Monday, December 31, 2018

Arctic Grails

The "Erebus Chalice" at the Chapel of the Snows
In celebration of Sir Michael Palin's knighthood in this year's New Years Honours, I thought it might be an ideal moment to talk about Arctic Grails -- real ones, as opposed to the metaphorical ones that are the subject of books such as Pierre Berton's. Well, "real," in the sense of really existing in the physical world, although -- as with Grail castles, beacons, and secret caves, the magic of these cups is in the eye of their beholders. Perhaps the most notable example is the "Erebus chalice," which may be seen at the Chapel of the Snows at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. There, the visitor is informed, is an ornate silver chalice that was aboard HMS Erebus during James Clark Ross's Antarctic voyage -- only, in fact, it wasn't. During a cleaning in 2006 at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch New Zealand, the silversmith's hallmarks and date marks were examined, and it was discovered that the chalice was made in 1910 -- about seventy years too late for it to have accompanied Ross. It seems that Betty Bird, a descendant of Lieutenant Edward Bird  --who some years previous had gifted an actual Erebus plate to the same museum -- had made the claim that the chalice, too, had been aboard, and the museum didn't choose at the time to investigate its provenance.

Fitzjames's cup
There are other vessels, though, whose association with the polar regions are more secure -- among them the lovely ornate silver cup presented to James Fitzjames by the City of Liverpool in recognition of his having saved a man from drowning there, as well the extraordinarily ornate silver bowl -- including a model of the "Fox" -- presented by Lady Franklin to Leopold McClintock. The bowl remains in family hands, but Fitzjames's cup can be seen today at the Mystic Seaport Museum, where it's part of their version of the "Death in the Ice" exhibition, which runs through April of 2019.  Of course, it's more of a decorative item than a practical one -- it's entirely possible that neither Fitzjames nor anyone has drunk anything from it.

Sutton's cup
There is however, one other cup with a peculiar connection to the Franklin story. Ernest Coleman, who has trod the shores of King William Island in search of traces of the Franklin expedition, and is the author of The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration, made a bit of a splash in the local papers a few years ago when he claimed to have found the Holy Grail -- the actual one! -- in storage at Lincoln Cathedral. This silver cup was recovered from the coffin of Bishop Oliver Sutton, who died in 1299; according to Coleman, Sutton had been designated by the Knights Templar to keep and guard the Grail, and he took his secret -- literally -- to his grave. When I visited the Cathedral a couple of of years ago, I asked the docents if perhaps I could see this artifact, but they just giggled.

Among collectors, there's a term that explains as well as any the attraction of an item -- be it a rhinestone from Elvis Presley's jacket or (as a vendor in the Disney tune "Portabello Road" puts it) "the snipper that clipped old King Edward's cigars" -- we call it "association" value. Sometimes it's easily verified -- as when a book is inscribed from one author to another -- but more often, it rests on a less solid foundation. I can't, I'm sure, be the only kid to have mailed in an order for a coffin-shaped box said to contain soil from Dracula's castle -- and there are many other such things on offer, each with its certificate of authenticity. Maybe that's the most telling thing about Grails -- Arctic and otherwise -- it's where they have been, and who used them, that gives them their value, not any intrinsic worth as silver cups. And if indeed a cup from the Last Supper were to turn up someday, it's  likely to be quite a plain one -- as Indiana Jones puts it in the movie -- "this looks like the cup of a carpenter."

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Lady Franklin's Funeral

Courtesy of Mary Williamson & Rosalind Rawnsley
It was truly the end of an era. Having stepped into the public eye to champion every effort to rescue -- or, failing that, at least to find and recover -- her husband and his Arctic companions, Lady Jane Franklin died on 18 July, 1875 at the age of 83. She was eulogized around the world, perhaps never more poignantly than in the pages of the Chicago Tribune:

Lady Jane Griffith Franklin is dead. Her long waiting and weary watching are ended. Through the darkness of the grave she has passed to that country where the mystery so long hidden in the frozen fastness of the North has already been solved for her ... If there is any truth in the Christian doctrine of immortality beyond the grave, then are Sir John Franklin and Lady Franklin now together. She now understands the mystery, and all is clear. She has found him at last, not in that region of endless night, but in that higher region of endless day, where the sun never sets. There seeming becomes being,  hoping becomes enjoying, expecting becomes realizing, the lost is found.

