Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Searching for Franklin

It might be said of Sir John Franklin, as of the unlucky Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth, that "nothing became his life like the leaving of it." Had Franklin succeeded in finding a navigable Northwest Passage, he would have gone down in history as a notable dullard; instead, by vanishing, he has ascended to the firmament of Arctic mythology, as much a fixture of that sky as the Aurora Borealis. His death, and the mystery surrounding it, has inspired dozens of poems and novels, attracting writers from Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens to Joseph Conrad and Margaret Atwood; any number of poignant ballads (among them Stan Rogers' Northwest Passage,' which has become almost a second Canadian national anthem), and (to date) four plays, six documentary films, and an Australian musical. A feature film, based on the Canadian novelist Dominique Fortier's On the Proper Use of Stars, is in the works from the director of The Young Victoria, and in the spring of 2018, a Ridley-Scott-produced television series, “The Terror,” based on Dan Simmons’ Franklin-inspired horror thriller, has just come to AMC (you can preview the first episode here).

The search to rescue, and then to discern the fate of, Sir John Franklin and his men was the very first mass-media disaster. For more than a decade, it dominated the popular press on both sides of the Atlantic; writers such as Dickens, Collins, Swinburne, Thoreau, Eliot, Verne, and Conrad were enthralled by its dark mysteries; clairvoyants from Scotland to India had visions of Franklin's ships, and more than thirty vessels were dispatched, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in today's money, to seek him out. Stage plays, moving panoramas, and lantern shows depicted the wild loneliness of the "Frozen Zone"; lecturers equipped with maps, charts, and Esquimaux artifacts opined on his likely location, and his wife/widow Lady Jane Franklin became a dominating figure of the day, lauded by The Times of London as "Our English Penelope." Alas, for her, there would be no returning Odysseus! But loss and death draw down to deeper springs of human feeling, perhaps, than happy returns and loving embraces. And when, finally, the specter of the "last dread alternative" -- cannibalism -- was cast over the affair, it drove its tincture of admiration and revulsion deep down into the British psyche.

Even after the recovery of the expedition's final "Victory Point Record" by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1859, there was continued interest in discovering anything further about his final fate. The American eccentric and erstwhile newspaper publisher Charles Francis Hall led two search expeditions in the 1860's; in the 1870's, the U.S. Army dispatched Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka on a new seach for paper records or artifacts that might help clarify the last days of the Franklin exedition. Individual searchers returned to the area periodically from the 1880's through to the 1980's, among them the great explorer Knud Rasmussen, who in the 1902's heard stories of Franklin's ships from the grandsons of the men who had seen them perish, stories almost exactly the same as those collected by Hall more than half a century earlier. Forensic expeditions -- Owen Beattie in the mid-1980's, and Anne Keenleyside in the early 1990's -- collected the bones, and analyzed the bodies, of known Franklin remains, finding evidence of lead poisoning, scurvy, and tuberculosis. Most significantly, historians such as David C. Woodman and Dorothy Harlan Eber have collected and gathered Inuit testimony, comparing numerous accounts with the hope that a common narrative thread could be found. Woodman has traveled to the Arctic numerous times, searching for the ships in the places the Inuit described.

But it wasn't until 2014 when the first of Franklin's ships -- HMS "Erebus" -- was finally found. It was located by Parks Canada's underwater archaeologists only a few kilometers from where Woodman had searched, right where the Inuit had said it would be. Dives on "Erebus" have netted several remarkable objects, including the ship's bell, several china plates, brass buttons, and the hilt of a naval sword. Many of those, such as myself, who had followed the search for years, thought that finding one ship was already beating the odds -- and then, in 2016, the second ship "Terror" was found, again thanks to Inuit accounts (though in this case that of a contemporary witness, Sammy Kogvik). New dives are planned for next summer, and many summers to come -- who knows what secrets these wrecks may disclose? My own view is that nothing that can be found is likely to fully resolve the lasting enigma of the lost expedition.


