If you’ve read any Arctic exploration books or watched Ridley Scott’s TV series based on Dan Simmons’ book The Terror, you’ll be familiar with Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to find the North West Passage.
In anticipation of Logan Zachary’s talk on the expedition at the outset of the new year, the question springing to mind for those not familiar with this tragic tale is what exactly are the Franklin relics at BRLSI, and what was the context for our acquisition of them?
In brief, they are relics from an ill-fated trip to the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic in the middle of the nineteenth century, and this poses further questions: why was the trip undertaken, and in what sense was it ill-fated?
In today’s world, navigating navally from the east coast of North America to Asia seems fairly simple: travelling through the Panama Canal, which has facilitated access to the Pacific Ocean for over a century, is the obvious choice, yet prior to its construction this was not the case; sailors needed to travel westwards around Cape Horn in Chile, or even eastwards around the Cape of Good Hope at the bottom of South Africa, two routes which were long and treacherous.
The discovery of the Northwest Passage had been desirable since the late fifteenth century due to its potential as a trade route linking Asia and Europe and, until the late nineteenth century, many explorers had been sent to navigate the area in order to unpick this great geographic puzzle. The Franklin expedition was another journey of exploration in this lineage.
For additional context, the expedition also came during a period in European history in which there was a significant knowledge boom; a plethora of scientific discoveries had been made, and our understanding of the world’s territory was inching closer to completion, yet the Northwest passage was still an unknown quantity.
The Franklin expedition was orchestrated by Sir John Barrow, a second secretary in the admiralty who had previously spent time in both China and South Africa. Barrow was obsessed by the potential existence of the passage, which was evidenced by his eight failed attempts to discover it prior to the Franklin expedition, and ultimately sought to use its discovery as proof of Britain’s global supremacy.
Barrow’s first two choices for commander both declined; the third (Francis Crozier) was rejected for his social standing, and the fourth (James Fitzjames) for his lack of experience. Sir John Franklin was the reluctant fifth choice, possibly due to his slightly advanced age, and agreed to take on the role. Franklin, like Barrow, had experience with the Canadian Arctic, and had previously attempted this voyage twice; however, like Barrow, he also had experienced failure with one of those expeditions culminating in the death of half of his crew.
Despite both being passed over as commander, Crozier and Fitzjames accompanied Franklin on his voyage. The crew set sail in May 1845 on the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, two boats that were considered high quality for the age due to the introduction of a heating system, and a state-of-the-art engine lifted from a steam train.
A short while after departure, in July 1845, the expedition was spotted by whalers in Baffin Bay, sandwiched between the east coast of Canada and the west coast of Greenland. The ships then sailed into Canada’s complex network of islands in the north from which they would never return.
Very little is known concretely about the events of the following years, and the information we have has been pieced together from Inuit accounts, information contained within the Victory Point note, and physical evidence discovered from many search missions which have continued into the 21st century.
Conditions on-board in the Canadian Arctic were brutal with the lowest external temperatures reaching -48ºC at night, and -35ºC during the day. Scurvy was rampant. After sailing around the islands, and wintering in the region, for two years in search of the passage, the ships became trapped by ice in late 1846 off the western coast of King William Island. In 1847, members of the crew disembarked and left a log of progress, the Victory Point note which stated that ‘all [is] well’.
Franklin died shortly after in June of the same year. The ships drifted with the ice for a further twelve months until they were abandoned by the crew in April 1848; Captains Fitzjames and Crozier signed off on an addendum to the note which stated the, and that the original captain, Franklin, had died along with ‘ officers and 15 men’. The remaining crew members subsequently marched off across King William Island, in search of the Back River on the Canadian mainland, and ultimately perished. Of the 129 men on board, not one survived.
Their disappearance prompted Lady Franklin, the wife of Captain Sir John Franklin, to call for their rescue and thirty-nine search missions were undertaken in total. The tragic fate of the men only started to be known in 1854 when Dr John Rae, a Franklin investigator, returned to the UK from the Canadian Arctic with Inuit stories that the crew had perished west of the Back River. Inuit peoples also posited that some of the men had resorted to cannibalism, and this theory was bolstered by the presence of cut marks on discovered bones.
Later research conducted on the bodies of crewmen in the 1980s determined that a leading cause of death was lead poisoning caused by the cans of food on the expedition which had been cheaply sealed with lead, corroded lead piping from the water desalination equipment (which was intended purely for purifying water for powering steam engines on the vessels, rather than for purifying drinking water), and a lack of zinc in the crew men’s diet.
The expedition was a stark, and presumably humbling, reminder for all on board of the sheer brutality of nature in an era of scientific endeavour and hubristic belief in dominion over nature.
But how is it that we came to have relics from the expedition in the BRLSI collection? Join us on Sat 13 January, between 2:30 pm – 4:30 pm to see first-hand some of the Franklin Relics from the BRLSI collection and get to hear more of the amazing story that surrounds them.
By Jack Gay