Saturday, March 26, 2022

Hurrah for the Dredge!

Of all the many portraits of Franklin's men that emerge from our volume of letters, that of Harry Goodsir, the expedition's naturalist, is perhaps the most vivid. Only twenty-five years old when he sailed, he was already a fast-rising star in the firmament of natural history, serving as the Conservator of the Surgeons' Hall Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, and engaged in correspondence and collaboration with many of the leading lights of the field.

Among his closest friends in this endeavor was Edward Forbes, who emerges early in the correspondence, helping his friend secure the post as Naturalist that he'd sought with all his energy. Forbes had mentored Harry for some years, and taken him on a number of outings to dredge for marine specimens along the coasts of Scotland and Shetland. Indeed, the dredge, for Forbes and Goodsir alike, was the principal tool they used in obtaining specimens and discovering new species, a number of which still bear their names. The common marine dredge -- an example is at the left -- could be dragged along the sea-floor, whether by hand off the side of a boat, or at the end of a lengthy cable from a larger vessel. 

The dredge was so potent a symbol of the naturalist's trade that Forbes even wrote a song to celebrate its powers, the first stanza of which is as follows:

Hurrah for the dredge, with its iron edge,
And its mystical triangle.
And its hided net with meshes set
Odd fishes to entangle!

The triangle indeed, became a special symbol for Forbes; one of his letters to Harry contains two of them -- a large one at the top of the letter, and a smaller one by his signature. Forbes also made use of the triangle as a symbol of a fraternal group he organized at the University of Edinburgh, the grandly-named Universal Brotherhood of Friends of Truth. On its edges were inscribed the Greek words for wine (in moderation), love (of a brotherly kind), and learning "of a high order." Of course Harry and his brothers John and Joseph were all members.

But this was all preamble, of course -- what mattered to Harry, and what will fascinate the readers of these letters, was the work of natural history itself. In the early months of the expedition Harry proved a man of enormous energy in this regard, and his enthusiasm was contagious among his brother officers. James Fitzjames described one such scene -- "Goodsir is catching the most extraordinary animals in a net, & is in ecstacies. Gore & Des Voeux are over the side poking with nets & long poles, with cigars in their mouths & Osmer laughing," and Harry himself expressed his delight in their shared labor: 
The Officers who were taking great interest in the collecting of specimens now became very active & during the whole day a range of them might be seen sitting in the main chains each with a net in hand dabbing away for Acalephæ. In this way my time has been fully occupied drawing and taking notes, night & day.
Goodsir quickly earned the respect and praise of Franklin, who gave over most of the space in his "Great Cabin" for Goodsir's work. In a letter to his friend the naturalist Robert Brown, Franklin noted that:
You will be glad to hear that Goodsir has collected very assiduously on the waters and from Depths, and that he has procured many things which are rare & some of them unknown. I must not however attempt to give you their unwriteable names, but trust to your learning what they are from Professor Forbes or some other of his Correspondents.
Not only was Goodsir collecting, he was examining his finds with great assiduousness. Le Vesconte, in a letter to his mother, declared that  they were dredging up enormous varieties of "small blubbers and other marine animals and animaliculae ... strange creatures of whose habits and structure very little is known. Mr Goodsir, provided with powerful microscopes, is making collections of them accompanied by drawings and descriptions." Indeed, Harry was hard at work on a number of scientific papers, two of which he dispatched from the ship's last anchorage in Greenland in a box sent to his brother John.

All this in was only the first eight weeks of the expedition, while the ships were just making their passage to Greenland -- how much more Harry must have accomplished after, we may never fully know. There are a couple of possible hints -- an Inuk named Koo-nik showed Charles Francis Hall a fragment of a jar, from a "large cask filled with glass jars" that had washed up near the shipwreck at Oot-joo-lik -- the Erebus. These may well have been specimen jars, carefully packed by Harry before the ships were deserted. There is also a curious implement (right) that was recovered from near the ships' first wintering, at Cape Riley -- it's an item of unknown function, likely fabricated on board ship -- but it's struck many who have examined it as possibly the handle of a smaller "rake" made for dragging shallow waters. If so, I think we can be fairly certain that Harry's were the hands the dragged it.

(With thanks to Logan Zachary and Alison Freebairn for their research on the Cape Riley Rake, and Peter Carney for reminding me of the Inuit testimony about the glass jars)