Bone Analysis sheds new light on ill-fated arctic expedition

English Heritage 18.03.2011 – Original article here

New isotope analysis and forensic facial reconstruction undertaken by a team led by English Heritage has shed new light on the doomed 1845 British voyage of Arctic exploration led by Sir John Franklin, in which all 129 people on board perished.

Analysis of the only surviving complete skeleton has offered new clues as to why the expedition was lost, a mystery that has sparked debate ever since. Some have suggested that scurvy or tuberculosis may have been causes of debilitation and death on the expedition, but no evidence of these diseases was found on the bones, and DNA tests proved negative for tuberculosis. Work is still ongoing on samples from the remains to analyse for lead to see if lead poisoning from the expedition’s canned food or from their water supply was a factor.

The study has also revealed that the identity of the skeleton is unlikely to be Henry LeVesconte, a Lieutenant aboard one of the ships, a conclusion that has been widely accepted since the skeleton was first examined in 1872 by Thomas Henry Huxley, one of the foremost biologists of the age.

Daguerreotype of Goodsir (left, copyright: National Maritime Museum) and the facial reconstruction

The remains thought to be Le Vesconte’s, and those of one other sailor, were the only ones ever to be returned to Britain. The lieutenant’s bones were buried beneath the Franklin Expedition monument at the old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Renovations in 2009 of the memorial meant that the remains had to be exhumed and temporarily moved. This gave an opportunity for English Heritage to study the remains and to evaluate the twin questions of the identity of this particular skeleton and the reasons for loss of the expedition.

Henry LeVesconte grew up in Devon. However, analysis of stable isotopes from the teeth of the skeleton shows that it is unlikely that this individual grew up there, but more likely that he spent his childhood in NE England or eastern Scotland.

Moreover, 14 of the 24 officers on the expedition had their portraits taken by the newly devised Daguerreotype photographic process prior to embarkation.  A forensic facial reconstruction was undertaken using the skull of the skeleton, and it seemed to match quite closely the appearance of Harry Goodsir, an assistant surgeon and naturalist on the voyage.

Dr Simon Mays, skeletal biologist at English Heritage, said: ‘ The study of human remains and in turn our understanding of the past has benefited immensely from the advance of science and technology. The disappearance of Franklin’s heroic crew became a cause celebre in Victorian England, and the reasons for its loss continue to be debated. Our study offers some important clues to take the debate further.

‘The identity of the skeleton is difficult to ascertain but the new evidence seems to show that it is unlikely to have been Henry LeVesconte. The facial resemblance to Harry Goodsir is striking, and the isotope evidence is consistent with it being him, but the identification is not 100% certain because some officers on the voyage were not photographed.  However, tissue samples from the remains were retained so attempts at a DNA match with a living direct descendant of Goodsir can be made should anyone come forward.’

In May 1845, an expedition of two ships, commanded by Sir John Franklin and sponsored by the Royal Navy, set out from England to try and discover the Northwest Passage trade route to Asia. The expedition’s disappearance caused a sensation in Britain, prompting huge rescue efforts that helped map much of the vast and remote polar archipelago of the Canadian Arctic.

The study was undertaken at the request of the Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Naval College and with the consent of a LeVesconte relative at English Heritage’s laboratories in Portsmouth and at the Universities of Bradford and Surrey between 2009 and 2011. The remains have been reburied under the memorial.

Arctic survey bid hits snag over Franklin ships

CBC News – original article here

An Alberta archeological firm’s proposal to test survey equipment in an Arctic waterway has hit a roadblock over concerns about the long-lost ships of Sir John Franklin. ProCom Marine Survey and Archeology had asked the Nunavut Impact Review Board to approve its proposal to conduct work in Larsen Sound, 195 kilometres northwest of Taloyoak in western Nunavut.

The company’s project, called Polar North, would use autonomous underwater vehicles to “develop solutions relating to offshore surveying for oil and gas in Arctic conditions,” according to proposal documents. If approved, the work would take place in April and August this year. But in a letter to territorial Environment Minister Daniel Shewchuk, the review board recommends that he modify or abandon ProCom’s proposal on the basis of the project’s location and “unacceptable potential adverse impacts to cultural resources.

