Monday, December 19, 2022

Potential written material found on HMS Erebus

Image from Parks Canada
 It could be the breakthrough we've all been waiting for since the rediscovery of Franklin's ships -- or it could be just a small and tantalizing addition to what we know. In news covered around the world yesterday, we learned of what Ryan Harris, veteran member of the Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology Team (and the first person to see the shadow of "Erebus" on a sonar screen in 2014), called "the most remarkable find of the summer": a leatherbound folio, containing leaves of paper and a quill pen tucked inside its cover, found in the area of the steward's pantry of HMS Erebus.

The dream of finding additional written materials goes back at least to the 1870's, when Jane Franklin asked Sir Allen Young to return to the Arctic in hopes of finding some; she died before he returned, and his expedition found no new papers. The cry of "papers" once again became the motivating factor for Schwatka's search of 1878-80, and while they made some remarkable finds of human remains and other artifacts, the only sheet of paper they recovered turned out to be -- symbolically enough -- a blank one.

We don't know yet whether this new find bears any legible writing -- it's apparently still in the laboratory where paper conservators are patiently working on it -- and of course, even if it did, there's no telling how informative it might be. Other items found earlier in this area were associated with Edmund Hoar, Sir John Franklin's personal steward, and among these a pencil case was prominent. Might the newfound folio be a sketchbook? Then again, why the quill? The best case scenario might be that it might contain both writing and sketches, and we know of at least one other such journal, that kept by Captain's Steward John Messum aboard HMS "Vesuvius" during the Crimean War (1854-55). 

On the other hand, it might contain what might seem to be relatively trivial matter, perhaps some record-keeping of the contents of the Steward's pantry, or -- like the inscrutable "Peglar" papers, a mixture of doggerel verse and cryptic writings. From my own personal perspective, though, even if such a document were most mundane in its entries, each such entry would have one incredibly precious detail: a date. Right now, the lack of any post-1848 timeline is probably the singular most glaring gap in all we know about what Franklin's men did after the desertion of the ships. Were they re-manned? A simple date would tell us so. Abandoned again? When? And, like enormous goalposts, even a tiny handful of such dates would enable use to organize all kinds of other data with much higher accuracy; we would at last begin to know the "lay of the land" (and the water).

And yet, even if it has no information later than the desertion of the vessel, any kind of journal would be a goldmine, the more so if it were Hoar's own. As Franklin's steward, Hoar would have attended him daily, the more so during whatever illness or injury led to his death on June 11th 1847. Indeed, although Jane Franklin described the volume as a "quarto" rather than a folio, this could even be Sir John's long-lost private diary. It certainly fires the imagination!

Every so often, we come upon a document that literally rewrites history -- this newfound folio could well be just such a one -- only time and patient work on its pages will tell.