Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sir John Franklin: Fact and Fiction (Part 1 of 2)

When it comes to the lost polar expedition of Sir John Franklin, one of the most difficult things is to separate fact from fiction – or, even within the supposed “facts,” certainty from conjecture. Every year, I receive dozens of e-mail questions about Franklin, along with a steady stream of Google news alerts with their smorgasbord of recent articles on Franklin-related subjects. People want to know if they are descended from Sir John, want to know about the evidence for cannibalism among his men, about whether lead poisoning or scurvy is a more likely culprit, about whether new Inuit evidence shows that all the old theories are wrong, or whether Inuit testimony is trustworthy or not. Some have theories of their own, whether well-researched or speculative, and just as in the 1850’s, there’s a healthy fringe population which puts stock in psychic visions, spirit rapping, or conspiracy theories generally.

All of this is fine, of course – evidence of the persistence of a healthy public curiosity in a fascinating and enduring maritime mystery. But, just as with other stories that have drawn this degree of interest, the Franklin saga has produced an enormous blizzard of half-truths and conjectures, all of them heaped together this way and that, then amplified by the amazing ease and speed with which the Internet propagates texts. At the same time, the expedition’s fate has been the inspiration for dozens of literary works – more than a dozen novels in the past decade, not to mention a volume of poetry, an Australian musical, and three full-length documentary films. These works, indeed, are in some ways more honest than some of the speculative theories recently advanced; after all, they start with the admission of their conjectural nature, and have the capacity to present multiple and conflicting claims in a way that can be far more satisfying that some single grand solution to everything.

So to kick off this new blog, I thought it might be useful just to summarize what we know – and what we don’t know – about the fate of Franklin. I’ll be doing it in two installments, the first (this one) on the facts, the second (to follow shortly) on the fictions. Along the way, I’ll give links to reliable sources, suggestions for further reading, and offer the chance for readers to ask any and all questions they may have. It should be quite a challenge!

Just the facts, ma’am

The essential facts of the Franklin expedition, up to the point where the last letters from its sailors were posted from Greenland, are fairly easy to ascertain. Richard Cyriax’s book, Sir John Franklin’s Last Expedition, reprinted a few years ago by the Arctic Press, remains authoritative in this area. The ship’s muster rolls, manifests, sailing orders, and such are all available at the National Archives in Kew, London, and many (though far from all) of the letters posted home have been published, and can be found in print or via Google Books. Nevertheless, a surprising number of errors about these basic facts have gained currency in recent years, and so it’s worth going over them once more, as clearly as possible.

1. The number of men on the expedition. I have seen all kinds of numbers, from 128 to 135, cited for this. The actual total is 129 men, assuming that Sir John Franklin himself is included; the phrase “Franklin and 128 men,” which is often used, is therefore accurate. The source of the confusion is that, though 134 men set sail from Greenhithe in 1845, five were sent back from Greenland as unfit for service. Some had become ill, and some were found unqualified for their duties, among them an unfortunate armorer whom James Fitzjames deemed “absolutely worthless.” Fortunately, the crew had been deliberately mustered in at a higher number than needed, and the final crew of 129 men were considered a full complement for both vessels.

2. The ships themselves. HMSS “Erebus” and “Terror” were ex-warships, as were almost all vessels sent on Arctic voyages by the Royal Navy. They were originally “bomb” vessels, built with broad beam and heavy timbers so as to serve as a platform for directing heavy mortar fire; their names were chosen to be fittingly associated with the fires of Hell. Both vessels had served before on polar expeditions, most recently on a long Antarctic voyage led by James Clark Ross, with Francis Crozier as his second-in-command. They were, as were all such vessels, heavily reinforced for such service, but nearly everything that was done had been done before: iron sheathing of the bow, canvas for “housing in” the decks in winter, barrel-organs which could crank out a variety of Anglican hymns, wolf-skin blankets for the crew, and Sylvester Patent Stoves for heating. There were only two real innovations on board either ship: one was the presence of ex-railway engines attached to propeller shafts, and the other was a special system for steam-distilling water. So, while the Franklin expedition was frequently hailed as the most “advanced” of its time, most of its advances were minor. Indeed, both the engines, and the space for coal they rendered necessary, and the distilling apparatus, have been blamed in whole or part for the expedition’s failure.

3. The provisions. Most of these were just the same as had been furnished ships headed for the Arctic since 1818: tons of flour, pickled vegetables, sugar, salt pork, and ship’s biscuit. Tinned food, often mistakenly said to be new to this voyage, had been supplied as long ago as William Edward Parry’s voyage of 1819. The only thing new about the tinned food was the supplier; in an effort to cut costs, the Navy had put the tinned food out to bid, and one Samuel Goldner won the contract. Goldner’s tins have been a singular focus of attention, as the lead solder used to construct them has been blamed for lead poisoning among the men (cf. Beattie & Geiger), as well as the contents of the tins, which some (Cookman) have claimed were sources of botulism or other food poisoning. I’ll deal with the claim about lead in a moment, but for now let me just say that the claim about botulism is highly conjectural. Goldner’s method of heating tins in a mixture of boiling water and lime has been found by modern technicians to be fundamentally sound, and so assuming he followed his own patent’s directions, any bacteria would have been killed. In later years (after 1850), Goldner’s tins were the subject of a Naval investigation, which found many had been packed with rotten meat, animal organs, and “offal” – so putrid that the examiners were on several time compelled to flee from the room when tins were opened. The only defect other than the contents, however, was that some tins still contained air – which, though it would have encouraged bacterial growth, could not have caused botulism. The reason for this is that the bacteria that causes botulism can only thrive in an oxygen-free (anaerobic) environment; air in the cans would have prevented its flourishing. Cookman’s book, Ice Blink, is still widely cited, and in other areas its research is sound enough. Nevertheless, his central claim is highly doubtful. For more on the inspection of the tins, visit this page on my main Franklin website.

4. The qualifications and experience of the crew. Many historians have observed that there was a surprising shortage of polar experience among the senior officers and crews of Erebus and Terror. I myself have been quoted as saying that “only two” of the officers had significant Arctic experience, which is true – if by officers one means the command officers only. Franklin, of course, had been on three previous expeditions, two as commander; Crozier, second-in-command had been on four. None of either ship’s commanders or lieutenants had any polar experience, although Alexander MacDonald, Assistant Surgeon on the Terror, had in fact been on two previous expeditions, and there were also two “ice pilots,” one on each ship, who had plenty of experience aboard Greenland whalers, but were not naval officers per se. Nevertheless, it does seem strange that so few men – five out of 129 – were polar veterans, given the fairly large pool of men who had served on prior voyages under James Clark Ross, John Ross, or Parry. Royal Navy practice, as it happens, was to let each ship’s second-in-command choose the less senior officers. Ordinarily, this would have meant Crozier, but for reasons not entirely clear, it was James Fitzjames, the third-most-senior, who was given this privilege. As most of the officers known to Fitzjames had been deployed in the Mediterranean or in China during the “Opium Wars,” such was the experience they brought. This did not, of course, mean that they were poorly qualified, only that they lacked firsthand polar experience, and that – should those few with experience die or be disabled – there could well be no veterans available to make the most important and difficult sorts of decisions.

5. Lead poisoning. This is perhaps the most difficult issue of all. The evidence that lead poisoning occurred is strong enough: bone and tissue samples, both from the three graves on Beechey Island, and from skeletal remains on King William Island, all show elevated levels of lead. The men at Beechey, who’d died of other causes in the expedition’s first year, had elevated lead levels, but not enough to cause death. Significantly, though, their hair and fingernails showed increased lead intake in their final weeks. Assuming the lead to have come from the solder on tinned food, this would be consistent with the extra tinned rations given men in the ships’ sick bays. It could also have come from wine, which often had high amounts of lead in this period, and which was stowed on board explicitly “for the sick.” The skeletal remains from King William Island, however, show much higher levels in some individuals. Although the amounts varied widely, at least two of the approximately eleven individuals found on King William at the site known as “NgLj-2” had lead levels high enough to indicate acute lead toxicity, which would have been disabling and quite likely fatal. In these individuals as well, lead levels were especially high in soft bone, which regenerates much more regularly, indicating recent uptake. Was this lead also from the tins? Did the men, after abandoning ship, depend more or less on tinned rations? Or was there another source possible? In a 2008 article in the journal of the Hakluyt Society, William Battersby has argued that the ship’s fresh-water distillation process was a more likely source of lead, as it involved running heated water through a considerable amount of lead piping. The heat would have greatly increased the amount of lead dissolved in the water, and the fact that this distilled water would have been widely used – in soup, in tea, and even in the making of bread – and offers a different but no less pervasive source of lead in the crews' diet.

