Three Books About The Franklin Expedition

Covers of three books about the Franklin ExpeditionThe riddle of the last Franklin expedition has all of the elements required to elicit and maintain widespread interest—struggle, shipwreck, murder, massacre, cannibalism and controversy. The story of the lost expedition has become a magnet for speculative historians, a mystery that far outstrips the contrived unfolding of fiction, and an inviting field for those who search for the elusive key, the unnoticed coincidence, or the overlooked connection which solves the problem and illuminates the truth.

David C. Woodman Unravelling The Franklin Mystery (2015)


Reading Michael Palin’s Erebus (which I reviewed here) inspired me to do a little more reading around the topic of Franklin’s lost expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. These are the three, very different, books I’ve been reading lately.

Gillian Hutchinson’s Sir John Franklin’s Erebus And Terror Expedition (2017) is subtitled Lost And Found—signalling that it was published in the aftermath of the discovery of the Erebus and Terror wrecks. It is published on behalf of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, and is copiously illustrated with maps, drawings, paintings, and photographs of Erebus and Terror artefacts from their collection, making it the most visually pleasing of these three books. With the exception, that is, of the cover. I have previously complained about the erroneous sail plan of the ship depicted on the cover of Michael Palin’s book, Erebus, and there’s a similar problem here. The cover of this one reproduces Musin’s 1846 painting H.M.S. Erebus In The Ice, in which the artist mistakenly equipped the barque-rigged Erebus with a square mizzen topsail. Indeed, this painting may be the source of the erroneous ship depiction on Palin’s book, which not only has a square mizzen topsail but an erroneous spritsail—the jib sail sagging over the bowsprit in Musin’s painting could easily be mistaken for a spritsail. And, as with Palin, Musin’s Erebus seems to be recklessly battering under full sail into a narrow channel between jagged icebergs.

But, moving on from my personal grievances … this is a fairly short book, with its many well-reproduced illustrations occupying almost as much space as the text. Initial chapters introduce the background—the nature of the Northwest Passage; the biography of Sir John Franklin and his officers, and what’s known of his crew; the design of his two ships, Erebus and Terror. The use of contemporary maps is a great help when it comes to understanding why particular potential routes through the Arctic archipelago were chosen, and how a succession of expeditions by land and sea were slowly building a coherent cartography of the area—with Franklin and his men disappearing into one of the final blank spots.

There’s also a vivid description of what life would have been like aboard ship, including the following gem:

The quantity of tobacco taken on the voyage was almost double that of soap, which may give an idea of the atmosphere below deck […]

The second half of the book deals with the various expeditions sent in Franklin’s wake—at first with the intention of mounting a rescue; latterly to discover the fate of men who were presumed dead. Over the course of years, remains and artefacts were found scattered all around the shore of King William Island and the Adelaide Peninsula. A reproduction of  Gould’s 1927 chart of find-sites is particularly useful in getting one’s head around the complexities of the evidence. And at this point I was struck by the ingenuity of the rescuers’ attempts to communicate with the lost expedition—Arctic foxes trapped and then released wearing message collars; hydrogen balloons launched into the prevailing wind, carrying slow-burning fuses that dropped message capsules one by one.

The story is brought up to date with a chapter dealing with the recent discovery of the Erebus and Terror wrecks, and the book closes with a short list of “answers and questions”—what do we now know about the fate of Franklin’s expedition, and what puzzles remain?

All in all, it’s an excellent introduction to the story (and mystery) of Franklin’s lost expedition.

William Battersby was a Franklin researcher, who has previously tracked down the most likely source of the high lead levels found in the bodies of Franklin expedition sailors—you can take a look at his analysis here (350KB pdf).

His book James Fitzjames (2010) is a biography of Captain Fitzjames of the Erebus who, along with Captain Francis Crozier of the Terror, led the doomed escape attempt towards Back’s Great Fish River. The subtitle The Mystery Man Of The Franklin Expedition refers to the difficulty previous researchers have encountered in tracing records of Fitzjames’s birth, upbringing and early career—indeed, Fitzjames seems to have worked hard both to conceal the details of his birth and to obfuscate some of his early history with the Royal Navy. Battersby, digging through naval records and private correspondence, finally managed to tease out the truth. Fitzjames was the illegitimate son of the diplomat Sir James Gambier, who lived from 1772 to 1844, and is not to be confused with two slightly more famous James Gambiers (his father and his cousin) who served in the Royal Navy. (At that time, sons born out of wedlock were frequently given a surname formed from “Fitz-” and the father’s given name.) The identify of Fitzjames’s mother is unknown; he was raised in the family of the Reverend Robert Coningham, whom he addressed as “uncle”. Coningham’s son, William, was a lifelong friend of Fitzjames’s.

