Saturday, December 31, 2016

A recently rediscovered poem by Robert W. Service

O gather ye northern voyagers, and gather ye trappers of old
For the snow’s blown off of a curious tale that’s never been truly told
It’s the strangest yarn of the frozen zone that ever I yet did hear
Whether trapper Smith told it true and straight (or maybe ’twas just the beer)

In the winter of ’34, he said, came an Irishman name of Pease
Without so much as a howdy-do, like a man blown in by the breeze
He’d only one great dream, he swore, and it held him in its grip
And that was to find, though the snow made him blind, Lord Franklin’s missing ship

He’d a map, he said, from Rasmussen, and it laid out clear and plain
Where the lost logbooks of the fabled crew nigh a century had lain
X marked the spot! and yet all that he’d brought was a single scrawny dog
Yet ’twas was clear from the start that he had the heart, no matter how long the slog

To hear Smith tell it, they all thought him mad, but at last they figured they’d help
The death of one man was a thing they could stand, but they pitied the loss of the whelp
So Angus MacIver, a fine old dog-driver, a fellow who never felt dread
Went and hitched up his sled, and another for Pease; with a crack of a whip they were fled

Their progress was slow through the blinding snows, for the first hundred miles or so
MacIver was minded to turn back to town, but Pease pleaded onward to go
At last the storm cleared, and their eyelids were seared, by the glare of the midnight sun
And onward they pressed, though they’d never have guessed, what lay at the end of their run.

At last they made camp, by the light of a lamp, as the polar twilight fell 
Pease bumped into something nearby in the drifts, and suddenly let out a yell!
’Twas a low house of logs, with no window or door, the length and the breadth of a man
In this lonely zone, where so few paths were known, there had ended a human lifespan.  

Strange figures were carved in the uppermost log, that MacIver deciphered, bar none
“The grave of a white man” the legend did read, and the date eighteen fifty and one
“’Tis the grave of the last of Lord Franklin’s bold crew” cried out Pease, with his hat in his hand
And his heart trembled inward, and grief racked his frame, and he found that he scarcely could stand.

Recovering his wits, he dug in with his mitts, and soon cleared the snow off for a space
With an axe in his hand he then broke through the bands that had held the logs firmly in place
He lowered the lamp and peered into the damp, but no sign of a corpse could he find
There were animal bones, rusty nails, cannon shot, and some pieces of cloth and old twine.

Had the grave then been looted? Had wolves tunneled in? Had the body been carried away?
Pease looked at MacIver, but the good old dog driver could hardly think what he could say
’’Tis the Law of the North that a man who goes forth, in a climate that never forgives
Becomes food for the famished, now that his life is done, so that other poor creatures may live

Pease looked for a sign, but saw naught but the stars, that yet shine on the living and dead
And he wondered out loud, but could never say how’d, he e’er got such ideas in his head
So he turned back to town, with his face in a frown, and from there sailed back over the sea
He had yearned to discover the fate of another, but ’twas his own fate he found — mo chroi!

O gather ye northern voyagers, and gather ye trappers of old
For the snow’s blown off of a curious tale that’s never been truly told
It’s the strangest yarn of the frozen zone that ever I yet did hear
Whether trapper Smith told it true and straight (or maybe ’twas just the beer)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Francis Kennedy Pease

Perhaps the least well-known Franklin searcher of the modern era, Francis Kennedy Pease was no stranger to the polar regions -- indeed, one of his first voyages was as a midshipman aboard RSS Discovery, on its way to deliver a permanent headstone for Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave. Like Shackleton, Pease had been born in Co. Kildare; his father, Charles Pease, was a Major in the British Army. Frank Taaffe, one of the organizers of the Shackleton Autumn School in Athy, has an interesting post on his blog Eye on the Past, which gives further details on Pease's life and career.

His voyage south was in 1927, but Pease did not venture north until 1935, when -- having received, by his own account, some kind of map from Knud Rasmussen -- he lit out in search of the logbooks of the Franklin expedition. The story sounds a bit dodgy -- had Rasmussen known of the location of such a treasure, it's hard to imagine his not having pursued it himself -- and then there's the nagging detail that the great explorer died in 1933, two years before Pease's expedition. Pease supposedly took with him one dog -- his Irish terrier! -- although by some accounts he also borrowed or purchased additional dogs in Churchill, Manitoba (including one, "Scottie," whose taxidermied remains may be seen at the Manitoba Museum to this day). It's said that he was accompanied by veteran trapper Angus MacIver, an articulate, capable man who contributed a number of articles on wolves and wolverines to The Beaver. And yet, of this seemingly substantial search, very little remains in the way of published accounts -- indeed, the only one I could find is a lone article from the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser of 12 June 1935 (you can read the full text here).

