Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper proudly announced discovery of one of Captain John Franklin’s ships, either the Erebus or Terror. Identification, of which ship will be relatively easy, based on the known dimensions of the vessels (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Erebus and Terror; sketch in the London Illustrated News May 24, 1845
Source: Illustrated London News/Getty Images
The discovery is important, but inevitable, given the known approximate position where they sank. It is surprising both ships were not discovered because they were locked in the ice close to each other. Good condition of the ship is not surprising, although ice damage is evident. Once on the bottom, where the water is constantly very cold, they would not suffer much organic damage. They are also below the depth where surface ice could cause damage, as it did with Jens Munk’s ship sunk in Churchill Harbor on Hudson Bay in 1619-20.
The wreck marks the final focal and ending point of a government funded and bureaucratically organized disastrous expedition. It occurred in conditions they didn’t understand and completely misjudged, mostly because they were blinded by the ambition of one person, John Franklin. Search for the Northwest Passage was, as Pierre Berton defined in the title of his book, like looking for The Arctic Grail. His book covers expeditions from 1818 – 1909, but there were many earlier searches. Elizabeth 1 and her science advisor, Dr. John Dee promoted the most extensive, including attempts to go north of Russia – the Northeast Passage. Dee produced a remarkable map of the entire Arctic Basin looking down on the North Pole (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Arctic map drawn by John Dee for Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583.
Source; Historical Atlas of the Arctic, Derek Hayes
Elizabeth’s ambition was to establish posts at the Atlantic and Pacific ends of the Northwest Passage and thus control the north Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Part of that ambition included a secret order to Sir Francis Drake to find the Passage from the Pacific Coast. I contributed a complete climate reconstruction for 1577-80 for Sam Bawlf’s book The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake.
How else am I qualified to talk about the Franklin expedition? It begins with four years flying anti-submarine patrols over the North Atlantic, including Canadian waters right up to Baffin Island. The Soviets were transiting under the ice quite early in the Cold War. I then spent five years flying search and rescue in the Canadian Arctic, right to the North Pole. After returning to university, I used the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives as a source of material for climate reconstruction in my doctoral thesis, Climatic Change in Central Canada: A Preliminary Analysis of Weather Information from Hudson’s Bay Company Forts at York Factory and Churchill Factory, 1714-1850. As a result of ongoing research I was involved in several books about the Arctic and supervised several theses on arctic subjects, including Renee Fossett’s doctoral thesis on the circumpolar history of the Eskimo people (In Canada they are officially called Inuit). Fossett’s thesis became a wonderful book titled, In Order To Live Untroubled: Inuit of the Central Arctic, 1550 to 1940 (University of Manitoba Press). One diagram in the book of interest to climate studies is a map of reconstructed ice conditions in the 18th century (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Approximate winter sea ice front in the 18th century.
The ice conditions provide explanation for the appearance of Eskimos around Scotland in the first half of 18th century. Witness this description in 1700 by Doctor James Wallace of the Orkney Islands.
Be the seas never so boisterous their Boat being made of Fish Skins, are so contrived that can never sink, but is like a Sea Gull swimming on the top of the Water. His shirt he has is so fastened to the Boat, that no Water can come into his Boat could do him damage, except when he pleases to unty it, which he never does but to ease nature, or when he comes ashore.
I also worked with Alan Catchpole and Marcia Faurer on their reconstructions of ice conditions from Hudson Bay Company ships logs crossing the Atlantic and sailing into Hudson Bay. One 1983 publication is Summer sea ice severity in Hudson Strait, 1751 – 1870, in Climatic Change. It is always disappointing that people working on the arctic rarely reference any of these works, or the works of Moira Dunbar and other Canadian arctic ice researchers; the work of Arctic Climatologist Bea Alt; Paleobiologist Sylvia Edlund on Arctic refugia, or the entire work of the Polar Shelf Project.
Other books I was involved with covered several aspects of Arctic history, but all required reconstruction of weather and climate conditions. One was Frozen in Time specifically about the Franklin expedition (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Image shows frozen body of Petty Officer John Torrington.
