Monday, November 9, 2009

With Grenier in the Nelson Room

To the unsuspecting passer-by, the little art-shop in an alley off the Nelson Road in Greenwich might almost be missed -- a few nautical paintings, some marine instruments, and a little row of alphabetical pins that spells out "ENGLAND EXPECTS ... " -- and yet what lies upstairs might inspire more than a little wonder. For it's there, in a chamber known among the cognoscenti simply as the "Nelson Room," where history lies deep upon shelf and wall, that some of the most remarkable gatherings in Greenwich take place. The shelves are bowed with Nelson biographies (in one of which a little bit of his blood-stained kerchief is lain); Nelson lithographs and etchings line the walls, and every cranny is crammed with Nelson tchotchkes. A full-size replica of Nelson's personal chair -- complete with leather "in" and "out" pockets -- adorns one corner, while in another a Marine's cap-band is wrapped whimsically about a marble bust.

On this day -- the eve of Robert Grenier's talk in the Painted Hall, I was in this very room with Kenn Harper and a few other Arctic mavens, hoping for an advance chat. Grenier was due to arrive by Thames clipper, his preferred means of conveyance, and -- provided that my friend Huw Lewis-Jones, who'd organized the event, could manage to keep his handlers from whisking him away prematurely -- we'd have a chance to ask our questions in person. Having been informed that he fancied a bit of Cognac, an excellent bottle was on hand, along with rum, single-malt whiskey, and some soda water.

And, after a quick rattle of footsteps on the narrow, spiral staircase, there he was! Of course, as have 'Franklinites' the world over, I'd been following his work closely these past few years, but I had little idea of what sort of man to expect. In the past, he'd rarely gone out to publicize his work, and had never replied to my (relentlessly courteous) e-mails, so aside from having heard his voice in a CBC interview, I had little to go on. He was, as it turned out, very charming and soft-spoken, with the manner of a careful, quiet practitioner. He declined the proffered cognac -- thanks, but he needed to keep his head clear for the talk. Where was I from? Rhode Island -- did I know that there had been a number of Greniers in Woonsocket? I had not. After these preliminaries, of course, Kenn and I got right down to Franklin business.

It was curious that, given our shared interests over many years, Grenier hadn't, apparently, heard of either of us. Nevertheless, he could tell from our questions that we knew something of which we spoke, and he was very direct in his replies. We were curious about persistent Inuit accounts of buried papers, some of which had cropped up just recently -- it turned out he had heard from the same people we had. Of course, he said, these should be looked into, but much as ourselves, he was skeptical as to whether, at this late date, such claims were likely to be accurate. We talked about (Gjoa Haven resident) Louie Kamookak, and what the Franklin story meant to local Inuit -- certainly there were hopes that new finds would bring tourists, money, perhaps a museum to the region.

The copper, which would be the subject of his later talk, was our next topic of conversation. I mentioned to him the copper bits recovered by Hall from Inuit near Booth Point on King William Island; these had borne "two stamps of the broad arrow." Had any of the pieces found by Grenier been stamped? No, he replied, but the high copper content was a sure sign they were from a Royal Naval vessel. He asked me about the copper found by Hall, and I told him it must be either at the Smithsonian or the NMM; he noted this down on a pad, and told me he'd definitely look into it. He recalled the copper found in 1997 with David Woodman, and felt that these finds were definitely the "footprints" of Franklin's men. Next summer's search, he hoped, would lead him to the end of that trail.

Grenier clearly has a genuine passion for the preservation of Franklin's ships, and his greatest anxiety was that someone would make some private claim upon them before the sites could be properly secured. As an archaeologist, he said, it was his job to learn what could be learned from them, and make certain that this knowledge became part of Canada and Britain's common heritage. Grenier, now 72 years old, has the energy of a much younger man, and possesses the persistence needed to fulfill his quest. I only hope that the Canadian government, which helped roll out the red carpet for Grenier's appearances here, will maintain its support when it comes to securing an icebreaking vessel for his work. It's a small -- perhaps a very small -- window of opportunity, and it would be a real shame were it to be missed due to bureaucratic infighting.

Just at that moment, the "handlers" appeared -- their dark suits bulging with biceps, and one with a little ear-bud that put me in mind of Agent Smith in The Matrix -- and whisked Grenier off in the direction of the Chapel. Kenn and I exchanged glances, clinked glasses, and turned to follow.


  1. Thank you for sharing this.

    I would assume any exploration/excavation of either ship would be tightly controlled. Especially given the possible, if not probable, presence of human remains.

    "Treasure is trouble" but here the treasure is information. Some kind of forensic study on Hall's collection and the items collected by Schwatka might still tell us a lot.

    The copper is encouraging. McClintock found "strips of copper" at the Victory Point site.

  2. I'm hopeful that Grenier will compare the copper he's found with other bits recovered long ago, as this may yet tell us more ... the connection of current research with what's stored in the archives is a key element in making progress ...

  3. Both of your comments are extremely valid. I have found reviewing Franklin Expedition finds and primary sources in the UK to be a fruitful source of new information. I am sure that the collections of finds in North America, from the Hall and Schwatka expeditions, and material in the Hudson's Bay Museum, could also be fruitful.