Thursday, December 20, 2012

Arctic Newspapers IV: The Discovery News

When it comes to newspapers printed with moveable type on board Arctic vessels, the least well-known of all is surely The Discovery News, which was published during George Strong Nares's 1875-1876 expedition aboard "Discovery" and "Alert." Printed in two columns on broad quarto-sized sheets, it fully answered to the word "newspaper," differing chiefly by its lack of advertisements and its (necessarily) limited circulation. It was launched with high hopes, as described in the diary of Matthew Miller, Asstant Engineer: "October 15, 1875: The Editor's Box for contributions to the newspaper was fixed upon today, outside of the Naturalist's cabin [Henry Chichester Hart], who has been elected Editor thereof." In November, Miller noted with satisfaction that "Our paper that I have casually mentioned has, by dint of perseverance on the part of the Editor and Printer, been brought out in the form of 2 sheets of closely printed matter of interest to those on board." The copy shown here, from a private collection, is dated Nov. 27, 1875. It mentions an earlier issue published on Nov. 19, and notes that the printer was Benjamin Wyatt. Exactly how many issues were printed may never be known; it's not mentioned again in Miller's diary, and there's no reference to it in Nares's published narrative. It's a shame, since in terms of quality of printing, it's among the finest and most ambitious of all Arctic newspapers.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pigeons and Hectographs

A few weeks ago, news broke of a WWII-era carrier pigeon, whose bones were recently found in a chimney in Surrey. And, more remarkably, attached to one of the deceased bird's legs was a small red cylinder which still contained its original encrypted message! There was a good deal of excitement, and the hope was widely expressed that the message could be decrypted, until it turned out -- according, at least to the GCHQ, the UK government's agency for such things, that the message could not be decrypted, since it apparently had made use of a "one time pad," a form of encryption which, assuming its key is truly random and is only used once, is impossible to break.

It may well be that the message itself will never be known, but, thanks to Nick Pelling and followers at his Cipher Mysteries blog, it turns out one can still learn a good deal about it. The message was signed, after all, by one "W. Stot Sjt" -- the "j" in "Serjeant" makes him a British Army NCO, as the name of that rank was spelt with a "g" in other branches of service -- so Pelling and company tracked him down and identified him as Lance Serjeant William Stout.  Stout, who died of wounds suffered on D-Day and was buried in France, and had a brief but spectacular moment of service in that campaign, apparently managing almost single-handedly to disable several German gun emplacements that lay between his unit's tanks and their goal of Caen. If sent by him, then, the message must have been dispatched on D-Day itself, and may well have consisted of a request for aerial bombardment of certain targets related to this operation, and (possibly, but I think less likely) a note that Stout had been gravely wounded. I would guess that the message was more likely sent prior to Stout's heroic actions, but unless it's eventually deciphered we may never know. Pelling also points out that that the pencilled addendum -- "lib. 1625" -- must have been made by a French speaker, since lib. was almost certainly short for "libéré" -- set free, the time of the pigeon's release for the homeward flight.

And that was when I noticed something odd, something that reminded me of a recent post of mine here about the Greely expedition's "Arctic Moon" newspaper: why were the cipher text, the Serjeant's signature, and the "Time of origin" filled out in blue, while the pigeon's name and number and time of release were written in pencil by a Frenchman?  The blue could, I suppose, have been a ball-point pen (a luxury item hard to obtain in wartime) or, perhaps the original message was, in fact, a hectograph. The pencil-weilding Frenchman indicated that there were two copies; how better to make them quickly than to use a hectograph?  The Serjeant would, with a pre-supplied form, have written the ciphertext master; this would have been taken to the officer in charge of actually dispatching the birds.  He would then have used it to make two hectographic copies, adding the details on each bird to both copies just prior to their release, and then destroying the original.  But were hectographs used at this time for this purpose? Yes indeed, according to this page, which details the work of a young woman, Pauline Gorman, who served at the Allied Forces headquarters in North Africa:
[Gorman] also operated a hectograph machine, a printing process which involved the transfer of an original, prepared with special inks, to a pan of gelatin or a gelatin pad pulled tight on a metal frame. Hectography, which required limited technology — and left few traces behind — could be used in clandestine operations.
The traces left by this process are apparent on the image of the original shown above: at the sixth line of cipher text, the bottom and part of the middle of the last two five-letter groups is oddly darker than the surrounding text, in a way that does not seem to correspond with likely variations in the pressure of a pen.  There's also some unusual touch-up at the left of the line above in the group "UAOTA." This could have been made with a hectograph pencil, the same as used for the original master copy, if (as may have happened) the duplication left these letters indistinct.

The use of the hectograph explains why a message encrypted by a British Army NCO would have been sent and marked by a French soldier -- the Frenchman was at a different location, where the birds were kept, and was using a hectograph to make copies, a good idea given that a single message would have had a far lesser chance of reaching its destination.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Arctic Newspapers III: The Polar Almanac

In the annals of Arctic newspapers, the Polar Almanac holds pride of place: it was actually printed using movable type and a press aboard H.M.S. Enterprise in Arctic Bay in 1853-4, making it -- at a slim 24 pages -- the most northerly printed book in the world. The technical challenges facing such a production, in a period when ink could, even aboard ship, freeze solid, and the cold metal parts of the press labored under the reduced efficacy of congealed lubricants, were daunting, and it is a remarkable credit to Henry Hester, the ship's coxswain, that he managed as much as he did.  Some pages were blank, or contained only a literal "almanac" of locations and temperature readings, but many had full-page text. The whole was printed on light green paper and bound in cream-colored wrappers; the print run seems to have been fairly small, as only a handful of copies have survived. Elaine Hoag, a rare book bibliographer at the National Library of Canada, and expert on Arctic shipboard printing, says only five. In her article, "Caxtons of the North," she also notes several unusual features of this newspaper: 1) That the coxswain, rather than the ship's clerk, served as printer (a necessity since the clerk, Edward Whitehead, had died earlier on the voyage); 2) The green paper of four of the surviving copies, originally intended for balloon messages, perhaps to aid in their visibility amidst the wilderness of white; 3) That it was printed with a very limited fond of type, which contained (for instance) no italic letters. It was not at all a newspaper in the sense of (even) some of the more elaborate manuscript papers, but it had the distinction of being entirely printed.

The page shown here is from what is believed to by Captain Collinson's personal copy, as it was passed down through his family, and is in remarkably good condition.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Arctic Newspapers II: The Arctic Moon

Among the more unusual papers printed by Arctic explorers is the Arctic Moon, published at Fort Conger by members of the Greely Expedition.  It was unusual not only for its content, but for its means of production; the Moon was printed using an apparatus known as the "hektograph"or gelatin duplicator, a relatively new invention at the time, and a distant cousin of the mimeograph machines common in the 1960's and '70's. Like the mimeograph, the hektograph used a dense ink containing a dark blue analine dye; one wrote with a special pencil upon coated paper; this paper was then lain down upon a bed of gelatin, which absorbed the ink. To "print" additional copies, one lay a sheet of clean paper on top of the bed of gelatin, and gently passed a roller over the surface.  The ink was then absorbed by the paper, which was then removed and allowed to dry. Lieutenant Lockwood and Sergeant Rice were the principal producers and editors of this newspaper; Lockwood drew the masthead, which depicted the main building at Fort Conger, while Rice oversaw the production; it was noted at the time that he was able to produce "enough for all, and many to spare."

This copy of the Arctic Moon was that belonging to Sergeant David L. Brainard, and is from the private collection of a friend. Alas, like nearly all surviving copies, it has suffered considerable indignities, becoming folded, torn, and water-stained on it way to becoming a dear-bought souvenir of a terrible ordeal.  There is said to be one nearly perfect copy in the archives of the Bostonian Society, but I have not been able to personally inspect it (although I certainly hope to do so someday).

The hektograph -- later hectograph -- process continued to be used well into the 1940's, when drum-based machines such as the mimeograph, as well as ink-extrusion ones such as the Gestetner, overtook it in popularity and ease of use.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Arctic Newspapers (Part 1)

The subject of shipboard newspapers in the Arctic is a large one, dating back to William Edward Parry's sojourn at Winter Harbor on Melville Island in 1819-1820, and extending through the Franklin search era of the 1850's and beyond. The earlier newspapers are distinguished in that they were circulated in manuscript, since no one had thought to bring along a printing press, but in every other way they were conducted as were their print cousins. The North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle, founded and edited by Edward Sabine on Parry's voyage, proposed as much in its first announcement:
It has been suggested that the establishment of a Weekly Newspaper may assist in enlivening the tedious and inactive months of winter, It is in contemplation therefore, to try the experiment, by circulating the first Number of the "WINTER CHRONICLE" amongst the officers of the Expedition, on Monday the 1st of November.
Sabine's efforts succeeded far beyond the original designs; the newspaper ran to twenty-one numbers, ending in March of 1820, and was crammed with all sorts of matter: News (such as it was), poems, songs, announcement for plays at the Theatre Royal, North Georgia, numerous letters to the Editor, most signed with clever pseudonyms ("Philosophicus," "Peter Trial," "Scepticus," and "Trim") and engaging in lively debate with the paper, and each other.  The results -- lightly censored, as one would expect -- had the distinction of being printed soon after Parry's official narrative, both in England and in its first American edition, printed in Philadelphia by Abraham Small, where it was bound in as a supplement to Parry's narrative. This book graces my shelves, and the paper appears thusly in its pages. It can also be perused via Google Books, and recently there was a lovely stand-alone edition published by the Green Lantern Press.

Most other early "newspapers," like the North Georgia Gazette, were not printed until after the expedition's return.  Some, though, were clearly made in anticipation of such a possibility, and among these the Illustrated Arctic News, conducted aboard HMS "Resolute,"  has pride of place. Modeled upon the Illustrated London News, with which all the (literate) crew members were to some degree familiar, it included illustrations, ornaments, and illuminated capitals of all kinds. Happily, through the good offices of the Internet Archive, you can peruse the printed facsimile, though alas not in color, a feature even the "real" illustrated papers in London did not yet possess.

Some later newspapers were, in part or whole, actually printed on board ship; Elaine Hoag of the National Library of Canada has published the most extensive research on these, both in her essay "Caxtons of the North" and in her earlier "Shipboard printing on the Franklin search expeditions," and these, along with other printed materials, will be the subject of my next post.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Guest post: Dave Woodman's Top 7


With the great interest in my earlier post about the best books with which to launch one's armchair expedition in search of Franklin, I was delighted to receive, from David C. Woodman, his personal recommendations for the top seven books on the subject, and the ideal order to read them in.  Here is his list.

1. Search for Franklin - Neatby, L.H. : A lucid and readable introduction to the subject for the "newbie" just starting out that is good for context. If you are already familiar with the subject to the extent that you know who Fitzjames is you may safely skip this and go to:

2. Sir John Franklin's Last Arctic Expedition - Cyriax, R.J. : A timeless classic, a little dated and conventional as Cyriax hated speculation. Published in 1939 so doesn't have the most recent findings, but still excellent.

3 . Barrow's Boys - Fergus Fleming : A great book to put the whole Victorian craze with exploration, and the Franklin Expedition, in a wider perspective. Fleming also brings the whole arctic enterprise alive with colourful descriptions of the actors. An easy read full of gems - after reading this you will have a deeper understanding of the men whose exploits are often recorded so matter-of-factly -  you will never think of Lyon again without thinking of his tattoos!

4. The Voyage of the "Fox" in the Arctic Seas - McClintock, Francis Leopold : Can't beat the original search documents, reads a little slowly in spots until the relics are found but an essential source.

5. Schwatka's Search: Sledging in the Arctic in Quest of Franklin Records - Gilder, William H. : As valuable as McClintock, you can't really understand the evidence without reading it. A little flowery in tone (written by a journalist vs a Naval Officer),  best read in this order for chronological reasons.

6. Deadly Winter: the life of Sir John Franklin - Martyn Beardsley : A very good biography of Sir John that sees him as a full person rather than a caricature. I tend to agree with Beardsley's conclusion but he is very fair in giving space to the alternative readings of Sir John's career and life.

7. North With Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames - John Wilson  : It is of course best to read Fitzjames' Journal in the original, but as that is difficult Wilson's fictional treatment is a good alternative and nice way to try to get the "feel" of what transpired.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

100,000 Views

A quiet landmark passed by on this blog a few moments ago ... our 100,000th unique page view.  It's wonderful to think of that many views, not to mention comments (660 of them) made since we launched on February 20th, 2009.  100,000 feels like a real achievement -- well, ok, there's a blog on alien mummies that boasts of 100,000 views a month! -- but I'll take the Arctic over aliens any day.

Some other stats on the site: our viewership is broad and international: there were 13,873 views from Canada, 12,007 from the UK, 6,911 from Australia, 6,148 from Germany, 1,128 from France and 763 from Spain. Mac users make up a healthy 20% of all views, but there are also nearly a thousand Linux users and 526 who somehow managed to view the site on their BlackBerry. And what were the most popular posts?  #1 was on Sir Edwin Landseer's painting, "Man Proposes, God Disposes"; #2 was "Who Discovered the Northwest Passage"; #3 was on the Peglar Papers, and #4 was my friend Joe O'Farrell's fascinating post on the possibility that the Erebus and Terror were frozen into an iceberg, and indeed seen by eyewitnesses before drifting off to sea.

For all who have joined me on this voyage, I'm deeply grateful -- and I hope I'll be able to keep the quality and interest of the blog as high over the next three years as it was over the last three.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Maps of Disaster: The Arctic Surveys of Dease and Simpson

Along with the latest technology, the Franklin expedition took the latest maps, specially engraved for the Lords of the Admiralty by the firm of John Arrowsmith. "Arrowsmith's Charts" were the maps of the British Empire upon which the sun never set (especially in summer and north of 60 degrees latitude!). Unfortunately, the latest surveys of the area Franklin would be exploring contained grave errors which would help seal his fate. The first error was that of James Ross who, in his trip to what he called "King William Land" on the Ross Expedition of 1829-33, traversed land and water indifferently, more frequently mistaking iced-over water for land. As a result, the only viable "Northwest Passage," which lay to the east of King William, was falsely regarded as a dead-end bay, was shown on the maps as "Poctes Bay." Ross thus led credence to the false idea that King William was an extension of Boothia, whereas in fact it was a separate island. Both James and his uncle Sir John Ross persisted in the equally false notion that the "Gulf of Boothia," named by them for their sponsor, Felix Booth (he of Booth's Gin fame), opened out into the waters at the mouth of the Great Fish River. Arrowsmith's map, shown above, shows the extent of both errors.

Dease and Simpson, who had mapped the southern coast of what was then still called the "Polar Ocean," added their own errors to the charts; their latitudes were accurate enough, but their longitudes seemed to drift with the tides; they misaligned the coast of King William Land with that of the mainland, and misstated the longitude of their farthest point, just beyond the "Castor and Pollux River" (Dease and Simpson gave the river's longitude as 68°28′ N., 94°14′ W. whereas in fact the longitude is 93° 53′, an error of roughly eight miles too far west (Dr. Rae, though he confirmed Dease & Simpson's latitude, got  a longitudinal reading of 93° 15′, which is an additional 16 miles off!). These errors could be due either to extreme refraction of the sun at the horizon, or to inaccurate chronometers -- but what was most misleading was Dease & Simpson's claim that the coast tended to the east as far as they could see (shown on the map as a dotted line), whereas in reality it soon turns almost straight north. There was no wide passage there, although had Franklin's men made it so far, they might have stumbled upon the Bellot Strait.

