Thursday, October 1, 2020

Harry Goodsir's Kayak

 When Harry Goodsir, serving as Assistant Surgeon and Naturalist aboard  HMS "Erebus" under Sir John Franklin, arrived in Greenland to see a small fleet of hunters in kayaks headed their way, he was not surprised. Indeed, the form and style of these particular kayaks was a familiar one to him, even though he'd never been to sea before. Here is his description:

We have at length got to our anchorage in the Whale Fish Islands It was rather a heavy sea when we were beating off & on about 2 o clock in the morning but notwithstanding we very soon saw several specks just like Ducks upon the surface of the water which we very shortly found to be the Esquimaux in their canoes coming off to the Ships. It was the strangest sight possible to see them rising up and down upon the tops of the waves in shells exactly the same size as that in the Gallery of the College of Surgeons and going through the water at a tremendous rate most of them without any covering for the head & dripping wet all over. 

It may be remembered that Harry had, up until the moment the expedition sailed, been the Conservator of the Surgeons' Hall Museum in Edinburgh, and thus the curator of the kayak that apparently once resided there. But where was it now? A search of the collections at Surgeon's Hall produced a model kayak -- but no, this was only a few inches long. Further digging disclosed an old record, apparently copied off a paper catalog card, of a kayak with the unusual accession number 1800.0.0.

Since most items are catalogued by date, this number seemed at first to suggest an 1800 acquisition -- but it more likely was just a placeholder for an item acquired at an indefinite date prior to 1800. I then noticed a small note stating that the kayak had been de-accessioned and sent to the National Museum of Scotland! So of course I went there, and searched, and found a kayak -- in fact, I found quite a few of them, none of which was described as ex-Surgeon's Hall. But again, a small note stood out: most of the kayaks in their collection had been examined and catalogued by a man named Harvey Golden. Who was he, I wondered -- a bespectacled Scotsman in a tweed jacket? The name didn't sound Danish. Perhaps if I could track him down, he would know which kayak was the one I sought.

With the estimable aid of my faithful servant Google, I found that he was based in Portland, Oregon, where he operated a kayak museum and website. More significantly, he was the author of the book Kayaks of Greenland, an authoritative (but presently out-of-print) reference on the subject. I e-mailed him and waited, impatiently.

The next day brought a reply -- yes, indeed, he knew exactly which kayak it was -- its previous residence at Surgeon's Hall wasn't on the written records, but the museum staff had told Harvey of the connection when he came to assess -- and sketch! -- their kayaks. The one in question had been transferred in 1995. and bore the accession number 1995.886. And, as it turns out, it is a kayak from West Greenland -- the very place where Harry saw the scene he'd described -- and probably dated to the 18th century. 

And so, with deepest thanks to Harvey, I present to you Harry Goodsir's kayak!

Friday, September 11, 2020

Jane Franklin and the Westminster Memorial (2 of 2)

 Getting the Monument right in Jane Franklin's eyes had clearly proved something of a headache for Sophy Cracroft, as her journal entry for 29th December 1874 showed:

"I went to Mr Noble and explained the placing of the flag at half-mast would be inconsistent to the circumstances intended to be set forth, namely the discovery of the NW Passage. My Uncle's death having, as we judged by the date, followed the return of Graham Gore's party, which had undoubtedly ascertained the fact of the continuous channel to the coast. He fully accepted and agreed to this and flags will be raised. I pointed out also that the condition of the atmosphere and the temperature as shown by the frozen sails and ropes forbid the possibility of either ensign or pennant being displayed or recognised to be such; they would be mere stiffened ropey masses. Everything proved to him that the fancy was irrational. He has difficulty of finding marble of the right kinds, as it must be uncommonly hard."