  1. I found the Franklin expedition story very fascinating, as it seems most do. However, I also find the story sad, not only for the grim fate of Franklin and his crew, but because Franklin had already endured and survived a risky mission, one which they found themselves underprepared for. Franklin was known to be the man who ate his boots because of this mission, and when the mission to make it through the Northwest Passage came along, Franklin and his crew seemed more than prepared. They had an improved ship and ample food supply. It just seems to me that if they had perhaps spent more time learning how to survive in the arctic instead of packing for safety on the ship they may have survived. In a way, Franklin and his crew were better off when they were less prepared with materials for the ship. Although I am sure that many of us would not be able to endure the unpredictability of the arctic, the native people were doing just fine, and that means it is possible for the Franklin expedition to have succeeded using only the same resources as the people who have been surviving there for many years.

    -Lee DeOrsey

  2. I enjoyed the Franklin documentary as tragic as it ended it was an interesting watch. Even though Franklin was an accomplished naval commander you can never underestimate the grueling arctic. Much like Chris from Into the Wild they were essentially unprepared for the unknown arctic. They tried to pass through the arctic to shorten their trip but it seemed to backfire. This just goes to show you no matter how prepared you think you are you must never take the arctic lightly. Even though Franklin and his men brought plenty of caned food and steel supported ships this was all useless for when they came face to face with the arctic conditions. Thinking back on the documentary, I often try to think what would I do differently, and for this instance its tough to change anything they did. Their ships could break the ice which was the biggest downfall of the whole expedition in my opinion and being stuck in the arctic without proper supplies I think would render most of us helpless as well. The only thing I think they could have done is spent more time researching the arctic for a scenario like this where they might get trapped, which could possibly helped them survive. Its tough to tell though. Like the saying goes its much easier to sit back and think about all the what ifs after a scenario already happened.

    - Kevin McKenzie

  3. This documentary was very interesting and very tragic. Although Franklin was a decorated naval officer and planned the expedition well, he was not prepared for the ruthless arctic. It seemed to me like the entire expedition was going well and according to plan until they got stuck in the ice. At the time, those ships were considered top of the line and they were expected to power through the ice but clearly, those men did not plan for that and were not prepared to survive the voyage. I can’t imagine being Franklin’s wife waiting, and then desperately trying to find him when it became apparent that the trip was not going well.

    Survival is not impossible as we know because the Inuit people live in those conditions. It is unfortunate that Franklin and his men did not return to England but they paved the way for future explorers to learn more about survival in the arctic. It is absolutely terrible to think about the agony that those men endured all in an effort to discover a new path. Sickness, starvation and unreasonably cold temperatures are the perfect recipe for death in the arctic if one is not prepared for that encounter. Franklin was not as prepared as he thought but should still be remembered as a brave man in history who faced the ruthless arctic. Although England was shocked to learn certain truths about the expedition, imagine being there and having to decide between death and cannibalism! I obviously can’t relate but I can’t say that I am shocked by it, the arctic will quickly put you in survival mode and I believe that Franklin did the best he could with the resources that he had.
    -Maria Rosado

  4. I really enjoyed the Franklin expedition documentary and found it to be very interesting. I found it to be especially interesting that he is known as "The man who ate his boots" , to survive. I do not think Franklin's men were prepared for what was coming next. I believe Franklin and his men were brave for what they tried to do to pave the way for a new path to be discovered. I don't think anyone could really be prepared enough to ever survive in the arctic, no matter what. There will always be new and surprising hardships to face while on an arctic exploration. However, I believe Franklin was as prepared as he could ever be. I also think more research on the arctic and what they will most likely encounter would have been useful for them too. - Miranda Jacavone

  5. I found the story of Sir John Franklin a fantastic, yet tragic story. If the crew of 128 sailors had made their way through the northern passage through the arctic and to the Pacific without running into the trouble they did, they would have been remembered as pioneers. Sailing through the ice in steel reinforced hulls saving months of travel time would have created a huge economic boost for England in the 1840's. The crew of the boats were dedicated to their captain, and seemed to trust him enough to follow him anywhere. The tragedy of the story is misery, disease, and possible cannibalism that the crew and its officers faced. Years in the arctic, stuck with no chance of moving their crafts, they decide to make the trek on foot. Maybe they would have made it to safety, if they were more prepared to live off the land just in case of getting stuck in the unforeseen ice coming down from the North. I had to question why they needed to take so many artifacts in their trek to safety. Wouldn't it have been easier to take only essentials, food, some small weapons or supplies rather than loading life boats and having the crew dragging thousands of pounds of goods? After listening and reading a bit of this story I had to wonder on their decision making in this aspect, yet I do respect their resilience in surviving so long in the cold lonely arctic.