With these charts as their guide, it's little wonder that Franklin's men, on their death march along the southern coast of King William Island, failed to cross Simpson's Strait at its narrowest point; they may well have planned to continue by land as far as the coast of the Gulf of Boothia.  Perhaps they were making for Ross's old Victory harbor; perhaps they hoped to launch their boats into the Gulf of Boothia and make their way to northern sea-lanes as had Ross.  In any case, they never made it.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

They forged the last link with their lives

Many people have taken issue with the inscription on the Franklin statue in Waterloo Place, which awards Sir John and his men credit for discovering the Northwest Passage, echoing Sir John Richardson's encomium that "they forged the last link with their lives." In John Walker's film Passage (based on Ken McGoogan's book Fatal Passage), the film's director visits the statue in the company of Inuit politician and businessman Tagak Curley, who laughs as he reads out the inscription, calling it a lie and declaring that "Dead men can't discover anything"!

And yet, ironically enough, it's thanks to Inuit oral tradition that we have an account of men -- yet living -- passing eastward in the vicinity of Washington Bay on King William Island:
Tetqataq and Ukuararssuk tell that they were with Mangaq on the west shore of Ki-ki-tuk (King William Island) with their families sealing, and this a long time ago. They were getting ready to move -- it was in the morning & the sun was high -- when Tetqataq saw something in the distance on the smooth ice, something that looked white; he thought it was a bear. As soon as Tetqataq saw this something white, he told his companions of it, and they all waited, hoping it was a bear. As they watched, the white object grew larger, for it was moving towards them. At length they began to see many black objects along with what they had first espied as white in the distance. The object that they had 1st seen as white proved to be a sail raised on a boat & as they got nearer they saw this sail shake in the wind. As the object grew plainer, they thought of white men and began to be afraid. As the company of men (strangers) & the boat they were pulling got quite near, 2 men came ahead of the others and came across the ice towards where the Innuits were standing looking out, which was on the land, and the 2 men (Kabloonas) came walking up to where they were. Tetqataq and Ukuararssuk started to meet them, walking there on the ice. When they came to a crack in the ice, they stopped for the two white men to come up. The 2 white men came closer; one had a gun which he carried in his arms. This one stopped behind -- a little back -- white the other man came up as close to the 2 Innuits as the crack in the ice would allow him. The 1st man showed that he had an oo-loo (knife) when he stopped down beside the ice crack and made a peculiar kind of circling motion with the oo-loo. Right after that, he put his hand up to his mouth and lowered it all the way down his neck and breast, as if to say he wanted to get something to eat. Then the two white men moved over to the side, till they found a place where they could cross over to the 2 Innuits. Them the 1st man, who was Aglooka, spoke to them, saying "Man-nik-too- me," at the same time stroking 1st one and then the other down the breast, and also shook hands with each, repeating "Man-nik-too-me" several times. Aglooka pointed with his hand to the southward & eastward & at the same time repeated the word I-wil-ik. The Innuits could not understand whether he wanted them to show him the way there or simply to tell them that he was going there. He then made a motion northward & spoke the word "oo-me-en," making them to understand there were 2 ships in that direction. As Aglooka pointed to the N., drawing his hand & arm from that direction, he slowly moved his body in a falling direction and all at once dropped his head sideways into his hand, at the same time making a kind of combination of whirring, buzzing, & wind blowing noise. This was taken as a pantomimic representation of ships being crushed in the ice.
The account was given to Charles Francis Hall in 1869, a little more than twenty years after the events recounted -- and when Knud Rasmussen interviewed Mangaq's son Iggiararjuk in 1923, he recounted the same story, exact in every detail.  He said that the white men "were not met with again, and no one knows where they went to." Hall, like McClintock before him, knew where at least some of them had gone: westward, along the southern coast of King William Island, there lay a string of skeletons, buried and unburied, to mark the way.

The story is significant because of its location; as shown on Gould's map, the encounter took place at the edge of Washington Bay, at Cape Herschel.  And it was here, at this very spot, that Dease and Simpson erected a cairn on August 25th 1829, as they were surveying the northern "coast" of North America, extending the previous surveys of Franklin himself.  Thus, both on the basis of Inuit testimony, and on the skeletons of Franklin's men, we know for a fact that the "last link" between the areas Franklin discovered earlier in his final expedition, and the surveys heading eastward, was traversed by his men.  True, they did not manage to live long enough to relay this discovery to the rest of the world, and true too that the route they'd trudged beside was too choked with heavy, multi-year ice to ever be navigable by the kinds of ships they sailed. But unlike the body of George Mallory, found hundreds of meters below the ridge leading to the summit of Everest, these bodies were found beyond the point at which the two known surveys were connected.

So while of course the Victorian cult of the Polar hero, its themes conducted to a roaring crescendo by the astute and persistent efforts of Franklin's widow, Lady Jane, had everything to do with the erection of this statue and its inscription, I think that it's hard to find fault with its concluding phrase -- Franklin's men did indeed forge the last link -- and paid for it with their lives.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A "Navigable" Northwest Passage?

Recently, the question of in how Dr. John Rae's charting of the strait that bears his name contributed to the tracing of a Northwest Passage. There can, I hope, be no question that Rae was one of the most skilled and capable Arctic explorers and surveyors, and that his establishing King William as an island was a discovery of great geographical significance. There are those, however, who wish to credit Rae, at the expense of Franklin, as the sole discoverer of the  passage, and for them, a key part of the claim is that the Rae Strait route would have been navigable by Franklin's vessels had he tried this route. And yet, it's also widely known that, although Roald Amundsen managed this route with his tiny Gjøa, he encountered shoals which obliged him to jettison a considerable amount deck cargo in order to avoid running aground.

Ken McGoogan, author of Fatal Passage, recently put his argument this way:
Rae Strait is 14 miles wide. I have sailed through it half a dozen times in ships that are far larger -- longer, heavier, and with much deeper drafts -- than the Erebus and Terror. I did it again last month. Google the Clipper Adventurer and compare. Big ships go through Rae Strait all the time, even in the dark. Amundsen was sailing very near the coast of KWI, that is all. A bit farther out, no problem whatsoever.
For the record, the Clipper Adventurer, a purpose-built vessel for adventure tourism, has a draught of 4.72 meters (15.5 feet); HMS Terror had a draught of 4.47 m (14 feet 8 inches); according to Amundsen's journal, the Gjøa, fully loaded, drew just over 10 feet.

A recognized reference on the subject, The Northwest Passage: Arctic Straits, by Donat Pharand and Leonard H. Legault, puts it succinctly: "Reconnaissance soundings show an uneven bottom with depths varying from 9 to 77 meters and an extensive shoal area in mid-channel of 5.5 to 18 meters. The Rae Strait would hardly seem suitable for deep draft navigation." It's possible of course that a sailing vessel of Franklin's kind might have, with very good fortune, have made it through -- but then there would be the far worse problem of Simpson Strait, which is filled with shoals and hazards.  The modern vessel "Hanseatic" (draft 4.8m) spent three weeks aground there in 1996, and Pharand and Legault class it as "obviously suitable for small ships only."

