Friday, April 28, 2017

Of spoons, forks, and insanity ...

Photo used with the permission of Jersey Heritage
Regular readers of Visions of the North will recall my older posts about the silver utensils -- one spoon in particular -- that played such a key role in the launching of the Schwatka expedition; the story is also told at greater length in Chapter 8 of my Finding Franklin. And yet now, I've discovered quite a new and different chapter of that story, and found a trail of "clews" that stretches all the way from Arctic Canada, to New York, Milwaukee, and eventually to the Channel Island of Jersey, where one of Potter's forks unexpectedly turned up at some point prior to 1936.

The story begins with Captain Edwin A. Potter, late master of the New Bedford whaler "Glacier," who in 1873 returned from two winters in the Arctic with a handful of silverware that had a tale to tell. Captain Potter might not have been the best observer -- he thought that Franklin's crest on his spoons resembled an Indian with a bow and arrow! -- but he did realize that what he had obtained were relics of the Franklin expedition. Two large spoons of Sir John's -- one with the famous copper mend -- were the stars of the show, but their impact wasn't felt until a few years later, when Thomas Barry brought them to the attention of the American Geographical Society (Barry claimed he'd received the spoons from the Inuit; Potter claimed he'd stolen them from him).

As I recount in my book, the spoons were eventually returned to Sophia Cracoft (not, by her account by Thomas Barry as he'd claimed, but only when the whaling company that employed him demanded them back, from whence they went to the US Naval Observatory, and then to Miss Cracroft). But what of the others? What, especially, of the fork with the initials "R N" scratched into it, which Potter thought might mean "Royal Navy" (though that would be odd, as in every other instance the initials were those of one of Franklin's men). A few days ago, looking for better imagery of the silverware of Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, I noticed, via a footnote in my friend Huw Lewis-Jones's article about him, that there was a fork of his in the collections of the Société Jersiaise. That esteemed entity, now a part of Jersey Heritage, had an online database of its collections -- but alas, no fork was listed.
Detail of fork
Hoping against hope, I wrote to them, and received a very kind reply, with the photo above, confirming that they did indeed have such a fork, whose ownership was attributed to Le Vesconte (whose family was from Jersey). The museum, alas, had no provenance for the fork; it first was mentioned in their records in 1936. But in any case, there, scratched onto its upper surface, were letters that looked very much like RN, or perhaps RM, or RII -- it was hard to be certain, but only one fork was said to have had similar marks -- that of Captain Potter.

The line of transmission was very unclear, however. If this fork had been Potter's, how had it found its way across the ocean to Jersey? It was then that I searched the archives of the American Geographical Society (now in Wisconsin), which had sponsored Schwatka's expedition, and found a very curious item. It was, in part, a typed copy of an undated newspaper article, under the headline INSANE.
Captain Edwin A. Potter, formerly of this city, but for a couple of years past a resident of Westport, has been adjudged insane, and was taken to the asylum at Taunton yesterday by Deputy Sherriff Kirby. Capt. Potter sailed for many years from this port in the whaling service, and at one time commanded the bark Glacier in the Hudson Bay fishery.
But what would a notice of Potter's insanity be doing in the AGS archives? The answer was typed below:
Above is a copy of a clipping lent to us by Mr. Wood of the American Numismatic Society, accompanying two forks, two large spoons, and one small spoon. They were returned to Mr. Wood on November 18, 1930.
Howland Wood
"Mr. Wood" was doubtless Howland Wood, the longtime curator of the ANS. But what would he be doing with Potter's spoons and this newspaper clipping? I can only assume that, at some point near the date of this note, Captain Potter's effects had been brought to his attention, possibly via a pawnbroker or someone managing an estate sale. He was born in New Bedford, so news of the story would have been local knowledge. In his search to identify the utensils, he'd found (or been given) the clipping, and had sent the items to the AGS for assessment, or advice. If it was advice he'd sought, I feel confident that they would have recommended they be returned to the the families of their late owners, and that it was by this means that the fork attributed to Le Vesconte arrived in Jersey prior to 1936.

