Saturday, October 28, 2017

Anchors aweigh ... or not?

The image at left, recently released by Parks Canada, is captioned "Anchors still in their sailing position on the port stern quarter of HMS Terror." Earlier imagery showing an anchor cable (rope) played out from the ship had led some to think that the ship might have been at anchor, but as it turns out, the line had simply played out from the windlass and the anchor was still stowed. Had the ship been at anchor, that would have been evidence that, at least at some point, it had been re-piloted, since dropping or weighing anchor are things that can only be done if the ship is under someone's command, and a conscious decision and order has been made to do so.

Nineteenth-century Inuit evidence as regards the "Terror" is far more scarce than that concerning "Erebus," and for good reason -- the former ship sank quickly, in deep water, and "nothing was obtained from her," whereas the latter was, for many years, a go-to site for Inuit seeking wood and other valuable things. It's possible that the "Erebus" was even beached for a time, before sinking, and even after she sank, wood and other precious things washed up on shore. The Inuit had no such luck with "Terror" --which is good news for Parks's underwater archaeologists, although it seems that, for now, work will focus on the more damaged and fragile flagship of Franklin's expedition.

All of these matters speak to a central question: was either of the ships piloted to its final location? If so, an argument can be made that they completed the final link of the Northwest Passage (albeit that some feel that a discovery that the discoverer does not live to report should not be counted). Indeed, the same argument could be made of the survivors on land, since they reached and passed the location of Dease and Simpson's cairn (again, we know this from Inuit testimony, and again the men did not live to tell their tale). What could such evidence then be?

The possibility of the ships having drifted can't be entirely dismissed, however unlikely. Inuit testimony tells us that "Erebus" had been re-inhabited by a small group of perhaps four men, but it's not clear whether they arrived at her final location aboard, or simply found and used the vessel as a shelter for a season. The possibility is still less for "Terror," since drifting ships rarely send themselves into a convenient harbor, and indeed the general drift path of the ice would have taken southeast them along the same route as "Erebus," whereas "Terror" took a turn to the eastward. Some drifting ice has however -- on occasion -- followed a similar route, so such a course can't be entirely eliminated.

I suspect that the only way to really ascertain whether either ship was piloted would be to find a clear indication in writing. Even if manned by a skeleton crew, it would be contrary to all the training and habit of the Royal Navy to steer a ship and keep no log, no record, of its voyage. Barring the discovery of such a log, even a single dated document with some indication later than that in the Victory Point note saying the ships had been deserted would make the case for piloting much likelier, though it couldn't -- unless the writing specifically addressed what had happened -- eliminate the possibility that some men had simply re-occupied the vessel. And, in either case, it seems clear that, for at least some period following the initial abandonment, the ships drifted without guidance, and that such drift might affect how some people assessed the accomplishment of that journey.

Now that the question of national ownership has been resolved, and now that full cooperation and co-management of the finds with Inuit organizations and local communities are in place, the odds are that we will have some kind of answer to that central question. It's quite possible, though, that the answer may be ambigious or incomplete; in some areas of the Franklin story, we may simply have to learn to "let the mystery be."

Friday, October 27, 2017

Franklin searchers of the Month: Operation Northern Quest

Courtesy Royal Canadian Regiment Museum at Wolseley Barracks, London ON
Although it was conduced by the famed Royal Canadian Regiment, and in many ways was among the most elaborately-planned and ambitious of Franklin searches, few people today know much about what was known as "Operation Northern Quest," which took place in 1973. A few footnotes here and there, along with a long-forgotten feature article in (of all places) Canadian Motorist magazine, were all that were publicly known about it. Now, with the help of the Regimental museum, I'm finally able to share with readers of this blog some details of the operation, which included the identification and removal of skeletal remains of a member of Franklin's expedition.

According to an article in Pro Patria, the regiment's official journal, the aim of ONQ was two-fold: "first, to practice skills valuable for the infanteer in the harsh environment of the Far North" and secondly "to uncover useful information about the fate of the Sir John Franklin expedition." That it undoubtedly did, including a nearly-complete skeleton discovered by Corporal Dave Willard "while taking a break only five miles from our firm base." The finds were all mapped, but unfortunately the map -- a detail of which is shown here -- does not say anything about what was found, with the exception of the skeleton. Stars simply mark "19th Century Findings." including one tantalizingly located at the back of Terror Bay. All the findings were to be deposited at the Museum of Man, but unfortunately the Canadian Museum of History -- today's successor to that institution -- has no records of them.