So how practicable is this route -- which must of necessity include both Rae Strait and Simpson Strait? To get a definitive answer to this question, I turned to Captain Patrick R.M. Toomey, one of the most experienced modern navigators and ice-pilots in these waters; he has made more than 30 voyages to the Canadian Arctic, including 13 complete transits of the Northwest Passage (the most recent just two weeks ago), and has commanded or piloted all manner of vessels ranging from Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers to enormous Russian vessels such as “Kapitan Khlebnikov."Although Toomey shares with me and many others a profound admiration for Sir John Franklin's mettle, he understands well the limits of the vessels of those days, and feels as I do that they would never have been able to manage this route.

In response to McGoogan's claim, he states:
The “Clipper Adventurer” has been through the straits to the east of King William Island, as have other small ships of less than 5 metres draft such as “Hanseatic," and Rae Strait is not the major problem on this route. Further north, the James Ross Strait, and to the southwest the Simpson Strait are far more dangerous, as the “Hanseatic” knows only too well, having spent almost three weeks aground in the Simpson Strait in 1996. If Ken McGoogan considers “Clipper Adventurer” to be a “big ship”, he should try “The World” at 6.7 metres draft, and 196 metres length, or the Russian icebreakers “Kapitan Khlebnikov”, “Kapitan Dranitsyn” and “Admiral Makarov” (all of which I have piloted) at 8 metres draft, which could, technically and theoretically, pass all three of the straits mentioned above, but would be very foolhardy to try.
As to McGoogan's views about Rae, he has this to say:
As for the claim that John Rae was the first to discover a navigable Northwest Passage in 1854, to give him credit he did discover one of the minor channels which form the route, which Franklin might have discovered himself during his three overland and small-boat expeditions from 1819-1823, if he had had more time and better luck. I would suggest that Franklin suspected there might be several routes to the north from Queen Maud Gulf – the south shore of which he had mapped - but that he was more interested in the wider channel to the west of King William Island, due north of his explorations along the coast east of Coppermine River.  With two clumsy Royal Navy warships hardly capable of sailing to windward, with auxiliary steam power insufficient to make any progress in ice, for lack of power and sufficient coal to fuel the boilers, he would certainly have tried a wider channel to offer more sea-room. The full facts will never be known, of course, but I am sure that shore parties went out to King William Island while the ships were beset during the winter of 1846/7, to check out any channels to the east.  I am equally sure that the report back would have been that such channels would not have been recommended, despite the lack of old ice, which is not usually found in those channels, because of the lack of sea-room to manoeuvre between the shoals, especially those of James Ross Strait.  It was in James Ross Strait, I believe,  that Amundsen had his problems, and he was in a tiny little vessel, of much less draft, and much more manoeuvrable when compared to “Erebus” and “Terror”.
So this, I hope, should put an end to claims that Franklin could have sailed the route mapped by Rae. All the same, this route certainly could be and is a valid passage for modern vessels with shallower drafts, equipped with modern charts and electronic sounding devices. And, all the same, Dr. John Rae remains am extraordinary explorer, skilled surveyor, and resourceful hunter, who passed through lands where other white men died of starvation managing not only to keep himself and his party well-fed, but giving food to local Inuit along the way. So let us give him credit to him, alongside Sir John Franklin, not instead of him.

Yes, Franklin failed on his last voyage.  But let us recall, in the words of the great novelist (and navigator) Joseph Conrad, the essence of Franklin's contribution, as well as the discoveries of those who searched for him:
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. As gradually revealed to the world, their fate appeared the more tragic in this, that for the first two years the way of the Erebus and Terror expedition seemed to be the way to the desired and important success, while in truth it was the way of death, the end of the greatest drama, perhaps, played behind the curtain of Arctic mystery.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Arctic Blackface

Peter Carney and others have brought up the question of the well-known "Black Men" story reported to Charles Francis Hall.  One possible explanation would be an onboard celebration of Guy Fawkes day, which would involve the blackening of faces as a reference to Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Another explanation, however, might be worth considering: that the men were dressed up for a blackface "minstrel" show for the entertainment of the crews.

We know very well that, following William Edward Parry's success with shipboard theatricals enlivening the long winter darkness, all British naval ships in Arctic service were provided with theatrical props, costumes, and scripts.  One of the features of these shows, we also know, was male cross-dressing into female character.  Such broad burlesque seemed to be just the stuff to warm the hearts of the men on a cold Arctic night.  So why not blackface minstrelsy, which was in fact wildly popular in both the US and Britain from the late 1840's through the 1870's -- just the time of Franklin and the Franklin searches, and the voyages of Charles Francis Hall.  And indeed we have evidence that just these sorts of shows were staged aboard Arctic ships.  The first is from CF Hall's first book, "Life Among the Esquimaux, and describes a minstrel performance aboard the whaler "George Henry":
THEATRICALS ON BOARD THE GEORGE HENRY 
The following night, November 26th, "theatrical" performances took place on board the George Henry, The cabin was filled to its utmost capacity with Innuits and the ship's crew. "Jim Crow," the son of Artarkparu, occupied the centre of the cabin, and was performing on the "keeloun," while the other Innuits were seated all around, the female portion singing to the music. I made my way to the little after cabin, and there seated myself so as to have a full view of what was going on.  
The keeloun was accompanied by a tambourine made by Mr. Lamb. Another instrument was a triangle, a steel square pendent from a tow string, and struck with an ii-on spoon. The keeloun was played in turn by Annawa, Ooksin, Koojesse, and young Smith, a là negro ! While Annawa was going through the " sweating " process, playing the instrument and dancing the ridiculously wild figures that are indispensable, according to Innuit ideas, his music being accompanied by a full chorus of native female voices, there came bouncing into the very midst a strapping negress, setting the whole house in a roar of laughter. It was young Smith dressed in this character. The tambourine was passed into his hands, and he soon did full justice to the instrument, his or her sable fists soon knocking a hole through the whale's liver skin with which it was covered.  
When Smith first entered some of the Innuit women were much frightened. Jennie, the angeko, was seated near me, and she tried to put as great a distance as possible between herself and the negress, believing the apparition to be an evil spirit. But all shortly became reconciled to the stranger, especially when Smith resumed his place, playing and shouting, Innuit-like, and making so much fun that all our sides ached with laughter. Even the singing women were obliged occasionally to give way and join in the merriment.  
The negress was next called on to act as drummer. Ooksin held the keeloun while ske performed "Yankee Doodle," "Hail Columbia," and other pieces, with admirable skill and effect, using two iron spoons for drum-sticks. The finale was a dance by two Innuit ladies and two of the ship's crew, the music being furnished by Bailey with his " viddle."
Then this from Elisha Kent Kane's narrative of the First Grinnell:
December 25. Ye Christmas of ye Arctic cruisers. Our Christmas passed without a lack of the good things of this life.  Goodies we had galore ; but that best of earthly blessings, the communion of loved sympathies, these Arctic cruisers had not. It was curious to observe the depressing influences of each man's home thoughts, and absolutely saddening the effort of each man to impose upon his neighbor and be very boon and jolly. We joked incessantly, but badly, and laughed incessantly, but badly too ; ate of good things, and drank up a moiety of our Heidsiek ; and then we sang negro songs, wanting only tune, measure, and harmony, but abounding in noise ; and after a closing bumper to Mr. Grinnell, adjourned with creditable jollity from table to the theatre. 
So clearly, on at least two occasions -- and doubtless many more -- Arctic voyagers of the mid-nineteenth century regaled one another just as they would have had they been "home." Oh, and what of the photograph at the top of this post?  Why that's just "Bones," "Jim Kroo,""Squash," and "Cinders," members of the "Dishcover Minstrel Troupe" aboard RF Scott's Discovery in 1902.

Friday, August 24, 2012

That Time of Year Again

So here we go again: Yet another Parks Canada search for the remains of Sir John Franklin's ships, the "Erebus" and "Terror." Once more, we have the press releases, the Arctic photo-ops with Stephen Harper, the meaningful pronouncements of various government ministers, and clips of the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier at anchor near the Adelaide Peninsula. And then, in my e-mail inbox, come the requests from journalists for images of Franklin, his ships, and Beechey Island. I always say yes.