(Cracroft Journals 1874, SPRI)

Somehow in the end the pennant was included & lowered, but no wonder Noble had looked "shadowy" to Catherine, the execution of this monument must have been highly stressful for him. He suffered ill health for years & died 23rd June 1876 aged 58 (Wikipedia)

Monument & Inscriptions

The architectural design in alabaster surrounding Matthew Noble's white marble bust & bas-relief was by Sir George Gilbert Scott, RA and carried out by Messrs Farmer and Brindley (Daily Telegraph 2 August 1875) The Dean of Westminster had been responsible for choosing the inscriptions on the Monument. On the base of the bust was simply written: "FRANKLIN." Above & below the bas-relief of Erebus in the ice were verses from the Benedicite:

O ye frost & cold, O ye ice & snow,
Bless ye the Lord; Praise Him, and magnify Him for ever.

Below them the lines from Tennyson:

Not here: the White North has thy bones; And thou, 
Heroic Sailor-Soul,
Art passing on thine happier Voyage now,
Toward no Earthly Pole.

The inscription to the right of the Bust read:

"To the memory of Sir John Franklin, born April 16, 1786, at Spilsby, Lincolnshire: died June 11, 1847, off Point Victory, in the Frozen Ocean, the beloved chief of the crews who perished with him in completing the discovery of the North-West Passage"

and to the left:

"This Monument was erected by Jane, his widow, who, after long waiting and sending many in search of him, herself departed to find him in the realms of Light July 18, 1875, aged 83 years"

After the ceremony Catherine wrote a letter (whereabouts unknown) to her friend Mrs Halliday with an account of the unveiling. Mrs Halliday wrote several pages of notes based on Catherine's letter, & these notes reveal something which isn't mentioned in Catherine's diary or Hardie's funeral letter:

It seems that as Jane Franklin lay in her coffin, before the lid was sealed, the immortal lines composed by Tennyson & written out by him, were placed into her hand to accompany her in death, along with a letter from Bishop Selwyn.

From Mrs Halliday's notes:

"The words of the Benedicite, chosen by the Dean, are so appropriate!

Tennysons too, are remarkable.

A copy of them, written by Himself, were put into her Hand in her Coffin, with the letter of Bishop Selwyn of Lichfield, from which the words of the Inscriptions, (recording her placing that Monument to her Husbands Memory) were taken."

Only death would have prevented Jane Franklin from attending the unveiling of this last Monument to her husband, but at least in death she carried the essence of that memorial in her hand, clutching those papers in her coffin as she descended via hydraulic machinery to the Catacombs of Kensal Green.

Additional Memorials

In 1908 a memorial to Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock was added beneath the monument to Sir John Franklin, of alabaster made by Farmer & Brindley:

"Here also is commemorated Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock 1819-1907, Discoverer of the Fate of Franklin in 1859"

A memorial stone to Dr John Rae was unveiled in September 2014, in red Orkney sandstone with Celtic style lettering by Charles Smith: 

"John Rae 1813-1893 Arctic Explorer"

Friday, August 21, 2020

Jane Franklin and the Westminster Memorial (1 of 2)

This week, we present another guest post by Mary Williamson, who is Sir John Franklin's great-great-grand-niece and a skilled researcher and archivist in her own right. This acount, compiled from letters in her family archive, gives us a fresh look at the final days of Lady Franklin, and the memorial to her husband at Westminster Abbey.


Catherine Rawnsley, John Franklin’s niece who lived at Halton Holgate Rectory in Lincolnshire, visited her Aunt Jane Franklin two or three times a year. On 29th January 1874, she attended “Friday dinner at Aunt Franklins” but a visit the following November had found her ailing:

        “Saturday 21st  Went to see Aunt Franklin whom I found up stairs very feeble but quite herself in mind & memory. She is unable to walk up & down stairs but can go across her room, after a few minutes talk about things in general & the Arctic Expedition in particular I left her feeling it doubtful whether I shall ever see this very remarkable woman again as she is so bent on going abroad to Lisbon for the winter & I can hardly believe she will return. Mrs Grinnell & Mrs Ruxton came in while I was there”

Jane Franklin struggled through the winter, but was too ill to see Catherine when she  visited on 4th June 1875: “went to see Sophy Cracroft & found Aunt F was very ill & unlike herself”

So her death just a month later on 18th July came as no surprise, & Catherine wrote a fitting tribute in her Diary to an Aunt she admired & respected: 

