Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Wrong Cylinder

In a clip from the soon-to-air documentary Franklin's Lost Ships that's being co-produced by 90th Parallel (in Canada) and Lion TV (in the UK), Claire Warrior, a curator from the National Maritime Museum, show us the original Victory Point Record, which is -- so far -- the only official record containing any account of the ships from 1848 or later. It's an exciting moment -- as is the one where the curator points to the large tin cylinder nearby, explaining that "the notes were placed in tubes like these."

Except that they didn't look very much like this one. I was surprised to see the large size of the cylinder, which didn't correspond with the ones Franklin used. We know, having lined up the stains on the VP record, that it was tightly rolled in a small cylinder, and indeed an image of this cylinder is available in the NMM's own image database of relics. In contrast, this tube is many times larger in diameter, if not in length. Thanks to Peter Carney, who was able to get a proper frame grab of this moment (see above), we can see that the cylinder shown has the number "4" as well as the mostly-chipped off inscription .... [REC]ORDS. These indications, painted in white, suggested to Peter that they were the sort applied to items by archivists in the past -- and to me, I thought at once of the Royal Naval Exhibition of 1891, in which the Franklin relics brought back by Rae, McClintock, Schwatka, and others were all on display. The Victory Point Record, with its cylinder, were exhibited then -- but their number was 22, not 4. Searching further, I found a section in the original catalog -- which can be had easily at -- #116, "Articles used in the Expedition of 1875-76." And there it was: "CYLINDER FOR RECORDS." The catalog numbers of these items are a little irregular -- they appear to all be numbered "I," but the wording is a perfect match.

It's a small matter, I suppose. But small things matter in a mystery such as this. 


  1. Here's a question for any who might know - let's assume that one day (hopefully soon) someone finds a message cylinder from the Franklin Expedition stuck in the ground or some buried cement sealed deposit with a big "JF" on top or even a leather bound copy of "There and Not Back Again: A Captain's Tale" in the pen of Sir Bilbo Franklin himself under a rock.

    Just how confident can we be that any records could have survived until the modern day? Even after just a decade in the ground the Victory Point record was fairly damaged - could a record saved the same basic way really have lasted until now? What sort of circumstances are likely to be required for ANY record to have survived in the ground until today - Just in a message cylinder? In a heavy-duty chest? Only if in cement? Only if in some well preserved iron safe in the bottom of the Erebus' hold?

    No one can be sure, of course, but do we have a reasonable understanding of the odds of any meaningful records surviving until today even if Franklin and Crew were nice enough to leave them for us to find? I assume people wouldn't be out there looking for some year-after-year if the odds were zero, but how much wishful thinking might be involved?

  2. Alan, thanks for your comment. As Dave Woodman notes (on p. 324 of Unravelling),"a letter written by Willem Barents, the intrepid Dutch explorer who spent the winter of 1595 at Ice Haven on Novaya Zemlya, was recovered intact in 1871, 276 years later." Given that, I think we can reasonably expect that a written record found on land could be in legible condition, the more so if preserved from light and moisture. On board the Erebus, the cold water and low oxygen content of the water, will also tend toward the preservation of documents. Right now, I think it's something perfectly reasonable to hope for!

    1. I tried to find this out for myself, but couldn't - do we know what the records from Barents' cabin were written upon? If it was parchment rather than paper that could be a fundamental factor why it survived, but theoretically why the paper the Franklin Expedition used would not. Of course, as you say, there is real reason to hope, but ironically sometimes more modern methods for recording data can be less robust than far older ones (for instance, records on more modern paper are less likely to survive than that on much older paper as the newer material is often so acidic as to destroy itself over time).

  3. I've had the good fortune to find two time capsules, one from 1832, the other from 1843. The one from 1843 was a series of packets wrapped in zinc foil inserted into a glass bottle, which was then placed in the cornerstone of a church. It was recovered in 1996. The glass bottle had its cork stopper inserted, then a metal cap, and finally it was sealed in red wax. It was placed in a hollowed out space within the corner stone. Over the years, the grade of the building changed and groundwater got in to this cavity. When it froze and expanded, it imploded a glass shard into the bottle. This allowed water to get into the bottle and turn the paper into a pulpy mess. It was sent to the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa for conservation treatment but was so far gone it could not be read. Strangely, the ground water which seeped into the bottle was alkaline from the limestone, and it reacted with the zinc foil which in turn reacted with the copper coins in the bottle tarnishing them, but leaving the silver coins bright and shiny upon discovery.
    The ironic part is the carefully sealed bottle was still "sealed" when found, but the freeze/thaw cycle of the groundwater broke the glass itself. So, if Franklin messages are to be found, hopefully they will be buried deep so the freeze/thaw cycle doesn't affect them, or they are stored in a container which can resist the compressive forces of the freezing. That and a little bit of luck, which sadly the expedition seemed to have precious little of.


  4. Don, many thanks for your comment; I’d love to know more about those time capsules! The one reminds me of the sad story of “MIss Belvedere,” a 1957 Pontiac that was buried in a concrete vault for retrieval in 2007. The vault was designed to survive a nuclear attack — but not water. The car was almost completely ruined by rust.

    The Franklin cylinders weren’t perfect — the tin could corrode if it got wet, and apparently it did — the Victory Point Record tin left dark stains of metal oxide on the paper, but not enough, luckily, to render it illegible. It was apparently damaged at one end, though the damage could have been deliberate, the result of the 1848 officers having to break open the sealed tube. Another such tube could, if reasonably well-placed, still be found, but it’s unlikely to contain as much information (one other was found back in 1859, and it had only the central parts of the form filled out).

    There’s still hope, though: a Schwatka record was found in 1989 by Stephen Trafton, still inside a corked glass bottle, and completely legible, through there was some paper loss along the folds. The cork was not 100% air- or water-tight, and that may have ended up being a good thing!