Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Sir John Franklin's Tomb

Drawing by Danny Aaluk for Louie Kamookak
For some, it's even more of an 'Arctic Grail' than Franklin's ships, and with Erebus and Terror found, it's the one thing that has evaded searchers the longest: the fabled tomb of Sir John Franklin. Like the ships, there are stories in the recorded Inuit testimony about such a place, a stone vault covered over with two layers of large flat stones, near which a tall pole had stood before it was bitten or broken off by a polar bear.

My late friend Louie Kamookak, whose work on Inuit traditional knowledge has been such a significant part of the many new discoveries made in the past few years, had hoped to make a fresh search for this storied vault in the summer of 2018 -- a search that, alas, is not to be -- but I know that others will take up the cause and carry on. Some years ago, he asked Gjoa Haven artist Danny Aaluk to draw an image of this vault as it was described; in Louie's version, the post may have been the vertical part of a wooden cross (see above), though in other reconstructions it's been imagined as a flagpole.

Tom Gross, who accompanied Dave Woodman on several of his "Project Supunger" searches (Supunger or See-pun-ger is the Inuk whose stories of a stone vault, told to Charles Francis Hall, started it all), has searched nearly every year, and hopes to return this summer as well, and several other parties will be in the area as well. Much depends on good planning (getting all the needed permits from the Government of Nunavut), good weather, and good luck -- but there's no reason that this might not be the year that the site is located. The short searching season, and the uniformity of the flat, rocky, barren land are obstacles -- but surely, with enough effort, the land can yield more of its secrets.

I wish Tom and everyone else all the best in their endeavors. And, knowing how widely the Franklin story is now known -- much more so in the wake of AMC's "The Terror" series -- I thought it might be useful to place some of the original testimony and accounts here. I've created a separate page for the Inuit testimony itself, and would also note the following frequently-asked questions/assumptions:
• Might not Sir John have been "buried at sea"? Other commanders were given this kind of burial, but given Franklin's importance -- and the fact that, just to get to the "sea" his crews would have had to blast a hole in the ice -- this seems to be unlikely. His men may at the time have cherished the idea of returning his remains to England, which also augurs for a land burial. 
• Might Franklin have been preserved on board, either in a keg of rum a là Nelson, or in a coffin? Might he even be the heavy man with the "long teeth"? Either of these seems to me very unlikely; the preservation of Nelson was an exigency demanded by the warm weather and length of journey home, which was both known and possible; Franklin's men faced a far longer and more uncertain haul. And, even with the cold, a body kept on board ship would have decomposed; two of the Beechey burials show signs of this, and their only wait was for coffin and grave -- it's hard to imagine Franklin's men keeping a moldering corpse on board for a year or more.
• Since Sir John Franklin died on June 11th, 1847, while his ships were still beset northwest of Cape Felix (the northern tip of King William Island), the assumption has generally been that his grave or tomb would be near here. There are signs of a camp in this area, one that was occupied for some time, or (perhaps) repeatedly over more than one summer; this would surely have been the most convenient place for a burial. 
• Some, however, regard Supunger's testimony as possibly misleading -- he was only 14 years old at the time, and may have mistaken the coast of Erebus Bay for the northern limit of King William -- if so, the argument goes, Franklin's tomb might be here instead. 
• While Franklin's body and his personal effects would certainly be of extraordinary interest, the story of a stone vault is also mixed up with that of a vault constructed with Inuit witnesses, and sealed with concrete (something wet that when it dried became "all the same stone." Both this vault, described in the so-called Peter Bayne story, and the tomb found by Supunger and his uncle, have been supposed to conatin written records or logs of the expedition, a prospect which -- for many -- is even more exciting than that of a corpse!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The man with chains attached to his ears ...

Many of those who  watched the final episode of AMC's "The Terror" were puzzled -- or horrified -- by the scene in which Captain Crozier finds Lieutenant Little -- or what's left of him -- his face festooned with tiny gold chains. This detail, so strange and haunting in the show, is in fact drawn directly from the testimony of Inuit who saw the bodies of Franklin's men. The sight of skeletons with gold chains about their necks was reported by multiple witnesses, both those who spoke with Charles Francis Hall in the 1860's, as well as others who spoke with Schwatka nearly twenty years later. What could this mean? Were these just decorative jewelry items worn by the men, or was there some more sinister explanation for them?

