Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Franklin-era tin tests positive for lead

It's only been about a week and a half since a discussion here on this blog, where I suggested that someone ought to locate, open, and study a tin of Franklin's provisions. I'm sure it's just a coincidence (either that or I have unknown cosmic powers), but researchers at McMaster University have just done this exact experiment, and the results are clear: lead levels on the tin's lid are "off the map." The contents -- the notorious "Ox Cheek Soup" itself -- have already tested high for lead content. All of this is very strong circumstantial evidence that it is quite possible that lead from tinned food was a significant contributor to elevated lead levels found in bones and tissue tested from both the Beechey Island graves and the site identified as "Ng-Lj2" on King William Island.

It should be stressed, though, that the case remains circumstantial. The contents of the tin were enclosed for more than a century, which is a lot more time -- by at least a factor of 50 -- than any food actually eaten on the expedition. Furthermore, this tin was not one of the Goldner tins supplied to Franklin, so its method of manufacture and preservation may be significantly different, although closely contemporary. To really establish that this tin would have caused significant elevated lead levels if the soup had been consumed when intended, a totally different sort of experiment would have to be undertaken: you'd need to prepare a fresh batch of soup with the same basic qualities -- salinity, acidity, and so forth -- and then can it using identical materials and methods to those observed in this tin. Then, of course, you'd have to wait!

Amazingly, this is exactly what the researchers at McMaster plan to do. Having an actual tin in their possession is a plus -- the materials and qualities of the soup can be very closely replicated -- and they're planning to open and test their replica tin in one year. According to the McMaster website's article:
"With the lead levels confirmed, McMaster's Department of Anthropology will next make a batch of the ox cheek soup and can it using methods from the 1840s. Over the course of a year the cans will be opened and analyzed. Researchers will then be able to gauge how quickly lead leaches into soup rendering it lethal. Lead poisoning has long been considered a cause of death for the ill-fated explorers."
This is welcome news. I hope to be able to report in more detail on this current experiment, and will certainly pass along any results from the tests as they are announced.

None of this, of course, will completely resolve the issue of lead poisoning and the Franklin expedition. However, it should give us a far clearer picture both of the likely source of the lead, and the strength and extent of the contamination. William Battersby has argued that lead from the tins was insufficient to cause the very high levels found in bone samples, and used this argument to support his case that lead pipes in the ships' fresh-water distilling apparatus are a more likely culprit. A low level of lead leeching over one year would support his argument; a high level would make his claim less certain, but would not of course rule it out. Finally, whatever the source, the role of lead poisoning in the expedition's sad conclusion is itself a matter of some debate. The levels of lead in the bones from Ng-Lj-2 varied widely, with one or two individuals likely suffering from acute lead toxicity, while others had only moderately elevated levels. Did officers, because they were issued a larger ration of tinned food, end up with more lead? Whose bones were whose? And, aside from its physical effects, would the diminution of mental alacrity associated with lead poisoning be so great that it can be blamed as the sole, or primary cause of what, in hindsight, appear to be poor decisions? The debate will surely go on.

(photo courtesy of McMaster University Daily News)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The "Canadian" Northwest Passage?

So here we go again! The Canadian House of Commons has come out with a motion to rename the "Northwest Passage" the "Canadian Northwest Passage." It's a strange and surreal claim, although its context -- the concern over Canada's sovereignty to its Arctic territories -- is at least somewhat sensible. Down here, it would be like renaming the Mississippi River the "American Mississippi River," except of course that no one is claiming rights of free passage from New Orleans to St. Louis. What's more, though, is that this renaming has got caught up with Inuit concerns over their right to reassert indigenous place names, along with the whole history of the Passage as an Icon of British Naval quests generally, meaning Sir John Franklin and all who searched for him can't be far behind.

Everyone should take a break here and consider the facts. As my good friend Kenn Harper observes, the "Northwest Passage" was an idea long before it was a reality; in fact, its essence is that of a quest, or a desire, rather than a fulfillment. Of course, other imaginary names have ended up on maps before (see for instance the Straits of Juan de Fuca, which were named after the man who sought the fabled Strait of Anián, a nonexistant route across the Americas, in 1592), but in point of fact there is no such waterway with this name. It was imagined as a singularity, but is in fact a multiplicity; there are any number of potential routes through the inland Arctic waters of Canada, including that taken by Sir Robert McClure, that taken by Roald Amundsen, that taken by the SS Manhattan, and many others since. A Government can, of course, name any physical feature what it wants, but the "Northwest Passage" is not a physical feature at all.

It is, in fact, a very Romantic idea, and ought to be celebrated in just that spirit, rather than pinned down to a map. And the finest emobodiment of this spirit, I am sure many readers of this blog will agree, is Stan Rogers' song of 1981, "Northwest Passage." It embodies the idea, and the passion of the Passage, connecting the exploits of Sir John Franklin, Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson, and Henry Kelsey with Rogers' own symbolic passage, which was undertaken via the Trans-Canada highway as "this tardiest explorer." It's an extraordinary song, one which -- by Rogers' own account -- came to him as he lay in a darkened recording studio, with the thrumming of the amplifier tubes as his drones. It has been called Canada's unofficial national anthem, and with good reason: the significance of the Passage, and Franklin's death, and Rogers', are all bound up in it. In the efforts to assert Canadian sovereignty over its inland waters, it has been caught up as a sort of talisman, but that's not a purpose it should serve. Instead, I hope it reminds everyone -- in Canada and elsewhere -- of the power of a story wrought with sacrifice, fringed with fear, and concluding with the unity of a diverse Nation, brought together not with declarations of some body of legislators, but with dreams.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sad state of Arctic Graves

The day after the Franklin memorial service in Greenwich this past October, a number of us met at Kensal Green Cemetery in London for a walking tour of Polar graves. Among our party were Dr Huw Lewis-Jones, Kari Herbert, and Kenn Harper, and on our list of graves to visit were Lady Jane Franklin, Sir John Ross, Admiral Inglefield, and Admiral McClure. None of us had visited the site before, and as the sun was slowly sinking in the west, we hurried against time to locate them using a map of the cemetery and directions from a guidebook. We weren't quite sure what to expect, the more so given the somewhat wild look of Kensal Green itself. Although home to many a famous skellington, the grounds were only barely maintained -- some attempt had been made to trim the grass, with the cuttings blown about this way and that -- and the uneven settling of the ground made many of the monuments lean this way and that. "DANGER: Loose Stonework and Collapsing Graves -- Keep to the Roads and Pathways" warned a sign we passed on our way in, and it was a warning well heeded.
The first of the graves we found was that of Sir John Ross; it was in fairly sound condition, though listing notably to starboard. The carved anchor with chain was largely intact, and the applied metal letters -- a standard of the era, apparently -- were all still in place. We next turned our search toward Lady Franklin, whose marker was of a simpler construction, a stone cross on a tiered pedestal -- precisely, it soon appeared, the same as hundreds of memorials in the vicinity. It was some time before we stumbled upon it, and it was a sad sight; many of the metal letters had come loose, leaving little holes in the limestone base. "ADY FRANKLIV" the stone read, "DIED 18 ULY 9," and underneath "SOPHIA CRACRO" followed by a nearly illegible inscription. The words "Arctic,""search," and "brave companions" could be made out, but not much more. To capture the mood, I sang a stanza of the ballad "Lady Franklin's Lament"

'Twas homeward bound one night on the deep,
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream, and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin, and his gallant crew ...

A man passing by asked for directions, breaking the mood and leaving us all to our own thoughts. Kenn has written about the sad state of this memorial in his Taissumani column in the Nunatsiaq News, and I heartily agree with his comments there: "I was frankly shocked. So this was the fate of the mortal remains of the second most-famous woman in mid-19th century England."

Next, we tracked down Admiral Inglefield, whose career was connected with the Greenwich memorial we had just attended; he was the very one who had brought back the bones supposed to be Le Vesconte's from Washington D.C. to London. His memorial was half-covered over with grass and dirt; after running back to the car for some work gloves, Huw managed to clear off much of the debris, and we found the inscription intact. His epitaph singled out his Polar experience, reading "Commanded three Arctic expeditions 1852.3.4 and discovered 800 miles of new coasts."

Lastly, we located the monument of Robert McClure, which turned out to be very difficult to locate; its low, pink marble stone gave it the look of a far more recent grave. And yet, obscure though it was, the epitaph was, in many way, the most satisfying of the three:

"In Memory of Vice Admiral Sir Robert John le M. McClure C.B. Born 28 January 1807 died 17 October 1873. As Captain of HMS 'Investigator' AD 1850-54 he discovered and accomplished the Northwest Passage "Thus we launch into this formidable frozen sea"', 'SPES MEA IN DEO'"

Afterwards, we also managed to locate the grave of Wilkie Collins, which was quite near McClure's; it too was in a rather shabby condition, despite a small placard informing us that the Wilkie Collins Society was responsible for its maintenance. All in all, it was a strange and somewhat melancholy visit, with our distress felt most deeply over Lady Franklin's marker. Surely the woman that the Times of London once called "Our English Penelope" deserved a better marker, or at least a better maintained one, than this!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Franklin curiosities: Songs of the North

Among the slimmest, and most delightful items in my collection is this Australian chapbook, printed entirely in letterpress, and reproducing some of the ship-board printing from Arctic vessels of the Franklin era. It's a rare hand-set example, printed on much the same technology that the sailors in Belcher's squadron used themselves, made possible thanks to the Ancora Press at the Centre for the Book at Monash University in Melbourne. Founded in 1976, it is operated jointly by the University's English department, Library, and Communications department.

Much of their printing is done on a cast-iron press made in 1857 by Hopkinson and Cope of London, on indefinite loan from the State Library of Victoria. There is also an 1890's era Wade of Halifax press (used for this volume), as well as a modern steel press made in California in 1982. The predominant type used is Monotype Bembo, an old-style Serif typeface which is the ancestor of the Garamond font family familiar to modern users of word-processing and design software. As to the subject matter, they themselves say simply that it is "generally bookish or literary," but clearly a connection with Australia, or with early or significant printing, is among their criteria.

For this volume, poems printed on board ships in Arctic service were the inspiration, and the selection is small but judicious. First among equals is the "ARCTIC ANTHEM," once sung aboard HMS "Resolute," to the tune of "God Save the Queen":

God bless the Resolute

(A ship of good repute,)

And all her Crew!

Make her victorious

Over old Boreas

Whene'er he's uproarious

Our Consorts too.

Having heard my friend Dr Huw Lewis-Jones sing these lines on more than one occasion, it is his voice that instantly comes to mind as I read them, but I also at times try to imagine the sound of the Resolute's officers and men, under the dedicated and distinguished Captain Kellett, singing this in chorus as their voices echo out through the vast and desolate wilderness of ice, amidst which, though they could not know it, they would later be ordered to abandon their hardy vessel. Also included are "The Arctic Voyagers' Song" (to the tune of "Ivy Green"), the "Traveller's Evening Song," "The Arctic Mariner," and the infamous "Song of the Sledge," to which many a sailor once man-hauled a heavily-laden sledge over the frozen wastes:

Hark! Save, or we perish -- is borne on the gale;
When such is their need, is there one that would fail?
No! Shoulder to shoulder we'll search the dark West
And smile at all toil, & ask not for rest.

The collection concludes with "Appeal to the Seamen & Marines of the Expedition," followed by "THE EPILOGUE at the close of the season, at THE ROYAL ARCTIC THEATRE, 28th February, 1851."

The Ancora Press is mainly conceived as a training ground for students who have an interest in careers related to the publishing trade; it gives them the very best sort of "hands-on" experience -- that with ink and platen, font and fond. They were kind enough to send this copy to me several years ago in hopes that my publicizing it would have good effect in keeping the program alive, which I very heartily hope that it has!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Digitized Arctic Charts at Library & Archives Canada

A major new digital initiative of the Library and Archives of Canada has recently been completed: the digital scanning of all the British Admiralty Charts of Canadian waters. It's an impressive feat, the more so in an era when the Library has had severe cutbacks in staff and funding; perhaps the present Government's interest in the Northwest Passage and issues of Canadian sovereignty helped ensure that the project would be funded. Whatever the reason, it's cause for celebration among Arctic researchers. Among the digitized, zoomable charts is the original full-colour version of Rupert Thomas Gould's map of King William Island, officially known as Admiralty Chart No. 5101. To help users of the map weigh the evidence from different sources, map indications based on Naval observers were given in red ink, while Inuit testimony was shown in blue. You can now zoom in on any detail, and drag the zoomed image to show adjacent areas; it's almost as good as having the chart in your hands.

The only drawback of the project is that, vaster (or at least as vast as) Empires, it moves more slow -- much more slow. Even on a high-speed internet connection, searches seem to take a minute or more to run, and the full map image can take up to five minutes to finish loading. The search indicators and limiters are few, and are also slow to run, making it difficult to navigate that especially treacherous strait between too many and too few (or no) hits. Searching by name provides a potential shortcut, but this search option looks through all digitized materials, not just the maps; for places where there is a lot of other material, such as photographs, this can mean searching for the same needle in an even bigger haystack. Nevertheless, the results, when one does locate the chart wanted, are spectacular indeed, and will certainly reward the patient searcher.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Franklin curiosities: Toy replica of Goldner's tin

In my last posting, I mentioned another remarkable item in my collections, a small toy replica of one of Goldner's infamous red tins. It's about an inch tall, and is made from a wooden spool and painted with (non-toxic) red paint; wrapped in tissue, it fits snugly inside a box decorated with woodcuts of Arctic explorers, with the label "Franklin Expedition Arctic Discovery Play Set." A small leaflet within outlines the essential history, and explains the possible role of Goldner's tins in Franklin's demise. This remarkable item is the work of Ron Toelke, a graphic designer with many years of experience in the book trade, who has taken up the sideline of making extraordinary toys and gifts using old engravings and woodcuts of Polar voyages. In addition to the Franklin play-set, he's worked on a set of Franklin expedition playing cards, with Franklin and his officers as "Kings" and the ships as "Queens." (Interestingly, there was a set of such cards made back in the 1850's for Dr. Kane's Second Grinnell Expedition; these are on display at the library of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia).