"Joe," in situ, courtesy RCR Museum
The skeleton was found not far east of Gladman Point, and indeed may be one of those previously observed by earlier searchers, such as Hobson, McClintock, or "Paddy" Gibson. The expedition's journal offers a fairly detailed description of the find:
[We] found bones protruding from the ground by a large rock. A quick check showed this to be the bones of a large man; too large for an Eskimo. We uncovered as much of the skeleton as we could without unduly disturbing things. We planned on returning tomorrow morning with the metal detector and shovel. Eddy said he knew where a sheet of plywood could be located on the beach to put the bones on. The skeleton had been covered by several inches of moss and rocks. The skull was not visible to us but the jawbone was there. 
It was not, needless to say, a careful archaeological procedure -- but the bones were gathered up on the plank, and brought back to the Museum of Man. The estimated height of the individual, from the bones, was six feet, and horn and bone buttons were found with it, the combination of which is consistent with the Franklin period (according to the Bertulli report on NgLj-2, four-holed black bone buttons were fading from use in the 1840's; vegetable ivory bones were just being introduced then). The men jovially nicknamed the skeleton "Joe," and searched about for a other artifacts, but found none. It's also noteworthy that the skeleton appears to have been placed in a sort of stone-lined grave, which would make it the furthest-south full burial managed by the survivors of Franklin's crews.

Outposts were established at Terror Bay and Douglas Bay -- two known sites of Franklin-era remains -- and apparently items were found at both; the reports unfortunately don't seem to include a listing of what was found where. One find was described as "a badly disintegrated ship's rudder held together by wooden pegs" -- how intriguing that is, and how much more it could tell us if its exact location were known. Might it have been at Terror Bay? Did the party at Douglas Bay disturb the pile of skulls reburied there by "Paddy" Gibson, and might that be why they were missing when Owen Beattie and Jim Savelle went looking for them in 1981?

I'm hopeful that publicizing this expedition might lead, as it has in other cases, to more information from persons who participated in it, or their friends of families.  If any such are reading this, I would be very happy indeed to hear from them.

[UPDATE: According to a 1974 article in the Sentinel, "Joe" may in fact have been reburied rather than brought to Ottawa. I'll continue researching the matter.]

Monday, October 23, 2017

Franklin's Ships now Canada's

Approximate sites of Erebus and Terror
With a dramatic announcement, British Defence Minister Sir Michael Fallon declared that Sir John Franklin's ships, HMS "Erebus" and "Terror" would shortly be officially given to Canada, with the UK presumably abandoning all salvage rights that would have been its perogative, since the naval vessels of all nations (unlike private or commercial ships) normally remain the property of that nation. It's a welcome development, as it at last removes the veil of uncertainty that had recently descended once more on these fabled ships, despite a 1997 Memorandum of Agreement (which you can read in full here) stating that the UK would abandon or delegate these same rights, "with the exception of those items of particular historical significance to the Royal Navy."

The earlier agreement was somewhat ambigious about these items -- would they be brought to the UK and loaned for display, or kept permanently? This new announcement says that only a "small sample" of items will be retained, but these (presumably) permanently. I have checked with my contacts at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but they had no further information on which items these might be; it's quite possible that the National Museum of the Royal Navy -- mentioned in the announcement -- might be the intended repository. I hope that this small sample will be discrete and remain so; it would be a shame if, every time an artifact is brought up from one of the ships, a fresh debate had to take place over how "significant" it was.

There is another crucial part of this news which, as is their wont, many press outlets have ignored -- which is that this announcement will have no effect on the agreements already made with the Franklin Advisory Committee, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, the Inuit Heritage Trust, and the Government of Nunavut. Parks Canada has issued a press release, which reads in part:
The Government of Canada recognizes the invaluable contributions of Inuit of Nunavut, the Government of Nunavut, and all partners in the search and discovery of the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. Most importantly, the discoveries would not have been possible without the support, guidance, advice and traditional and modern knowledge shared so generously by Inuit of Nunavut.
Frank Pederson, who respresents the KIA and chairs the Franklin Advisory Committee, had this to say:
I am very pleased by the announcement today from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on the intent to gift the Franklin wrecks to Canada. This exceptional gift will allow for the joint ownership of the artifacts by Inuit and Canada, as stipulated in the Nunavut Agreement. We look forward to working with Parks Canada on the future management of the Wrecks of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site and helping to protect and present these wrecks and artifacts to tell the story where these events took place.
So it is good news all around -- now that these issues are settled, we have every reason to expect much good work, and continued co-operation and respect between Parks Canada and Inuit organizations, will continue througout the many years it will take to learn all these storied vessels have to teach us.