  6. Alan Guzman

    My first time ever hearing or watching a video about the Franklin Expedition mystery was very interesting and curious. Sir John Franklin was the captain of the franklin expedition and I also found out he is known as the man that ate his boots. This story is interesting because it's part of our weather on Earth. The main goal of the expedition was to cut across the artic into the Pacific Ocean in a more convenient and a faster way for trading and transportation, also trying to make history on being the first ship to make the trip through that passage. Being unprepared and uneducated on how to live in those cold conditions ended up being their demise. I was really surprise that the lost crew seen and talked to other people that were living in those territory as their home. They seem to be Native Americans so I thought that was really cool. I also think cannibalism occurred once some crew members realized that the canned foods was making them sick.

  7. Like a few others in this class, this is the first time I have ever heard about Franklin, his crew, or his sad fate. I think it's fascinating, along with all of the other people we have learned about in this class mysteriously vanishing, because in part, we don't know exactly what happened and there's a chance we never will. It lets our imaginations run wild in the meantime. I feel bad because Franklin & his crew thought they had enough provisions to survive the trip, but did not have nearly enough in all actuality. Even today, this could happen, even if only for a few days, such as someone's car breaking down and they are stuck on an empty road and do not have cell phone service. The idea of not knowing exactly what happened to these people who mysteriously go missing is romanticized even in today's culture, as well as in the past. This is not something I can see changing anytime soon, as it is in our nature to find closure or reasons as to how things ended the way they did.

  8. At first, I did not know what to think about Franklin because he nearly died on his first mission due to lack of food. The next mission they attended seemed to be much more prepared but the arctic is unpredictable and risky. Back then there was not much information about lead poisoning and like the film stated, “they were doomed even before they left/started”. I was very surprised that they made it that long, despite being stuck in the ice. Another fact that surprised me was how many books they had on board. I think that having this massive number of books on the ship was probably a way to keep all of the sailors sane and busy so that they were distracted with novels rather than reality. I found myself wishing that they would have survived, because Franklin could have written a novel on his adventure and his successful passing through the Northwest!
    Jorge Perez

  9. I think it is always important to have some security or a backup plan. However, if one goes without security is the excitement of being risky or the possibility of losing out on the unexpected leave one without a fantastic story. John Franklin’s 2nd expedition built upon his 1st, but he did not prepare for the weather, which seemed irresponsible as someone who barely survived an encounter with death. His first expedition earned him the name and legacy “the man who ate his boots.” During his 2nd expedition, the lack of movement while being stuck in ice for two years could have been mended with cannons to break the ice or if there was already such a weapon than more ice tools. The crew consisting of various individuals blindly believed in the success of the expedition. Franklin inspired faith in his men because he had activities for his crew such as reading, whittling, and acting (plays). He cared for their psychological well-being and physiological well-being for the short-term, but not the long-term. Franklin should have sought and offered gifts to an Inuit for guidance. Although, Franklin did not have a backup plan, his wife did understand the risk. She challenged others to understand the risks and sent out her own expeditions on rescue missions. However, she was unable to prevent her husband’s death and his crews’ downfall. My interpretation of the story is that maybe one can be risky and have fun, but the other (spouse, family member, and friend) must safeguard the passage even if it has to be in secret.
    -Vanessa Villon

  10. I connected with Franklin’s expedition. I feel that his struggle and strengths makes his story along with his crew men’s lives unique. Even though he discovered many tribulations, his determination pushed him to explore new areas that were unknown to many people. I feel that if he would have died earlier, or on his first expedition, we wouldn’t have been able to understand his tenacious way of life. I feel sorry for his wife because for a while she had no idea of her husband fate. Even though she wasn’t unaware, her determination pushed others to search for him and his crewmen. I believe if Franklin would have prepared more for his expedition he would have had more chances of survival. But then again, who knows what other factors at sea could have hindered him from having a successful voyage. I believe it’s important to read and understand what Franklin did and not focus more on why he did not survive.
    Martina Goodlin

