Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Library of the Erebus and Terror

"To-day we set to work, and got a catalogue made of all our books, and find we have amongst us, a most splendid collection."
-- Commander James Fitzjames, on board the Erebus, June 18th 1845

Among the many singular points of interest which distinguish Franklin's last expedition, the enormous number of books brought along is one of never-failing fascination.  Estimates of the actual number of books vary widely, and while the official libraries of each vessel certainly amounted to many hundreds of volumes, many other sorts of books would have been in the possession of the men.  Every sailor had been issued a prayer-book by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, and individual officers, and even sailors, brought their own collections.  Fitzjames's occupation of making a catalogue of all the books aboard HMS Erebus was therefore a significant undertaking, albeit taken on principally for his own interest.  If only this document had survived!

And yet our knowledge of this library is more extensive than might be imagined, given the loss of both vessels. Some descriptions of its contents survive in the letters, such as Fitzjames's, posted home from Greenland, and in documents from the period of time when the ships were being outfitted.  We know that copies of all the previous narratives of polar exploration were included as a matter of course. Phrase-books of the "Esquimaux" language, Inuktitut, were provided, although the dialect used in these volumes would have been somewhat different from that common in the area the ships were headed.  Play-books were brought along in expectation that this voyage, like all since Parry's in 1819, would resort to shipboard theatricals to keep the men busy and amused during the long winter months.  It's also known that a few volumes of Punch -- the well-known reservoir of humor which had just been founded in 1841 -- were also included.

But the most dramatic evidence of what books were brought along, and what value Franklin's men placed in them, is to be found in the few tattered, mouldering volumes recovered by searchers.  Displayed in a case (shown above) in Greenwich alongside other Franklin relics in 1859, these books are still preserved in the vaults of the National Maritime Museum and other collections.  And, thanks to the internet, especially Google books, it's possible to peer over the shoulders of the original readers of these volumes, and see the words they found so valuable that, even when the weight of supplies was of the essence, their owners hauled them along -- quite literally -- to their deaths.

Images of the books may be seen at the National Maritime Museum's website, but it takes a bit of additional research to find which editions and books they are.  Famously, there is a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield; from the frontispiece this appears to be the 1842 edition published in London by VanVoorst, with illustrations by William Mulready.  A book of "Christian Melodies" depicting "Home and its Scenes" (London: Thomas Ward, 1836) is inscribed to G.G. -- presumably Graham Gore.  Neither of these editions, unfortunately, is readily available online.

Better results are to be had with Charles Blomfield's Manual of Private Devotion, another publication of the SPCK.  The edition found in the Arctic was that of 1837, but it is largely identical to his Manual of Family Prayers (1824), which can be read here via Google Books.  Another book, of which only two leaves were found, was the Reverend John Todd's The Student's Manual.  One leaf was found folded so as to highlight the following passage:

"Are you not afraid to die?
"No!  Why does the uncertainty of another state give you no concern?"
"Because God has said to me -- Fear not: when thou passest through the waters I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee."

This gave rise to much comment in the press; although the words were printed, they seemed to arrive almost as if uttered by the dying seaman who'd last clutched the paper to his breast.  And, while this edition is not online, a very similar 1871 reprint may be perused via Google Books here.

Many other books survived in damaged or fragmentary form, including several copies of The Book of Common Prayer, two Bibles, and a New Testament in French.  When Inuit found these books, they did not understand their use; as one Inuk acknowledged to a disappointed Charles Francis Hall, they gave the books and papers to the children to play with.  And yet it remains entirely possible that further books may be found, especially if they remained aboard an intact ship.  As those who have seen the items recovered from RMS Titanic know, paper items -- including business cards, currency, menus, and such -- fare reasonably well in the water, the more so in the Arctic where colder temperatures and the absence of wood-borers make their preservation even more likely.  The same applies to handwritten materials, and although everyone likes to imagine a ship's log or officer's journal, I myself have always hoped that the sheets containing Fitzjames's catalogue may survive.  For by their books, one may know the men.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Albert Operti

