Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Sword of a "Great Officer"

The story is the stuff of old chivalric romances: in gratitude for helping him and his companions survive the winter, an officer of the Franklin expedition presented an Inuk hunter with his most valuable possession: his sword. And then, years later, this same hunter, now grown elderly, presented this same sword to a trader at a Hudson's Bay post, saying it had been given to him by a "great officer." And then the kicker: this sword is still in the archives of the Hudson's Bay company.

But who was this officer? Or was he an officer at all? The details are caught up in the web of interconnected, contradictory stories about "Aglooka." In the tale of the meeting at the 'crack in the ice,' there is a mention of exchanging a piece of seal meat for a "knife." Could this knife have been exaggerated in later re-tellings? In the tale of the "Aglooka" who was sheltered for a winter by Too-shoo-art-thariu, this man offered his rifle in thanks, but Too-shoo was reluctant to accept it, not sure how it worked, and so the man offered his "long knife" -- a word that Tookoolito, Hall's interpreter, believed meant "sword" -- along with "nearly everything he had." The first tale is associated with Washington Bay on King William Island, and must date to an earlier time; it's possible that the later tale may be a garbled or slightly fanciful version of the first.

As to the provenance of the sword in the HBC's collections, it was given by an elderly Inuit man to Robert MacFarlane, the chief factor of the Athabasca district in the 1880's. The date, some thirty-odd years after the Franklin expedition, is sufficient for the description of "elderly" to be given to a man in his prime in 1850. Their archival record reads as follows:
HBC 1226 A,B : MILITARY SWORD; 1830s 
This ornate sword is documented as having been retrieved by Chief Factor Roderick MacFarlane from an Inuit man who claimed that the sword had been presented to him in 1857 by an officer of the Franklin expedition. The letters"W IV" appearing on the blade and hilt refers to King WilliamIV, 1830-1837. "Moore, late, Bicknells & Moore, Old Bond Street,London," have been engraved on the brass ferrule and chape.
This last detail has given rise to speculation that the "great officer" might have been Fitzjames, who obtained his Mate's passing certificate (the prerequisite for the rank) in 1834, well within the reign of William IV. But the promotion itself would have to wait on additional service; he came close in 1837, and finally obtained the rank on 26 January 1838, more than six months after the death of William IV. The dates for most others of Sir John Franklin's officers, however, are even further off the mark (Crozier, 1826; Le Vesconte, 1841; Fairholme, 1842; Hodgson, 1842; Irving, 1843). Graham Gore was promoted in 1837, but was then in the Arctic serving with Back; King William died prior to his return. The only other candidate would be Edward Little, whose promotion in December of 1837 is just barely prior to Fitzjames's. It's possible, in these last three cases, to imagine that the officers' swords might have been purchased at a time when blades stamped "William IV" were in stock, and new ones with Queen Victoria's name were not yet available.

The date of "1857" is certainly remarkable as well -- could an officer have survived that long?

And yet what evidence do we have that the sword was presented to the Inuk by its original owner? None at all -- and indeed, given that so much of the officers' silver plate had been distributed to the men, the idea of a sword being passed to a subordinate -- possibly with the idea of bringing it home as a memorial -- has to be considered. The sense of mission in a man who was charged to return the sword to the family of its owner might account for its being retained so late in the time after the ships were abandoned -- and yet again, why would such a man suddenly give the sword away? Was it in the hope that the Inuk might return it himself someday? Lastly, we have to consider the possibility that the sword was never given at all, but simply taken from a dead body or a cache, traded from hand to hand, and eventually returned with the statement that it was from one of Franklin's officers.

As with so many other elements of the Franklin mystery, this sword -- which at first presents itself as a brilliantly specific piece of evidence -- turns out to be of uncertain provenance and significance, save in the way it has fired the imagination of those who seek answers to the many enigmas surrounding the expedition's disappearance.


  1. Things become a bit more complicated when you consider Mate was not formally established as an officer's rank (next below Lieutenant) until 1840 ("Naval Records for Genealogists," by N.A.M. Rodger (London: HMSO, 1988).


  2. Glenn, good point. But as you know so much about these matters, when an officer did receive his commission as a Lieutenant, when, and from where, would the sword come? Would he be given it by the Navy, from those on hand, or would he have to purchase one himself?