But there is yet more to the mystery: the fork, like those at the National Maritime Museum, has only been photographed from above; with this style of cutlery, with a ridged top, the crest is generally etched on the underside, along with the maker's hallmarks. I'm waiting to hear what the good people of Jersey Heritage uncover; they have taken a great interest in my findings, and plan to have the fork removed from its case and photographed on both sides.  I'll follow up here with a fresh posting as soon as the results are in.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

New DNA evidence on Franklin's sailors

Human jaw from NgLj-2 (courtesy Margaret Bertulli)
It's perhaps not unexpected that, just as news stories about the machinations over 2016 permits for Franklin searches have been gaining widespread attention, that a new study by a key group of land archaeologists has made its appearance, and that Doug Stenton is its lead author. We've known for some time that DNA analysis was contemplated for human skeletal remains -- the possibility was mentioned in an earlier article co-authored by Stenton on the facial reconstructions of two skulls from among these bones, and Stenton talked publicly about this aspect of his work at the Royal Ontario Museum last year. And yet now that the initial article is out, there are a number of surprises -- some small, some large -- about what this new evidence reveals. Even though no matches have as yet been made with living descendants of Franklin's men, the DNA results -- including samples from two hitherto untouched sites -- are pretty remarkable. The world press, perhaps predictably, has seized upon the fact that four samples came back with values consistent as female, one of them from a mandible collected at NgLj-2 much like the one shown here. Despite the caution in the paper that these results were preliminary, and in two of the four instances counterindicated by other factors, the ever-reliable Daily Mail has come out with a headline Mystery of the Doomed Franklin Expedition Deepens: Some of the sailors were WOMEN.

But it's the other revelations of the study that are far more significant in terms of our understanding of the last days of Franklin's men. For one, it reveals that in 2016, work was done both at Booth Point (NcLa-1) and on the Todd Islets (NcLa-5), two sites that many Franklin scholars (myself included) had long urged be examined. The archaeological work itself received no public notice, and thus this paper is the first indication it was undertaken. In addition to these new sites, 32 skeletal elements from Erebus Bay sites were brought back from the cairn there by Doug Stenton and used as sources for DNA samples; the results increased the (minimum) number of distinct individuals represented at NgLj-2 from the original range of 8-11 to 13, along with 10 further distinct individuals at nearby sites -- a significant difference. We must now regard Erebus bay as a site from which a substantial percentage of Franklin's men -- nearly 18% -- never escaped. Beyond that, the Booth Point/Todd Islets site yielded a reading of one individual at the former, and two at the latter (where five individuals had previously been reported, based on the number of skulls).

But even as this evidence brings us much fresh insight, it also reminds us of how new knowledge connects with old. The study observes that, at the Todd Islets site, human bones were "commingled with a similar number of caribou bones." But this is not a surprise; as I mention on page 73 of my book, the Inuktitut name of the place -- qiunak  -- means "the place one can starve to death," but according to local tradition the ones whose starvation gave the place its name were caribou, not men.

It's to be hoped that all this valuable DNA data will soon be able to be compared with samples from living descendants, direct or collateral, to see whether a positive identification can be made. I know that, both in the UK and around the world, there have been efforts to help locate such individuals, and there is generally an eagerness to come forward among them. I'm sure that Doug Stenton and his colleagues are already following up on this, and hope and expect that in the course of their search, resources such as the "Remembering the Franklin Expedition" Facebook page -- whose members include folks with names like Goodsir, Crozier, Collins, and Hodgson -- may help expedite it.

Monday, April 24, 2017

HMS "Terror" Muddle

Thanks to the diligent detective work of Steve Ducharme of the Nunatsiaq News, we now know a good deal more about the Franklin searches of the summer of 2016. Some of what he's uncovered is simply the inevitable back-and-forth between the agency charged with issuing archaeological permits -- the Culture and Heritage department of the Government of Nunavut -- and those seeking such permits, whether the underwater archaeologists of Parks Canada, or those working on sites on land, such as the recently-retired director of that department, Doug Stenton. And yet the case has, as Sherlock Holmes used to like to say, "several point of interest," meaning that not everything may be as it may seems. This is especially true with regard to the activities of the Arctic Research Foundation which, since it isn't an agency of the government, is not subject to laws requiring the disclosure of information to the public.

The first major takeaway is that the GN's Heritage division did two odd things in the same season: it approved a permit for Doug Stenton to do land-based archaeological work in the Terror Bay area, and it issued a specific restriction preventing the Parks underwater team from listing Terror Bay as a fallback search area, should their primary search area in Victoria Strait prove inaccessible. The language was surprising: "Terror Bay is not approved as an alternate survey site. There is no historical, oral historical, or archaeological evidence identifying Terror Bay as a possible location for one of the Franklin wrecks." In hindsight, of course, this sounds foolish, but even at the time it's a bit odd. True, prior to the 2016 discovery no one had singled out Terror Bay as a specific location for one of the ships -- but no one had excluded it either. Some known points -- the existence of a "Tent Place" on the shore there, the discovery of a crumpled metal tank by Patsy Klengenberg's wife in 1931, suggested the presence of some vessel in the vicinity, at least for a time. Even back in 2010, before either ship had been found, I wrote in this blog that "we can suppose that they (Erebus and Terror) were trapped again, and one of the vessels crushed, in either Erebus Bay or Terror Bay, or both."

