Friday, October 31, 2014
The Franklin Expedition and HMS Erebus
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.
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).
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!
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!