Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Searching for Franklin

Searching for Franklin: New Answers to the Great Arctic Mystery

By Ken McGoogan

Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre

$38.95 CAD

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Readers of the Arctic Book Review will be familiar with Ken McGoogan's many books that touch upon aspects of the Franklin expedition, perhaps most notably with Fatal Passage, a book which singlehandedly revived the reputation of Dr. John Rae, the brilliant Scottish surveyor and explorer who discovered the first direct evidence of Franklin's fate. Since then, both with Lady Franklin's Revenge and Dead Reckoning, McGoogan has greatly expanded our understanding not only of some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering behind the heroic veneer of exploration, but also of the significant and lasting role of Indigenous peoples as guides and explorers in their own right.

So it would be an understatement to say that Searching for Franklin has been keenly anticipated by all who have taken an interest in the many and varied aspects of that famously lost explorer, the present reviewer among them. The approach of the book is somewhat different from what I'd initially expected, but by the end it succeeds in offering compelling new insights into the mindset of Franklin and other explorers of his era, along with a suggestive hypothesis as to the demise of his final expedition.

The book opens in conversation between McGoogan and Louie Kamookak, the late Inuit historian and friend to both of us, as well as to many others who went to King William Island in search of insight into the fate of Franklin and his men. It's great to hear Louie's voice again, resonating with that of his people and their ancestors, and lively with an often-humorous irony about the assumptions and obsessions of the various "Franklinites" he'd met through the years.

From there, we proceed to a lively retelling of events from Franklin's departure in 1845 through to Rae's and McClintock's discovery of what were to be, for a time, the final known traces of his lost men; it's a story that will be familiar to readers of McGoogan's earlier books. This sets the scene for the central portion of the book, which focuses not on Franklin's last command but his first, the Coppermine Expedition of 1819-22. The main theme here is of Franklin as 'the man who wouldn't listen' -- at least when it came to advice from his Dene guides -- which is surely a fair criticism. Of course, Franklin's deafness was not his alone; the entire apparatus of the British Admiralty and the Empire in general was quite hard of hearing when it came to Indigenous voices and knowledge.

The following chapters touch on several sundry aspects of the Franklin mystery, from the box dug up from under the Paddy Gibson memorial in Gjoa Haven (which some believed held Franklin records, but turned out to be full of sand), some chapters from the peculiar career of Franklin searcher Charles Francis Hall, and then finally to the discoveries of Franklin's ships in 2014 and 2016. After a brief detour to Jens Munk ('the second-worst disaster' of Arctic expeditions), we return to the Coppermine expedition and its key figures, particularly the Dene leader Akaitcho. Franklin, of course, comes off none to well in these histories -- I'm reminded of why, in his novel A Discovery of Strangers, Rudy Weibe has the Dene give Franklin the nickname "Thick English" -- but it was a bit frustrating as a reader to see so many of the remaining pages turn without a return to the story of the 1845 expedition.

It's just then, though, that McGoogan offers his own theory as to the surprising loss from among their numbers that clearly affected Franklin's men in their icebound ships: that eating improperly-prepared polar bear meat led directly to their death and disappearance. While it's entirely plausible, there's no direct evidence of the expedition having killed or eaten a bear --- indeed, they seemed poorly equipped for hunting of any kind. McGoogan cites an example of a bear killed by Akaitcho and eaten by Franklin's men in 1821; the Dene themselves did not eat bear meat. And yet the Inuit certainly do, and have for millennia; I've enjoyed it myself at a community feast in Clyde River. As long as the meat is well-cooked, the risk of trichinosis is relatively low, though of course one can't eliminate it entirely.

In his concluding chapter, McGoogan offers a sharp rebuttal to those who have, over the intervening years and today, hailed Franklin as a polar hero. He certainly had his flaws and limitations -- but then so do most "heroes" when you look closely at them. His sins seem in large part to be the common ones that nearly all Royal Navy commanders shared, among them insufficient trust in Indigenous knowledge, while his merits -- such as the love and loyalty he inspired in his men -- were his own. That said, I'm sure his reputation can stand a little correction; as Margaret Atwood once wryly observed (in a quote mentioned in the book), "every age has created a Franklin suitable to its needs." Perhaps this is the one for ours; only time will tell.


  1. Thanks for a clear review. Ken M. will be speaking later this month at the Vancouver Maritime Museum on his book tour; I look forward to hearing him in person. It is time for a Munk study; Thorkild Hansen's 50 year old "docudrama" is very much sui generis.

  2. I disagree with your statement that the risk of trichonosis from eating polar bear meat is relatively low. I read the article attached to the link, and it says that Inuit did not contract trichinosis because they ate only polar bear meat that had been well cooked. It then brushes off the possibility of non-native people contracting it by saying they usually had limited or no access to it. Fair enough. But that fudges the question. What happened when they (non-natives) did have access to it? If they ate under dire circumstances, such as when they were starving, they probably did not have the luxury of cooking it well. And that is the reason why they could contract trichinosis. It has been pretty well accepted that Jens Munk’s men died from trichinosis. The German ornithologist Bernard Hantzsch also is assumed to have died from trichinosis on the shores of Foxe Basin in 1910. His diary makes it clear that his health deteriorated after eating polar bear meat. Ironically it saved him from starvation so that he could die of trichinosis. I like Ken’s trichinosis suggestion. It makes sense to me. Of course, it cannot be proven, at least with what we now know. But it certainly has the ring of plausibility.

    -- Kenn Harper

    1. Fair points, Kenn. I do think that Franklin's men would have cooked any meat they had if the had the means -- in one part of the Inuit testimony, after seal meat and blubber were traded for a knife, the Inuit reported that the men "cooked the seal with the aid of the blubber" -- wasting precious calories just to cook meat! That said, if it were at some last desperate place, a party of survivors might well have tried to eat uncooked meat -- but as you say, it can't (yet) be proven.

  3. I don't think trichinosis on Munk's expedition is at all well established, though many writers have assumed it as the cause. The only bear mentioned in Navigatio Septentrionalis (our only source) had been killed on 12 September 1619 and eaten over the following days. Untreated trichinosis is usually fatal within four to six weeks, and since even the first death did not occur until 8 January 1620 -- more than twelve weeks after that bear was eaten -- the connection seems improbable (especially since no developing malaise among the crew is mentioned before the new year). It’s possible that other bears had been shot and eaten later that Munk doesn’t mention, but he seems to have regarded large game as worth recording (a beluga had been killed the day before the bear) so it seems unlikely others killed over the next three months went unmentioned, particularly since he had, frankly, little else to write about.