Seeking Lord Franklin-Part 3

For Part 1 of this series, click here. For Part 2, click here.

The Legacy

By 1854, nine years after having set out the Admiralty let it be known that unless any tangible proof of survival among any of Franklin’s men was found, they would be declared dead. Whaling ships were known to go on very long voyages in those years, but this was an officially sanctioned mission. There was not one, but two ships. To have no word and little to go off of in the way of evidence, one can scarcely blame them for making that call. One person who refused to accept that decision was Lady Jane Franklin. She refused to go into mourning and made continued efforts to find out what had happened as late as 30 years after the ships had left England.

But there were precious few clues to go off,  and those that were found pointed into an ominous direction.  How well she accepted these clues is another story.  In 1850 clothing and fragments of supplies were found. On Beechey Island a stone cairn was discovered as were three graves-two men from Erebus, one from Terror. All three had perished in 1846. Suggestions were that by 1846, a mere year after setting off both ships had become trapped completely in the ice and the ships were abandoned. With McClure and the Investigator trapped in the ice themselves on the Western side of the passage, little new information was discovered until 1854.

The story of what happened after this time could result in this being a 20 part series. The shorter version is that various people searching over the years eventually found evidence of parts of the story. John Rae, a truly intrepid explorer from the Orkney Islands who had learned hunting and Arctic survival from the Inuit covered vast overland routes found artifacts and evidence of cannibalism among Franklin’s men. This was met with denials back home and stern rebukes from the likes of Charles Dickens and Lady Franklin.

Frank McClintock, another key figure at the time made perhaps the most pivotal discovery of all in 1859. First he found three bodies and clear evidence that they came from Franklin’s men. More importantly he found a note inside a cairn. The original note was dated May 28, 1847 and described meeting trouble. Scrawled around the note was a second message which revealed that John Franklin had died on June 11, 1847. It went on to say that at the time of writing 24 men had perished.

Much has been speculated as to what ended the lives of the rest of the crews. The main theories are that many of the men died slow deaths as a result of lead poisoning either as a result of poor sealing on their tins of preserved food or via the lead pipes from the water tanks on board. Another strong plausibility is of the scourge of sailors at that time-scurvy. Though its cause was understood by that time and preventative measures well in place, it is possible it contributed to the poor health of the men. As Palin concludes though, perhaps it was a combination of many factors-lack of food, disease, poor planning, failure to learn tips from the Inuit. And it may have come down to poor leadership, starting with Franklin himself. Well noted for his fiery church services which he conducted on board ship, a major reason he took on the expedition was to salvage his wounded pride he had suffered as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land some years before. That combined with being not exactly in shape for winters on the ice possibly led to some poor decisions.

But I think all of these theories contribute to the why. As in why we are still talking about Franklin all these years later. Why books are written. Why movies and documentaries are filmed. Why scientists have studied the preserved remains of corpses from the expedition all these years later. For me especially, it is also why songs such as Lord Franklin are still sung today, and why newer songs like The Erebus & The Terror, and Mercy Bay are still written. People like a mystery, they like the stories, the history and the drama. They imagine themselves on those ships, if even for a brief moment. Sailing the Arctic Sea along with Franklin and his ‘gallant crew’. After reading Palin’s book, Franklin’s story became even more poignant and personal for me. Not because of any sort of connection to the story, but because of a song that Palin mentions himself towards the end of the book-Northwest Passage, by the late and very great Stan Rogers.

In the song Stan Rogers tells a bit about the story of Franklin. He mentions the ‘long forgotten lonely cairn of stones’…a sight that must have been such a stark contrast to the untouched Arctic landscape in that time. He mentions the Beaufort Sea and Davis Strait. But when you contemplate the lyrics further, you realize that Rogers is talking about another journey. As the songwriter he was taking his own journey across Canada, through cites and the vast prairies. But in ‘finding the hand of Franklin’ he was going somewhere more personal. And that is when I realized that the song was telling me so much about not just the historical Franklin’s journey, but my own journey. It might sound trite to say this, but it is about finding your own elusive Northwest Passage. A journey unlike any taken before. A mystery. A struggle fraught with peril. Victory snatched before you as quickly as an Arctic ice flow closes a channel of water. It says so much while making you think and feel so much.

“How then am I so different from the first men through this way?

Like them, I left a settled life, I threw it all away

To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men

To find there but the road back home again”

Those of you who follow me on social media know that the past year has been a struggle. I have been going to see a therapist weekly for over a year now. Just over a month ago at a session I was recounting a memory from childhood. We have been gradually going backwards in time to some specific memories I have of my childhood, tracing the passage back from what I feel are inadequacies and failures of my past. Seeing connections to feelings and actions I still have today and how they relate to those memories. Though the memories are not traumatic or disturbing they still affect me. And so it was at this particular session at 9 AM on a Monday morning I had a particular jarring memory and connection made. It came out of nowhere. One moment I was reliving moments in my past and the next a connection was made to now and I became a weeping mess for several moments and unable to speak. I felt anger, hurt, rage, betrayal, guilt and sadness all at once. In the days and weeks after I have worked on these moments some more. It is still a work in progress, but it is a good thing to relive these thoughts.

