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The Weird Aryan History Series

Lesson #19: Sir John Franklin: His Life and Afterlife

(c) 1996 Russell A. Potter, PhD

Captain Sir John Franklin's disappearance in the Arctic—along with two ships and 128 officers and crew—was a celebrated mystery in the nineteenth century, attracting enormous public attention both in Great Britain and the United States. Some forty expeditions were launched in search of his party, funded both by governments and public subscriptions.

In a way, Franklin's expedition was the Apollo 13 of his times—only, in his times, without radio or modern communications, such potential martyrdom came with painful slowness. It is probably impossible to be quite as lost today anywhere on the planet at Sir John was by 1848, and his plight was only worsened by the hundreds of theories pursued by experts and amateurs alike as to where help might best be sent.

In the end, the few sober voices (and two remarkably accurate psychics) who made the right guess as to his location were drowned out by a bevy of British and American Arctic experts, including more than a few of Franklin's old friends, and much-needed relief never reached him. Franklin himself, it was later learned, had died in 1847, before concerns had really reached their peak—and within the next two or three years, every single one of the men under his leadership joined their commander in anonymous death.

Franklin's holy grail was the long-sought Northwest Passage, through the Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Many sailors had tried to find such a route in centuries past, but it was not until 1819 that Captain William Edward Parry succeeded in making any headway into the inland Arctic , where winter freeze-ups left sailors with only a month or two out of twelve in which there was any open water to navigate.

When an expedition was contemplated to follow that last remaining link, it was little surprise that Franklin—though nearing sixty and grown rather sedentary—was selected to lead it. He departed from England in May of 1845, his two ships, the "Erebus" and "Terror," packed to the gunwales with pickled potatoes, pemmican, and a relatively new invention—canned meat, Goldner's Patent. He reached Lancaster Sound, the gateway to Barrow's straits, in August of that year, and was afterwards never seen again by Europeans.

It was not, in fact, until 1854 that Dr. John Rae, a surveyor for the Hudson's Bay Company, heard the first intelligence of Franklin's fate. By that time, a dozen expeditions, including official and un-official British ones as well as the American Grinnell Expedition (on which E.K. Kane served as surgeon) had tried to find him, but discovered nothing beyond the site of his first wintering (1845-6), marked by three graves an a heap of empty meat tins. Dr. Rae, far to the south, did not expect to hear anything of Franklin during his survey. Yet he always asked the Inuit, among whom he traveled, if they had heard any stories of white men and ships, and one day his question received a startling answer.

Sledging along the coastline not far from Pelly Bay, Rae encountered an Inuk hunter with an unusual cap-band; it was made of gold cloth and looked to have come from a naval officer. Questioning the man, he was told that "a party of Ka-bloo-nans [white men] had died of starvation, a long distance to the west of where we were then, and beyond a large River."

Rae did not get the full story until his return trip to Repulse Bay, by which time it was too late for sledging; the coastal areas were thawing, making for treacherous travel. Yet having heard of his offer of a reward for artifacts, the Repulse Bay Inuit offered a trove of items from the Franklin expedition, including the officers' silver plate, broken chronometers and astronomical instruments, and even one of Sir John Franklin's medals—a Guelphic Order of Hanover.

Rae hastened to convey this news to England, where it caused consternation among many. Franklin's widow, the inestimable Lady Jane Franklin, was incensed that Rae had not tried to go further, and outraged that the government reward of ten thousand pounds for information about her husband was given to Rae. Newspapers seized on the accounts of cannibalism, which was widely attacked as impossible—by, among others, Charles Dickens. Rae defended his Inuit informants, however, and as we now know, these stories were entirely true, though some of the geographical details had been confused by various informants who had not actually been to the places named.

One indirect result of Rae's news was that Jane Franklin decided to fund yet another private expedition to visit the area named by Rae's informants. She obtained & refurbished a small yacht, and enlisted Captain (later Admiral Sir) Leopold M'Clintock to head a small but tested crew.

Finally, in 1858, M'Clintock and his second-in-command Hobson made their way to the Franklin party's camps on King William Island, where they found a number of melancholy sights: bodies left lying face down in the snow, decapitated skeletons inside a boat lashed to a sledge (and filled with all manner of weighty and useless material), abandoned heaps of clothing, and two enigmatic paper records—the only official records ever found. Both were standard Admiralty forms, and one simply gave the expedition's progress report, followed by "All Well" and the officer's names. The other was nearly identical, except that around its margins Captains Fitzjames and Crozier (in command after Franklin's death) had scrawled the following message:

"25th April 1848. H M Ships Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April 5 leagues NNW of this, having been beset since 12th Sept. 1846. The officers and crews consisting of 105 souls under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier landed here in Lat. 69o 37' 42" Long. 98o 41' ... Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June 1847 and the total loss by deaths in the Expedition had been to this date 9 officers & 15 men. [signed] James Fitzjames, Captain H M S Erebus, F.R.M. Crozier Captain & Senior Officer, and start on tomorrow 26th for Back's Fish River."