One figure, however, really says it all: $275,000. This is the amount budgeted for this year's "search" by Parks Canada.  And, as anyone who has done a budget for an Arctic venture of any kind would know, that kind of money won't go very far.  It might enable the launch of the two research boats from the Laurier, and it might pay for a few days of dragging around side-scan sonar equipment.  But in the haystack of possibilities as to the fate of the needles that are Franklin's ships, this effort won't cover more than a few straws.  Sure, they could be lucky straws! But barring that, the effort is, in my view, largely symbolic.  In terms of meaningful underwater archaeological efforts, it's nowhere near what is likely going to be needed, and so I can't think that the government really believes it is one.  Instead, like the planting of Canadian flags on Hans Island, it's really just a symbolic effort, one which makes sense only if the motive is to prop up the narrative of Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, which it regards as its own internal waters.  This is acknowledged tacitly, and has been the subject of a CBC article, "Franklin Search about Politics as well as History" (and here I think you could substitute "instead of" for "as well as").

My sources in the Canadian Arctic, indeed, alerted me to the presence of the likely search ships in the vicinity some weeks ago; apparently they were waiting for ice conditions to become favorable.  And, despite global warming, this moment is no more predictable than in the past; if the cost of maintaining the ship and crew during the waiting period were added back in, I'm sure it would be more than the quoted figure.  Ice -- like time and tide -- may wait for no man, but waiting costs money, and to me it makes no sense to spend what's already been poured into these efforts without making them much more substantial.  The Harper government seem to want to get their sovereignty chits on the cheap -- a strategy very unlikely to lead to success in terms of actual archaeological progress.  But perhaps that's just fine with them ...

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Retracing Bradford's Voyage

The American artist William Bradford chartered annual excursions for photography and ice-painting nearly every year from 1861 to 1867. In 1869, aboard the Panther, with the explorer Isaac I. Hayes as their guide, Bradford and his fellow artists journeyed father north than any such party had managed before, venturing deep into Melville Bay before being turned back by the implacable barrier of pack-ice at about 75º north. In his quest to make the most of his northern sojourns, Bradford regularly brought along hired photographers to take studies of every scene. Two of these, John L. Dunmore and George P. Critcherson, accompanied him on the Panther, making hundreds of wet-plate collodion images, from which Bradford later drew from to assemble the massive elephant-folio volume, The Arctic Regions.

Today, one hundred and forty-three years later, the Chasing the Light voyage, with the support and sponsorship of the New Bedford Whaling Museum along with private donors and contributions pledged via Kickstarter, aboard the expedition trawler Wanderbird, will re-trace Bradford and Hayes's voyage.  This, too, will be a ship of artists, photographers, and polar guides, and it will call at many of the same ports in West Greenland as did the Panther.  This twenty-first century voyage will dramatize the many differences between 1869 and 2012, as well as the potential parallels; in particular, it celebrates the work of photographer Rena Bass Forman (1954-2011), whose sepia-toned gelatin silver prints so richly evoke the work of Dunmore and Critcherson, while at the same time capturing with a different eye the rich panoply of nature-sculpted shapes of ice and water in the Arctic. As with Bradford's voyage, it is of course impossible to predict what works and visions will come forth from this boreal sojourn, but unlike his voyage, we will not have to wait until its return to glimpse at least some of them.  Using modern satellite technology, there will be regular updates on the voyage's progress via the Twitter reincarnations of both Bradford and Hayes.  Some of the results of the trip wil also be part of a forthcoming exhibition, Arctic Visions: Away Then Floats the Ice-Island, opening in March of 2013 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  It would be hard to imagine a better venue, as the Museum houses the finest collection of Bradford's canvasses in the world, along with a number of the original glass plates exposed by Dunmore and Critcherson under Bradford's direction.  I hope that readers here will join me in eagerly following these results!

At the same time, it seems peculiarly ironic that, just as this voyage is about to set sail, the news comes via NASA of an unprecedented meltoff of the Greenland ice cap.  The alarming, sudden nature of this melt may foreshadow further changes in the earth's climates; the Arctic has always been a bell-weather for the rest of us.  And, according to ice core studies, the last time such a melt is known to have occurred is roughly 150 years ago -- very close indeed to the date of Bradford's original voyage.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Writing on the Wall

When little Weesy Coppin's ghost was called upon by Anne and her surviving siblings to show the fate of Sir John Franklin, the vision she gave was of a sort which was likely familiar to all the children and their parents: an enigmatic message, the 'writing on the wall' from the feast of Belshazzar in the book of Daniel:

In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king's palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. And then the king's countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.  The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. And the king spake, and said to the wise men of Babylon, Whosoever shall read this writing, and shew me the interpretation thereof, shall be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom. And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.

Quite probably the scene had been related in a sermon or Bible reading in the family, and even if it had not, the same scene had been the subject of a number of moving panoramas -- one of them displayed in 1833 alongside Sir John Ross's Arctic paintings -- as well as cartoons in Punch; the phrase "writing on the wall" was already proverbial.

And writing on walls seems always to be enigmatic; the Hebrew words on Balshazzar's can be literally translated as mina, mina, shekel, half-mina, with both mina and shekel being common coins.  The prophet Daniel, summoned to interpret them, decreed their significance to be "Mina, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; shekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; half-mina, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians."  This was not what Balshazzar wanted to hear, no doubt, but since he was killed later the same night, he had little time to ponder it; in the proverbial sense, "writing on the wall" comes too late to be a warning, and is more of a sentence of fate.

We also learn in reviewing Skewes's account of the vision, along with what survives of correspondence about it, that at least one of the Coppin children had the 'gift of tongues.'  This supposed gift has to do with that given to the Apostles in the Book of Acts to speak in the tongues of many nations -- but in practice, it too means that one person speaks in "tongues" -- usually inscrutable in terms of earthly languages -- and another has the gift of interpreting these arcane utterances.

So it is little surprise that we have again an enigmatic text: B.S. = P.R.I. = N.F. = S.J.F. = B.V.F.R.G.R.L.S.P.F.M.F.M., with Victory and Victoria also "frequently written." The first few clusters immediately suggest a polar voyage, with Barrow Straits, Prince Regent Inlet, and "Sir John Franklin" -- N.F. eludes me -- and as to the remaining letters, the possibilities are too numerous to count.  On a later occasion, the child's ghost, asked for clarification, came forth with fuller phrases: "Erebus and Terror, Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel." This seems a good deal more straightforward, and does indeed suggest a definite polar itinerary, as well as implying a passage from Prince Regent Inlet -- the Bellot Strait -- which was not yet discovered. It also, however, is problematic, as there was no "Victoria Channel" in 1849, this not having been given its name -- derived from Victory Point -- until Captain Collinson did so in 1852.

This last point is certainly evidence that the 'revelation' as such was augmented and altered over time, though perhaps unintentionally.  It is also, in any case, flawed in two other regards: Franklin does not appear to have ventured Prince Regent Inlet or traversed Bellot Strait -- the latter of which would have been quite tricky for ships with the draught and beam of "Erebus" and "Terror" -- and, although Weesy showed him waving his hat, he had already in fact been dead for some months.  Never the less, the fact that these revelations not only played a role in Arctic discovery, but also in at least some of their particulars proved uncannily accurate, cannot be disputed.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Londonderry Vision, Redux

I have posted before on the "Londonderry Vision" and Captain Coppin, but new interest in the subject -- along with some thought-provoking research by the indefatigable Ralph Lloyd-Jones, makes it worth a second go.  We are also fortunate in that both the first and second editions of the Rev. J. Henry Skewes's Revelation are now available online at archive.org for anyone to download or read (the book is exceedingly scarce -- only a handful of copies are in libraries, and it rarely comes up for sale). All this makes a fresh look at the story worthwhile, and opens it up the historical evidence to scrutiny by the wisdom of crowds.