Yet despite such resounding encomiums, the details of Lady Franklin's funeral service -- the small particulars of which any such event is composed -- have for the most part been wanting. It's only just recently that a first-person account has surfaced, and what an account it is! Its writer was Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, Sir John Franklin's nephew, a longtime champion of preserving and protecting the Lake District, and later one of the founders of the National Trust. He'd grown up in a lively literary scene, with Alfred Lord Tennyson (his second cousin) and Robert Browning among its frequent visitors, and the love of language -- and sharp wit -- of his description of the proceedings make it all the more valuable.

Hardwicke cast a stern and yet comical eye on the assembled mourners, Captain Hobson, who had first found the Victory Point note in 1859, was "a bold faced fine John Bull looking man with a determined face & blue eyes," but Admiral George H. Richards was "shabby and uncomfortable," looking like nothing so much as "a shrivelled Ruskin." Matthew Noble, sculptor of the bust of Franklin used in the Westminster cenotaph, told Hardwicke how pleased he'd been with a sonnet he'd written on seeing the bust in his studio. Bishop Francis Russell Nixon, who conducted the service, was an old friend of the Franklins from their days in Tasmania, and a pioneering photographer -- but in Hardwicke's eyes his countenance was out of joint with his manners; while he "talked very nicely about Colonial Church work," he had "an ugly face, dark penetrating eyes & grizzled beard." Although not mentioned in the letter, it's worth noting that John Powles Cheyne -- explorer, photographer of Franklin relics, and would-be polar balloonist -- was present, as were the Arctic artist Walter May, who had retired from the Navy to pursue his watercolors, along with the eccentric voyager Benjamin Leigh Smith.

But when it came to the funeral itself, Hardwicke's darkly comic treatment demands to be quoted in full:
I got there about one o’clock & found men standing in a close darkened room looking like sick cranes on a wet marshland night. Violent hands were laid on one by men who knew your name & all about you apparently. Your hat was robbed, your name shouted & then after spending an hour and ½ in this black company your name was shouted again, much crape was pinned upon you as soon as certain ties of relationship were acknowledged & after another lapse of time black gloves & hats in crape mourning were put into your hands & you were put into a  coach of decent black ... I got an horrid headache from the motion. ... the long procession of 10 coaches & several carriages reached at length Kensal Green. Up we passed thro’ rows of motley monuments, broken pillars, sad angels, tombs with photographs let in and glazed, with sculptured busts & painted faces It was grotesque but horrible.
The proceedings at the chapel -- which was built with an automatic lift for lowering coffins down to the level of the crypts -- received a still more dramatic treatment:
We alit at the doors of what looked like an Egyptian court in the Crystal Palace, & were ushered thro a mob of enquirers into the vaulted room. The coffin was placed on a dais in the middle – the old Admirals retired on either side. It was sad to see how they felt for her who had bade them venture so much & who was now but as the clay in the street - & we sat down in seats opposite the coffin. The Bishop of Tasmania Bishop Nixon mounted to the pulpit & read impressively the service for the dead. Sophy Cracroft bore up wonderfully. Then the meekfaced little burial clerk gave a signal & lo the mechanic grief was to be outdone by hydraulic machinery, for slowly & surely down went dais coffin & all as it were in a play or in a fairy story thro the ground, down down till it reached the vault beneath thence it was taken by strong hands and hauled off thro a dim taper lighted gallery to its niche where as it were in a pigeon hole all that is left of Lady Franklin lies beside her sister. And those of us who cared were then summoned thro a wicket gate down a winding stair and found men with murky lanterns & sad stolid faces waving us thro the dimness to where they had laid her. We passed pigeonholes with their dead occupants & their names engraven on the iron gratings that close them until here with “Barnetts” above her, piled to the roof, resting in the lowest pigeonhole, was the solid light oak coffin head contrasting strangely in its newness with the rusty weather-eaten black coffins beside & above. 
Photo courtesy Wolfgang Opel
And there she lies still, though the light oak of her coffin has darkened and weathered a bit in the past hundred and forty-three years. When, in 2009, in the company other Arctic friends and scholars, I visited Kensal Green, the underground catacomb was closed due to safety concerns, and it appears that it will not be re-opening anytime soon. I'm especially grateful, therefore, to Wolfgang and Mechtild Opel, who some years ago sent me a photo of her Ladyship's pigeonhole as it appeared when they visited it. You can still make out the oak coffin on the right, resting beside the lead-covered one of her sister Mary Simpkinson on the left.  For now, I can think of no better conclusion than that given in the Tribune:  "She has died poor in this world's goods by reason of her love for her husband, but rich in the world's love and memory by virtue of her peerless heroism."