In my opinion, John Franklin was an example of an English naval officer looking for trips to build a reputation in peacetime, but with more ambition than most. As Pierre Berton wrote in the Arctic Grail,
He was prepared to leave his bride of 17 months, even though he knew she was dying of tuberculosis. It was this reckless ambition, this hunger for fame and promotion that had been Franklins undoing in that first expedition when, with little preparation and no experience he had set off blindly across the Barren Ground of British North America. It would be his undoing again a quarter of a century in the future, when he and 129 men vanished forever into an unexplored corner of the Arctic.
He was incompetent, as most of his actions demonstrated and many died because of his decisions. One person who witnessed his incompetence was George Back, who has a river named after him in northern Canada. Few people know Franklin took two earlier expeditions, in 1818-22 and 1825-27 to the Arctic travelling overland. Back travelled with him on both. The expeditions consisted of going from one Hudson’s Bay Company fort to the next, then crossing the tundra to the Arctic coast. George Back and others had a very low opinion of Franklin.
There is no evidence I am aware of, that the letter from the President of the Royal Society to the Admiralty on November 20, 1817 influenced the Admiralty decision to support Franklin’s expedition. In the letter he wrote:
It will without doubt have come to your Lordship’s knowledge that a considerable change of climate inexplicable at present to us must have taken place in the Circumpolar Regions, by which the severity of the cold that has for centuries past inclosed (sic) the seas in the high northern latitudes in an impenetrable barrier of ice has been during the last two years greatly abated.
Mr. Scoresby, a very intelligent young man who commands a whaling vessel from Whitby observed last year that 2000 square leagues of ice with which the Greenland Seas between the latitudes of 74° and 80°N have been hitherto covered, has in the last two years entirely disappeared.1
[1. Royal Society, London, 1817. Minutes of Council, Volume 8. pp.149-153.]
This change was due to the extreme Meridional flow that developed from the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. Temperature is the major factor determining the amount and distribution of Arctic ice. The second factor is the wind, which is as true today as it was then. It appears the decision to go was pure politics.
So much of history is people dying because of hair-brained, ill planned, self-serving schemes by incompetent people. All 129 people, including Franklin, died as well as some searching for them. Despite the debacle, the government created an image of Franklin as a great hero. They did the opposite to John Rae, a man who discovered what happened, was a great leader, and contributed much to science and humanity.
What happened to Franklin was well known within years of his disappearance, thanks primarily to the work of Dr. John Rae.1 An Edinburgh medical graduate at 20, Rae signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company. His childhood on Orkney and the family role as HBC agents in Stromness made the connection almost inevitable. On arrival in Churchill he immediately established a research routine that included collecting weather data. His records are precise, detailed and very accurate. Here is the entry about his thermometers.
“The thermometers were suspended within a couple of inches of each other, under a tunnel like covering of stout canvas, facing north and protected as much as possible from the sun’s rays, at the same time quite detach from any building. Height of thermometers from the ground, four feet six inches”.
He was extremely well liked by everybody, especially the men, who would go anywhere with him. On all his trips, in some of the most inhospitable country and climate in the world, only one person died under his command because of an accident. Their health was maintained by his strict attention to diet including his own cure for scurvy. He was considered the best person on snowshoes, as illustrated by his trip from Red River (Winnipeg) to Sault St. Mary’s, a distance of 1950 km in two months, a remarkable 32.5 km per day.
[2 A good biography of Rae is Dr John Rae, by R.L. Richards]
A measure of the man and his abilities are exemplified by his achievements after being asked by the Company to survey the Arctic. Rae’s knowledge of the Arctic Ocean ice conditions, with wide-open leads, even in winter, caused him to order the first form of inflatable boat produced, Figure 5.
Figure 5: A sales brochure for the Halkett portable, inflatable boat.
Rae’s original boat and personal possessions are on display in the Stromness museum in Orkney.