     “The tidings reached us first through the Times of 19th which contain a long & ably written notice of her. She was as it described her a very gifted & remarkable woman. She had seen, done & suffered much in her long life, the suspense as to my Uncles long unknown fate would have worn out a less brave & indomitable spirit. It was singular that two people of such determined & untiring energy as my Uncle & Aunt should come together. Brave, persevering & deeply pious as he was, hers was I always believe the master mind, her intellect so clear to within a few months of her death, her judgement so sound, her breadth & depth of intellect so remarkable, no petty feelings or narrow views. She had been gradually failing for 2 years but only because too feeble to walk up & down stairs the last few months…” 

Catherine’s son Hardie (Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley) attended Jane Franklin’s funeral at Kensal Green on July 23rd 1875. His description of the funeral in a letter to his mother has already been covered (Visions of the North 13 December 2018). He didn’t attend the unveiling of the Monument to Sir John Franklin at Westminster Abbey on Saturday 31st July, possibly because he had already seen the Bust in the Sculptor Matthew Noble’s studio on the morning of the funeral, which he recorded in  a poem:

“Quiet, and cold, and white as frozen snow!
Well has the master’s cunning hand expres’t
The honours on that honourable breast
The speaking eye, the calm command of brow -
Ah! if those eyes could weep, they would weep now!
Today we carry to a well-earned rest
One who hath need, not any more, of quest
Whose love out championed her marriage vow.
She needs no tomb, her monument shall be
The ancient bergs, that mound the Northern Sea,
And when to summer waters melting slip
Those giant crystals that enshrine thy ship
The men that sail where thou & thine do sleep
Shall tell her love more lasting, & as deep.”

Hardie’s mother did attend the Unveiling & wrote about the trip to London: 

     “29th  Left Skegness by the 3.30 train to go to London to stay till Monday with Sophy Cracroft & be present at the unveiling of the Monument to my Uncle John Franklins memory at Westminster Abbey on Saturday… Found Sophy as well as I expected after her illness & terrible over fatigue & anxiety, in watching her Aunt.

Friday 30th  … In the evening heard many details of Aunt F’s last days on earth, painful but interesting to me.

Saturday 31st  … Returned to 45 Phillimore Gardens to luncheon where I found Harriet Wright & Emma Lefroy arrived with Franklin & Bella, soon after Capt. Hobson the finder of the record arrived with his wife, met Bishop Nixon whom I had not seen since 1848 at Hartley, kind & courteous.  We all went at 4 to the Abbey, were joined in the Nave by Mrs Osmer the widow of the Purser of the Erebus & her daughter. Found the Dean (Stanley) waiting for us in the Nightingale Chapel & several friends assemble & amongst them the Ice Masters widow Mrs Blanky, an aged woman. Noble the Sculptor met us at the gate of the Chapel looking shadowy to the last degree. Margaret was there. The Dean asked if all Miss Cracrofts party were there. 

On the answer yes! being given Sir George Back stepped forward & in silence drew off the white cloth that had covered the Monument & reveal a most beautifully executed Bust & bas relief. The Bust is a very fair likeness, even to me who remember him so perfectly that I could point out the 2 or 3 failing points, as Sir George B said it is a fine Historic bust but not a perfect likeness. He is the last left of my Uncles brave companions in both his land Expeditions beside having served with him in the Trent. The bas relief representing the Erebus in the ice & the pennant lowered to show the death of the beloved Captain, is singularly beautiful, the dazzling whiteness of the marble gives so much effect to the representation of bergs & shrouds & hung with icicles”

The ceremony was clearly a very moving occasion. Catherine noticed that: “The poor Ice Masters widow was quite overcome” 

Monday, August 17, 2020

New Franklin Discovery from the Air

Photo by Joseph Monteith
Photo by Joseph Monteith
Sometimes even the most significant discoveries happen by happy accident. Such was the case with a series of aerial photographs of Beechey Island taken by Joseph Monteith of Iqaluit. It's a storied location, and since there are no expedition cruise ships or other visitors this season, it's one of the few ways any Franklin buff was going to be able to catch a glimpse of its graves and monuments. Joseph shared his photos with fellow aficionados on Facebook, and I was glad to see them, surprised as their clarity and detail. The second photo of the series, though, caught my eye at once: there was a structure, some sort of earthwork, with a curious shape -- a shape I felt certain I had seen before.

