Sunday, April 26, 2020

A seldom-seen image of Mathinna

©Trustees of the British Museum
The sad lot of Mathinna, an indigenous Australian girl who was adopted and later abandoned by Sir John Franklin and his wife Jane, haunts the edges of their historical legacy, posing uncomfortable questions and standing as a symbol of the colonial presence in Tasmania -- one which led to the near-genocide of the indigenous population.

For many years, most people's image Mathinna has shaped by Thomas Bock's well-known watercolor portrait, showing an almost-smiling girl wearing a red dress that had been given her by Lady Franklin. And yet now, from the archives of the British Museum, another, much less well-known portrait has emerged. A drawing by John Skinner Prout, it's monochromatic except for Mathinna's face, arms, and feet -- this may yet be the red dress, but its color has gone. It was among a series of portraits made in February and March of 1845 on Flinders Island; by that time, Mathinna's erstwhile adopted parents were long gone back to England, and Sir John was getting ready for what would be his final, fatal voyage. There is no smile on this girl's face, but there does seem to be a kind of clear-eyed reflection on her circumstances, and those of her people.

The portrait was among a series that Prout brought back to England, which he sold to Joseph Barnard Davis; when Davis died in 1881, he willed the collection to the British Museum. Davis, who himself has served as a surgeon aboard an Arctic voyage, may have been interested in the Franklin connection, but more pertinently it fit with his collector's interest in ethnographic portraiture; a special interest was early skulls from the British Isles. It was not published or widely known, and although several of Prout's portraits were exhibited in Tasmania in 2019 as part of an exhibition, "The National Picture: The Art of Tasmania's Black War," it's not clear whether his sketch of Mathinna was included. I reached out to Booker-Prize-winning Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan -- whose 2009 novel Wanting took up Mathinna's story -- he told me that he had "never seen the image, nor heard of it," calling it "beautiful and enigmatic." It's a small example of how sometimes, even work that has been consigned to the careful care of a national museum can lie hidden in plain sight.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Eric Harvie and the Franklin relics

Eric Harvie
Back in 2018, I revealed the re-discovery of the wooden anvil block recovered from the Franklin Expedition campsite at Beechey Island -- a wonderful and welcome return to the public eye, as the centerpiece of an exhibit that had just opened then at the Glenbow, "The Arctic: Real and Imagined Views from the Nineteenth Century."

Many since have wondered, though, how this storied object came to return to Canada at the point when most of the Franklin materials in the disbanded Museum of the Royal United Services Museum went instead to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The answer comes with the name of one man: Eric Harvie, the millionaire oilman responsible for the founding of Glenbow, and still at the time of the anvil base's acquisition continuing a very ambitious program to expand the Museum's holdings.

When Harvie got word that the RUSI Museum's holdings were to be de-accessioned, his first impulse was to  attempt to acquire the entire collection of Franklin materials! That certainly would have been a magnificent addition, but there was considerable resistance to the Franklin relics' leaving the United Kingdom. Not to be discouraged, Harvie persisted, peppering the RUSI board, the High Commissioner for Canada, and the Canadian Ministry of Defense with more missives than Lady Franklin dispatched to the Admiralty in her husband's cause. At one point, exasperated, he declared to the Defense minister, “Canada is a member of the Commonwealth; has been for many years in joining in defense and maintenance of the Empire and, in fact, has very little by way of museum material to show for it."

Eventually, those handling the collection relented, and small but deeply symbolic group of items -- including the anvil base -- was shipped to Calgary. I had held out hope that, just possibly, other Franklin relics that have gone missing -- particularly the board that Schwatka believed came from within one of the ships with the initials "I.F" in copper tacks -- but alas, no. Now, thanks to Logan Zachary, I know that the board was not apparently among the RUSI items dispersed at its closure, though the anvil block was -- see his guest post at Alison Freebairn's wonderful blog, "There Stood No Friendly Finger-Post to Guide Us." The search goes on.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Le Vesconte's Will

Courtesy the LeVesconte/Wills families
As they prepared for their voyage of exploration, most of the officers of Sir John Franklin's ships "Erebus" and "Terror" took one final precaution -- they made their wills. This shouldn't be taken as an instance of some sort of fatalism; many who left on less hazardous journeys took a similar precaution -- after all, any lengthy voyage at sea in those days was an uncertain proposition; many such wills (including those of Franklin's officers) can still be had from the National Archives at Kew.

