Wednesday, September 25, 2019

New artifacts from HMS Erebus

Photo courtesy Hailey Aklah Nalungiaq Okpik
We're all aware of the fantastic new video from below the decks of HMS Terror -- but this year, Parks Canada's archaeologists also enjoyed a remarkably long window for dives on HMS Erebus. As she's in much more shallow water, and subject to ongoing forces of tides and currents, work on Erebus has been given a priority, with the recovery of artifacts proceeding along much more urgent lines. This is beacuse, for archaeologists, context is everything; it's not about bringing things up so much as it is about learning from where things are. If the ship, or parts of it, are moving or being damaged, the context will be destroyed with it, and there's no way to recover that lost knowledge.

Parks Canada hasn't yet given out any official press account of the items brought up from the Erebus. Fortunately, thanks to Hailey Aklah Nalungiaq Okpik and other friends in Gjoa Haven, along with careful work by Logan Zachary and many other members of the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group, we've been able to see some of the items that were shown to the community, and learn something about their context ourselves. Seen above, for instance, is a Whampoa pattern meat strainer plate, which was found in a portside officer's cabin, probably the Mate's. At that same location were found a button, a pencil, a wooden handle, and a regular Whampoa pattern plate. At another location, the Officers' Mess Room, a bottle, apparently intact, was recovered.

Some items, though fascinating, weren't tagged with a visible label in the photos; these include a pair of tongs (probably meant for sugar), a ceramic ink bottle, and a boot-brush missing its bristles. Also recovered were a leather boot sole, a glass decanter, and a liquor bottle, quite possibly the same as seen in Okpik's photograph (right). It's also noteworthy that the numbers of the tags are well into triple digits, which suggests that, well beyond the items which were displayed in Gjoa Haven, there is much, much more to come! It's tantalizing to wonder what other wonders await -- but at least for now we have a sample to savor. One thing is for certain: the success of the Parks team during this extraordinary season more than makes up for last year's truncated one, and will surely add a vital new chapter to what we know of the men whose lives were lived aboard both HMS Terror and HMS Erebus.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Hand of Crozier?

Fragments enhanced by Logan Zachary
A guest post by Regina Koellner

When my fellow researcher and member of the "Remembering the Franklin Expedition" Facebook group Alison Freebairn discovered the Beechey paper treasure in the National Archive (see the previous blog post) I was coasting along Norway in a Hurtgruten ship and could only look at the scraps with my phone. They looked interesting, and some of the contents made me think of magnetic observations, but every time I tried to zoom in on one of the photos it took ages -- Internet reception along the Norwegian coast can be quite poor when you leave the coast for the open sea. So I thought I would look at them on the computer when I got home, which had to be postponed – it seemed that, every evening, something else came up. It was only when I saw her lovely guest post yesterday that I finally decided to take a casual flick through the images, on the bus on the way to work.

These papers, found by Franklin searchers in 1850-51 on Beechey Island are always described as one scrap of paper in Fitzjames's handwriting most likely having to do with magnetic observations, along with some newspaper articles. One of the scraps is clearly in James Fitzjames's somewhat unruly handwriting but when I came to the other paper (or rather two pieces that clearly belong together) I felt a sudden sense of vertigo -- it was as if Francis Crozier was waving at me from the depths of my phone. It was quite surreal. I know his handwriting pretty well as I’ve spent two years transcribing every scrap written by him that I could find across the world. So even without a direct comparison on the bus I thought it was highly possible this was written by him; I sent Russell, Alison and Logan Zachary, another fellow researcher and digital wizard, my thoughts.

After a long day at work itching to get home I finally started to compare handwriting samples by Fitzjames and Crozier with the pieces of paper. I think it is pretty obvious that the two parts that deal with what I think are instructions for erecting a portable observatory are not written by the same person that wrote about observations in 2.5 minute intervals (which, by the way, points towards the time consuming observations of several delicate instruments on an international magnetic term date – a quite interesting fact. These term days happened every month for the remainder of 1845; the first feasible for the Franklin Expedition was the one on August 29th).

The other scrap – or rather two scraps – is in my eyes part of instructions on how to put up one of the portable observatories which were carried by each ship and put on shore whenever possible. The comparison of the handwriting samples certainly rules out Fitzjames as the writer, and in my opinion it looks very similar to Crozier's hand. At left is a comparison of the two hands. And above right, a comparison by Logan Zachary who thinks that we can probably see the reminder of Crozier's signature which I think is very possible indeed.

NEXT: The significance of Crozier's writing on this document.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Lost and found: the Beechey Island papers

A guest post by Alison Freebairn

It was a ridiculous dream. “I’m going to the National Archives in London to look for some papers that have been missing for 168 years,” I told friends. “I’ll go through a pile of musty old ledgers line by line and, just when I’m starting to lose hope, I’ll turn over a page and that’s when I’ll see them.”

Of course, nobody believed that this would happen, least of all me. And we were all correct: I didn’t find the specific missing papers I had been looking for. But I found something else.

I’d never visited the National Archives before. But in July 2019, W. Gillies Ross published Hunters on the Track, and I realised that not all of the 1850-51 search expedition journals had been returned to their authors following the conclusion of the Arctic Committee investigation. I weighed up the probability that these papers still lurked in a ledger somewhere in Kew, ordered every record relating to those specific search years, and started to go through them page by page. This is how I spend all my holidays: sitting in silence and reverence with the history that I love.