Goldner's tins, of course, excite a sort of morbid curiosity -- and here Toelke has chosen the infamous "Ox Cheek" soup, which one imagines, even if wholesome and properly tinned, might cause some (understandable) queasiness. I've had some experience with these tins -- there's an original one in a glass case at the airport in Resolute, Nunavut -- and for the Franklin documentary I was in, the producer had made a number of cans spray-painted red. When I was in Los Angeles as the Velaslavasay Panorama, they made lovely full-size tins (Ox Cheek Soup being again featured), which were placed around the tables from which period Arctic fare was served. The actual degree to which these cans -- either from the lead in their solder, possible contamination with botulism, or simple putridity -- contributed to the demise of Franklin and his men remains a subject of fierce debate. I would only observe this: the much higher death rate among Franklin's officers, as opposed to ordinary seamen, must correlate with something -- and officers were regularly issued several times the tinned rations of sailors. Sounds like a fun game to me -- say, kids, who wants to go first?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Franklin curiosities: Erebo y Terror

Over the years, I've come to acquire all sorts of oddities and ephemera relating to the Franklin expedition, including chapbooks, newspaper articles, trading cards, and even toys (in the form of a lovely replica miniature can of poisoned beef, complete with box and informative notes -- it will be the subject of my next posting). But by far the rarest and most curious printed item is this tiny book, Erebo y Terror, published as part of a "Library of Micronesia" by Juan Miguel Muñoz, who at the time (2004) worked at the Spanish branch of Random House publishers. The book, bound in red, is accompanied by a small leaflet and a copy of Beard's daguerreotype of James Fitzjames, which themselves are contained in a CD jewel box, on which a tiny miniature compass is mounted (see photo). Both are enclosed in a slipcase featuring the logo of the Library, a tooth with the motto "De la pulcra Ceniza," which as far as I can make out with my limited Spanish, means "a little bit of ash."

I do wish I had better Spanish, as the book itself is entirely written in that language. Happily, the accompanying materials, including a little sheet of glassine which is folded inside the cover, have both English and Spanish texts. The publisher informed me that the book's first three sections -- Introducción, Prólogo, and Los pergamos del cabo Félix -- are fiction, and intoduce a fabulous manuscript said to be found among Franklin's relics, written by Paco Alarcón. The latter parts -- Mallory y Hatteras and El Paso del Noroeste -- are nonfictional accounts of the search for the Passage from Frobisher to Amundsen. According to the publisher, Franklin was never a major figure of interest in Spain, which was why this limited edition of 250 had, as of the time of his writing, not sold a single copy; 50 were sent as gifts, of which mine is numbered (paradoxically) A63. It seems like the sort of little book that might have been imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, and lain on a shelf between a Wycliffe bible and the Book of Sand -- and yet here it is, in my hand.

If anyone knows more about this curious volume, I'd be very happy to hear from them! I'll be featuring a different item from my collections every week or so, so if Arctic cabinets of curiosity stir your interest, do 'stay tuned'!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Copper sheathing of "Erebus" and "Terror"

The question of copper sheathing recovered during recent searches for HMSS "Erebus" and "Terror" has certainly piqued my curiosity. Robert Grenier tells me that only the Royal Navy used pure copper sheeting, although other sources say that pure copper was worn away too quickly, and alloys soon came to be preferred. The impurities in the copper, it turned out, toughened it just a bit, while still allowing some of the surface to be sloughed off along with the attendant bits of marine life. As one manual drawn up in the late nineteenth century put it:
"It is now known to all who have studied the subject that the cause of copper, yellow metal, zinc, and other metallic alloys placed on a ship's bottom, keeping clean and free from fouling, is the exfoliation of the metal and the constant renewal of the surface caused thereby, through which the adherent matter is, as it were, sent adrift, by the friction of the water against the metal sheathing washing off the exfoliated parts or films."
The Royal Navy took some time to realize this. John Bingeman, who has made an extensive study of the copper sheathing applied to HMS "Victory" and other ships of the era, notes that uncertainty over the ideal composition led to the practice of stamping each plate so that its origin and date of application could be compared with its rate of wear (see photo). This, it was hoped, would help identify the "good" copper, which sloughed off marine residue at just the right rate, from "bad" copper which wore away too quickly (thus being expensive), or did not wear away (thus allowing marine life to accumulate and foul the plating):
"I believe the reason for dating was an attempt to discover why copper varied from good to bad. Coppering ships served two purposes. It prevented worm attack, especially important in the West Indies where new hulls could be destroyed in under two years. The second need was for the copper to erode slowly preventing excessive fouling. This was known as "good" copper and relied on small quantities of impurities to achieve this effect, since completely pure copper eroded quickly and neededreplacing in less than two years. Really bad copper had too many inclusions and did not erode at all; fouling was then just as bad as plain wooden hulls. In an attempt to recognise good from bad, the Dockyards recorded the plate's life by dating each sheet. I would stress that these copper marks are not easily discernable when hidden by an oxide coating."
So if "good" copper relied upon small amounts of impurities, how is it that Robert Grenier can say with such confidence that Royal Navy copper plating was "100% copper"? He may simply be rounding things off, as the impurities in RN copper were relatively slight. Merchant vessels, in contrast, tended to use an alloy known as "Muntz's Metal," which was only 60% copper alloyed with 40% zinc and a trace of iron. This material, in fact, was used for the sheathing of the Cutty Sark, one of the most famous vessels of its day, or ours.

There has been some uncertainty in the past as to whether "Erebus" and "Terror" were in fact copper-sheathed. I talked with Dave Woodman about this, and he notes that they had been copper sheathed during their Antarctic service just prior to being re-outfitted for Franklin, and that he has seen work orders for the removal of some of their copper sheets. This may have been a prelude to re-sheathing, or because copper had to be removed from the parts of the ship that were to be sheathed in iron (copper and iron could not be allowed to have direct contact, as this created a "galvanic effect" -- essentially turning the plating, and the sea-water around it, into an electrical cell which resulted in rapid corrosion of the metals).

Woodman believes that the copper pieces that Grenier has been discussing were not in fact found in 2008, but rather as part of the the original Project Utjulik in 1997. He describes the location and significance of this copper as follows:
"These copper sheets and other artifacts were not found on the beach but associated with Inuit tent circles on one of the islets to the north of O'Reilly Island, so they were not primarily associated with a ship at all. They could have been transported there by either drifting wreckage from the north or Inuit travel (as could the relics recovered by the 1967 Project Franklin group) but since some of the testimony indicates a wreck nearby they could also be corroborative. Even if from the ship it may not be external sheathing but 'trade copper' or the remnants of copper sheeting carried by the expedition for making pots etc."
You can see an image of this copper here in the original report. One of the sheets had a tarry substance adhering to it, with traces of what may have been oakum (a mixture of tar and hemp used by carpenters to fill cracks and irregularities in a ship's planking), which suggested it may have been attached to a ship or boat, but tests at the time showed it had not been immersed for a long period in salt water.

What I would suggest is that Grenier, and others hoping to follow this trail of copper, get a hold of some of the bits of copper recovered by earlier searchers, such as Charles Francis Hall. Hall's bits were marked with the broad arrow; their metallic composition and thickness could be readily compared with the Utjulik finds. I believe that even the best Royal Navy copper probably had some trace impurities, and these could be used to help make a definitive match. What's more, if any additional copper is found next summer, there would be a ready way to evaluate it and determine if it resembled material known to have been recovered from Franklin sources. We have the technology, after all.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Solving the Franklin Mystery

In an earlier post, I said I'd return to a detailed account of Grenier's approach, and say where and why I think he ought to look -- so here goes. For one, I would actually say that finding the remains of Franklin's ships, while a laudable goal which surely fires the imagination -- wouldn't be my first priority. When you have only a small window of funding and opportunity, I think you should go for the search method most likely to yield definitive results, and that would be a search on land. When you think of it, of all the known Franklin sites on land, only one -- NgLj-2 on King William Island -- has been examined with modern archaeological and forensic tools. A similar examination is long overdue for the Todd Islets site, which is certainly where at last one group of survivors met their end, and the location of which is well-known, especially to Louie Kamookak, whose grandfather reburied the remains there, and who is on Grenier's team. A visit to the area of "Starvation Cove" might also be worthwhile, as there are several indications that a box of records or papers was brought this far. All of the remains there have sunk into the coastal silt, which may make them harder to locate, but should also have preserved them. Similar sites at Ogle Point, Grant Point, Cape Herschel, and on Montreal Island, have not been examined in modern times. Small "away teams" could reconnoiter these sites, most of which are near enough to Gjoa Haven that getting people and supplies there would be relatively inexpensive, while Grenier's ship-bound team monitors its sonar scans.

