May 28, 2009

The doomed Franklin expedition

In Review of Arctic Passage: Ice Survivor, I reported on the Amundsen expedition that succeeded where the Franklin expedition failed. Here's the story on the earlier attempt:

The Franklin Expedition:  1845-1859

By Kathryn CassidyThe purpose of the Franklin Expedition was to map out the North-West Passage from Europe to Asia. This story can be linked to Victorian attempts to complete geographical knowledge of remote regions (i. e., in terms of the relief of the land and the climate), to fulfill the historical goals of Elizabethan navigators and explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake (i. e., in terms of the historic context of such a journey on the development of the North), as well as to English Literature, in terms of its link to such stories involving polar settings and issues of survival as Mary Shelley's Romantic novel Frankenstein (1818) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's literary ballad The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which opened the 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads).

The Franklin Expedition had five years of food supplies, including 8,000 tins (in one-, two-, four-, six-, and eight lb. capacities) of meat, vegetables, and soup. In Frozen in Time (1987), basing their conclusions on forensic examinations of two of the expedition members' bodies, Owen Beattie and John Geiger contend that the tins were sealed improperly, with lead solder running down the inside of each tin; since lead if ingested is poisonous, the metal probably seeped into the crews’ food. In addition to the technical innovation of tinned goods, Franklin's vessels the "Erebus" and "Terror" had cabins which were heated by hot water piped through the floor. The ships' bows were reinforced with iron planks to help them break through ice. Moreover, each ship was equipped with a specially designed screw propeller driven by a wheel-less steam locomotive from the London and Greenwich Railway. Thus, better equipped than any previous polar expedition, Sir John Franklin set out on his fourth search of the North-West passage on 19 May 1845, with 134 sailors and officers. They were last seen by the crew of two whaling ships, the "Prince of Wales" and the "Enterprise," in Baffin Bay at the end of July. In 1850, near the mouth of Great Fish River, Inuit hunters discovered the bodies of 30 men and a number of graves. Since some of the bodies were mutilated, the natives believed that the white men had resorted to cannibalism.
John Franklin (Wikipedia)

Comment:  Arctic Passage makes it clear that Amundsen succeeded because he adopted Inuit ways of surviving and traveling in the Arctic. We can see a hint of why Franklin failed in the note about his 8,000 tins of food.

In my brief search, I didn't see anything about Franklin's consulting with the Inuit before or during his voyages. But correspondent DMarks has read The Terror by Dan Simmons about Franklin's expedition. His mini-report on the novel:It has major "Native elements," including the explorers' dismissal of Inuit ways of survival in the North, and their rather haughty racial attitude overall.Franklin and Frankenstein

Interesting to note that the Arctic was as unknown and mysterious as Africa's "heart of darkness" at one point. Beginning with (part of) Frankenstein and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, writers envisioned the north as a land haunted by demons and death. Some populated it with strange races that lived in the cold or in heated valleys or through passages that led to the Earth's interior.

Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (1818)—A Summary of Modern CriticismWhile Walton's polar expedition (actuated by the wrong-headed notion acquired as a child that Hyperboreans lead a paradisal existence at an iceless North Pole) threatens the lives of his crew, Frankenstein acknowledges that his experiment has loosed a killer upon unsuspecting humanity.Polar Fiction

This Western view is probably the "polar" opposite of how the Inuit view their homeland. I imagine they see it as harsh and sometimes deadly but not evil or anti-human. We don't imagine that deserts are filled with lost races and man-eating monsters, so why should we imagine this of icescapes?

I suspect it has something to do with the presence of the Inuit. These days we don't imagine life on the Moon because, well, it's lifeless. But the Inuit proved the Arctic was more habitable than the Moon or the Sahara. Their lives were normal enough to make them comfortable but "alien" enough to perplex us. They inspired us to imagine dark forces surrounding and haunting them.

For more on the subject, see Inuit in The Cage and Eskimos:  The Ultimate Aborigines.

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