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.


  1. I have never seen a library on any of those old ships, but I can guess that the books would be confined in closed book shelves or inside chests. That would improve the chances of finding them in good shape.

  2. One hour ago, the Parks Canada Facebook posted pictures from what they say is Erebus!!! Apparently the Canadian PM made an announcement about it yesterday

  3. Found a link to the Erebus article, here it is: