Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Missing Chronometer, Part 2

I just heard this morning from Jonathan Betts, who was most interested to learn of our discussion here, and offered some considerable additional background on the matter. I'll put his comments here in quotes:
1. "Erebus and Terror both took ten chronometers (don't have the source in front of me, but that much is known) and the receipt you refer to (ADL/D/18) is for nine chronometers supplied to Erebus from the Observatory on 10 May. Arnold 294 is not one of them, but that doesn't rule out the possibility of its either already being on Erebus, or joining them on the ship later."
2. "The chronometer ledgers are simply 'in and out' books for chronometers arriving and leaving the Observatory. If a chronometer left directly to a ship then we know where it went, but sometimes they were sent to naval bases (usually Portsmouth or Plymouth) and then we lose sight of where they went afterwards. The last entry for Arnold 294 on its ledger page before the "Lost..." entry, was it being sent with Commander Wickham on Beagle in June 1837. This was at a time when Beagle was being used as a kind of packet ship, usually delivering stuff to Portsmouth and Plymouth, so my guess is that Arnold 294 went to Portsmouth for issue to whichever ship needed it.

The chronometer in question is definitely Arnold 294, and that chronometer is stated in the Observatory ledgers as "Lost in the Arctic Regions with 'Erebus'."

3. "It is perfectly possible, as you said in your discussion, that this chronometer was issued to J.C.Ross on Erebus and that it was retained (or was supposed to be retained) for use on the following expedition, but got 'lost' during the refit at which point there was a cover-up of some kind. However the ships were said to have ten chronometers each and (as observed in your discussion) I cannot explain how the absence of Arnold 294 was not noticed at that point. Your correspondent Peter Carney postulates this scenario, stating that the officer whose responsibility it was... had a motive to maintain the fiction that it was still with the ship. But it would have required several officers to be complicit in such a crime which I find very difficult to imagine. Crozier was common to both expeditions and I suppose its possible he had agreed to transfer the chronometer and somehow it failed to make the transition for 'legitimate' reasons? Anyway, hopefully it will be possible to establish whether or not this chronometer was indeed with J.C.Ross & Crozier and then continue that line of conjecture if appropriate."

4. "A part of the "...Chronometer-box with its number, name of the maker..."etc., sounds like the Franklin relic we hold, which is from the chronometer by French, No.4214." (my comment: this corresponds with a note I found from Hall which implies that items specifically marked as state property were returned to the UK).

5. "Don't know who your contacts are that you refer to, but the NMM purchased the chronometer directly, but using funds kindly provided by the Friends of the NMM. The sale catalogue stated it had come from Franklin's expedition, not Ross's."

6. "The name the chronometer was given was Reynolds & Son, which may well not have been fictional as such a London firm was known in the mid-19th century, but it more 'convenient', as it meant only changing the first "Ar" and adding the rest, to provide the new name, which seems quite a coincidence for a legitimate company altering an object which is (whether they knew it or not) stolen property. I think in fact the conversion to carriage clock probably occurred around 1900 and was not part of any cover-up."
There's much to think on here -- I am deeply grateful to Mr. Betts for sharing this information with us.

So what more can we contribute? If anyone reading this has access to reliable information as to which chronometers went aboard "Erebus" with JC Ross, that would be one helpful point we might address.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Maps of the Canadian Arctic -- free!

Over the years I've written about and researched the Franklin expedition, among the toughest things to track down have been maps.  Historical maps, understandably, are the most difficult, and often require arrangements with rare book libraries, dealers, and others who have access to the originals.  But simply obtaining an accurate map, say, of King William Island -- accurate enough to plot the locations of Franklin finds, and make meaningful measurements of distances -- has always been a bit tricky.  In the old days, you could order maps directly from the Canada Map Office; a few years ago, they stopped providing them, and one had to order maps from dealers in Canada.  Then, most recently, these dealers themselves have begun to run out of stock, as the original print run of the maps was exhausted, with no plans to print more.

It was a frustrating situation -- that is, until recently, when I learned of Canada's GeoGratis map service.  In the past, this service only provided mapping data for high-end software unavailable at the consumer level, but it is now possible to download a high-resolution TIFF of any original topographical map.  The interface is a rather confusing one, and it's easy to be disappointed if you try searching for geographical features.  However, if you simply go directly to the topographical map key, known as the CanMatrix, you can move, zoom, and finally click on any map in the entire grid.  A few menus and a download of about 30 MB later, you'll be unzipping yourself a full, 55-60 MB topographic map, which you can zoom in on, edit, and use to your heart's content.  The small sample above, which shows the Royal Geographical Society Islands -- one site of the current search by Parks Canada,  is from map 67d, "Cape Felix," a stunning 1:250,000 scale topo map with a remarkable level of detail. What's more, there's a surprisingly open-ended license for these materials, which apparently allows all kinds of use, including the making of derivative products.  It's one of the most generous licenses for official governmental maps of which I'm aware.

