Sunday, April 23, 2023


Wanderlust: An Eccentric Explorer, An Epic Journey, A Lost Age

by Reid Mitenbuler

New York: Mariner Books, 2023

495 pp: $45.00


Reviewed by Lawrence Millman

Arctic explorers often tend to be of a predacious breed.  Give them a destination like the North Pole or the Northwest Passage, and they go into veritable overdrive in an effort to reach it.  Consider Admiral Robert Peary.  “Mine at last!” he exclaimed upon attaining (or not attaining) the North Pole, as if he had just engineered a corporate takeover.

By contrast, the Danish polymath Peter Freuchen was not (in the words of his biographer Reid Mitenbuler) “a swashbuckling explorer type.”  Rather than venture after some sort of Grail, he wanted to experience the Arctic on its own terms, greeting its rough integrity with a rough integrity of his own.  He became anthropologist Knud Rasmussen’s assistant at the Thule trading post not because he wanted to trade with the Greenland Inuit, but because he wanted to live with them…and live with them he did, through proverbial through hell and high water.  That he died of a heart attack just prior to a televised overflight of the North Pole may be the Arctic’s revenge on him for having an actual goal.  

Mitenbuler documents Freuchen’s wanderlust, which took him not just to the Arctic, but also to the Amazon jungle,. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Holly-wood, and the White House.  Although all of these travels occurred in the first half of the 20th century, Freuchen often seems like he’d be a broad-minded contemporary.  For instance, he issued a warning about climate change as long ago as 1931.  He also championed civil rights, environmental stewardship, and animal rights.  He put his support of the Inuit not only into his books, but also into the 1933 film Eskimo, for which he ought to be considered the auteur.  Yet pretense was not his bailiwick.  Quite the contrary.  He lost his leg to frostbite and ended up with a prosthesis.  Writing to his artist friend Rockwell Kent, he said, “I’m doing just as well with my wooden leg as I did with my old meaten one.”

It’s hardly surprising that Wanderlust is the first biography of Freuchen in English.  After all, Freuchen himself wrote detailed accounts of his life in books like Vagrant Viking and Arctic Adventure, and potential biographers might have felt he’d already said what should be said about that life.  They might not have wanted to compete with his talent for storytelling, either.  Dare I say that his talent for embellishment makes his stories seem even better?

Mitenbueler’s biography is primarily a “just the facts, ma’am” sort of book.  

To get his information, the author dug into numerous archives, letters, and diaries as well as consulted Arctic experts like Kenn Harper and Dave Welky.  Who would have known that the Netsilik asked Freuchen whether Greenlandic Inuit had whiskers like his? And who would have known that Freuchen hoisted Hollywood actress Jean Harlow above his head to indicate his weight-lifting prowess? The result is what’s typically referred to as a page turner. 

On the other hand, the reader familiar with the Arctic might be a bit miffed by the book’s errors and anomalies.  For example, Mitenbuler says that no one lived in East Greenland at the time of Fridtjof Nansen’s 1888 ice cap crossing, a statement that’s obviously untrue. He commonly uses the ungrammatical phrase “Inuit people” to describe the Inuit and also says “Inuit man” rather than “Inuk.”  He refers to dire wolves and mammoths as being relatives of muskoxen when in fact these species are contemporaries rather than relatives.  And he describes one of Freuchen’s lady friends as living “northwest of Hudson Bay, not far from the current village of Rankin Inlet” — a geographical error, since Rankin Inlet is in the middle of western Hudson Bay.  The book contains no maps, so the reader can’t look at them and correct the blunders in the text.  No maps? How odd for a book whose subject traverses a goodly part of the world…

Its errors notwithstanding, Wanderlust brings to the reader’s attention one of the most enlightened as well as perhaps the most eccentric of all Arctic explorers.  None of the others assisted Jewish refugees during World War II or correctly answered a $64,000 question.  Nor did any of the others eat rock ptarmigan fecal matter cooked in seal oil and compare its flavor to Roquefort cheese.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Big Wolf

