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 It's a maths book, a bit out of date (apparently having been printed in 1909); the binding has separated and there's some deformation of the pages, wrinkling, and quite a few stains.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.


  1. Interesting thoughts here. Thank you as always for taking the time to compose this wonderful blog.

    I hate to think this but I suppose it is possible that many of the books were burned by the crew to stay warm. They didn't have access to a great deal of firewood aside from the ships themselves.

  2. Didn't know about the Math book found on the Titanic. Since there will be about the same temperature of the water in both this case and the Titanic, are there any differences in the environment that might affect the chances of documents surviving?