The basic facts are simple enough: In 1849, Captain William Coppin -- a comfortably well-off shipyard owner in Belfast -- heard from his family of strange visions in which his recently-deceased youngest daughter Louisa -- known to the family as "Weesy" -- appeared to her siblings and offered revelations on various subjects.  The family became convinced of their truth after the child's ghost predicted the death of the family banker, and the children -- as the mystery of Sir John Franklin's fate was much in the air -- asked their spiritual sibling whether she had any intelligence as to his whereabouts. "Weesy" readily replied with a vision of his ships in icy waters, along with a map and some letters upon the wall.  When Mrs. Coppin, on one of her husband's apparently infrequent visits to the family home, related this story to him, he decided -- after some delay -- that he should inform Lady Franklin of the particulars, and bring her a chart drawn by Weesy's sister Anne from the one which had appeared on the wall. They corresponded, met, and it appears that Jane may well have passed on some of the advice apparently contained in these revelations to officers then preparing to leave for the Arctic to search for her husband.

It is at this point that we enter into uncertainty, as most of the claims that the Reverend Skewes published in 1889 in his book about the affair cannot now be independently substantiated.  The first suspicion that we might have, sensibly enough, would be that Skewes altered or fabricated evidence to make the Coppin story more accurate than in fact it was.  Such a possibility can't be entirely ruled out, absent any letters from the period, or the chart itself -- but as Lloyd-Jones observes in his recent article on the subject in the Polar Record, there is good reason to believe that the reason these materials are missing is that Sophia Cracroft retained, and probably destroyed them.

The evidence for this is in the second edition of the book, where the good Reverend took it upon himself to reply to an indignant public reprimand by Sir Leopold McClintock.  McClintock had gone to pains to stress that his search was not conducted under any supernatural direction, and denied that he or Lady Franklin would ever have credited such evidence if that had received it.  Skewes, warming to the battle, quoted in his rebuttal an 1859 letter of Lady Franklin's to Captain Coppin in which she very explicitly thanks him for his daughter's revelation, and reassures him that the chart and letters were in her safekeeping:
"I have received your letter of yesterday, requesting you to tell me how far the 'mysterious revelations' of your child, in 1850, respecting the expedition of my late husband, correspond with the facts recently ascertained by Captain McClintock's researches. In reply, I have no hesitation in telling you that your child's drawn by herself, without as you assure me having seen an Arctic chart before, represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at that time to be inaccessible, but which has since been found ... I have carefully preserved your letter and the child's drawing and you may be assured they are in safety."
There is, I think, no reason to doubt the authenticity of this letter, and it suggests not only that Lady Franklin took an interest in the original revelation, but eagerly noted that the subsequent discovery of the Bellot Strait -- via which McClintock had reached King William Island -- was exactly in correspondence with the map (she did not, it should be observed, note the map's error, in showing the Gulf of Boothia connecting with the waters south of King William Island -- an error which it shared with Arrowsmith's charts of 1844, which Franklin would have relied on).

As Lloyd-Jones has it, her Ladyship's willingness to try any and all means -- psychics included -- was nothing but admirable, though it certainly went against the religious feeling of many, and was a departure from the previous views of herself as well as Sophia.  By 1889, after Jane's death, Sophia and Sir Leopold doubtless felt that the whole thing might reflect poorly on Jane's posthumous reputation, and were willing to deny a story that -- so far as they thought -- was only known within private circles.  They had not, alas, reckoned on the limitless haughty enthusiasm of Skewes.

But what of the revelation itself?  There's a second post to be had on that (which will follow soon enough), but for now suffice it to say that, if the child's chart is somewhat cryptic, the "writing on the wall" -- a series of initialisms open to the possibility of standing for any number of things -- is another story altogether.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Amelia Earhart's Freckle Cream?

The recent conference, held under the auspices of TIGHAR, on new evidence as to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, was packed with fascinating material, particularly on the last few possible wireless signals from her aircraft.  Yet the thing that most caught my eye -- and perhaps, thanks to my fascination with Sir John Franklin, I am simply "relic crazy" -- was this broken glass jar, which has been tentatively identified as having contained anti-freckle cream.  As those at the conference noted, Earhart was self-conscious about her freckles, and might well have used such a product; researchers using the glass container's distinctive shape have linked it to Dr. Berry's Freckle Ointment, a long-gone cosmetic product sold in a similarly-shaped jar.  It's not an exact match -- the jar of this product is of milk-glass, not clear -- but it certainly is striking, the more so as one of the fragments of this glass shows signs of having been used as a tool.

But as an historical researcher, I had questions about this identification right away.  Milk-glass, I knew, was at its peak of popularity in the 1890's and the first decade of the 20th century, well before Earhart's flight.  And, as other bloggers had noted, the form of Dr. Berry's ointment sold in these jars was banned around 1912 due to its high mercury content.  Dr. Berry's apparently reformulated their product, as it continued to be sold for some years thereafter, and would indeed have been available to Earhart in 1937.  However, even in a clear jar, this sort of thing did not look like a 1930's-era product to me.  Fortunately, thanks to the vast digitization project of the Hathi Trust, I was able to find a 1936 Sears Catalog which included Dr. Berry's ointment among its products, and as I had suspected, it was shown in a pillbox-style cylindrical container with far more modern lines.  I suspect it hadn't been sold in the large glass jars for some time, and it's hard to imagine that Earhart, a woman who -- however much she may have disliked her freckles -- was very fashionable and had endorsed many "modern" products, among them a line of luggage (my family still has one of 'her' suitcases) would have deliberately brought along an outdated, heavy glass jar of such cream when a compact modern one was available.

I could be wrong.  It might be that, after the popularity of milk-glass faded, Dr. Berry's continued to sell its product in clear glass jars.  Earhart, perhaps for sentimental reasons, might have brought this sort of jar along.  It may even be possible that, as with other products of this type, some people preferred to have the old jar filled with the new product at their local pharmacy.  But alas, despite the freckled connection, this piece of evidence remains, I think, of uncertain value.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sir John Franklin, Poet?

The career of Sir John Franklin inspired numerous poems both during and after his lifetime, ranging from the romantic (Swinburne's "The Death of Sir John Franklin") to the modernist (Gwendolyn MacEwen's "Terror and Erebus") to the postmodernist (David Solway's Franklin's Passage cycle) -- but until now, Franklin had never been known as the author of any poetry of note.  The excellent Non Solus blog just put up a scan of the manuscript of Franklin's foray into verse, which was preserved in the pages of a special presentation copy of his Journey to the Polar Sea, which was inscribed to Sir John Richardson's wife.  This copy had been acquired by the University of Illinois library under the auspices of Professor Robert Eugene Johnson, whose biography of Richardson was published in 1976, but although Johnson mentioned the poem in his book, it has not previously been published, so far as the blog's editors (or myself) can tell.

It was certainly not meant for public consumption, and its interest today is more historical than poetical -- although married to the poet Eleanor Ann Porden, Franklin was, to his very soul, a man of prose. The subject of the poem is the pressure Franklin felt on his being expected -- as had been tradition for explorers -- to write up his journey for public consumption, whence it would be brought forth by John Murray, whose arrangement for such things with the Admirality was a long-standing one.  Many biographers have noted the struggles Franklin went through in producing his narrative, and the prose indeed is labored in parts (though not half so much as this poem!).  Never the less, the result was widely read, and secured his reputation as "the Man who ate his boots"; the book has rarely been out of print since.

The poem itself is in a sort of ballad stanza, and is filled with archaisms, forced rhymes, and other such tokens of the light verse it aims at -- the first two stanzas are a fair sample:


Heigho! alack and well a day! 
 Was ever wight like me distressed
What shall I write? What can I say
Will this or that way read the best?

Oh! that my foe a book had written
So spake the wisest of mankind
Alas! his curse my head has smitten
And write I must tho ill enclined.


And it continues in this manner. One might be tempted to rehearse Harry Bailey's rejoinder to Chaucer's "Tale of Syr Thopas" -- but then again, Chaucer's doggerel was meant to be bad.  Still, the poem offers up some insight into Franklin the man; apparently he possessed a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor, a trait not often otherwise noted among his writings -- and for this, we can certainly be grateful.

Monday, April 30, 2012

HMS Breadalbane

The Franklin search ship HMS Breadalbane was caught or "nipped" by pack-ice and sank on Sunday 21 August, 1853; according to one crew member, "it was a very sad and unceremonious way of being turned out of our ship -- from the time the first nip took her, until her disappearance, did not occupy more than fifteen minutes."  Aside from landing some stores at Cape Riley, the Breadalbane had not lasted long enough to make much of a contribution to the search for Sir John, but its history since then has been full of interest and significance.  Until the re-discovery of M'Clure's "Investigator," she was the furthest-north known shipwreck in the world, and the search to find her, recover artifacts, and learn from the wreck site has stretched over nearly forty years, and took an interesting turn last week when divers working as part of the Canadian military's Operation Nunalivut explored the wreck using a submersible ROV, sending color video images to the surface.

The wreck was not far off Beechey Island, and its general location fairly readily ascertained. The first definite evidence of the wreck was located by diver Joe MacInnis in 1975; based on his evidence and subsequent searches, a Canadian Coast Guard vessel discovered the wreck using side-scan sonar in 1980. Remarkably, her hull was largely intact, and two of her masts will still standing, one of which still seemed to be carrying some portion of canvas.  MacInnis later led several dives to the wreck, and retrieved the ship's wheel.  This and his earlier searches were described by him in his book The Breadalbane Adventure, which featured an introduction by Walter Cronkite.

MacInnis later hit on the idea of setting up a seasonal camp on the ice, and taking aquatic tourists down to the wreck at thousands of dollars a pop.  To that end, he purchased a number of large mobile dwellings, had them shipped to Resolute, and fixed to skids so they could be towed out onto the ice by tractor.  The hoped-for number of tourists never materialized, and when I was at Resolute in 2004 the mobile units could still be seen, abandoned, a few hundred yards from the main port.

You might think that all the archaeological knowledge possible had already been retrieved from the Breadalbane, but this didn't stop Canadian Forces divers from searching the wreck again this April.  The annual northern military exercise in Nunavut, though it mostly involves staged search-and-rescue operations, is also geared toward strengthening Canada's claim to its northernmost territories, and apparently nothing spells "sovereignty" quite so well as a sunken Franklin-era vessel.  Nothing new was discovered, so far as I know, though the online video shows some intriguing images.  There's also a fairly detailed account of the dive on the Canadian Forces' own website here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Petition for Ancanthe

IN the spirit of Lady Franklin's Appeal to Lord Palmerston, I've just done something I've never tried before -- launch a petition.

The background is this: Near Hobart in Tasmania, the original Greek-style temple dedicated by Lady Franklin as the centerpiece of botanical garden and museum she named Ancanthe still stands.  Not surprisingly, there has been a fair amount of incursion over the years, with some of the original land now occupied by homes.  Recently, there was a proposal brought to Hobart City Council for a new subdivision which would much further encroach upon the area, and destroy much of its character,  A group of citizens fought back, and are making a counter-proposal that Hobart acquire much of this same area as public lands, and establish there a) A botanical garden, a project not quite realized in Lady Franklin's time, and neglected since; b) A restored museum and grounds, with a "Franklin trail"; and c) an 'international centre of excellence.'

The city council may be persuaded to back the plan, but first they are asking for evidence that the site is one of internationally-recognized historical and cultural significance.  This is something beyond the quick reach of the citizens of Hobart who support this plan, so I've volunteered to enlist all the "Franklinites" I know in its support.

You can read more about the situation on the Saving Ancanthe Facebook page here.


And, if you choose to sign the petition, it's here.


Lastly, if you know of others, whose names I have perhaps neglected to include here, who could lend their heft to the affair, I'd be grateful if you could forward this request.

I hope you'll decide to join me in this effort to preserve a small patch of Franklin history in Tasmania.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Only Known Photo of Lady Jane Franklin

A few years ago -- in May of 2008, to be precise -- I was in Philadelphia along with many Arctic historians and writers for the "North by Degree" conference hosted by the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. By good fortune, I found myself at the same bed-and-breakfast as my good friends Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert, and so we had ample time before and after each batch of conference sessions to talk about our shared passion for all things Polar.  Kari was there to give a talk about some of the remarkable parallels between her mother Lady Marie Herbert's experiences and those of Josephine Peary, and after the conference was off on a research trip to see some Peary materials in Maine. This was all in preparation for her work, Polar Wives, which has now come to fruition, and which traces the careers of many of the women who supported their husbands' Arctic and Antarctic endeavors, whether from home or from a tent pitched in the midst of a howling gale on a rocky beach in Greenland.

Lady Jane Franklin was to be, and is, one of the subjects of Kari's book, and one afternoon in Philadelphia, she mused aloud that there must be, somewhere in some archive, a photograph of her -- why had none ever come to light?  I took this as a personal challenge, and set myself to find one; it was only many months later, by the good chance of putting the right keywords into the right database, that I found just such a photograph at George Eastman House, which has one of the best collections of nineteenth-century (and later) photos of any institution in the world.  It was, like the famous "purloined letter" in the Poe story, hidden in plain sight -- in the center of the frame in one of the stereoviews of Yosemite taken by Carleton E. Watkins, and commercially reproduced by him and succeeding stereoview publishers.  Doubtless there are hundreds of copies -- one of them has recently been scanned and uploaded to the Wikipedia -- but no one had really realized the rarity of the image itself. George Eastman house, happily, has Watkins's original glass plate negatives for his Yosemite views, which can be enlarged much more than the printed cards, and here we can finally see Lady Franklin -- and Sophia Cracroft -- in a camera's eye.

Lady Franklin has a most curious expression -- she seems to be positively beaming good cheer -- but is wearing some sort of Victorian-era hood or wimple that -- for me at least -- brings to mind Sally Field as the Flying Nun.  Traveling costumes for women from this period were odd affairs, to be sure, but Lady F. seems to be sporting one of the odder ones.  Between Jane and Sophia there is the somewhat blurred or  obscured visage of one of their guides, and then we see Sophia's face, everything that Jane's is not -- sober, severe almost, looking directly into the camera.  A few feet further we see two more guides, one of whom is apparently picking his teeth with a twig -- seated at the foot of a tree, the bark of which has been cut with an axe, possibly as a sort of blaze for the trail.  Yosemite, in the 1860's, was a fairly rugged destination, and for Jane and Sophia -- who rarely traveled without some sort of entourage -- this was roughing it.

The larger frame shows two other figures, a man who is seeking to blow a fire aflame at left, and at right, a jaunty figure sporting a cap with a bill and peak, a pair of braces, and writing or drawing on what looks like an oversize sketchpad.