Yet the last will and testament of Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte had one singular difference: it was actually written, witnessed, and signed aboard HMS "Erebus" on May 15th, 1845, very shortly before the ships sailed. Perhaps Henry was a bit of a procrastinator; perhaps some communication from his family reminded him at the last moment that he ought to attend to this business. After all, as Barbara Rich has aptly chronicled in her series of articles about Le Vesconte's fellow officer Edward Couch, even when a will existed, it was no guarantee that one's estate would not end up in the dreaded Court of Chancery. It was best to err on the side of caution.

There's nothing else too unusual about Le Vesconte's will -- like many of the officers, his own personal estate was not particularly vast or valuable -- aside from his cousin Henrietta, to whom he specially bequeathed £100 of his wages, his primary legatees were his parents -- but it lends a great sense of immediacy to the feeling aboard ship just prior to sailing:
"I, Henry Thos. Dundas Le Vesconte, Lt. in the Royal Navy, being about to proceed on a Voyage of Discovery in the Polar Seas, and desirous to dispose of what property I may be possessed of, in the event of my death, do make this solemn Will and Testament.
What is still more striking are the witnesses listed at the bottom of the second leaf: "Mr. [James] Fairholme, Lt. R.N., and J[ohn] Weekes, Carpenter." It would make sense that Fairholme would be at hand, as he was next in rank to Le Vesconte, but the attestation of the ship's carpenter adds a touching instance of trust between the ship's officers and the ordinary sailors. I've shared this find with Gordon Morris, who played Weekes in the AMC production "The Terror," and he was struck by this as well. This was no ordinary camaraderie among a ship's crew -- many of them had only just met -- but a deeper, shared sense of risks undertaken, of destiny. Today, in this strange and uncertain voyage on which everyone on Earth is now embarked, may it stand as a small, clear beacon of light for us all.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Captains Courageous

Captain Francis Crozier (L) and Captain Brett Crozier (R)
It's more than just a coincidence of names -- it's a coincidence of character. Though born 174 years apart, both men were both drawn to the sea at an early age, though in the case of Captain Brett Elliott Crozier, it was as a naval aviator that he first distinguished himself. Born in Santa Rosa, California in 1970, he started out as a helicopter pilot, flying SH-60B Seahawks, before making the unusual switch to fixed-wing craft and leading a squadron of F18 Hornets. But it was that first assignment that stuck with him, and was the source of his nickname, "Chopper." After flying off of carriers, he eventually came to command them, first as captain of the USS Blue Ridge, an amphibious vessel, and then -- just this past November -- of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), a nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier with a crew of over five thousand sailors.

Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was born in Banbridge, County Down, Ireland in 1796. Like many of his generation, his naval service started early, when at the age of thirteen he volunteered for the Royal Navy. His early service brought him into many far-distant places, among them Pitcairn Island where the mutineers of HMS Bounty had settled, as well as the Cape of Good Hope, which he visited while serving aboard HMS Doterel. His career soon brought him into what was informally known as the "Discovery Service," when he signed up with William Edward Parry for his second expedition to the Arctic in 1821. This voyage included a wintering-over near the seasonal settlement of Igloolik, where Crozier had a great deal of contact with Inuit, and was said to have acquired a fair speaking knowledge of Inuktitut. His first significant command was that of HMS Terror, serving under James Clark Ross aboard HMS Erebus on an Antarctic expedition that stretched from 1839 to 1843. He didn't acquire (so far as we know) any nicknames, but his close friends always knew him as "Frank."

Neither man sought out controversy, nor could have anticipated the challenges that fate would place in their way. For Francis Crozier, it came in the form of his second voyage in command of Terror, this time under Sir John Franklin in search of the Northwest Passage in 1845. Being second-in-command was a more comfortable place for Frank than being the overall commander, and though he was never as close to Franklin as he had been to Ross, he was happy to serve in that capacity. For Captain Brett Crozier, one might imagine that he enjoyed a mightier perch -- and yet, just as with Francis, he was obliged to work in close quarters with his immediate supervisor, Rear Admiral Stuart P. Baker. Since the Theodore Roosevelt is the flagship of her squadron, Admiral Baker's headquarters was immediately adjacent to Crozier's, and they would have eaten in the same mess, seeing each other on a fairly frequent basis.

Then came the crisis. For Francis Crozier, it was the death of his commanding officer, which took place at a time when both ships were icebound, and had been for more than a year. The crisis he inherited only grew more grim, as it began to appear that neither ship was going to be freed from the ice, even in this, their second summer. We can't know exactly what went through his mind, but eventually the decision had to be made, and Crozier ordered both ships abandoned, with an effort made for his men to survive on land, and for some of them (at least) to find help and rescue. Similarly, the crisis that struck Captain Brett Crozier's ship -- an outbreak of the virus that causes COVID-19 -- threatened the lives of all of his men, and similarly he sought to save them by moving them ashore. His efforts to do so apparently having met with resistance, he wrote a letter and sent it to his superiors, reportedly including some not in the chain of command. One has to assume that he wasn't able to get Admiral Baker's full support, or the letter makes no sense -- but bad news that leaks out, by whatever means, is often cause for reprimand. In this case, it was the severest kind: Captain Crozier was relieved of his command. We don't know the all details as of why that happened, but we do know one thing: as Captain Brett Crozier walked down the gangway to the dock, his sailors -- both aboard ship and on shore -- raised a hearty cheer of admiration and appreciation.

We may never know whether the men of Erebus and Terror raised a similar cheer -- though well they may have -- but we do know that, in their peril and disorientation following the abandonment of the ships, they followed their Captain's orders faithfully and well. In Francis Crozier's case, the peril that endangered his men eventually claimed his life. Let us hope that this won't be the case for Captain Brett Crozier, who has tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.  His courage and dedication to his men's safety was very much in the mold of Francis Crozier's, and deserves our thanks and admiration. They are both heroes for their times.

NB: I've been asked whether the two Captains might be related. Brett Crozier's branch of the family seems to have been in California and Arizona for some generations; Francis Crozier had no children, but I don't know of any of his relations having emigrated to America -- so my guess would be that their relationship -- in family terms -- is a distant one.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Two "Resolute" ships

The Resolute, showing her slightly-dented bow
It's a storied name. The original HMS "Resolute," one of the ships of Belcher's ill-fated Franklin search squadron, was abandoned in the Arctic, and none of her officers and crew expected to see her again -- and yet, against all odds, she found her own way free, drifted down to the Davis Strait, where she was retrieved by an American whaler. Refurbished by an Act of Congress, she was sailed back across the sea by the gallant Captain Hartstene and presented to Queen Victoria. Years later, when she was retired and broken up, her Majesty caused several desks to be made from her timbers, the best-known of which was presented to President Rutherford B. Hayes, and sits now in the Oval Office of the White House.

Fast forward a hundred and forty years. Once again we have a doughty ship,  the Resolute, and once more she's stranded far from home. Most recently the flagship of the now-defunct One Ocean Expeditions, she'd cruised both the Arctic and Antarctic, parting those icy waters with her reinforced bow -- but now she lay at the port of Buenos Aires, arrested for unpaid debts. Word of her ultimate destiny remains uncertain; apparently she was purchased or leased by a German ship management company, Columbia Cruise Services GmbH, and shifted to Portuguese registry before being sailed north. It seems she was on her way to a port call in the Caribbean when -- in international waters off the island of Tortuga -- she was suddenly challenged by a patrol boat from the Venezuelan navy, the Naiguatá.

The Naiguatá
Although far outside Venezuela's territorial waters, the captain of the Naiguatá apparently challenged the Resolute and attempted to order it into a Venezuelan port. The captain of the Resolute refused this order, at which point shots were fired from the Naiguatá, and she attempted to ram the bow of the Resolute to force her to turn shoreward. Doubtless the captain of the Naiguatá was unaware that this was an ice-strengthened vessel, originally built in 1991 as the Society Adventurer and later the Hanseatic; her bow was more than a match for such efforts. Instead, after repeated, deliberate collisions, the Naiguatá suffered severe damage to her bow, and began taking on water.  The Resolute alerted the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Curaçao, who initiated a rescue operation; not long after, the Naiguatá sank, but all hands were saved. It may be the only known engagement in which a naval war vessel was sunk by a polar cruise ship -- and the Resolute once again proved that she was aptly named. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

The Orkney Telescope, Part 2: William Simpson

The Ocean Nymph
William Simpson’s career can be traced through the Hudson Bay Company Archives online, via the Servants contracts (employees of HBC were termed “servants” of the company). He first signed up in 1845, the exact same year that saw Erebus and Terror at Stromness on their way to the Arctic.  He was nineteen or twenty years old when he signed his contract for five years at £20 per annum. His occupation was “slooper” and his work location York Factory.  The next few contracts show a steady rise from Assistant Schooner Master Boatbuilder in 1853 to Slooper Master Carpenter in 1857 on £45 pa with free passage for his wife to York Factory and a grant of 50 acres at the Red River Settlement.

His final contract with HBC, dated 1866, was slightly different. His work location was Chesterfield Inlet (previously it had always been York Factory) and he was assigned to the ship Ocean Nymph on a salary of £75 per annum.  Unusually for servants' contracts, there was an additional hand-written paragraph which was not available to view online, but the HBC archivist kindly transcribed it for me:
“To conduct the trade with Esquimaux and other natives during the voyage of the said Company’s ship Ocean Nymph to Chesterfield Inlet and during the wintering at that place or elsewhere in the said Company’s territories of Hudson’s Bay … the said William Simpson hereby binds himself to obey all orders that he may receive during the said voyage to Chesterfield Inlet, or elsewhere the said wintering grounds of the said ship, from the Captain of the Ocean Nymph” 
A microfilm copy of Captain James Taylor’s log of the Ocean Nymph for 1866-1867 is available to view at the National Archives.  The barque Ocean Nymph set out from London’s West India Dock on 8th June 1866 and journeyed via Stromness to Churchill, Hudson’s Bay.  William Simpson joined the ship as Trading Master, along with Norman the Interpreter and Whaling Master Alexander Hay. The main aim was to establish demand for a new trading post midway up Hudson’s Bay, but also whaling whenever the opportunity arose.

By mid-September they reached Marble Island where they wintered, but it was by no means a happy ship. From the beginning there was tension between the Captain and the Whaling Master, & James Taylor’s log entry for Monday 19 November was just one example of numerous complaints:
“Mr Alex Hay still continues as disagreeable as he possibly can be, he uses very irritating language, I am provoked by him so much sometimes that I find it very hard to keep my hands off him” 
The feeling was mutual. Alexander Hay’s log book is littered with complaints about the Captain, calling him proud, ignorant, silly, and a disgrace to the company.

By January 1867 the situation was becoming worse. William Simpson was suffering from scurvy  “very bad, his right leg all Blue about the knee”. Fortunately Captain Parker of the Orray, an American whaling ship in the vicinity, came to the rescue with a gift of pickled turnips, believed to be a grand cure for the scurvy. Simpson recovered, but then suffered the loss of 10 bottles of Port Wine which mysteriously disappeared from his cabin. At least he fared better than his shipmate Thomas Saunders, who lost all the toes off one foot and part of his little finger.

After months trapped in the ice with  no ice saw, five canisters of powder on 20th June failed to release the ship but a further twenty-one blasts the following day set her free & they were able to progress north.

Trading took place whenever there was an opportunity.  A trading shop was set up on deck & on 20th September 1866 Simpson, Norman, the Mate & 4 men set off by boat for the Main Land “to go a trading with the Natives …” returning four days later with deer & salmon.
All visits to the ship were recorded in the log. On 3rd February 1867:
“About noon two Natives came across on the Drift Ice, their feet were wet through … they are out of ammunition, tobacco etc. We have had them in the Cabin all the evening, gathering all the information we could concerning the trade …”
These particular individuals were stranded on the ship for about five days due to bad weather, “devouring bread and molasses at no small rate”.

Charles Francis Hall meets with Inuit witnesses
Another tale was told of this visit, but it wasn’t written in the log until months later, in August, when the Ocean Nymph was in Repulse Bay. A meeting with Charles Francis Hall, who was also in Repulse Bay, prompted the extra story:
“The first two natives that visited us in winter came from far up Chesterfield Inlet they came on 3rd Feb. When we were asking them concerning Mr Hall if they had seen him they said no, but said they had seen two white once before long ago, I asked a good deal about it but could get little satisfaction and not knowing of any expedition with two men on it, I thought it was we did not understand them properly or some such thing and paid no much attention to it yet thinking it rather strange. When we asked what got the white men at last they said they went away and got capsized and drowned in a boat or canoe I can not remember which and Norman our Interpreter says they said the two men were looking for, or trying to get to other white men or “Cabloonacks”  There is several men in the ship who remember it as well as me among whom is Mr Simpson …”
Before the Ocean Nymph reached Repulse Bay, they were given information on Charles Hall by a couple of whaling boats, so they knew all about his trip to Pelly Bay, his wintering at Repulse Bay & his resolve to return to King William Island the following year. They also learned of his collection of Franklin relics,  “silver spoons “Captain Crozier” names on etc” And even better, when they arrived at Repulse Bay, Charles Hall was eager to trade:
 “4pm Mr Hall the American explorer came on board and stopped till 8pm. He’d had a crew of Natives Males and females belonging to Repulse Bay, all but one who belonged to Cumberland Gulf, he brought us part of a deer, and tried to persuade me if we were here he would get the natives to bring us some more. He wanted to get many supplies from us saying he would give an order on Mr Grinnell … I told that I would supply him only by way of exchange for whalebone or oil. He said he would exchange (but I am doubtful) he wanted an Almanack for next year. I left him one …exchanged 1000 lbs of bread (1 cart of 2nd), 1 Cask of lager, 1 bag of Coffee, 1 Cask of Pork, remainder of Can of Pipes, and several smaller articles as per Mr Simpsons Account from the trading goods, for 248 Ibs of whalebone with Mr Hall. I have consulted with Mr Simpson about the goods and as we are of opinions that he is not trading any thing whatever in opposition to the Company we let him have the little he wanted”
They also gave Hall an old sledge “which is all broken and out of order.”

Interestingly, trade with an English ship, for hatchets, knives, saws, powder-horns, daggers, and smaller articles, was noted by Hall & included by Nourse in his Narrative of the Second Arctic Expedition made by CF Hall 1864-69, and the mention of a Nautical Almanac confirms this as the Ocean Nymph.

News of the Franklin Expedition was clearly of great interest & James Taylor’s log included further details gleaned from Hall:
 “Mr Hall had a long story about having traced “Captain Crozier” as far as the head of Chesterfield Inlet with one attendant trying to reach Churchill, and said he had got some relics of the Franklin expedition from the natives, some thing about a boat being found bottom upwards & buried in mud, full of dead bodies and stores and much interesting news if it be true … learned from the natives of some Cache, or some thing the natives say is built of stones tied together, which is understood to be cemented, as the natives have tried to break into it but cannot. Some are of opinion it may be Records, or it may be Sir John Franklins Grave others say …”
After a few days of trading, the Ocean Nymph left Repulse Bay on 8th August. No whales had been caught during the voyage & this had caused huge vexation between the Captain & the Whaling Master. The Captain’s final report on reaching Gravesend on 30th September summed up his own experience:

                           “So this very miserable and unsuccessful Voyage has ended”

And what of the Telescope?  William Simpson, Master Trader, in his final year with the Hudson Bay Company having signed up the year the Franklin Expedition sailed, was in a prime position to purchase a decent Franklin relic when the opportunity arose, and who could possibly resist a telescope?  As a private transaction it would never have been noted down in the official log, and any sensible person would have squirrelled it away in a cabin well out of sight of both his shipmates and Charles Hall. William Simpson certainly believed it to be a genuine Franklin Expedition relic, even if the proof remains elusive.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Orkney Telescope (part 1 of 2)

This week, we present a guest post by Mary Williamson, who is Sir John Franklin's great-great-grand-niece and a skilled researcher and archivist in her own right. I can think of no one better suited to relate this singular story of a possible Franklin relic, and the man who brought it back to Orkney.

During a visit to Orkney in May 2019, my husband and I came across a man with a particular interest in John Franklin. A friend of his owned a telescope that was reputed to be a relic of the 1845 expedition.  It was known in the family as “Franklin’s Telescope”, and the tale passed down was that William Simpson (1825-1879) from St Margaret’s Hope, Orkney, had traded it for a box of buttons while working for the Hudson Bay Company in the late 1860’s.

The family had no hand written record to confirm the story told by William Simpson, but they did have a couple of newspaper articles that had appeared in The Orkney Herald in 1881, headed  “Supposed relic of the Franklin Expedition." It was the discovery by Frederick Schwatka and subsequent removal of (the supposed) Lieutenant Irving’s bones from King William Island to Edinburgh that focused attention on the telescope. The first report was on 2nd March:       
 “Among the articles found in the grave of Lt. Irving, third officer of the ‘Terror’, was a lens, apparently the object glass of a marine telescope”
This, according to the reporter, was excellent news, because the Orkney Telescope was missing a lens, and by chance Lt Irving’s grave had produced one. If this lens belonged to the Orkney Telescope, whose owner had died three years previously without being able to prove beyond doubt that it was a Franklin Expedition relic, the problem was conveniently solved. However, a report two weeks later revealed Irving’s lens as a red herring. The reporter had visited Mr Thompson, the present owner & brother-in-law of William Simpson, & discovered that the telescope had never been missing a lens but had merely had a new one inserted. Thompson was able to fill in a few extra details from memories of conversations with Simpson:
“bought it from a native when on a trading voyage up Cumberland Gulf, and that on questioning the native as to how he got it, he (the native) said he found it in an upright position in a crevice of rock near the sea” 
A slightly different version is reported in the same article, from the reporter’s notes that he made before calling on Mr Thompson:
 “Simpson being able to speak the Esquimaux language made inquiry of the Esquimaux as to how he got it, and was told that it was found by the disposer at a place from the description of which Simpson concluded was a hut erected by some of the Franklin party”.
The telescope had no identifying marks on it as regards ownership, but the makers name, W & T Gilbert London, are clearly visible as well as  “Improv’d Day or Night”.

Dr Richard Dunn, telescope expert at the Science Museum, examined my photographs and gave a date from the 1820’s with a fair bit of leeway as designs didn’t change much, so this date would fit the 1845 expedition.

Officers had their own telescopes, but it seems most likely that Sir John would have owned a Dollond.  In the history of telescope design it was John Dollond who emerged head & shoulders above other manufacturers by using a particular combination of lenses that worked better than any other. Jane Franklin herself had chosen to present a Dollond telescope to Robert Goodsir for one of the search expeditions.

As to William Simpson, his career presents its own points of interest, which overlapped once more with the Franklin search, via no less a figure than Charles Francis Hall himself -- but we'll save that story for the next post!