Wednesday, September 10, 2014

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.


  1. You bring up an extremely important point about copies of documents, Russell. If one considers that documents would have been taken ashore when the ships were abandoned, we're talking about the originals. But with at least one of the vessels having been reoccupied, any copies of logbooks, letter & order books, journals, etc., probably remained with the vessel(s). I've sorted out the many twists and turns regarding contemporary sources for HMS "Investigator," and it turned out to be a story unto itself, so devoted a separate appendix to it in my forthcoming book.

  2. I'm hoping that a reserve copy of the log and other documents would have been automatically left behind, if the abandonment was as orderly as the Inuit testimony suggests. And, though they may have been tempted by barrel staves and hoops, metal tools, and utensils, it's clear that Inuit of this time and area did not have any idea of the value or use of paper.

  3. The discovery of the ship is clearly important in helping to solve the mystery of the Franklin expedition. In this case it certainly helps to verify aspects of European interpretation of Inui oral traditions. I have always had doubts about the scholars who dismissed Inuit traditions has being "lies" and or made to simply please the European questioner. I personally think the Inuit tried to tell as much has possible to tell the truth. My real problem has been European interpretations of this testimony. I suspect that at least some of the testimony was misinterpreted has applying to Franklin's expedition. Certainly Woodman's second book is replete with dubiousness.

    As for the Inuit visiting Franklin's ships while they were held in the ice off King William's Island and before they were abandoned. I've always had a problem with that, because not only did Rae and McClintock not record any such thing. The accounts they do record seem to indicate that the Inuit didn't know where the men came from. I am also puzzled that although the Inuit seem to have gone through, looking for usable metal and wood, the camps setup by Franklin's crew trying to escape on the southern shore of King William's Island they seem to have left alone the pile of crap dumped near victory point and the so-called boat place, both on the north Western coast of King William's island. How they missed that for over a decade after the disastrous end of the expedition if they had generally known where the ships were when Franklin and his crew were locked in the ice, etc., is a bit mysterious. And of course the fact that these stories of visiting the ship were not found by McClintock and or Rae but were discovered by later explorers like Hall who also interpreted various stories about Europeans has really about long term Franklin survivors. (Woodman continues this doubtful tradition.)

    Oral traditions can be reliable, but their reliability can decline rabidly after about a century. I suspect that the Inuit oral traditions are indeed reliable. My man problem is with European interpretations of such traditions.

    As for the problem with the earliest European recorders missing much of this stuff. I can hazard a guess that not all the Inuit groups around King William's Island were in contact with Franklin's ships during this time. It is possible that they generally avoided a game poor area of King William's Island which was the area off which Franklin's ships were beset. So that when McCli8ntock got there the various Inuit groups had not fully circulated among themselves stories about the ships / Franklin and therefore McClintock missed them by talking to the "wrong" people.

    As it is the lack of scavenging on the North West coast of King William's island is hard to explain except on the basis of a lack knowledge that there were lots of abandoned goodies there. So I suspect Franklin and his crews contact with the Inuit was not intense and possibly with a group that only rarely went to the North West coast of King William's island. There is also the possibility that one or more of the exploratory parties that were sent from Franklin's ship had contact with the Inuit.

    Oh and it is nice to post on your blog after a hiatus of a couple of years.

  4. You said the wreak was off Hat island. The stuff I've read says off O'Reilly island to the west. Hat island seems like c. 26 miles to the North West of O'Reilly island.

    So I am curious, just where is it? and since it is in 11 metres of water I would think it would be near a coastline.

    1. Hi Pierre, it's good to hear from you. See my comment below -- I think the ship is somewhere in those 26 miles.

  5. This article strongly suggests a find location near Hat Island.

    "The underwater archeologists soon put their survey and diving boat, Investigator, in the water to look for a wreck."

    The article doesn't mention Hat Island at all, but places the "this island" in the context of the location of the davit/hawse finds, which I haven't seen located anywhere else.

    Conflation with O'Reilly could make sense, given it as a locus of many earlier requests. It'd be nice for some harder data to come out, of course. :)

  6. Andrew, thanks for your comment. To follow up, the subsequent coverage seems to indicate the ship was found off the NW coast of the Adelaide Peninsula, but not necessarily near Hat Island. My guess is that it's somewhere between O'Reilly and the RGS islands; they are, sensibly enough, keeping the exact location a secret.

  7. "Puhtoorak told how the Esquimaux, not understanding how to get into the ship, cut through one side". Your quote.
    How does an 1850s esquimaux cut thru a reinforced (8"+) hardwood hull. Unless he's got some of that nano thermite or mini-nukes (which would please some investigators), he's going to struggle. Short metal blades, harpoon, arrows aren't going to do it. Hitting it with the Largest rock he can haul won't do it. If that hull survived years of glacial nipping, an esquimaux won't be able to hurt the Hull.
    "Will we see a hole in its side below the water-line, one deliberately cut?" my answer = no.
    The only bit of "the side" that could be cut thru would be above deck level, in the canvas and wood roofing put over the deck during winter lay ups.
    It may have been possible to break a rear (double glazed) window in the Capt.s room. But that's not in the side.
    The current 2018 images of the erebus wreck don't seem to show anything upright above deck, no canvas structures, masts or railings. It looks like the deck was swept clean by glaciers, swept hard enough so an area of the deck planking on the front left was ripped off in a big piece and deposited overboard. So far the images released aren't detailed enough, (why? They've had 3 years to film it...cmon) but I don't think we'll find a man made doorway into the side.

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