Let us allow, then, that lead poisoning is a fact. What were its effects? How pervasive was it, how debilitating, and how central was its role? There are two key factors: 1) Even mild lead poisoning can interfere with a person’s judgment. One of the early effects would be a decay in forming recent and mid-term memories; older memories would be intact, as would habitual memories (such as how to use a sextant, or shave one’s chin). Significantly, the sufferer would not necessarily be aware of these problems, as the ability to notice memory loss would decay alongside the loss itself. All these things seem evident in the famous “Victory Point” record written by James Fitzjames in 1848. The latitude and longitude of the present position are remarkably accurate, but those stated for Beechey Island are more than twenty miles off. Similarly the date the ships wintered at Beechey is mistaken (it’s given as 1846-47, rather than 1845-46). Lastly, nearly 1/3 of the marginal message is devoted to comments about the location of James Ross’s stone cairn – a matter of slight importance – and no mention is made of any of the officers’ current state, plans, and condition, beyond a numerical account of deaths, with a date for that of Franklin. All these errors are consistent with lead poisoning, though by no means absolute evidence. As to the later decisions of the officers – to head, for instance, to “Back’s Fish River” – without further details, it is hard to say whether they were poor ones, and if so, what role lead played. If, as argued by David C. Woodman, this trip was only a temporary abandonment of the ships, meant to reconnoiter with the Inuit and hunt for food, it might well have been a very sensible plan. If, having attained Back’s River, the hope was to proceed onwards to Repulse Bay, it would have been a risky, though not completely senseless plan. This theory is reinforced by the fact that the officer mentioned in Inuit testimony clearly stated that he was going to “Iwillik” (Aivilik in modern orthography), the area around Repulse Bay.

The statement, however, has traditionally been understood to mean that the men planned to ascend Back’s River and make for the Hudson’s Bay posts on the Great Slave Lake. Such a plan, involving difficult travel on modified whaleboats, numerous portages, and rough water, could quite easily be called insane, and adopting it would be good grounds for supposing the officers’ judgment was impeded – but we must bear in mind that we have no way of knowing if this was, indeed, their ultimate plan.

So while we can say with some certainty that lead poisoning was a factor in the expedition’s demise – certainly the affected individuals would have been partly or wholly disabled – we can’t know the degree to which this factor sealed the men’s fate.

6. Inuit Testimony. The last element in any attempt to understand the final days of the Franklin party is the most complex. Compiled not only by Charles Francis Hall in the 1860’s, but also from the records of searches by McClintock, Schwatka, and even later parties such as Rasmussen’s in the 1920’s, the Inuit oral testimony is the largest body of evidence we have. It has never been published in its entirety – if it were, it would easily fill many hundreds of pages – but it has been discussed at length, mainly by long-time Franklin searcher David C. Woodman, and more recently by oral historian Dorothy Harley Eber. The key points of this testimony can be readily summarized: That the Inuit met with members of Franklin’s crew, and were apparently aware of the change of command from “Too-loo-ah” (Franklin) to “Ag-loo-ka” (Crozier), is fairly clear. That they later met with some parties of survivors along the southern coast of King William Island (near the place now known as Washington Bay) is certain. These men, they said, looked ill and had blackened gums (a sure sign of scurvy). Multiple witnesses offer slightly differing accounts of this meeting, with the exchange of goods (seal meat for a knife), a meeting over a crack in the ice, a leader named “Ag-loo-ka” and a man named “Dok-Took” (perhaps a doctor, perhaps MacDonald), and the early departure of the Inuit the next morning as common elements. The Inuit left, in all probability, because the three hunters of their band could scarcely manage to provide for their own families, let alone a group of thirty starving and scurvy-ridden men. Nevertheless, all accounts agree that they told the white men they would meet them on the mainland side, which tells us that the party must have planned to cross over to the Adelaide peninsula.

After that, things get complicated. Different witnesses tell of seeing an overturned boat on the mainland (Adelaide) side, with dead men inside. This is connected with other tales of men near an overturned boat, some with their hands sawed off at the wrist. All agree that the men had died, and the site of their deaths has earned the sobriquet “Starvation Cove.”

All the same, it’s not entirely clear that this was the party that managed to cross over Simpson Strait. Human remains are scattered over the southern coast of King William, with the last few skeletons near the Todd Islets, a short distance west of the modern settlement of Gjoa Haven. These skeletons were said to have blue uniforms, gold epaulettes, and other signs that they may have been senior officers. Intriguingly, the maps with which Franklin sailed showed this land as contiguous with the mainland; if the officers believed such maps, they would not have anticipated crossing any water, but could have expected to reach the mainland directly.