And I had. In the pages of my late friend Garth Walpole's Relics of the Franklin Expedition, which I edited after his death, there was a reproduction of a sketch made by Sherard Osborn, who arrived with the very first ships that reached Beechey and discovered the iconic Franklin expedition graves. There were other features in the vicinity of these memorials, though -- a place where a forge or smithy had been erected, an attempt at a garden (by means a transplanted chunk of muskeg from the adjoining flats), and a structure -- apparently a storehouse. Osborn described the structure in some detail:
It consisted of an exterior and interior embankment, into which, from the remnants left, we saw that oak and elm scantling had been struck as props to the roofing; in one part of the enclosed space some coal-sacks were found, and in another part numerous wood-shavings proved the ship's artificers to have been working here. The generally received opinion as to the object of this storehouse was, that Franklin had constructed it to shelter a portion of his superabundant provisions and stores, with which it was well known his decks were lumbered on leaving Whale-Fish Islands.
Even better, he provided a sketch, which indicated the extraordinary scale of this establishment: it was nearly 70 feet long on its longest edge, and 60 feet wide, along with an L-shaped interior embankment -- all described as "four feet through at the base, and five feet high, in which posts had been sunk." Within what must have been a sturdy enclosure, an area thick with wood shavings suggested a carpenter's workshop. Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, in his own account, also mentioned finding "a stocking without a foot, sewed up at its edge, and a mitten not so much the worse for use as to have been without value by its owner" -- and amazingly, this very stocking is preserved in the collections of the National Maritime Museum!

It must have been quite a solid structure -- but Osborn's idea of it as a storehouse for "superabundant provisions" seems unlikely -- for no provisions were left in it. Quite beyond that, the timbers which supported its structure, possibly of canvas, had themselves been removed -- so its use was more likely as a shelter for activities in the winter. That there was time to take it down so thoroughly also argues against the usual assumption that the ships left their anchorage there in a hurry.  So thorough was their work that the remaining earthworks were almost completely forgotten, and never -- so far as I know -- studied by archaeologists. And yet we can see, in Monteith's photo, the entire structure survives intact, its outline an exact match for Osborn's sketch. What a fortunate accident indeed -- the light was just right to throw it into relief!

The observant viewer will also note a second structure, almost perfectly circular, nearby; from Osborn's scale I'd guess its diameter at around twenty feet. My friend Andrés Paredes suggests that it may have been an observatory, noting that the Ross Arctic expedition constructed one that was similarly circular (left). It's certainly a possibility; what we'd want to do would be to have a proper site excavation by modern archaeologists; assuming that some material still lies at or near the surface, the use of each structure might have been. As the one trace of a building actually erected by Franklin's men, there's no underestimating the significance of what might be found.

With thanks to Joseph Monteith for permission to use his photograph!

Saturday, June 27, 2020

A lost season

Coronation Gulf, 2019 (author photo)
Since Parks Canada first became involved with the search for Franklin's ship's in 2008, there's been only one summer without either a search for, or dives on, the wrecks of Franklin's ships (that was in 2009). And this year, sadly, the reason is not the lack of funding or resources from the government, but rather the COVID-19 crisis that has gripped the world; given the inevitability of individual interaction -- and the fact that, as of today, there are still no known cases of the coronavirus in Nunavut -- the risks of a dive season outweighed its possible benefits. The dead, as they should, must wait on the living.

There's a silver lining of sorts -- the time, and some of the resources, that would have been devoted to this year's dives will now be focused on the study of the enormous trove of objects -- more than 350 -- recovered last year. According to a statement released by the Ministry of the Environment, "Parks Canada will temporarily shift its focus for exploration of the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to advancing research, in collaboration with Inuit, on the many artifacts recovered during the 2019 research season." The statement goes on to say:
"While Parks Canada will not conduct field research at the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in 2020, the Agency will advance plans in collaboration with Inuit for the 2021 research season. Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team may also move forward in 2020 with other projects aboard the RV David Thompson - Parks Canada's newest research vessel. These potential activities in southern Canada may include projects that support Parks Canada's archaeological, climate change and biological research, new protected area establishment and outreach initiatives."
So it's good to know that, not only will work on the recovered artifacts get added resources, those that can't be repurposed that way -- such as the RV David Thompson -- will not be wasted. It's a little hard for us "Franklinites" to bear in mind, but the wrecks of Erebus and Terror aren't the only significant underwater archaeological sites in Canada.

For myself, I'll just express the hope that, as part of this shift of focus, that information about the many objects recovered in 2019 which have not yet been publicly disclosed will be shared more extensively. Around the world, Franklin buffs both amateur and professional are keenly interested in what's been found, and eager to do anything they can to aid in their understanding. Many, though not all of us, have a bit more time on their hands than before -- and there's nothing we're more eager to devote this time to than to expand our understanding of the significance of these extraordinary archaeological finds.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Fair Augusta

"The Fair Augusta" as she looks today
Few have looked upon such extraordinary voyages as has she, and none of her contemporaries remain to tell their tale. Once proudly looking forth from the brig "Advance," she's been further north than any of her peers, and survived the wreck of her ship by more than a century and a half. The expedition's leader, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, took something of a risk in bringing her back when they began their difficult retreat to the south -- but, as his men observed, she was made of wood -- "if we cannot carry her far, we can burn her." And carry her far they did, aboard the tiny boat they christened the "Hope," and she saw them find their way back to safety in Upernavik. Kane was celebrated as a hero, although the parades of welcome were followed in only a few months by his funeral. The Kane Lodge, a Masonic establishment that had sponsored Elisha's entry into that ancient fraternity, changed its name to honor him, and its members still meet regularly at their Manhattan location. And it's there, in a glass case in the corner, that the Fair Augusta turns her eyes upon you, and poses her Sphinx-like riddle: who is it that goes forth proudly, and returns humbly, minus a nose, yet survives to return home?

In her day, she was widely known and celebrated; she even had her own song, the "Fair Augusta Schottisch," with her portrait on its cover; in 1893 she was put on display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1910, she was hailed thusly in a speech given at the Lodge:
The fair Augusta was the figurehead of Kane's ship, and with a devotion to the noble hero, worthy of all praise and exhibiting what the sex can do, who kept her position in ceaseless battles with the surging ice until she lost her nose, and no woman could be expected to head an expedition after her nose was gone ... Kane Lodge keeps her as its presiding angel; she knows all our secrets and has never given one away.
One other question is who was the model for her -- or was she, indeed, modeled after any one person? A leading candidate, of course, would be Dr. Kane's paramour Margaret Fox, one of the well-known "Fox Sisters" whose "spirit rappings" captivated a nation until they were revealed (by the sisters themselves) as a fraud.

Margaret Fox
By some accounts, Kane was aware of the deception, and tried to persuade Margaret to break away from her sisters. According to others, including Margaret herself, they were secretly married. Whatever marital bliss might have awaited was foreclosed in February of 1857, when Kane died of heart disease in Havana. Margaret and her sisters, after a disastrous "revelation" tour in which they exposed their methods, drifted in and out of spiritualist circles. Margaret stayed for a time in England with her sister Kate, who had married  a London barrister; at some point after his death Margaret returned to New York, where she died in March of 1893. Most of the notices were critical of her career, though a writer for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle struck a more sombre and sympathetic tone: "She lived for several years on what [Kane] had left, but this soon gave out, and she was left to the care of her friends. Her mediumistic power decreased, and she lived a life of solitude and retirement, until death found her in absolute destitution." 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A seldom-seen image of Mathinna

©Trustees of the British Museum
The sad lot of Mathinna, an indigenous Australian girl who was adopted and later abandoned by Sir John Franklin and his wife Jane, haunts the edges of their historical legacy, posing uncomfortable questions and standing as a symbol of the colonial presence in Tasmania -- one which led to the near-genocide of the indigenous population.