So I think it's wrong to have claimed there was no evidence as to a ship in Terror Bay -- as with many aspects of the Franklin story, there was indeed evidence that, in retrospect, can be seen as having pointed there -- the key factor seems to have been Stenton's plan to do work on land at the site. Perhaps he hoped that, as had happened in 2014 when his helicopter pilot Andrew Stirling had spied what turned out to be part of a ship's davit, a discovery on land would once again point the way to a still greater one underwater. The language of his application -- “Time and weather permitting, an aerial search will also be conducted in eastern Terror Bay in an attempt to locate a sunken vessel reported at the location by Inuit” -- suggests that he was being disingenuous at the very least. One wonders whether these Inuit reports were the ones of today, or from older testimony. Could Sammy Kogvik's account have been known about before that summer?

In any case, all that is little more than a minor kerfuffle when compared to the major revelations in Ducharme's article: 1) That the Arctic Research Foundation was not named in the 2016 permit at all, since Parks expected to  assign the Martin Bergmann as a vessel under their supervision; and that 2) That although the RCMP conducted a two-month investigation into the actions of the crew of the Bergmann, with an eye to violations of the archaeological provisions of the Nunavut Act, it ended its probe due to "insufficient evidence." This is stunning, since the violations are crystal clear: the Bergmann was not named on the permit, and had no right to conduct any independent search of any kind, and the place they looked -- whether they knew it or not -- had been specifically forbidden. The Nunavut Act states that, without a permit, no vessel, diver, or underwater device may come within 30 meters of a potential underwater archaeological site:
No person, other than a person engaged in a search and rescue operation, shall dive, or approach with an underwater submersible, to within 30 m of an archaeological artifact without a Class 2 permit.
And yet ARF's own video, made after an earlier camera rig had snagged on the wreck and been lost, not only shows that they went much closer, but actually penetrated within the vessel.

We may, as have many who've written about the discovery of HMS Terror, happily credit Inuit accounts, as given by Sammy Kogvik, for this fortuitous find. We may revel in what the video shows us, and thrill at the discovery of the ship in such extraordinary condition. But a discovery that deliberately flouts the law is a danger to all discovery; it opens the wrecks of Franklin's ships to prodding by any party who thinks they can get away with it, as ARF did. ARF furthermore hid the discovery from its partner -- indeed, given the permit was issued only in Parks's name, its supervisor -- for eight days at least, giving an exclusive version of of the find to photojournalist Paul Watson, who then sold it to The Guardian. Keeping the people under whose permit they were to have worked in the dark, and probing a sensitive wreck with no supervision from trained archaeologists, would seem to be a fairly clear-cut case. ARF's belated claim that there was no "updated protocol" for 2016 makes no difference -- if there was indeed no such protocol, they should never have been participating in the search at all.

Despite all this, it's my hope that, as this summer's search approaches, we can all once more get back to the fundamental fascination with the Franklin story that drives all of us who have encountered it. I hope that the new agreements between Parks Canada and key Inuit organizations will make these new finds more readily available, and will increase the benefit to local communities. I hope that those who work on land, and those who dive below the waters, will come to see that each side possesses a part of a symmetric puzzle, both of which will be required to fully understand it. And, above all, I hope that both of Franklin's ships will be effectively protected from those whose lack of care and knowledge may damage the vital evidence these almost sacred vessels have preserved within their oaken hulls for more than a century and a half.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Dr. John Rae

Image courtesy Douglas Wamsley
I've written many times in this blog about the remarkable career of Dr. John Rae. His achievements place him in the first rank of Arctic explorers, and yet for much of the past century, his name had not been listed among them. He had the misfortune to be the bearer of bad news -- that some of Sir John Franklin's men had resorted to cannibalism, which Rae called "the last extremity" -- and to defend his Inuit friends and contacts for their veracity against a lengthy diatribe by, of all people, Charles Dickens. Although officialy awarded the reward for ascertaining the fate of Franklin he was shunned by many of his contemporaries. Never the less, Rae never became a bitter man, and throughout the remainder of his life he never expressed anything but admiration for Sir John Franklin, and pity for the terrible fate faced by the last survivors of his expedition.

I'm very happy to note that things have changed considerably in recent years. Ken McGoogan's book Fatal Passage (2001) led the way, followed by John Walker's extraordinary documentary adaptation Passage (2008).  In 2014, acting at the request of MP Alistair Carmichael, and based on documents submitted by supporters of Rae (including a letter of mine), the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey approved a memorial to Dr. Rae, to be placed in the Abbey immediately in front of Frankin's cenotaph, and in his 201st birthday (30 September 2014) it was installed and dedicated. By honoring Rae this memorial honored many -- including the countless Scots who so often served with high distinction in the Arctic. And, at the same time, it spoke to the spirit of friendship that was so strong between Rae and the Inuit among whom he lived and worked.

There remains more to be done. The John Rae Society, which was able to obtain title to the Hall of Clestrain, Rae's birthplace and ancestral home, is seeking begin work to stabilize and eventually restore the building. This May, I'll be traveling to Stromness and Kirkwall, along with novelist (and Rae's great-great- grand-niece) Jane Hamilton, to help raise awareness (and funds) for the further restoration of the Hall at the 2017 John Rae Festival.  We'll also be launching Ms. Hamilton's novel Finding John Rae  (the title's similarity to my own was a complete (though happy) coincidence that she and I discovered only after the fact!). You can read more about these events here, and download a complete schedule here.

I hope that a great many people will be able to attend one or more of these events, and that their effect will be to motivate and mobilize those who feel the same kind of admiration for Dr. Rae and what he represents as do I. If you can't attend personally, bear in mind that membership in the Society will support their work as well, and members will also receive a regular News Letter with the most current account of its efforts to gain recognition for Rae's achievements and the preservation of his home. A membership form can be downloaded online, and the Society welcomes members from around the world.

And so today let all of us, wherever we may be, pause a moment and recall the singular admixture, the rare alloy of character and skill, out of which Dr. John Rae's achievements were wrought.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

On Abandoning ship ...

Belcher's Squadron (HMS "Resolute" at far left)
All who visit this blog likely know of more than one ship that was wrecked or abandoned in the Arctic -- Parry's HMS "Fury," the Rosses' "Victory," and -- perhaps best known of all -- HMS "Resolute," abandoned by Captain Henry Kellett, on orders from Sir Edward Belcher, on 28th April 1854. Kellett, as would be any captain, was extremely reluctant to follow this order, but in the end decided that duty required it. We know the other side of that story -- how the "Resolute" was found adrift in the David Straits, brought back to port by a whaling captain, and restored at US Government expense before being re-presented to Queen Victoria as a gift. That gift long accepted, and the time having come for the vessel to be broken up, the Queen gave orders that several desks should be made from her timbers -- the largest and most prominent of these being the "Resolute Desk" that has reposed for most of the past 50 years in the Oval Office of the White House as the desk of the President of the United States.

But what exactly does it mean to "abandon" ship? The question takes on new interest following remarks by Dr. Martin Magne, recently retired as the director of archaeology and history for Parks Canada, and whose work has been instrumental in the discovery of Sir John Franklin's "Erebus" and "Terror," to the effect that the "Terror" may have been prepared for abandonment. According to an article about Magne's work in the Prince George Citizen,  the vessel was "well-sealed in accordance with Admiralty instructions, which include sealing the doors with tar."

This appears to have been a misstatement on their part -- when I reached out to Dr. Magne, he said that he'd merely spoken of this as something to look for, not something observed -- but it certainly got me started thinking. What exactly would the crew of an Arctic discovery vessel have done prior to an orderly abandonment? I have not yet been able to locate any specific printed instructions on the matter, but the example of "Resolute" seems a perfect precursor -- if "Terror" had been deliberately abandoned, surely the crew would have followed  much the same procedure as did that of the "Resolute" just a few years later.

As it happens, we have a fairly detailed record of Kellett's actions on that occasion. On the final evening aboard ship, as the sledges were being loaded for the crew and their provisions, a series of clearly anticipated procedures was followed. The pilot-jack -- letter "D" -- was hoisted at the foretopmast-head, and "the red ensign and pendant displayed, that in the event of her being obliged to 'knock under' to her icy antagonist, she might sink beneath the wave, as many a gallant predecessor had done, with colours flying." As a precaution, the signals books were burned, lest their contents fall into the wrong hands. A final dinner was also held, during which "the carpenters were employed caulking down the gun-room skylight and after companion." After that meal, Captain Kellett raised a glass of wine to the gallant ship, the decks were cleared, and the carpenter "secured" the main hatchway.

So what did this caulking and securing consist of? "Caulking," in naval parlance, meant sealing up the cracks between planks, or -- in the case, one assumes -- sealing up the covers of hatchways and companionways. "Caulk" was tar -- the best sort was, and still is, "Stockholm Tar" -- and could also involve either oakum or marline coated with that same tar. The sealing of these parts of the ship both preserved the interior against intruders, animal or human, and increased the chance, should the ship ever be freed, of her not taking on water (the "Resolute," when found, did have some water in the hold, but this likely came from the lower timbers rather than the deck).

So if tar or tarring of hatchways and companionways was observed on HMS "Terror," it would imply that, at least to some extent, her abandonment was deliberate, and that the preparations were well along. This stands in contrast to Inuit account of a ship that sank suddenly, while its cargo was being unloaded, and taking some of those engaged in this work to the bottom. On the other hand, the sinking could have occurred in the midst of such a procedure, or on an occasion on which some later party had returned to the ship to retrieve supplies. Indeed, since we know from the Victory Point record that both vessels were temporarily "deserted" in 1848, it may well be that caulking would have been done then, and might be difficult to distinguish from similar work done later.