There is one further factor, which affects all Inuit testimony. Despite the demonstrated accuracy of these accounts over the generations, there is a tendency in all accounts to tell good news before, or instead of, bad news. The fundamental rules of Inuit culture and decorum stood against telling someone that a friend or relative had died, or done something bad; there was a great desire to cast such news in a positive light. Hall himself, with his evident eagerness to find survivors, may have ended up pushing the Inuit toward producing a more rosy picture than they knew to be the truth. An example of this is the tale of Too-shoo-art-thariu, the nephew of Hall's informant old Ook-bar-loo, who supposedly said that a man named “Aglooka” and three companions had spent a winter with him, then headed south, alive and well. His tale was told by others, citing his name as evidence of its accuracy, but once Hall finally reached Too-shoo himself, he strongly denied ever having said any such thing.

The new search by Robert Grenier of Parks Canada is largely based on this testimony, which Grenier heard of through his work with David C. Woodman. New, or purportedly new, evidence has been added by Dorothy Eber, who in her new book about Inuit and the Passage offers testimony from the elders recorded far more recently. Some of this testimony seems to place one of Franklin’s ships in the area of the Royal Geographical Society Islands, and this has been a focus of Grenier’s search. Nevertheless, after all this time, and with the ample admixture of curiosity, numerous searchers, and satellite television, it’s likely that the Inuit tradition of today is significantly compromised, even though there’s no doubt some grains of new truth can be found in it.

NEXT WEEK: Franklin in Fiction – from Jules Verne to Richard Flanagan


  1. Thanks for writing this. I was not aware of the new theory that the lead may have come from the ships distillation system.

    I have a question. When you say "the men planned to ascend Back’s River and make for the Hudson’s Bay posts on the Great Slave Lake. Such a plan, involving difficult travel on modified whaleboats, numerous portages, and rough water, could quite easily be called insane", obviously, we know how difficult this trip is today. Did Franklin's men really know how difficult this trip would have been (other than the length)?

  2. A great question. And remarkably, there's a very direct answer: yes. Among the many books on board "Erebus" and "Terror" was a copy of Back's account of his descent and ascent of the river that bore his name. Back had undertaken the trip to search for Sir John Ross in 1833, not knowing that Ross had been rescued by a whaling ship, and described the "difficult and toilsome" journey in excruciating detail (the entire volume is available via Google Books). It's conceivable that the crews planned to use Back's narrative as a guide to the many portages, rapids, and waterfalls, but given that they had oaken whaleboats weighing hundreds of pounds instead of birch-bark canoes, and lacked snow-shoes and other vital equipment, it's hard to imagine men with their full mental capacity making such a choice. Cyriax notes that the whaleboats had been lightened and their gunwales trimmed down, possibly "for river travel." All of which is why my personal guess is that this was not, in fact, their plan, and that the boats were only intended to make a crossing back to the mainland.

  3. Hi Russell,

    I think the website is great.

    As you know I have done a lot of research into James Fitzjames. From this perspective can I kick off by taking slight issue with your point 4 about the alleged inexperience of the officers and men of the Franklin Expedition in sailing in Polar regions? This is often repeated, but I think when we look at the evidence it is probably a myth. Fitzjames was in charge of recruitment for the Expedition once Franklin, Crozier and he had been appointed. It appears that actually he selected a higher proportion of officers and men with direct Polar experience than was normal for Royal Naval Polar Expeditions of the time.

    Of the eighteen seaman officers (including the Ice Masters), it seems that six of them (Franklin, Crozier, Gore, Reid, Blanky and probably Collins) had prior experience of sailing in the Arctic or Antarctic. Of the six non-seamen officers, the two pursers and the four doctors, two (Osmer and Stanley) definitely had prior Arctic experience. So however we count them, fully one third of the officers had prior Arctic experience. I would image that the 'one third' proportion for both totals is probably not a coincidence. Of those who did not have Polar experience, most were former mess-mates of Fitzjames who he knew well. On a voyage where the ships would be isolated from the outside world for a long time, compatibility would have been extremely important. Other voyages both before and since are known to have been riven with dissent where officers' personalities were incompatible (John Ross, Belcher!). It made sense that, once he had a good selection of Polar Arctic veterans, Fitzjames would select officers who he knew to be compatible. This he seems to have done.

