Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Black Graves of Beechey Island

Photo courtesy of and © 2019 Derbyshire Record Office
Every so often, a discovery is made in the archives that completely upturns our assumptions about the history of the Franklin expedition. For most of the past century and a half, almost all of us have thought of the graves at Beechey Island as white -- whether we've seen the current replacement markers, or photos of the originals in the archives of the NWT or Nunavut, or the scarcer ones of the monuments prior to their initial removal in 1972 (I shared a selection of these in my last post).  The visual identity of the grave markers, indeed, was tied up with our idea of these lonesome white headboards surrounded by a wilderness of white.

It was easy to dismiss or set aside Miertsching's account of the headboards as being black, even when it was echoed by Robert Goodsir -- by his account the first person to stand beside them after Erebus and Terror departed. And yet, thanks to a fortuitous discovery among the Franklin materials at the Derbyshire Record Office, we now have an image that shows -- definitively -- that they were originally black, with the incised lettering in white.

The discovery was made by assistant conservator Clare Mosley, who discovered the photo carefully lain within a volume of "Arctic Scraps"(as in scrapbook) atop two newspaper clippings. These clippings appear to date to the period between June and September of 1851, which might possibly help date the photo. Since the other exposures made at Beechey by Leopold McClintock and Dr. David Walker date to 1858, if the photo is from 1851 it is by far the earliest. Like McClintock's and Walker's, it is a paper positive print made using the Calotype or "Talbotype" process, but its dimensions don't correspond with theirs (since Calotype cameras used a wooden frame to hold the sensitized paper, and all prints were "contact" prints, each camera produces prints of the same size). Research is ongoing to determine whether anything more can be learned about the image from other materials in the archives.

So what does all this mean? For one, it would suggest to me that further examination of the surviving original headboards be made; knowing the original paint scheme should enable us to look for traces of the pigments used. The Royal Navy employed black paint for a number of shipboard uses, and it may be possible to match the chemical profile of any surviving pigment to that of other period painted fixtures. Why and how the markers came to be painted white, and the incised white lettering switched to black, is also unclear. As late as 1972, seems that the three Franklin crew markers still appeared to be black, though Torrington's was now framed in white trim; the actual markers (now part of the Archives of Nunavut) show no outward trace of this scheme (we know this thanks to this photo taken in 1972 by Stuart Hodgson). That photo also shows the "tablet" marker at far left, and the "door" marker with its horizontal crosspiece at far right.

There are still more mysteries, it seems, yet to be probed when it comes to the graves of Beechey Island.

NB: The Derbyshire Record Office is in the midst of a fundraising campaign that I urge all readers of this blog to consider supporting: check out the Lady Jane's Museum Crowdfunder website where you can learn more, and make a contribution to this very worthy effort. Discoveries such as this one are a dramatic example of the enormous value of archival work that is being done at local and regional archives such as the DRO.


  1. I enlarged the Derbeyshire image on my screwen. From left to right- the headboards are marked Braine, Hartnell and Torrington. Even enlarged, I could not make out the smaller white wordings. If this photo is from 1851, is the white wording exactly the same as on the headboards now on the graves?

    1. The reported text is very close indeed -- we're still working on close comparisons -- the Calotype, with both paper negative and positive, has less definition than a Daguerreotype, so details may seem (relatively) blurry.

  2. Crazy to think, that some of Franklin's men were still alive when the 1851 photo was captured.. Still attempting to walk south. Sad really.