Rae was only one of many Hudson’s Bay Company people who carried out a multitude of scientific measures and research. The earliest book titled Arctic Zoology was written by Thomas Pennant and published in 1784-85 based almost exclusively on material sent by Company employees. As Judith Beattie wrote in the preface to the book I co-authored with Dr Stuart Houston, world expert on arctic birds and especially Great Snowy Owls, titled, Eighteenth Century Naturalists of Hudson Bay.
“The Hudson Bay Company had a deep interest in the natural history of its territory from its earliest activities in North America”… “The records preserved in the daily journals and ships logs in the Hudson Bay Company archives provide some of the earliest and longest series of data, of particular importance when there is so much concern about climate change and the impact of humans on the environment.”
The archives contain the most complete measure and description of a large portion of the earth’s surface, prior to the arrival of Europeans. They began mapping and recording the moment they landed. It is a chance to measure the impact – a burning question in today’s accusatory world.
Franklin’s second wife commissioned Rae to search for her husband. Lady Franklin was a persuasive woman and had much to do with pushing her husband’s career. She also convinced several countries to participate in the search, including England, France, the US and the Hudson’s Bay Company. In fact, she stayed with the Rae family in Orkney for almost a year waiting for news (Figure 6)
Figure 6: Rae family home in Stromness, Orkney.
Source: The Author
With the help of the Eskimos, Rae learned quite early what happened. Evidence included pieces of the ship along the shoreline and emaciated bodies that all told a grisly tale. But Rae was not to get recognition for his discoveries. In fact, he did not get recognition for any of his work, which included mapping very accurately some 2,255km of the North American Arctic Coast, more than anyone in history. Figure 7 shows the location of the wreck and the location of bodies.
What did Rae do wrong? Why was he effectively written out of history? Two major answers; he told the truth and refused to modify it; he acted in ways appropriate for his situation, but unacceptable to British officialdom. Figure 6 shows Rae’s favorite image, dressed in the native animal skin clothing and boots. This was simply not done as far as English society, especially the British Admiralty, were concerned. However, the biggest error was reporting the evidence of cannibalism. The Admiralty said he accepted what they considered the unreliable word of the Eskimos. Their reports and Rae’s acceptance were re-confirmed in 1992.
Franklin’s supporters made sure Rae was punished. He lost his membership in the Royal Society and the Royal Geographic Society. Worse, instead of being buried with other discoverers in Westminster Abbey, he was buried in a corner of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney (Figure 8).
Figure 8: John Rae’s favorite image in native clothing.
Franklin’s behavior after the loss of his ships is difficult to assess because they were all suffering from lead poisoning. One of the first expeditions to carry food stored in tins, the lead from the soldering infused the food and gradually built up in the consumer’s body. Testing of the frozen bodies, discovered by Owen Beattie, showed poisonously high levels. This would have affected decisions crucial to survival. However, Franklin’s judgments were not good before the expedition.
Before the ships sank he ordered as many goods as possible loaded into two ships boats. Traces were attached and the men (not the officers) dragged them across the snow. He included several silver tea services and other completely unnecessary heavy objects.
Regardless of the year, ice conditions in that part of the world are always harsh. They were especially severe in most years during the Little Ice Age. Franklin’s ships were last seen grappled to an iceberg, a standard procedure in heavy ice conditions at night. In 1848 and 1849 some 50 official search missions went out with no success. But John Rae knew what happened and reported his findings, but nobody was listening, or wanted to listen.
The fiasco was summarized when John Rae wrote his final report to the British Admiralty. He recommended that in future any Admiralty expedition should study the survival techniques of the native people. The Admiralty response said, the Royal Navy would never resort to the subterfuge of going native. No wonder the Erebus and Terror sank, with only one ship being discovered 170 years later, and everybody perishing. Government, using incompetent people to advance political agendas at the expense of ordinary people, many of them with remarkable skills and talents, is nothing new in the Arctic.
Figure 9. Dr John Rae and his tomb in Kirkwall, Orkney