Monday, September 29, 2014

A Sunken Pompeii

Image © Parks Canada 2014
Upon its arrival in Britain in 1856, the HMS "Resolute" -- a ship that had searched for Sir John Franklin, only to be trapped in the ice itself, and abandoned in the Arctic -- there was a profound feeling of awe and admiration. For, against all odds, the ship had freed herself from her icy death-trap and drifted unpiloted into the Davis Strait, where itshewas boarded and brought back to port by a passing whaler. As a gift to her Majesty, the US Congress ordered the ship restored to her original condition, and this work was done with such care and thoroughness that accounts in the press compared it to a "floating Pompeii":
As regards the arrangement of the furniture and the situation of each particular article in the captain's cabin, they were put into the same state as that in which they were when the crew forsook the ship. In fact, the ship is—so to express it— a floating Pompeii, and everything comes to light just as it was left. Captain Kellet’s epaulets are lying in a tin box on the table. Lieut. Pim’s musical box occupies its old place on the top of a "what not." The "logs" of the various officers are in their respective recesses on the bookshelves. The portmanteau containing the officers’ greatcoats is thrown heedlessly on a chair. On the wall hangs the picture of a ballet girl pirouetting—still for ever pirouetting on the tips of her toes—and, as if in mockery of domestic comfort, a little kettle that should be singing songs "full of family glee," does nothing of the kind, but sits upon a tireless stove as cold as a stone and as silent.
That these objects were still present on board the "Resolute" when she was found would seem to indicate a typical state of affairs when an ice-bound vessel was abandoned in an orderly manner, down to the music-boxes, epaulet-cases, and a picture on the wall. It's particularly interesting to see that the officers' logs or journals were still on the shelves -- we can only hope that the same was the case when the Franklin ship was abandoned.

Indeed, although in some cases these "restored" items had in fact been replaced, the ship was in extraordinary shape when Captain Budington first found it adrift, and went on board:
The ship was found not to have sustained any very material damage. The ropes, indeed, were hard, and inflexible as chains; the rigging was stiff, and crackled at the touch; the tanks in the hold had burst, the iron work was rusted, the paint was discoloured with bilge water, and the topmast and topgallant mast were shattered, but the hull had escaped unscathed, and the ship was not hurt in any vital part. There were three or four feet of water in the hold, but she had not sprung a leak. The cordage was coiled in neat little circles on the deek, after the fashion of English seamen, and the sails were frozen to such stiffness as to resemble sheets of tin. Several thousand pounds of guupowder were found on board, somewhat deteriorated in quality, yet good enough for such purposes as firing salutes. Some of the scientific instruments were injured by exposure and rust; but others were in excellent condition.For a year and four months no human foot had trod the deck of this phantom ship, yet, amid those savage solitudes, where man there was none, and might never be, the pilot's wheel made a stern proclamation, for around it were inscribed in letters of brass the immortal words, "England expects that every man will do his duty."
One can imagine that this indeed was the condition of the Franklin vessel prior to its sinking, and those items not of interest to the Inuit, such as books and written materials, would likely have been left just as they were.

If the "Resolute," then, was a "floating Pompeii," there's reason to hope that the Franklin ship may prove to be a sunken one, revealing much not only about the events after the initial abandonment in 1848, but of everyday life on board.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Was evidence of the Franklin ship found in 1965?

With all the celebration which has quite rightly attended the extraordinary discovery of one of Sir John Franklin's ships by the Victoria Strait expedition, those of us still stuck in our armchairs have, quite naturally, returned to our reading and research with renewed spirits. And it was while digging about in this manner that my fellow Franklin blogger Andrés Paredes Salvador stumbled upon an old, torn clipping at the website of the Derbyshire Record Office, home to a large collection of Franklin materials. The clipping, from April 14th 1965, was headlined "ECHO FROM THE DEEP: Wreck May End Riddle of Arctic Adventure." It seemed, from the remaining bit of the article, that two Canadian naval officers, D.J. Kidd and B.F. Ackerman thought they had found the site of one of Franklin's ships. Was such a thing even distantly possible? Why had no one heard of Kidd or Ackerman? What was the result of their claim?

It took me some time to find any details of their claim, and when I did, it was in an unusual place -- a digitized copy of The War Cry, the official magazine of the Salvation Army. Astonishingly, these men had done their own research, and had -- as have Woodman and other modern searchers -- identified the area near O'Reilly Island as the likely site of one wreck. They then persuaded Dr. E.F. Roots of the Polar Shelf staff in Cambridge Bay that it was worth trying a magnetometer search, looking, as would Woodman nearly 30 years later, for the magnetic signature of the ship's ex-railway engine. They identified a target, described as "250 feet off the east shore of the south end of a small unnamed island which lies one mile north of the northern tip of O'Reilly Island," and seemed to have a high level of confidence that this was the ship they sought.

