Friday, October 20, 2023

Tracking the Franklin Expedition

Tracking the Franklin Expedition of 1845: The Facts and Mysteries of the Failed Northwest Passage Voyage

by Stephen Zorn

McFarland & Co., $39.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

The history of those who've written about about the Franklin expedition includes a long list of people who, while motivated by their fascination with the story, didn't "quit their day jobs." From Richard Cyriax (public health officer), to May Fluhmann (musician and telegraph operator), to Stephen J. Trafton (banker), most of those who have contributed to the larger story have been true amateurs -- that is, lovers of their subject -- rather than academically-trained historians.

To this list we can now add Stephen Zorn, a lawyer and journalist, as well as a former government official in Papua New Guinea. His book is different from most of its precursors, though, in that it does not propose any new single all-explaining theory of what happened -- on the contrary, it seeks rather to suss out the probable from the plausible, the established facts from the speculations, and (among the speculations) which stands on firmest ground.  Zorn bases his approach on what he calls a "quantum theory of history," one which readily allows that there are some uncertainties that simply can't be resolved. And, while I know of no Franklin-related mystery that is quite as uncertain as is Schrödinger's hypothetical cat (which is both alive and dead at the same time), it's a provocative model for an approach which takes uncertainty as a given, and resists (for the most part) the urge to hypothesize it away.

Zorn begins with the "known knowns" (a wry reference to the late Donald Rumsfeld's word salad about certainty), as good a brief summary of the whole Franklin mystery in a nutshell as any I've read. And then, one by one, it's on to a more detailed account of the same, giving important background on each figure in the expedition, and all that we know thanks to more than a century and a half of searching. He organizes the next few chapters around the classic cruxes: did Franklin consider sailing to the east of King William Island (or was he even aware that such a route existed); what routes Crozier considered as he reached his decision to desert the ships; whether or not they returned to them and when; and lastly the possible causes of their eventual demise. In that, I think that he's quite right that starvation and exhaustion, with a little help from their friends scurvy, lead poisoning (a factor certainly in the illness of some if not an all-encompassing explanation), along with exposure to the elements, were more than sufficient causes.

It's an excellent précis and guide to the full spectrum of the known unknowns of Franklin's last expedition, and it has the great advantage that it draws from and cites the large body of new work and understandings that has come from members of online communities such as the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group (also acknowledged in McGoogan's new book), as well as the latest archaeological and forensic studies. This makes it an excellent starting point for the newfound Franklinophile, to whom I would almost unreservedly recommend it.

My only caveat there is that, at several junctions in the narrative, Zorn goes out of his way to discredit Franklin personally, at one point referring to him as "the most lethal commanding officer in the history of the Royal Navy's Arctic service." He also asserts, quite incorrectly I feel, that Crozier's expressed reluctance to go to Erebus to dine with Sir John was a sign of personal animosity of some kind, and from which he also infers (again, incorrectly) that "Sir John was less than universally respected." The collected letters of the officers -- which Zorn draws from elsewhere -- clearly refute such a view; every single officer, and several other men of lower rank, speak with unstinting praise of his command, Crozier prominent among them. When, earlier in 1845, Crozier learned from James Clark Ross that he would most likely sail as second-in-command to someone else, he replied "I am quite ready to go second to our kind friend Sir John – with none else save and except yourself and Captain Parry would I go." There's nothing in any others of his letters to suggest that his view of Franklin changed.

Still, setting that issue aside, Zorn's book is in every other respect a breath of much-needed fresh air in a room in which sometimes, not out of ire but out of the great passion for the subject we Franklinites share, the discussions become too heated.

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