Big Wolf: The Adventurous Life of Frederick G. Schwatka

by Douglas W. Wamsley

Staunton, VA: American History Press, $28.95 (paper) $48.95 (hardcover)

Reviewed by David Woodman

Douglas W. Wamsley has established himself as a skilled biographer of nineteenth-century American explorers. In his last book, Polar Hayes: The Life and Contributions of Isaac Israel Hayes, M.D., Wamsley demonstrated meticulous research and attention to detail, often using obscure and rare primary sources to bring his subject and world to life. Most readers of this publication are familiar with Frederick Schwatka from his Arctic work and his valuable leadership of the Franklin Records Search Expedition of 1879. Wamsley’s new book, Big Wolf – The Adventurous Life of Lieutenant Frederick G. Schwatka, similarly brings the fuller details of this remarkable man’s life to a broad audience.

Wamsley starts his recounting with Frederick’s parents, industrious and energetic survivors, with the 4-year-old Frederick, of the rigours of the Oregon Trail. Growing up in the then-frontier lands near Astoria gave young Frederick character traits that later served him well – hardihood in, and love for, challenging outdoor pursuits and a hardworking determination to see his efforts through to completion. His experience with the local first nations peoples also fostered an acceptance and respect that would set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Companions described the young Frederick as “a gregarious gun-loving, ruddy-faced boy with a streak of independence” who was noted for his boyish pranks and self-deprecating humour.  

Next, Wamsley traces the young man’s development as a fledgling writer employed as a “printers devil” in his brother’s publication, where he “gained a sound schooling in the newspaper business” that would be useful in his later career. His restless ambition for a more active life led him to pursue a place at West Point Military Academy, where he graduated in the middle of his class and with an average number of disciplinary “demerits” (many resulting from “pranks” and “misplaced laughter.”) This mixture of writer and outdoorsman would become a core element of his later life.

After graduation, Schwatka spent seven years as a cavalry lieutenant on the western frontier. His physical endurance and cheerful personality were well suited to conducting long patrols in testing country, and he became inured to hardship while serving in isolated and often comfortless posts. Intellectually restless, Schwatka was granted extended leave to pursue law and medical degrees, which he completed successfully in 1875-6. Wamsley rightly concludes, “[a]t the age of 26 he had accomplished more than most persons would in a lifetime … [he] had succeeded as a student, soldier, outdoorsman, lawyer and physician.”

Not all of his military service was tedious. Returning from college, as part of General Crook’s division, Schwatka fought in battles at Tongue River and the Rosebud and led the cavalry charge at the Battle of Slim Buttes. His commanders mentioned his courage under fire; his former commander Anson Mills stated, “He could not speak well enough of the young lieutenant’s bravery in the field and his other soldierly qualities.” A soldier who served with him remarked, “A better or braver man never existed. He was kind-hearted and generous to a fault.” 

Unlike the prevailing attitude toward the enemy Indians as “savages,” Schwatka’s interest in, and respect for, the skills and culture of those he encountered are evident in his writings. His understanding, easygoing nature and diplomatic skills made him a frequent intermediary between the army and Sioux and Cheyenne leaders. He was welcomed into two tribes, and the Sioux gave him the name that serves as the title of this book (his later Inuit-given name, “Big Spectacles,” does not have the same impact.) 

The labour for which Schwatka is most famous was the Franklin Records Search of 1878-80. This expedition is covered in five of the book’s seventeen chapters. The main details of this expedition are well recorded in the contemporary accounts of his companions Gilder and Klutschak, but unfortunately, Schwatka’s private papers were lost during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Luckily, a draft article about the expedition was rediscovered in 1965 and edited by Edouard Stackpole as The Long Arctic Search. Wamsley’s skillful retelling, weaving the main elements of these three accounts, should become the first reference for the general reader. Wamsley supplements these with other rarely-referenced sources, including newspaper accounts and speeches.  These, especially an interview given within days of his arrival with the New York Tribune, add helpful context and interesting details to enlighten even those familiar with the standard source material. Informative ethnological discussion and biographical asides of Schwatka’s companions are interspersed throughout and offer pleasant diversions from the straightforward chronological narrative.