Albert Operti (1852-1927) was renowned in his day for his depictions of the natural wonders of the Arctic, as well as scenes of exploration and ships. Born in Italy and educated in Britain, he accompanied Robert Peary on his 1896 expedition to Greenland, a trip which resulted in hundreds of sketches and studies which would be the basis for his later work.  Many of his paintings were commissioned by, and remain in the collection of, the Explorers' Club in New York, but are not widely known in the art world.  Yet although much of his work was based on direct observation, many of his most dramatic paintings imagine scenes of terror at which Operti was not in fact present; among these, his "The Rescue of the Greely Party" is especially evocative.  He also painted scenes from the Franklin search era, including one of the "Erebus" and "Terror" under sail, and the abandonment of the "Advance" on Kane's Second Grinnell expedition.  In addition to his paintings and sketches, he was also commissioned to make plaster casts of Greenlanders for the Museum of Natural History.

Like many panorama and diorama painters of the nineteenth century, when the Arctic was also a popular subject for such entertainments, Operti had a background in theatrical scene painting, and it was with this work that he was chiefly occupied in the middle years of his life, principally with the Metropolitan Opera.  In the last six years of his life he returned to the ANMH, painting diorama backdrops, murals, and friezes for their exhibitions.  During this period, he actually lived in quarters provided by the Explorers Club, and it was there that he died in 1927.

Outside of the extensive collections there, however, Operti's work is not often seen or exhibited.  And yet, curiously, contemporary prints of some of his finest paintings can be had for a very modest sum at sites such as eBay -- thanks to the series of scenes he prepared for trading cards issues by the Hassan Oriental Cigarette Company in the early nineteen-teens.  An example -- "Arctic Moonlight" -- is shown above, and further examples from my own collection may be found here.  The most I've ever paid for one of these cards is $10, and at times I've been able to acquire small sets for around $20.  It's a fascinating way to acquire some remarkable images of the Arctic from the early twentieth century.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Londonderry Vision

In 1850, after hearing no word from Sir John Franklin for nearly five years, the entire western world was understandably anxious as to his fate. And yet the small flotilla of ships that sailed into the Arctic archipelago that summer were only part of the response; from London to Calcutta, physics, sensetives, and mesmerists were hunkering down to their crystal balls, each seeking to outdo the others in the vividness of their visions of Franklin in the realms of frost. Most of these were -- inaccurately, as it was later learned -- optimistic in tone; Franklin was sick but still living; his men were struggling with the ice but sure to break through. Such happy prognostications surely raised hopes and pleased those who believed them, and yet there was one such vision that offered no such solace. It was, in fact, remarkably accurate, although whether its accuracy can be attributed to psychic powers or fortunate chance is a matter of some debate.

A Belfast merchant captain, William Coppin, arrived in London seeking audience with Lady Franklin. Given that her Ladyship had refused many such offers, it's remarkable in the first instance that she decided to see him at all; her niece Sophia Cracroft wrote disparagingly of the plethora of would-be psychics, and did not have much faith in this latest offering. Nevertheless, a meeting was arranged, at which Coppin told a most curious story: his youngest daughter, Louisa (known to her family as as "Weasey") had died about a year past just short of her fifth birthday. The family took the loss hard, and indeed continued to set a place for little Weasey at the dinner table. Some months after her death, her older sister Anne, along with others of her siblings, began to report seeing a strange blue light which flickered, moved along the wall, and seemed capable of drawing images upon it.

After the blue light apparently predicted the death of the family's banker, the Coppin children had grown more bold, their father reported, deciding to ask the question that was on everyone's lips -- whatever had become of Sir John Franklin? The response was astonishing: an Arctic scene, in the form of a chart, was suddenly visible before them, while on the wall there appeared the words "Erebus and Terror, Sir John Franklin, Lanacaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel." This the children dutifully reported to their father upon his return from his latest voyage, and he -- though initially angry and skeptical -- was eventually persuaded at least of their sincerity. A second vision with the Captain present produced the same results, as did -- if later accounts can be credited -- a third seance in the presence of William Kennedy, who had been asked by Lady Franklin to investigate the credibility of the Coppin story.