It was in between then and as I began this series that I picked up Michael Palin’s Erebus. The boyhood fascination with the allure and admiration for the old sailing ships, for tales of adventure across the seas and being frozen in the Arctic with only the polar bears and the Inuit was still there. The love of history and science in discovering what happened to Franklin, of ship building and politics of the era was still there. But in reading the book I realized what was not there. As I raced through the book thoroughly enjoying myself I found myself thinking of my therapy appointments and the recent turn they had taken. What I realized was that the hurt I felt as a result came from a deeper pain inside me. That of failing to capitalize on my own value and worth. Weaving my own unique narrative.

All the things I ever dreamed about doing I have yet to do. The usual excuses come up-budget, time, fear of the unknown. The connections from therapy have proven to me that the desire and wanting has been there, but other reasons have caused me to put a hold on what I want or to give fuel to my system. But if that therapy session was a start in the right direction, then so too does this post. Because I see it guiding me towards the unknown. It might be only a personal unknown. A way of viewing my life differently, but it is a path I need to be on now.

My journey, perhaps all of our journeys are like Franklin. We go forward only to become trapped. We go in another direction only to have that close up as well. We search for those openings because we yearn to find the new. To live for the new. My life up to now has had all sorts of paths that have closed up. Yet the hope is that like Franklin and McClure and all the rest that those paths open up again. A crack in the ice that becomes wider and opens up to a new destination.

Writing this series became an obsession of sorts. It consumed me in a way I have not felt in quite a long time. It merged virtually all of my passions into one place. I came home from work at night and pored myself in as many stories and tales of the Arctic as I could find. I watched documentaries and searched for songs and all sorts of relevant data to the story to mention perhaps only in passing. But I needed to do this. To find the connections to my past in therapy. To find that passage through the  barrier of ice in my mind and live the words of the Stan Rogers song-

“Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage.

To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea. 

Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage

And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.”

Postscript 

Unlike most mysteries, 174 years after setting out, Franklin’s expedition is still revealing itself. In 2010 using sophisticated underwater equipment, the wreck of HMS Investigator was found near Mercy Bay. In 2014 a rusted metal U-shaped object was found. Using a bit of on the spot internet research it turned out to be part of a davit, the mechanism used to lower the smaller boats off the sides of ships such as Erebus. The very next day using the location of this artifact as a guide, the underwater equipment spotted the remains of another wreck. A few days later divers went down to the wreck. Among the wreckage found was the ships bell. Erebus had at long last been found,

Such has been my passion for writing this series, I could not quite let it end. For starters, I have created a YouTube playlist for not just the songs from this post, but any relevant interviews, documentaries and supplementary material about Franklin and his expedition. Additionally, I feel compelled to give my own bibliography of some of the key sources used for this series-

Erebus-By Michael Palin

Off The Map-By Fergus Fleming

Sea Of Glory-By Nathaniel Philbrick

Let The Sea Make A Noise-By Walter A. MacDougall

To Rule The Waves-By Arthur Herman

Discovery Of The North Pole-By Dr. Frederick A. Cook & Commander Robert E. Peary

British Polar Explorers-By Admiral Sir Edward Evans

A Sea Of Words-A Lexicon & Companion For Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales-By Dean King, With John Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes

Other sources were the Encyclopedia Of Native American Tribes By Carl Waldman, the World Almanac 2019 for facts and maps, and various other online sources.

I also highly recommend a documentary series streaming on Netflix now called Arctic Ghost Ship, focused on the discovery of the Erebus wreckage. It also contains lots of great information about Franklin’s voyage as well.

Northwest Passage-Written By Stan Rogers

Mercy Bay-Written By Chris Leslie

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Photographs By Robert P. Doyle

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Seeking Lord Franklin-Part 2

For Part 1-Click here

Part 2-The Search

“It was homeward bound one night on the deep

Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep

I dreamed a dream and I thought it true

Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew”

These words were written as a broadside ballad around the year 1850. Broadsides  were often single sheets of paper that contained the news of the day, woodcut illustrations, or sometimes ballad songs. Sometimes these songs were reprints of known traditional songs, but other times they were ‘ripped from the headlines’ of the day. This meant they were often about true crime, murder or other salacious tales. Other times they were about the buzz of the moment. And in 1850, five years after setting out to find the Northwest Passage, the buzz was still about what had happened to Lord Franklin’s expedition.

