Saturday, June 6, 2009

Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation

Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation
by Andrew Lambert
London: Faber & Faber, 2009

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Andrew Lambert's Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation is the first new scholarly biography of Sir John Franklin in many years. How many? Well, it depends on how you count. Deadly Winter, Martyn Beardsley's 2002 biography, was more of a general-interest work, while John Wilson's lively 2001 volume, John Franklin: Traveller on Undiscovered Seas, was geared to younger readers. Before that, if one wanted a detailed biography by a naval historian one would have to reach back almost to Richard J. Cyriax's Sir John Franklin's Last Expedition in 1939. So there can be no doubt that the appearance of Lambert's study is an occasion for celebration among all with an interest in the strange fate of this unhappy navigator.

And yet, as Franklin has come to mean so many things for so many people, it might be wise to say at the outset what this book is not. It is not a psychological study; those looking for insights into Franklin's character would be far better served by Beardsley's book. It is not, in fact, a summa of Franklin's entire career; for that, one would have to reach back to G.F. Lamb's Franklin - Happy Voyager from 1956. Like Cyriax, Lambert's real subject is Franklin's last expedition, and his great aim is to set that event in the richest possible naval and historical context. As such, Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation is a resounding success, easily the most comprehensive and authoritative account we have of the reasons why this man did, and died.

(For those who may resent my pun on Tennyson, who was Sir John's cousin, I would only add that it was -- of all people -- Lady Jane Franklin who caused 10,000 copies of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" to be distributed to soldiers in the Crimea).

Lambert's labor is to give his readers the fullest possible account of the motivations of those who sent Franklin and his men to what turned out to be their demise. In order to do this, he seems to feel, he must take away the popular notion that the Franklin Expedition sailed in order to complete the "Arctic Grail" of the Northwest Passage, and give us instead an account of Franklin as scientist-in-chief of a great voyage of magnetic and geographical observation. The correction, like that for the declination of the compass, is a vital one, and yet in his effort to re-orient our gaze Lambert, in my view, risks distorting the reader's perspective in the opposite direction.

In his strongest declaration, on page 167, he goes so far as to say that "the Victorians were not so foolhardy as to risk two ships and 129 men in pursuit of a geographical curiosity of no practical utility. Instead, [Franklin's] expedition was designed to address a high-profile scientific agenda, and the decision to send him was driven by the political power of organised science." There's certainly no doubt that a scientific imperative, driven (as Lambert vividly recounts) by the Humboldtian quest for the mapping of terrestrial magnetism, was a key factor in getting the necessary government support. But to say that the Victorians were uninterested in geographical accomplishments "of no practical utility" is to distort the political and public sense, driven home over the years by men such as Sir John Barrow, that it was precisely the useless things that mattered. After all, had not Sir John Ross, testifying before a Parliamentary committee in 1834, declared that the Northwest Passage, even if obtained, would be "absolutely useless"? And had not Barrow, in his last and most emphatic defense of the quest for the Passage, rejected the utilitarian view, declaring that "it must be a very narrow spirit and view of the subject which can raise the cry of "Cui bono?" and counsel us to relinquish the honor and peril of such enterprises?"

The divergence between the reasons necessary to justify an undertaking on purely scientific grounds, and those vital to capturing the public imagination, is a persistent one. In response to those who questioned why the United States needed to despatch a man to the surface of Earth's Moon before the Soviets could do so, many an otherwise calm and rational man fell back upon disquisitions about Tang, "space food sticks," and improvements to onboard telemetry. Truth be told, while all of these things had some significant practical value, if their practical value alone had been the only argument, the mission to the Moon would never have been undertaken. Just so, while from a scientific view the "Passage" as such was a nil value, whereas magnetic data obtained near the Pole was worth its weight in scientific gold, such marvelous observations would not have been possible without the public's passion for a national achievement, even and especially one of so little immediate use that only the greatest nations dared undertake it.

So let us simply say that, while that the urge to obtain newly accurate magnetic observations near the North Magnetic Pole was indeed a vital impetus for Franklin's mission, that mission would have never have received Government backing had it not "piggybacked" upon the public's passion for the elusive laurels of the Passage. We need not lessen one achievement by disparaging the allotment of the other. Indeed, Roald Amundsen, who eventually achieved this long-sought goal, was only able to justify his undertaking by making similar protestations that magnetic observations were his chief object. Let us look kindly upon such claims, accepting the boon to science while permitting some degree of adulation for the accomplishment of a useless, yet widely lauded goal.

But back to Lambert's study. He skims over Franklin's earlier expeditions, allotting only a few pages apiece to his voyage under Buchan to Spitsbergen, and his first and second land expeditions. Franklin's time in Tasmania receives more substantial coverage, and rightly so, as it was there, on the colonial frontier, that Franklin was able to take up the mantle of the prime intellectual magnate. Through his, and through Jane's, public foundations, journals, and societies, they laid the foundation of an enlightened country far before -- as it turned out -- the country was ready for them. Nevertheless, it was a grand period, and never more so than when Sir James Clark Ross and Francis Crozier sojourned in Hobart Town. Lambert passes quickly over the dress balls with their famous mirrors, and gives us in their place a contrasting portrait of a Franklin, more Benjamin than John in his inclinations, supporting and encouraging vital magnetic and geological observations.

The buildup to the great undertaking is aptly handled by Lambert, who gives a vivid account of the machinations by which Franklin won the command, as the great gears and cogs of science rotated their contributions into place. As he notes pointedly, on 12 July 1845, as the last parcels of mail headed south, the inner thoughts of Franklin, along with all of his men, passed forever out of direct knowledge, and all the rest is speculation. And yet, in its place, the drama of the search for Franklin soon engaged more men, more resources, and more ships than anything conceived of in Franklin's original orders. Lambert proves a capable chronicler of the Franklin search, and while he does not add a great deal of new insight to our understanding of it, he keeps the drama vividly alive, and sprinkles the salt of lesser-known facts which keep the matter savory.

When it comes, though, to the "last resource" and other events which depend on a complex, ambiguous, and permanently incomplete assortment of Inuit testimony, archaeological finds, and grand conjectures, Lambert remains -- resolutely though frustratingly -- aloof. I'm relieved that, unlike Beardsley, he accepts it as established that cannibalism occurred among some groups of survivors; the preponderance of the forensic and historical evidence leaves no room for comfort here. Nevertheless, he follows Beardsley in setting aside any detailed analysis of this same evidence, leaving his readers with a similar sense that, if they wish to know more, they will have to turn to Woodman, Loomis, Eber, and others. While I respect Lambert's sense of integrity in drawing his limits, I still regret that his study declines to offer what I'm sure would have been his sensible overview of what, by patient inquiry, has at least so far been learned.

The remainder of Lambert's study is largely memorial, in the sense that it traces the evolution of Franklin's reputation in the world he had long since left. His section "Brazen lies" offers an observant and detailed account of Lady Franklin's attempts to secure her husband's posthumous reputation. And yes (how) does that brass lie? The line from Richardson is one of contention: "they forged the last link with their lives." And yet the Inuit testimony of their encounter with Franklin's men at Washington Bay, on whose southern edge Simpson's cairn had been erected -- testimony which Lambert elsewhere accepts -- corroborates this very line. It is strange indeed that Lambert, and -- more notably in the press -- Inuit politician Tagak Curley -- have taken to calling this line a lie. It seems as though Lambert wants it both ways; he desires to free Franklin of falsely-flaunted explorer's laurels while re-crowning him with Science -- and yet at the same time loudly proclaims that the statue on Waterloo Place has feet of clay.

Yet the end, I must say, I remain an admirer of this well-written, challenging, and thoughtful book. It is not precisely a biography, and it has less of social and literary context than I should have liked -- but it is an ardent, energetic volume which does much to correct and balance the historical record. It rewards its readers with a new sense of the substance of the man and his mission, and while it only pauses to observe a few of the many cultural monuments he left in his wake, it restores to us a man who, whatever fancies have kept him in the public's mind since, had an eminently practical and valuable career in the eyes of his Victorian compeers.

SPECIAL FEATURE: Check out our interview with Andrew Lambert.


  1. Thanks for the review. This text is definitely on my list. Any idea yet when it might be available in Canada or even the US? Do you know who will be publishing it in Canada?

    Also, can you tell me where the Barrow quotation - "it must be a very narrow spirit and view of the subject which can raise the cry of "Cui bono?" and counsel us to relinquish the honor and peril of such enterprises?" - is sourced from?

    Thank you.

  2. The book will be out on September 8th in the US and Canada from Yale University Press. The title is slightly altered: The Gates of Hell: Sir John Franklin's Tragic Quest for the Northwest Passage. It's a bit ironic, given Lambert's claim that Franklin's prime goal was not the Northwest Passage, but it's got a bit more panache, and a redesigned cover.

    The Barrow quote is from his Voyages of Discovery Within the Arctic Regions from the year 1818 to the Present Time (London 1846) on page 11.

  3. Thanks for a very interesting review.

    Does this book touch on what, if anything, was learned from the discovery of Franklin burial sites and the young man whose corpse provided a chance at the flu virus of the 1918 pandemic?