By Pease's own account, they found "the grave of a white man believed to be the last survivor of the Franklin expedition," located "250 miles north of Fort Churchill," along with a cairn beneath which were buried "the remains of a sea chest." The grave itself, as he described it, was "made in the Indian fashion ... of logs of spruce trees in the form of a tunnel, with both ends sealed by logs and earth" and "bore Indian hieroglyphics meaning 'white man buried here 1851.'" The relics from the cairn included  "rusty nails and cannon balls, some blue cloth, canvas, and rotted wood," while the tomb, though not described as having been damaged, contained only some "animal bones." The article from the Singapore paper says that the items retrieved were put in the hands of the Canadian government -- presumably, in 1935, this would have meant the National Museum -- but searches of the online databases of its successor institutions (the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian Museum of Nature) produces nothing filed under Pease's name.

This was, apparently, Pease's first and last Arctic foray. According to Frank Taaffe's account, "After service in the Royal Air Force in World War II he spent the rest of his life as a landscape contractor dying in 1987." It's hard to know how much credit to give to his claims as to a Franklin grave -- but certainly he fits well within the gallery of obsessive amateurs whose curiosity was piqued by this greatest of Northern mysteries.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Franklin for every era ...

Sir John and I in Spilsby, Lincolnshire (his birthplace)
This morning I happened on an article in Hakai magazine in which Canadian officials and scientists were described as seeking a new name for the new coast guard vessel hitherto anticipated to carry Sir John Franklin's name.

I believe that would be a serious mistake. The view of Franklin as nothing but a failure and a cultural ignoramus, which has its origins in the (rather more nuanced) account of his last expedition in Pierre Berton's Arctic Grail, is a very narrow one, and one which does not, I feel, represent his larger cultural significance to Canada or to the world. One voice in his favor might be that of the novelist Joseph Conrad, who in one of his last essays, "Geography and Some Explorers," wrote:
"The dominating figure among the seamen explorers of the first half of the nineteenth century is that of another good man, Sir John Franklin, whose fame rests not only on the extent of his discoveries, but on professional prestige and high personal character. This great navigator, who never returned home, served geography even in his death. The persistent efforts, extending over ten years, to ascertain his fate advanced greatly our knowledge of the polar regions."
To add to those remarks, made nearly a century ago, I would say that the Franklin story, as another novelist -- Margaret Atwood -- has noted, is part of the essential fabric of Canadian culture and identity; it's been the subject of numerous novels and poems by Canadian writers, and the recent discovery of Franklin's two ships in 2014 and 2016 has electrified the world. As Atwood notes, "every age has created a Franklin suitable to its needs," even if he was not (as she wryly puts it) the "crunchiest biscuit in the packet." His name, and all that its echoes contain, is of enormous and vital significance, both to the past and to the future of Canada.

Those who speak of Franklin as a "failure" misunderstand the very nature of exploration. It is, inevitably, fraught with risk; indeed it is that risk that grants those who undertake it their heroic status. It's as foolish -- and insulting -- to speak of Franklin as a failure as it would be to use that term for a soldier killed in battle, or taken prisoner. He gave his life -- and, perhaps fortunately, did not live to endure the far greater suffering experienced by his surviving crews. They all gave their lives, that this uncharted realm be charted, and it is their sacrifice which earns our respect.

Throughout the ages, Franklin has been admired -- not just by Joseph Conrad, but by writers such as Dickens, Thoreau, and Verne -- and, most importantly, by those who followed in his footsteps. Those who somehow believe that Amundsen, because first through the passage, deserves a greater share of glory, would do well to read his own words:
"When I was fifteen years old, the works of Sir John Franklin, the great British explorer, fell into my hands. I read them with a fervid fascination which has shaped the whole course of my life. Of all the brave Britishers who for 400 years had given freely of their treasure, courage, and enterprise to dauntless but unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the Northwest Passage, none was braver than Sir John Franklin. "
I am hardly an impartial advocate of course -- I've spent the past 25 years researching and writing about Franklin -- but I do hope that, despite the questions raised as part of the process of commissioning this new Coast Guard vessel, the name will be retained.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Tale of a Nail

Just as those of us obsessed with Franklin's lost expedition were settling in for our nice winter naps, with visions of next year's dives on "Erebus" and "Terror" dancing in our heads, we've been rudely awakened by a fresh scientific study that's making the rounds. Its subject, in fact, is both old and new -- John Hartnell, exhumed from his grave at Beechey Island in 1986, and two samples collected and stored, but not studied until now: one thumbnail and one large toenail. The press stories have tended to vary between thumb and toe in their accounts, but in fact it was both -- and no "clipping" either -- that a team of Canadian scientists used to trace, over a longer period of time than had been possible before, young Hartnell's intake of various chemical elements.

In preparing a voodoo spell, a person's fingernails and toenails are thought to be powerfully efficacious; just so here, science has constructed what the team has dubbed "Hartnell's Time Machine." For, while the visible part of the nail is only of relatively recent growth, the full nail -- from root to tip -- has a longer story to reveal: 19.5 mm in the case of the thumb, 22.5 in that of the toe. Combined, the nails have been used to trace Hartnell's food intake all the way back to June of 1845, just after the ships sailed, through to his death on 6 January 1846 -- nearly seven months. In particular, the team looked at lead, zinc, and copper exposure, as well as at nitrogen stable isotopes. The findings were then compared to a "reference toenail," one associated with a modern individual whose diet included red meat.