” National historic sites Larsen Sound is considered to be the final resting spot for one or both of the famed British explorer’s ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which disappeared during a doomed expedition to chart the Northwest Passage more than 160 years ago. “It was primarily the location of the project, and the fact that there are recognized national historic sites that are believed to be in Larsen Sound,” Ryan Barry, an official with the review board, told CBC News.

“The concerns, primarily from the [Nunavut] Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, were such that they saw the potential for impact to these historic sites.” ProCom’s latest proposal does not mention Franklin’s ships, but the company ran into trouble with the Nunavut government when it tried to look for the lost ships last fall without the necessary permits. Concerns raised Barry said the board reviewed ProCom’s Polar North application in consultation with community organizations in the hamlets of Taloyoak, Gjoa Haven and Kugaaruk, as well as with officials from the federal and territorial governments and Inuit organizations. Major concerns about the project were raised during those consultations, with the proposed location being most significant, Barry said.

According to the review board, the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth recommends that ProCom relocate the project to another body of water north of Larsen Sound, excluding Lancaster Sound. In a letter to Shewchuk, ProCom president Rob Rondeau said his group is prepared to make changes to its application. “Given the size of Larsen Sound, ProCom would be prepared to relocate the project, from the survey area as proposed, providing an alternative site can be selected, so that it can continue to be based from Taloyoak,” Rondeau wrote. Rondeau told CBC News he would prefer not to comment on the matter until Shewchuk has decided whether ProCom can resubmit its application with changes.

Canadians closing in on lost wreckage of HMS Terror

(Randy Boswell/Postmedia News via Vancouver Sun, 26 November 2010) — It’s a genuine treasure of American history, with a price tag to match: a rare, 195-year-old printing of the original sheet music for the Star-Spangled Banner is expected to sell for up to $300,000 at an auction next week in New York. But as U.S. history buffs lined up for a look at the patriotic relic this week during Christie’s pre-sale exhibition, Canadian archeologists were planning their next Arctic Ocean search for one of the very War of 1812 ships — the last in existence — responsible for the “rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air” that helped inspire American poet Francis Scott Key to write his country’s national anthem after witnessing the bombing of Baltimore in September 1814. The surprising link between the Star-Spangled Banner and the lost Franklin Expedition vessel HMS Terror — believed to lie off the coast of King William Island in the Canadian Arctic — adds another layer to the rich history of the ship and helps explain Canada’s three-year quest to find it, says the Parks Canada archeologist leading the hunt for the fabled shipwreck. The resting places of the Terror and its consort vessel the HMS Erebus — both lost during British explorer John Franklin’s ill-fated voyage of discovery to Northern Canada in the late 1840s — have already been declared a National Historic Site, even though their precise locations remain unknown.

Original article here

Newly discovered Arctic graves could be tied to Franklin expedition

(Randy Boswell/Postmedia News, 19 September 2010) — A British adventurer has piqued the interest of the Canadian government after reporting the discovery of skeletal human remains on a small, unnamed island in Arctic waters close to where members of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition are known to have disappeared more than 160 years ago. Bear Grylls, star of the popular Man vs. Wild outdoor survival TV series, claims to have found bones, charred wood and other artifacts earlier this month during a charity-fundraising expedition to cross the Northwest Passage in a rigid inflatable boat. At the expedition website, Grylls described how he and his team members discovered the remnants of a mysterious campsite on Sept. 2 on an tiny island in Wellington Strait east of King William Island — the place where some of the survivors from Franklin’s ice-locked ships Erebus and Terror took shelter in the late 1840s before they eventually succumbed to cold and starvation. “We found the rocky outline of a grave set by some stranded visitor long ago,” Grylls wrote at his expedition blog. “And at the grave, we saw bones. And a small piece of felt or fabric. And then as we looked there was another grave. And another, and a fourth.” Such sites are not unheard of among Canada’s Arctic islands, where extreme cold and dry conditions can preserve archeological remains intact for generations or even centuries.

Mystery Arctic box unearthed, may contain Franklin’s log, but more likely Amundsens magnetic observations

Wally Porter (left) shows the cairn where his grandfather buried what may be the logbooks from the ill-fated Franklin expedition to writer Ken McGoogan. Photograph by: Sheena Fraser McGoogan, Postmedia News

Vancouver Sun via Circumpolar Musings:
By Ken McGoogan, Postmedia News September 5, 2010

An old wooden box excavated from beneath an Arctic cairn is being flown unopened Monday to Ottawa from the Nunavut hamlet of Gjoa Haven.

The Nunavut-government launched the excavation after an Inuit family relayed oral history suggesting that the cairn contained records from the ill-fated 1845 expedition led by Sir John Franklin in search of the Northwest Passage.

But Canadian historian Kenn Harper, who has spent months researching the cairn, says the box will prove to contain records left in 1905 by explorer Roald Amundsen during the first-ever navigation of the Passage.

The box, which measures 14.5 x 11 x 6.5 inches, will be opened and its contents preserved at the Canadian Conservation Institute.

Harper, author of the best-selling Inuit biography Give Me My Fathers Body, and also Honorary Danish Consul in Nunavut, says the box contains papers that Amundsen buried after spending almost two years in Gjoa Haven tracking the movements of the North Magnetic Pole.

He began investigating the cairn after learning of the claim by descendants of George Washington Porter II, a Hudson’s Bay Company manager based in that hamlet on King William Island.

Harper says that Eric Mitchell of the HBC, the senior man in the territory, dug up the Amundsen records in 1958, with the help of Porter II. The two men found documents that had first been discovered in 1927 by William Paddy Gibson, an HBC inspector who reburied them.

Gibson wrote in The Beaver magazine of finding the records, which included a signed photograph of Georg V. Neumayer, a German scientist who had sparked Amundsens interest in the North Magnetic Pole.

Harper predicted that the Saturday excavation would turn up an old HBC ammunition box. Andrew Porter, who runs a tourism business in Gjoa Haven, says that just such a box was found three feet beneath the cairn.

Harper says the unopened box contains a metal canister in a bed of tallow. Inside the canister, conservators will find the Amundsen documents in an envelope sewn into an oilskin packet and wrapped in pages from a 1950s Nautical Almanac and an Edmonton newspaper.

Harper, who has lived in the Arctic for over 30 years, doubts that any Franklin documents will be found. He believes that oral history has confused Franklin and Amundsen.

Original article here

Abandoned 1854 ship found in Arctic

The wreck of HMS Investigator lies on the bottom of Mercy Bay. (Parks Canada)

HMS Investigator, abandoned in the Arctic 155 years ago during a search for Sir John Franklin’s expedition, has been found.

Parks Canada archeologists looking for the ship found it 15 minutes after they started a sonar scan of Banks Island’s Mercy Bay in the Northwest Territories, said Marc-André Bernier, chief of Parks Canada’s underwater archeology service.

HMS Investigator, left, is trapped in ice with HMS Enterprise in a painting by Lt. W.H. Brown of the Royal Navy. The ship was eventually abandoned and its crew rescued by a Royal Navy sledge team.HMS Investigator, left, is trapped in ice with HMS Enterprise in a painting by Lt. W.H. Brown of the Royal Navy. The ship was eventually abandoned and its crew rescued by a Royal Navy sledge team. (National Maritime Museum)

“When the team arrived [on July 22], the whole bay was covered in ice,” Bernier said. “On July 25, the team had an opening in the ice.… It happened to be where the ship had been abandoned.”

They started a sonar scan of the area identified by British navy accounts as the spot where the ship had been left. They used a torpedo-shaped scanner, towed behind a Zodiac inflatable boat, which sends out sound waves and produces images of the floor of the bay.

“After 15 minutes, they basically had an image of the wreck,” Bernier said.

“It’s in good condition,” he said. “Very good condition, actually — surprising condition.”

The ship is upright in about 11 metres of water, its bottom buried in sediment if it’s still there, and the upper deck under about eight metres of water.

“Apparently, you can see some of it from the surface when the water is clear,” Bernier said.

While the masts are gone and the bulwarks — the sides of the ship that extend above the deck — are mostly gone, likely damaged by ice, there is potential to find smaller artifacts, Bernier said.

“This is very cold water. That helps preservation as well,” he said.

One of the masts appears to be on the deck of the ship, he added. If the masts had still been in place, they would have stuck out of the water.

The archeology crew has no plans to raise the ship. They will do a thorough sonar scan of the area, then send a remotely operated vehicle, similar to the ROVs used to take pictures of the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, to take pictures.