An Inuit woman who spoke with Hall told what Dave Woodman calls "one of the most powerful of all Inuit remembrances":
[An old woman] and her husband went to a big tent not very far from Neitchille, and among the frozen mass of human bones and bodies that were lying around in it she saw one Kob-lu-na body that had a bright white (probably silver) chain around the neck. She knew at once what the chain was for, as some of the other Neitchille Innuits had just come into possession of several watches and chains, which she saw.The body of this man was lying on one side, and was half imbedded in solid ice from head to feet. The way the chain was about the neck and running down one side of the body indicated that the watch was beneath it; and therefore, to get at the watch, she found a difficult and disagreeable task before her. Neither she nor her husband had any instrument with them that they would use for any such purpose as was desired; therefore, while the husband was seeking around, she procured a heavy sharp stone, and with this chipped away the ice from all round the body till it was released ... [The woman] could never forget the dreadful, fearful feelings she had all the time while engaged doing this; for, besides the tent being filled with frozen corpses - some entire and others mutilated by some of the starving companions, who had cut off much of the flesh with their knives and hatchets and eaten it - this man who had the watch she sought seemed to her to have been the last that died, and his face was just as though he was only asleep. All the while she was at work breaking the ice near the head, especially the ice about the face, she felt very bad, and for this reason had to stop several times. She was very careful not to touch any part of the body while pounding with the sharp stone. At last, after having pounded away the ice from around and under the body, her husband helped her to lift it out of its icy bed. Still she was troubled to get the watch from the frozen garments with which the body was completely dressed.
Those who have at times accused the Inuit of a want of feeling in recovering items from Franklin's men would do well to read that passage! Still, the idea of many men wearing watches around their necks sounds odd to us today: why wouldn't they be kept in pockets -- why around the neck? And why so many? And yet, if one sifts through all the testimony, it seems that watches were fairly ubiquitous; Hall heard multiple witnesses who echoed stories of of "watches found in the tent, found there in some of the clothes that covered some of the skeletons, some with chains knotted around the necks of the skeletons."

Frederick Schwatka heard such tales as well, in particular from a woman named “Ogzeuckjeuwock," who described the curious adornment one of one man who was found “with the flesh on.” This man “had a gold chain fastened to gold ear-rings, and a gold hunting-case watch with engine-turned engravings attached to the chain, and hanging down about the waist.[W]hen he pulled the chain it pulled the head up by the ears." Schwatka's companion Heinrich Klutschak similarly recorded “he wore ear-rings and a watch fastened to them (the ear rings) by means of a chain," though it seems that the nature of these adornments was the subject of some debate.

As my late friend Garth Walpole noted in his Relics of the Franklin Expedition:
It appears that that the [Inuit] statements had been forcibly challenged by Schwatka, Gilder and Klutschak. Gilder thought it particularly odd and tried to account for it. He believed that although the statement itself was peculiar, it was given in good faith and so concluded that either the chain had somehow become attached to the ears or he was just eccentric and liked to wear his watch in this fashion (Gilder 2006:73). The description given appears to be indicative of part of a pocket watch, but if the body was that of “Doktuk,” then the adornment may have been a stethoscope. If it was hanging around his neck, it may have looked as though it was attached to his ears. One could reasonably suppose that as a doctor, he may have felt it his duty to check the life signs of those with him; if not theirs then his own? All of the various accounts mention in association to the adornments a ring worn by the individual. While Klutschak’s account simply stated that the individual “wore a ring on his finger,” Schwatka and Gilder both recorded that it was a “gold ring found on the ring finger of the right hand” and, like the books, it too was given to the children and lost.
We may never know the precise significance of these golden accoutrements, but their presence is undeniable. The idea that the man with the "flesh on" may have been a doctor certainly adds pathos to possibility, and inevitably makes me think of Harry Goodsir, so memorably brought back to life by Paul Ready in the AMC series. The flexible-tube stethoscope had only been invented in 1840, but our progressive, forward-looking surgeon naturalist would, it seems, surely have been one of its early adopters. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Inuit cast of AMC's "The Terror"

Nive Nielsen and Johnny Issaluk on set
One of the best things about AMC's "The Terror" is that, unlike many other film and televisions productions, they made a very conscious decision to cast Inuit in Inuit roles. This might seem the obvious choice, but so many others have cast Japanese, Mongolian, or even Mexican-American actors in Inuit roles over the past decades, that it breaks away powerfully from a long Hollywood tradition.  Sadly enough, the last time all Inuit were cast in all Inuit roles by a major studio may well have been in 1911, when "The Way of the Eskimo" -- a film since lost -- was made, starring Nancy Columbia, her mother Esther Eneutseak and other Labrador Inuit (Nancy was also credited as the author of the film's scenario).

Great praise, and rightly so, has been heaped upon Nive Nielsen for her role as "Lady Silence." There was a broad and early effort to find and cast an Inuk in this role. Their search led them to Nielsen, who was at the time on tour with her band, Nive & the Deer Children; her preliminary auditions were conducted via Skype! Her role is arguably the most central one next to those of the ships' commanding officers, and stretches from the beginning to the end of the series. Her performance is all the more remarkable since from episode six onwards, she must be silent, not only in name, and convey all her thoughts and feelings solely through her face and gestures.

A newcomer to southerly audiences, Johnny Issaluk is well-known in Nunavut, not only for his previous acting roles in films such as Kajuktalik and Two Lovers and a Bear, but also for his appearance on widely-circulated posters advocating good health and avoiding alcohol and cigarettes. He also serves as an advisor to the 2014-2018 Sedna Epic Expedition, as well as with the Students On Ice Foundation, which brings young people age 14-18 up to the Arctic. Although his character is not named -- he's listed in the credits simply as "Netsilik Hunter" -- his presence in both the opening and closing scenes of the series serves as a powerful bookend, a reminder that the men of the Franklin expedition were traveling through a land well-known to the Inuit, who had lived and hunted there for thousands of years, and live there still.

Kotierk as Kumaglak in Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
Inuit actors also appear in other smaller but significant roles: Igloolik resident Apayata Kotierk, known for playing the shaman Kumaglak in Zacharias Kunuk's award-winning 2001 film Atanarjuat, is cast in a similar role in The Terror as Lady Silence's father, the angakkuq who originally summons the "Tuunbaq" (more properly, tuurngaq) spirit that, disconnected from its master when the shaman dies, attacks Franklin's men. And Vinnie Karetak, known for both serious and comic work -- his comedy show Qanurli? is the first of its kind in Inuktitut -- plays "Koveyook," the leader of the small band of Inuit who give seal meat to the famished Lieutenant Irving.

Vinnie Karetak (2nd from left), with Ronan Raferty as Lieutenant John Irving


Taken together, the performances of these Inuit cast members give "The Terror" a degree of authenticity and drama that no other major-network television series has had, and prove that, the next time a major production comes calling, there will be no excuse not to hire Inuit actors for Inuit roles.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

One million views!

It's been a long road since that day, on February 20th of 2009, when I first launched this Visions of the North blog. So much has happened since then, including the discovery of both of Sir John Franklin's long-lost ships. At some point late last night, the odometer turned over the one million mark. On the graph, you can see the surge in traffic that corresponds with each event -- with HMS Terror making an even bigger splash than HMS Erebus. But the biggest splash of all, it seems, coincides with AMC's "The Terror," which has brought more fresh interest in the Franklin story than the actual ships themselves! Let's hope that, with another search season for Parks Canada, Michael Palin's upcoming Erebus: The Story of a Ship, and the opening of the first US installation of the "Death of the Ice" exhibit at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, that this interest will continue to grow! With thanks to everyone who stopped by.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Franklin Expedition Documentaries

Inspired by the current AMC television series "The Terror," based on Dan Simmons' novel of the same name, many viewers have been seeking more information about the actual histories of the Franklin Expedition. I've posted here before with some book recommendations, but for those who would rather -- or in addition -- watch a documentary film, there are quite a few to choose from. Since 1988, in fact, there have been no fewer than eight, and with the discovery of HMS Terror in 2016, there are probably more to come. So here's an annotated list, with links to online versions wherever those are available.


