Friday, July 30, 2010

Thoughts on McClure and HMS Investigator

In October of 2009, I was wandering among the tilted and neglected gravestones of London's Kensal Green Cemetery, in very good Arctic company -- my companions were Huw Lewis-Jones, Kari Herbert, and Kenn Harper. We had already found the graves of Sir John Ross and Sophia Cracroft, but time was growing short: darkness was about to fall, and the cemetery would soon be closed. The one further grave we sought was that of Vice Admiral Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure, the man officially credited as the first to traverse the Northwest Passage, and the last commander of HMS Investigator.

Was this crooked path between toppled stones "avenue 5"? Whose grave was this? Or this? We criss-crossed the twisted matrix of graves, passing by a placard which read:

It was hardly encouraging. And then, just at the last moment, I looked more closely at a sarcophagus-sized slab of pink granite, its edges encroached on every side by insolent grass. I rubbed at it with the toe of my shoe, and pieced out "THE NORTH WEST PASS..." Here it was.

Huw took some time to clear the stone, pushing back the grass and dirt with the help of a pair of borrowed gloves. One might imagine that the grave of the man officially recognized as having achieved the greatest dream of British navigators of the nineteenth century would have received more care -- but, as I found later, every grave at Kensal Green is the private property of the family of the deceased, and receives only such specific care as the family may provide. This grave, surely, ought to have received something more.

I thought about this grave when I heard of the re-discovery of McClure's ship, HMS Investigator, in Mercy Bay. A more remote place in the Arctic Archipelago is hard to imagine, and the sheer endurance of McClure and his men in the face of winter after winter of diminishing prospects is astonishing. That there were only three graves found on the nearby shore, and not thirty, is an enormous testament to McClure's leadership. In April of 1853, at a point well beyond that at which any rational man would have abandoned all hope, the men of the Investigator saw a speck on the horizon. Was it some kind of animal? No, it was a man! And, once it drew nearer, it was a man who spoke. As George Malcolm Thomson describes it,

He called : 'I am Lieutenant Pim, of the Resolute. Captain Kellett is in her at Dealy Island' (a hundred and sixty miles to the east). McClure and the lieutenant rushed forward and grasped his hand. In an instant, the scene on the ship was transformed. The invalids leapt from their hammocks. The artificers dropped their tools. The deck was crowded with wildly excited men.
It is difficult to fully comprehend the joyous ebullition of McClure's men -- and astonishing to think that it is this same deck, once crowded with overjoyed sailors, which we are seeing for the first time in 156 years. She now lies at the bottom of the crystal cold waters of Mercy Bay, almost precisely where she was upon that fateful day.

So, while I am a little annoyed by the very highly choreographed array of press releases, net-friendly videos, and hyperbolic tones of the coverage of this event, I am at the same time very deeply moved, and feel called upon to remember the courage of those men. Although Canada was, as yet, some years in the future, the spirit of that emergent nation was clearly manifest in the cheers that went up from that vessel on that day.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

HMS Investigator Found

The BBC News website has posted a story announcing that HMS Investigator has been found by the Parks Canada team. Of course, it was no great mystery where the Investigator was, but there were a few speculations as to its condition. Some had even argued that the Investigator might, like HMS Resolute, have drifted east and been the source of reported sightings of the Erebus and Terror, or that the mast seen by the men of the Anderson expedition was hers. These theories, at least, can be laid to rest.

According to the Parks Canada team, the ship is upright and in remarkably good shape; according to Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice, "You can make out all the planking on the deck, the details on the hull, all of the detail of the timber." Hopefully, it will not be too long before some of this imagery is shared with the public, particularly the Canadian public who have provided the funding and resources used to locate the vessel. No word yet on the copper sheathing. The only other detail is that the archaeologists have relocated the three graves (why do Arctic graves always seem to come in threes?) of members of the expedition who died of scurvy. Apparently inquiries are being made as to the disposition of these human remains, but the plan for Investigator herself is to leave the ship undisturbed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

BBC Coverage of Franklin Search

The trickle of news stories about this summer's Franklin search continues, this time with a refreshingly well-informed and in-depth piece from the BBC News website. While the article gives some account of the overall plans, the focus is on the search for the remains of HMS Investigator. We learn now that the team will be headed by Parks Canada archaeologist Ryan Burns, assisted by Jonathan Moore and Thierry Boyer. According to this story, the team headed by Harris will head up to Mercy Bay via Twin Otter, where, with the assistance of an unnamed Inuvialuit guide, they will begin their search. It's not quite clear when they will arrive, but I was interested to see that this same team, after its work at Mercy Bay is completed, will by flown to the icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and will participate in the search for the "Erebus" and "Terror." This is encouraging, as it suggests to me that both parties will have sea and land search capability. I'll keep readers of this blog posted as I hear of any new developments.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

German coverage of 2010 Franklin Search

In the 1850's, the search for Sir John Franklin captured the attention of all of Europe, with headlines in every language. McClintock's narrative was translated into French and German within a few months of its publication, and international interest in further searches remained strong.

Now, with a renewed search this summer, the Franklin story is once again attracting attention in the EU, particularly in Germany. German interest has always been strong, spurred by the immense success of Sten Nadolny's novel Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit (English: The Discovery of Slowness) in 1983. A week or so ago, I heard from Gerd Braune, a journalist in Ottawa, that he was preparing a piece on the new Franklin search for several German-language papers. He asked for, and I gave him, permission to use a photo I'd taken of the Franklin expedition graves on Beechey Island.

Just yesterday, he sent me copies of the resulting article. It's available here at, and you can also see .pdfs of the large, illustrated versions in the Luxemburger Wort as well as Die Rheinpfalz. The articles are informative and well-written (I don't read or speak German, but my daughter has been studying the language for some time, and was able to translate them for me), and contain a few additional details -- my personal favorite comes at the end, where perennial Franklin pointman Louie Kamookak muses laughingly that, if the ships are found based on his information, he may henceforth be known as "Sir Kamookak."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

More on this summer's Franklin search

The CBC has just come out with a report giving some fresh details of this summer's search for the "Erebus" and "Terror," the ships of Sir John Franklin's last expedition. According to this article, the searchers have secured three weeks' use of the CCGS Sir Wilfred Laurier this August. Strangely, Robert Grenier's name is not mentioned, but Ryan Harris, described as a "senior marine archaeologist" is quoted describing the mission, and the inevitable Louie Kamookak is also set to be on board. The search is to concentrate on the "waters southwest of King William Island," a description which could take in any area on the western coasts of the Adelaide Peninsula, or in eastern Queen Maud Gulf. The exact method or area of search are not described, though presumably the hope is to locate some initial targets, and use side-scan sonar operated from the vessel to obtain more detailed imagery. It's not clear whether, as Grenier has in the past done and called for, associated land-based parties will be looking for other physical artifacts.