For, as tempting as it is to imagine that side-scan sonar will reveal one of the ships, the area to be searched is so vast that it would take many years to search it all effectively. Dave Woodman tried to limit the search area with a magnetic survey, hoping that the ships' engines would be detectable -- but his targets turned out to be natural features. Nevertheless, the areas he has surveyed offer at least a negative map, of places where it wouldn't be necessary to search again. I suppose this is why Grenier is so focussed on the Royal Geographical Society Islands, as one or both ships must surely have passed near them -- but this area is far from where Inuit testimony placed the re-manned ship (which would be near Grant Point or O'Reilly Island, as shown on this map) -- so I should imagine that all he'd find there would be bits of debris brought along by ice and currents from the ship which sank close to the coast of King William Island.

Some, such as Andrew Lambert, regard the Inuit testimony as too convoluted, too mangled up in its sources, too damaged by errors in transmission, to be of much use. Yet when you look at this testimony, there are certain features that, I feel, make some stories more credible than others. There are accounts of the abandoned ship on the ice from numerous witnesses; the story was told to Hall by several persons; it was told again to Schwatka, and indeed it was told again to Rasmussen a generation later, with much of the same detail. I think it's probably the most credible single account we have, and there's good reason to trust it. It comes from the Ootjoolingmiut, the very band whose original territory lay closest to the site. The most dramatic version is that given by Schwatka, and I will close by quoting it in full. This is the ship that I think could yet be found -- if only Grenier would look for it:

Colonel Gilder and I [interviewed] old Ikinnilik-Puhtoorak, the head man of this tribe, with Joe Ebierbing as our interpreter. The old man, then about sixty years old, had an intelligent, open face, and all his answers were given without hesitation, in a straightforward manner which carried the conviction of truth. In response to our questions he stated that he had seen white men before in this country. Almost impatiently we waited Joe's interpretation of the old man's statements. His next remarks electrified us.

"A long time ago, said Puhtoorak, "when I was a small boy living with my people just below the bad rapids near the mouth of the Great Fish River, we saw a wooden boat with white men going down the river. The white men shook hands with the Innuits and the latter rubbed their hands down their breasts, a sign of welcome."

There were ten men in the boat, and the commander's name as near as he could remember it was Tooahdeahhrak (probably Lieut. Back on his first exploration of the river).

Continuing his story, Puhtoorak told Ebierbing that the next time he saw a white man it was a dead one in a large ship about eight miles off Grant Point. The body was in a bunk inside the ship in the back part. The ship had four big sticks, one pointing out and the other three standing up. On the mainland, near Smith Point and Grant Point on the Adelaide peninsula, an Esquimaux party which he accompanied saw the tracks of white men and judged they were hunting for deer. At this time the tracks indicated there were four white men but afterwards the tracks showed only three. He saw the ship in the spring before the spring snow falls and the tracks in the fresh spring snow when the young reindeer come of the same year. He never saw the white men. He thinks that the white men lived in this ship until the fall and then moved onto the mainland.

Puhtoorak told how the Esquimaux, not understanding how to get into the ship, cut through one side. When summer came and the ice melted the ship righted herself but the hole in her side being below the water line she sank as the water poured in. After the ship sank, they found a small boat on the mainland. When he went on board the ship he saw a pile of dirt on one side of the cabin door showing that some white man had recently swept out the cabin. He found on board the ship four red tin cans filled with meat and many that had been opened. The meat was full of fat. The natives went all through the ship and found also many empty casks. The found iron chains and anchors on deck, and spoons, knives, forks, tin plates, china plates, etc.

When the ship finally sank her masts stuck out of the water and many things floated on shore which the natives picked up. He also saw books on board the ship but the natives did not take them. He afterwards saw some that had washed ashore. He never saw any stone monument or cairn on the mainland near where the ship sank. There was one small boat hanging from the davits which the natives cut down. Some of the ship's sails were set.

Monday, November 9, 2009

With Grenier in the Nelson Room

To the unsuspecting passer-by, the little art-shop in an alley off the Nelson Road in Greenwich might almost be missed -- a few nautical paintings, some marine instruments, and a little row of alphabetical pins that spells out "ENGLAND EXPECTS ... " -- and yet what lies upstairs might inspire more than a little wonder. For it's there, in a chamber known among the cognoscenti simply as the "Nelson Room," where history lies deep upon shelf and wall, that some of the most remarkable gatherings in Greenwich take place. The shelves are bowed with Nelson biographies (in one of which a little bit of his blood-stained kerchief is lain); Nelson lithographs and etchings line the walls, and every cranny is crammed with Nelson tchotchkes. A full-size replica of Nelson's personal chair -- complete with leather "in" and "out" pockets -- adorns one corner, while in another a Marine's cap-band is wrapped whimsically about a marble bust.

On this day -- the eve of Robert Grenier's talk in the Painted Hall, I was in this very room with Kenn Harper and a few other Arctic mavens, hoping for an advance chat. Grenier was due to arrive by Thames clipper, his preferred means of conveyance, and -- provided that my friend Huw Lewis-Jones, who'd organized the event, could manage to keep his handlers from whisking him away prematurely -- we'd have a chance to ask our questions in person. Having been informed that he fancied a bit of Cognac, an excellent bottle was on hand, along with rum, single-malt whiskey, and some soda water.

And, after a quick rattle of footsteps on the narrow, spiral staircase, there he was! Of course, as have 'Franklinites' the world over, I'd been following his work closely these past few years, but I had little idea of what sort of man to expect. In the past, he'd rarely gone out to publicize his work, and had never replied to my (relentlessly courteous) e-mails, so aside from having heard his voice in a CBC interview, I had little to go on. He was, as it turned out, very charming and soft-spoken, with the manner of a careful, quiet practitioner. He declined the proffered cognac -- thanks, but he needed to keep his head clear for the talk. Where was I from? Rhode Island -- did I know that there had been a number of Greniers in Woonsocket? I had not. After these preliminaries, of course, Kenn and I got right down to Franklin business.

It was curious that, given our shared interests over many years, Grenier hadn't, apparently, heard of either of us. Nevertheless, he could tell from our questions that we knew something of which we spoke, and he was very direct in his replies. We were curious about persistent Inuit accounts of buried papers, some of which had cropped up just recently -- it turned out he had heard from the same people we had. Of course, he said, these should be looked into, but much as ourselves, he was skeptical as to whether, at this late date, such claims were likely to be accurate. We talked about (Gjoa Haven resident) Louie Kamookak, and what the Franklin story meant to local Inuit -- certainly there were hopes that new finds would bring tourists, money, perhaps a museum to the region.

The copper, which would be the subject of his later talk, was our next topic of conversation. I mentioned to him the copper bits recovered by Hall from Inuit near Booth Point on King William Island; these had borne "two stamps of the broad arrow." Had any of the pieces found by Grenier been stamped? No, he replied, but the high copper content was a sure sign they were from a Royal Naval vessel. He asked me about the copper found by Hall, and I told him it must be either at the Smithsonian or the NMM; he noted this down on a pad, and told me he'd definitely look into it. He recalled the copper found in 1997 with David Woodman, and felt that these finds were definitely the "footprints" of Franklin's men. Next summer's search, he hoped, would lead him to the end of that trail.

Grenier clearly has a genuine passion for the preservation of Franklin's ships, and his greatest anxiety was that someone would make some private claim upon them before the sites could be properly secured. As an archaeologist, he said, it was his job to learn what could be learned from them, and make certain that this knowledge became part of Canada and Britain's common heritage. Grenier, now 72 years old, has the energy of a much younger man, and possesses the persistence needed to fulfill his quest. I only hope that the Canadian government, which helped roll out the red carpet for Grenier's appearances here, will maintain its support when it comes to securing an icebreaking vessel for his work. It's a small -- perhaps a very small -- window of opportunity, and it would be a real shame were it to be missed due to bureaucratic infighting.

Just at that moment, the "handlers" appeared -- their dark suits bulging with biceps, and one with a little ear-bud that put me in mind of Agent Smith in The Matrix -- and whisked Grenier off in the direction of the Chapel. Kenn and I exchanged glances, clinked glasses, and turned to follow.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Night of Polar Stars

Following the very touching memorial to Lieutenant Le Vesconte and the men of the Franklin expedition, we walked the short distance across the courtyard to the entrance to the Painted Hall. No better venue could be imagined for a Franklin gathering, for it was here, in 1854 and again in 1859, that the relics of his Expedition were put on display for an anxious, and then a grieving, nation. I believe it's safe to say that seldom, since that era, has this storied chamber held such a sky-full of Polar stars, nor such a broad gathering of family members of the Franklin expedition and those who searched for it. Among the former were Glyn Williams, masterful historian of the search for the Northwest Passage; Kenn Harper, author of Give Me My Father's Body; Franklin biographer Andrew Lambert, Crozier biographer Michael Smith, and Jonathan Dore, Arctic editor and book reviewer extraordinaire. Among the latter were present Lady Marie Herbert, Sylvia and Paddy and a great many other McClintocks, Martin and more than 25 other Croziers, the Hon. Alexandra Shackleton, Sir Nicholas Bayne (Sir John Ross), and members of the Wills family, descendants of Lieutenant Henry TD Le Vesconte. Not the least in this constellation were our hosts, Dr Huw Lewis-Jones (Face to Face: Polar Portraits) and Kari Herbert (The Explorer's Daughter, Heart of the Hero) of Polarworld.

The centre of the hall was open, with candlelit tables along each side crowded with Arctic-themed canapes; uniformed servers offered guests their choice of Georgian wine or Siberian vodka drinks. A podium had been placed at the front of the Hall, and it was from here that Robert Grenier, the star toward whom all eyes that night were directed, was to speak. He was introduced by the Canadian High Commissioner, James R. Wright, who spoke of Canada's renewed emphasis on its unique and shared Arctic heritage with the United Kingdom. Then, to a warm round of applause, the man of the hour approached the podium and began to speak.

Grenier picked up on the Commissioner's points, emphasizing the tremendous historical importance of the wrecks, should either survive, of HM Ships "Erebus" and "Terror." Unfortunately, due to the nature of Canada's current salvage laws, it's possible that these sites could be claimed by private parties. Nevertheless, with the support of the Canadian government, they have been declared in advance to be significant sites of national heritage -- the key is that Grenier's team must reach them first.

Grenier then spoke of the significance of Inuit testimony in his search, and the co-operation of Inuit today. He first witnessed its value when working alongside David C. Woodman on "Project Utjulik" in 1997. Then, as on his most recent mission, pieces of sheet copper were recovered very near where Inuit testimony had placed one of Franklin's ships. The copper found most recently has been tested, he said, and found to be nearly 100% pure. Such unalloyed copper sheeting was used only by ships of the Royal Navy, and thus was clear evidence that the 2008 search was also near an area of significant Franklin remains, as his had been the only such ships of that era in that region.

He acknowledged the disappointment -- most keenly felt by himself -- that other missions and tasks had prevented any of the region's icebreaking vessels from providing support for this summer's planned search, but reassured all present that plans are in place for next summer, and prospects good. Finally, he addressed himself very directly to the families of Franklin's men and those who searched for him, speaking of the enormous significance of their ancestors' sacrifice, and his great desire to do them honor by determining more clearly the final fate of the lost explorers.

His remarks were welcomed by all present with much applause, and afterwards he generously took time to talk personally with a great many of those present. He was, of course, due to speak again the following evening at the National Maritime Museum, but that would surely have been an anticlimax after a glittering evening such as this. I'm grateful, as ever, to Huw and Kari, for their enormous efforts in making this event such a success, and I'm certain that it marks the beginning of a new era of cooperation and connection between Polar scholars, family members, and the growing number of Franklin buffs in the British Isles and North America, and around the world.

Next up: a behind-the-scenes chat with Grenier, and my own thoughts on his approach to the ongoing search.

Photo credit: Nick Garrod

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Memorable service for Franklin sailors

This past Thursday, on the 29th October, I was the guest of Dr Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert of Polarworld, joining over 200 of their other guests for a special Service of Thanksgiving and rededication of the Franklin Memorial at the Chapel of Saints Peter and Paul at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

Having attended a number of Franklin memorials and commemorative events over the years, I can say that this was, by far, the most solemn and moving service of all such memorials, and the most beautifully conceived and presented. Of course it had one distinction that all other such services lacked: the bones of one of Franklin's men -- Lieutenant Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte -- brought back in 1869 from King William Island by Charles Francis Hall, and sent to England in 1873. For many years, the monument in which these bones lay was subject to benign neglect in a dusty stairwell behind the altar, out of public view and access. This special service celebrated the move and restoration of this memorial to a place of honor and prominence inside the vestibule of the main entrance, where everyone from this moment forward will readily be able to see it. Dr Lewis-Jones conceived and directed the event with the support of the Greenwich Foundation and the Canadian High Commission, acting in unique partnership with his company Polarworld.

The service, presided over by the Rev. Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Woolwich, along with the Rev. Jeremy Frost, Chaplain to the Greenwich Foundation, opened with Beethoven's Funeral March on the Death of a Hero, beautifully played on the Chapel organ. The clergy and choir then entered, and took their places about the altar. Throughout the service, the choir was magnificent, singing both traditional hymns and more complex modern choral works with a rare combination of verve and purity of tone. The service was opened by the Rev. Frost, who welcomed all present with these words:
We gather on this solemn occasion to give renewed thanks for the life of Lieutenant Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, and to re-inter his mortal remains in the vestibule of this Chapel In this the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary year of the discovery of Sir John Franklin's death, we pray that peoples from across the world who visit this holy and historic place may hereafter pause, and remember all those who lost their lives alongside Franklin ..
The reading, appropriately enough, was from the Book of Job. Afterwards, Bishop Chessun ascended to the pulpit and delivered quite a lovely address, in which he extolled the merits of the urge to explore, to risk life and limb in the pursuit of expanding geographical and scientific knowledge. The Canadian High Commissioner, James R. Wright, offered a poignant excerpt from Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen's poetic cycle "Terror and Erebus."

