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.
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).