Thursday, March 23, 2017

On Abandoning ship ...

Belcher's Squadron (HMS "Resolute" at far left)
All who visit this blog likely know of more than one ship that was wrecked or abandoned in the Arctic -- Parry's HMS "Fury," the Rosses' "Victory," and -- perhaps best known of all -- HMS "Resolute," abandoned by Captain Henry Kellett, on orders from Sir Edward Belcher, on 28th April 1854. Kellett, as would be any captain, was extremely reluctant to follow this order, but in the end decided that duty required it. We know the other side of that story -- how the "Resolute" was found adrift in the David Straits, brought back to port by a whaling captain, and restored at US Government expense before being re-presented to Queen Victoria as a gift. That gift long accepted, and the time having come for the vessel to be broken up, the Queen gave orders that several desks should be made from her timbers -- the largest and most prominent of these being the "Resolute Desk" that has reposed for most of the past 50 years in the Oval Office of the White House as the desk of the President of the United States.

But what exactly does it mean to "abandon" ship? The question takes on new interest following remarks by Dr. Martin Magne, recently retired as the director of archaeology and history for Parks Canada, and whose work has been instrumental in the discovery of Sir John Franklin's "Erebus" and "Terror," to the effect that the "Terror" may have been prepared for abandonment. According to an article about Magne's work in the Prince George Citizen,  the vessel was "well-sealed in accordance with Admiralty instructions, which include sealing the doors with tar."

This appears to have been a misstatement on their part -- when I reached out to Dr. Magne, he said that he'd merely spoken of this as something to look for, not something observed -- but it certainly got me started thinking. What exactly would the crew of an Arctic discovery vessel have done prior to an orderly abandonment? I have not yet been able to locate any specific printed instructions on the matter, but the example of "Resolute" seems a perfect precursor -- if "Terror" had been deliberately abandoned, surely the crew would have followed  much the same procedure as did that of the "Resolute" just a few years later.

As it happens, we have a fairly detailed record of Kellett's actions on that occasion. On the final evening aboard ship, as the sledges were being loaded for the crew and their provisions, a series of clearly anticipated procedures was followed. The pilot-jack -- letter "D" -- was hoisted at the foretopmast-head, and "the red ensign and pendant displayed, that in the event of her being obliged to 'knock under' to her icy antagonist, she might sink beneath the wave, as many a gallant predecessor had done, with colours flying." As a precaution, the signals books were burned, lest their contents fall into the wrong hands. A final dinner was also held, during which "the carpenters were employed caulking down the gun-room skylight and after companion." After that meal, Captain Kellett raised a glass of wine to the gallant ship, the decks were cleared, and the carpenter "secured" the main hatchway.

So what did this caulking and securing consist of? "Caulking," in naval parlance, meant sealing up the cracks between planks, or -- in the case, one assumes -- sealing up the covers of hatchways and companionways. "Caulk" was tar -- the best sort was, and still is, "Stockholm Tar" -- and could also involve either oakum or marline coated with that same tar. The sealing of these parts of the ship both preserved the interior against intruders, animal or human, and increased the chance, should the ship ever be freed, of her not taking on water (the "Resolute," when found, did have some water in the hold, but this likely came from the lower timbers rather than the deck).

So if tar or tarring of hatchways and companionways was observed on HMS "Terror," it would imply that, at least to some extent, her abandonment was deliberate, and that the preparations were well along. This stands in contrast to Inuit account of a ship that sank suddenly, while its cargo was being unloaded, and taking some of those engaged in this work to the bottom. On the other hand, the sinking could have occurred in the midst of such a procedure, or on an occasion on which some later party had returned to the ship to retrieve supplies. Indeed, since we know from the Victory Point record that both vessels were temporarily "deserted" in 1848, it may well be that caulking would have been done then, and might be difficult to distinguish from similar work done later.

The only way to know for certain, of course, will be when Parks Canada's archaeologists begin their work this coming summer. Hopefully, the well-preserved nature of HMS "Terror" will enable them to find clearer evidence one way or the other; no matter that, surely great things will be learned.

2 comments:

  1. If the hatchways and companionways were tarred, the tar may or may not have survived while the Terror was underwater for well over a century. The lack of finding tar will not necessarily indicate sudden abandonment.

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  2. Interesting link to Martin Magne comments....and as always, more questions! Is there a difference in deserting the ships as the Victory Point message states, and abandoning? Or am I splitting hairs? If the Terror was abandoned and sealed up, where were they planning on going? Would they head to the Fish River or head for the presumed location of the Erebus on that longitudinal line? Why were the ships separated? Was that by design or forced on them by ice conditions?
    If the ship was seaworthy, why would you leave it? Was food that scarce on board? If it was not seaworthy, why bother securing the ship prior to leaving it?
    I have also wondered that with the number of deaths noted in the Victory Point message, if more occurred, maybe enough had died that there was only enough to man one ship, so the larger of the two was selected (i.e. the Erebus).
    I sure hope they find documents and such aboard the Terror as this mystery just continues to confound! However, as more information comes to light and it becomes increasingly clear that the Victory Point message was not the "end of the story", my respect for these men increases. In spite of all they went through, it appears they held things together far longer than we ever imagined!

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