They will analyze the condition of the ship, the environmental impacts that could cause further damage, and the potential to find further artifacts — though they will remove nothing at this point.

Before departing to go to another ship, the crew of HMS Investigator buried their cargo on Banks Island. Remains of the barrels indicate the cache's location.Before departing to go to another ship, the crew of HMS Investigator buried their cargo on Banks Island. Remains of the barrels indicate the cache’s location. (Courtesy of Western News)“The work really starts now for the archeologists,” Bernier said.

The ship hadn’t been found earlier because of the difficulty involved in getting access to the area and surveying the bottom of the bay, which is usually covered with ice, Bernier said. The ship was stuck in the ice for more than two years before it was abandoned, he noted.

The Investigator, captained by Robert McClure, was sent in 1850 to search for Franklin’s crew and their two ships, the Erebus and Terror.

After more than two years trapped in the ice at Mercy Bay, crew members were rescued by a Royal Navy sledge team, who took them to another ship.

In the end, McClure and the Investigator succeeded where Franklin failed — they are credited with finding the Northwest Passage.

“This is the ship that confirmed and nailed the existence of that passage,” Bernier said.

Before leaving the ship, the crew buried much of their cargo on Banks Island. The location of their cache was known and is also being investigated by an archeological crew on land.

The land crew has found three sites of interest, including the gravesites of three crewmembers who died of scurvy in April 1853.

“They’re about 60 metres from the cache site,” Bernier said. “They seem to be in an undisturbed condition.”

A magnetometer has indicated there is metal in the graves, but they will be left undisturbed, he said. The British government has been informed of the find and will be consulted about what will happen at the gravesite.

The other two sites hold the remains of the cache and pieces of a small boat, Bernier said.

Investigator had ‘major impact’ on Inuit

In addition to the British navy accounts that led the archeologists to the Investigator, Inuit oral tradition tells stories of the ship.

“This is alive in the Inuvialuit memory today,” Bernier said.

The Investigator site “had a major impact” on the Inuit because it was a source of copper and iron, he said. In fact, the pieces of the small boat found on shore should have metal nails in it, but they have all been removed.

“It was a resource site for the Inuit,” Bernier said.

Franklin’s party disappeared while searching for the Northwest Passage in 1848, following their captain’s death partway through the expedition. Their ships haven’t been found, despite numerous searches. Parks Canada is planning another search for the Erebus and Terror in August.

The site is of interest not only because of its importance to marine history and the Inuit, Bernier added, but because it illuminates a fascinating piece of human history.

There were 60 men in the group who were stuck at the site for more than two years, he said.

“It’s also a survival camp.”

Original article here

‘Man Who Ate His Boots’ An Arctic Tragedy (NPR)

April 17, 2010

Listen to the show here

Sir John FranklinThe Man Who Ate His Boots is the tragic tale of British explorers and their numerous failed attempts to find an Arctic sea passage connecting Europe to Asia. The search for the Northwest Passage captivated the British imagination and sent many men to their deaths. Host Guy Raz speaks with author Anthony Brandt about his new book as well as its most famous character, Sir John Franklin, whose final disastrous expedition ended in cannibalism.

Copyright © 2010 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GUY RAZ, host:

If you’ve ever read Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” you’ll recall that early scene when Captain Walton’s ship becomes trapped in Arctic Sea ice. The crew had been trying to reach the North Pole when a mysterious ghost-like monster appears in the distance.

Well, Ms. Shelly was writing during a period in British history when the country was gripped by the race to find Northwest Passage. Napoleon had just been defeated:

Mr. ANTHONY BRANDT (Author, “The Man Who Ate His Boots”): The world was England’s to conquer. If the ice was impenetrable, if the odds were impossible, no matter. They were Englishmen, members of a superior race, the children of destiny.

RAZ: That’s Anthony Brandt reading from his new book, “The Man Who Ate His Boots.” It’s about Britain’s obsessive search to find a sea passage through the Arctic that could connect Europe to Asia.

The most famous and tragic expedition was led by Sir John Franklin. In 1845, he led two ships and 129 men through the ice-covered waterways above the Canadian mainland. Not one man survived.

For that story, we’re joined by Anthony Brandt. He’s in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BRANDT: Well, thank you.