  3. Thank you, Russell. I do have a certain familiarity with (practical and ceremonial) edged weapons, and I think I can safely write that an officer was responsible for purchasing his own ceremonial sword. Also, "Moore, late, Bicknells & Moore, Old Bond Street,London" traded from 1838-1850.

  4. Glenn, just found an excellent online .pdf about naval swords ... Peter Tuite's British Naval Edged Weapons. Apparently some more junior officers also had swords, though the gilding and quality of this blade suggests "lieutenant" at the least to me. The style is closest to what Mr. Tuite identifies as a "Pattern 1827 sword with pipe black blade, circa 1835" -- which seems to confirm the date pretty closely. Do you know this fellow, or know of him?

  5. I'm afraid we did not pay close enough attention to the HBC archival record's description - "MILITARY SWORD". And the record causes confusion by stating it came from one of Franklin's officers.

    I do not know Tuite, but did contact Sim Comfort, author of "Naval Swords and Dirks" (London: Sim Comfort and Associates, 2008), and in his reply he attached an image and information regarding the 1822 pattern infantry officer's sword – which features an open work hilt ("Swords of the British Army", by Brian Robson (London: National Army Museum, 1996).

    Comfort's book shows a distinctive naval pattern with basket hilt that was introduced in 1827. Some open work hilts that are naval are known, but these are not pattern and quite rare, falling into the period between 1822 and 1827.

    With the Royal Monogram being William IV (1830-37) for the sword in the HBC collection, one really has to consider this sword as being military and not naval. So, look for a military officer as the original owner of the sword.

  6. Fascinating subject either way. I found this example online

  7. I must disagree, for now, with the learned heads -- if you look at Tuite's example of the Pattern 1827 naval sword, it seems very close to the one in the HBC archives. We must distinguish pattern years from actual years of production as well, I think. I know that, for instance, there was great variety in US Civil War uniforms in the first few years of that conflict, because different uniforms from different pattern years were supplied from different stores; it was only after all of the old stock was exhausted that the new, more consistent uniform patters predominated.

    I have been in touch with Mr. Tuite, and hope to post his thoughts on the matter here soon ...

  8. I would add that, what I'm arguing here is not that, on the face of it, one would believe the sword in the HBC archives is likely a naval one, but that we can't eliminate the possibility that it was. Absent such negative proof -- i.e., there were no naval swords of this era made with open work hilts -- we can only say it is unusual ... and perhaps that might actually help us identify it.

  9. Note that the lion on the pommel (top of the hilt) of the Pattern 1827 naval sword is absent on the HBC sword - but matches the 1822 infantry officer's sword referred to by Sim Comfort.

  10. OK, I have heard back from Mr. Tuite, who writes as follows: "From the pictures you provided the sword does not appear to be naval - the open basket hilt with folding rear guard and plain pommel might well be army as suggested by Sim - while the pattern 1827 naval sword had solid guard and lions head pommel the earlier naval pattern was much simpler and neither has features that resemble your sword."

    So I think the expert consensus all round is that this is almost certainly not a naval sword. Which presents us with an enigma: I know of no one on board Franklin's ships with other than a naval career, setting aside the Marines -- and yet, at the same time, it is very hard to imagine why or how any officer of the Army would have left his sword up in the Arctic!

    I can only suggest that, for some reason, some member of the Franklin party had with them the sword of a friend or relation who was or had been in the Army. John Irving comes to mind -- I know that, when the remains supposed to be his were returned for burial, his brother -- by then a Major-General -- was present. Might this have been a memorial of a brother?

  11. A footnote in (possible) favor of the minority view of this having been, in fact, the sword of a Naval officer, has this:

    "While the regular pattern 1796 Infantry straight had some cut and thrust functionality to it, it was completely inadequate for the Grenadier, Light Infantry and Rifle officers of the British Army.  In the late 1790s unofficial curved bladed Infantry sabres started popping up in regiments.  These sabres came in many shapes and sizes and in 1803 the army officials took steps to standardize this sabre.

    In addition, this pattern was taken up (with a white ivory grip) by many mounted regimental field officers (majors and colonels), again because of its usefulness in combat. Even some General officers adopted it instead of the 1796 staff pattern.

    This pattern of sword even made its way into the Royal Navy.  It is suggested that the flank companies of the Royal Marines adopted this pattern with the white grip.  However there is evidence that some Royal Navy officers chose it as well.  This may have been simply an issue of commercial availability and the degree of independence of selecting their fighting sword, despite the Admiralty's efforts in 1805 to standardize the sword. "