Friday, October 31, 2014

The Franklin Expedition and HMS Erebus

Three years ago I began researching the Franklin Expedition as one of 12 new stories for the new edition of Canadian Disasters. I'd read about Franklin over the years but never studied him in detail. It would qualify because it was a total and serious peacetime waste of human lives, it happened in Canada, and I had a other Arctic stories to tell in this edition.
Franklin was famous in 1840's Britain as "the man who ate his boots" on his first attempt to find the Northwest Passage.  This much I recall being told by my friend Cody Poulton, as we walked to elementary school some 50 years ago. Cody was a history buff in Grade 5, obsessed with things Arctic and Antarctic.
Much more recently I read about Owen Beatty and his team who dug up three of Franklin's sailor's bodies on Beechy Island, so well preserved after 138 years. The photos were suitably gross enough to cause a youthful eye to stop and read and learn something.  Hopefully the art director would agree.

Thinking I could read two or three big fat books on the subject Franklin, and throw in those gruesome photos, I'd be done.

Not so fast.

Sir John Franklin was a much more elusive study than I realized.  One book I read claimed he was a putz who had no business going near the Arctic on any of his three journeys. Another book declared he was a wise and fearless leader and that his heroism and wisdom prevented a much worse fate than what happened to his first and second attempts at finding the Northwest Passage. Franklin's own journal, given to me by my brother Erik, gave some different insights altogether. I had to keep reading, peeling back layers of opinion or fact, finding new books on Franklin, because each author had a different take on what happened to kill off 129 adventurous men over a few wretched months, or years, wandering the Arctic.

The recent discovery of HMS Erebus off O'Reilly Island has brought this story back to front page news and vindicated our Prime Minister's investment of time, money and policy objectives in finding this wreck.  It's a great story, made all the more poignant because of Inuit oral histories were found to be dead-on accurate. The Inuit said one of the two great ships had been trapped in ice off O'Reilly Island and then sank there, after a hole was chopped in its hull by a treasure-seeking Inuk. Some experts dismissed this oral history, claiming because of sheet copper being found nearby, this wreck was an entirely different ship, a schooner lost decades later. But the Inuit had it right. Also according to their recall, a very large man was found dead in a locked room on the ship, smelling badly.  Had Franklin's body been preserved there? Kept frozen in winter, or pickled, and made ready for burial in Westminster Abbey or some noble place?  Maybe. Franklin died a year before the two ships were abandoned in what seems to be a mad decision to journey south, more than 1000 miles, in an attempt to reach a lonely Hudson's Bay outpost. Led by Captain Crozier, himself an intrepid adventurer who spent three winters with the Inuit and learned their ways of hunting and travel, the expedition came apart, fatally. Scattered groups of bodies, clothing, weapons and possible trade items were found dispersed over a large area of King William Island and the mainland near Back's Fish River (now Back River).    

  Lead poisoning certainly played a part in the demise of many, but I cannot believe, as one author did, that the entire mass of men went consistently bonkers and collectively made the same stupid mistake. Bad food in poorly soldered tins, improperly cooked by a merchant who was weeks late for a Royal Navy deadline, must have been a factor.  Getting a meal which wouldn't make one puking sick may have driven these men to the logical madness of trying to find and hunt caribou on King William Island when these beasts were still months away, or trying to trade all sorts of brik-a-brak to the Inuit, who also were elsewhere and in such small numbers these hundred or so men would have been impossible to feed anyway.  The Inuit told Dr. John Rae that forty starving white men met them by the Back River and traded for one small seal, all the Inuit had. Months later, the Inuit found only bodies, alone or in groups, and evidence of cannibalism.

The image in my head is one of all the wheels coming off, slowly, slowly, and painfully, for all these 129 men. What an awful way to go!

In the end after reading eleven fat books on the subject, each with its own bias, I had to quit and write the story.   The first version I gave the editor was about six times longer than what she had in mind.  We began a tug-of-war which I lost, because I had to keep making the story shorter, and shorter, and eventually many of the good parts had to be left out.  (The alternative would have been leave the story long and interesting and omit some of my earlier stories from being reprinted in the new edition. The editors wouldn't go for it.)
Lately I have been doing school presentations using all the good details and parts that had to be left out of the version in the book. So all that reading and research came in handy.
And it's still a great story!