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. 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!

1 comment:

  1. Very late to this comment as well, as I navigate through more posts of your fantastic blog - but I can't help but offer one comment, though hardly any may see it.

    I think it is hard to argue with the assumption that Crozier and Fitzjames opting to keep Sir John's body on board either of the ships is extremely unlikely. Burial - on see or land - is the overwhelming likelihood.

    I do think a sea burial is perhaps more likely than you speculate, though we lack enough information to be more specific. A land burial *would* be preferred by the crews and officers, all things being equal, no question, and would justify some effort and pains. Still, such an undertaking (no pun intended) would be no small affair: a trek of a sizable party of men over 30km of pack ice hauling the coffin and supplies on sledges, navigating around what were likely sizable pressure ridges and of course what had to be a daunting shore ice ride-up - they would have full details of just how bad from Lt. Gore's sledging trip two weeks before. Even assuming good weather, this could have been a round trip of up to a couple weeks, depending on how bad the pack surface terrain was. It would have been no trivial undertaking, though perhaps the balance could be tipped by making it part of a sledging party heading further west or south in search of late-forming leads.

    Set against that, the decision would have to weigh just how thick the ice was around the ships at that point - something we also don't know.

    Given that the crew was presumably still in mostly fair health and that cold June or no, and that the weather was *presumably* at least less unfavorable than it would have been for most of the year, I suspect the odds favor a burial on KWI's littoral, perhaps fittingly on Franklin Point. Certainly this is the archaeologist's hope! But I fear it may have been a close call, however much Sir John's officers surely wished to do him full honors.