Wherever you happen to be reading these words right now, I want you to open up a map of the world before you go any further. Look anywhere your eye catches at first- maybe Brazil, Africa or Europe. Then gaze across the vast oceans and imagine yourself sailing the seas calling into exotic ports of call in Australia, India, or South America. Next turn your attention towards the vast frozen continent of Antarctica, taking in its enormous size and scale. Now look at the top of the map and scan left from Russia across to Finland, Sweden and Norway moving west to Greenland. Next go in the opposite direction looking towards the other side of Russia, past Alaska and stop when you are viewing Canada. Look for Hudson Bay, the massive slice seemingly carved out of roughly the middle part of the country. Finally look just slightly north of there and STOP. Now imagine the year is 1845…
This jagged maze of frozen islands, inlets and rough unforgiving terrain is what in the Age Of Exploration was known as the Northwest Passage. Despite the ice and long winters, numerous expeditions went off to reach the Pole itself but more importantly in purely commercial terms the ubiquitous Northwest Passage as well. The theory of course was that commercial ships could cross from Europe to the lucrative Asian markets by way of a dedicated passage through the north instead of the more lengthy and dangerous trip around Cape Horn. It would be years before the Panama Canal was perhaps more wisely considered as a better and safer option.With 21st century hindsight it is easy to shake one’s head at the somewhat ludicrous nature of this pursuit again and again in the years before 1845. Yet persist various people still did.
Much has been written about these various expeditions to the north by intrepid explorers in search of whatever the Arctic had to offer. Since I was a boy I have always been deeply fascinated by these real life tales of adventure and exploration- be it climbing Mt Everest or the pursuit of reaching the North and South Poles.The stories of hardship and perseverance always intrigued me and shook me out of my suburban existence. Over the years I have built my own small library of books on these tales.
Just recently another book was added to that stack which served as the impetus for this series-Erebus by Michael Palin. He may forever be known as part of Monty Python, but much as I love all things Python, for the last 30 years I have been even more of a fan of his travel programs along with their charming companion books. When I heard he was writing about Erebus-a key ship in the annals of both north and south polar exploration I was instantly curious about what he would come up with. Regardless of author sooner or later every story about both the Arctic as well as the search for the Northwest Passage eventually comes around to what happened to Sir John Franklin, commander of the Erebus.
With so much documented already I wondered what contribution I might add to the narrative that was unique. I have never been to the Arctic after all. I have never faced dangers such as these explorers did. I am a history aficionado, not a historian. But while reading Palin’s book I realized that there was a connection right up my alley that was staring right at me. Digging through my music collection I came across not just one song, but several songs directly related to John Franklin. It was time to immerse myself deeper into the story of Franklin. I pulled out all the books that were directly related or that had even passing references to Franklin and I began sketching out a plan. But the music would be my guiding force. I also had the idea to use my own photographs that were representational of the story of Franklin and the vast Arctic waters. When I had that realization I immediately sensed it growing into something much larger than I anticipated. But I get ahead of myself…
Prior to 1845 Franklin had laid his own claim to finding the Northwest Passage. Between the years 1818-1827 he made two attempts. The first was disastrous. Desperately short of food and woefully unprepared Franklin’s group was forced to eat their old leather moccasins and other scraps of leather in order to put something…anything in their stomachs. It quickly devolved into an every man for himself situation with murder and the strong likelihood of cannibalism among some of the party. By the time they were saved from their plight Franklin had lost 11 out of his 20 men. Despite this Franklin was able to chart some 500 miles of new terrain and coastline.
Just a few years later Franklin returned. Better prepared this time and with at least a passing acknowledgement of learning some Arctic survival tips from the native Inuit, he and his second in command Dr. John Richardson charted almost the entire northern coast and some 1600 miles of new territory. As Fergus Fleming points out in his book Off The Map, as a result it was tentatively surmised that at least in the brief Arctic summer the Northwest Passage was looking like a (very) limited possibility. But the fickle nature of the Arctic had yet to reveal a definitive path, and the pursuit continued. I think I can understand why.
In imagining yourself in the year 1845 you must remember that the quest for the Northwest Passage not only made sense commercially but also fulfilled a more common desire. That is to seek the new and unexplored on our planet. Something perhaps lost on us in 2019. Changes in shipbuilding, technology, and mapping allowed intrepid explorers like Franklin to venture out into the unknown more easily than ever before. It is important to remember that in 1845 there were still a lot of those unknowns to be discovered. Places that were untouched or unconquered by humans still. The lure of being ‘first’ to anything was appealing indeed and it is safe to say that is what drove men like Franklin on in their explorations. Fame may have been part of the allure, but the reality shows that the exploits were very much fraught with peril. Fortune favors the bold as the saying goes.
So after months of preparation (some would say not enough) in May of 1845 Erebus and the Terror, the second ship of the expedition set out. They were initially assisted by supply ships whose task was to go as far as Greenland by way of the Orkney Islands bringing the vast amount of stores needed for a lengthy journey. By July of 1845 however, Erebus and Terror were on their own to pursue the task at hand. It might seem disconcerting in now, but at that time it was understood that a large portion of the year would likely be spent trapped completely in the ice. Unable to move, the ships needed to hunker down and be self sustaining throughout a very long Arctic winter. Though fresh meat from polar bears, fish and other sources was hoped for the men on board both ships would have had to resort to some degree of ‘roughing it.’ But undoubtedly as Franklin and the men aboard Erebus and Terror set out from London I feel there must have been a sense of optimism about the impending journey. That is exactly what the first bit of music here is about.
The instrumental group Nightnoise recorded this original composition- ‘Erebus & Terror’ in 1987. The two halves of the composition reflect both that optimism and perhaps a sense of the real danger the men were about to embark on. The piano-jaunty, celebratory and hopeful. The guitar tune then brings forth a sense of melancholy, foreboding and danger. When I heard this song I knew that it was the perfect song introduction to this story because it captures what all the men on board must have been feeling on the journey themselves.
But it was surely short lived. As Michael Palin points out in his book, other than Inuit sightings (which were frustratingly always discounted seemingly), the last recorded sighting of both ships was by Captain Martin of HMS Enterprise who claimed seeing the tips of their masts ‘as late as 29 or 31 July’. After this date the remainder of the story of Franklin and the fate of his men is all speculation. But 175 years later tantalizing clues are still being discovered, which only adds to the mystery further. Which is exactly the right place to end this post. Tune in tomorrow for the continuation of the story of John Franklin.
The Erebus & The Terror-Written By Mícheál Ó Domhnaill
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Lithograph Of John Franklin From The Book-British Polar Explorers (Written By Admiral Sir Edward Evans, Published 1942)
All Other Photographs By Robert P. Doyle