The inclusion of modern Inuit traditions of the expedition, collected by David Pelly, augments the value of his treatment. His use of current scientific work on the wrecks of Franklin’s ships, and Dr. Douglas Stenton's recent terrestrial archaeological work, brings the story up to date. However, Wamsley scrupulously avoids speculative editorializing or analysis concerning these, as his purpose is not to attempt to solve this enduring mystery but as a biographer to recount his subject’s contribution.

On his return from the Arctic, Schwatka, having burned his bridges with the military establishment through his almost-continual leaves of absence and frequent bouts of binge drinking, unsuccessfully pursued a pension, which forced him to seek other revenue sources. Most men, having attained international fame as an explorer by age 31, would have settled down. With a new wife and daughter, he could have enjoyed a comfortable domestic life by falling back on his medical or legal training, but it was not in Schwatka’s nature. His post-Franklin life followed his established pattern of “a small cohesive group, combined with Indigenous peoples’ assistance, sound decision-making, and calculated risk-taking.” These consisted of unlikely business ventures and adventurous endeavours, resulting in many books, popular at the time but now largely forgotten, public-speaking events and a prodigious amount of often self-serving journalism. Despite his substantial writing output and public appearances, Schwatka’s self-promoting pursuit of fame and fortune was only mildly profitable. His far-flung business interests and busy schedule of cross-country public appearances rendered him a largely absentee husband and father. 

To maintain his fame and public interest, Schwatka fell back on his skills as an outdoorsman. His most significant exploration took place on the new American frontier - Alaska. Using his position as the personal aide to General “Bearcoat” Miles, the two men organized a military reconnaissance to the newly-acquired territory that would be a significant focus of Schwatka’s later career. He surveyed the Yukon River in 1883, followed by an unsuccessful assault on Mt. St. Elias two years later and a final expedition in 1891 to the unexplored White River valley deep in the Alaskan interior. His writing about these travels offers an interesting prequel to the Klondike gold rush that would overtake the region in 1896. As a contract explorer-with-a-pen, Schwatka pursued or created many opportunities, including a winter trek in Yellowstone Park and travels in northern Mexico.  These produced little more than grist for his publicity mill.  Many of Schwatka’s “discoveries” were controversial, as he largely followed in the steps of others and rarely gave credit to them. His later reputation would also suffer from his tendency to exaggerate and over-dramatize his accomplishments.

Throughout the book, Wamsley sympathetically explores Schwatka’s complex personality – hardy and adventurous, an organized and inspiring natural leader, friendly and amusing, yet self-promoting and prone to exaggeration. He retained his admiration of indigenous cultures and people but occasionally agreed to their sensational exploitation when it served to enhance his public appearances. From his time as a hard-drinking cavalryman Schwatka also, except when actively involved in strenuous activity, was prone to alcohol and substance abuse. His coverage of the events leading up to Schwatka’s untimely early death by overdose is the most complete treatment I have read.

One regrets the lack of Schwatka’s private correspondence, which would have helped illuminate this complex man's inner life. Reliance on contemporary writings about him, pro and con, is rarely given by those who knew him personally and is usually coloured by the writer’s bias. Schwatka’s prodigious published output is journalistic, sometimes offering insight into his humour and self-deprecating nature but mainly leaving his personality opaque (not a bad attribute in a journalist.) It must be remembered that, unlike personal letters, his writings were intended for publication and were penned to serve his professional interests. 

The most trustworthy assessments come from those who shared trials in challenging situations. After his death, a fellow cavalry officer recalled, “The officers and men in the regiments in which he served loved him, and none more so than the lowliest private, for he was always kind and considerate.” Klutschak credited the success of Schwatka’s Arctic expedition to his “wide knowledge, good judgment [sic], energy and correct handling of his men.”  The Sioux, learning of the death of their adopted brother, held ceremonies of remembrance.

The book features adequately-reproduced illustrations, and maps of Schwatka’s travels, although these are smaller than desired and often challenging to follow. The endnotes are well done, offering a means to check on provenance and occasionally offering extended context or information that would have disrupted the flow of the main text. A complete bibliography and index both provide value.

Like his work on Hayes, this book becomes the standard biography for another often-neglected American explorer. It is a welcome addition to the Arctic and Alaskan exploration literature. It should also interest those interested in late nineteenth-century frontier life, Manifest Destiny, or simply in tales of fascinating characters. It is highly recommended. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

On Inuit Cinema | Inuit TakugatsaliuKatiget

On Inuit Cinema | Inuit TakugatsaliuKatiget

by Mark David Turner

St. John's Newfoundland: Memorial University Press, 2022


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

This remarkable book about Inuit cinema certainly catches the eye with its cover art by Jessica Winters, which depicts a camera operator, a director, and a sound technician with a boom mic standing in the snow (it takes a moment to sort this out). It also catches the ear with a relatively new word: TakugatsaliuKatiget, which indicates "cinema" but can be literally translated as "those who are working together on making that which will be able to be seen." It's a fair definition of what cinema -- and this book -- encompasses.

The format is also surprising at first, as the first two-thirds consists of transcribed interviews with Inuit filmmakers, actors, and organizers -- but indeed, this makes eminent sense, as they are the ones who are actually working together to produce Inuit cinema. Turner is also seeking -- rightly, I believe -- to avoid defining a still-emerging area of  cultural activity in any way that would seek to overwrite the Inuit's own sense of what it means and where it's going. This is not, therefore, a comprehensive account of the field of Inuit cinema (though the filmography and other materials at the end -- of which more anon -- approach this possibility), but a snapshot of a moment in the development of something that is still in the process of arriving into being.

The interviewees include a number of key figures in the recent emergence of Inuit cinema: a group associated with Arnait Video Productions (including Lucy Tulugarjuk, known for her performance as Puja in Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat); media producer Stephen Agluvak Puskas (who adds a "checklist for making film in and with Inuit communities"); filmmaker Isabella Rose Weetaluktuk; Inuk Silis Høegh; and members of Nain's OkâlaKatiget Society. The discussions range widely, from the personal experiences of each interviewee to how they got involved in film, to what they see as the current direction for Inuit films to come. At times, they offer some insights into the recent history of such films, but there's also a fair amount of general chatter, not all of which really seems to advance the book's purposes. For me, the most interesting part was learning about the emergence of filmmaking in the Nunatsiavut region, with which I hadn't been very familiar.

Esther Eneutseak with her daughter Nancy Columbia
But the most valuable parts of this volume, to my mind, are the two last ones: a checklist of Key Moments in Inuit Cinema, and a filmography of more than 500 film and television productions both about and by Inuit. It's well-researched, comprehensive, and includes numerous early films that will be unfamiliar to many readers, along with frame stills. In particular, I was glad to see that Turner drew from the research that Kenn Harper and I have done on the silent films in which Esther Eneutseak and her daughter Nancy Columbia appeared; these include the (since lost) 1911 film The Way of the Eskimo, for which Nancy received the credit for writing the scenario (the silent film equivalent of a screenplay). Ninety years before Atanarjuat, it featured a nearly all-Inuit cast as well, with the frozen shores of Lake Michigan standing in for Labrador. 

There are always a few niggles in any such listing -- those films in which Nancy Columbia played Seminole Indians and other non-Native roles aren't mentioned -- and the inclusion of novelty films, such as 1918's Das Eskimobaby, is a bit odd (though Turner is quite right to point out that it marked the first portrayal of an Inuk by a non-Inuit actor). Nevertheless, it's the first thorough filmography of its kind, and forms an intrinsic testament to two phenomena: first, the seemingly endless fascination of early and classic-era Hollywood with "Eskimo" subjects, and second, to the slow, steady, and growing emergence of film in which Inuit have taken control of their own representation. It's something both to recognize and celebrate, and it's to be hoped that this trend will continue and grow. And there's a good sign: we've now finally arrived in the era when Inuit are making films that aren't necessarily solely about Inuit and can hold their own commercially, films like Nyla Innuksuk's Slash/Back,  which manages to give a sharp portrait of teenage life in Pangnirtung, while at the same time being a fast-paced thriller filled with flesh-eating alien worms that wear human skins as a disguise.

But I digress. Turner's book is a landmark in this field, and should be a part of any collection or library focused on Inuit culture -- as well as any with a focus on film and film history.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Empire of Ice and Stone

Empire of Ice and Stone

by Buddy Levy

New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2022

412 pp: $29.99

Reviewed by Lawrence Millman

As a polar drama, the 1913 Karluk story doesn’t have the celebrity status of the Shackleton Endurance saga, but it’s a no less remarkable tale.  The two major players were Captain Bob Bartlett and explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson.  The latter purchased the Karluk, an ill-equipped brigantine, in order to explore the Beaufort Sea, and when the ship got stuck in the ice off northern Alaska, he headed to the mainland to hunt caribou, although there weren’t caribou in that part of Alaska.  The Karluk soon sank, with Bartlett playing Chopin’s “Funeral March” on a gramophone to accompany its demise.  After the crew and scientists ended up on Siberia’s Wrangel Island, Bartlett dogsledded to the mainland, then dog-sledded 700 miles to Komsomolskaya Bay, and then took a boat to Alaska.  Time passed.  One day a ship appeared off the shore of Wrangel Island.  The Karluk’s starving, emaciated, and bedraggled survivors were saved.

In Empire of Ice & Stone, author Buddy Levy takes on the Karluk story, and in order to learn about the expedition, he consulted journals, notebooks, logbooks, and various archives.  But rather than "just the facts, ma’am," he invents dialogue and his characters’ inmost thoughts.  He also keeps descriptions at a minimum, especially historical and geographical descriptions. Wrangel Island seems always to be “forbidding” and “craggy” or some variation thereof.  Levy writes that Nome, Alaska, was founded by the Norwegian Jafet Lindeberg, but not that Nome is a toponym named for several locales in Norway.  In the end, the book is like an adventure novel in which the reader eagerly turns the pages to find out who will freeze to death or starve to death next. 

And, as it happens, Buddy Levy didn’t visit any of the places in the book.  Thus he seldom sees the forest for the trees or, I should say, the dwarf shrubs.  In fact, he doesn’t see the dwarf shrubs, either.  For there’s no mention of the fact that Wrangel has a large number of endemic plants, some of which must have been good for foraging, as the island was probably the last refuge in the world for woolly mammoths (he doesn’t mention this, either).  One of the plants has a flower which brought hope to the Karluk’s despairing survivors.  Levy makes no attempt to identify the flower, only to say that it’s purple (it was probably purple saxifrage).  The survivors eat several polar bears, but there’s no reference to the fact that Wrangel has the largest density of denning polar bears of anywhere in the world.  Indeed, several of those survivors died not from eating tainted pemmican, as Levy suggests, but probably from trichinosis as a result of having eaten undercooked polar bear meat.  Yes, I know: the book is about an Arctic expedition, not the natural world.   But I dare say you can’t write about an expedition like this one without describing the environment where it takes place.  

What I’ve referred to in the previous paragraph is a common malady nowadays.  Authors who write books about the Arctic seem disinclined to go there.  Instead, they surf the web, read other books and texts, visit an archive or two, and voila! out comes their book.  Small wonder that words like “desolate,” “craggy,” “barren,” or “forbidding” are repeatedly used to describe Arctic habitats.  Here I should mention that the previous book about the Karluk expedition, Jennifer Niven’s The Ice Master, suffers from the same malady as Levy’s book.  Ms. Niven didn't' visit the Arctic herself until after her book was published, and this is obvious throughout her narrative.  Certain readers might argue that these books aren’t really about the Arctic, but about human survival.  To repeat myself, you can’t write about human survival without depicting the habitat where those humans are trying to survive.

Even so, Empire of Ice & Stone is a page turner.  Bartlett’s heroism is duly noted, as is Stefansson’s self-absorbed behavior.  But if you want to read a really good book about the Karluk expedition, you should procure a copy of William Laird McKinley’s The Last Voyage of the Karluk.  McKinley, otherwise known as “Wee Willie” (he was 5’4” tall), was one of the ship’s survivors as well as one of its scientists.  What he says about Captain Bartlett, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and his own vicissitudes on Wrangel Island rings powerfully with the truth.

Monday, January 2, 2023

The Last Speaker of Bear

The Last Speaker of Bear

by Lawrence Millman

San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2022

214 pp., $18.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

I first encountered Larry Millman -- by way of a printed page -- more than forty years ago on the shelves of a bookstore in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. The book was Our Like Will Not Be There Again: Notes from the West of Ireland; at the time, I was big on anything Irish, so I picked up the book almost without a thought. Reading it on my way home on the creaky cars of the Shaker Rapid, I was soon riveted: the narrative within was neither the "Romantic Ireland" that seems to live eternally (even though Yeats proclaimed it dead in 1913), but neither was it a mere travelogue of picturesque scenery and chatty publicans. It was more of a collection of characters, really, the plain (and not so plain) people of Ireland that he'd had chanced to meet as he tramped about. And what characters! -- among them a wandering minstrel who proclaims "After me, it'll be dead -- poetry, I mean." All of these encounters are framed by Millman's lively eye and ear, and and the end of the book I remember simply wishing there were more.

Since then, Millman has gone on to write a good long shelf-full of books, most of them connected with his wanderings in the North. In these, he has gathered yet more tales and their tellers, incorporating them into the larger fabric of his prose with the skill of a master weaver. He has long practiced his own wry art of juxtaposition, finding irony -- far more than three types of it -- in places where rugged individualists gather just outside the edges of our 'civilized' existence. In The Last Speaker of Bear, though, Millman adopts a slightly different tactic: here, the anecdotes are scattered, each on its own, without the connective tissue of a larger narrative. The result can be uneven in places; like gemstones pulled from their settings, not all of these tales have quite the same sparkle. Nevertheless, all are engaging, and quite a few shine brightly on their own, the title story among them.

This last speaker, we find, resides in Utshimassits, a since-abandoned Innu village about 200 miles north of Goose Bay in Labrador. The story goes that this elder was the lone remaining practitioner of polite conversation with bears, conducted just before a hunter kills one. It goes like this, as the hunter begins:

"My family is very hungry, Grandfather, so would it be okay if I kill you?"

"I don't mind if you kill me, but you'll have to smoke a pipe with me after you've done so."

This of course begs the question of how exactly one smokes a pipe with a dead bear, but apparently in the olden days the Innu even made special pipes just for this occasion. Unfortunately, as so often happens, poor weather unsuitable for small planes has delayed Millman's flight; the last speaker of bear has died the night before he arrives. His friend and informant, who'd told him of this man, explains that now, "we just kill bears," as he feels the few words he himself knows of the bear language are so meagre and poor that they would just be an insult to them.

It's a quintessential Larry story, as it's one that only could be told to him, and only he could tell -- his manner is impeccable, that of a raconteur's raconteur. But it's also, as are many of these tales, both funny and elegiac; it's not only speakers of bear, but ice, walrus, patrmigan, and seals that are growing scarcer, as global warming rejiggers the Northern ecosystem. At the same time, airplanes, cruise ships, and tourists -- that bane of Millman's world -- are becoming steadily more numerous.

But of course, when he wants, he can pass among them. One of my favorite stories in the book concerns an expedition cruise up the coast of Labrador on which Millman is serving as a shipboard lecturer. Hour after hour, day after day, the ice prevents the ship from anchoring for any landings, and the captain ends up continually shifting to a further goal, none of which are reached (this will be a scenario familiar to nearly anyone who's taken such a cruise). At last, even the point of disembarkation in Iqaluit becomes inaccessible, and the captain has to discharge his passengers at a distant landing, from which buses will take them back over the trackless tundra. Back in Iqaluit, Millman is approached by an old friend, who asks "So, the trip didn't go according to plan?" "Not at all," Larry replies, but with great enthusiasm. Because, for him, the travails, the detours, and the deferred plans are what it's all about. Like Chaucer's Wife of Bath, he knows a great deal about "wandering by the way," and we are all the richer for sharing in his journeys.

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.