  11. The Franklin expedition is quite interesting to me because of the mystery and unknowns behind the story. It immediately caught my attention because of the passion Franklin and his men had about finding a passage through the Arctic, which no one before could do with the harsh conditions of the ice. However, throughout this documentary I started to notice Franklin had a lot more passion than his men did. At one point on their journey, the crew was stuck on the ship surrounded by nothing but ice and unable to move. Some men insisted on thinking of ways to turn around, but Franklin was so determined that he was willing to die to keep going. This to me is very brave and clearly shows his passion for what he believed they could accomplish. At the same time, I also think he was foolish to put others lives on the line just to accomplish this expedition. This story was a tragic one since Franklin was unable to complete the expedition before he died, but in a way he still accomplished more than any others before him and led the way for future expeditions.

    -Nicole Fraser


  12. ENGLISH 261
    James M. Faulkenberry
    Blog #2 Franklin Expedition
    I found this expedition to be somewhat of interest as to the fact that this commander had travel to the arctic before. This expedition was to find a passage to the pacific and Asia to make the travel shorter and quicker. I also can tell you that the crew did not really understand the reality of what this expedition had to face. They put all their faith in the commander and to officer in charge.
    However, there was many errors made from start to the end of this expedition. The main problem here was they did not prepare for the harsh conditions that can happen in a moment in the arctic. The weather can go from above freezing to very far below freezing very quick. I know just how quick because I was station at the air base in King Salmon, Alaska for a complete year from December 1968 until December 1969. The condition this crew was facing is much colder that were I was stationed, and I saw temperatures as low as minus 75 degrees.
    This expedition was in the mid 1800 so there was not as much information then as we now know, and not as much ice breaking equipment then as now. The crew should have stay on board the ships as long as possible. Then they should had try to find help from the people that live in that area. This way they might have survive long enough to get the ship free. However, they could not forget the King of England orders. The only question that remain is did the whole crew perish as we think or did some go and live with the Indian or intuit tribes?

  13. Learning about Sir John Franklin and his journeys were very interesting. The documentary put everything into perspective and allowed me to see things through ‘his eyes’. The Franklin expedition was fascinating yet sad. It was fascinating in the sense that Franklin and his crew chose to endure on an expedition through the arctic. On the other hand it was sad because Franklin had participated in risky expeditions before in which he survived but this time he could not quite make it through. In fact, Franklin was known as the man who ate his boots because of this mission. Base on the documentary Franklin and his crew seemed very prepared to withstand the harsh weather on the Northwest Passage. They improved the structure of the ship and supplied themselves with enough resources to last them the duration of the journey, so they thought. In my opinion, Franklin and his crew took the correct measures to keep them alive but could have spent a little bit more time learning how to survive in an environment they weren’t fully comfortable with. If they would have learned about the weather patterns of the arctic or the way the current moved maybe all the men would have survived. The native people were surviving just fine for years in that area so it was indeed possible for Franklin and his crew to survive as well. Lastly, I find it interesting that researchers today are so passionate on solving the puzzle of Franklin’s journey. It’s interesting that interviews have been done with native people to help narrow things down. I hope to hear about the solving of this ‘mystery’ in the future. Everything about this story is intriguing!

    - Ashley R. Nieves

  14. The word “gimmick” can be thrown around to describe a major element of a film that changes up the ordinary tropes we’d expect from a rather straightforward flick. There is 3D, timeline splicing, animation, found footage, you name it. Some films almost even fall into these places as a genre. When they do, you get the inkling that the people responsible for thinking up the movie likely have these elements in mind at the forefront with the story as an afterthought. > Reviews Searching Only when that occurs do I call those elements gimmicky. And it’s not that a gimmick is a bad thing, but if that is what you rely on to make your story compelling, it will often become a crutch for poor storytelling or one-and-done enjoyment. Sometimes it is done right, in which case the gimmick works… but most of the time it has that negative connotation for good reason.

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