of the vessel certainly indicates that she was left behind during a stage at which naval discipline and order were still intact. And yet, at the same time, we don't yet know the nature of the damage that brought her to the bottom. What we do see -- a vessel piloted to this location, and sunk within view of shore well to the south of the initial abandonment in 1848, vindicates the Inuit testimony as well as David C. Woodman's view that, based on said testimony, either or both ships must have been re-manned (I'd say both, at least for a time). Some press accounts speculate that after "Terror" was left here, the remaining sailors sailed further aboard "Erebus," but we don't yet have any clear timeline. The discovery of a "desk with open drawers," however, points the way to one possibility: some dated document -- almost any would do -- on board either vessel could sort things out in a jiffy. The far better state of preservation of "Terror" suggests that it would be the place to start.

The location is almost too ironic for words -- having the "Terror" found in Terror Bay seems, on the surface, even more bizarre than in the 2014 parody account on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, in which the fictitious "Inuit storyteller" Philip Ayarowaq, drily noted that “the elders tell of a ship of white men that was stuck in the ice off Queen Maud Gulf, or as we call it, ‘White Man’s Sinking Spot.’” How the ship could have escaped notice, so near to a shore where dozens of searchers passed for decades, is difficult to explain. Its presence there completes a weird symmetry, as on the opposite side of the Graham Gore Peninsula in Erebus Bay, the eponymous vessel was, at least for a time, anchored, though we now know it made it further south.

It's early days yet, though, and I think we should all work to avoid undue speculation -- a new discovery as significant as this one doesn't just add to the story, it casts unknown shadows in every direction. What we can say, with confidence, is that the Franklin mystery, far from being somehow solved, is once again made more complicated. Already there's talk of raising the "Terror" -- an idea which, though suggested by the seeming good state of the ship -- seems premature to me. All the Inuit I know on King William Island have hoped, over many years, for a find like this, not simply because it would vindicate their ancestors' stories or bring media attention -- but because it would bring economic growth, which is so sorely lacking in the North. Well before such a thing should be considered, we must ask, as with all such finds, what can we learn? And how can what we learn benefit those whose histories are as significantly linked to the "Terror" as they were to the "Erebus" -- the Inuit?

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Fate of Dr. Kane's boat, the "Faith"

In my remarks to those gathered last week beside his tomb to commemorate the career of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane -- whose Arctic career once made him the most famous man in America -- and unveil a new historical marker at the site, I meditated on the fleeting nature of fame. From Kane's second and final northern voyage, as the commander of the Second Grinnell Expedition, I knew of several items that had been brought home, including the figurehead of Kane's ship, the "Advance" -- which, after a stint at the now-defunct Mercantile Library, is now safely enclosed in a glass case at the Kane Lodge in New York City -- and also of Kane's boat, the "Faith." As the lone survivor of the ship's whaleboats -- the others were burnt for fuel -- and the vessel which finally conveyed Kane and his men to safety, one would think that this vessel, like Shackleton's better-known "James Caird" -- would still be extant, and valued. It was, for a time, displayed at Deer Park in Philadelphia (where, exposed to the elements, it may have suffered new indignities), but survived long enough to be displayed at the Great Central or Sanitary Fair of 1864 (see above), as well as twelve years later at the Centennial Exhibition, after which all mention of it seems to have vanished. I often wondered whether it might still be stowed away in some nook or cranny, perhaps parked next to his old sled (which ended up at the Smithsonian)

Just recently, though, I came upon a watercolor in the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, by the artist David J. Kennedy. It showed the "Faith" almost as she would have looked when new, or if completely restored. An inscription by the artist on the back, alas, showed that this was the result of his skill with the brush, and not of any restorative efforts:
“The Faith at my suggestion was patched up and exhibited at the Centennial Exposition at the south part of the United States Government Building. An evening after the exposition had closed it fell in pieces, a wreck, rotted out."
One wishes that someone had, at the time, secured some small bit -- a fragment of a gunwale, or a plank -- and perhaps someone did, and it will turn up somewhere. But for the "Faith" herself, it seems to have been her destiny to hold herself together just until the Nation's centennial, and then fall to pieces all at once, like the wonderful one-hoss shay of legend.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

This year's Franklin search

Here at Visions of the North, I've been following Parks Canada's search for Franklin's ships almost from the very beginning; while the blog wasn't yet online for the search led by Robert Grenier in 2008, I interviewed him the following November in Greenwich. I even covereed the absence of a search in 2009, and have posted about each year's search thereafter. 2014, of course, was the annus mirabilis -- the year that Franklin's flagship, HMS Erebus, was finally found -- and 2015 followed with the recovery of a fascinating array of artifacts from that vessel, many of which, although still in conservation, have already been displayed to the public. It's fair to say that, every year around this time, anticipation is keenly felt and hopes run high.

This year's search looks to be a modest one, with only a couple of days diving on "Erebus," and perhaps a week or a little more pursuing her sister ship "Terror." Divers plan a site survey of "Erebus" looking at the stability of the wreck and determining if there have been any significant changes; meanwhile, in the Victoria Strait area, it's hoped that a side-scan sonar search of the area following the drift path of ships or débris from the last recorded location of "Terror" might shine some light on its fate. While my own view is similar to that of Dave Woodman -- that the ship is more likely to be found within the horizon line from the Erebus Bay encampment -- one can't entirely rule out the possibility that the "Terror" met its fate further north; as I noted in my last post, the Inuit testimony about that vessel, substantial as it is, doesn't give us a clear, unambiguous location, unlike the wreck at Utjulik, which we now know to have been "Erebus."

The big news this year isn't so much the search itself as it is the development of a carefully-negotiated set of agreements and protocols, followed up by a number of meetings with Inuit communities. Parks Canada, to its credit, is going above and beyond the letter of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement; while there's an argument to be made that maritime wrecks of foreign naval vessels aren't covered, they are following all the procedures that would be followed if they were. I think this is an important step, and from what I've heard, Inuit in the Kitikmeot region, as well as Nunavummiut generally, are pleased with these steps. In addition to community outreach, there's a clear signal that, from the 16.9 million allocated for the search over the next five years, there will be a significant commitment to what's described as a "multi-purpose infrastructure" including economic opportunities in Inuit communities. In another important development, a "Franklin Interim Advisory Committee" has been established, whose members include the Kitikmeot Inuit Association (co-chair), community representatives from Cambridge Bay and Gjoa Haven, Inuit Heritage Trust, the Government of Nunavut, Nunavut Tourism and Parks Canada.

And it's important that these developments be in place, not only to increase Inuit participation and make the search planning more transparent, but to avoid misunderstanding over the disposition of such relics are are recovered in the future. As I note in the conclusion of the final chapter of my book Finding Franklin,
"[The Franklin search] would more meaningful if it could also contribute something to the fragile northern economy, [and] to the generation of young Inuit across the territory. Our histories, after all, are tangled up together."