Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sacred from Every Eye But Mine: Sir John Franklin's Lost Journal

The talk about the possibility of recovering papers and logbooks from the wreck of HMS "Erebus" brings to mind the persistent hope of Franklin searchers over the years that some written documents may yet be found. The ships' log-books would certainly be of enormous value, and might well have been cached on land; more valuable still would be one of the officer's journals. As Ralph Lloyd-Jones recently observed, though, there would not have been any official logbook kept by Franklin himself -- for, altough the commander of the Expedition as a whole, he was not the captain of either vessel. And yet, as it happens, we do know that Sir John Franklin's kept his own personal journal -- in fact, we have a physical description of it from Lady Jane Franklin herself!

Writing on December 15, 1854 to James Anderson, who had been selected to lead a Hudson's Bay party down the Fish River to search the area where it seemed Dr. Rae's evidence pointed, Lady Franklin made two quite singular requests. The first, touchingly, was for a lock of her husband's hair, should his body be found:
I do not expect my dear husband to be amongst the survivors -- if you should meet with his corpse which I think will be found wherever the ships are found, I beg you to bring me his locks of hair ..,
Yet there was also another sort of lock, one which Lady Jane implored Andserson not to open:
I also entreat you to bring me sealed up and directed to myself all the letters you can find addressed to him or me which may be supposed to have been in his possession. I feel that my dear husband's private letters and papers ought to be sacred from every eye but mine ...you must not attribute to me a want of confidence in your honor as a gentleman, a man of conscience and feeling. In your hands these cherished relics will be safe,but I wish you to give strict injunctions to all under you to observe the same precautions ... I shall give £700 reward to whoever brings or forwards this packet ... My husband took with him a bound quarto memorandum book in which he was to write his private journal -- it had brass at the corners and a lock and key -- this also I desire to possess and it will meet with the reward.
The detailed description of this book is striking -- as is Lady Jane's request to Anderson that he return but not read this "private" journal. For understandable as her request was, it was also -- strictly speaking -- a violation of Royal Navy protocol. In Franklin's orders, in paragraph 22, he was given the customary command:
On your arrival in England you are immediately to repair to this office, in order to lay before us a full account of your proceedings ... taking care to demand from the officers, petty officers, and all other persons on board, the logs and journals they may have kept, which are to be sealed up, and you will issue similar directions to Captain Crozier and his officers. The said logs, journals, or other documents to be thereafter disposed of as we may think proper to determine.
Today, of course, these orders are long lapsed, and the British government has given permission for Canada to take possession of any artifacts found in the current search for the lost ships. If left on board one of the vessels, such written materials may yet have a further lease on life; at the low temperatures and low oxygen content of Arctic waters, they are even less susceptible to decay and damage than if they had been left on land. Articles of similar fragility -- playing cards from RMS Titanic, along with a remarkably-preserved bowler hat -- have been retrieved elsewhere. Whatever is found, I shall myself be on the lookout for a bound quarto volume, its corners tipped in brass, locked away with a lock whose service, once so dear to Lady Franklin's hopes, is now no longer needed.


  1. Hello There
    Very interesting. One question - your comments suggest that Jane Franklin made an unusual request regarding the letters and journals –which ran contrary to navy protocol. Is it not equally possible that she just did not know the naval protocol? Take for example the story that she wrapped Franklin in the flag days before he was to sail when he had a cold. Which superstition suggested meant a burial at sea. Just a thought…
    - R Taichman

  2. Hello Russell,

    Hoping I'm not at risk to offending our shared given name, I am absolutely certain that Lady Jane Franklin would have known the usual protocol in such circumstances. And yet, knowing that, I do believe she hoped for some special consideration (she was still smarting from Dr. Rae's evidence, which she said would have been better "buried in his bosom" even and especially if true) and I think the Admiralty might well have granted it. So I mention this not to discount it, bur rather to note its unusual nature.