A few hours into my first day, I turned a page in an unpromising-looking collection of letters and press cuttings and saw two beautiful pieces of paper that I had read about but had never seen before: a colourfully-treated scrap with Captain James Fitzjames’ writing on it, and a far smaller piece marked “Mr M’Donald” in pencil. I took a photo, and sent it to my Franklin research partner Logan Zachary, who was travelling with me via web chat. I told him: “I’m having an emotion”. I turned another page, and then another, and then I started to have ALL the emotions.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. So many pieces of paper, all clearly identified as having been picked up on Beechey Island by Captains William Penny, Erasmus Ommanney, Horatio Austin and other members of the search teams in August 1850. I kept turning pages. Each one contained a Beechey scrap. A second page in Fitzjames’ hand: was that from a journal? A ragged wrapper from a chocolate bar. A long strip, opalescent with age, and yet the words ‘To be called’ are still visible. A few lines of faded calculations elsewhere. A torn piece of brown wrapping paper with large, incomplete lettering. Small fragments of newspaper; a larger fragment of newspaper, substantial enough for me to very gently open by hand. I was touching a newspaper that had travelled to Beechey Island on HMS Erebus or HMS Terror and had probably been read by the entire ships’ companies several times over. The room started to sway around me.

I sent all the photos to my research partner and went outside to sit by the pond and try to clear my head. A swan stared at me, balefully. I smiled at it, foolishly.

Over the next 48 hours, we ransacked the Remembering the Franklin Expedition group’s rich archive of posts for any reference to papers found on Beechey. Books were consulted. The  internet was turned upside down and given a good shake. We brought in Allison Lane and John Wilson, RtFE’s experts on Harry Goodsir and James Fitzjames respectively.

I was hoping that someone – anyone – would say: “Oh, those old things. Obvious hoax. John Bertie Cator got into the rum ration and decided to play a joke on Captain Austin.” But nobody did. And then I got in touch with Russell Potter. Russell was in the Arctic, because of course he was. This caused some initial communication problems:

[Scene: domestic, somewhere on the west coast of Scotland] 
My mother: “Why isn’t that man replying to your email? Doesn’t he know how important this is?”
Me: “Mum, he’s on an icebreaker in the Canadian Arctic.”
My mother: “Well, that’s no excuse.” 
[Scene ends]
Russell replied as soon as he could. I had said: “I wouldn’t be trying to contact you if I didn’t think this was really important.” We spoke, and I had confirmation that, yes, this was really important. And at that moment, everything changed.

Identified as a page from John Stephens's Incidents of travel
 in Egypt, Arabia, Petræa, and the Holy Land (1838)
Somewhere along the path, the 1850 discovery and recovery of the Fitzjames/Mr M’Donald/To Be Called fragments may have slipped below the collective radar of Franklin researchers. I can only speak for myself when I say that, yes, I was aware that some scraps had once been found on Beechey Island, but I thought that they must have been lost long ago or had fallen into private hands – which can sometimes feel like the same thing.

But now here we all are most unexpectedly, with a little more knowledge than we had three weeks ago, and with a lot more Franklin relics.

At this stage, it’s impossible to know the stories they can tell us, and the full significance of the papers may take years to unpack, analyse, and set in context. But this find, following on from RtFE members’ identification of the Beechey Anvil Block last year, gives continued hope that more traces of the Franklin Expedition are still out there somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered.  

And those specific missing papers I was looking for in Kew? Well, they’re still missing. But I will find them: I just need to keep searching. 

Friday, September 6, 2019

Southward, Ho!

Sunset in Ulukhaktok
I'm writing this from the beautiful hamlet of Ulukhaktok N.W.T., the final stop on this year's voyage through the Northwest Passage. Later this afternoon, I'll be getting on the first of several flights that will take me to Kugluktuk, Yellowknife, Vancouver, Boston, and finally home to Rhode Island! The people here have been very friendly and welcoming, and we were lucky that one of my fellow expedition team members had brought some caribou meat that she'd picked up in Cambridge Bay, so we had a lovely final dinner last evening. In just a few days, all the members of the expedition team I worked with will be at their respective homes, though some of us a longer journey ahead than I do -- one to South Africa! -- and the sense of adventure we shared will become just photographs and memories.

We were able to stop at just one Franklin-related spot -- Beechey Island, which I was glad to visit, as last year ice conditions prevented any landings there -- but we did manage to follow his original route through Peel Sound, which was a treat. And, when the news of Parks Canada's new below-decks video from HMS Terror reached us, it was a special thrill to be able to share it "hot off the press" to a shipboard audience.

The Passage was busy this year -- more ships than before, if my informal count is correct -- including old veterans like the Bremen and newer vessels such as the Roald Amundsen and the new Fram. The interest in the natural beauty, land and sea mammals, birds -- and, of course with the ice itself -- is running high, as is the fascination with the Franklin story.  There was some lingering ice, some from last year, but most vessels were able to manage to find a track through, with very minimal support from icebreakers. One must always take the ice seriously, though -- another expedition cruise ship in Svalbard was trapped in rapidly-encroaching ice, and its passengers had to be rescued (the ship itself was freed not long after).

Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting highlights from my trip, especially our historical sites and community visits, with some reflections on this ever-changing, ever-constant part of the world. But just now, I'm very happy to be on my way back. As the late, great Stan Rogers put it:

How then am I so different from the first men through this way? 
Like them, I left a settled life, I threw it all away. 
To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men 
To find there but the road back home again . . .