I know from talking with Dave Woodman over the years how tough it is to use a magnetometer survey in this way -- he in his own searches identified numerous targets, discovering, when he examined them with side-scan sonar, that they were, alas, just natural features. He mentions the 1965 search in his Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Evidence, on page 267.

Still, with the claimed site so close to this year's find, one wonders: could these two forgotten men have actually found the site of the ship or some part of it 49 years ago? They also reported finding a spike marked with the "broad arrow" near the site -- which apparently led to the "nameless" island being named "Nail Island" -- along with wood chips and shavings, which could suggest that these were from Inuit re-purposing of wood from the ships. Dr. Roots himself came to believe that their finding was just a natural feature, and the initial excitement soon died down.

UPDATE: I wrote to Dave Woodman, and he told me that, indeed, he'd followed up on this report during his own magnetometer survey:
They in actual fact were following up an earlier area magnetometer survey by Canadian geologists that had identified a large discrete anomaly in the area (without any knowledge of Franklin history). The large anomaly, I believe, was one of those we relocated in our 2002 magnetometer survey and labelled by Brad Nelson (our expert) as "enormous." It was, in his opinion, about 1000 times too powerful to have been caused by a Franklin ship (hence discoverable using 1960s technology).The water depth was, if I remember, much too shallow to allow for the wreck (the hull would have been visible - so not in accord with the Inuit testimony) and was very close to O'Reilly Island (so not germane to where the wreck was actually found - further north).

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Photographs from the Bottom of the Sea

One of the most fascinating aspects of the discovery of one of Sir John Franklin's ships is the possibility that they may contain photographic images made by the ship's officers during their ill-fated Arctic sojourn. And yet, although we know that the Franklin expedition had brought along a camera apparatus, one might well ask whether there's any likelihood that the images made with it would, even if recovered, be intact after more than one hundred and sixty years under water.

The good news is that there's precedent for this. The image above, from a 2014 article by Steve Roach in Coin World, shows two Ambrotypes from the wreck of the SS "Central America," a side-wheel steamer that sank in 1857 off the Carolina coast. Although mostly known for its treasures of gold and silver, the wreck has also yielded many touching reminders of the human loss that attending its sinking, these images most poignant among them. Various articles on the wreck mention the recovery of both Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes, although I've been unable to locate any images of the former. By 1857, the Daguerreotype would have been "old" technology, and probably far less common -- finding one in an 1857 wreck would be like finding an original iPhone in a car crash today -- unlikely, but certainly not impossible.

The survival status of such an image would also be very dependent on the technology. Ambrotypes are glass plates, with the image on the interior side of the glass, backed with black paper (the image is negative but appears positive -- in the UK they're sometimes referred to a "collodion positives." Since the collodion emulsion is inside the keep-case, such an image would be somewhat protected from water damage, and that's what we see in the image above; even though the decorative paper of the case has eroded away, the images seem intact.

For a Daguerreotype, though, the odds of survival might well be steeper. They consist of a sensitized copper plate which has been coated with silver and polished to a mirror-like sheen; the silver is sensitized and developed with vapors, and resides on an extraordinarily thin layer atop the silver. If you see an original, it still looks like a mirror when viewed straight-on; the image only appears at an angle. As surviving examples show, it's a fragile format; thoughtless attempts to "clean" a Daguerreotype with a cloth have led to irreparable damage.

In commercial use, Daguerreotypes were placed in a  keep-case with a securely fastened glass plate as a cover -- but would Franklin's men have followed this procedure? The officer most closely associated with the apparatus was Goodsir, who as Assistant Surgeon and naturalist might also have found mollusks more interesting than men -- I'm not sure that dramatic finds such as those in Andrée's camera are likely. Still, one can always dream ...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Recovering papers from the Franklin wreck

The book at left isn't in especially good shape. It's a maths book, a bit out of date (apparently having been printed in 1909); the binding has separated and there's some deformation of the pages, wrinkling, and quite a few stains. This damage, though, isn't the fault of a careless owner, but the result of the fact that this book spent nearly eighty years at the bottom of the ocean in RMS "Titanic."

Indeed, numerous paper relics were recovered by the Titanic, including playing cards, menus, notebooks, and business cards. The cold, dark depths of the sea, though hostile to human life, can be reasonably friendly to paper. Old paper is best, because of its high rag content, but any sort of paper might have a better chance at the bottom of the sea than it would in a hot attic closet or a dank basement in any modern city. One of the reasons is not simply the cold and dark, but the low oxygen content of the water; the Arctic waters near where the Franklin vessel has been found are lower in oxygen, and support less sea-life, than in temperate zones.

