Friday, August 26, 2011

Still Missing: Erebus and Terror

The news has begun to trickle out that this year, the final year of the three-year long Parks Canada search for the lost ships of Sir John Franklin, has ended without result. Apparently, the special remote-controlled underwater probe brought to the search was unable to be deployed, though the reasons for this have not been made public. Of course I am disappointed, though I am also grateful to Marc-Andre Bernier, Parks Canada's chief of underwater archeology, and all the rest of the team for their efforts.

It's all too easy to give armchair advice -- but I do hope there will be further searches. My own view is that, in addition to whatever government efforts may or may not be funded, the Canadian government, as well as the territorial government of Nunavut, could and should do more to promote searches. The permitting process, under CLEY, should be streamlined in every way possible. A number of promising avenues, such as that proposed by Ron Carlson and discussed on this blog, were turned down due to technicalities, most often the absence of a government-credentialled archaeologist. So why not make such archaeologists available? In Carlson's case, he brought -- and essentially donated to the effort -- his own plane and imaging equipment; why not, instead of simply crassly denying him a permit, the territorial government helped find and place a qualified archaeologist to work with him? The cost to the Nunavut and Canada would be minimal, many times less than that of any of the state-sponsored efforts of these last three years. Another bone I have to pick is that I cannot understand why, given his work over many years on the Franklin mystery, David C. Woodman, has not been invited to participate in any of these recent searches. I believe it's unfair, and wrongheaded, to exclude the one person who knows the Inuit testimony better than any man living.

Lastly, I would observe this: in many human endeavors, it's been found that "crowd sourcing" -- the open and free participation of many in tackling a task -- is by far the most efficient way to solve many problems. If (say) the National Archives at Kew, the Maritime Museum at Greenwich, the Arctic Institute of North America, The Scott Polar Research Institute, Parks Canada, and the National Library of Canada got together, put all their resources on one wiki, including high-res imagery of every document and artifact, and a wiki-editable tag map of the search area, I'd wager that enormous progress could be made. Six very expensive days of federally-funded searching are all well and good, but in my experience, historical puzzles of this level of complexity require many voices -- experts and amateurs, Qalluunat and Inuit, historians and archivists, archaeologists and pilots -- the more voices the better.

(Image of the Muster book of HMS "Erebus" courtesy David Malcolm Shein, from the original at the National Archives, Kew)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tragedy in Nunavut

I was greatly saddened today to learn of the crash of the First Air Boeing 737 near Resolute, Nunavut earlier today. The plane, one of six 737's in the First Air fleet, apparently encountered some sort of trouble on approach to the runaway at Resolute on a flight from Yellowknife; of 15 passengers and crew, 12 were killed; the other three are in hospital in Iqaluit as of the latest reports.

Nunavut is a vast land. But its population is only around 30,000, making it in many ways more like a town when it comes to who knows who. When I heard the news of the crash, I had that sickening feeling that someone I knew, or was connected with someone I knew, was probably aboard. And this turned out to be true; among the passengers were two granddaughters of Aziz "Ozzy" Kheraj, proprietor of the South Camp Inn in Resolute; one of them is among the survivors. Also on board, and apparently among the dead, was Randy Reid, the longtime cook at the South Camp Inn, whose wonderful cuisine was a great feature of the place. I was a guest at the South Camp in 2004, and enjoyed both the excellent food and the delightful, irascible presence of Ozzy, a true northern character whose career has taken him from the tropics to the Arctic. Word on others aboard has not made it through to the news services, but I have a feeling and the fear that, when the list is released, there may be other familiar names. My thoughts and feelings go out to all those affected in this vast, outspread town known as Nunavut.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Library of the Erebus and Terror II

I've written here before about the mystery surrounding the library of books taken aboard HMS "Terror" and "Erebus" on the Franklin expedition. As to the exact number of books, sources vary, and there are few precise descriptions. A copy of the Book of Common Prayer for each seaman was donated to the Expedition, and documents also mention the inclusion of a standard "Seaman's Library," though exactly what that meant in 1845 is not entirely clear. A number of the officers, particularly Fairholme and Fitzjames, mentioned their reading in their letters sent home from Greenland; Fitzjames mentions making a catalog of their books, but this, alas, is lost. Our other evidence comes from books recovered by Franklin searchers, most of which are held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich; here the proof would seem to be definitive, but a number of these books are in such a fragmentary or mutilated condition that positive identification is difficult.

Nevertheless, it may well be possible that this library could, at least to some extent, be reconstructed. Copies of the official narratives of previous polar expeditions would certainly have been included; a standard nautical ephemeris and other reference works surely have been provided. Evidence may be lurking in all kinds of places, and Google Books and WorldCat could help us track down specific editions.

And now there is a perfect venue for such a collective undertaking: the LibraryThing Legacy Libraries project. They already have a catalog of the books aboard HMS Beagle, as well as several other vessels, and I've now created a catalog page for the lost library of Franklin's ships. It's fairly easy to add books -- the system will even look them up in the British Library or other catalogs and automatically fetch details. The criteria for inclusion should be (1) Books mentioned as being aboard by crewmembers or visitors to the ships at any time from their outfitting to the point at which the last letters were sent home from Greenland; (2) Books actually recovered by McClintock and other Franklin searchers; and lastly (3) Books which it can be reasonably inferred were aboard based on period evidence -- e.g. the statement that they had aboard all the previous printed narratives of British polar explorers. You can see that I've started to tag the books.

If anyone is interested in contributing, just drop me a note and I will send you the details so that you can log on, edit, add, and contribute.