These tests apparently being passed -- according to some sources she met with Coppin on as many as 30 occasions -- she supposedly asked Charles Forsyth and William Kennedy, who were about to embark on their search, to pursue this course of action if possible. It was quite possibly while following her instructions that they discovered Bellot strait -- no passage west from the Gulf of Boothia being known at the time of the original "revelations." Kennedy in fact was at this point closer than any other searcher had yet managed to discovering the fate of Franklin, but ice conditions and the lateness of the season persuaded him to push no further west. Apparently, although Lady Franklin made some efforts to persuade W.A.B. Hamilton, the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, to search in this area (without disclosing the source of her wish), no further instructions along these lines were passed along to later expeditions.

These revelations were not published in full until 1889, when a certain Reverend Skewes published a book elaborating them. This brought strong objections from none other than Sir Leopold McClintock, who in a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette, declared that "the whole story of the Londonderry vision is so ridiculous that I hesitate to mention it," and denied that he had ever been instructed by Lady Franklin to follow its directions. Nevertheless, it has continued to haunt the Franklin story, inspiring a novel (Liam Browne's The Emigrant's Farewell) as well as a scene in John Walker's film Passage (see above for an image of James Wallace, in his role as Captain Coppin). Noted Arctic scholars Talph Lloyd-Jones and W. Gillies Ross have also published fascinating studies of these clairvoyant claims about Franklin in the Polar Record [37:200 (2000)], [39:208 (2003)].

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Franklin Search Update: Call in the Navy!

Here's a Franklin search update, courtesy of the Globe and Mail:

Navy asked to help find ships lost in Franklin expedition
April 11, 2009

As Parks Canada prepares to resume its search in the Arctic later this year for the lost ships of the doomed 19th-century Franklin expedition, it's decided to call in the big guns - the Canadian military - for extra help. According to confidential government documents obtained by The Globe and Mail under access-to-information laws, the federal agency has asked the Canadian navy for support in its high-profile, three-year quest to locate what's been dubbed the Arctic's Holy Grail.

The missing ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, were part of an 1845 British expedition led by Sir John Franklin to locate the fabled Northwest Passage to Asia. The vessels and their crews disappeared around 1848, and since then several search efforts have been launched to solve the maritime mystery. Only graves of some of the crew and wreckage from the expedition have been found.

Parks Canada is determined to locate the biggest prize: the long-lost Royal Navy ships. According to internal documents, it has pinpointed Wilmot and Crampton Bay and waters near O'Reilly Island as key places to look. Both spots are in Queen Maud Gulf, which is southwest of King Edward Island.

During last summer's six-week search, the start of the ambitious three-year project, only small artifacts, including tent rings and pieces of copper hull sheathing, believed to have belonged to either the Terror or Erebus, were collected.

While the federal agency is already receiving assistance from the Canadian Coast Guard, government officials would like another ship to help with the search effort for two of the world's most sought-after shipwrecks.

Documents reveal that the coast guard's icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier was only available to help for two out of the six weeks set aside last summer.

Alan Latourelle, Parks Canada's chief executive officer, has written to the military and said the ships' discovery would be met with "substantial media coverage."
He added that the navy's participation in the project could be tied to Parks Canada's centennial in 2011.

"Playing a part in bringing the fate of the lost Franklin expedition to light would represent a singular opportunity to commemorate the significant milestone for the Canadian Navy in landmark fashion," Mr. Latourelle wrote in a letter to Rear Admiral Paul Madison.
Lieutenant Len Hickey, a navy spokesman based in Halifax, said he couldn't comment on the status of Parks Canada's request until next week at the earliest because "the parties involved" weren't available.

If the navy agrees to help, it wouldn't be the first time Canadian military resources were used to search for the remains of the ill-fated Franklin expedition. In 1967, dozens of soldiers were dispatched to the Arctic to participate in a Canada centennial project dubbed "Project Franklin."

The soldiers conducted air, land and sea searches, including sending divers down into the frigid waters surrounding O'Reilly Island. While some relics from the Franklin expedition were found, the search turned up little.

According to internal Parks Canada communications plans, officials are being instructed that this latest search, which is expected to cost the agency at least $225,000, shouldn't be "over-hyped" because of the possibility the wrecks won't be found.

However, one plan says that if the ships are located, it would be a potential media opportunity for a "high-profile" federal official, "perhaps even the Prime Minister."

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Mystery of the Shining Skin

In the summer of 1850, a small flotilla of ships searching for any trace of Sir John Franklin converged at Beechey Island. News of the discovery of the expedition's winter camp spread throughout every ship, including Sir John Ross's yacht the "Mary." Ross had with him his "Esquimaux interpreter" Adam Beck, and Beck took part in the extensive searches for any possible record left behind. Up on a bluff on the northern end of Beechey, Beck saw something sticking up out of the snow, and hurried to the spot. To quote his own description:
"When I had reached it, I saw a shining skin nailed on, with writing in the English language, which I did not understand, because it was not my work, only this I recognized, '3d September 1846,' for which I was immediately thankful. I pulled it out of the ground that I might take it with me. As I was going home over a hill I slipped down the snow over the hill, because the snow had ice, and with that I lost the shining mark or writing that I had found, and would not go up again because I had no instrument with which I could climb up the hard ice, only I brought the wood home as a testimony in my favour, but its writing I lost, and on this wood which I had found I wrote my name, because I, Adam, wished to keep it."
Ross, who had observed Beck's actions through his telescope, noted the event in his own pocket-diary: "Adam Beck found a piece of wood on the . . . north land on which was a piece of tin with September 1846 on it but did not bring the tin" (see image above). The date was intriguing -- had the ice not broken up until September of 1846? Had the ships returned briefly to Beechey after circumnavigating Cornwallis Island? The date is only nine days before the date given in the Victory Point record as that on which the ships were first beset off King William Island, which seems a very brief interval for all the progress they made, even imagining Peel Sound to be entirely ice-free. The evidence signs on Beechey -- abandoned equipment, a pair of mittens left out to dry -- suggested a hasty departure, but the sign-post would have taken some time to make.

Beck himself is a sad figure; after relaying -- imperfectly -- a story told to him at Cape York of the killing of a group of white men and the burning of their ship by Inuit, he was vilified as a liar. Ross nevertheless had enormous confidence in him, and did not blame him for honestly passing along a story not his own. Nevertheless, he was widely ridiculed, and found difficulty obtaining work; ten years later, by curious chance, he was found by Charles Francis Hall, who pitied this "wreck of a man" as he poured forth his tale.

Why did the expedition, which apparently failed to leave a paper note in a cannister as expected, leave instead a painted sign on a bluff some distance from their camp? William Battersby has noted two significant clues: 1) James Fitzjames was known to have a habit of erecting sign-posts somewhat capriciously; and 2) The expedition, charged with making magnetic observations, was expected to make especially detailed ones on select "Term Dates" on which multiple measurements were to be made at locations around the globe. One of these was August 29th, 1846, and so it would be entirely reasonable that the expedition would on or near that date have dropped anchor and set up one or more magnetic observatories on land. Might this have been the reason for the late date on the signpost?

It's terribly tempting to imagine the other words in English which preceded the date, or even that Beck's "shining skin" might someday be recovered. For now, it's simply one more clue, albeit a little-known one, as to the activities and whereabouts of Franklin's ships on the eve of their final imprisonment in the ice.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Victory Point Record

It is perhaps the most evocative document in the long history of the Western exploration of the Arctic regions: a single sheet of paper, a pre-printed form with two handwritten messages written not quite a year apart. The first, full of optimism, describes the Franklin expedition’s achievements up through May of 1847, including the circumnavigation of Cornwallis Island, and ends with a forceful “Sir John Franklin commanding.” The second, written in a tight scrawl around the margins, tells of the death of Franklin (only weeks after the first record was made) and many other officers and men, the abandonment of his ships, and a plan to trek overland to the Back River.