Care needs to be taken with such items, of course. Leaves of books or documents need to be carefully conserved, and the process is slow and painstaking. But there's no reason not to expect some legible documents could be recovered. Illustrations of Franklin's cabin aboard "Erebus" show a bank of compartments where various navigational charts would be stored, as well as a sort of built-in bureau with a cabinet and nine drawers. Captain Crozier's cabin would have been nearly identical in this arrangement. The damage at the stern of the discovered ship is concerning, but it may well be that, if the fore area of the captain's quarters is intact, at least some of these papers may in place, and accessible to divers.

Of course, the most vitally interesting material would be written documents -- the ship's logbook, or any accounts written by the officers and men of their experiences. We know that McClure, on abandoning HMS "Investigator," ordered his men to leave personal journals behind; a similar command may have been issued here. Whatever was left, it's going to have immense human interest, even if -- like the famous folded page of the "Student's Manual" -- it consists only of a fortuitous crease in the paper.

And then there's the ships' libraries. Estimates as to the number of books range from the hundreds into the thousands, and at one point Fitzames and other officers compiled a catalog of the books on board "Erebus." Working from existing records -- actual books recovered from the Arctic, books mentioned by officers and family members as having been brought aboard, the claim that all the previous important explorers' narratives were included, and lists of certain standard sets such as the "Seaman's Library," it's possible to guess at what this library contained. And so we might find Nicholas Nickleby, or perhaps An Old Chaplain's Farewell to Seamen, or some odd early volumes of Punch. And there may be some unexpected books, too: Samuel Green's Life of Muhammed, The Ingoldsby Legends, and Josiah Woodward's A Kind Caution to Profane Swearers (one thinks of Franklin's aversion to swearing). I've created a modest list here at LibraryThing's Legacy Library Project, which includes a number of better-documented shipboard libraries (including that of HMS "Beagle"), and even a list of all the books aboard the International Space Station. Have a look! And perhaps, soon, we'll be able to compare my list to some actual books recovered from one of Franklin's ships.

Inuit Testimony and the Franklin Ship

It's good to see that there's been plenty of news coverage which has acknowledged that the Franklin ship discovered a few days ago was found in a place (off Hat Island) and in circumstances (in shallow water, such that the tops of its masts could be seen, at least until the ice broke them off the next season) that exactly match Inuit oral traditions. Few, however, have quoted much from the historical record of Inuit testimony. I believe that these records still have something to tell us, and one aspect of that testimony could soon be tested again: which ship is this?

According to the Inuit, the ship aboard which they had often seen "Too-loo-ark" (Franklin) was "overwhelmed with heavy ice in the spring of the year. The men all worked for their lives in getting out provisions, but before they could save much the ice turned the vessel down on its side, crushing the masts and breaking a hole in her bottom, She sank at once, and has never been seen again. The other ship, spoken of as seen near Ook-goo-lik, was in complete order. For a long time the Inuits feared to go on board. On the report of one of them that he had seen one man on the vessel that was alive, many of the Inuit visited it, but saw nothing of the man."

It's clear from this testimony that it was HMS "Erebus," Franklin's ship of command, that sank first -- which would mean that the ship discovered by Ryan Harris and his Parks Canada team would be HMS "Terror." If they can get divers, or a ROV, in position at the stern of the ship (part of which appears to have broken away) they may be able to get images of the ship's engine. And we know quite a bit about the engine that was installed on the "Terror" -- thanks to research by blogger Peter Carney, it now seems most likely that it was a "Archimedes"  2-2-2 engine built by G & J Rennie, although some records suggest it could have been an 0-4-0 Stephenson goods engine.  Either engine has enough distinct features that, even missing their original wheels and carriage, they ought to be fairly easily identified if clear images can be obtained.

And there are a number of other details that might be verifiable with good imagery:
Puhtoorak told how the Esquimaux, not understanding how to get into the ship, cut through one side. When summer came and the ice melted the ship righted herself but the hole in her side being below the water line she sank as the water poured in. After the ship sank, they found a small boat on the mainland. When he went on board the ship he saw a pile of dirt on one side of the cabin door showing that some white man had recently swept out the cabin. He found on board the ship four red tin cans filled with meat and many that had been opened. The meat was full of fat. The natives went all through the ship and found also many empty casks. The found iron chains and anchors on deck, and spoons, knives, forks, tin plates, china plates, etc. When the ship finally sank her masts stuck out of the water and many things floated on shore which the natives picked up. He also saw books on board the ship but the natives did not take them. He afterwards saw some that had washed ashore. He never saw any stone monument or cairn on the mainland near where the ship sank. There was one small boat hanging from the davits which the natives cut down. Some of the ship's sails were set.
We're seeing some of these iron chains today. Will we see a hole in its side below the water-line, one deliberately cut? Only time well tell.  But it's very hopeful that the ship was said to be "in perfect order"; this suggests that those who abandoned it took care to set things in order before they left, even sweeping out the cabins. Let's hope that they made sure to leave behind a secured copy of the ship's log and other papers indicating the events before its abandonment. And books? How I would love to browse that library. If these kinds of paper materials can be recovered, the Franklin story will have a completely unexpected new chapter.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Found: Vessel #1 of Franklin's two ships