1988 NOVA: Buried in Ice -- The Franklin Expedition This first of all Franklin documentaries focuses on the exhumations of the three men of the expedition buried at Beechey Island, with the participation of archaeologist Owen Beattie and writer/historian John Geiger, co-authors of Frozen in Time. It's a dramatic story, well told, and one that still exercises a nearly magnetic pull on all who have taken up an interest in the Franklin story since then.




1994 CBC, "The Mysterious Franklin Disappearance" This is more of a mini-news-feature than a full documentary, but it features interviews with many key figures, among them Rudy Wiebe, Pierre Berton, Margaret Atwood, and Barry Ranford, the man whose search in 1993 uncovered one of the key archaeological sites on land, which became the source of inavluable new evidence about cannibalism, lead poisoning, and scurvy.

2001 History Channel: Arctic Tomb (unavailable online) A more tradional long-format documentary, made in the early days of the History Channel when it was still working to make a name for itself, it's the first to feature historical re-enactments (the actor who plays Franklin seems perfectly to capture his mild-mannered, religiously sincere persona). Numerous Franklin experts of the day, among them the late Chauncey Loomis and Louie Kamookak, along with Ralph Lloyd-Jones add depth to the presentation. It's only available via a scarce VHS tape these days, though a digital copy is probably out there somewhere.


2005 NOVA: Arctic Passage -- Prisoners of the Ice This is the documentary I first appeared in, and probably the biggest-budget effort yet made to tell the Franklin story. The first half of a two-hour two parter (the second recounts Roald Amundsen's achievement of the Passage), it also features Francis Spufford, Benedict Allen, Anne Keenleyside, and the late Roy "Fritz" Koerner, whose ice core studies suggested Franklin sailed at a period of unusually cold weather. Both the re-enactments and some of the on-camera experts, such as myself, were shot on location on Beechey Island and near the hamlet of Gjoa Haven on King William Island.


2005 Crossing the Line Pictures: Franklin's Lost Expedition. Produced by the Irish documentarian John Murray, this film comes closest to capturing the feeling of the Franklin search in the years before either ship was found. Dave Woodman, whose work on Inuit testimony and tireless work on land, is a featured interviewee, as we see scenes from the Irish-Canadian Franklin Search Expedition, which Murray co-sponsored. Andrew Lambert is our on-camera expert, and there are some excellent segments, including my favorite: a scene where muscular new RCMP recruits try dragging a fully-loaded Franklin-era sledge across a frozen lake in Saskatchewan; by the end of the day, they're utterly exhausted and barely able to stumble into the nearest Tim Horton's.


2008 John Walker's Passage (clip only) Passage is a fascinating hybrid -- in parts, a magnificently acted and realized dramatization of Dr. John Rae's bringing of Inuit testimony about cannibalism back to Britain, and in part a sort of making-of documentary, including discussions and debates within which modern figures -- Ken McGoogan, Tagak Curley, Maria Pisa Casarini, Ernie Coleman, and John Muir -- add to the historical context and show why and how this story matters. The appearance of Charles Dickens's great-great-grandson near the end leads to a truly memorable scene.


2014 Mill Creek: The Northwest Passage: The Last Great Frontier (clip only). A modest film done mostly using archival imagery and interviews, this was my second go-round in the documentary lens. It's well-done overall, though it misses some of the depth it could have had with location footage and a wider array of speakers.


2015 NOVA: Arctic Ghost Ship. This documentary, interestingly, was originally directed by Andrew Gregg, who was the photographer and videographer for the 1994 CBC segment. It was re-edited, however for the UK and US markets, so not all the same segments have all the same on-camera experts. Huw Lewis-Jones appears throughout all three, but Louie Kamookak only in the US version; the Canadian edit makes good use of Ken McGoogan's expertise. I served as a behind-the-scenes consultant on this version, the first to include the finding of HMS "Erebus" in 2014, and I can say that all three versions are quite good!