    In addition to these officers, the ships' complements were forty eight men plus two boys on Erebus and forty eight men plus three boys on Terror. The distinction between a ‘man’ and a ‘boy’ was simply one of age – boys were under twenty years old. Neither ship sailed with its full complement, but nine of the sailors who did had previously served under either Ross or Crozier on the Erebus or Terror during their Antarctic cruise of 1839-1843, so were definitely Arctic veterans. Only twenty eight were listed as ‘first entry’, meaning that they had not previously served on Royal Navy ships. Their average age was high for the time, at twenty eight years old, so most will have been experienced merchant seamen. It is likely that some had served on Arctic whaling ships.

    Each ship also carried eight Royal Marines. None of seem to have been Arctic veterans, although it would not have been thought that they needed to be. The Royal Marine Commandant at Woolwich was asked to select candidates for the Expedition from "among those who are constitutionally best adapted to the service".

    In 1839 when Ross and Crozier sailed to the Antarctic in the Erebus and the Terror, the ships took the same number of officers, although with a different mix of ranks and skills. Two of these were enormously experienced Polar veterans – Ross and Crozier - and two others were almost as experienced. Edward Bird had served on Parry's second, third and fourth voyages and in the Cove and Archibald McMurdo had served on Back's ill-fated Expedition in the Terror. It appears that none of the other officers had any prior Polar experience.

    So I make it that probably 30% of the officers Fitzjames selected had Arctic (or Antarctic) experience, compared with only 15% on the Ross Expedition of 1839. I'm not saying that mistakes weren't made in the recruitment for the Expedtion, simply that it wasn't anomalous at the time. I also haven't looked at other Expeditions, which would be interesting.

  4. All good points! I would agree that there the 30% figure is accurate, but also somewhat misleading. Looking at the order of command, starting with Franklin himself, Crozier, then to Fitzjames, then to the 1st and 2nd lieutenants, and so forth, and setting aside the medical staff, you really only have *two* men with experience in the Arctic. GIven that the chain of command is one of the last things any naval expedition would set aside -- evidence on the ground suggests that the crews of each ship continued to camp and travel as a unit -- this seems to me a fairly serious problem. Granted, had the expedition been able to remain aboard its ships, there's no reason that the crews would have been in any sense less qualified or able to serve, but when it comes to overland travel on the ice and snow, I should think that actual polar experience would make a tremendous difference, and the shortage of such experience among the senior officers a problem. I think it is fair to assume that, had Crozier had his pick of officers, that he'd have chosen more than 30% with polar experience, though this is speculative. The proportion was not necessarily anomalous, but giving this responsibility to Fitzjames rather than Cozier was certainly a departure from tradition. There's speculation about why this happened -- I don't want to give any spoilers on the revelations promised by your book, but Fitzjames's connections were likely a factor.

    Having looked over the original muster rolls, I agree it's likely that many of the seamen who enlisted might have had previous Arctic experience -- but again, this would not necessarily translated to the skills needed for overland travel.

    The Royal Navy did not really develop a good system for overland travel until the Franklin searching expeditions; McClintock is widely credited with developing the best methods, and continued to consult with the Navy up through RF Scott's expedition. Even then, they eschewed dogs in favor of men.

    I do feel sorry for the Royal Marines -- they were low-paid to begin with, and were the only men on board not entitled to double wages.

  5. p.s. -- a correction: *three* officers (I'd forgotten to count Gore, though of course as things happened he died before the final march).

  6. Russell,

    You are exactly right.

    My point is not that it was sensible to select only 30% of officers with previous Polar experience. It was not. It's rather that that percentage is actually DOUBLE that of the 1839 Expedition. And presumably it was either Crozier or James Ross who made the selections for the 1839 voyage?

    It goes without saying that it was crazy to send those big ships with their big crews there at all. The sea-route they thought they would take should have been surveyed by land first, using small parties which did as Rae did and blended Inuit knowledge with modern guns, etc. (But did Rae use dogs?)

    I think Fitzjames deserves credit for selecting a higher proportion of officers with some relevant Polar experience than was typical at the time, and also in his other selections for picking people who he knew would be get on with each other and work as a team. Witnesses all say that in the early days of the Expedetion both ships, especially Erebus, were very happy ships. As I said - contrast that with Belcher, who was in a class of his own for unpleasantness, but also with James and John Ross, neither of whom ran particularly happy ships.

    Thanks again,