For many years, most people's image Mathinna has shaped by Thomas Bock's well-known watercolor portrait, showing an almost-smiling girl wearing a red dress that had been given her by Lady Franklin. And yet now, from the archives of the British Museum, another, much less well-known portrait has emerged. A drawing by John Skinner Prout, it's monochromatic except for Mathinna's face, arms, and feet -- this may yet be the red dress, but its color has gone. It was among a series of portraits made in February and March of 1845 on Flinders Island; by that time, Mathinna's erstwhile adopted parents were long gone back to England, and Sir John was getting ready for what would be his final, fatal voyage. There is no smile on this girl's face, but there does seem to be a kind of clear-eyed reflection on her circumstances, and those of her people.

The portrait was among a series that Prout brought back to England, which he sold to Joseph Barnard Davis; when Davis died in 1881, he willed the collection to the British Museum. Davis, who himself has served as a surgeon aboard an Arctic voyage, may have been interested in the Franklin connection, but more pertinently it fit with his collector's interest in ethnographic portraiture; a special interest was early skulls from the British Isles. It was not published or widely known, and although several of Prout's portraits were exhibited in Tasmania in 2019 as part of an exhibition, "The National Picture: The Art of Tasmania's Black War," it's not clear whether his sketch of Mathinna was included. I reached out to Booker-Prize-winning Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan -- whose 2009 novel Wanting took up Mathinna's story -- he told me that he had "never seen the image, nor heard of it," calling it "beautiful and enigmatic." It's a small example of how sometimes, even work that has been consigned to the careful care of a national museum can lie hidden in plain sight.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Eric Harvie and the Franklin relics

Eric Harvie
Back in 2018, I revealed the re-discovery of the wooden anvil block recovered from the Franklin Expedition campsite at Beechey Island -- a wonderful and welcome return to the public eye, as the centerpiece of an exhibit that had just opened then at the Glenbow, "The Arctic: Real and Imagined Views from the Nineteenth Century."

Many since have wondered, though, how this storied object came to return to Canada at the point when most of the Franklin materials in the disbanded Museum of the Royal United Services Museum went instead to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The answer comes with the name of one man: Eric Harvie, the millionaire oilman responsible for the founding of Glenbow, and still at the time of the anvil base's acquisition continuing a very ambitious program to expand the Museum's holdings.

When Harvie got word that the RUSI Museum's holdings were to be de-accessioned, his first impulse was to  attempt to acquire the entire collection of Franklin materials! That certainly would have been a magnificent addition, but there was considerable resistance to the Franklin relics' leaving the United Kingdom. Not to be discouraged, Harvie persisted, peppering the RUSI board, the High Commissioner for Canada, and the Canadian Ministry of Defense with more missives than Lady Franklin dispatched to the Admiralty in her husband's cause. At one point, exasperated, he declared to the Defense minister, “Canada is a member of the Commonwealth; has been for many years in joining in defense and maintenance of the Empire and, in fact, has very little by way of museum material to show for it."

Eventually, those handling the collection relented, and small but deeply symbolic group of items -- including the anvil base -- was shipped to Calgary. I had held out hope that, just possibly, other Franklin relics that have gone missing -- particularly the board that Schwatka believed came from within one of the ships with the initials "I.F" in copper tacks -- but alas, no. Now, thanks to Logan Zachary, I know that the board was not apparently among the RUSI items dispersed at its closure, though the anvil block was -- see his guest post at Alison Freebairn's wonderful blog, "There Stood No Friendly Finger-Post to Guide Us." The search goes on.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Le Vesconte's Will

Courtesy the LeVesconte/Wills families
As they prepared for their voyage of exploration, most of the officers of Sir John Franklin's ships "Erebus" and "Terror" took one final precaution -- they made their wills. This shouldn't be taken as an instance of some sort of fatalism; many who left on less hazardous journeys took a similar precaution -- after all, any lengthy voyage at sea in those days was an uncertain proposition; many such wills (including those of Franklin's officers) can still be had from the National Archives at Kew.

