Friday, February 28, 2020

The Three Franklin Records

Nearly everyone who develops an interest in the lost Franklin expedition comes -- sooner rather than later -- upon the famed "Victory Point" record. In the contrast between its bold and confident original message and the second, sorrowful one in its margins, it's the most potent encapsulation I know of the whole tragedy that befell Franklin and his men, and has been studied for years in search of any additional clues that might be preserved in its peripheries.

But it's not as well known that that a second record, minus any marginal message, was deposited by the same sledging expedition that left the first. It was found by Lieutenant Hobson at a cairn only eight miles south of that at Victory point, surely less than a day's hauling, suggesting that Gore and his party must have had a practice of leaving a message in a cairn at each prominent headland. The area where the second record was left is now known as Gore Point; doubtless there were many others which are now lost.

But there is yet another record -- one fewer still have seen.  This third record (actually the first, in order of which they were deposited) was mentioned by Richard J. Cyriax in several of his papers, but never reproduced. My friend and fellow Franklinite, Gina Koellner, found a xeroxed copy among Cyriax's papers at the National Maritime Museum. Happily, the xerox included the index number for the original at the National Archives at Kew, and that's where Gina found it, glued down to a sheet of paper that was bound into a larger volume; you can see the stitch-marks on the binding at the left. Just recently, another far-faring Franklinite, Logan Zachary, re-visited Kew to take high-resolution photos, and that's the occasion for this post.

Location where record was left, via Google Earth
Now, for the first time, we can see the third record in all its glory. Perhaps the most notable feature is Sir John Franklin's bold signature -- clearly, it had been usual practice for him to sign these forms personally, which makes it seem the more likely that the later records -- where his second, James Fitzjames had simply written "Sir John Franklin commanding" -- are a sign of Franklin's illness or incapacity. The other information shows that Erebus and Terror were still accompanied by the "Baretto Junior, Transport," and their latitude and longitude show them off the coast of Greenland near Simiutaq, an uninhabited island about 150 miles NNW of Nuuk. The original also adds, "with a Danish Brig in company."

Photo by Logan Zachary
Franklin's instructions were to toss these messages -- in their cylinders and suspended inside a barrel -- overboard periodically so as to help ascertain the direction of the currents. In this case, they must have tended north, as the notation at the side shows the message was recovered near Imerissoq -- Franklin's "Whalefish Islands"-- nearly two hundred miles up the coast, in July of 1849 -- more than four years later. Alas, aside from the currents, the message doesn't add very much to our overall knowledge of the early days of the expedition, but the presence of Franklin's signature -- clear as day -- does add force to the suggestion, first made by William Battersby, that the illness that took Franklin's life on June 11, 1847 must have already taken a significant toll before Gore and company departed the ships on the 28th of May.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

New finds from HMS "Erebus" revealed!

They sit upon the shoulders in their portraits -- Daguerreotypes taken in May of 1845 -- Franklin and his men, their ghostly images a core part of what made them such a "gallant" crew -- and here is a pair of them, taken from the cabin assigned to Lieutenant James Fairholme aboard HMS "Erebus," 175 years afterwards.

It's quite a moment. For, while a goodly number of the relics recovered by Rae, McClintock, Hall, and Schwatka could be readily associated with their owners, these are the very first items I can think of recovered during the modern archaeological work by the divers of Parks Canada's underwater archaeology team that can be fairly definitively associated with a single individual.

Epaulets -- or epaulettes if one prefers -- have featured in the Franklin story before. Captain Henry Kellett of HMS "Resolute" left his behind when he (very reluctantly, and only under direct orders) abandoned his ship. Against all odds, they were returned to him, brightly polished and still in their case, when the Resolute was returned to Britain in 1854; you can see him wearing them in a portrait painted the following year. Lieutenant Fairholme, alas, is long gone, and can know nothing of this remarkable discovery, though I'm sure it's quite significant to his living family members in Canada and around the world.

More astonishingly still, these are but one of 350 artifacts announced today as the results of Parks Canada's dives in 2019. It was a gloriously long and productive season, and -- despite some rough weather near the end -- has set new benchmark for both the quantity and quality of artifacts recovered. We have seen only a small smattering so far -- a platter, some plates, a pencil case, and a few other items -- mostly from Franklin's steward Edmund Hoare's closet -- but clearly, there are many more to come. Many of them were unveiled in an event today in Ottawa at Parks Canada's conservation center, attended by senior government ministers along with Pam Gross, the head of the Inuit Heritage Trust, along with Stanley Anablak, president of the Kitikmeot Inuit Association. One of the key notes struck was that of continued co-operation and co-curation of all artifacts with Inuit, a crucial element which both underlies and augurs well for these extraordinary finds, and many more to come.

And the story is larger still -- for, even in the most seemingly minor details of each item, many stories more than one remain to be told. A good example is the epaulettes themselves -- for, although found in Fairholme's cabin, they are certainly not the ones which he was photographed wearing in 1845. Why not? Because, as he confessed in a letter home to his father,
“I hope Elizabeth got my photograph. Lady Franklin said she thought it made me look too old, but as I had Fitzjames’ coat on at the time, to save myself the trouble of getting my own, you will perceive that I am a Commander! and have anchors on the epaulettes so it will do capitally when that really is the case.”
Commander Fitzjames's coat -- and its epaulettes -- remain to be found. But this fascinating item never the less tells us of something far more personal than any other artifact yet recovered. It is just a touch, lightly upon the shoulder, to remind us of those who have gone on.