  3. Hello Russell,I hope that some day some record will be found,hopefully in my lifetime.Is there any news as to the latest search for the vessels by Dr Greenier and Louie Kammoukak.

  4. I don't have any news from Robert Grenier's search as of yet -- it's probably a bit early, as I understand that his search involves shores and coastal waters, which are probably still ice-covered in many areas. I'll certainly post anything I hear! And of course I hold out some hope that there may yet be another chapter, although by no means a final one, in the Franklin mystery ...

  5. Anyone hazard any guesses as to exactly what Lady F wanted to keep quiet?

  6. My sense is that, despite her (formidable) public presence, Lady F remained an intensely private person when it came to her personal affairs. I can't think that there was anything untoward among her husband's papers; her main effort here seems to have been directed toward keeping any private documents found private, and not having them mingled in with official materials or -- heaven forfend! -- be published prior to her getting her hands on them. The references to Dr. Rae's news may be relevant here, as this would have been very fresh in her mind late in 1854. Dr. Rae protested to Lady F. that he had endeavored to keep his news private and deliver it to the Admiralty directly -- but someone along the way "leaked" it to the Times. Whether or not she believed him, I think she wanted to be sure nothing similar happened here.

  7. Dr John Rae should have been given more recognition for he did,instead it was a case of shoot the messenger

  8. I agree Rae should have been recognized for his courage in reporting what he heard. The recent film "Passage" does quite a good job of making this case. There are those, such as Ken McGoogan, who feel that Rae rather than Franklin should have the recognition for the discovery of the Northwest Passage itself -- I politely disagree. I believe it is possible to be both an admirer of Dr. Rae and of Sir John Franklin -- and even of Charles Dickens -- without having to reduce history to side-taking. What I like about Lady F's note above is that she actually does seem to tacitly admit that Rae's news might have been true; here are her words: "Everybody regrets, even Dr. Rae, I believe, himself, that he should have reported the shocking story of cannibalism -- if true it should have been buried within his own bosom -- there is but one feeling on this point ... "

  9. You write that Lady Jane's instructions would be "a violation of Royal Navy protocol", but neither she nor Anderson, leading a Hudson's Bay Company expedition (a private company), would be subject to that protocol.

    Given Lady Jane's very strong desire to remain a private person AND the reports from Rae (and possibly in private M'Clintock) about cannibalism would have made her intensely concerned about controlling any information in Franklin's private papers.

    She was also very engaged in controlling the representations of him in the press and with monuments, dictating very precisely how and where statutes should be erected and what they should say. Remember as well, that in Tasmania, she routinely re-wrote what he wrote considering him to be a poor writer. It would be entirely consistent for her to want to continue to control any message and mythmaking through and through.

    A less kind speculation would note that, Franklin being dead and having left his wife out of his will, Lady Jane might have had an eye to her own fortunes from publication.

  10. Franklin Expedition search called off
    Thursday, July 9, 2009 | 11:32 AM CT
    CBC News

    Artifacts discovered nine years ago of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition. (CBC)A government-sponsored search for Sir John Franklin's missing ships in the High Arctic has been scrubbed this summer, but private entrepreneurs hope to score an archeological coup by conducting their own search in late August.

    Ottawa announced last August it was mounting an effort to find Franklin's two ships, the Erebus and Terror, which went missing more than 160 years ago.

    Some graves of the crew members have been discovered over the years and relics have been uncovered.

    But the search for the missing ships has become a potential prize — made even bigger when then Federal Environment Minister John Baird announced Ottawa was backing a search and that experts would be relying on Inuit knowledge to aid the search.

    On Thursday, Parks Canada's senior marine archeologist, Ryan Harris, confirmed the official search for the Franklin ships has been called off for this summer.

    Harris said Parks Canada had asked the navy for ship time but therewon't be a Canadian Forces ship in the vicinity and the search team was unable to get time aboard one of the Canadian Coast Guard's icebreakers.