Monday, December 3, 2018

Paying our respects at Inuit Graves in Groton

Pam Gross at Tookoolito's Grave
I've just come back from the magnificent opening weekend of Mystic Seaport Museum's "Death in the Ice" exhibition this past weekend -- it was a truly memorable occasion, from the evening reception prior to the opening to the welcome ceremony the next morning, hosted by the chiefs of the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, to Marc-AndrĂ© Bernier's marvelous lecture that afternoon updating us on Parks Canada's archaeological team's latest work on the wreck of HMS "Erebus." But for me, the highlight of the weekend was the visit many of us paid to the Inuit graves at the Starr Burying Ground in nearby Groton, These stones recall the names of six Inuit, although only three of them rest there. Two -- "Cudlargo" and "Oosecong" -- had been brought down from the Arctic by local whaling captain Sidney O. Budington, but had died at sea; these names are memorial to their memory. But it's the family of "Hannah" (Tookoolito) and "Joe" (Ebierbing whose presence is most felt here. They, too, had worked for Budington -- indeed, years before, they had been taken to England and had tea with Queen Victoria! -- but their subsequent careers were far more significant.  The two of them worked as translator (Hannah) and guide (Joe) for Charles Francis Hall, the American Franklin searcher who collected more Inuit testimony about his fate than any other man. And, as historian Kenn Harper -- who gave an interpretative lecture for us all at the site -- notes, if Hall was the most significant searcher, then Hannah was the most significant translator and interpreter, whose work enabled the accurate preservation of testimony that would otherwise have been lost forever. Hannah's son and daughter are buried nearby, but her husband -- "Joe" -- is not; he returned to the Arctic as a guide, and his bones lie somewhere in or near Hudson Bay.
Group photo courtesy Logan Zachary
Those of us who came represented many different peoples and perspectives, but it was the delegation from Nunavut for whom this moment was especially meaningful. Pam Gross, the mayor of Cambridge Bay and executive director of the Kitikmeot Heritage Society, along with Ed Devereux, a hamlet administrator from Gjoa Haven, represented the two northern communities closest to the Franklin wreck sites, as well as the Kitikmeot region generally; with them was Alex Stubbing, head of heritage for the Government of Nunavut. Marc André also came with us, as did Steve White, president of the Museum, and Nicholas Bell, Vice President for Curatorial affairs. Karen Ryan, the lead curator for the "Death in the Ice" exhibit at all its locations, Franklin researcher Russ Taichman, and myself rounded out the group. We are all of us indebted to Kenn Harper for his moving talk about the graves and their history, and to the staff of the Mystic Seaport Museum for bringing us all together at a place where all our histories so richly resonate.