Thursday, October 29, 2009

Franklin Memorial

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

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The book in Le Vesconte's Hand

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Highlights from Athy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Arctic Meets Antarctic in Athy

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

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

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

Thursday, October 15, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Click here to read the entire paper.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Shackleton Autumn School

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

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

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