Yesterday in Part 1 I gave you as much that IS known about Lord Franklin’s expedition on the Erebus and Terror. But there is so much we still do not know for certain after all these years. By 1848 after not a single trace or word from the expedition the first relief parties were organized. As I mentioned in Part 1, it was understood that the ships would have to hunker down and live trapped in the ice during the brutal Arctic winter. But the fact that three years had gone by with not a single sighting or word along with the dogged persistence of Lord Franklin’s wife Jane persuaded the British Admiralty to become involved. In the short Arctic summer several official parties went searching via overland routes to where they believed evidence of the expedition would be, as well as by sea from both the eastern and western approaches to the Northwest Passage. Nothing was found.

In Fergus Fleming’s book Off The Map he takes up what happened next-a prize was to be given-£ 20,000 for definitive proof or sighting of  Franklin, and £10, 000 if in the course of searching for what happened the Northwest Passage was also found. In 1850 when the broadside of Lord Franklin is thought to have first appeared, no less than 13 vessels were in the Arctic searching for the expedition. This included Royal Navy ships, two U.S. ships, a small ship commanded by fellow polar explorer and hero Sir John Ross, and another financed by Lady Jane Franklin’s personal efforts.

All of which undoubtedly gave the broadside writers plenty of material to work with. And in the ballad Lord Franklin, or its other variant Lady Franklin’s Lament they came up with something noteworthy. In setting the song within the context of a dream the song becomes something ethereal and mysterious conjuring up what may have actually happened to the men on board Erebus and Terror. Years ago as I was becoming interested in traditional music I came across the song first from a giant of traditional music-Martin Carthy. This version comes from his second album released in 1966. Since then I have heard many versions by other artists, but Carthy’s version was my first. Typical for a broadside, a ‘device’ was used to set the story in context. And in using a dream as that device the appropriate mood is set for presenting the likely outcome of the disappearance of the expedition.

The song continues-

“In Baffin Bay where the whale fish blow

The fate of Franklin no man may know

The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell

Lord Franklin along with his sailors do dwell”

After five years gone most logical people would be forgiven for agreeing with the words of the song. A realization that the ships and crew were surely lost and all hope abandoned of actually finding them was not so far fetched. Yet some were not so convinced, especially Lady Jane Franklin who held a lot of sway in society circles. Which leads straight into the next part of the Franklin story.

One of the ships that set out in 1850 was HMS Investigator. Since those first relief parties started setting out the focus was searching the probable routes Franklin had taken. But what if Franklin had gone further west and was trapped in the ice beyond where the relief ships had gone?  Investigator was tasked along with HMS Enterprise to search locations from West to East where some possible trace may have been found. The ships made the long journey around Cape Horn, past Hawaii, and all the way around Alaska. Separated from Enterprise, the Investigator under Captain Robert McClure made an effort to search for signs of Franklin but also reveled in the chance of finding the Northwest Passage.

As it turns out they wound up getting caught in the ice themselves for two years, scarcely able to make any progress and faced with their own adversity. The extremely short window for getting ships as large as Investigator out of the ice or sending smaller land parties out searching for evidence of Erebus and Terror was surely frustrating. But it was understood to be the way things happened in the Arctic. That did not make life any easier for the crew of Investigator. Which is precisely what the next song is about. It makes for an interesting companion to the ordeal of Franklin and his men.

Fairport Convention have written and performed three songs about Franklin in recent years. I’m Already There is about his first doomed Arctic voyage, Eleanor’s Dream covers similar ground to ‘Lord Franklin’. But with Mercy Bay the band tells the lesser known story of Investigator and Robert McClure and their own agonizing journey. The mid-tempo pace of the song at the start becomes more insistent the further the story goes along. The song tells the story yet also conveys the hardship every man on board was living through. Once again it is an interesting exercise to imagine yourself in the situation. Numbing and unforgiving cold seeping into every part of the body. Sharing tight quarters with others. Little variety to diet and rations cut short. Being literally trapped in the ice. growing  more desperate with each passing day, the loss of three members of the crew. One can hear the voice of the unnamed narrator begging and pleading to be free of the ordeal-

“Turn this ship around, from these frozen grounds

Lets be homeward bound

Find a way”

As the song alludes to at the end, McClure and the surviving crew of the Investigator were fortunate to eventually make it back to England having spent a total of four years in the Arctic. They had their own harrowing tales of disaster, hardship and rescue.  As Fleming points out ‘in taking his ship to Banks Island, and then crossing the ice to Melville Island, McClure had become the first man to actually traverse the Northwest Passage. He was given a gold medal and was awarded the £10, 000 prize’. But what of Franklin?

Studying the entire history of relief parties searching for what happened is as much of a mystery as what direction the frozen inlets and narrow bays of the Arctic led to for the men on board those ships. Due to lack of communication it was not easy piecing together all the disparate sightings and tangible evidence that was being slowly pieced together both for the public and the ever hopeful Lady Franklin. Some evidence was actually even discounted And that is where we will pick up in the third and final part of this series.

Lord Franklin-Traditonal, Arranged By Martin Carthy

Mercy Bay-Written By Chris Leslie

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Seeking Lord Franklin-Part 1

 

The Journey

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…

John Franklin

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