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.”
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