Monday, April 30, 2012

HMS Breadalbane

The Franklin search ship HMS Breadalbane was caught or "nipped" by pack-ice and sank on Sunday 21 August, 1853; according to one crew member, "it was a very sad and unceremonious way of being turned out of our ship -- from the time the first nip took her, until her disappearance, did not occupy more than fifteen minutes."  Aside from landing some stores at Cape Riley, the Breadalbane had not lasted long enough to make much of a contribution to the search for Sir John, but its history since then has been full of interest and significance.  Until the re-discovery of M'Clure's "Investigator," she was the furthest-north known shipwreck in the world, and the search to find her, recover artifacts, and learn from the wreck site has stretched over nearly forty years, and took an interesting turn last week when divers working as part of the Canadian military's Operation Nunalivut explored the wreck using a submersible ROV, sending color video images to the surface.

The wreck was not far off Beechey Island, and its general location fairly readily ascertained. The first definite evidence of the wreck was located by diver Joe MacInnis in 1975; based on his evidence and subsequent searches, a Canadian Coast Guard vessel discovered the wreck using side-scan sonar in 1980. Remarkably, her hull was largely intact, and two of her masts will still standing, one of which still seemed to be carrying some portion of canvas.  MacInnis later led several dives to the wreck, and retrieved the ship's wheel.  This and his earlier searches were described by him in his book The Breadalbane Adventure, which featured an introduction by Walter Cronkite.

MacInnis later hit on the idea of setting up a seasonal camp on the ice, and taking aquatic tourists down to the wreck at thousands of dollars a pop.  To that end, he purchased a number of large mobile dwellings, had them shipped to Resolute, and fixed to skids so they could be towed out onto the ice by tractor.  The hoped-for number of tourists never materialized, and when I was at Resolute in 2004 the mobile units could still be seen, abandoned, a few hundred yards from the main port.

You might think that all the archaeological knowledge possible had already been retrieved from the Breadalbane, but this didn't stop Canadian Forces divers from searching the wreck again this April.  The annual northern military exercise in Nunavut, though it mostly involves staged search-and-rescue operations, is also geared toward strengthening Canada's claim to its northernmost territories, and apparently nothing spells "sovereignty" quite so well as a sunken Franklin-era vessel.  Nothing new was discovered, so far as I know, though the online video shows some intriguing images.  There's also a fairly detailed account of the dive on the Canadian Forces' own website here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Petition for Ancanthe

IN the spirit of Lady Franklin's Appeal to Lord Palmerston, I've just done something I've never tried before -- launch a petition.

The background is this: Near Hobart in Tasmania, the original Greek-style temple dedicated by Lady Franklin as the centerpiece of botanical garden and museum she named Ancanthe still stands.  Not surprisingly, there has been a fair amount of incursion over the years, with some of the original land now occupied by homes.  Recently, there was a proposal brought to Hobart City Council for a new subdivision which would much further encroach upon the area, and destroy much of its character,  A group of citizens fought back, and are making a counter-proposal that Hobart acquire much of this same area as public lands, and establish there a) A botanical garden, a project not quite realized in Lady Franklin's time, and neglected since; b) A restored museum and grounds, with a "Franklin trail"; and c) an 'international centre of excellence.'

The city council may be persuaded to back the plan, but first they are asking for evidence that the site is one of internationally-recognized historical and cultural significance.  This is something beyond the quick reach of the citizens of Hobart who support this plan, so I've volunteered to enlist all the "Franklinites" I know in its support.

You can read more about the situation on the Saving Ancanthe Facebook page here.

And, if you choose to sign the petition, it's here.

Lastly, if you know of others, whose names I have perhaps neglected to include here, who could lend their heft to the affair, I'd be grateful if you could forward this request.

I hope you'll decide to join me in this effort to preserve a small patch of Franklin history in Tasmania.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Only Known Photo of Lady Jane Franklin

A few years ago -- in May of 2008, to be precise -- I was in Philadelphia along with many Arctic historians and writers for the "North by Degree" conference hosted by the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. By good fortune, I found myself at the same bed-and-breakfast as my good friends Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert, and so we had ample time before and after each batch of conference sessions to talk about our shared passion for all things Polar.  Kari was there to give a talk about some of the remarkable parallels between her mother Lady Marie Herbert's experiences and those of Josephine Peary, and after the conference was off on a research trip to see some Peary materials in Maine. This was all in preparation for her work, Polar Wives, which has now come to fruition, and which traces the careers of many of the women who supported their husbands' Arctic and Antarctic endeavors, whether from home or from a tent pitched in the midst of a howling gale on a rocky beach in Greenland.

Lady Jane Franklin was to be, and is, one of the subjects of Kari's book, and one afternoon in Philadelphia, she mused aloud that there must be, somewhere in some archive, a photograph of her -- why had none ever come to light?  I took this as a personal challenge, and set myself to find one; it was only many months later, by the good chance of putting the right keywords into the right database, that I found just such a photograph at George Eastman House, which has one of the best collections of nineteenth-century (and later) photos of any institution in the world.  It was, like the famous "purloined letter" in the Poe story, hidden in plain sight -- in the center of the frame in one of the stereoviews of Yosemite taken by Carleton E. Watkins, and commercially reproduced by him and succeeding stereoview publishers.  Doubtless there are hundreds of copies -- one of them has recently been scanned and uploaded to the Wikipedia -- but no one had really realized the rarity of the image itself. George Eastman house, happily, has Watkins's original glass plate negatives for his Yosemite views, which can be enlarged much more than the printed cards, and here we can finally see Lady Franklin -- and Sophia Cracroft -- in a camera's eye.

Lady Franklin has a most curious expression -- she seems to be positively beaming good cheer -- but is wearing some sort of Victorian-era hood or wimple that -- for me at least -- brings to mind Sally Field as the Flying Nun.  Traveling costumes for women from this period were odd affairs, to be sure, but Lady F. seems to be sporting one of the odder ones.  Between Jane and Sophia there is the somewhat blurred or  obscured visage of one of their guides, and then we see Sophia's face, everything that Jane's is not -- sober, severe almost, looking directly into the camera.  A few feet further we see two more guides, one of whom is apparently picking his teeth with a twig -- seated at the foot of a tree, the bark of which has been cut with an axe, possibly as a sort of blaze for the trail.  Yosemite, in the 1860's, was a fairly rugged destination, and for Jane and Sophia -- who rarely traveled without some sort of entourage -- this was roughing it.

The larger frame shows two other figures, a man who is seeking to blow a fire aflame at left, and at right, a jaunty figure sporting a cap with a bill and peak, a pair of braces, and writing or drawing on what looks like an oversize sketchpad.

The visit by these two women to the site seems to have had a lasting impression on the nomenclature of the place; though credited in the photo as "Moss Rock" this almost surely the same as the modern "Lady Franklin Rock," though exactly when, and by whom, the change was made is unclear.  It has for a long time been a favored place to take a photo of the Vernal Falls from -- though much less often photographed itself.  The identities of the guides here are unknown to me; I would certainly be interested to hear from anyone who can tell me more about them, and about this visit.  All I have is this note from a modern guidebook, which says of Lady Franklin Rock: "So named because that distinguished lady visited the Yosemite in 1859, and being very feeble at the time, was carried up to this rock by the guides on a chair, and from here she viewed the fall."

PHOTO CREDIT: George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography