Sunday, April 2, 2017

Relics of the Franklin Expedition

Relics of the Franklin Expedition: Discovering Artifacts from the Doomed Arctic Voyage of 1845

By Garth Walpole

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017, $39.95

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore

Garth Walpole was an Australian archaeologist who early on became fascinated with Franklin’s final expedition, and who wrote his undergraduate thesis on the relics recovered from it by various searchers and held in the National Maritime Museum, London.  In later life he decided to expand this research and publish the results as a book, and had completed most of this work before he sadly succumbed to cancer in 2015. Before his death he had asked Russell Potter to edit the work for publication, and it has now been published by McFarland (who also brought out Glenn Stein’s Discovering the North West Passage). With the first major exhibition of the relics in more than a century due to open this summer, publication could not have been better timed, despite the poignant reminder that the author did not live to see the exhibition or garner the well-deserved attention his book would have engendered in its wake.

Although the first chapter is titled “The material biography of relics: A physical and spiritual relationship”, only the first couple of its 45 pages address the question of the spiritual meaning that individuals and cultures invest in historical artifacts. After that uneasy theoretical throat-clearing (perhaps a requirement of the original thesis), we are straight into a chronological account of the years after Franklin set sail in 1845, starting with the first tentative search expeditions by land and sea in 1848 and the first breakthrough – the earliest discovery of actual artifacts – in August 1850, on Beechey Island. At this point the chapter loses its chronological structure, and it is hard to see what organizing principle replaces it, though the complexity of events in that month, with several British and American ships operating around Beechey simultaneously, would always be hard to capture. Accounts of the reconnoitring of the various sites by different officers overlap, each one discovering not only the remains of Franklin’s first wintering but having to disentangle them from the traces of each other, as each party visited the same sites in turn. The action then moves on to Belcher’s expedition in 1852, then confusingly back again to 1850, and the chapter ends with Kennedy’s expedition in 1851. Only with the description of Franklin’s main camp at Beechey does the discussion become more clearly structured, with a focus on each site (garden, storehouse, cairn), and the artifacts found in them, as seen by each searcher in turn. Late in the day we come to the three graves, most iconic of the Beechey remains, though Walpole perhaps wisely limits his discussion to the discoveries made by the first searchers rather than trying to summarize the wealth of knowledge gained by Beattie and Geiger’s exhumation of the bodies in the 1980s.

Chapter 2’s title is similarly misleading (“The continued search for relics, 1851–1854”, though in fact it covers 1851–2010), again perhaps a relic of the original thesis. It is, however, a much better-organized narrative than chapter 1, benefiting from the historical accident that it relates a series of successive, rather than simultaneous, expeditions. In terms of the quantity of artifacts and information retrieved, the most important of these were the first four: Rae in 1854, McClintock in 1857–59, Hall in 1864–69 and Schwatka in 1878–79, all of whom, exploring within living memory of the expedition, also interviewed many Inuit who had been eyewitnesses of Franklin’s expedition, or had heard stories directly from those who were  – narratives that became cultural artifacts of as great a value as the many objects of repurposed wood and metal that the searchers traded from the Inuit.

But if the survival of these oral histories represents a triumph of individual and cultural memory, their tragic counterpart is the utter loss, apart from the single Victory Point document, of all written records from Franklin’s crews that might give more detailed information about their fate. A constant refrain throughout Walpole’s account of these expeditions is the raising – and then dashing – of hopes that written records might be discovered, as one cairn after another is hopefully dismantled, dug beneath and around, and then mournfully rebuilt when found to be empty. When Schwatka heard Inuit accounts of the strongbox carefully preserved by the men who had made it to the continental mainland at the place he dubbed Starvation Cove, he hoped that it might have contained the expedition’s records, but when he heard stories describing it being forced open, its contents discarded, and the box reused for its parts, he was shattered by the realization that the last best hope to recover any written account had gone. The barely intelligible gibberish of the Peglar papers, a few sheets of handwriting that happened to survive on or near a seaman’s body, seemed to mock the searchers with their pointless triviality.