    "Unfortunately this particular season, Coast Guard had other scientific programs that they had to prioritize. But we intend to continue with the survey next year. The Coast Guard remains a very important partner for us in this three-year project."

    Gjoa Haven historian Louis Kamookak, who is part of Parks Canada's Franklin team, says it was a three-year project and is disappointed that it is on hold this year.

    "Briefly I talked with the guy from Parks [Canada] and what I'm hearing is that this summer the icebreaker has some other commitments."

    Nine years ago, Kamookak approached the crew of the the RCMP ship St. Roch II. He invited the skipper, RCMP Sgt. Ken Burton, to see some remains from the Franklin Expedition on the shores of one of the Todd Islands.

    Locating ships would be big news
    Unlike other remains found over the years, the Todd Islands graves were located quite far south from where Franklin's two ships were believed to have been stuck in the ice.

    Other sites showed signs of cannibalism, and that the 128 members of Franklin's crew died of disease and lead poisoning soon after they abandoned their ships.

    The Inuit say they have known about this site since the 19th century, but Kamookak thinks others could well find Franklin's ships first.

    For example, Rob Rondeau, a marine archeologist with Alberta-based ProCom Diving Services, has teamed up with a British archeologist to conduct their own search for Erebus and Terror in late August.

    "We're quite confident based on the research that we've done that we have a pretty good idea of where the remains of the two ships are," said Rondeau. "We'll actually be using some state-of-the-art sonar equipment."

    Rondeau said Britain remains fascinated with the Franklin story and locating the ships would be big news in the United Kingdom and in Nunavut.

  11. Mike, thanks for posting this. I'll start a new blog post shortly, but for now will just say that this is disappointing news, though not entirely unexpected. It certainly reflects very poorly on Harper's government that it can announce a three-year plan with all sorts of hooplah, and then permit its own Coast Guard and Navy to opt out of any support!

  12. I somewhat expected this to happen. The search was implicitly dependent on the icebreaker being available. Plus the total funds allocated were a few tens of thousands of dollars. This was never supposed to be a massive effort. It faded from the media after the announcement last year. Still, the ability to search a few targeted areas would be great.

    There was a mention of a few nails being found last summer. Where were they located?

  13. Presumably, in the vicinity of the RGS islands ... nothing clear has been made public.

    And yes, the funds were modest. But I can say this much: If I were the Prime Minister of Canada, and had made an announcement of the kind Harper made, I would take care to ensure that my country's Navy and Coast Guard did what I asked. Or is the PM in Canada not in that position?

  14. Then you don't understand how this Prime Minister thinks or works, Russell. The photo opportunity and the headlines had already taken place on the original announcement, that is all they wanted for their $75,000 and they have not given it a second thought since then. But don't let them know that you think so because they are also quite vindictive and any kind of criticism will ensure no further funding or "support".

  15. Ah. Well, none of that is too surprising! Still, the threat of cutting off funding when all they've offered is a meagre $75,000 without (apparently) any sea or air support, and this is the only money the Government has put out in the entire history of an independent Canada, would seem a hollow threat. Scientific research has been well-supported for years by NRC's Polar Shelf programme, which offers air support, logistics, and all the other things you need to fly out to a remote glacier, but evidently the grant to Parks Canada came without any of those sensible things.

  16. Jumping back to the start of this thread, there appears to be a brass bound notebook near the telescope in Landseer's "Man proposes, God disposes". That makes me wonder whether Landseer knew of Sir John's missing memorandum book when it was painted or was such a book, lockable against they prying eyes of servants, simply a usual accoutrement of a man of his rank?

  17. I love that idea! The stuff in the far left of the Landseer, though, seems a little ambiguous -- a telescope, surely, but is that a lens-cap, a chronometer, or what beside it. And the thing with the brass corner I'd always thought was part of the ensign. I'd be surprised if Landseer knew of Franklin's journal, but certainly the hope to find some sort of document or last words beyond the unsatisfying marginalia of the Victory Point record was a widespread and persistent one!