The conclusions of the study are fascinating: from the isotopic nitrogen analysis, it was possible to show that, throughout the period, Hartnell consumed no seafood (it's too bad that someone with a knowledge of sailors' eating habits wasn't consulted -- "there needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this"). As to lead, the results, consistent with other more recent studies, suggest that Hartnell's exposure continued, but didn't increase significantly, during the expedition, though it did rise in the last few weeks of his life, possibly due to his having been given extra rations of tinned food, or some of the "wine for the sick" on board (wine was known for lead contamination at this time). It's also possible that weight loss and illness accounted for the higher relative concentrations. Copper was more of a constant, as was zinc -- though in the latter case, it seems that Hartnell began the expedition and finished it with a severe zinc deficiency. This condition would have increased his susceptibility to illnesses, including TB, and thus could have been a factor in his death. Unfortunately, nails from Hartnell's two grave-mates at Beechey were not available for comparison.

A zinc deficiency could also cause other symptoms -- "depression, anxiety, lethargy, impulsivity and irritability," according to the study. The only remedy would have been fresh meat, which we already know was very scarce indeed; the last time any of the crew would have enjoyed any would have been shortly after arrival in Greenland, when oxen brought on the transports were slaughtered. At the same time, it would be too bad if a zinc deficiency were to be taken -- as, unfortunately, it seems to have been in some press accounts -- as the new "single-explanation" theory. The lack of fresh meat, and conditions of the sailors, on board Franklin's ships would have been very similar to other British naval expeditions of the day, none of which suffered the catastrophic losses of Franklin's, and indeed a recent study (one of whose authors was the late William Battersby) suggests that other causes -- accidents, exposure, scurvy, tuberculosis, and other respiratory conditions -- played a far more prominent role, on the whole, in Arctic expeditions of the period generally. So this new study, while certainly welcome, doesn't necessarily change our prevailing understandings.

The curious can consult the full study here -- it's available for purchase, or can be had via the libraries of subscribing research institutions.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Misleading CBC story on Franklin relics

In my news alerts this morning, I found that CBC reporter Dean Beeby has come out with what I feel is a misleading story about the status of the new Franklin relics brought up, or to be brought up, from HMS Erebus and Terror. Beeby, drawing from government documents obtained under the Access to Information act, shows that there was, indeed, some considerable back-and-forth over the status of these relics in the past -- but neglects to mention that the ongoing talks have, in fact, produced broad areas of consensus. And, even when he (accurately) notes that, although Parks Canada had received legal advice that the new relics were not covered by the Nunavut Act, they decided to invite Inuit groups to co-administer their conservation and display, he then repeats the assertion that the UK insists that they are their property, which they don't.  So let's go over the basic facts:

• As items from the navy of a nation, these newly-recovered Franklin relics would have been the unquestioned property of Her Majesty's Government -- but in the 1997 memorandum of understanding between the UK and Canada, the UK transfers all claims in the wrecks and their contents to Canada (an exception being made only for any gold found on the wrecks) as soon as they are positively identified.

• For similar reasons, because a naval vessel is considered the property of the nation under whose flag it sailed, the materials are not covered by the Nunavut Act. And yet, as I've often said here, it is entirely right and just that the GN and relevant Inuit groups take a very active role in determining the disposition of these materials, in which Inuit histories are very much bound up with those of the UK and Canadians generally. Parks Canada agrees, and has taken major steps to create this dialogue and cooperation, and a plan to co-administer them, and yet the impression Beeby gives is that none of this has yet happened.

• Although Beeby implies that it's some sort of injustice that the items will be displayed in the UK prior to being shown in Canada, that's not at all the case. The 2017 exhibition there will come to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau in 2018, and indeed the entire exhibit is being curated by the CMH. While, due to various individual issues, some items on display at one of these exhibits may not be present at the other, the whole thing is being undertaken in the spirit of cooperation, not contention, and fulfills the language of the 1997 memorandum that objects "of special significance to the history of the Royal Navy" be made available to the UK for display. They are, in essence, one exhibition, not two. And, although it will be in the UK during the sesquicentennial year of 2017, that's actually to Canada's benefit, as they will be the centerpiece of a series of events in London, co-ordinated by Canada House, marking this important anniversary there.

• It's important to note that, even with the new co-operation between Parks Canada and the GN and Inuit groups, these new objects require conservation and careful storage prior to, during, and after display. At present, Nunavut does not have any facility capable of these tasks; the official Nunavut Collection at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre is full, and does not have an on-site administrator. The GN has a current agreement with the Canadian Museum of Nature to serve as its repository in the meantime, and it's to there that the Franklin relics would most likely go. Their potential display in Nunavut is certainly desirable, but will require building or leasing new facilities; it's to be hoped that the often-spoken-of heritage centre in Gjoa Haven, once constructed, will have that capacity, and will become a regular stop for Franklin-related tourism.