The only way to know for certain, of course, will be when Parks Canada's archaeologists begin their work this coming summer. Hopefully, the well-preserved nature of HMS "Terror" will enable them to find clearer evidence one way or the other; no matter that, surely great things will be learned.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Tookoolito

Of all those who searched for traces of Franklin in the decades immediately after the disappearance of his expedition, no one figure was more pivotal that Tookoolito, also known as "Hannah," who served as Charles Francis Hall's main translator throughout the 1860's. "Too-koo," as Hall often referred to her in his notebooks, had made a powerful impression from the start; describing their first meeting, the usually prosaic Hall waxed poetic: “I could not help admiring the exceeding gracefulness and modesty of her demeanour. Simple and gentle in her way, there was a degree of calm intellectual power about her that more and more astonished me.”

Tookoolito more than lived up to that initial impression; her translation became the key to Hall's work, and she came to share his boundless enthusiasm for the Franklin mystery. Quite frequently, in his notebooks, Hall would note her interpretation and excitement as new pieces of evidence came to light, and her ability to craft follow-up questions to clarify the Inuit testimony is striking. As just one example, it was Too-koo's insight into the infamous "black men" story that suggested the "three great shouts" were in all likelihood three cheers:
These men who were then all around him, had black faces, black hands, black clothes on -- were black all over!  They had little black noses, and this Innuit was very alarmed because he could not get away from these black men, but especially he was frightened when they made three great noises [three rounds of cheers as Too-koo-li-too thinks these great noises were]. 
Tookoolito -- whose Inuktitut name is conjecturally sometimes given as Taqulittuq -- was born in the Cumberland Sound area around 1838. In 1852, no more than fifteen years old, Tookoolito was brought to England by wine merchant Thomas Bowlby, who had taken an interest in missionary work among the Inuit. With her came her husband Ebierbing ("Joe"), along with Akulukjuk (referred to as "Harlukjoe"), an unrelated seven-year-old whom some at the time assumed was their son. Bowlby exhibited the group at a number of locations, and was even able to arrange a meeting with Queen Victoria, which took place on February 3rd 1853. The young Queen was impressed by the meeting, remarking in her journal, "They are my subjects, very curious, & quite different to any of the southern or African tribes, having very flat round faces, with a Mongolian shape of eyes, a fair skin, & jet black hair. They are entirely clothed in skins." Too-koo, for her part, recalled that she "liked the appearance of Her Majesty, and every thing about the place."

Unlike some of the unscrupulous men who lured Inuit away to be shown abroad, Bowlby was as good as his word, returning Tookoolito and Ebierbing to their home. Over the years that followed, their familiarity with English language and customs led to working with some of the whaling crews that wintered in Cumberland Sound, and it was there that Charles Francis Hall encountered them. He'd heard something of them from his friend Sydney O. Budington, and on meeting them, secured their services as guide and translator. They assisted him in his researches around Frobisher bay, and returned with him to the United States afterwards. Hall, well-meaning but unwise, leant them and their young child out for shows at Barnum's Museum and Boston's Aquarial Gardens, as well as bringing them along on his lecture tour, where he sought to raise funds for his return. Very likely as a result, Hannah's son, little Butterfly, became ill and died, and she herself nearly died of grief. And yet, nursed back to health by Mrs. Budington, Hannah returned along with Joe to serve Hall on his next, longer Arctic search, the one which finally brought him to the shores of King William Island. During that journey, Tookoolito gave birth to another son, whom Hall christened "King William," but who died not long afterwards. In what might have been a sort of compassionate gesture, Hall traded a sled and some other valuables for a young girl whom Hannah and Joe called simply Panik (daughter), or Punny.

After Hall finally gave up on his mission of finding Franklin survivors and organized the Polaris expedition in search of the North Pole, the whole family came with him, only to suffer the privations and uncertainty of drifting south on an ice-island after Hall was murdered and the party lost contact with their ship. Thanks in large part to Joe's hunting skills, the group survived long enough to be rescued, and he and Hannah both testified at the inquest into Hall's death. They believed Hall when he told them he had been poisoned, but unfortunately the Board of Inquiry gave more credence to the testimony of the white ship's crew and scientists, and the likely murderer, Dr. Emil Bessels, was never charged. Hannah and Joe moved to Groton and lived in a home not far from the Budingtons, from which, Joe noted proudly in a letter, "Punny go to school every day." Alas, it was not to last; Punny died in 1874 and Hannah followed her in 1876; they are buried next to one another in the Star Cemetery in Groton, where I've often visited them.

