Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Franklin-era tin tests positive for lead

It's only been about a week and a half since a discussion here on this blog, where I suggested that someone ought to locate, open, and study a tin of Franklin's provisions. I'm sure it's just a coincidence (either that or I have unknown cosmic powers), but researchers at McMaster University have just done this exact experiment, and the results are clear: lead levels on the tin's lid are "off the map." The contents -- the notorious "Ox Cheek Soup" itself -- have already tested high for lead content. All of this is very strong circumstantial evidence that it is quite possible that lead from tinned food was a significant contributor to elevated lead levels found in bones and tissue tested from both the Beechey Island graves and the site identified as "Ng-Lj2" on King William Island.

It should be stressed, though, that the case remains circumstantial. The contents of the tin were enclosed for more than a century, which is a lot more time -- by at least a factor of 50 -- than any food actually eaten on the expedition. Furthermore, this tin was not one of the Goldner tins supplied to Franklin, so its method of manufacture and preservation may be significantly different, although closely contemporary. To really establish that this tin would have caused significant elevated lead levels if the soup had been consumed when intended, a totally different sort of experiment would have to be undertaken: you'd need to prepare a fresh batch of soup with the same basic qualities -- salinity, acidity, and so forth -- and then can it using identical materials and methods to those observed in this tin. Then, of course, you'd have to wait!

Amazingly, this is exactly what the researchers at McMaster plan to do. Having an actual tin in their possession is a plus -- the materials and qualities of the soup can be very closely replicated -- and they're planning to open and test their replica tin in one year. According to the McMaster website's article:
"With the lead levels confirmed, McMaster's Department of Anthropology will next make a batch of the ox cheek soup and can it using methods from the 1840s. Over the course of a year the cans will be opened and analyzed. Researchers will then be able to gauge how quickly lead leaches into soup rendering it lethal. Lead poisoning has long been considered a cause of death for the ill-fated explorers."
This is welcome news. I hope to be able to report in more detail on this current experiment, and will certainly pass along any results from the tests as they are announced.

None of this, of course, will completely resolve the issue of lead poisoning and the Franklin expedition. However, it should give us a far clearer picture both of the likely source of the lead, and the strength and extent of the contamination. William Battersby has argued that lead from the tins was insufficient to cause the very high levels found in bone samples, and used this argument to support his case that lead pipes in the ships' fresh-water distilling apparatus are a more likely culprit. A low level of lead leeching over one year would support his argument; a high level would make his claim less certain, but would not of course rule it out. Finally, whatever the source, the role of lead poisoning in the expedition's sad conclusion is itself a matter of some debate. The levels of lead in the bones from Ng-Lj-2 varied widely, with one or two individuals likely suffering from acute lead toxicity, while others had only moderately elevated levels. Did officers, because they were issued a larger ration of tinned food, end up with more lead? Whose bones were whose? And, aside from its physical effects, would the diminution of mental alacrity associated with lead poisoning be so great that it can be blamed as the sole, or primary cause of what, in hindsight, appear to be poor decisions? The debate will surely go on.

(photo courtesy of McMaster University Daily News)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The "Canadian" Northwest Passage?

So here we go again! The Canadian House of Commons has come out with a motion to rename the "Northwest Passage" the "Canadian Northwest Passage." It's a strange and surreal claim, although its context -- the concern over Canada's sovereignty to its Arctic territories -- is at least somewhat sensible. Down here, it would be like renaming the Mississippi River the "American Mississippi River," except of course that no one is claiming rights of free passage from New Orleans to St. Louis. What's more, though, is that this renaming has got caught up with Inuit concerns over their right to reassert indigenous place names, along with the whole history of the Passage as an Icon of British Naval quests generally, meaning Sir John Franklin and all who searched for him can't be far behind.

Everyone should take a break here and consider the facts. As my good friend Kenn Harper observes, the "Northwest Passage" was an idea long before it was a reality; in fact, its essence is that of a quest, or a desire, rather than a fulfillment. Of course, other imaginary names have ended up on maps before (see for instance the Straits of Juan de Fuca, which were named after the man who sought the fabled Strait of Anián, a nonexistant route across the Americas, in 1592), but in point of fact there is no such waterway with this name. It was imagined as a singularity, but is in fact a multiplicity; there are any number of potential routes through the inland Arctic waters of Canada, including that taken by Sir Robert McClure, that taken by Roald Amundsen, that taken by the SS Manhattan, and many others since. A Government can, of course, name any physical feature what it wants, but the "Northwest Passage" is not a physical feature at all.

It is, in fact, a very Romantic idea, and ought to be celebrated in just that spirit, rather than pinned down to a map. And the finest emobodiment of this spirit, I am sure many readers of this blog will agree, is Stan Rogers' song of 1981, "Northwest Passage." It embodies the idea, and the passion of the Passage, connecting the exploits of Sir John Franklin, Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson, and Henry Kelsey with Rogers' own symbolic passage, which was undertaken via the Trans-Canada highway as "this tardiest explorer." It's an extraordinary song, one which -- by Rogers' own account -- came to him as he lay in a darkened recording studio, with the thrumming of the amplifier tubes as his drones. It has been called Canada's unofficial national anthem, and with good reason: the significance of the Passage, and Franklin's death, and Rogers', are all bound up in it. In the efforts to assert Canadian sovereignty over its inland waters, it has been caught up as a sort of talisman, but that's not a purpose it should serve. Instead, I hope it reminds everyone -- in Canada and elsewhere -- of the power of a story wrought with sacrifice, fringed with fear, and concluding with the unity of a diverse Nation, brought together not with declarations of some body of legislators, but with dreams.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sad state of Arctic Graves

The day after the Franklin memorial service in Greenwich this past October, a number of us met at Kensal Green Cemetery in London for a walking tour of Polar graves. Among our party were Dr Huw Lewis-Jones, Kari Herbert, and Kenn Harper, and on our list of graves to visit were Lady Jane Franklin, Sir John Ross, Admiral Inglefield, and Admiral McClure. None of us had visited the site before, and as the sun was slowly sinking in the west, we hurried against time to locate them using a map of the cemetery and directions from a guidebook. We weren't quite sure what to expect, the more so given the somewhat wild look of Kensal Green itself. Although home to many a famous skellington, the grounds were only barely maintained -- some attempt had been made to trim the grass, with the cuttings blown about this way and that -- and the uneven settling of the ground made many of the monuments lean this way and that. "DANGER: Loose Stonework and Collapsing Graves -- Keep to the Roads and Pathways" warned a sign we passed on our way in, and it was a warning well heeded.
The first of the graves we found was that of Sir John Ross; it was in fairly sound condition, though listing notably to starboard. The carved anchor with chain was largely intact, and the applied metal letters -- a standard of the era, apparently -- were all still in place. We next turned our search toward Lady Franklin, whose marker was of a simpler construction, a stone cross on a tiered pedestal -- precisely, it soon appeared, the same as hundreds of memorials in the vicinity. It was some time before we stumbled upon it, and it was a sad sight; many of the metal letters had come loose, leaving little holes in the limestone base. "ADY FRANKLIV" the stone read, "DIED 18 ULY 9," and underneath "SOPHIA CRACRO" followed by a nearly illegible inscription. The words "Arctic,""search," and "brave companions" could be made out, but not much more. To capture the mood, I sang a stanza of the ballad "Lady Franklin's Lament"

'Twas homeward bound one night on the deep,
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream, and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin, and his gallant crew ...

A man passing by asked for directions, breaking the mood and leaving us all to our own thoughts. Kenn has written about the sad state of this memorial in his Taissumani column in the Nunatsiaq News, and I heartily agree with his comments there: "I was frankly shocked. So this was the fate of the mortal remains of the second most-famous woman in mid-19th century England."