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Song of Hope

Courtesy Edinburgh University Library, Goodsir Papers, Gen 301/5en
Those who searched for the men of the lost Franklin expedition were hardy souls, and had to endure many a winter's night in the dark spaces below the decks of their wooden ships. We've known of a number of songs sung amidst the frozen regions, some comic (as how better to relieve the cold monotony of winter), some tragic -- but this one comes to us from a new and unexpected source. About a year and a half ago, I received an unexpected e-mail from a man named Michael Tracy. He identified himself to me as the closest living relation of Harry Goodsir, and had been engaged for some time in searching the archives for everything he could find about him. I was able to share a few things, but Mike's work was much more extensive; it included having transcripts made of all of Harry's letters (which are preserved in the Royal Scottish Geographical Society's archives) and well as arranging for photography of the vast collection of Goodsir papers at the University of Edinburgh. Among those, he made a singular discovery -- one that I'll let him describe in his own words: 
Housed in the University of Edinburgh Special Collections are my family papers.  There are literally hundreds of correspondences, lecture and medical notes, newspaper clippings, and diaries spanning over three generations of the Goodsir family.  Upon the death of Dr. Robert A. Goodsir in 1895, Professor John Chiene, the executor of his estate, donated eleven boxes of Goodsir memorabilia to the University.  
Located near the bottom of one of the boxes, was a faded folded lined page with words for an original song entitled, Song of Hope, written in extremely well-formed handwriting.  Beneath the title written in brackets, is stated, Air: Jennett et Jennetto, clearly a well-known musical tune of the time; at the foot of the Song’s words is a signature in less tutored handwriting, “James Davidson.” This intrigued me.  Why was this saved and what significance, if any, did it hold?  On the Song’s reverse, was an attribution that provided the answer:“Song by James Davidson, A.B. [Able Seaman] on board the Lady Franklin, Assistance Harbour, 10th March 1851.”   
This composition, conserved in Edinburgh University Special Collections Gen 301/5, had been originally recorded by Dr. Robert A. Goodsir, Surgeon, aboard the Lady Franklin during the second Arctic voyage to search and rescue Sir John Franklin and his crews of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, including his brother Harry.  Goodsir had obviously been so impressed by Davidson’s song that he recorded the words and tune to which it was possibly sung by Davidson, whom he honored by having him sign the copy.  Whether the Song of Hope was sung later during the expedition is unknown, but the sentiment of Davidson’s composition encapsulates in naive terms the mood of the moment.  It certainly must have echoed the thoughts of Dr. Robert Goodsir, who liked the song well enough to record and save it for forty-four years until his own death.  
A "Song of Hope"! Mike asked me to find out everything I could about it, and what I discovered just made this find all the more remarkable. The note on the back told me when and where it was written -- the writer's "Assistance Harbor" was certainly the place more commonly known as "Assistance Bay" on Cornwallis Island, where the Franklin search ships "Lady Franklin" and "Sophia" had wintered in 1850-51. Aboard the Lady Franklin was one passenger with a strong personal reason for being there: Robert Goodsir was Harry's brother. As described elsewhere in this blog, he'd been among the first group of people to discover the graves at Beechey Island, and now here he was, waiting out the winter, and -- or so I like to imagine -- singing this song.

The "Air" referenced is more commonly known as "Jeannette and Jeannot" and was one of many similar folk ballads telling a tale of a soldier's farewell to his sweetheart; a number of broadsheet versions can be found in the Bodleian's collections. But there was a particular reason that it would have been on men's minds in 1851, as just three years previous a version adapted by the British theatrical composer Charles William Glover had been a big hit at London's Olympic Theatre in 1848. The only remaining question was what melody the "air" was sung to -- some of the broadside recommended "The Boatman's Dance," but the tone of that tune, to my ear, is much too jolly. Luckily, I stumbled on a version of Glover's own setting, which I feel pretty sure was the melody that this song followed -- you can hear a MIDI version here!

From the Arctic Medal rolls
The only remaining mystery is now the identity of James Davidson, AB -- one must assume he was aboard the same ships, and indeed he appears in the crew list of the Lady Franklin. He must have been a capable man; we know that William Penny chose him as one of the crew for his open boat journey (see Gill Ross's Hunters on the Track, p. 312). It's tempting to imagine he might have been the man of that name who captained the whaler Xanthus, which was sent to relieve the Lady Franklin when she was under-provisioned in Cumberland Sound in 1863, though that would have required him to have left the navy and risen rapidly up the ranks in the Aberdeen whaling fleet. He may have remained in the Royal Navy, though his time there began before "continuous service" records were made, so there's no way to be certain. His name certainly appears in the rolls for the Arctic Medal, but there's no indication that he or his family ever claimed it. For the moment, at least, we will have to be content with knowing only just that much. For now, at least, we can sing his song -- here is the full text of the lyrics and a full image of the original.