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.


  1. Yes ! The name Sir John Franklin should be retained ! To me, those Arctic explorers had one thing in common...the guts to challenge the unknown with whatever means were at their disposal. True pioneers. I salute them !

  2. Having read Berton's book, it formed a great deal of my way of thinking about Franklin for years. Then I began reading other sources and my perceptions began to change. He sailed literally into the unknown and was very close to linking the "unknown" to the known world. Hardly a failure. He had the misfortune to die in pursuit of his quest, which hardly makes him a failure either. All the negative things about the expedition (i.e. cannibalism) came about after he died.
    Reading works such as Woodman's reconstructions brought about new respect for the men of this voyage. Finding the ships demonstrated that the Victory Point message was not the final word. Knowing that these men survived for years in an environment totally new to them is amazing. If anything, it makes the finality of all even more tragic.
    To change the name suggests Franklin is someone to be ashamed of. It shows no respect for the man himself or of the things he actually did accomplish. The die in the pursuit of one's life long quest is something to be honoured, not shunned. It besmirches the struggles of the survivors and makes mockery of their sacrifices. However, I too am biased in my views......
    There are things which happened to the expedition we don't know as yet. There is more to this story than the common misconceptions of arrogant Victorian explorers marching to their death. Hopefully, we will be able to determine all the factors which led to the demise. But who among us would grab a chance to live out a dream? To pursue that prize we have longed for? Franklin and his men took that chance. For that, should be recognised with the naming of the ship. He should not be disgraced in this manner.

  3. Dana, many thanks for your comment; these are good questions. As to how Franklin "played a role" in Canadian History, the best case is that made by Margaret Atwood in her lecture "Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew: "some stories hold a curious fascination both for those who tell them and those who hear them; they are handed down and reworked, and story-tellers come back to them time and time again, approaching them from various angles and discovering new and different meanings each time the story, or a part of it, is given a fresh incarnation. In Canadian literature, one such story is the Franklin expedition. For Americans of course, the word Franklin means Benjamin, but for Canadians it means a disaster. Canadians are fond of a good disaster, especially if it has ice, water, or snow in it. You thought the national flag was about a leaf, didn't you? Look harder. It's where someone got axed in the snow."

    Elsewhere in this talk she touches on issues of nationality and identity, but her overall point is that some histories, some stories, become part of the national cultural fabric -- one can't always choose which ones. And, added to the literary reasons I think Franklin's is one such story, there's the very long list of Canadians -- from Larsen to Gibson to Burwash, from Ranford to Woodman to Kamookak, who have spent a large portion of their lives involved in the search for traces of Franklin.