The congregation then turned, en masse, to face the rear of the chapel, and the clerics and descendants of Franklin's men processed to witness the monument's re-dedication. Holy water was sprinkled upon the marble, and a lovely, hymn, "Take him, earth for cherishing" (Herbert Howells), was intoned by the choir. It was a deeply moving moment, and I could not help but think how much easier Le Vesconte's bones would rest, now that they were ensconced in a far more visible and honored location, re-interred with all the rich ceremony omitted on earlier such occasions.

Of course, although we all were there to honor Le Vecsonte and all of Franklin's officers and men, we were also present out of a strong shared interest in finally determining what happened to make the Expedition collapse so utterly, and what might have been the actions and thoughts of its men in their last moments of hope and despair. And, in a modest way, the re-interment gave us insight into the disposition of his bones, and the interest which attended them when they were first brought back to England in 1873. During the renovation and relocation of the Monument, under the direction of the Greenwich Foundation, Dr Huw Lewis-Jones and English Heritage, the sarcophagus was opened, and a wooden coffin found with a plaque identifying its origins. Inside, along with the skeleton (which was wrapped, curiously, in a large Admiralty chart of New Guinea) was a pasteboard cross adorned with flowers, a map of the Arctic, and a note from the Hydrographer Royal. These, and other aspects of the remains, along with a summa of Le Vesconte's career and some quite remarkable never-before-seen images, are the subject of a forthcoming article by Dr Huw Lewis-Jones in the 2009 issue of the Trafalgar Chronicle, an annual international journal devoted to sailing navy history and maritime memorials. I am delighted that Huw has offered to make this special paper available to readers of this blog here.

After the memorial service, we walked across to the Painted Hall for a gala reception featuring remarks by Robert Grenier, Chief Underwater Archaeologist for Parks Canada, whose recent search efforts were of so much interest to us all. In my next post, I'll recount the highlights of his address, along with an account of those present.

(Photo credit: Mike Almond)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Franklin Memorial

There are numerous memorials to Sir John Franklin around the world -- the best-known ones are at Westminster Abbey and in Waterloo Place, but there are statues in his birthplace of Spilsby, in Hobart, Tasmania, and even in Alaska. Yet perhaps the least-well-known memorial is also one of the most remarkable: the enormous wall-size marble sculpture at the Chapel of the old Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich. For not only does it feature a lovely marble bas-relief of a ship and icebergs, but it incorporates into its base a sarcophagus containing the remains of one of Franklin's senior officers -- Lieutenant Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte -- sent back to England after its recovery by Charles Francis Hall in 1869.

This makes Le Vesconte one of only two officers (the other being John Irving) whose mortal remains received a proper burial back home. In Le Vesconte's case, his tomb has been a restless one; originally installed in the Painted Hall, the memorial was moved, bones and all, to a location in a back stairwell of the Chapel. In 2009, it was moved to a far more prominent position in the Chapel's entryway. As a matter of fact, this very evening, I've been invited to attend a special event at the Chapel which celebrates the rededication of this monument, and the legacy of the officers and men of the Franklin expedition ... I can't say more for now, but promise to describe the proceedings, and include photos and more, in another post soon to follow!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The book in Le Vesconte's Hand

In the earlier discussion of the Franklin daguerreotypes on this blog, there was much speculation about the book visible in the hand of Henry T.D. Le Vesconte. Some hoped that it might indeed be the logbook of H.M.S. "Erebus," that very volume which, were it to be found today, could solve so much of the Franklin mystery. A few days ago, with the help of Dr Huw Lewis-Jones at SPRI, I was able to have a look at a super high-resolution image of the Le Vesconte daguerreotype. On zooming in, we saw to our suprise that it was a far more prosaic tome, with the label "Code of Signals" pasted upon its cover and the indication 3/1 (or 311) written above and to its right (click on the image for a better-resolution version). From this, Huw was able to identify the volume; in his own words,
"After a fair amount of guesswork and reasoned elimination, I would suggest this is probably Captain Frederick Marryat's widely used, classic, 'Code of Signals' or, to give it the full title, 'A Code of Signals for the Use of Vessels Employed in the Merchant Service.' An 8th edition was published in London, 1841, and it's possible a revised edition was issued in 1845, a few years before Marryat died. It was first published in 1817 and was still in use, officially and unofficially, into the 1890s. Vesconte's copy certainly looks like a special edition of some sort, possibly given by a friend or colleague to wish him well on his voyage into the unknown. Of course, until more research is done, we can't possibly know the details."
The inset image on the right in the composite above is taken from a Google Books scan of the 10th edition, which came out in 1847, a little too late for Le Vesconte, but as it seems likely he would have taken the most recent edition, it may well be that of 1841. Although the book itself is unremarkable, its author, Marryat, brings a rich resonance to the image. Marryat was an acquantance of Dickens and a prodigious novelist, who more or less established the classic narrative arc of the "sea story" in which some likely lad runs away to sea, faces a series of challenges and adventures, and eventually rises to the rank of Captain. The earliest of these, The Naval Officer, or Scenes in the Life and Adventures of Frank Mildmay (1829), was said to be partly autobiographical. Who knows but that some of the younger lads aboard Franklin's ships might have been inspired by such tales?

In wartime, Royal Navy signal books were often bound in lead, so that, should an enemy overrun the vessel, they could be thrown overboard and counted on to sink. The one in Le Vesconte's hand looks almost to be made of wood -- perhaps a measure to ensure that it would float if dropped. This also suggests to me that such a specially-bound volume may well have been enhanced by additional signals; some systems of the day included specific signals designed for surveying coastal areas, a labor in which we know Le Vesconte and Fitzjames were enagaged in even before the ships left Greenland. The 3/1 indication looks at first like a price, but perhaps this simply means it was one of three copies.

I'll have more to say about Le Vesconte in my next post, but for now, suffice it to say that this offers another instance of how the remarkable level of detail preserved by the Daguerreian process offers numerous avenues for further discovery.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Highlights from Athy

By all accounts, this year's Shackleton School in Athy has been the most varied, the most lively, and the most well-attended in the nine years it has been held. As this is my first year, I can't vouch for that, but it has certainly been the most delightful polar conference event I've ever given a paper at. In this post, I'll do my best to give some account of the highlights, and (hopefully) deliver some sense of what it's been like to be there. The riches have been so great that I'm sure that I'll have left something out, but it won't be because it was any less delightful than the rest.

Saturday morning opened with a lovely presentation by Hans Kjell Larsen, the grandson of the Antarctic captain C.L. Larsen. This talk was unique in that it combined historical images of Larsen's achievements with contemporary photos of some of the sites he explored, which his grandson had revisited nearly a century later. He was followed by Professor Andrew Lambert, who gave a capable and compelling account of Sir John Franklin's career and his final expedition. Lambert's lecture was amply illustrated with documents and photographs, and if any Shackleton buffs at his talk were unacquainted with Franklin's career, it gave them a perfect primer of North Polar disaster. After lunch, Dr. David Wilson gave a richly illustrated account of Shackleton's expedition aboard the Nimrod, which certainly had the same effect for me; of all the lectures, his was the most polished in presentation.

