Monday, June 27, 2022

HMS Terror

HMS Terror: The Design, Fitting, and Voyages of the Polar Discovery Ship

by Dr. Matthew Betts

Seaforth Press, £30 (UK)

Naval Institute Press, $49.95 (US)

Reviewed by David C. Woodman


Ever since the Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin disappeared into the ice in 1845, most of what has been written about the lost ships and doomed men has been speculative. The recent discovery of his two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, has put an end to this as we await the results of an ongoing investigation of the wrecks. Authors recognize that discoveries in the ships, perhaps including documentation, would quickly render further speculation obsolete. To avoid this, they have embraced biographies of the ships themselves. Michael Palin’s recent book Erebus: The Story of a Ship tells the career of Franklin’s flagship, and now Dr. Matthew Betts has published a memoir of the junior, but in many ways more interesting, vessel. In contrast to Palin’s book, which treats the social history of the officers and crew extensively, Betts concentrates on the ship itself, essentially basing his analysis on the construction (and reconstruction) details of this amazing ship. The book is organized into four parts with a common thread. 

After a short 5-page introduction, part 1 of the book consists of four chapters covering Terror’s design and history. The first provides an admirable overview of Terror's career as a warship. The narrative covers not only the most famous and oft-cited events (the bombing of Fort McHenry, Back's 1836 expedition, the Antarctic years) but, in detail, other events in the ship's eventful career (a blockade of Baltimore, the battle of St. Mary’s, Georgia, her last combat action in 1824 at Algiers, her first wreck during the Lisbon hurricane of 1828) that are usually disregarded. Other noteworthy events, and fixtures in most histories, such as an extravagant ball at Hobart in 1840, are ignored. It quickly emerges that for Betts the various crew of the Terror are essentially interchangeable. Although given their due for skill and heroism, here and throughout the book, Betts concentrates on Terror herself, emphasizing her construction and conversion from warship to exploration vessel under the supervision of master shipwright William Rice.  

The following chapters deal with the Ross Antarctic Expedition of 1839–1843 and the subsequent Franklin expedition of 1845. The overall narrative is skillfully told, but elements that are generally not emphasized, such as sailing qualities and a lengthy description of damage suffered during a collision between the two ships in 1842, feature prominently. The final refit supervised by Oliver Lang is told in detail as the ships were prepared for their last voyage, incorporating lessons learned during her Antarctic adventures and the new technology of steam engines and removable propellors. 

Part two - The Design and Fitting section - consists of a text chapter, followed by one of the ship’s detailed plans. Here, one learns of Terror's hull construction and cabin layout and her major equipment - armament, anchors, capstans, illuminators, heating systems, pumps (two types), stoves, paint scheme and boats. The wealth of detail therein may overwhelm the general reader but will prove valuable to historians and archaeologists and settle many bar bets. The dimension and scantling list that ends the chapter extends for eleven pages and may have more conveniently been attached as an appendix.

Unless you are comfortable with the terms such as scarph, futtocks, keelson, spirketting, and carling, some of this section will require access to a good dictionary of nautical terms, which may have also been the subject of an appendix. If you bypass the terminology, you will still gather the overall point that the ship was built to be extremely strong, further strengthened for polar service, and outfitted with all of the best equipment available.

Chapter 6 consists entirely of the ship's plans, all expertly drawn and labelled. These are stunning works of research and art. As well as the expected plans of the ships themselves, Betts includes drawings of minor structures - Crozier's shaving table, a seaman's chest, the Captain's Steward's cabin, even the water closets (toilets), all of which will be compared with the fittings found on the wreck of Terror itself, and may help in identification of partially destroyed or missing structures.

Part Three - Building HMS Terror - contains the final three chapters dealing with Bett's construction of his 1:48 model of the ship, his involvement in assisting with the full-scale reconstruction of Terror for the recent AMC television series of the same name, and a final chapter on the 2016 discovery of the wreck. Using photographs of model pieces, the movie set, and actual elements of the wreck photographed by divers, these vividly bring three-dimensional reality to the plans of Chapter 6. 

The construction of the model as a hobby project was the inspiration for the research and writing of this book. Here again, dedication to accuracy and attention to detail shine through. Bett's pleasure in sharing his modelling techniques and various solutions to the challenges involved is admirable. Those who aren't current or prospective modellers can happily bypass the explanations and simply marvel at the photos.

The chapter on Bett's involvement with the TV series should greatly interest the many fans of that production. As an acknowledged expert, Betts was contracted by the show's producers to assist the production designer in recreating the ships and material culture. The results were exceptional and received widespread critical praise. The set photos in the book again bring the ship to life, although there is no substitute for watching the series itself (ignore the monster).

The final chapter relates the fortuitous discovery of Terror four years after Betts began his model and describes her condition as known from the initial survey work done by Parks Canada. A straightforward telling of the discovery, and evocative photos of the wreck, lead Betts to speculate about the role of Terror in the final tragedy. Based on the most current evidence, his analysis is not unreasonable and again relies heavily on details of the Terror’s location and condition. 

Throughout the book, the quality of the numerous images and plans is extraordinary. Many contemporary paintings of Terror are rendered in colour, and the ship’s plans (copies of which hang on my study wall) are clear and often expertly redrawn and labelled. The book concludes with an extensive bibliography and an index to assist in navigating the text. 

Betts’ admiration for his subject is evident throughout, "she took everything the Arctic pack-ice could throw at her. She sheltered her men to the very last and never, not once in three harrowing expeditions, abandoned them to the ice. She performed exactly the way she was designed, and there was nothing more anyone could have asked from Terror. This remarkable ship’s story needs to be told: she is the greatest polar exploration vessel the world has ever known."

Dr. Betts has honed his fine eye for detail as a professional archaeologist, enhanced by his avocation as a modelmaker. To these skills, he now adds storyteller and writer to produce this passionate biography of an interesting and significant ship.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Inuit and Explorers


by Kenn Harper

Inhabit Media, 2022


Reviewed by Lawrence Millman


In far too many accounts of Arctic exploration, foreign outsiders reign supreme, while their Inuit guides and interpreters are followers, mere slaves helping their masters search for seemingly significant destinations.  Released by the Inuit-owned publishing company Inhabit Media, Arctic historian Kenn Harper’s book series In Those Days blows the whistle on this prejudice.  Inuit and Explorers, vol. 6 in the series, blows that whistle emphatically.  In its pages, the Inuit are usually depicted as the true explorers, while the qallunaat (white folks) often seem like they’re stuck to sedan chairs.  With respect to my own Arctic travels, I was never stuck to a sedan chair, but I probably wouldn’t be around to write this review were it not for my Inuit guides.

In Inuit and Explorers, Harper investigates unfamiliar Arctic stories.  Here are two examples: R.C.M.P. Officer Joe Panikgakuttuk’s journey on the St. Roch as that vessel plies the Northwest Passage and 16th century explorer Christopher Hall’s jotting down of an Inuktitut word list.  But Harper also offers new takes on more familiar stories, like Martin Frobisher’s 5 missing men, Samuel Hearne’s account of the Bloody Fall massacre, the ill-fated Karluk expedition, and the even more ill-fated Franklin expedition.  As readers of Harper’s book Minik: The New York Eskimo will already know, all of his takes are impeccably researched.

I’m tempted to refer to the book’s essays as field work despite the fact that many of them describe incidents from several hundred years ago.  That’s because Harper lived in the Arctic for nearly 50 years, first in Broughton Island (Qikiqtarjuaq), where he was called Ilisaijkutaaq (“the tall teacher”), and later in Iqaluit, Nunavut.  Thus he’s much more intimate with the Inuit and their habitats than, say, a New Yorker staff writer might be.  Likewise, he speaks Inuktitut, which means he can acquire information from Inuit elders about their history rather than, say, purloin not necessarily accurate information from the Internet.

In addition to its 26 essays, Inuit and Explorers contains 40 pages of illustrations and photographs.  There’s a delightful 1823 drawing of Inuit children dancing by the sadly neglected explorer George Francis Lyon as well as a sketch by Sir John Ross of the one-legged Inuk Tulluahiu, about whom Harper writes in “A Wooden Leg for Tulluahiu.”  There’s a photograph of Iggiaraarjuk, an Inuk who told Knud Rasmussen about his father’s meeting with three grim-looking members of the Franklin expedition.  There’s also a photograph, possibly taken by the author himself, of the elderly Uutaaq, a Greenland Inuk who accompanied Commodore Robert Peary (called “the great tormentor” by one of Harper’s informants) to the latter’s farthest North in 1909. 