This was grim news, and still enigmatic. Why was the proportion of deaths among the officers nearly twice that of the crew? How were 105 souls reduced to the "forty" seen hauling sledges to the south? Why did it take them from April to sometime late in the summer to travel eighty or ninety miles? And why, above all, were they headed to Back's Fish River?

True, the ascent of that river would take them to a Hudson's Bay outpost, but this 1,200 mile trek over rapids and waterfalls would have been a hard haul for men full of life and vigor. For the Franklin crews, clearly affected by scurvy (and possibly by lead-poisoning as well, from badly-soldered meat tins), it was an insane destination. The boat found by M'Clintock, one of the ship's sizable whaleboats, was lashed to a heavy sledge of solid oak planks and filled with all manner of oddments from silver teaspoons to carpet slippers to a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield; hauling it to the mouth of the Fish River would have been a death sentence.

Nonetheless, despite the unresolved problems, M'Clintock returned to public accolades as the man who finally "solved" the Franklin mystery. And that was where the matter lay for many a year, until other men revisited these sites and re-interviewed the Inuit.

The boldest of these was Charles Francis Hall, an eccentric newspaperman whose mind was inflamed with Franklin after he heard of Kane's expedition. Hall knew—as did others - that the Ross expedition had survived four Arctic winters with the help of the Inuit—could not some of the Franklin crew have done the same? Hall hitched a ride on a friendly whaler & headed north to find out.

His first two years, frustratingly, were spent far from the Franklin sites, though he was able—by following Inuit remembrances—to re-discover the site where Martin Frobisher dug for gold some three hundred years previous. This discovery only furthered Hall's passion; if the Inuit could still remember tales of Frobisher's men, what might they be able to tell of Franklin's!

Hall returned to the U.S., raised more money through lectures & subscriptions, and went back to the Arctic, where he would spend nearly six years tracking Franklin stories. Astonishingly, he managed to interview a number of Inuit who had actually talked with Franklin parties, including an elderly couple who had joined Sir John for dinner on board the "Erebus." He interviewed In-nook-poo-zhe-jook, as well as several of the hunters who were eye-witnesses to the band of 40 starving men.

All the stories meshed with amazing reliability, and Hall thus was the first to learn that one of the ships—probably the "Erebus" had sunk not far from where it was abandoned, while the other had drifted or been piloted a substantial distance south. Some of his informants told of three or four final survivors from this second ship, including a man who may have been Captain Crozier himself. These survivors had indeed wintered among the Inuit, but had departed for the south many years ago. See-gar, one of the men who had met them, told that he had heard that they had arrived safely in the country of the Kin-na-pa-too Inuit on the shores of Hudson's Bay. Only much later, Hall heard from a whaling captain stationed near the Kin-na-pa-too's territory that this man who had been among them himself either starved or was killed, and thus never reached the Hudson's Bay outposts that were his likely destination.

Others passed through the Franklin sites—military expeditions from the U.S. and Canada, and even the intrepid Rasmussen, who in the 1920's heard once more of the Franklin survivors, this time from the elderly sons of the hunters who had originally seen them. In the twentieth century, most interest in the Franklin disaster has been among those interested in filling out the minutiae of events, or speculating on minor details, all the while accepting the general idea of a single abandonment, aimed at the Fish River, with the party dying off along the way.

A final answer to the Franklin mystery seems unlikely. From the very start, the one thing most sought by every searcher was some kind of cache of papers that would fully explain the expedition's fate. Yet despite the fact that two sets of duplicate records—one for each ship—were ordered to be kept, not a single scrap of either has been found. The Inuit, regarding papers and books as useless, often left them where they found them, or gave them to their children as playthings.

The only other surviving paper items were a couple of pages from "The "Student's Manual," some prayer books, a New Testament in French, a book of "Christian Melodies" (inscribed to G.G., possibly Lieutenant Graham Gore), and a copy of "The Vicar of Wakefield." Back at Franklin's first winter camp, not a single official record was found, though a scrap reading "until called" and another reading "Macdonald" (name of one of the ship's surgeons) survived.

In 1973 a perfectly legible note was recovered from a cairn in the middle of Cornwallis Island which had been deposited by Commander Phillips in 1851. Even more remarkably, a letter written by William Barents, the intrepid Dutch explorer who spent the winter of 1595 at Ice Haven on Novaya Zemlya, was recovered intact in 1871, 276 years later!

So the search goes on. The permafrost can preserve other things, besides; in 1985, Owen Beattie opened the graves from Franklin's first winter camp, and found inside three remarkably well-preserved bodies, looking not much different from the way they did when first buried. One, John Torrington, his eyes open, looks almost as if he could yet be alive—a deceptive look for a man who had spent 139 years in a simple black wooden coffin.

Beattie also measured lead levels in the soft tissue and hair from these bodies, as well as from bones recovered from King William Island, and found that at least some of the Franklin crew-members were suffering from lead-poisoning brought about by their canned foods. Yet whether this ailment, or scurvy, or starvation was the ultimate killer, one fact remains: not a single survivor ever returned. The finality of the tragedy is perfectly encapsulated by the words of the well-known ballad, "Lord Franklin":

In Baffin's Bay where the whale-fishes blow
The fate of Franklin no man can know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin with his seamen does dwell.