So word now is that a vessel has been found. Let's call this "vessel #1" -- it's certainly either the "Erebus" or "Terror" -- and apparently, as I'd always suspected, it's the more southerly of the two vessels, the one that was piloted or drifted well south of Victoria Strait, that's been discovered. This is the ship that was anchored not far offshore from an island and sank after being frozen in for a season in shallow water such that the tops of the masts could be seen.  The exact location, sensibly enough, is not being disclosed, but seems to lie to the southwest of King William Island, off the western or northwestern extreme of the Adelaide Peninsula, in what Parks Canada refers to as their "southern search area."

This must be the very ship that was talked about in Inuit tales for many years, the one they visited and explored after it had been abandoned, the one in which they found the body of a very tall man in one of the cabins. The current years' searchers can thank the ice that prevented them from searching for the more northerly wreck which, though it may be found, I believe will be in a very fragmentary condition, if anything survives of it at all.

Judging from the images, I'd say that it's intact enough that I would expect to find the boiler in situ, which will enable definite identification of the vessel. And we should also, I think, expect that a considerable amount of material representing life aboard the ship may be recovered, if the items found in the preliminary search of HMS "Investigator" are any clue. This could, potentially, include objects of metal, wood, leather, or even paper (the last of which would be a sort of "Holy Grail" to be sure).

I'm going to go back for the moment to checking the news reports, and e-mailing various people who've sought this vessel or are part of this year's team. They certainly all deserve our hearty congratulations! But let's also remember that this vindicates Inuit oral tradition, which had described a ship in just such a situation, and mentioned items from a ship found near Hat Island. It's a big day.

The Inuit Knew It

With apologies to the late Alootook Ipellie (The Inuit Thought of It), it's worth noting that the fragments of a vessel found on Hat Island by Doug Stenton's archaeological team were already known about by the Inuit. As oral historian Dorothy Eber relates it:
In the Arctic Islands Lodge, I hear again the stories Frank Analok, Moses Koihok, and Mabel Angulalik pass 'from generations before us' of the exploring ship at Imnguyaaluk in the Royal Geographical Society Islands and the ship the Inuit say sank, perhaps with the help of shamans. As a child, Mabel heard that her own relatives came upon what they thought were pieces of a ship's wreckage buried in sand, she believes, to the east of Hat Island.
The full story is in Eber's Encounters on the Passage: The Inuit Meet the Explorers, on page 132. Mabel may, for all I know, still be living in Cambridge Bay. Someone should give her a call and let her know her family tradition was right.

New Franklin find

The news is all over this morning of the two new Franklin expedition finds made on Hat Island by a GN-directed team of archaeologists: a davit (pictured at left) and a "wooden object, possibly a plug for a deck hawse." The davit is of special interest as it's marked, twice with the broad arrow and also with the number 12. It's been hailed as the first find of Franklin artifacts "in modern times," a claim which is only accurate if you add "from the ships." Nearly all of what has been recovered, either in the original Franklin search era or since, has been from material found on land, and associated with the crews, rather than actual parts of either expedition vessel.

Indeed, as William Battersby points out aptly in his blog post, this would seem to mark only the fourth find ever of any part of the ships, the others being 1) A part of a flag staff and oak stanchion found on Victoria Island in 1851 by Dr. John Rae; 2) Two pieces of the frame of a ship's hatchway, found by a party dispatched from HMS Enterprise in 1853; and 3) A piece of pine, possibly deck planking, recovered from King William Island in 1954 by Paul Cooper. Battersby has proposed a sort of triangle, its points defined by these finds, within which he suggests that one of the vessels might be found.

I'm not quite so sanguine, though I remain hopeful. It might be observed that all of the items from the ships so far recovered over more than a century come either from the deck area or above, and show no signs of having been re-purposed by Inuit, or in any way deliberately removed. This suggests strongly to me that they are the result of a ship having been crushed in the ice, and that the items may well have drifted a considerable distance in the pack from where this event originally occurred. That some made it so far as the eastern coast of Victoria Island suggests the violence and utter decimation of the ship, with bits and pieces carried in various directions as the pack broke up in the vicinity of Queen Maud Gulf. They may, indeed, more probably be from the first ship to founder, rather than the second vessel which according to Inuit testimony seems to have been piloted further south, and sunk in shallow water near an island.

But it's also possible that the island in that case was Hat Island. To account for that possibility, the search should be intensified in the area around it; I hope that ice conditions and other circumstances will permit some assets to be deployed there before the window has closed on this year's search.

p.s. -- if you've come to this posting via an outside link, don't miss this update.