RAZ: Before we talk about the famous Franklin expedition of 1845, set the scene for us. I mean, how much did this quest to find a northwest passage capture the imagination of the British public in the early 19th century?

Mr. BRANDT: Well, it was an old quest that had been going on for 300 years, or nearly 300 years by that time. And the public was very enthusiastic that it was being renewed after the Napoleonic wars. The country was feeling good about itself. This had been a historic mission that the English had assigned themselves to do many centuries before. They felt it was their time and that nothing could stop them.

RAZ: There were a series of these expeditions, and about at least 15 of them until 1845 when Britain’s admiralty decides to sponsor a new expedition, again, to find the Northwest Passage. John Franklin is tapped to lead this expedition but he was the last choice, right?

Mr. BRANDT: He was the last choice. He was 59 years old. He had no business doing this again but he was trying to save his reputation.

RAZ: I mean, he had already been on a few of these expeditions before.

Mr. BRANDT: Right.

RAZ: And he wasn’t sort of a hero out of central casting. He was described as, quote, “looking something like a stuffed bear.”

Mr. BRANDT: Yes. He was pudgy. He said if he had to walk around on the ice, he probably wasn’t the person to do it. But all he had to do was stay on ship and direct things.

RAZ: So, the journey starts out okay but what happens sort of a few weeks in?

Mr. BRANDT: They left Baffin Bay in August, I think, of 1845. They headed into Lancaster Sound and nobody saw them after that. Not a word came out. They disappeared for three years. And in 1848, the admiral team got worried and said we got to look for them and find them. Eleven years they searched for them.

What they found eventually was a single piece of paper describing up to a certain point what had happened. They had gotten trapped in the ice after their first year unable to move. The ice was slowly taking them, drifting them south at the rate of about 14, 15 miles a month, maybe not even that fast. And it was clearly polar ice, thick ice, and there was no way out. They had been trapped there for two years.

RAZ: And most of the crew survives for these two years. The survivors do abandon the ships and eventually, everybody died. They had plenty of food. Why didn’t they survive?

Mr. BRANDT: It’s not fresh food and scurvy was the scourge of all sea voyages at the time. You need vitamin C on a daily basis. It only comes in fresh food, and they took enormous quantities of lemon juice. But after six months, nine months a year, lemon juice loses the vitamin C. It’s a fragile chemical and it kind of disintegrates.

So, by the end of two years, usually 18 months, scurvy will appear. And unless you have fresh meat or fresh vegetables, it will very rapidly start killing people.

RAZ: And there’s evidence that suggests that the crewmembers who eventually left the ship actually had to eat the others who died.

Mr. BRANDT: Well, what they did when they left the ships was they did some peculiar things. They dragged boats with them filled with their silverware and with odd – with tons of clothing that they didn’t need. You wonder if they had sort of lost their reason at some point. But the evidence of cannibalism is irrefutable. At some point, they started eating their dead. There are many, many bones that survive with saw marks on them. And the only reason you cut into a bone with a saw is so that you can put the limb or whatever it is into a pot and cook it.

And there was a huge controversy when evidence came back that they had resorted to cannibalism. The English were very, very upset about that.

RAZ: Anthony Brandt, the Passage wasn’t navigated until 1903 when the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, did it. Now, of course, you can do it as a tourist in an icebreaker. And in fact, in 2007, for the first time in recorded history, there was almost no sea ice in the Passage at all, which seems like a kind of a fitting epilogue to the story that you tell.

Mr. BRANDT: You have to imagine ice that’s 40 feet thick. That’s as thick as a four-story building is tall. That’s thick. And if you had seen it, you would never believe that it would never melt. Now, it melts.

RAZ: That’s Anthony Brandt. His new book is called “The Man Who Ate His Boots.” It charts the history of the search for the famed Northwest Passage.

Anthony Brandt, thank you so much.

Mr. BRANDT: It’s my pleasure.