The visit by these two women to the site seems to have had a lasting impression on the nomenclature of the place; though credited in the photo as "Moss Rock" this almost surely the same as the modern "Lady Franklin Rock," though exactly when, and by whom, the change was made is unclear.  It has for a long time been a favored place to take a photo of the Vernal Falls from -- though much less often photographed itself.  The identities of the guides here are unknown to me; I would certainly be interested to hear from anyone who can tell me more about them, and about this visit.  All I have is this note from a modern guidebook, which says of Lady Franklin Rock: "So named because that distinguished lady visited the Yosemite in 1859, and being very feeble at the time, was carried up to this rock by the guides on a chair, and from here she viewed the fall."

PHOTO CREDIT: George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Earhart Project

Thinking about all the mysteries which surround the fate of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition, it's hard not to reflect on the intense human passion to seek to better understand -- even if we cannot "solve" -- the greatest mysteries of human history, particularly those that involve the loss of some great spirit of exploration, whose life lies unresolved at the shores of some unknown atoll. And this aptly describes both Sir John Franklin and Amelia Erahart, whose lost aircraft has been the cause of many searches and speculation in the more than seventy years since her disappearance. So it was with great interest today that I listened to a story on NPR's All Things Considered about an historic photograph which possibly -- just possibly -- shows the partly submerged landing gear of a Lockheed Elektra -- just the plane Ms. Earhart was flying -- on a remote atoll then known as Gardner Island (and here one thinks of King William Island, a place common enough in the parlance of Franklinites that we usually just call it KWI).

Gardner Island is now known as Nikumaroro, one of the Phoenix Islands of the western Pacific. Ric Gillespie and his group believe that this photo -- of which they have not yet been able to get a high-resolution copy -- may be the clue that finally leads to the solution of Earhart's disappearance. To that end, they have sought to publicize their cause, and raise funds for a new expedition to search the coral reef at this location for the wreckage of Earhart's plane. Just today, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton endorsed their cause -- funded entirely from donations, I would emphasize -- and it seems to me that those fascinated by the fate of Franklin would be likely to be interested in, and wish to support, this similar effort. You can find out more information about Gillespie's project, and donate to it here -- and let us hope that, perhaps, the excitement raised by this effort will prove contagious, and finally launch some kind of similar independent effort in the search for Franklin. As Secretary Clinton very eloquently said, "Even if you do not find what you seek, there is great honor and possibility in the search itself."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The other William Brunt

The mystery surrounding my ancestor William Brunt has deepened -- or, perhaps I should say doubled -- for another William Brunt, also a convicted thief, also transported to Van Diemen's land in 1841, and also given his freedom in time to have emigrated to Canada and established a family in Ontario, has come to light. He was far less savory-sounding than the other -- but matches a key detail, that in my family I'd always heard it said he'd been a horse thief, not a housebreaker, and this William Brunt not only stole horses, he was proud of it. His initial report goes as follows:
"Sent aboard the Lady Raffles. Transported for Horse stealing -- Gaol Reports 5 previous convictions, one of the Pottery Gang … Stated his preference for Horse Stealing. W. Brinsley my Master. One time acquitted for a Coat once 6 months for receiving once 2 mos. neglect of Family, 7 days for abuse. Married wife, Maybe 2 children. Surgeon's Report: Gaol conduct good."
Now I have no idea who the "Pottery Gang" were -- apparently, a bad lot -- and a number of other convicts were listed as having fallen in with them. His having been jailed for "neglect of family" and "abuse"-- as well as his not knowing how many children he had -- are far more unsettling. His physical description ran thus:
Face: Fresh, polished. Height: 5 / 9 1/2 Age: 36 Complex. Fair. Hair: to red. Whiskers: to red. Eyebrows: Brown. Eyes: Blue. Nose: Sharp. Mouth: Small. Chin: cleft. Native Place: Stoke-on-Trent. Remarks: WB inside of arm, star between chink of fingers left hand, left arm much diseased.
Interestingly, Stoke-on-Trent was listed as his place of residence or possibly birth when he was convicted in 1839 at the Staffordshire Quarter Sessions; if he was indeed from Ireland, as my family has always held, then he'd stopped off for a while on his way. His later record while in Van Diemen's Land is not untypical: "Period of Probation: Fifteen Mos. Station of Gang: PB (Prisoner Barracks) 25/1/41 BR (Brown's River?) 17/6/41 AN 15/9/42 BW (Bridgewater) 11/11/42 P.B. (Prisoner Barracks)" -- notes at the side seem to indicate that, at some point, he had gotten his Ticket of Leave and obtained a job as a constable in Hobart Town, where there is a further charge of "Drunk & neglect of duty" for which he served seven days in solitary confinement. He received his certificate as a free man in 1850.

The only inconsistent feature would be his age -- 36 in 1841 -- which would mean he was born around 1805, and would have been quite old -- at least 50 -- when he emigrated to Canada, and 60 when Mary, my great-grandmother, was born. It's not impossible, just seems a bit old for the period.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Bill Brunt Was a Thief ...

As readers of this blog may well imagine, it didn't take me long to plunge into further research on my ancestor, William Henry Brunt, and his time in Van Diemen's Land. The Tasmanian Archives turned out to be a wonderful -- and free -- resource, and I was fairly quickly able to locate his official conduct record. His voyage aboard the aptly-named "Tortoise" seems to have taken nearly seven months; judging from the ledger of convicts it seems that it also stopped in Halifax to take on prisoners -- one wonders whether Bill Brunt's first sight of North America whetted his appetite for his later return.

After the particulars of the voyage, the ledger gives his name and crime -- housebreaking and larceny, 10 years. Interestingly, he seems to have objected to the charges, stating that it was his sister's house into which he had gone with the intention of retrieving his sister's things. He admitted to taking a pair of Trousers and handkerchiefs, however, yet curiously declared "he was never in the House of Correction," although his report from there stated his conduct was good. He was also described as "Protestant -- can read and write," which corresponds, I think, with his family's origins near Banbridge in County Down, Ireland, where his surname was spelled variously "Brunt," "Brunty," and "Brontë."

From his physical description I learned that he was 5 foot, 5 inches, with brown hair, brown eyes, and no whiskers. He was apparently fond of drink, and was also the proud owner of a riotous array of tattoos, which the ledger is at pains to enumerate:

A slightly freckled man. Flag, anchor & mermaid on rt. arm, ring on middle finger right hand, HB. hearts and darts, M & S. flower put on left Arm.
The "HB" might just be his initials, if he used his middle name -- many convicts seem to have gotten their initials tattooed on themselves, probably just to be sure their body could be identified after death. Since no photograph of Bill Brunt survived in my family, this may be the most vivid image I'll ever have. The remainder of the record details his time in Van Diemen's land:
Period of Probation: Eighteen Mos. 11/1/43
Station of Gang: Flinders Bay 12/1/43
Class: 2nd, 1st, pp & 3
Offenses and Sentences: 19 Aug. 1843 Original term of Probation
18 May Discovered willfully breaking two panes of glass in the sky light of his ward, for an improper purpose. Six months hard labor.
8 March 47. Misconduct in lying asleep on his post. Ten days solitary.
9 May 1848 J.L.
Freed Cert. 17 June 1851
His arrival at Flinders Bay in 1843 put him among the first group of transported prisoners to be stationed there for their probation, since it had only been established in 1841. The work was hard, clearing trees and brush, and the prisoner station was not long maintained there, with all the remaining prisoners being transferred to Port Arthur in 1844. Given the term of his sentence, his two infractions -- breaking a glass skylight and falling asleep on his watch -- seem quite minor; the large ledger page allotted each convict was, in his case, less than 1/3 filled, while others spill out into long lists of offenses (and others -- the briefest -- say simply "Died at Sea" or "Died in the Mines"). He earned his freedom in June of 1851, and must have lost little time in finding passage to Canada. Perhaps the rumors of homesteads there made it a more attractive destination for him -- or perhaps it was his earlier glimpse of the land that enticed him.