Friday, November 6, 2009

A Night of Polar Stars

Following the very touching memorial to Lieutenant Le Vesconte and the men of the Franklin expedition, we walked the short distance across the courtyard to the entrance to the Painted Hall. No better venue could be imagined for a Franklin gathering, for it was here, in 1854 and again in 1859, that the relics of his Expedition were put on display for an anxious, and then a grieving, nation. I believe it's safe to say that seldom, since that era, has this storied chamber held such a sky-full of Polar stars, nor such a broad gathering of family members of the Franklin expedition and those who searched for it. Among the former were Glyn Williams, masterful historian of the search for the Northwest Passage; Kenn Harper, author of Give Me My Father's Body; Franklin biographer Andrew Lambert, Crozier biographer Michael Smith, and Jonathan Dore, Arctic editor and book reviewer extraordinaire. Among the latter were present Lady Marie Herbert, Sylvia and Paddy and a great many other McClintocks, Martin and more than 25 other Croziers, the Hon. Alexandra Shackleton, Sir Nicholas Bayne (Sir John Ross), and members of the Wills family, descendants of Lieutenant Henry TD Le Vesconte. Not the least in this constellation were our hosts, Dr Huw Lewis-Jones (Face to Face: Polar Portraits) and Kari Herbert (The Explorer's Daughter, Heart of the Hero) of Polarworld.

The centre of the hall was open, with candlelit tables along each side crowded with Arctic-themed canapes; uniformed servers offered guests their choice of Georgian wine or Siberian vodka drinks. A podium had been placed at the front of the Hall, and it was from here that Robert Grenier, the star toward whom all eyes that night were directed, was to speak. He was introduced by the Canadian High Commissioner, James R. Wright, who spoke of Canada's renewed emphasis on its unique and shared Arctic heritage with the United Kingdom. Then, to a warm round of applause, the man of the hour approached the podium and began to speak.

Grenier picked up on the Commissioner's points, emphasizing the tremendous historical importance of the wrecks, should either survive, of HM Ships "Erebus" and "Terror." Unfortunately, due to the nature of Canada's current salvage laws, it's possible that these sites could be claimed by private parties. Nevertheless, with the support of the Canadian government, they have been declared in advance to be significant sites of national heritage -- the key is that Grenier's team must reach them first.

Grenier then spoke of the significance of Inuit testimony in his search, and the co-operation of Inuit today. He first witnessed its value when working alongside David C. Woodman on "Project Utjulik" in 1997. Then, as on his most recent mission, pieces of sheet copper were recovered very near where Inuit testimony had placed one of Franklin's ships. The copper found most recently has been tested, he said, and found to be nearly 100% pure. Such unalloyed copper sheeting was used only by ships of the Royal Navy, and thus was clear evidence that the 2008 search was also near an area of significant Franklin remains, as his had been the only such ships of that era in that region.

He acknowledged the disappointment -- most keenly felt by himself -- that other missions and tasks had prevented any of the region's icebreaking vessels from providing support for this summer's planned search, but reassured all present that plans are in place for next summer, and prospects good. Finally, he addressed himself very directly to the families of Franklin's men and those who searched for him, speaking of the enormous significance of their ancestors' sacrifice, and his great desire to do them honor by determining more clearly the final fate of the lost explorers.

His remarks were welcomed by all present with much applause, and afterwards he generously took time to talk personally with a great many of those present. He was, of course, due to speak again the following evening at the National Maritime Museum, but that would surely have been an anticlimax after a glittering evening such as this. I'm grateful, as ever, to Huw and Kari, for their enormous efforts in making this event such a success, and I'm certain that it marks the beginning of a new era of cooperation and connection between Polar scholars, family members, and the growing number of Franklin buffs in the British Isles and North America, and around the world.

Next up: a behind-the-scenes chat with Grenier, and my own thoughts on his approach to the ongoing search.

Photo credit: Nick Garrod

1 comment:

  1. Another wonderful post! Thank you for sharing this with us.