There was, in her day, no farther-faring Inuk than Tookoolito, along with her lifelong partner Ebierbing; without her work, none of the detailed Inuit testimony sought by Hall would ever have been collected -- evidence which made the discovery of "Erebus" and "Terror" possible. And yet, at least as of now, Too-koo has never received the sort of recognition her work deserves. Her name was mentioned as a candidate for a woman to appear on Canadian currency, and a couple of years ago there was a Kickstarter campaign for a play about her life, to be written and staged by Reneltta Arluk. It's to be hoped that it will be presented someday, and will not be the last remembrance of this remarkable woman.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Garth Walpole

Once upon a time, there was a man who yearned with all his heart to explore the secrets of the Arctic. And, at his side, there was his wife, who supported him in all he did, even after he had set sail on his final journey to that "undiscover'd country / from whose bourn no traveller returns." And finally, "after long waiting, she herself departed to seek him in the realms of light."

Readers will, I suspect, recognize the familiar elements of the story of Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane, and the words from the monument at Westminster Abbey -- and yet, it is not not of them that I speak, but rather of Garth Walpole and his wife Alison.

I'd come to know Garth via the “Remembering the Franklin Expedition” Facebook group, established in 2008 by Lee Preston. Garth was one of the first to join, and even amidst the many enthusiastic “Franklinites” who formed the core of the group, Garth stood out. He was generous with what he had, eager to obtain articles and imagery that he didn’t, and lively in the occasional, nearly real-time exchanges that were then – and still are – a feature of the site. Through these discussions, I learned a bit more about Garth:  he was had been born in Hobart, Tasmania, known for its large public statue of Franklin, not far from Government House, where Sir John had once served as the colony’s Lieutenant-Governor. Garth, from what I understood, had always had a fascination with the past, but it was only later in life that the Franklin story became for him – as it was for all of us – such a delightfully persistent obsession.

Working on his archaeology degree, he’d written a thesis on the Franklin relics that he was expanding to book-length; he’d shared some sections with me, as I’d shared sections of my own ongoing work. He was always especially eager to obtain new images of the relics, or resolve discrepancies in the archival records about them, and he and I would often exchange messages on such questions. And, when word of the discovery of Franklin’s ship got out, Garth had a strong intuition that it was the “Erebus,” not the “Terror,” but I wagered against him, telling him I’d “eat my hat” if I were wrong. And of course, he was right – I can still recall the taste of felt (though, in the interest of avoiding indigestion, a symbolic nibble had to make do for the whole). Along with the rest of us – perhaps more than any of us – he reveled in that discovery, and it energized his work.

None of us had known, though, that he was already ill. It wouldn’t have been like Garth to say much about it; I imagine that he must have been a fairly private person, and didn’t want to be the recipient of online sympathy. And so we didn’t know, until his wife Alison posted a note to the group, letting us know that he was in the final stages of his illness and expressing his thanks for the companionship and encouragement he’d received from the group. Of course, we all responded with the same feeling, sharing our sense of gratitude and feeling of loss, and it was a comfort to know that Ali (as we came to know her) had passed along our regards. It came as a shock, though, how quickly the end came, and Garth was no longer among us. 

It was then that I undertook, at Ali's request, to find a publisher for Garth's manuscript. She sent it, along with all his notes and two large cartons containing all his Franklin books, so that I'd have all the resources he'd assembled as I edited and prepared the book for publication. I knew that it would be no easy task to find a publisher, and after nearly nine months of writing queries, I was beginning to doubt that I could. It was then that Glenn M. Stein, author of Discovering the North-West Passage: The Four-Year Arctic Odyssey of H.M.S. Investigator and the McClure Expedition, suggested I contact his editor at McFarland publishers in North Carolina. They accepted the project, and I was delighted to be able to let Ali know that I'd found a home for Garth's book.

When I told her the news, Ali was overjoyed, as was I – although, by then, this joy was already tinctured with fresh sadness. For, in the time it had taken to find a home for the book, Ali had had a relapse of her cancer, and had already moved into hospice care.  She was, however, able to pass from this world knowing that Garth’s book would indeed be coming out, and that his many years of work would not be for nought.

