Sunday, November 17, 2019

The grave at Comfortless Cove

Those who know the story of the infamous "Peglar Papers" -- those enigmatic documents discovered in a leather wallet in the coat pocket of the corpse of one of Franklin's men -- will recognize at once the phrase "the grave at Comfort Cove" (well, since the papers were mostly written backwards, it was actually "Eht evarg ta Trofmoc Evoc"). This is an apparent reference to some place in the Arctic, though it took its name from a place on Ascension Island, and it's also possible that it referred to that site. For many years, Ascension -- due to its remoteness -- had been used as a harbor for quarantined ships and men; those who died during these quarantines were buried on shore there. The name, appropriately enough, has since shifted to Comfortless Cove, and the graves there remain almost entirely undisturbed.

Just recently, though, I received an e-mail from Dr. Karl Harrison who had participated in an archaeological dig there in 2008 under the overall direction of Dr. Carl Watling and the RAF. The dig focused on a group of five cairn-like structures just north of Comfortless Cove at a site known as Pyramid Point, excavating one of them. What they found was a somber sight -- a male skeleton of relatively short stature, wrapped in a fabric wound about with twine. There were no other material artifacts, and no marker of any kind, but given the period of use of this area, the remains were very roughly dated to circa 1828.

The vicinity of the grave
If, indeed, the writer of the "Peglar" papers was thinking back to the burial of a shipmate, it's entirely possible that this was he -- or else, he lies nearby, quite possibly buried in a similar manner. And it's the manner of burial that strikes another chord -- for just so, the body presumed to be that of Lieutenant John Irving, discovered in 1880 by the Schwatka search expedition, was found wrapped in canvas; in William Gilder's words, "there was also a large quantity of canvas in and around the grave, with coarse stitching through it and the cloth, as  though the body had been incased for burial at sea.” A fragment of this same canvas -- stamped with the words "NAVY SAIL CANVAS" -- is still in the collections of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. In both cases, it seeems, these seamen were buried in a kind of hybrid manner -- wrapped in sailcloth, or a hammock, as though destined for the sea, but then laid upon land, and stone upon stone thereafter.

It's suggestive of the likelihood that, at the time of Irving's death, one or both of Franklin's ships must have been nearby -- after all, men hauling sledges -- some of which, according to Inuit testimony, were assisted with sails -- would have had no canvas to spare. And it's a reminder that the Arctic is far from the only place with lonely cairns of stone.

With deepest thanks to Dr. Harrison for sharing this remarkable find.

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Hall Cairn

Eternal glory never lasted such a short time as it did on the 'lonely cairn of stones' erected by Charles Francis Hall on King William Island. He'd spent years trying to reach the place, only to be defeated by the constraints of time (his Inuit guides needed to cross  back to the mainland to hunt) and visibility (snow still covered the ground thickly, such that even those of his guides that knew the terrain intimately, couldn't re-locate all of the skeletons they'd seen there in past summers. On a horizontal stone, Hall had scratched the inscription "ETERNAL GLORY TO THE DISCOVERERS OF THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE," but part of the stone with the last few letters (EST PASSAGE) eventually broke off. Below, on a smaller stone, he scratched the date "May XII 1869," adding an "H" for Hall.

And there's another reason most of us haven't seen an image of this cairn before: although Gilder's account of its discovery is well-known, its only known depiction is in Richard Galaburri's pamphlet Lost! The Franklin Expedition and the Fate of the Crews of H.M.S. Erebus and Terror, privately printed and rather hard to find. Years of scouring the Internet for its source had led nowhere, until I tracked down Galaburri himself. He identified it as having come from a December 1880 issue of Harper's Weekly -- a publication of which only scattered copies can readily be found online -- and I was able to obtain a copy from a dealer in rare newspapers.

Slide used in Stackpole's book
The article is apparently by Gilder himself, with illustrations credited to "Henry" Klutschak. And yet there's a small discrepancy in this: Klutschak was not among the party that went to visit the site of the cairn; Gilder mentions having made a "quick sketch" but this did not appear in his book. Apparently, Kultschak drew a more professional version based on that sketch -- it appears as slide #29 in Schwatka's lantern lecture to the American Geographical Society that same year -- and this was used as the source by Harper's. The engraver for Harper's probably did a fairly close copy for this depiction, which is opposite the more familiar one of Irving's grave marker, but other elements of his two-page spread are somewhat more freely adapted than the corresponding images in the Illustrated London News or Gilder's book. The confusion over Hall's marker was also accidentally amplified in Stackpole's edition of Schwatka's Long Arctic Search -- he used a set of commercially available lantern slides, and misidentified the slide depicting the Irving marker as Hall's cairn.

These stones have another significance: near them, Hall's guides uncovered a skeleton, which was sent back to England, and for many years misidentified as Le Vesconte's -- it was only when it was examined during the move of the Franklin memorial to the front of the chapel that it was found, by analysis of the teeth and a facial reconstruction, to be far more likely that of Harry Goodsir. The archaeologist Doug Stenton, who's done so much work to re-locate historical sites on King William Island, hopes to use this image to identify the site of the cairn in a future visit.