So drop on by -- you will be amazed by the level of detail that's available!  It's a Franklin-ophile's cartographic dream come true.

Note on map above: © Department of Natural Resources Canada. All rights reserved

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Horological Mystery

It's a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes, who famously remarked that, once one has eliminated the impossible, whatever remains -- no matter how improbable -- must be the truth.  How did a full-size ship's chronometer, sent on board HMS "Erebus" in 1845, end up encased inside the squat frame of a carriage clock, its interior works still sound and showing no sign of having ever been exposed to the elements?  Each of the ships had just two of these costly instruments, without which it would have been impossible to calculate their longitude.  They were set on departure, and it was the duty of the second lieutenants to keep them wound; the second was a vital back-up for the first.  Of all the instruments on board ship, the chronometers would be the most closely watched, and -- presumably -- the most difficult to steal.  Such an event, had it happened, would never have gone unremarked, and yet in all the letters sent home via the ships' last port of call in Greenland, no mention was made of such a theft.  Nevertheless, if the theft occurred after that point, it's nearly impossible to account for the extraordinary condition of the instrument; as Jonathan Betts, senior horology specialist at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich has remarked,
"This has never been lying around in the open air. I have handled a pocket watch recovered from the expedition, and it is so corroded it is not possible even to open the case. Conditions in the Arctic are so extreme this would have rusted within a day, and been a heap of rubbish within a month."
The timepiece will be one of the featured exhibits at the new exhibit on the search for the Northwest Passage at the National Maritime Museum, which opens this week -- but in the meantime, perhaps those of us who post here at Visions of the North can do some footwork to solve this singular mystery.

The case, as Holmes might remark, presents many "singular points of interest."  Let's enumerate what we know:

1. The timepiece was made in London by John Arnold.  Like all such naval chronometers, it was given a number -- Arnold 294 -- and sent to the Admiralty stores at the Observatory (the very room which now serves as Betts's workshop).  From there, its movements were carefully tracked, and the tracks end with its being assigned to HMS "Erebus" in 1845.

2. An examination of the present casing shows, according to Betts, that the chronometer was altered in ways which strongly suggest an attempt to disguise its origins.  Apparently, the "Arnold" name on the faceplate was "hammered flat" and another maker's name (made up, and not that of any actual clockmaker) substituted.  At some later date, when the interior name was discovered, the "Arnold" on the faceplate was restored.  This strongly suggests that, in the first instance, the clock was disguised in order to make its provenance less notable, and the second instance, restored when its value was recognized.  The second instance can be dated to 30 years ago, and began the course of events by which the timepiece was acquired by the Observatory and returned to its original home.

3. No known reference exists to the timepiece between the sailing of HMS "Erebus" and 26 June, 1886, when an entry was made in the Observatory's official ledger: "Lost in the Arctic Regions with the 'Erebus.'"

4. That the chronometer was, for any length of time, exposed to the elements while in the Arctic can safely be eliminated as a possibility.

5. No Franklin search expedition, in any case, noted recovering a ship's chronometer; those found and returned to Greenwich were pocket chronometers, all in various states of decay. Such a find would certainly have been remarkable.

So what can we say?  According to The Guardian, Mr. Betts "yearns to know who dunnit."  Can we assist?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


What in heaven's name, you may well ask, is NgLj-2? Despite its technical sounding name, it is in fact one of the most significant sites where remains of Sir John Franklin's expedition have been found, and one of the best-studied. Indeed, it marks the last significant full-scale archaeological study done on any Franklin site; the study was conducted in 1992-3, and its results reported in 1994 by Margaret Bertulli, then a senior archaeologist with the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife NWT.

NgLj-2 is often confused with McClintock's "boat place," where he discovered one of the whaleboats belonging to "Erebus" and "Terror." Yet although NgLj2 is indeed on Erebus Bay, somewhat less than a kilometre away from the place identified by McClintock, it's a very distinct location. It's likely that the area, which is very low-lying, was covered by coastal ice or snow when McClintock passed near. It was discovered later by In-nook-pa-zhe-jook, the same Inuk who had first told Dr. Rae the story of the last Franklin survivors. At the time he met Rae, he had not been to the area, but like many other Inuit he was anxious, once he knew of it, to locate some of the resources -- wood, metal, and useful implements -- which might have been left behind. Describing the site, he said he saw "one skeleton with clothes on," three skulls, and "a heap of skeleton bones," many of which had been broken open, he assumed, to extract the marrow. He also found several "long boots," in the inside of some of which he found "cooked human flesh."