Then it was time for my own presentation. I used as my main (actually, my only) visual aid the 1928 Gould map, with which I was able to illustrate all the efforts to find some more final resolution of the Franklin mystery in the wake of McClintock's determinations of 1859. In particular, I talked at length about the Inuit evidence gathered by Charles Francis Hall, and later analyzed with such diligence by David C. Woodman. I also discussed the vital contributions of other amateur searchers, ranging from Hall to Barry Ranford, and offered the conclusion that the progress we've made, and any hope for an eventual solution, are absolutely dependent on collaboration of both amateur and professional searchers.

As my talk concluded, it was off to a drinks party at the lovely home of the conference's host, Frank Taaffe. We were welcomed into an ornate sitting room, with a crackling fire burning and Bob Headland taking a turn at serving drinks. Shortly after, a group of us were beckoned into the inner sanctum -- a library of mostly Antarctic (and a few Arctic) volumes that would rival any the world over. I took a particular interest in several sets of polar Magic Lantern slides, each still in its original box with its folded paper lecture. Many of us there, myself included, took the opportunity to sign copies of our own volumes. From here, it was off to the annual dinner a mile or so out of town in an elegant hotel banquet room. Guests enjoyed their choice of salmon, steak, or chicken, as we were regaled by a delegation from a local seisún, featuring the rather unusual combation of three pipers and a banjo player. A Nimrod trivia quiz was also distributed to each table, with the night's laurels going to table eight (for which, although it was my table, I can take absolutely zero credit).

Somehow, on our return to town, a number of us found the energy to gather at O'Brien's pub for a final round of pint-lifting. The next morning, though we were all unaccountably feeling a tad groggy, we gathered again to hear Dr. Michael Rostove guide us through "The Great Books of Shackletonia." As a book collector myself, even though these titles were out of my area (and in most cases, out of my budget as well!), I found his account fascinating, especially with regard to the printing points of Aurora Australis, the first book entirely printed and bound in the Antarctic. After the tea-break which followed his talk, the lecture hall quickly filled to capacity, with scarce standing room at the back, in anticipation of Lady Marie Herbert's talk, "The Way of the Explorer." Speaking with quiet dignity and nimble wit, she recounted her first meeting with Sir Wally Herbert, and some remarable stories from the time they spent together in Northwest Greenland with their daughter Kari. Her talk was beautifully illustrated with photographs from the time, and her account of her own journey after loss to the world of Native American spiritual practices was especially moving. At the conclusion, there was a long and lasting roar of applause, followed by so many questions that Seamus Taaffe, in charge of the proceedings, was obliged to ask other questioners to wait until the afternoon forum.

Lunch came again -- for some -- while my good friend Dr Huw Lewis-Jones and I put the final polish on our program of polar films. The audience was delighted with our choices, paricularly (if I may say) with our screening of Georges Méliès's 1914 "Conquest of the Pole," for which I provided a few wry vocal annotations. During part of the sequence, I was joined my old friend Kenn Harper, as we showed some materials about early Arctic films related to turn-of-the-century "Esquimaux" villages at World's Fairs. Everyone seemed delighted with our final film "Frigid Hare" (1949), a Bugs Bunny classic which has Bugs rescuing a sad-eyed little penguin from a ravenous Eskimo.

The conference concluded with the traditional forum, in which all the lecturers took questions from the audience, with Bob Headland serving as host. At the conclusion of the forum, he introduced Irish Green Party TD Mary White, who announced that Ireland is to subscribe to the interntional Antarctic Treaty, in part as a tribute to Sir Ernest Schackleton, as well as to the efforts of the Shackleton School in lobbying for this result. A thunderous round of applause followed.

Further proceedings, following tradition, were continued for a final night at O'Brien's, where nearly everyone was present for at least part of the evening. I was particularly pleased to have another chance to talk with Joe O'Farrell, whose guest posting on this blog was very widely commented upon, and who is surely one of the stalwarts of the School, having attended every year since it was founded. From Joe we all learned a new turn of phrase, as he's fond of using the word "chuffed" -- which in North America means something like "heated," but in Ireland means "delighted" instead. So, as Joe might say, I'm absolutely chuffed to say what a wonderful time I had at the Shackleton school this year, and although next year will mark its tenth anniversary, the organizers will have their work cut out for them improving on this year's success.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Arctic Meets Antarctic in Athy

It takes a singular town, and a singular community of people, to bring both of the ends of the earth together in congenial conjunction -- and Athy, County Kildare, is just that town.  Athy has all of the charms of any picturesque Irish town -- a long, winding high street filled with shops, restaurants, and pubs, lovely old churches, and cobbled pavements -- but it has one thing no other place can boast: here, the Shackleton Autumn School is in its ninth year. And so, amidst the townsfolk going about their daily business, a crowd gathers early each morning at the doors of the Athy Heritage Centre, next to a tent erected by a group of historical re-enactors; once the doors open, that same crowd will mill about historical displays and gaze upon artifacts ranging from Polar provisions (a Primus stove, hard tack, and canned pemmican) to a beautiful copy of Aurora Australis, the first full book ever printed in Antarctica.  At precisely (more or less) ten-thirty, the summons comes to ascend to the lecture hall, and there they'll take their seats amidst the book-crowded shelves of the centre's library to hear a variety of Polar and related lectures that rivals, and perhaps exceeds, those of any any nineteenth-century Lyceum or assembly room. 

The observant will note that, rather than an image of these proceedings, I've posted a photograph of O'Brien's Pub -- where, in the view of some, the best conversations of the event take place, and having now enjoyed two nights' worth of them, I would be inclined to agree! Nevertheless, it's a shared, serious, and sober passion that brings together the remarkable crowd for this event, and which at the end of each day enlivens the back-room at O'Brien's.  This year has featured a remarkable conjunction of polar personalities, among them Hans Kjell Larsen (grandson of legendary Antarctic skipper C.L. Larsen), Kenn Harper (Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo), Andrew Lambert (Franklin: Tragic Hero of Arctic Exploration), David Wilson (the grand-nephew of Dr. Edward Wilson, who perished with RF Scott's party), Huw Lewis Jones, (Face to Face: Polar Portriats), and Lady Marie Herbert (Winter of the White Seal, Great Polar Adventure).  This year, the Shackleton School is hosting scholars and enthusiasts both North and South, and although their regions may be antipodal, their interests are surely not.

There's more to tell than I could possibly cram into a single posting, so I'll not try (and indeed, if I want to have any hopes of enjoying an unhurried breakfast before this morning's first lecture, I'd best finish now!).  I'll post accounts of some of the lectures, and give the best report I can of the related proceedings, over the next day or two.  For now I'll just say this: should you ever have the opportunity, the Shackleton School in Athy is an event not to be missed; there is no more convivial community of scholars, explorers, and polar enthusiasts to be found in any other corner of the world.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Guest Blogger: Joe O'Farrell's "On The Search for HM Ships 'Erebus' and 'Terror'"

[Editor's note: Readers of this blog may recall my referring, among other theories as to the whereabouts of Franklin's ships, the work of Joe O'Farrell on the reports that the two ships had been seen, fast-frozen to an iceberg and abandoned, drifting off the coast of Newfoundland. I'm very grateful to Joe for being willing to share his carefully-researched account, originally delivered at the McClintock Winter School in Dundalk in January of 2008. On that occasion, unfortunately, other speakers went well over their allotted time, and as a result the paper had to be severely condensed. I offer here an excerpt from this remarkable presentation, as well as -- for the first time -- an accessible copy of the entire text. I'm certain that readers of Visions of the North will be excited and intrigued to hear of this remarkable and yet still little-known incident in the range of possible solutions to the Franklin mystery.]