Next, we tracked down Admiral Inglefield, whose career was connected with the Greenwich memorial we had just attended; he was the very one who had brought back the bones supposed to be Le Vesconte's from Washington D.C. to London. His memorial was half-covered over with grass and dirt; after running back to the car for some work gloves, Huw managed to clear off much of the debris, and we found the inscription intact. His epitaph singled out his Polar experience, reading "Commanded three Arctic expeditions 1852.3.4 and discovered 800 miles of new coasts."

Lastly, we located the monument of Robert McClure, which turned out to be very difficult to locate; its low, pink marble stone gave it the look of a far more recent grave. And yet, obscure though it was, the epitaph was, in many way, the most satisfying of the three:

"In Memory of Vice Admiral Sir Robert John le M. McClure C.B. Born 28 January 1807 died 17 October 1873. As Captain of HMS 'Investigator' AD 1850-54 he discovered and accomplished the Northwest Passage "Thus we launch into this formidable frozen sea"', 'SPES MEA IN DEO'"

Afterwards, we also managed to locate the grave of Wilkie Collins, which was quite near McClure's; it too was in a rather shabby condition, despite a small placard informing us that the Wilkie Collins Society was responsible for its maintenance. All in all, it was a strange and somewhat melancholy visit, with our distress felt most deeply over Lady Franklin's marker. Surely the woman that the Times of London once called "Our English Penelope" deserved a better marker, or at least a better maintained one, than this!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Franklin curiosities: Songs of the North

Among the slimmest, and most delightful items in my collection is this Australian chapbook, printed entirely in letterpress, and reproducing some of the ship-board printing from Arctic vessels of the Franklin era. It's a rare hand-set example, printed on much the same technology that the sailors in Belcher's squadron used themselves, made possible thanks to the Ancora Press at the Centre for the Book at Monash University in Melbourne. Founded in 1976, it is operated jointly by the University's English department, Library, and Communications department.

Much of their printing is done on a cast-iron press made in 1857 by Hopkinson and Cope of London, on indefinite loan from the State Library of Victoria. There is also an 1890's era Wade of Halifax press (used for this volume), as well as a modern steel press made in California in 1982. The predominant type used is Monotype Bembo, an old-style Serif typeface which is the ancestor of the Garamond font family familiar to modern users of word-processing and design software. As to the subject matter, they themselves say simply that it is "generally bookish or literary," but clearly a connection with Australia, or with early or significant printing, is among their criteria.

For this volume, poems printed on board ships in Arctic service were the inspiration, and the selection is small but judicious. First among equals is the "ARCTIC ANTHEM," once sung aboard HMS "Resolute," to the tune of "God Save the Queen":

God bless the Resolute

(A ship of good repute,)

And all her Crew!

Make her victorious

Over old Boreas

Whene'er he's uproarious

Our Consorts too.

Having heard my friend Dr Huw Lewis-Jones sing these lines on more than one occasion, it is his voice that instantly comes to mind as I read them, but I also at times try to imagine the sound of the Resolute's officers and men, under the dedicated and distinguished Captain Kellett, singing this in chorus as their voices echo out through the vast and desolate wilderness of ice, amidst which, though they could not know it, they would later be ordered to abandon their hardy vessel. Also included are "The Arctic Voyagers' Song" (to the tune of "Ivy Green"), the "Traveller's Evening Song," "The Arctic Mariner," and the infamous "Song of the Sledge," to which many a sailor once man-hauled a heavily-laden sledge over the frozen wastes:

Hark! Save, or we perish -- is borne on the gale;
When such is their need, is there one that would fail?
No! Shoulder to shoulder we'll search the dark West
And smile at all toil, & ask not for rest.

The collection concludes with "Appeal to the Seamen & Marines of the Expedition," followed by "THE EPILOGUE at the close of the season, at THE ROYAL ARCTIC THEATRE, 28th February, 1851."

The Ancora Press is mainly conceived as a training ground for students who have an interest in careers related to the publishing trade; it gives them the very best sort of "hands-on" experience -- that with ink and platen, font and fond. They were kind enough to send this copy to me several years ago in hopes that my publicizing it would have good effect in keeping the program alive, which I very heartily hope that it has!