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The Arctic heart of darkness: How heroic lies replaced hideous reality after the grim death of John Franklin

November 11, 2009 Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
On November 15, 1866, a statue of the explorer Sir John Franklin was unveiled in Waterloo Place before a large crowd of well-wishers. When they heard that “to all future times the name of Franklin would be treasured among the greatest and bravest of those naval heroes of whose glory and memories England was so justly proud”, there was enthusiastic applause.
From The Times Literary Supplement

For many of those present, a statue would have seemed like a natural choice to commemorate someone who had died in the Arctic. It was popularly assumed that being frozen to death was a gentle way to go, swaddled by snow and glazed over by ice, and that it left the corpse majestically unchanged by time, to become one of the “statues sculptured in the icy rock” Dickens refers to in his 1857 prologue to The Frozen Deep. For Franklin’s grieving widow, however, the ceremony represented a monumental full stop. After two decades of campaigning, first to rescue her husband, after his ships Terror and Erebus disappeared in 1845 while attempting to discover a navigable route over the top of North America, and then to rescue his reputation once it became clear that he was dead, here at last was tangible proof of Franklin’s heroic stature. In life a podgy, balding man of middling height, in death he was transformed into a firm-jawed figure eight feet tall, perched on top of an imposing granite plinth, and surrounded by railings to protect him from the sticky fingers of “mischievous boys and others”.
The statue put Franklin at the heart of those restless, rummaging Victorian attempts to subdue the wild edges of the world to some kind of order. On the base of the plinth, his men are depicted in a relief panel standing in pious, disciplined rows as he is buried, and a motto asserts their claim to have discovered the final piece in the navigational jigsaw puzzle of the Northwest Passage: “They Forged the Last Link with their Lives”. That was at best wishful thinking, but their status as national heroes relied less on what they had achieved than on what they had come to represent. In discovering man’s physical limits, they had also demonstrated that no environment was hostile enough to destroy the toughest fibres of his moral being, such as courage, duty and loving fellowship. In sacrificing themselves for the greater good, they had discovered a greater idea of goodness.
The problem with this heart-warming version of Franklin’s last expedition is that it bears little relation to what really happened. “From concept to motto”, argues Andrew Lambert in his revisionist biography, “the monument was a lie”. The truth was far nastier. According to a scribbled note left in a cairn on the remote northwest corner of King William Island, Franklin had died on June 11, 1847, after his ships had been frozen in the pack ice for nine months. On April 22, 1848, with no prospect of a thaw, the surviving officers decided to abandon their icy wooden coffins and lead more than a hundred men on a march towards the distant Great Fish River. Weakened by hunger and scurvy, they may have known that there was no realistic prospect of reaching it. Even dragging sledges weighing up to 1,400 pounds, they could only carry enough supplies for around forty days, less than half of what they needed to survive. It was a death march.
As they inched their way across a bleached landscape of thrusting cliffs and greedy crevasses, Franklin’s men dropped dozens of small memorials: watches, cutlery, books, still-loaded guns. For Captain Francis McClintock, one of the many would-be rescuers encouraged by the indefatigable Lady Franklin, they were at once clues and relics. However, as he quickly discovered, any attempt to retrieve some kind of meaning from this scattered trail was complicated by the other objects that studded the landscape: the men’s corpses. Some had simply been abandoned, like the skeleton still dressed in a neckerchief neatly tied in a “loose bow-knot”, who had “fallen on his face in the position in which we found him”. Others had not been entirely left behind. Near two skeletons found in a boat was a scattering of human bones that had been cut with steel knives. Despite some nervous attempts to blame the local Inuit population, not least by Dickens in a shrilly racist article published in Household Words, the evidence was clear: whether through choice or necessity, the survivors had turned to cannibalism.
“These men were hungry”, Lambert writes with some relish, “and they did not waste anything.” The fingers were defleshed, the larger bones were cracked open to get at the marrow, and the skulls of the skeletons in the boat were missing, indicating that they had been carried off so that the nutritious brains could be consumed later, a grotesque form of takeaway. Lambert estimates that forty or fifty sailors were eaten by their comrades. As he points out, “We do not know if they killed the living, picking out the weak, the young and the expendable, or whether they confined their attentions to the dead”. Either way, such scenes are far removed from those shown on the base of Franklin’s statue. If anything they are closer to another artwork inspired by the expedition, Edwin Landseer’s painting “Man Proposes, God Disposes”, which depicts the fragments of civilization surrounding an icy wreck (a tattered uniform here, a battered telescope there) and a polar bear crunching contentedly on a human ribcage. The only difference between this scene and the real events is that the savage side of nature turned out to be inside Franklin’s men all along. Their voyage into the sunless Arctic winter had become a real-life version of Heart of Darkness.