Fitzjames was determined to enter the Royal Navy, and his connection to the Gambier family (which seems to have been something of an open secret among naval captains of the time) got him an “in”—in 1825, at the age of 12, he was entered on to the books of HMS Pyramus as a Volunteer Second Class, serving under Captain Robert Gambier. His subsequent trajectory through the midshipman grade was complicated, and Fitzjames actually managed to pass his lieutenant’s examinations without having served the necessary time in approved posts—the reason he felt the need to slightly tweak his CV in later life.

But Fitzjames seems to have been almost an ideal navy man of the era—competent and energetic, given to saving the lives of drowning men, fluent in several languages and engaged with the technology of the day. Battersby follows him through his association with Chesney’s rather madcap Euphrates Expedition (from which Fitzjames emerged with more credit than Chesney), and the Anglo-Chinese Opium War.

Fitzjames then gained amazingly rapid promotion to Captain, apparently as a result of the patronage of Sir John Barrow, the hugely influential Second Secretary of the Admiralty. Battersby’s other great research coup is to have worked out why Fitzjames was so favoured by Barrow—details are hazy, and only hinted at in Fitzjames’s letters, but he appears to have helped Barrow’s son George out of some sort of potentially scandalous problem.

And it was Barrow’s patronage that led to Fitzjames’s fatal placement with the Franklin expedition, though Barrow would die before he could know that he’d signed Fitzjames’s death warrant rather than done him a career-advancing favour.

So this one isn’t so much about the Franklin Expedition—but Fitzjames’s story gives a vivid insight into the geopolitical situation that led Britain and its Royal Navy to embark on that Arctic adventure, and into the sort of plucky and capable individuals who sought to be a part of it.

David C. Woodman’s Unravelling The Franklin Mystery (2015) is subtitled Inuit Testimony, but it’s about a great deal more than that—Woodman attempts to weave together the physical evidence and the testimony of Inuit witnesses to produce a coherent narrative of the fate of Franklin’s men after they evacuated their ships and stepped ashore on King William Island. Although this is the second edition of a book originally published in 1991, it’s essentially a reprint with a new preface by the author, taking into account the discovery of the Erebus wreck in 2014, but obviously written in ignorance of the nature of the Terror wreck, discovered in 2016.

Woodman sets the scene using the reports of previous explorers in the area. Here is James Ross’s chilling description of the crushing power of the ice in the strait where Franklin’s ships were later beset:

[…] the lighter floes had been thrown up, on some parts of the coast, in a most extraordinary manner; turning up large quantities of the shingle before them, and, in some places, having travelled as much as half a mile beyond the limits of the highest tide mark.

Woodman then deals with the reliability of Inuit testimony, using their reports of known historical circumstances (for instance, their memories of Martin Frobisher’s activities in the Canadian Arctic) to illustrate how accurate such testimony can be. He also discusses the confused stories of the Greenlandic Inuit interpreter, Adam Beck, who has long been branded a liar—Woodman believes he has tracked down the second-hand stories about other expeditions which Beck had mistakenly woven together and recounted in the honest belief they related to the Franklin expedition. There are other difficulties, which Woodman summarizes adeptly—the earliest interviews with Inuit witnesses were carried out by men who knew little Inuktitut, using interpreters who knew little English; direct translation of some Inuit vocabulary, such as “mainland”, is problematic; Inuit people used multiple names during their lives, which were spelled in different ways by contemporary transcribers; Inuit renderings of British names sometimes bore little resemblance to the originals; and the Inuit often assigned their own names to British sailors, which were reused for multiple people.

Woodman now proceeds on two assumptions—firstly, that the Inuit testimony is true, unless there is evident reason for a mistake or prevarication; secondly, that Crozier’s men were not mad or stupid, and narratives that depend on madness or stupidity are likely to be mistaken narratives.

It’s a difficult read, at two levels—firstly, because so many people and places have so many different names, while some names apply to multiple people and places; secondly, because the narrative that emerges from Woodman’s research is even grimmer than the “standard reading” of the Franklin story. Instead of a the single escape attempt recorded in Crozier and Fitzjames’s famous Victory Point note, Woodman makes a case for some survivors returning to and reoccupying the ships. One ship, which we now know to be the Erebus, drifted or was sailed south with a few survivors on board, before sinking off the Adelaide Peninsula. Other survivors seem to have scattered across King William Island, some resorting to cannibalism. There are tantalizing hints of clues yet to be found—Inuit reports of papers being buried ashore under something that sounds like cement, and of a small group of survivors encountered a long way farther south than currently known traces would suggest.

It’s a shame that this reissue predates the discovery of the Terror wreck. In contrast to the Erebus, the situation of the Terror seems to differ from Inuit reports—it sits upright and apparently intact close in-shore, rather than being crushed and lying on its side in the open channel. But its location in Terror Bay opens up a whole new layer of possible interpretations for the survivors’ camp found on the shore of that bay. So I hope we see a new edition of this one once the two wrecks have been properly explored. In the meantime, you can read Woodman’s initial response to the Terror discovery here.

Of the three, I recommend Hutchinson’s book for those who would like an introduction, Battersby’s for background, and Woodman’s for detailed discussion.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.