It was a grisly find, but absent any indications of a cairn, written records, or large items, it did not attract further interest at the time. This was to its benefit as, without scavenging, the human remains and other artifacts on the site had remained largely undisturbed for nearly a century and a half, making it an ideal place for an archaeological dig. The 1992 party, which included Margaret Bertulli, Anne Keenleyside, and Barry Ranford, began with a photographic survey. From this, they mapped off an area of about 300 square metres where the concentration of relics was the highest. Then began the slow, painstaking process of marking, photographing, and cataloging each and every item, however small.

The human remains found there are the source for two studies which are well-known, and for both of which Anne Keenleyside was an author. One established the cut-marks as evidence "consistent with defleshing," and the other discovered very high -- although also very varied -- levels of lead in the bone itself. More than 400 individual bones were recovered, representing at least eight and possibly as many as eleven individuals. The skulls were clearly caucasoid in structure, but puzzlingly, the jaw on one individual appeared to be someone only 12-15 years old, based on the calcification of the third molars. Although Barry Ranford searched not only through the Muster Books for the ships but even tracked down baptismal records, he found that at least three of the four "boys" on the expedition were eighteen or older; by 1848 they would have been twenty-one. It's possible that the last "boy" was younger, although unlikely that he would have been as young as 12; the mystery has yet to be satisfactorily resolved. After study, the human remains were reburied at the site in 1994.

Along with the bones, though, were hundreds of other small items that testified to the presence of Franklin's men. Among them was a lens fragment of purple glass and several small fragments of wire gauze, suggesting improvised snow-goggles similar to those recovered at other Franklin sites; a cylinder thought to be a pen shaft, a broken clay pipe bowl, a comb fragment with 11 spines, three metal grommets, a buckle possibly from a sledge-hauling strap, three weathered lumps of wax, twelve copper rivets, shoe-heels fixed with copper tacks, 54 fragments of leather, two pieces of thin copper sheeting, a tin can fragment, and numerous fragments of cloth. Many of these fragments were of blue serge, the typical stuff of naval uniforms; there were also bits of flax, blanket-cloth, and cotton. Among the more numerous items were buttons, including four of black bone, which help date the site as buttons from only a decade or so after Franklin sailed tended to be made with vegetable ivory rather than bone; similarly, several "Dorset" or thread buttons, which declined in use after 1841, were found.

The larger significance of this site is, of course, a matter of some debate. That cannibalism took place here seems certain, but at what point in the final months of the expedition this happened is difficult to determine. The site, although low-lying, is in fact a sort of very low island; might it have been the place on shore pointed out by the officer in the account of the "Black Men"? Was this a party returning to the ships? A sick camp for those unable to continue the journey south? Intriguingly, Rae's first report to the Admiralty passed along Inuit testimony that "fresh bones and feathers of geese" had been found near the site by Inuit; faunal remains from NgLj-2 include bones of ringed seal, Arctic fox, golden plover, and "perhaps a goose." If the seal bones are from the Franklin era, it suggests the men must have become more adept at hunting local species than has hitherto been assumed, or acquired the seal in trade with the Inuit.

The complexity of the site, and the ambiguity of much of its evidence, suggests that other Franklin sites, after this length of time, are not likely to add enormously to our store of knowledge, unless by chance objects associated with specific individuals, or some sort of written material, are found. Nevertheless, if complex, it is also rich, giving us in the form of hundreds of small reminders, mute testimony to the presence of men who travelled, and who died, in this icy wilderness.

NOTE: IF you would like to have a look at the area, point your Google Earth or other geo browser to 69º08'30" N., 99º01'17" W.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

All Well: Another note in a cairn

The American explorer Charles Francis Hall was a man with a born flair for publicity and the dramatic.  Long before he sailed north, he ran a newspaper, the Cincinnati Occasional, which he claimed was printed using a "Thermionic Engine" -- a machine which produced more power than it consumed.  Needless to say, the claim was false, but it had just the sort of style about it that sold more newspapers.