"A very strange thing happened in May 1851. An item appeared in (of all places) the May 28th 1851 issue of The Limerick Chronicle, an Irish newspaper. Written by a John Supple Lynch of Limerick, to his uncle in England, it relates the story of his voyage on the “Renovation” from Limerick to Quebec, Canada, and, how, close to Newfoundland on or about April 20th of that year, his ship passed within a few miles of a big ice-flow upon which were stranded two ships. He said that the ships looked to have been abandoned, for, having studied them through the telescope, no sign of life or movement could be detected. Obviously a man reasonably acquainted with maritime affairs, he formed the opinion that they were consorts, and, surprisingly, expressed the view that they must be the missing Franklin ships. He added that the mate of his ship also observed the scene, but not the captain, for he was ill in his bunk below.

For two specific reasons, I find this letter quite fascinating.

Firstly, it shows the widespread knowledge of, and interest in, the Franklin Expedition of 1845. Its quite unbelievable that this man, who described himself to the subsequent Admiralty Enquiry as “an ordinary man”, should, in the Limerick of 1851, and as a post- famine emigrant to Canada to start a new life, even be aware of, or have any interest in, the goings-on of his colonial masters and in the Arctic to boot!

Secondly, it's very strange, but eminently understandable (bearing in mind the rather parochial circulation of a newspaper such as The Limerick Chronicle) that this matter did not come sooner to the attention of the Admiralty in London.

Indeed, it may never have come to any official attention were it not for the fact that the captain of the “Renovation”, on arrival in Quebec, and no doubt at the prompting of his passenger John Lynch, mentioned the episode to his fellow sea-faring colleagues, and, in this way, the matter eventually came to the attention of the Authorities in London. Further interest in the matter was generated by a letter which appeared in The (London) Times of May 8th 1852, almost a year after John Lynch's letter appeared in The Limerick Chronicle. It corroborated exactly what John Lynch's letter said."


Click here to read the entire paper.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Shackleton Autumn School

A week from now, I'll be heading to Athy in County Kildare, Ireland for the ninth annual Shackleton Autumn School. Although primarily a forum for discussion about Shackleton and other Antarctic explorers, this year's gathering will also include a number of talks and papers, my own included, dealing with Sir John Franklin's last expedition. Among the speakers will be Andrew Lambert, author of the new Franklin biography, as well as Lady Marie Herbert, who will speak on "The Way of the Explorer." On the Sunday of the conference, Dr Huw Lewis-Jones and I will be presenting a selection of rare and early Arctic and Antarctic films, including never-before-seen footage that Kenn Harper and I recently unearthed at the Smithsonian Institution. The "other pole" will not be neglected; speakers on Shackleton will include David Wilson and Michael Rosove, and Hans Kjell Larsen will speak on "Captain C.A. Larsen, Antarctic Pioneer." This will be my first time at this annual event, and I'm looking forward to the warm spirit of collegiality that everyone says is the hallmark of this modest but lively gathering.

My own talk is entitled "'Those Wrecked or Stranded Ships': Unresolved aspects of the Franklin Expedition." In it, I hope to outline some of the areas of the Franklin mystery which still hold the allure of latter-day searchers. In particular, I'll be looking at the "amateur" searchers, in the very best sense of that word: those who pursue new angles on the Franklin story purely and simply out of love for the subject. When you think about it, is is the work of such searchers -- from Charles Francis Hall to David C. Woodman -- which has, in the century and a half since McClintock's discoveries, done the most to advance our knowledge and understanding of the ultimate causes of the collapse of this expedition, and the final fate of its officers and men.

After the Shackleton event, I'll be in London; as many of you who follow this blog may have heard, Robert Grenier, chief archaeologist for Parks Canada, is to give a talk at the National Maritime Museum on the status of his Franklin search. Although suspended this past summer, Grenier's search is funded for a third season, and I know that Franklinites the world over are curious to hear of his progress, as well as his plans for next year's search. I hope to blog about his talk as well, and perhaps include some photos of Franklin-related sights in Greenwich and London. I hope you'll all continue to follow the blog; there is much afoot in the world of Franklin, and I hope to soon have news of new searches, new finds, and new theories which will add some remarkable new chapters to the history of the search for those "wrecked or stranded ships."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dr. John Rae

Every few months -- partly due to Ken McGoogan's book and John Walker's film -- I hear afresh about the injustice done to Dr. John Rae, the man officially credited with first "ascertaining the fate" of Sir John Franklin and his men. Today, my Google alerts drew my attention to a lovely blog that goes by the name of Shambles Manor, where a fresh tribute to Dr. Rae has been posted. It seems it may well be time to set the record straight, the more so as -- these days at least -- there seems to be little room in the "blogosphere" for any nuanced differences of opinion.

So let me be quite frank and direct: I feel that Dr. John Rae is one of the greatest explorers ever to travel the eastern Arctic, and a man of absolutely unquestionable integrity. That he is not given greater credit for his actions, and the testimony he brought home to the Admiralty, is a lasting stain upon that institution, and represents a loss to the integrity of British Arctic exploration history. Dr. Rae deserves far greater laurels than he has generally been given, and by the by, his birthplace ought to be restored and deserves to be a Scottish, as well as a British, national landmark.

But that said: Dr. Rae did not "discover" the Northwest Passage. He himself would never have made such a claim. He did indeed map a stretch of water -- the "Rae Strait" as it is justly named in his honour -- which constituted the last unmapped bit of the particular "Northwest Passage" as it was navigated many decades later by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Sir John Franklin, believing in the maps of (that other most notable Scot) James Clark Ross, did not believe that there was a Passage through this area, and indeed had he tried to take his enormous "bomb" vessels that way, they would have certainly run aground (Amundsen's Gjøa, which drew less than 1/3 the amount of water of Franklin's ex-warships, did run aground, and had to jettison much cargo in order to make it through). Anyone who wishes to consult the historical record in this regard can readily do so -- Dr. Rae's own writings, and Amundsen's, describe this bit of territory quite ably.

Ken McGoogan feels that, since Rae mapped this section, he ought to be acclaimed the "discoverer" of the Passage. But this neglects two hard facts: 1) There is more than one Passage, depending on ice conditions and what sort of ship one has -- the Rae/Amundsen section is but one option among many; and 2) What was called for in terms of the Northwest Passage in the nineteenth century was not its "discovery" but its "navigation" -- one had to pass through it. McClure had a sort of claim to this, though part of his passage was on foot, and he was only able to complete it thanks to the help of other crews of other vessels; Amundsen had, and has, an indisputable claim. Other ships -- most notably the "Manhattan" in 1969 -- plowed their way through without taking this route, traversing ice that would have been utterly impassible to Franklin or any other nineteenth-century voyager.

Mr Carmichael, the MP for Orkney and Shetland, has in the past expressed his desire to have any memorials to Franklin -- such as that at Westminster Abbey -- removed in favor of Rae. But this would not serve justice; Rae himself was always effusive in his praise and empathy for Franklin and his men, and he never made such a claim in his life. There is no contradiction in honoring Franklin and Rae -- indeed, there is only a history of mutual regard, and enormous achievement on the part of both men in the face of danger. Let us honor Dr. Rae more -- and yet let us honor Sir John Franklin no less. I would gladly support the addition of a memorial to Dr. Rae at Westminster, but the idea of carting off the existing one to Franklin makes no sense.