And now, at last, it's available to the public. It will, I expect, have a special appeal to those first drawn to the Franklin story by the palpable melancholy associated with the Franklin relics, many of which are soon to be on display for the first time in over a century -- along with newly-recovered ones -- at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. But there are many other aspects of the Franklin story on which Garth's careful archaeological examination sheds fresh light; his analysis of the earliest finds on Beechey Island is invaluable, as is his comparison of the various published accounts of the Schwatka search and its discoveries. The final section of the book offers an illustrated history of the relics as they were depicted in newspapers, magazines, stereoviews, and guidebooks. It demonstrates how significant these relics are, marking as they do the final evidence of Franklin’s men, of their boyish enthusiasm, their fortitude, their willingness to risk all on a voyage of unknown result. In a sense, they are not unlike those relics that mark our own everyday lives: eyeglasses, gloves, a button, or a bit of wool. They are, as with Franklin, only the fragments of a life, the remainders, the leftovers if you will. And yet, though inanimate, they have had, as Garth might say – extraordinary lives of their own. His book is their biography.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

A recently rediscovered poem by Robert W. Service

O gather ye northern voyagers, and gather ye trappers of old
For the snow’s blown off of a curious tale that’s never been truly told
It’s the strangest yarn of the frozen zone that ever I yet did hear
Whether trapper Smith told it true and straight (or maybe ’twas just the beer)

In the winter of ’34, he said, came an Irishman name of Pease
Without so much as a howdy-do, like a man blown in by the breeze
He’d only one great dream, he swore, and it held him in its grip
And that was to find, though the snow made him blind, Lord Franklin’s missing ship

He’d a map, he said, from Rasmussen, and it laid out clear and plain
Where the lost logbooks of the fabled crew nigh a century had lain
X marked the spot! and yet all that he’d brought was a single scrawny dog
Yet ’twas was clear from the start that he had the heart, no matter how long the slog

To hear Smith tell it, they all thought him mad, but at last they figured they’d help
The death of one man was a thing they could stand, but they pitied the loss of the whelp
So Angus MacIver, a fine old dog-driver, a fellow who never felt dread
Went and hitched up his sled, and another for Pease; with a crack of a whip they were fled

Their progress was slow through the blinding snows, for the first hundred miles or so
MacIver was minded to turn back to town, but Pease pleaded onward to go
At last the storm cleared, and their eyelids were seared, by the glare of the midnight sun
And onward they pressed, though they’d never have guessed, what lay at the end of their run.

At last they made camp, by the light of a lamp, as the polar twilight fell 
Pease bumped into something nearby in the drifts, and suddenly let out a yell!
’Twas a low house of logs, with no window or door, the length and the breadth of a man
In this lonely zone, where so few paths were known, there had ended a human lifespan.  

Strange figures were carved in the uppermost log, that MacIver deciphered, bar none
“The grave of a white man” the legend did read, and the date eighteen fifty and one
“’Tis the grave of the last of Lord Franklin’s bold crew” cried out Pease, with his hat in his hand
And his heart trembled inward, and grief racked his frame, and he found that he scarcely could stand.

Recovering his wits, he dug in with his mitts, and soon cleared the snow off for a space
With an axe in his hand he then broke through the bands that had held the logs firmly in place
He lowered the lamp and peered into the damp, but no sign of a corpse could he find
There were animal bones, rusty nails, cannon shot, and some pieces of cloth and old twine.

Had the grave then been looted? Had wolves tunneled in? Had the body been carried away?
Pease looked at MacIver, but the good old dog driver could hardly think what he could say
’’Tis the Law of the North that a man who goes forth, in a climate that never forgives
Becomes food for the famished, now that his life is done, so that other poor creatures may live

Pease looked for a sign, but saw naught but the stars, that yet shine on the living and dead
And he wondered out loud, but could never say how’d, he e’er got such ideas in his head
So he turned back to town, with his face in a frown, and from there sailed back over the sea
He had yearned to discover the fate of another, but ’twas his own fate he found — mo chroi!

O gather ye northern voyagers, and gather ye trappers of old
For the snow’s blown off of a curious tale that’s never been truly told
It’s the strangest yarn of the frozen zone that ever I yet did hear
Whether trapper Smith told it true and straight (or maybe ’twas just the beer)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Francis Kennedy Pease

Perhaps the least well-known Franklin searcher of the modern era, Francis Kennedy Pease was no stranger to the polar regions -- indeed, one of his first voyages was as a midshipman aboard RSS Discovery, on its way to deliver a permanent headstone for Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave. Like Shackleton, Pease had been born in Co. Kildare; his father, Charles Pease, was a Major in the British Army. Frank Taaffe, one of the organizers of the Shackleton Autumn School in Athy, has an interesting post on his blog Eye on the Past, which gives further details on Pease's life and career.

His voyage south was in 1927, but Pease did not venture north until 1935, when -- having received, by his own account, some kind of map from Knud Rasmussen -- he lit out in search of the logbooks of the Franklin expedition. The story sounds a bit dodgy -- had Rasmussen known of the location of such a treasure, it's hard to imagine his not having pursued it himself -- and then there's the nagging detail that the great explorer died in 1933, two years before Pease's expedition. Pease supposedly took with him one dog -- his Irish terrier! -- although by some accounts he also borrowed or purchased additional dogs in Churchill, Manitoba (including one, "Scottie," whose taxidermied remains may be seen at the Manitoba Museum to this day). It's said that he was accompanied by veteran trapper Angus MacIver, an articulate, capable man who contributed a number of articles on wolves and wolverines to The Beaver. And yet, of this seemingly substantial search, very little remains in the way of published accounts -- indeed, the only one I could find is a lone article from the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser of 12 June 1935 (you can read the full text here).