In the 1860's, Hall had managed two substantial Arctic search expeditions on little more than a shoestring, hitching rides with friendly whalers and relying on his Inuit guides, "Joe" Ebierbing and "Hannah" Tookoolito, to provide hunting and translation services as he sought after survivors of the Franklin expedition.  In the end, he did not find any, although he amassed a large body of oral testimony, and it was with these journeys "under his belt," so to speak, that he lobbied the US Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant for funds to launch his planned attempt on the North Pole.  In the end, despite long odds, he prevailed, and was appointed commander of an expedition which sailed aboard the USS "Polaris" in June of 1871.  Hall had considerable control over many aspects of the planning of the expedition, although not -- unfortunately, as fate would have it -- the appointment of its scientific personnel.  Filled with the romance of the North even after many years of bitter experience, he designed forms to be thrown overboard and/or left in cairns, and based them very directly on the famous "Victory Point" record left behind by Franklin's officers.  Hall's one major change, besides directing the finder to send word to the US Secretary of the Navy rather than the UK's Admiralty, was to make the form nearly twice as large.  Even then, as the example shown here indicates, he found the space barely adequate for his needs, filling every margin with his characteristic close-written hand, then adding a bold signature across the very middle of the sheet.

The form here is a copy of one said to have been deposited by Hall at the far reach of his first sledging expedition after the Polaris was secured at the place he named "Thank God Harbor."  Curiously, it too was placed inside a copper cylinder, and there it still resides, carried back from the wreck of the expedition and deposited with the rest of the Hall Papers at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

The message opens with the traditional statement of accomplishments:

Myself and party, consisting of Mr. Chester, first  mate, my Esquimaux Joe, and Greenland Esquimaux Hans, left the ship in winter quarters, Thank-God Harbor, latitude 81° 38' north, longitude 61° 44' west, at meridian of October 10th, on a journey by two sledges, drawn by fourteen dogs, to discover, if possible, a feasible route inland for my sledge-journey next spring to reach the North Pole, purposing to adopt such a route, if found, better than a route over the old floes and hummocks of the strait which I have denominated Robeson's Strait, after the honorable Secretary of the United States Navy.
Further details as to discoveries, named lands, flora and fauna ("the country abounds with life, and seals, game, geese, ducks, musk-cattle, rabbits, wolves, foxes, bears, partridges, lemmings, &c. &c.") follow, and then this curious final statement:
Up to the time I and my party left the ship all have been well, and continue with high hopes of accomplishing our great mission.
It's hard to imagine that Hall, for whom Franklin and his men loomed so large, would have been unaware of the potential irony of using a phrase so reminiscent of the Victory Point record's fateful "All Well" -- and yet he chose those words.  The irony would be provided later, just as it had been for Franklin, when Hall ended up poisoned by a member of his own crew; on November 8th, scarcely three weeks after depositing this note, he would be dead.  The prime candidate for his poisoner remains Dr. Emil Bessels, a member of the largely German scientific staff appointed by the Smithsonian over Hall's objections, who apparently resented the leadership of a man they considered lesser than themselves.  It's still sadder to reflect that, given the success of his initial sledge-journey north, Hall might well -- had he lived -- have come far closer to the Pole than any other explorer in the nineteenth century.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Franklin Search: Navy Won't Support Parks Canada Request

This latest news courtesy of the Globe and Mail:

Navy won't aid in finding Franklin expedition

Parks Canada says high-profile quest for 19th-century wrecks, lost in search for Northwest Passage, may be scuttled without support

The Canadian navy has turned down a request from Parks Canada to help search this summer for the Arctic's Holy Grail - the lost ships of the doomed 19th-century Franklin expedition.

"Unfortunately, we can't support the mission," said Major Paul Doucette, a Halifax-based navy spokesman.

Confidential government documents obtained by The Globe and Mail under access-to-information laws show that the federal agency asked the navy for support in the final two years of its high-profile, three-year quest to locate the missing ships.

While Parks Canada received assistance from the Canadian Coast Guard during last year's outing, government officials wanted another ship to help.

The lack of ship support may put Parks Canada's planned search this summer in jeopardy, said agency spokeswoman Fiona Currie.

She said the coast guard may not be heading to the area where the agency's archeologists want to conduct field work this year.

The missing ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, were part of an 1845 British expedition led by Sir John Franklin that was trying to locate the fabled Northwest Passage to Asia.

The British navy vessels and their crews disappeared around 1848, and have become two of the world's most sought-after shipwrecks. Graves of some of the crew and wreckage from the expedition are all that have been recovered.

Major Doucette said the navy plans to have ships sailing in the Arctic this summer, but none as far west as O'Reilly Island, where Parks Canada has been concentrating its search. O'Reilly Island is in the central Arctic's Queen Maud Gulf.

In the past, the Canadian navy has been used to look for the lost British expedition, including in 1967, when dozens of soldiers were dispatched north to participate in a Canada centennial undertaking dubbed Project Franklin.

The soldiers conducted air, land and sea searches, including sending divers into the frigid waters surrounding O'Reilly Island.

Major Doucette said it's too early to know whether the navy would be able to participate in the third and final year of Parks Canada's search, scheduled for 2010.