Yet the last will and testament of Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte had one singular difference: it was actually written, witnessed, and signed aboard HMS "Erebus" on May 15th, 1845, very shortly before the ships sailed. Perhaps Henry was a bit of a procrastinator; perhaps some communication from his family reminded him at the last moment that he ought to attend to this business. After all, as Barbara Rich has aptly chronicled in her series of articles about Le Vesconte's fellow officer Edward Couch, even when a will existed, it was no guarantee that one's estate would not end up in the dreaded Court of Chancery. It was best to err on the side of caution.

There's nothing else too unusual about Le Vesconte's will -- like many of the officers, his own personal estate was not particularly vast or valuable -- aside from his cousin Henrietta, to whom he specially bequeathed £100 of his wages, his primary legatees were his parents -- but it lends a great sense of immediacy to the feeling aboard ship just prior to sailing:
"I, Henry Thos. Dundas Le Vesconte, Lt. in the Royal Navy, being about to proceed on a Voyage of Discovery in the Polar Seas, and desirous to dispose of what property I may be possessed of, in the event of my death, do make this solemn Will and Testament.
What is still more striking are the witnesses listed at the bottom of the second leaf: "Mr. [James] Fairholme, Lt. R.N., and J[ohn] Weekes, Carpenter." It would make sense that Fairholme would be at hand, as he was next in rank to Le Vesconte, but the attestation of the ship's carpenter adds a touching instance of trust between the ship's officers and the ordinary sailors. I've shared this find with Gordon Morris, who played Weekes in the AMC production "The Terror," and he was struck by this as well. This was no ordinary camaraderie among a ship's crew -- many of them had only just met -- but a deeper, shared sense of risks undertaken, of destiny. Today, in this strange and uncertain voyage on which everyone on Earth is now embarked, may it stand as a small, clear beacon of light for us all.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Captains Courageous

Captain Francis Crozier (L) and Captain Brett Crozier (R)
It's more than just a coincidence of names -- it's a coincidence of character. Though born 174 years apart, both men were both drawn to the sea at an early age, though in the case of Captain Brett Elliott Crozier, it was as a naval aviator that he first distinguished himself. Born in Santa Rosa, California in 1970, he started out as a helicopter pilot, flying SH-60B Seahawks, before making the unusual switch to fixed-wing craft and leading a squadron of F18 Hornets. But it was that first assignment that stuck with him, and was the source of his nickname, "Chopper." After flying off of carriers, he eventually came to command them, first as captain of the USS Blue Ridge, an amphibious vessel, and then -- just this past November -- of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), a nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier with a crew of over five thousand sailors.

Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was born in Banbridge, County Down, Ireland in 1796. Like many of his generation, his naval service started early, when at the age of thirteen he volunteered for the Royal Navy. His early service brought him into many far-distant places, among them Pitcairn Island where the mutineers of HMS Bounty had settled, as well as the Cape of Good Hope, which he visited while serving aboard HMS Doterel. His career soon brought him into what was informally known as the "Discovery Service," when he signed up with William Edward Parry for his second expedition to the Arctic in 1821. This voyage included a wintering-over near the seasonal settlement of Igloolik, where Crozier had a great deal of contact with Inuit, and was said to have acquired a fair speaking knowledge of Inuktitut. His first significant command was that of HMS Terror, serving under James Clark Ross aboard HMS Erebus on an Antarctic expedition that stretched from 1839 to 1843. He didn't acquire (so far as we know) any nicknames, but his close friends always knew him as "Frank."

Neither man sought out controversy, nor could have anticipated the challenges that fate would place in their way. For Francis Crozier, it came in the form of his second voyage in command of Terror, this time under Sir John Franklin in search of the Northwest Passage in 1845. Being second-in-command was a more comfortable place for Frank than being the overall commander, and though he was never as close to Franklin as he had been to Ross, he was happy to serve in that capacity. For Captain Brett Crozier, one might imagine that he enjoyed a mightier perch -- and yet, just as with Francis, he was obliged to work in close quarters with his immediate supervisor, Rear Admiral Stuart P. Baker. Since the Theodore Roosevelt is the flagship of her squadron, Admiral Baker's headquarters was immediately adjacent to Crozier's, and they would have eaten in the same mess, seeing each other on a fairly frequent basis.

Then came the crisis. For Francis Crozier, it was the death of his commanding officer, which took place at a time when both ships were icebound, and had been for more than a year. The crisis he inherited only grew more grim, as it began to appear that neither ship was going to be freed from the ice, even in this, their second summer. We can't know exactly what went through his mind, but eventually the decision had to be made, and Crozier ordered both ships abandoned, with an effort made for his men to survive on land, and for some of them (at least) to find help and rescue. Similarly, the crisis that struck Captain Brett Crozier's ship -- an outbreak of the virus that causes COVID-19 -- threatened the lives of all of his men, and similarly he sought to save them by moving them ashore. His efforts to do so apparently having met with resistance, he wrote a letter and sent it to his superiors, reportedly including some not in the chain of command. One has to assume that he wasn't able to get Admiral Baker's full support, or the letter makes no sense -- but bad news that leaks out, by whatever means, is often cause for reprimand. In this case, it was the severest kind: Captain Crozier was relieved of his command. We don't know the all details as of why that happened, but we do know one thing: as Captain Brett Crozier walked down the gangway to the dock, his sailors -- both aboard ship and on shore -- raised a hearty cheer of admiration and appreciation.

We may never know whether the men of Erebus and Terror raised a similar cheer -- though well they may have -- but we do know that, in their peril and disorientation following the abandonment of the ships, they followed their Captain's orders faithfully and well. In Francis Crozier's case, the peril that endangered his men eventually claimed his life. Let us hope that this won't be the case for Captain Brett Crozier, who has tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.  His courage and dedication to his men's safety was very much in the mold of Francis Crozier's, and deserves our thanks and admiration. They are both heroes for their times.

NB: I've been asked whether the two Captains might be related. Brett Crozier's branch of the family seems to have been in California and Arizona for some generations; Francis Crozier had no children, but I don't know of any of his relations having emigrated to America -- so my guess would be that their relationship -- in family terms -- is a distant one.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Two "Resolute" ships

The Resolute, showing her slightly-dented bow
It's a storied name. The original HMS "Resolute," one of the ships of Belcher's ill-fated Franklin search squadron, was abandoned in the Arctic, and none of her officers and crew expected to see her again -- and yet, against all odds, she found her own way free, drifted down to the Davis Strait, where she was retrieved by an American whaler. Refurbished by an Act of Congress, she was sailed back across the sea by the gallant Captain Hartstene and presented to Queen Victoria. Years later, when she was retired and broken up, her Majesty caused several desks to be made from her timbers, the best-known of which was presented to President Rutherford B. Hayes, and sits now in the Oval Office of the White House.

Fast forward a hundred and forty years. Once again we have a doughty ship,  the Resolute, and once more she's stranded far from home. Most recently the flagship of the now-defunct One Ocean Expeditions, she'd cruised both the Arctic and Antarctic, parting those icy waters with her reinforced bow -- but now she lay at the port of Buenos Aires, arrested for unpaid debts. Word of her ultimate destiny remains uncertain; apparently she was purchased or leased by a German ship management company, Columbia Cruise Services GmbH, and shifted to Portuguese registry before being sailed north. It seems she was on her way to a port call in the Caribbean when -- in international waters off the island of Tortuga -- she was suddenly challenged by a patrol boat from the Venezuelan navy, the Naiguatá.

The Naiguatá
Although far outside Venezuela's territorial waters, the captain of the Naiguatá apparently challenged the Resolute and attempted to order it into a Venezuelan port. The captain of the Resolute refused this order, at which point shots were fired from the Naiguatá, and she attempted to ram the bow of the Resolute to force her to turn shoreward. Doubtless the captain of the Naiguatá was unaware that this was an ice-strengthened vessel, originally built in 1991 as the Society Adventurer and later the Hanseatic; her bow was more than a match for such efforts. Instead, after repeated, deliberate collisions, the Naiguatá suffered severe damage to her bow, and began taking on water.  The Resolute alerted the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Curaçao, who initiated a rescue operation; not long after, the Naiguatá sank, but all hands were saved. It may be the only known engagement in which a naval war vessel was sunk by a polar cruise ship -- and the Resolute once again proved that she was aptly named.