By Pease's own account, they found "the grave of a white man believed to be the last survivor of the Franklin expedition," located "250 miles north of Fort Churchill," along with a cairn beneath which were buried "the remains of a sea chest." The grave itself, as he described it, was "made in the Indian fashion ... of logs of spruce trees in the form of a tunnel, with both ends sealed by logs and earth" and "bore Indian hieroglyphics meaning 'white man buried here 1851.'" The relics from the cairn included  "rusty nails and cannon balls, some blue cloth, canvas, and rotted wood," while the tomb, though not described as having been damaged, contained only some "animal bones." The article from the Singapore paper says that the items retrieved were put in the hands of the Canadian government -- presumably, in 1935, this would have meant the National Museum -- but searches of the online databases of its successor institutions (the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian Museum of Nature) produces nothing filed under Pease's name.

This was, apparently, Pease's first and last Arctic foray. According to Frank Taaffe's account, "After service in the Royal Air Force in World War II he spent the rest of his life as a landscape contractor dying in 1987." It's hard to know how much credit to give to his claims as to a Franklin grave -- but certainly he fits well within the gallery of obsessive amateurs whose curiosity was piqued by this greatest of Northern mysteries.

Update 12/29: According to this article by historian Tina Adcock, Pease made it "no further north or west than Winnipeg"! The mystery deepens -- or perhaps doesn't. Might he have made the whole thing up?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Franklin for every era ...

Sir John and I in Spilsby, Lincolnshire (his birthplace)
This morning I happened on an article in Hakai magazine in which Canadian officials and scientists were described as seeking a new name for the new coast guard vessel hitherto anticipated to carry Sir John Franklin's name.

I believe that would be a serious mistake. The view of Franklin as nothing but a failure and a cultural ignoramus, which has its origins in the (rather more nuanced) account of his last expedition in Pierre Berton's Arctic Grail, is a very narrow one, and one which does not, I feel, represent his larger cultural significance to Canada or to the world. One voice in his favor might be that of the novelist Joseph Conrad, who in one of his last essays, "Geography and Some Explorers," wrote:
"The dominating figure among the seamen explorers of the first half of the nineteenth century is that of another good man, Sir John Franklin, whose fame rests not only on the extent of his discoveries, but on professional prestige and high personal character. This great navigator, who never returned home, served geography even in his death. The persistent efforts, extending over ten years, to ascertain his fate advanced greatly our knowledge of the polar regions."
To add to those remarks, made nearly a century ago, I would say that the Franklin story, as another novelist -- Margaret Atwood -- has noted, is part of the essential fabric of Canadian culture and identity; it's been the subject of numerous novels and poems by Canadian writers, and the recent discovery of Franklin's two ships in 2014 and 2016 has electrified the world. As Atwood notes, "every age has created a Franklin suitable to its needs," even if he was not (as she wryly puts it) the "crunchiest biscuit in the packet." His name, and all that its echoes contain, is of enormous and vital significance, both to the past and to the future of Canada.

Those who speak of Franklin as a "failure" misunderstand the very nature of exploration. It is, inevitably, fraught with risk; indeed it is that risk that grants those who undertake it their heroic status. It's as foolish -- and insulting -- to speak of Franklin as a failure as it would be to use that term for a soldier killed in battle, or taken prisoner. He gave his life -- and, perhaps fortunately, did not live to endure the far greater suffering experienced by his surviving crews. They all gave their lives, that this uncharted realm be charted, and it is their sacrifice which earns our respect.

Throughout the ages, Franklin has been admired -- not just by Joseph Conrad, but by writers such as Dickens, Thoreau, and Verne -- and, most importantly, by those who followed in his footsteps. Those who somehow believe that Amundsen, because first through the passage, deserves a greater share of glory, would do well to read his own words:
"When I was fifteen years old, the works of Sir John Franklin, the great British explorer, fell into my hands. I read them with a fervid fascination which has shaped the whole course of my life. Of all the brave Britishers who for 400 years had given freely of their treasure, courage, and enterprise to dauntless but unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the Northwest Passage, none was braver than Sir John Franklin. "
I am hardly an impartial advocate of course -- I've spent the past 25 years researching and writing about Franklin -- but I do hope that, despite the questions raised as part of the process of commissioning this new Coast Guard vessel, the name will be retained.