A facsimile of this record, brought back from the Arctic by Sir Francis Leopold McClintock, was reproduced in the Illustrated London News and Harper’s Weekly, and a fold-out facsimile was included in all editions of his book, The Voyage of the Fox in Arctic Seas, in 1859, a book which became a world-wide bestseller. The novelist Joseph Conrad credited this document with “letting in the breath of the stern romance of polar exploration into the existence of a boy,” and setting him off on “romantic explorations of [his] inner self.” It has been the subject of more speculation and analysis than any other piece of paper this side of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and yet it is far from yielding up all its secrets.

So what can we learn from this record? Well, we can learn the direct information it conveys as to the location of the ships and the disposition of the crew, and so forth. But we can also glean a great deal more. To give just two examples: First, as William Battersby has noted, the first note is entirely in the handwriting of James Fitzjames; this is unusual, as Franklin would ordinarily have signed these himself; a note tossed overboard earlier in the expedition was signed by him. We may infer from this that, for some reason, Franklin must have been unable to write the note himself; that he died only a few weeks later suggests that illness may have been the cause. Second: the years of the expedition’s wintering at Beechey Island are given as 1846-7, which is certainly in error; from the headboards at Beechey we know it was the winter of 1845-6. Why would Fitzjames have made such an elementary mistake, and made it in both the Victory Point document and in a second, identical form left a few miles away at Back Bay? This suggests that Fitzjames’s memory was clouded, a potential sign of lead poisoning. Those in the early stages of this condition have problems with forming lasting short-term memory, which progresses to difficulty with accurate recollection of the mid-range past. As Colin Field, an Australian pathologist with whom I’ve consulted on this problem, notes:
“I can imagine a situation where members of the expedition, and in particular the officers, will begin to show gradual problems with memory for recent information, as well as subtle but progressive deficits of organisational function. They begin to make subtle errors; forgetting where they have put things, or whether or not they have issued certain orders. As things progress they become more and more forgetful for events of the recent past. One of the earliest signs of memory deficit is the loss of ability to update, on a daily basis, the current day and date. Failure to be able to name the current day, month and year, and in some cases the current whereabouts, is one of the most telling early signs of all organic dementias, and it is for this reason that mental status examinations always include these orientation questions.”
At the same time, lead poisoning would have no immediate effect on what’s known as “habitual” memory, including things such as how to tie one’s shoes or ascertain one’s position with a sextant. And indeed, we find in the second part of the note that the location of the record – “Lat. 69º37’42” Long. 98º41’” – is remarkably accurate.

But it’s the second note that gives us some of the most suggestive information about the fate of the crews, and the cause of their distress. There is a lengthy aside about how Sir James Clark Ross’s cairn was not found where it was thought to be, and a new cairn erected at the site – a curious waste of precious ink and time – and another possible sign of mental difficulties. The date of death of Franklin, June 11th 1847, is given, but no cause of death or indication of his burial site – another peculiarity. For the rest of the officers, we hear only of Irving and Gore; Gore we now know to have received a field promotion, as he is referred to as “Commander” – and also to have died, as he is referred to as “late.” This has given rise to speculation that Gore, who was in command of the party which left the original paper, must have reached Simpson’s cairn at Cape Herschel, returning with the news just in time to be promoted by Franklin as a reward. Of course, it is entirely possible that he was simply promoted as a matter of course after Franklin’s death when Fitzjames became Captain. With Lieutenant Irving, his name comes up only in the context of the description of the search for Ross’s cairn – and yet here lies a further mystery, as a body believed to be Irving’s was found not far from this very spot by Lieutenant Schawtka’s searching expedition years later. How could Irving, who was well enough to be scouting about in 1848 at the start of the southward march, have died near the very place where it began? Is this a sign of an attempted return to the ships at a later date?

Next, there are the overall casualty figures for the crews: 9 officers and 15 men. There were 24 officers on the two vessels, including the Ice Masters, and 105 men; this gives an officer casualty rate of 37% as opposed to only 14% among the ordinary seamen and marines – a remarkable ratio. Why did nearly twice as large a proportion of officers die? If we assume that lead poisoning was a key factor, we may attribute this to the officers’ consuming more of something – tinned food, in the Beattie theory, distilled water, in the Battersby solution – which impaired their health significantly. Alternatively, it’s been proposed that a large party rich in officers – perhaps a burial detail – was lost in some accident, skewing the overall ratio. Whatever the cause, the difference is far too large to be accounted for by random chance.

Finally, we have the enigmatic, and deeply unsatisfactory addendum in Crozier’s hand – “and start on tomorrow 26th for Back’s Fish River.” Was this the destination of the entire body of men who abandoned the ships? Or was it, as David C. Woodman has argued, simply a large detachment of men gone in search of food and possible Inuit contact to aid their less able comrades? Having reached that area, was the plan to ascend the river – a perilous journey filled with rough portages that Back, a famously able Arctic traveler, condemned as one of the most difficult journeys of its kind – or rather to track to the southeast in the direction of Repulse Bay, in hopes of meeting with Inuit or whalers?

These, then, are the central questions raised by the Victory Point record, and which may never be completely resolved until some further record or evidence is found. And yet, even in all its ambiguity, it continues to be a rich source of fascination, and the terrible irony between its two messages will always evoke what Conrad called “the tragic ending of a great tale.”

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Peglar Papers, Part II

Following up on my last posting, I wanted to clarify the matter of addresses in the “Peglar” papers. That many of the sheets were meant to be entrusted to the post can be inferred by their folding, some remaining bits of red sealing wax, and the presence of addresses on the outside corner of several. None of the documents themselves seem to have any form of letter – there is no salutation, no signature, or any other such indication – the assumption is that these were stories, songs, or other works that the sender wished to have forwarded, perhaps accompanied by some sort of cover letter since lost. Nevertheless, that there are addresses offers at least a glimmer of hope that the intended correspondents might shed some light on the larger mystery. Here I'll draw from my own research, as well as from RJ Cyriax and AGE Jones's original study.

The most sensible, and – as it turns out – meaningful address is the notation “In care of Mr. Heaithfield, a Squier, no 10 Pelmell West, London”— Cyriax and Jones have identified this from a London Directory from 1845 as a Mr. William Eames Heathfield, a chemist whose shop was at 10 Pall Mall; he thus has the honor of being the only known correspondent of Peglar or Armitage. Another seemingly valid address is “Mr John Cowper, No. 47 John St., Commercial Road, London,” but here, alas, there is considerable ambiguity – according to Cyriax, there were no fewer than six “John Streets” in London’s East End, as well as two “Commercial Roads,” and in any case no “John Cowper” is listed as residing in any of them. Another address which met with no match in the Directory was written backwards: “IME . . . P Evarglleb Raauqs, Ocilmip, West.” Here it’s the name which is ambiguous; while "Bellgrave Squaar, Pimlico" is certainly valid, the other letters are far less clear. They might very well be someone’s initials; the “M” might be a “W,” and it might or might not be backwards. A name starting in “P” and ending in “EMI” is one possibility, as is a person with the initials “I.M.” or “I.W.” but apparently there was no match for either in the 1845 Directory; a detail of this address is shown above.

Last comes the most enigmatic, which Cyriax thought might be a “crude form of will”: “Mr Father all to Miss down fall no 6 Old free Street and a clear couarse.” The names are clearly fanciful, and so, apparently, is the address as there is no “Old Free Street” known in London or elsewhere at the time. One further name is discernable in the text but not given an address, and this is “John Faithfull.” At first, it might seem as fanciful as “Miss down fall,” but a search that I made of UK directories and newspapers revealed a number of men with this name, including a well-known physician in Edinburgh.

Cyriax and A G E Jones’s paper appeared in the Mariner’s Mirror in 1954, and since then I know of no further attempts to trace any of these correspondents. Certainly resources available online today – searchable newspapers, census records, and Googled books – offer the hope that more could be learned. Mr. Heathfield, at least, should be identifiable, and Mr. Cowper perhaps retrieved from obscurity, at least. I’d welcome any detective work that anyone online would like to do to further solve this enigmatic puzzler!