 I have just one complaint about this book — its only references are to the issues of the Nunatsiaq News where the essays originally appeared.  Harper offers a quite salient quote from archaeologist Susan Rowley about Martin Frobisher’s 5 missing men, but he doesn’t indicate where the quote comes from.  There are other instances where I would have liked to see a citation, too.  Otherwise, this is a masterful collection that I recommend not just to Arctic enthusiasts, but also to readers with only a passing interest in the Arctic, for it might turn that passing interest into a passion.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages

Visual Culture and the Arctic Regions: Personal and Public Art and Literature of the Franklin Search Expeditions

by Eavan O'Dochartaigh

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

$99.99 (hardcover), Open Source (free)

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

The importance of the role of visual culture in bringing imagery of the Arctic regions to a nineteenth-century public for whom these scenes represented an ethereal and almost unimaginable landscape would be hard to overestimate. That the exploration of this hitherto seldom-seen zone coincided with a wide variety of new and emerging visual technologies -- the woodcuts of illustrated newspapers, widely-reproduced prints and engravings, lithographs -- not to mention the panorama, the moving panorama, and (ultimately) photography -- makes them doubly exemplary, and among the first of what can truly be called "mass media."

And yet, there is another dimension to this development, one which encompasses the private, more ephemeral, visual materials actually produced in the Arctic by those who ventured there. A number of these, of course, were the basis of reproductions that were a key part of this mass audience -- but a greater number remained in private hands, gradually migrating to archival collections where many have lain unseen -- or at least unremarked -- for more than a century and a half. It is these visual works that Eavan O'Dochartaigh has brought to light in her remarkable new study, though she also discusses a number of public versions of these works.

O'Dochartaigh makes the case that these shipboard artistic productions be seen as "primary" documents, whether or not they later became the basis of reproductions. Looked at in this manner, they certainly present a different kind of visual vocabulary, in part due to the specific conditions in which they were produced. Shipboard sketches and landscapes were more often made in the summer, depicting a calmer and less foreboding environment than was standard in public productions. The winter output of these same amateur artists, rather than featuring icebound ships and bleak landscapes, tended to depict shipboard theatricals, humorous stories, and longed-for domestic scenes. She also observes that, when shipboard sketches or watercolors were converted into lithographs and prints, the printmakers drew from their own imaginations as they adapted often rough materials into polished products. While this certainly did occur in many instances, though, the degree of editorial "enhancement" must have varied -- when the shipboard artist was a skilled draughtsman, there was, in a sense, less for the lithographer to do. And, as she acknowledges, some of these reproductions, such as Burford's 1850 panorama "Summer and Winter Views of the Arctic Regions," were produced with the direct input of the original artists, the more solidly to seal the compact of authenticity between their "sketches made on the spot" and the finished painting. O'Dochartaigh's analysis of this panorama is extensive and detailed, and adds to our understanding of how its various elements drew from their source materials, as well as how the finished production and program sought amplify the sense of the natural sublime as well as the human plight.

Other chapters focus on the illustrated newspapers produced aboard several ships, particularly the Illustrated Arctic News (HMS Resolute) and the Queen's Illustrated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette (HMS Pioneer and HMS Assistance). These periodicals, she notes, embodied quite a different, often humorous approach to the vagaries of shipboard life, both in their texts and in their illustrations. They also contained an element -- color -- which was not yet available in the illustrated papers of home. In the case of the Queen's Illustrated, most if not all of illustrations were the work of Walter William May, whose depictions of Arctic were later turned into an attractive set of lithographic views. Such views are analyzed in depth in the following chapter, with a sharp focus on the question of accuracy. With exact sources lacking for many of these lithographic plates, and the different capacities of a color lithograph over a charcoal sketch, it's a tricky business: are the sledge haulers having a harder time of it in the sketch or the stone? Some compositional adjustments are to be expected, as are additional details in faces and human figures. For while gifted with landscapes and ships, it seems that many of these shipboard sketchers weren't nearly as skilled with human figures, perhaps because they lacked artistic training. This was certainly not a problem at established lithographic firms such as Day & Son, whose array of artists with varied talents could handle any subject. 

O'Dochartaigh's is an extraordinary study, particularly in its exploration of original artwork from archival sources that has, hitherto, been relatively neglected.  We should also be especially grateful to Cambridge University Press for making the full book available as an Open Source text. I did have, as would anyone in a review of a book of this scope, some (mostly minor) quibbles: the reported faintness and infrequency of the aurora, for instance, is used to suggest that the panorama's highlighting of the phenomenon was exaggerated. For their infrequency, it's worth noting that the 1850's were progressing toward a solar minimum, while for the highlighting, the more proximate cause was Burford's earlier (1834) panorama of the Rosses' time in Boothia (which coincided with a solar maximum); its depiction of the aurora had been singled out for praise by the press -- surely the public would expect one again. 

This points to what I would say is the book's one weakness -- by focusing on depictions of British searchers for Franklin, it misses some of the larger historical context, particularly earlier works which had already shaped the public perceptions of the Arctic and its explorers. It's also somewhat disheartening, as someone who has published extensively on the visual culture of the Arctic for the past twenty-odd years, to have the author inform me that the subject has been "largely overlooked," or that neither a fully art-historical or a committed interdisciplinary approach has previously been taken. And, though the present book's analysis of the 1850 panorama is certainly much more detailed, it's odd to have the nearly ten pages I devoted to it in Arctic Spectacles referred to as "brief." It's always, I suppose, part of the scaffolding of any new scholarly study to start by seeking a lack in what's been done before.

In that sense, the most innovative -- and most valuable -- contribution of this book is really to our understanding of the personal more than the public art of the various Franklin search expeditions. O'Dochartaigh has dug deep into the archival records, and brought forth not only many individual treasures, but fresh insights into the lives and practices of the shipboard artists of that time. The most powerful and touching of all these has, rightly, pride of place on the book's cover -- Edward Adams's "Koutoküdluk - My First Love" -- in it, we can see both the deep feeling and the fleeting fragility of a love long lost.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Franklin's Fate / No Earthly Pole

Franklin's Fate. An Investigation Into What Happened to the Lost 1845 Expedition of Sir John Franklin, by John Roobol.

Canterbury/Kent, The Conrad Press, 2019.

No Earthly Pole: The Search for the Truth About the Franklin Expedition 1845, by Ernest C. Coleman. 
Stroud/Gloucestershire, Amberley, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank Michael Schuster

Since the discovery of John Franklin’s ships, no one has attempted a complete reconstruction of the tragic and dramatic events that must have taken place in the Canadian Arctic after 1845 or claimed to have solved the riddles surrounding the expedition. Richard J. Cyriax’s book appeared as early as 1939, David Woodman's reinterpretation in the early 1990s. His analysis of what the 19th century search expeditions had learned from the Inuit led to completely new insights. Dorothy Harley Eber therefore went about recording knowledge that currently still exists among today’s Inuit about the various Arctic expeditions and published it in 2008. The fact that HMS Erebus was actually found in 2014 where it had sunk according to Inuit lore shows how important it was to use oral traditions as a source. Russell Potter eventually set out to tell the story of the more than one hundred search expeditions and their discoveries and findings, without attempting a full reconstruction. Neither he nor Woodman suspected that HMS Terror had sunk in Terror Bay of all places, where it was discovered in 2016 shortly after Potter’s book was published. In consequence of this discovery, however, the previous theories are once again put to the test. Questions such as whether the ships drifted or sailed to where they are now, or whether there were people – dead or alive – on board during the sinking, are still unanswered, but might now be resolved. That is why most academic, as well as non-academic historians, are waiting for now for news from the archaeologists.

Consequently, two recently published books, in which the authors claim to have more or less solved the mysteries surrounding the demise of Franklin’s expedition, naturally arouse high expectations. While John Roobol in his “enthralling book”, according to the publisher's announcement, “offers a most convincing interpretation of what really happened to the lost, heroic expedition,” Ernest C. Coleman claims not only to have uncovered a conspiracy of academics and politicians, solved the expedition’s biggest riddles “and given new answers to all the many smaller mysteries that continue to be reproduced by others” but even declares: “I have also revealed the possible site of Franklin’s grave, the biggest mystery of all.”