Franklin’s expedition was also one of the final chapters in a much longer story of the struggle to subdue that bleak corner of the world, not only by mapping it accurately – conquest through cartography – but also by filling it with meaning. For centuries the Arctic had been a blank sheet of paper on which different themes could be written. Its emptiness made it a good laboratory for testing imported cultural ideas of purity and the sublime, but it was most hospitable to stories that blurred where fact ended and fantasy began. The published accounts of explorers were especially susceptible to romance, even when they had spent months doing nothing more exciting than recording scientific data and eating dried biscuits. Perhaps appropriately for an environment where the boundary between ice and water was always shifting, even the most stolid of these accounts frequently came close to dissolving into myth.
The most persistent myth of all was the existence of the Northwest Passage, a trade route that it was hoped would act as a short cut between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, and lead to fame and fortune for whoever discovered it. In the end it turned out that there were several ways through an unpredictable maze of channels, although they were only navigable for a few weeks of the year, and so not commercially viable before the arrival of ice-breakers, which allowed sailors to smash their way through obstacles rather than carefully navigate around them. Until then the Northwest Passage was an invitation to dream and scheme, although the practical difficulties did not prevent earlier explorers from fighting their way north in wooden sailing vessels which, when they became trapped, proved to be as vulnerable as a walnut shell in a vice. Nor did it prevent them from peddling their own brand of wishful thinking, such as the theory that the further north one travelled, the warmer the sea became.
The nineteenth century was an especially rich period for such stories, as the Arctic settled into the public mind as a place that was both otherworldly and somehow strangely British, the natural home of the stiff upper lip. Franklin’s expedition alone produced such poetic responses as Chandos Abrahall’s Arctic Enterprise (1856), Erasmus Brodie’s Euthanasia (1857), Swinburne’s “The Death of Sir John Franklin” (1860), and an epitaph written by Tennyson for Franklin’s Westminster Abbey monument, which turned him into a contemporary Ulysses who had striven, sought, found, and still not yielded:
Not here! The white North has thy bones; and thou
Heroic sailor-soul,
Art passing on thine happier voyage now
Toward no earthly pole.
Some of these cultural responses were as artificial as Arctic Roll: the Franklin Gallery, for example, a central part of the Royal Naval Exhibition at Chelsea Hospital in 1891, featured a house-sized “iceberg” complete with fake polar bears and twinkling electric lights designed to replicate the aurora borealis. But even as cartographers continued to chip away at the map’s remaining blank spaces, few people were prepared to acknowledge that the real unknown lay closer to home. Franklin’s men did not have to eat each other to discover how whisper-thin the veneer of civilization was. (Darwin might have appreciated the name of the tug chosen to tow their transport ship out to sea: HMS Monkey.) Even expeditions that started off with the intention of bringing culture to this chilly wilderness – amateur dramatics for the officers, education for the ranks, and compulsory religious services for all – found themselves limping home, disfigured by frostbite and haunted by the screams of men driven mad by darkness and solitude.
The search for the Northwest Passage concentrated such disappointments, because as Glyn Williams points out in his superb history of the quest for this aquatic prize, “No episode in the history of oceanic enterprise offers a greater contrast between anticipation and disillusionment”. One explorer after another had his hopes raised and then dashed. During the 1570s, Martin Frobisher brought back 1,250 tons of rocks containing material that “altogether sparkled, and glister in the Sunne like Gold”. The result of this “madcap treasure hunt” was a series of expensive furnaces built at Dartford, and a large pile of iron pyrites, or “fool’s gold”, which was eventually used to build walls and repair roads. It can still be seen glinting mockingly in the Kent sun. Worse yet was to come. In 1716, James Knight examined some Chipewyan Indians, and convinced himself that they knew of a river on whose banks lay “Great Quantitys of pure Virgin Copper lumps of it so bigg that three or 4 Men cant lift it”. Instead, he and his crew ended up in a place the Inuit renamed “Dead Man’s Island”.