Although the material objects collected by the search expeditions are thought of today as archaeological artifacts – part of a historical, public realm – for the first searchers many of them were intensely personal talismans. McClintock especially had known members of the lost crews, and made it his mission to restore as many personally identifiable relics as he could to their families, for whom they became treasured heirlooms of private grief. This is seen in the post-expedition histories of many objects that Walpole records, which show them re-emerging many decades later as a descendant, young enough or distantly related enough never to have known the crewmember personally, bequeathed them to a public collection. Engraved watches and cutlery, the most clearly identifiable items, were thus those McClintock made most effort to retrieve, though the sheer quantity and variety of material in the NMM collection originating in his expedition outstrips that from any others (they are all listed, grouped by expedition source, in the book’s Appendix B).

Uncertainty about the nature of many objects has caused problems in cataloguing and identification, however: is that piece of wood part of a doorframe or a hatchway? A table leg or a stanchion? Differences of opinion between searchers describing an object in a journal and conservators cataloguing them in a museum can lead to objects seeming to appear, disappear, and fluctuate in overall number. In addition, some objects seem to have been lost when collections changed hands from one institution to another. Walpole gives several examples of the kind of detailed worrying away at a description that is needed to resolve such nebulous uncertainties. It is not a task for those whose patience is easily tested.

The mostly keenly felt absence in the first two chapters is a modern map of the two search areas (Beechey and King William islands respectively) naming all of the places mentioned in the text (there are a handful of historical maps of both places, none comprehensive or easily legible). To those not already intimately familiar with the geography of these two remote islands, the descriptions of searchers moving from one place to another, and hearing of events in other places, will simply be impossible to picture or remember, since their relative positions will be unknown. This is a serious drawback.

After Schwatka there was a pause in the search of some fifty years, during which the Franklin expedition passed out of living memory. Since then other searchers – Burwash, Gibson, Larsen and others – mostly on shorter expeditions to smaller areas, have unearthed smaller quantities of material, bearing the steadily increasing signs of weathering as each decade passed. But in recent years aerial and satellite photography, the retreat of sea ice and cheaper travel have all made the remote search zone a more easily approached place, leading to the concerted effort that has now seen the discovery of both Erebus and Terror.

Chapter 5 is the most systematically organized, giving a chronological series of mostly 19th-century engravings and photographs of groupings of objects, with a key identifying each one with its modern NMM accession number. This chapter, when cross-referenced with the complementary listing in Appendix B mentioned above, provides the most permanent documentary and reference value of Walpole’s book.

Although beautifully typeset and printed, the book suffers from what seems to have been a mismatch of expectations between publisher and editor. Potter’s role, as he makes clear in his preface, has not been to rewrite or smooth out the author’s prose but to check the references and add information to fill the occasional lacuna. Unfortunately McFarland, perhaps unfamiliar with the role of an academic editor, seem to have misunderstood it as meaning that they did not need to have the text copy-edited or even, apparently, proofread, with the result that the number of typos, word substitutions, inconsistent spellings and ungrammatical sentences, which Potter must have assumed the publisher would deal with, reach sometimes distracting levels.

Now that Erebus and Terror have been located, we are on the cusp of a new era in the study of Franklin’s last expedition, in which the recovery of a host of new artifacts, apparently well preserved, unweathered, and unmodified by Inuit re-use, could potentially dwarf the number and quality of items collected with such pains over so many years by so many searchers on land. The holy grail – a trembling hope that we share with Hobson opening up the record tube at the Victory Point cairn – is that the ships may yet contain some written records, some crewmember’s journal, that will somehow be legible. The initial conditions seem good – the general state of preservation of the wood is exceptional, boding well for that of the organic material more generally – and we can only hope that the investigation planned by Parks Canada is not too slow or tentative to take advantage before further deterioration occurs.

Walpole’s book is thus published at a fitting moment. Like the exhibition due to open at the NMM in July 2017, it represents a summation of what is known and what has been recovered from Franklin’s last expedition in the first 165 years of searching. It is a memorial to the searchers, and a testament to the almost numinous presence that spoons, watches, and fragments of wood can acquire when these mute witnesses to a calamitous human drama are all that we have to go on.

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