Like the physician Richard J. Cyriax before him, the retired geologist John Roobol set out to solve the mystery from the desk in his study. But since his book was too academic for many publishers in 2019 he turned it into a novel called Trapped. The publisher that finally accepted this novel then decided to publish Franklin’s Fate too, “with his editing,” as the author states. Unfortunately, he does not say what this meant, because the book sadly contains a large number of small errors that a copy-editor could have eliminated relatively easily. To name just one of many examples, John Franklin’s companion during his first two Arctic expeditions is repeatedly called Dr George Richardson before he is finally given his real first name John. Anyone who picks up the book to learn something about the expedition will be misinformed or confused by such contradictory information. Even readers who are familiar with the subject are increasingly unsettled by this and might wonder whether the book, if it already contains so many small errors, does not also contain several larger ones. This is a pity, because Roobol’s stated intention was to write a book aimed at both laymen and specialists. 

Not leaving his study, he neither went into the Arctic himself nor any archive, but he has at least quoted extensively from the aforementioned books by Woodman, Eber and Potter as well as printed expedition narratives. However, it is difficult to trace his sources and the literature used, because the years of publication mentioned in the notes next to the author’s name are often just as wrong as the page numbers given. 

Already in the first chapter, Roobol tells the story as he sees it. Thereby he creates the impression that everything really happened that way. Perfectly legitimate in a novel, this is, at the least, irritating in a historical study. It is all too easy for inexperienced readers to lose sight of the fact that these are nothing more than more or less well-founded assumptions. After some more introductory chapters on the reliability of the Inuit statements, King William Island, the Northwest Passage in general, John Franklin and his officers, he returns to his reconstruction of the events, now again pretending at the beginning of each chapter that the events he is focusing on happened that way, before providing insight into his sources and enabling readers to understand the genesis of his interpretation. In many cases he follows Woodman’s reconstruction, but also includes more recent testimonies from Eber's book. In particular, reports of non-Inuit fire sites on Imnguyaaluk, one of the Royal Geographical Society Islands, are a key point in his reconstruction, as he concludes that the crew stayed there for a longer period of time with HMS Erebus. Despite considerations like these, which make Roobol's book stimulating, his habit of declaring his interpretation the only one possible is grating. For example, at the beginning of chapter 18, a well-known Inuit story is mentioned about an Inuk’s encounter with sailors on board a ship:
“One of these testimonies describes the crew in some detail as ‘black men’. There is only one place in the sequence of events that can account for such an occurrence.”
To those familiar with the works of Woodman, Potter and others, such a statement must seem downright absurd, for the tale about the ‘black men’ is precisely one of the most controversially discussed stories among researchers and, depending on the interpretation, may have taken place at any point between 1846 and 1848 near Cape Felix, on board either ship, or later on board HMS Terror in Terror Bay and not necessarily in 1850 near Imnguyaaluk on board HMS Erebus, as Roobol believes. Interesting as his interpretations are, especially where he does not follow Woodman's, they should be comprehensible. However, as in this case, this is not always the case: while Roobol in his reconstruction assumes that the meeting of the Inuk with the ‘black men’ took place at a time when there were only about a dozen men left on board Erebus, the original source clearly refers to a “great many men”. But the author does not even mention this contradiction.

Moreover, it is only legitimate to claim categorically that this is how something happened and not any other way if one can prove conclusively that other interpretations must be wrong. Unfortunately, Roobol does not do that either. Alternatives are rarely mentioned, and where they are, not dealt with in detail. If one wants to understand how he arrives at his often quite commendable conclusions, one has to take into account which presuppositions he starts from. In this case, for example, for Roobol it is impossible that the meeting with the ‘black men’ could have taken place on board HMS Terror in Terror Bay because the ship, as he has repeatedly claimed before but never explains, drifted there unmanned and was never manned again. He says this conviction is based on the findings of underwater archaeologists. Therefore, he also excludes an Inuit eyewitness report of a fast-sinking ship recorded by Charles F. Hall, simply by declaring the story not compatible with the description of the wrecks. This is problematic for two reasons: first, the question of whether the ships drifted or sailed has not yet been answered by underwater archaeologists, and second, the source rejected, though printed in an appendix, is not the only source on the matter. The author himself even quotes the corresponding passage from the expedition narrative by Francis L. McClintock in a different context, but does not utter a word about the fact that the rapidly sinking ship is also mentioned there. It is legitimate to question the authenticity of a source, but then one should also be able to explain why. But Robool does not do that: he simply points out that Woodman also rejected another story by the same Inuk about an encounter with John Franklin. But Woodman did not do that at all. He rejected not the story itself, which he did incorporate into his interpretation, but Hall’s belief that it was Franklin whom the Inuk had met.

This is just one example of many chains of argumentation within Roobol’s reconstruction of events that either start from a weak, barely substantiated initial premise, or even lead to circular arguments. The claim that Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames, who took over the command after Frankin's death, did not get along with each other –leading to a supposed split in the expedition between the crews of the two ships–is another example.

Frequently repeating premises or key assumptions unfortunately does not help make Franklin’s Fate an “enthralling book” either. It remains at best a thought-provoking one for a knowledgeable reader and an interesting one for a novice, but one that nevertheless should be read with caution. 


Whether one may call Ernest C. Coleman’s book thought-provoking depends on your point of view – provoking it surely is, especially those parts in which he is not speaking about his own adventures following the track of the Franklin Expedition on King William Island, but is telling the reader what he things really happened to the Franklin Expedition. 

Unlike John Roobol in his study, Ernest Coleman (like David Woodman) is one of those people who want to solve the mystery on site. A Royal Navy lieutenant with a keen interest in John Franklin's expedition, he made four expeditions to King William Island himself in the first half of the 1990s, originally with the declared aim of finding John Franklin's grave. After he was subsequently sent into retirement he became an author, writing and lecturing on the Royal Navy, Victorians, polar expeditions, the search for the Holy Grail and much more.

His newest, beautifully crafted book is for the most part an amusing, self-ironizing account of his journeys to the Arctic and of his attempts in between to set up the next expedition through his contacts within the Navy and with other people interested in Franklin. As such, the book is certainly worth reading, though Coleman's views and perspective on the world and the Navy in general, and Franklin's expedition in particular, may irritate quite a few readers in the 21st century. Not without reason he has been called a late Victorian in the press before, as he himself proudly relates. He seems to have fallen out of time completely.

Accordingly, the reason why he does not reach his destination, the northwest of the island and Cape Felix, on his first try, for him is not so much his inadequate preparation, but – in keeping with 19th century tradition – rather the uncooperative, lying, thieving Inuit. At least he discovered the remains of a skeleton on Todd Island, probably overlooked in the 1870s. 

He undertook the second expedition alone, but had to survive for an extra ten days on drinking chocolate and Fisherman's Friends after the plane sent to pick him up was unable to land due to adverse winds. He may have discovered the cairn at Victory Point left by James Clark Ross in 1830 while discovering the North Magnetic Pole there. At least that seems quite possible by comparing the photograph printed in the book with the drawing from Ross’ narrative. The exact location of Ross's Victory Point is still disputed today and, as is clear from the so-called Victory Point Note, one of the few messages from the expedition ever to be found, was already disputed or at least unclear in 1848. But while Roobol sees this as further confirmation of the alleged constant conflict between Crozier and Fitzjames, Coleman’s account of his experiences makes it clear that the problem Franklin's men faced maybe was much simpler: lack of orientation. On an island of nothing but gravel, boulders, rocks and some tundra, roughly the size of the US state of Connecticut or the old County of Yorkshire in England, orientation is difficult even without snow and ice, especially since the compass is useless due to the proximity of the magnetic pole. Identifying places on maps in such a landscape is anything but easy, even for officers who know how to handle maps, as Coleman's experience shows.

The third expedition was larger once again. Coleman was joined by, among others, Peter Wadhams, the then director of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge/UK, and a French film crew, because he was convinced that he had discovered Franklin's grave and two burial mounds next to it during his earlier trip. However, the archaeologist in charge, who had flown in especially accompanied by a geologist, was of a different opinion. Both thought that the supposed grave and the mounds were natural and that all the other traces pointed out to them were not the remains of the Franklin expedition either, contrary to Coleman's opinion. The expedition then visited the remains of a boat further north, on Prince of Wales Island, possibly dating from the mid-19th century. Resolute-based meteorologist Wayne Davidson had heard about it from local Inuit and was willing to show the site to the expedition. For those who have been interested in the Franklin expedition for a long time, however, this discovery is equally not new. After Coleman's expedition, the find was now known at least among experts. In 1999 Davidson himself went public with it by presenting photos and his reflections online on one of the first websites about the Franklin Expedition. Ten years later, the page disappeared, reappeared in 2013 and disappeared again after some time, but can still be found in versions saved at that time. 

Coleman undertook the fourth and final expedition with Cameron Treleaven, not only a Canadian antiquarian specializing in the polar regions but also a trained archaeologist. Unsurprisingly, given the author’s distrust of bookish men in general and archaeologists in particular, they did not get along very well as a team and left the Arctic separately. 

Had Coleman left it at publishing a travelogue, we would have had before us a sometimes funny, mostly interesting book, from which we can not only learn something about the continuing interest in Sir John Franklin's last expedition and late 20th century expeditions to the Arctic, but also one from which the mindset of the officers of the Victorian Navy becomes clear in a surprising way –being mirrored in the opinions, thoughts and deeds of the author. But Coleman had, after all, set out to solve the mystery of the Franklin Expedition and find the Holy Grail of Franklin seekers – Sir John's grave. Not only that, but he wants to clear the expedition of the stain of failure. 
Since the Royal Navy was the best in the world, Coleman is convinced from the start that members of the Royal Navy were superior to all others and therefore could neither be cannibals nor insane. For him, this is simply unthinkable. What must not be, cannot be. His reconstruction presented in the last hundred pages of the book is therefore based on these three premises rather than on the sources and available artifacts. 

For Coleman, cannibalism is as unthinkable among civilized Englishmen as it was for the increasingly socially pivotal evangelical upper-middle class from the mid-19th century onwards. That is why the Arctic explorer John Rae, the bearer of the unbelievable news, is also for him “a charlatan with a poisonous hatred of the Royal Navy”. As evidence of this, he cites above all that the Hudson Bay Company man Rae considered Royal Navy surgeon Sir John Richardson, his companion on the overland search for John Franklin, to lack vigour and be overweight and the sailors under his command to be “most awkward, lazy and careless”. This, of course, amounts to sacrilege for Coleman, who does not want to see that the seamen accustomed to ships certainly had problems with the unfamiliar demands of overland travel, while Rae had the wrong expectations. By the same argument, Cameron Treleaven would also have to be accused of hating the Navy after the joint expedition with Coleman, for in some ways this expedition mirrors the image Coleman has of Rae and Richardson. While the older Coleman was running out of breath, the younger and fitter Treleaven dashed ahead, which Coleman again found strange, reckless and careless, while at the same time criticizing the Canadian for sleeping longer than he did. Here, too, different worlds had collided and not for the first time one has the feeling that the author is projecting his own experiences and ideas back into the past. 

But since Coleman cannot deny, for example, the cut marks found on the bones of some of Franklin's men, he not only tries to discredit the work of the forensic anthropologists and archaeologists, but also declares them to be proof that the sailors were treacherously massacred by the warlike Inuit, which in turn would even be confirmed by reports from the Inuit themselves. This, however, puts Coleman in trouble more than once. Since he considers the British to be not only morally but also technically superior, which they actually were, they must have been so weakened by scurvy that they could no longer defend themselves properly. As a counter-argument against the cannibalism thesis, however, he had previously argued that it had not been necessary to eat each other at all because there was enough food. After all, he himself had encountered plenty of game on King William Island. Apart from the fact that he ignores the completely different climatic conditions at the time, one wonders why Franklin’s men should have suffered so severely from scurvy in the first place. Although he otherwise condemns the Inuit tradition as unbelievable, since they were flatterers and liars – which his own experiences have confirmed, he suggests – he has to give credence to one story at least, because it seems to support his own thesis of Franklin's men being massacred by the Inuit. The story of Adam Beck, the Inuit interpreter of one of the later search expeditions, who claims to have heard about this massacre from the Inuit near Cape York in Northwest Greenland and reported this to the British. But this contradicts Coleman's claim that the Inuit did everything they could to keep this story secret out of a sense of guilt and to keep the search parties away from the site of the event. So Coleman comes up with an explanation, claiming that in order to prevent the ships from sailing on and to keep them in Greenland as long as possible so that his people could continue to trade lucratively with the British, Beck simply transferred the story, which was common knowledge among the Inuit, from King William Island to Cape York. Except that Beck came from southern Greenland and the Inuit from the northwest were no more his people than those beyond Baffin Bay. But from a colonial point of view this is irrelevant, for most 19th century Britons these Eskimos were all the same anyway and related to each other – this obviously did not change for Coleman 170 years later, even if he himself would probably resist being called a Scottish Highlander. 

None of this is convincing, but for Coleman it offers a satisfactory explanation for the demise of the expedition, because a fault of their own, as has been discussed by historians and other scientists since the 1980s, is ruled out for Coleman from the very beginning, as is the fact that the expedition is supposed to have perished from lead poisoning, because one of the side effects of lead poisoning is mental confusion and that cannot and must not be.

In his attempt to discredit the scientists and expose their alleged conspiracy, Coleman does not even notice how much he is preaching to the converted. The thesis of lead poisoning as the main reason for the decline of the Franklin Expedition is indeed, as Coleman has correctly observed, no longer tenable. But while this is just a good example of how a scholarly debate plays out over decades, Coleman sees it as a conspiracy of scientists using the Franklin Expedition and the lead poisoning hypothesis as a way to advance their careers. However, if you look at the biographies of the people the author accuses, you quickly see that this is not the case, at least not among the scientists. 
But anyway, the book more or less openly denies the competence of the scientists, since they are not prepared to accept the author’s claim that the place he discovered was Franklin's grave and that the two hills behind it were burial mounds raised by Franklin's men. Even though after his third expedition he declared that he had never claimed that it was Franklin's grave and now repeats this in the corresponding chapter, at the beginning and at the end of his book he now claims again that it possibly is Franklin's grave unless, that is, the captain lies in one of the burial mounds. 

Coleman constantly contradicts himself, and the reader's confusion reaches a climax in the search for the answer as to what Coleman thinks is in the mounds, let alone how and why they were erected.
Even more absurd, however, is his political conspiracy theory: No one disputes that the then Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, used the discovery of HMS Erebus in 2014 for political purposes to bolster Canada's claim to the Northwest Passage in light of the disagreement with the US over whether it is an inland waterway or an international passage, and Russian claims in the Arctic. To assume for political reasons, that the ship is not even where it is claimed to be, or that it is not HMS Erebus at all, seems absurd, but is Coleman's explanation for the ships not being where he thinks they should be. The most he is willing to concede is that they could have drifted to where they are now. His explanation is even less convincing then Roobol’s. Coleman simply declares it to be impossible that they could have been manned again and sailed there, since all 60 men of the crew were needed to sail the ships. This too is incorrect. HMS Hecla, a sister ship of the Erebus, for example, was sailed from the west coast of Africa to St Helena by so few men that when she arrived at the island she was thought to be a ghost ship, for yellow fever had claimed almost the entire crew. Having subsequently been sold by the navy, she returned to the Arctic as a whaler with her rigging unchanged but less than half the number of men than at the time she had sailed through the Arctic under Edward Parry's command. With the claim that all hands were necessary to sail the ship, Coleman shows that even in an area in which he claims to be an expert – that of the Royal Navy – he does not really know his way around, at least not if it comes Lord Nelson's Navy, though he can rightly claim to have served on Nelson's flagship. But HMS Victory is now a museum ship lying idle in the harbour. He never seems to have sailed on a real sailing ship, otherwise he would know that his claim, like so much of the last part of this book, is not true. While John Roobol's theories are on shaky ground, Ernest Coleman's theories become more and more inconsistent and outlandish, so that one cannot really take them seriously. 

As for the traces Coleman found on King William Island, one can certainly debate whether they are indeed human traces and if so, whether they could actually have come from Franklin's expedition. The human brain automatically tries to identify familiar patterns in chaotic images so that humans are better able to orient themselves, always expecting to see what is most familiar to them. Perhaps this is the very reason why Ernest Coleman saw navigational aids, anchors, boats or graves in the rubble. But maybe there is indeed more to see. Since he not only described what he saw in the first part of his book, but also photographed it, I can only recommend that readers look at the pictures in the book before reading the captions and ask themselves: What am I seeing? This helps at least a little bit not to lose one's orientation in this book as many have done on King William Island, and to be able to form one's own picture more easily in the end. 

What remains of these two books, only time will tell. They are surely not what their authors want them to be: the mystery’s solution. Most likely we will never know in every detail, what happened on King William Island back then, but every book sparks the imagination and keeps the discussion going.


Trapped. A Novel, by John Roobol.
Canterbury/Kent, The Conrad Press, 2019.

Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers, by Dorothy Harley Eber. University of Toronto Press, 2008. 

Finding Franklin. The untold story of a 165-year search, by Russell A. Potter. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2016.

Sir John Franklin's Last Arctic Expedition: A Chapter in the History of the Royal Navy, by Richard J. Cyriax. Plaistow and Sutton Coldfield: The Arctic Press,1997. (reprint).

Strangers Among Us, by David C. Woodman. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995. 

Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony, by David C. Woodman. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991; 2015. 

Sir John Franklin Was Here! by Wayne Davidson (archive)

Monday, April 26, 2021

Icebound in the Arctic: The Mystery of Captain Francis Crozier and the Franklin Expedition

Icebound in the Arctic:
The Mystery of Captain Francis Crozier and the Franklin Expedition

by Michael Smith

Dublin: The O'Brien Press, 2021

$22.99 (US), £12.16 (UK), €20.67 (EU)

It's been fifteen years since Michael Smith's original biography of Francis Crozier -- subtitled Last Man Standing -- was published, and of course I reviewed it here. So much has happened since -- not only with the discoveries of Erebus (in 2014) and Terror (2016), but also with new archaeological and scholarly work, not to mention the touring Death in the Ice exhibition, that a revisiting of Crozier's life and career seems very timely indeed. The fact that the original book has now become scarce -- copies, when they can be found at all, sell for upwards of $200 -- gives those of us without deep pockets a second reason to celebrate this expanded and retitled biography.

The chapters and sections here build on those of the original edition; the original chapters are both updated and augmented, and new chapters have been added. There's also a fair amount of new illustrative material -- after all, the book would seem incomplete without (for example) a photograph of Crozier's desk, as found by Parks Canada's ROV. The only known photograph of Lady Franklin -- which I uncovered in 2012 -- is also reproduced here. Another welcome addition is the image of the alabaster bust of Crozier sculpted in Florence in 1845, but not hitherto published. And lastly, most -- though not quite all -- of the excellent maps are retained, with a new one, showing the locations at which both ships were found, added.

There's no better portrait of Francis Crozier than the one Smith gives us -- with all his bright and cloudy moments interwoven. At the same time, there are aspects of his life and achievements that seem contradictory -- he had enormous energy and tenacity, his brilliant scientific work -- and yet he also had his bouts of melancholy, his reluctance to be first-in-command. Smith's approach to this is to take each of the various issues ad sertiatim, relying on alternating dark and light strokes in his assessment of Crozier's character. 

This strategy works admirably, although personally I felt that some of the darker strokes have too grim a feel to them -- I felt this particularly in Chapter 14, 'I Am Not Equal to the Hardship." This phrase comes from one of Crozier's letters, and the key word, "hardship," can also be interpreted as "leadership." It certainly makes, I think, more sense as "leadership," since Crozier in his letters to James Clark Ross when he volunteered his services sounds enthusiastic and confident. The hardship would have been the same no matter what his position, and certainly he knew of it and accepted it; his ability to lead was what he doubted. And of course, the final irony was that, scarcely two years into their voyage, the death of Franklin propelled him to the leadership of the expedition anyway.

The major new chapter is the last, "Lost and Found," which recounts, as promised on the cover, the "sensational discovery of the ships." It's a dramatic and succinct account, and the best so far to have appeared in book form. My only criticism is that Smith assumes both ships drifted, unpiloted, to their respective positions; we do not yet have firm evidence one way or another, and stating it as simple fact obscures this important uncertainty. Certainly with the Terror, neatly parked in what later became its eponymous bay, there's some thought that she was directed to this safer harbor by Crozier himself.

It's in this last chapter, only, that I missed somewhat the presence of color in the illustrations; in black-and-white, Crozier's desk seems blurry rather than draped, as it is, in the greenish murk of the captain's great room. But this is a minor criticism; all the many merits of the original edition are here, and there are numerous improvements and expansions.

So let us welcome this new edition, and the strong, contrasted portrait of Crozier's career that it brings. It bears clear witness to (as the Crozier memorial in Banbridge puts it) to his "unbending integrity and truthfulness" as well as to his "extreme amiability"-- and, as was Crozier himself, Smith's book is very good company indeed.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Hands' Measure

The Hands’ Measure: Essays Honouring Leah Aksaajuq Otak’s Contribution to Arctic Science.

Edited by John MacDonald and Nancy Wachowich

Iqaluit: Nunavut Arctic College Media, 2018. 391 pages.

Reviewed by Kenn Harper

The Hands’ Measure, as its subtitle makes clear, is a book honouring the contributions of the late Leah Aksaajuq Otak of Igloolik, Nunavut. It is not a biography of Leah, but rather a collection of essays by Northern scholars – or scholars interested in the North – who have been inspired by Leah, her work, and her enthusiasm.

A few of the essays – those by John MacDonald (Stories and Representations: Two Centuries of Narrating Amitturmiut History; Leah Aksaajuq Otak: A Life in Language; and Reflections on a Flag), Sylvie LeBlanc (Our Old Sod House), Nancy Wachowich (Leah Aksaajuq Otak: The Measure of a Stitch and the Art of Translation), Noah Richler (Sunrise, Stories, and Snowhouses: A Conversation with Leah Otak), and  J.C.H. King (Inuit Lives and Arctic Legacies: Leah Otak, Edward Parry, and Igloolik)– talk the most about Leah as a person, her interests, and her life history, including her education and her work. These are the most personal contributions. 

Two others by Inuit contributors – Eva Aariak (A Stitch in Time: Inuktut, Sewing, and Self-Discovery), and George Qulaut (Capturing Souls: Beginnings of Oral History Work in Igloolik) – address two of the subjects most dear to Leah – language and its proper usage (in Eva’s essay) and oral history (in George’s chapter). 

Two contributions treat the Igloolik Oral History Project as a resource and discuss its practical applications (Jack Hicks – “Once in a While”: The Igloolik Oral History Project as a Resource with Which to Understand Suicidal Behaviour in Historic Inuit Society; and Sheena Kennedy Dalseg – Reclaiming the Past and Reimagining the Future: The Igloolik Oral History Project, Education, and Community Development).

Still others relate less, or not at all, to Leah directly, but are Igloolik-centric in their research and discussions. These are the contributions by Claudio Aporta (Living, Travelling, Sharing: How the Land Permeates the Town through Stories), Willem Rasing (Encounters: Reflections on Anthropology and Cultural Brokers), and Susan Rowley (Ujakkat: Iglulingmiut Geology).

Some contributions are general in their scope, but are inspired by Leah’s work and enthusiasm. These are chapters by Hugh Brody (The People’s Land: The Film), Louis-Jacques Dorais (A Marriage in Nunavik), Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad (Restoring an Ancestral Legacy: Museum Collections, Inuit Clothing, and Communities), and Birgit Pauksztat (“Tass’ Nuann’!”: Tradition, Sports, and Friendship at the Kayak Club Nuuk).

Leah Otak believed that the emphasis of the Igloolik Oral History Project, in which she was a participant for many years, should be on the proper use of language. In the words of John MacDonald, “the information gathered in the interview was, to some extent, secondary to the quality and sophistication of the language used to convey the information.” Leah herself said, “Preserving oral histories is so important for future generations, because our language is changing fast. It’s beginning to be like English [in] structure…. But if people get interested, they can use the oral histories to learn – not just words but how [elders] would express themselves.”
Leah had a passion for word collecting. Like a true lexicographer, she obsessively wrote down new words she encountered wherever she was, and entered them in a vocabulary list she compiled once she was back home.

She was critical of the government’s approach to teaching Inuktitut. “In teacher training, no one monitors how Inuktitut is taught. No one is monitoring how well the teachers are speaking. The government solution comforts themselves – but it’s not Inuktitut…. Kids love to learn their language … but we’re not providing them with good quality education.”

Leah constantly showed empathy for the elders of Nunavut’s communities. Speaking of the old days of camp life, she juxtaposed it with the supposedly easier life in northern settlements today, a life, ironically, in which elders watch the rapid erosion of their culture and language and love grandchildren with whom they increasingly do not share a language. Leah claimed that “for the elders it wasn’t a struggle at all, not like they are struggling today.”

Nancy Wachowich describes Leah as a translator, but a translator not only of words, but also of concepts, of ways of seeing the world; in that sense she was a bridge between cultures. “She found ways to translate Inuit and Western knowledge traditions, working across both sides of the cultural divide.” Through her work at the science research centre in Igloolik, she brought southern researchers together with the community and its elders. Wachowich refers to Leah’s work as “cultural documentation and cultural translation.”

Nunavut Arctic College Media has done an admirable job in putting together a quality trade paperback book. It’s a big book, 391 pages, well bound. My only criticism is that it would have benefited by the inclusion of a map.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must state that I contributed one chapter to the volume (Inuit Oral History: Statements and Testimony in Criminal Investigations – The Case of the Killing of Robert Janes).

Saturday, October 24, 2020

What I Remember, What I Know

What I Remember, What I Know: The Life of a High Arctic Exile

By Larry Audlaluk

Iqaluit: Inhabit Media, 2020

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

When I heard that Larry Audlaluk had written a memoir, I knew at once that I wanted to read it. I'd met Larry on a visit to Grise Fiord in 2017, and his account of his and his family's experience as High Arctic Exiles was an electrifying one. You could tell at once that he was a born storyteller, and I knew a book by him would be one worth reading.

For those who don't know the story, the High Arctic Exiles were a group of Inuit families, mostly from Inukjuak on the eastern shores of Hudson Bay, but also including two families from Pond Inlet on northern Baffin Island, who were taken from their homes to be resettled in two places: Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island and a site on Ellesmere Island's Lindstrom Peninsula, a day's journey from the RCMP post at Craig Harbor (the final move to Grise Fiord came several years later). The families were persuaded by RCMP and other officials that their new homes would be places of abundance, with much game, and that the government would provide them with equipment, such as boats, that they needed to hunt.

Larry tells the story as only he can; although at the time of the relocation he was only two years old, he  experienced these years of exile as his years of childhood and growing up, always listening the stories of his parents and elders. Unbeknownst to these Inuit, they were pawns in a government scheme, dreamed up by bureaucrats who had little idea of how they lived. Following a 1939 court ruling that the Inuit, like First Nations people, were to be the responsibility of the government, Canada had begun to put into place a structure of "management" that often regarded the Inuit more as problems than as people. The fact that Inuit in Inukjuak and other areas further north along the Ungava Peninsula were accepting government assistance at a higher rate than had been anticipated led the government to believe they were becoming "dependent" and that the Ungava area was "overpopulated." Based on these assumptions, they decided that moving the Inuit much further north would solve these nonexistent problems; what's more, having permanent settlements north of Lancaster Sound would reinforce the Canadian presence in the Arctic islands, particularly Ellesmere.

The government also assumed, without any understanding of the type of game and other food sources available, that Inuit wold be able to quickly adjust to their new homes. The Inuit, told that they would be provided with boats and other equipment, packed lightly and were completely unprepared for their isolated new homesteads in a far colder and unfamiliar land. Their disappointment, and the terrible struggle to survive, took an immediate toll on Larry's father, Akeeaktashuk. He began to have fainting spells, and with the last of these, he literally fell down and died. Larry, writing as an adult, understands why, but as a child this loss, and the loss of so many others who had come trusting the promises of the Qallunaat, took an incomprehensible toll on his childhood.

Larry recounts this central story with extraordinary candor and feeling -- but what surprised me most in reading his book was how many other kinds of stories he had to tell. You sense at once what a spirited child, and a lively youth, he was -- every difficulty of life, from being sent to a TB hospital in Québec, to his experience with the residential school system, to the inevitable conflicting pulls that left him, as he puts it, "living in two worlds -- he faces with determination. There were some missteps -- as an older man looking back on the errors of his youth, he is forgiving -- and we his readers are inclined to forgive as well.

If those interested in the modern history of the Inuit people of eastern Canada were to read just one book on the subject, Larry Audlaluk's What I Remember, What I Know, should be it. His life is representative of the experience of so many Inuit of his generation, and his tenacity, forthrightness, and hard-earned wisdom illuminate not only this past, but show the way to a better future to come. 

My only criticism -- and it is very slight -- of the book is that the publisher decided to eschew notes, and that the list of place and personal names doesn't always reference the standard forms, so that readers hearing (for instance) of Inujjuak may not realize that this is the same as Inukjuak. Nevertheless, Larry's voice rings clear and strong throughout, never more so than in the last line of the book: "We are here to stay."

Monday, January 6, 2020

Adventures in Polar Reading

Adventures in Polar Reading: The Book Cultures of High Latitudes

by David H. Stam, with Deirdre C. Stam

New York: The Grolier Club, $40.00

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Anyone with more than a passing interest in books and polar expeditions will have long been familiar with the extraordinary work of David H. Stam. He has reconstructed the catalogues of some of the world's most remote libraries, those located aboard the ships, or in the encampments, of polar expeditions. Along the way, he has also probed the social and psychological value of such remote reading, including the appetite for print which led many expeditions to produce their own books and periodicals. If we are what we read, then it would seem that explorers -- once their reference reading is set aside -- seem to have taken particular pleasure in fiction; among their most frequently cherished volumes have been Dickens's Bleak House, Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (a fact which surely would have gratified its author, who as a child was fascinated with Arctic explorers).

Adventures in Polar Reading is, in physical form, an embodied curriculum vitæ of Stam's work over these past two decades, arranged so as to bring us along in his venturesome company, and partake of the pleasure of discoveries made along the way. It begins with a short recursus of Stam's fascination with his subject, sprinkled with witty asides and reflections that set the tone for what's to come. We then commence with an early reflection of his on the function of reading among historical expeditions, on the "silent friends" whose presence proved such a comfort to those denied any human company beyond their own. This flows quite perfectly into a chapter on the libraries of such expeditions; between the two, we learn of Robert Bartlett's fondness for The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and how Julius Payer reveled in his library, which included Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, and "a whole tribe of romances, which were read with never-ending delight." Most poignantly, we learn that Dr. Edward Wilson (one of Scott's comrades who died with him) was reading and re-reading Tennyson's In Memoriam while on their southern march, remarking that "it makes me feel that if the end comes to me here or hereabout there will be no great time for Ory to sorrow. All will be as it is meant to be."1

In another, perhaps retroactively more sombre moment, we eavesdrop on the survivors of the Greely expedition, who in coming upon a small cache of lemons wrapped in newspapers, savored the news even more than the lemons, carefully unwrapping each one and flattening and drying the paper. In his diary, second-in-command David Brainard described the scene: "The first of a series of very pleasant entertainments took place to-night. The scraps of newspapers were read aloud for fifteen minutes by Rice [the expedition's photographer who died later on the journey] just after dinner. This will be repeated every night until all are read."

Stam's chapters are sprinkled with such revelatory gems, even as they advance the theme of polar reading in all its aspects: the battered books of Fort Conger, poignantly damaged not by Arctic conditions but by a leaky library roof in Peary's Maine estate; an accounting of the role of newspapers and periodicals in polar reading, and a detailed accounting of the "Seaman's Friend Society" and their pre-assembled libraries of self-improvement and religious tracts in duodecimo. Two of the best-known and most substantial expedition libraries then receive extensive treatment: that of Admiral Byrd at "Little America" in Antarctica, and that of Shackleton's Endurance. The volume concludes with a touching Quo Vadis? -- whither then? -- in which Stam surveys the array of thematic and research topics yet to be fully explored by polar librarians and researchers.

As is to be expected in a volume published under the auspices of the Grolier Club in New York City, Adventures in Polar Reading is a strikingly handsome volume, sturdily bound in cloth boards, and copiously illustrated. No collection of Arctic or Antarctic books worth its salt -- or, perhaps I should say, worth its ice -- should be without it.

1 Ory was Oriana, Wilson's wife.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Hunters on the Track

Hunters on the track: William Penny and the search for Franklin

By W. Gillies Ross

Montreal & Kingston; McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019

Reviewed by Willam Barr

Gil Ross has published extensively on the history of whaling, both in Hudson Bay and inn Davis Strait/Baffin Bay. In this, his latest book, he focusses on one of the most successful Scottish whaling captains, William Penny Jr., and on his crucial role in one of the most complex searches for the missing Franklin expedition, that of 1850-51.

Born in Peterhead on 12 July 1809, the son of whaling captain William Penny Sr., William Jr. subsequently moved with his family to Aberdeen.  At the age of 12 he made his first whaling voyage on board his father’s ship Alert, to the Greenland Sea. By 1829 he was serving as mate on board a whaling ship bound for Davis Strait and by 1835 had his first command, the Neptune of Aberdeen. Thus by 1845 he was a very experienced (and very successful) whaling captain.  It was in that year that Captain Sir John Franklin sailed from the Thames with two ships, HMS Erebus and Terror bound for what is now the Canadian Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. With an initial complement of 134 men, after five had been invalided back to England from Greenland the final tally of the crews of the  two ships was 129. They were encountered by two whaling vessels in Baffin Bay, whose men were the last Europeans to see the ships and their crews alive.

At first sight Franklin’s task was quite a simple one.  He was to link up the major west-channel of Parry Channel (Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Viscount Melville Sound, M’Clure Strait) discovered by William Edward Parry in 1819-1820, with the waterway paralleling the mainland coast, which he explored in 1821, followed by Dr. John Richardson in 1826 and by Peter Warren Dease and Thomas Simpson in 1838-39. Franklin was instructed to proceed to Cape Walker, sighted by Parry (then thought to be the northeastern cape of Prince of Wales Island, but in fact that of Russell Island) and “to penetrate to the southward and westward in a course as direct towards Behring’s Strait as the position and extent of the ice, or the existence of land, at present unknown, may admit." In fact a route due south from Cape Walker would intersect with Dease and Simpson’s route at Cape Herschel in just 580 km.  Franklin’s instructions also suggested, however,  that if a southerly route were impracticable he should  attempt to penetrate north via Wellington Channel between Devon and Cornwallis Islands.

Given the known provisioning of Franklin’s ships, no particular concern was felt in England when there was no word from them in 1846.  But by the spring of 1847 some degree of anxiety had started to be felt. On his own initiative William Penny, by then in command of St. Andrew, made an attempt to penetrate into Lancaster Sound in the hope of searching for Franklin but was foiled by foul winds and heavy seas and was unable to penetrate beyond 78° W. i.e.  just off the entrance to Lancaster Sound. His was the first known attempt at making contact with the missing expedition, and led naturally to Penny’s subsequent  role in the massive search  in 1850-51  which represents the major theme of Gil Ross’s book.

In 1848 the first of the Admiralty’s expeditions in search of Franklin was dispatched to Baffin Bay, commanded by Captain Sir James Clark Ross in HMS Enterprise and Investigator. Seriously delayed by ice in Baffin Bay, heavy ice prevented them from penetrating far into Lancaster Sound, and they wintered at Port Leopold on northeastern Somerset Island.  In the spring of 1849 sledging parties travelling around parts of Somerset Island found no traces of the Franklin expedition.

Soon after William Penny’s return to his home port of  Dundee in the autumn of 1849, he received a visit from Lady Franklin, Franklin’s wife (or by then , in fact, widow). She asked Penny if he would be interested in commanding a search expedition, either a naval expedition or one sponsored by herself. Penny enthusiastically agreed in principle.

As a result Penny became an important player in a remarkable concentration of ships and effort in the search for Franklin which headed for Davis Strait and Baffin Bay in the spring of 1850.   Penny was in charge of two vessels, the brigs Lady Franklin and Sophia (the latter commanded by Alexander Stewart).  The Admiralty dispatched four vessels: the sailing vessels Resolute and Assistance and the steam tenders, Intrepid and Pioneer, under the overall command of Captain Horatio Austin, the other commanders being Erasmus Ommanney (Assistance), John Cator (Intrepid) and Sherard Osborn (Pioneer); a further vessel sponsored by Lady Franklin – Prince Albert, commanded by Charles Forsyth; the brig Felix, commanded by the septuagenarian Sir John Ross,  and  towing a small yacht, Mary; and finally  an American contribution, the USS Advance and Rescue (Edwin De Haven and Samuel Griffin, respectively) sponsored by the New York merchant and ship owner Henry Grinnell.

As Gil Ross has presented in detail, all of these vessels encountered heavy ice in Baffin Bay and especially Melville Bay, and while there was some collaboration between the different expeditions (e.g. the steam tenders towing various of the other expeditions’ vessels), there was absolutely no cohesive plan. Significantly, at Upernavik Penny was able to recruit the Dane Johan Christian Petersen, who joined Lady Franklin, complete with a team of sledge dogs. All the ships reached the North Water safely then swung west, south, then west into Lancaster Sound – a total of 10 ships and over 300 men. Assistance and Intrepid were the first to reach Beechey Island a small island joined to the southeast coast of Devon Island by a tombolo, partially submerged at high tides.  At Cape Riley, across Erebus and Terror Bay from Beechey Island Ommanney and Cator found clear evidence of a European tented camp, and then a large cairn on the summit of Beechey Island. When they dismantled it they were puzzled and disappointed to find no messages.   Ommanney and Cator then continued west across Wellington Channel to Cornwallis Island without noticing the graves of three members of the Franklin expedition and a wide scatter of  various clear signs that Erebus and Terror had wintered here. These were later discovered by  parties from Penny’s, Stewart’s, Ross’s and De Haven’s and Griffin’s ships, anchored in Union Bay, on the west side of Beechey Island. But once again no message was found to indicate where Erebus and Terror had headed after wintering here.

Austin’s four ships, Penny’s two vessels, the two American ships  and Ross’s Felix then headed across Wellington Channel and along the south coast of Cornwallis Island.  Subsequently Austin’s ships went into winter quarters off the northeast corner of Griffith Island while Penny’s vessels and Ross’s Felix found more secure winter quarters in Assistance Bay on the south coast of Cornwallis  Island. Rescue and Advance, which were not equipped or provisioned for wintering, started back east towards Baffin Bay.

After a relatively  uneventful wintering, Austin and Penny agreed that in the spring that while  Ommanney searched both coasts of Prince of Wales Island as far south as possible and McClintock sledged westwards along Parry Channel, Penny would head northwards along Wellington Channel. On 17 April 1851 Penny’s and Stewart’s men hauling six sledges set off eastwards to Cape Hotham then north along the western shore of Wellington Channel, followed by Penny and Petersen with the latter’s dog team next day.  Just over a week later, having covered 45 miles, on finding that stoves and kettles were inadequate, that some of the sledges needed to be altered, and that the fuel supply would not last much longer, Penny decided to turn back.  While some of the men were suffering from snow-blindness, frostbite had not caused any serious problems.

After resting for ten days on 6 May Penny and his men set off again. Petersen and Penny again drove dog sledges. While three sledges turned east across Wellington Chanel to search the west coast of Devon Island, Penny and Petersen, with two man-hauled sledges continued north. From the northern tip of Cornwallis Island they crossed on the ice to an island which Penny named Hamilton Island (now Baillie-Hamilton Island). Beyond its northern tip, which Penny named Point Surprise, he discovered a wide area of open water, which he named Queen Victoria  Channel. Starting back south on 17 May the two dog teams reached the ships on the 20th and the man-hauled sledges somewhat later. Penny was determined to haul a boat north on a sledge to explore the open water he had discovered. Visiting Griffith Island to inform Austin of his discoveries and to ask him for the loan of some men to help haul a boat north, Penny was infuriated when Austin refused this request.

On 4 June a party of 15 men set off hauling a whaleboat on a specially-designed sledge.  Although the melt was well under way, which meant slush or pools of melt-water on the sea ice, on 18 June the sledge haulers reached open water. Penny launched the boat and loaded it with provisions and gear. With seven men he put to sea, continuing north along the east coast of Cornwallis Island. Beyond Hamilton Island Penny discovered several more islands, including  Baring Island and Dundas Island and, to the north, land which Penny named Prince Albert Land, in fact part of Devon island. A strait which was later named Penny Strait extended to the horizon to the northwest.  This wide expanse of open water stretching north reinforced Penny’s belief in the existence of an Open Polar Sea – a belief which ws widely held at the time, and would not be abandoned until Fridtjof Nansen’s trans-Arctic ice-drift in Fram in 1893-96. Despite a lack of  solid evidence, apart from a small piece of elm wood which he found, Penny was now convinced that this was the route which had been taken by Franklin’s ships.  Returning south to where they had launched the boat, Penny abandoned boat and sledge and he and his men walked back to Assistance Bay.

By 11 August the ice had cleared out of Assistance Bay and on that date Lady Franklin, Sophia and Felix were joined by Resolute, Assistance, Pioneer and Intrepid. Having determined by an extensive series of man-hauled sledge journeys that there was no sign of Franklin’s ships to the south, southwest or west of Griffith Island, Austin wanted to head for home but needed Penny’s assurance that there ws no point in any further searches north via Wellington Channel. Relations between the two men had already become fraught and now Austin precipitated a bitter argument by demanding that Penny provide him with a statement to that effect in writing. All six ships, plus Ross’s Felix then started for home, although  their captains were leaving themselves open to criticism for returning after only one wintering. Penny reached Aberdeen on 10 September then travelled south by express train to London.

Starting on 22 October an official inquiry was now held  to investigate whether Austin and Penny had been justified in returning after only one wintering.  The two men had to face a committee consisting of five naval officers.   A crucial point at issue was whether or not Penny had asked Austin for the “loan” of one of his steamers towards the end of the season to investigate Wellington Channel, Queen Victoria Channel and Penny Strait further; this would have indicated that Penny felt that there might be justification for a further wintering. Austin had denied his request. But now he declared that Penny had made no such request.  Although Penny was supported by Stewart, and even by some of Austin’s officers who had heard of the exchange about the loan of a steamer, the members of the committee sided with Austin. Their final verdict was that both Austin and Penny had been justified in returning after only one winter.

This skeletal outline will provide some idea of the major topics covered in Ross’s book. But there are a number of wide-ranging sub-plots which I have not mentioned.  One of these, to which an entire chapter is devoted is the remarkable ice-drift of the American vessels, Advance and Rescue, totally unprepared for a wintering, over the winter of 1850-51.  In September they became beset in the ice and drifted north along Wellington Channel to within sight of land which they named Grinnell Land (later seen and named Prince Albert Land by Penny), then back south along Wellington Channel, east down Lancaster Sound and south for the full length of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait to beyond Cape Dyer before the ice broke up to release them. Other sub-plots covered in less detail include the belief in the Open Polar Sea, a history of the Royal Navy’s issue of a rum ration, the use (by Sir John Ross) of homing pigeons, and the use of balloons to try to contact the missing Franklin expedition.

With Hunters on the Track, Ross has crafted the first detailed, comprehensive account of one of the most far-reaching searches for the missing Franklin expedition, with particular emphasis on the crucial role played in it by whaling captain William Penny.  The list of at least 15 archival repositories in the Notes and Bibliography, gives some idea of the author’s thoroughness and dedication to his research. Ross’s style is very readable and entertaining and the text is sometimes leavened with a touch of humour. For example he quotes Cator’s description of the drunken progress of Ommanney and some of his officers staggering back to their own ship from the Intrepid on Christmas Eve, 1850, in nautical terms: “making tacks and stern boards and heaving-to, tumbling about the snow hummocks” (p. 281).

The book is enhanced by a small but important selection of illustrations. They include Stephen Pearce’s portrait of William Penny, an aerial photo which reveals wonderfully clearly  Beechey Island, Union Bay, Erebus and Terror Bay and Cape Riley, and also two paintings by of Canadian geologist and artist, Maurice Haycock, those of Penny’s abandoned boat (as seen in 1974) and the graves on Beechey Island.   Unfortunately, however the maps are frustratingly inadequate particularly in terms of the paucity of place names.  Some measure of the seriousness of the problem is that neither of the wintering sites (Griffith Island and Assistance Bay) is named on any of the maps. The mismatch between the high caliber of the research and writing and the  low quality of the cartography is baffling. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Split Tooth

Split Tooth

by Tanya Tagaq

Viking, $24.95

Reviewed by Paddy Eason

It's my impression that many readers of the Arctic Book Review are seeking stirring tales of exploration from long ago. On that basis, this book - which contains enthusiastic teenage solvent abuse, erotic encounters with wild animals and gleeful retribution against human bullies and predators - may not be everyone's cup of tea. For me, though, it's one of the most impressive books I have read in years.

Author Tanya Tagaq’s Wikipedia page describes her as a “Canadian Inuk throat singer from Cambridge Bay (Iqaluktuutiaq), Nunavut, Canada.” Tagaq has released four solo albums of increasing artistic range and ferocity, has collaborated with Bjork and the Kronos Quartet, tours worldwide, is an accomplished painter and an outspoken advocate for indigenous rights and climate activism. It would be no exaggeration to say that she's an Inuit superstar. This is her first book.

Split Tooth is a novel, with frequent nods to memoir, poetry, and traditional tales. At times, to this reader from a temperate clime, the book reads like science fiction or horror: encounters with the Northern Lights, journeys by snowmobile over frozen seas, battles with malignant spirits and musings on quantum physics. But at its icy, fiery heart, this is a book about female puberty.

The unnamed protagonist, when we first meet her, is an eleven-year-old girl living in a small village by Cambridge Bay in the High Arctic. Awkward, smart, and not particularly popular, she spends the long days and long nights in her home town negotiating the universally recognizable childhood assault course of friends, bullies, teachers, neighbors and relatives, while at the same time wishing she had ‘actual breasts’. Alongside this familiar-yet-unfamiliar narrative, there runs a strand of poetry, blocks of text in Inuktitut syllabics, and excellent pop culture illustrations (by Jaime Hernandez.)

Some of the events described or alluded to are shocking. Tagaq certainly pulls no punches. This is not the Arctic wonderland of noble natives that some readers may expect. The first sentence of the book is “Sometimes we would hide in the closet when the drunks came home from the bar.” Alcohol seems mostly for the adults and their tedious rowdy house parties - to be avoided. Our hero and her pals start with cigarette ends and pilfered joints, moving up to butane, rubber cement and gasoline huffed out of snowmobiles. What else is there to do when night and day have no meaning, nothing seems worth learning and the adults are either passed out from booze or away hunting? We learn, as our young hero does, that loud country music blasting from a house is a warning sign - and this is the kind of shorthand at which Tagaq excels, sketching the line from colonial corruption to child abuse.

Predatory adult males are a daily challenge - the teacher who habitually gropes his pupils under their desks, the relatives who sneak into children’s bedrooms at night. One of the first poems in the book is called "Sternum," and begins as a meditation on the human breastbone and ribcage. The last few lines come with the kind of kick that marks her writing throughout  -
The Human Sternum is used for so many things
Clavicles like handlebars
Ribs like stairs
The sternum is the shield
Even when impaired
Even when it smothers a little girl's face
As the bedsprings squeak
However - and I cannot emphasize this enough - Split Tooth is not a grim, dour book. It is a tragedy and a triumph.

The book's second strand, of poems, dreams and folk tales, initially a kind of counterpoint to the coming-of-age dramas of village life, gradually takes over the life of the book. The day-to-day narrative starts to incorporate brushes with malevolent spirits. Wild animals, such as the fox she encounters beneath her parents’ house while hiding from the school bully, walk into her dreams and begin to demand their due or bestow favor. In a key chapter on which the book’s plot turns, she walks out onto the sea ice one night and has an encounter with the Northern Lights that changes her life. What started out as a funny, harrowing tale of village life for an awkward teenager turns into a psychedelic spiritual ordeal ending up with some extraordinary choices for Tagaq’s young hero. I am being circumspect - this book is a page turner, and I’d really hate to spoil it with any further clues. If you choose to read this book, you will be hanging on by your fingertips by the end.

I wrote above that Split Tooth is about female puberty, but of course, Tagaq's gaze is much wider. She is a canny enough author not to be didactic or obvious, but it's clear that among her targets are colonization, institutional religion, and predatory male sexuality. She finds ways to take them all on, one by one, while keeping the book's narrative arrow flying straight. The collective trauma of her people is lived by this one small teenager. The conclusion feels like an exorcism.

What makes all this work so splendidly, is that Tagaq - and her protagonist - are such perceptive, funny, rational company. The book is sharp and bright as a knife, informed not only by Inuit folktales, but also by 21st century climate politics. Every violent act or thought is balanced with kindness and empathy. The suggestive, elliptical poetry is spiced with a lot of very specific cuss words.

The language is extraordinary. Has there been a better description of the disorientating effect on a community of endless Arctic daylight than “Everyone’s clocks tick sideways”? I felt like applauding at the end of each chapter at the sheer quality of the writing. The book is a firework display.

For anyone who has seen Tagaq as a live musical performer, this may come as no surprise. Having read the physical edition of the book, I went in again to listen to the audio book, read by the author with brief throat-singing interludes between chapters. If I had to choose a format to recommend, it would be the audiobook. The hardback is a lovely object (and there is also a vinyl album of the poems), but the five-hour audio book is another level. It is a performance.

The journey from recording studio to written page hides pitfalls that have tripped many an artist. But this book's icy white covers and red-tipped pages contain wonders. Tagaq writes with clarity, rage, humor and authority. In this book she has created what might be a defining artistic statement of the North. It is an Arctic masterpiece.