This was far from being the only disaster commemorated on the Arctic map. Terror Bay, Starvation Cove, Bloody Fall, Repulse Bay: rarely can such messy human stories have been squeezed into such a neat set of labels. Nor was the construction of this map at all straightforward. The title of Williams’s book compares the search for the Passage to being stuck in a labyrinth, but labyrinths have solid walls; the key problem with Arctic seas, as Williams notes, was that the ice unpredictably hardened or melted to slush. Within days a stretch of open water could become a dead end; a natural harbour could transform itself from a refuge into a trap.
Franklin might seem an unlikely person to have sought these dangers out. His first attempt at an overland Arctic expedition in 1819–22 had become a byword for horror, after he and his men were forced to eat rock lichen and their own shoe leather in order to survive; having written a bestselling account of his journey, he became known as “The man who ate his boots”. There were accusations of cannibalism then, too, although in this case the offender was shot. In fact, the spectre of cannibalism seems to have trailed Franklin like a shadow: in 1836 he became lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land in Australia, where in 1822 a party of convicts had escaped into the bush and ended up eating each other. (Two years later one of the convicts escaped again and ate his companion; this time he was hanged.) Clearly Franklin was made of strong stuff, but he was also sensitive, modest and religious – qualities that were not always shared by those around him. During one factory visit the female convicts showed how boring they found being preached at by turning their backs, lifting their skirts, and smacking their bare bottoms at the official party.
Lambert’s biography is good on these details of Franklin’s career, and generous in showing how they contributed to his public image before he took up his final, fatal command. In some ways he is too generous. To describe Franklin as a “Tragic Hero” suggests that he was something more than a man who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the book does not give strong grounds for thinking of him as a hero in the familiar tragic mould. “Franklin’s culture, science and humanity transformed the colony . . . . Franklin’s enlightened, benevolent and charismatic government . . . . Franklin’s businesslike work habits, insight and powers of expression”: all these examples come on the same page, but they speak of a good civil servant rather than a figure of tragic grandeur.
Of course, overstatement is a natural rhetorical mode for biography, particularly when the author is attempting to clean off the dust that has accumulated on his subject over the years, but too often here it leads to prose so pumped up that arguments are distended out of proportion to the evidence. Sometimes this is just a matter of slack editing, as when the scientist Edward Sabine is described as a savant who “was quite literally forced out of office”, or we are told that the Franklin story “retains the power to deprive grown men of their wits”, and then a few pages later that it “has the power to deprive grown men of their reason”. Some ideas are repeated so often that they take on a strangely self-scrutinizing quality, as if even the author wasn’t entirely convinced: “There can be no doubt that magnetic science was the key to the expedition . . . . the key ‘exploration’ task was linked to the magnetic pole . . . . Magnetic science dominated the genesis and direction of the Franklin expedition . . . . magnetic science dominated the mission”. Lambert’s stress on the scientific work that Franklin was asked to undertake is a valuable corrective to the Boy’s Own narrative that has come to dominate the explorer’s life, but by the time we reach his conclusion, which is that the heroic myth promoted by Lady Franklin “warped the mindset of an age” and “transformed the newly enfranchised working classes into willing cannon-fodder” for the Great War, the over-writing is sadly symptomatic of a book that has lost its way.
This is especially unfortunate given the book’s powerful opening, in which Lambert describes a research trip to the “cold hell” of King William Island (the word “cold” exhausts synonyms as it shivers through his account) during which he experiences the effort it takes merely to stay alive in such a desolate place. But for a sense of how other people have responded to the same environment, his book is far less successful than Glyn Williams’s wide-ranging and crisply written survey. Williams does not say if he has experienced the Arctic at first hand, but he is good at choosing passages that evoke its peculiar mixture of extravagance and dullness. The uniform whiteness, interrupted by moving human specks and the occasional splash of blood. The relentless silence, broken only by the creaking of snow and the howling of dogs. And just out of sight and hearing, the thin snap of ice as a cruise ship makes its way through a once solid sea, and the passengers gather on deck to wonder where the polar bears have gone.
Andrew Lambert
Tragic hero of polar exploration
405pp. Faber. £20.
978 0 571 23160 7
Glyn Williams
The quest for the Northwest Passage
413pp. Allen Lane. £25.
978 1 846 14138 6
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst teaches at Magdalen College, Oxford. His book Victorian Afterlives: The shaping of influence in literature was published in 2002. He is co-editor (with Seamus Perry) of Tennyson Among the Poets: Bicentenary essays, 2009.