Tuesday, 25 November 2014


It's fascinating how prevalent social media has become in the academic and business worlds.  Social media, it seems, is no longer just social.  I suppose that's inevitable really because, whether at work or play, Man is a social animal and we are all more productive as teams rather than as individuals.

I mention this because in the context of the Franklin Expedition the group on Facebook: "Remembering the Franklin Expedition" has become ubiquitous.  I will continue to blog here and the blog format is really excellent for thought pieces.  But I would recommend that anyone who follows my blog and is interested in the fate of the Franklin Expedition should also seek out 'Remembering the Franklin Expedition" and join it.

Franklin aficionados in Britain will already be aware no doubt that the British Library is hosting the special lecture by Parks Canada on Monday 1 December entitled 'The Search for Franklin's Lost Ships' to coincide with their exhibition ‘Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage’ which runs from 14 November 2014 to 29 March 2015.  I'm looking forward to that very much (although the pedant in me notes the inaccuracy in the lecture title, given that the location of HMS Erebus is now known).  I will write up my considered impressions for the blog for anyone who wants to read them, but I would expect Facebook to give internet users a much more immediate, albeit perhaps more disjointed, impression of the event.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

A first attempt to collate evidence from the Franklin Expedition ship with other evidence

Like many people who have followed the Franklin saga, I am still reeling over the extent of Parks Canada’s achievement in finding one of the Expedition’s ships.

Today I’ve done some thinking on how to collate the Inuit accounts of the ship with the new find.  I’ve been doing this by reading of those two invaluable books: “Unravelling the Franklin Expedition” by Dave Woodman and “Encounters on the Passage” by Dorothy Harley Eber.  It seems pretty clear that this was the ship which the Inuit visited, and this also tallies precisely with the finds we have from other sources which can be linked to it. What is also interesting is that by collating this evidence we may be able to learn more.  For example, and quite astonishingly, this quick assessment suggests that William Closson and William Wentzel might have been two of the sailors who sailed this ship to its present location!  This deduction may prove to be a fallacy, but is an example of how new insights may emerge from blending old and new evidence.

McClintock heard all about this ship. He was told specifically that it was driven ashore on ‘Oot-loo-lik’.  He thought that meant the west coast of King William Island so he searched for it there very carefully indeed.  This search produced the Victory Point note and the famous ‘boat place’, but no ship.  We now know that McClintock was wrong and that Oot-loo-lik meant the west coast of Adelaide Peninsular, which is exactly where this ship has now been found.  (And not, I understand, at Hat Island which is where first reports had suggested.)

Hall, Schwatka and Rasmussen were all given further information about this ship.  You can read the full accounts in Eber and Woodman, but to summarise: the ship was seen by the Inuit while they were out sealing, but they were afraid to approach it.  For how long we might wonder?  We don’t know.  None of their accounts record meeting any men alive on this ship, so it seems likely they stayed out of contact while they thought any potentially armed Franklin men might be living on the ship. Schwatka’s informant Puhtoorak said he had only ventured on board ‘when his people saw the ship so long without anyone around it’. McClintock says there was ‘some laughter’ when he asked for details about the ship and a reference to fire which his interpreter did not understand, or perhaps chose not to translate.  Perhaps this was a reference to smoke coming from the ship - either its galley or heating system, or even its engine? 

Hall was told that the ship was covered over with its awning and Schwatka was told something about canvas which he took to mean that the ship had some of its sails set.  This sounds unlikely. Pushtoorek said the ship was covered in snow when he entered it with scrapings and sweepings alongside.  To me this sounds as though the ship had had its canvas awning fitted, although maybe later it blew away, and that men had lived on board it for some time with our Inuit witnesses only boarding after the ship had been abandoned. 

Hall was told that Nuk-kee-che-uk was the first Inuuk to enter the ship, having seen it first while sealing with a number of Ook-joo-lik Inuit.  He visited alone ‘and saw nobody’ so went back to tell the rest of the band, who all then entered the ship.  This all suggested they waited until they were sure the ship was abandoned before they boarded.  On it were ‘a good deal’ of things.  Schwatka met Pushtooraak, who said that he had been on board the ship to recover ‘wood and iron’.  They found many empty red cans of meat (the Expedition’s meat cans were painted red) with four still unopened and saw guns, ‘plenty of knives, forks, spoons, pans, cups and plates’ and also books, which they left.

In May, 1859 McClintock bought selected materials from Inuit which he was told had come from this ship.  Some of these are in the National Maritime Museum’s collection.  It’s instructive to look at what he bought on 3rd May, 1859 from Inuit people he met near Cape Victoria on the Boothia Peninsular:

·         AAA2090.1 and AAA2090.2, two plain metal buttons with shanks.

·         AAA2094, a thin piece of curved metal plate with embossed decoration, pierced at one end with cotton fibres attached.

·         AAA2095, a file blade without a handle.

·         AAA2104, a triangular steel knife blade with two reinforcing plates attached which retain one copper and two steel rivets.

·         AAA2108, one of a number of arrows made using copper heads with long shanks lashed to a wooden shaft.

·         AAA2096, a broken file blade mounted it in an Inuit-manufactured bone handle.

·         AAA2103, AAA2099, AAA2102, AAA2097, AAA2100, five of the 'seven knives made by the natives out of materials obtained from the last expedition… either of iron or steel, riveted to two strips of hoop, between which the handle of wood is inserted, and rivets passed through securing them together. The rivets are almost all made out of copper nails, such as would be found on a copper-fastened boat, but those which have been examined do not bear the Government mark'.

·         AAA2477, a silver, fiddle-pattern table fork once owned by Sir John Franklin and bearing his family crest.  As it has 'W C' scratched on the back, it seems to have been reused by William Closson, Able Seaman HMS 'Erebus'.

On 7th May, 1859, MClintock bought some further items which, again, he was told had come from the same ship:

·         AAA2111, a broken steel razor by Millikin (a firm which made medical equipment) which had been reused by being mounted in a bone handle.  What the NMM claim are ‘Illegible letters’ are engraved on the handle and it would be VERY helpful if the NMM were to read these ‘illegible letters’ as we might presume they would identify the man who made this knife, quite possibly on board the missing ship.

·         AAA2480, a silver, fiddle-pattern table fork owned by Sir John Franklin and bearing his family crest. 

·         AAA2479, a silver, fiddle-pattern tablespoon which had been owned by Sir John Franklin and which bears his family crest. It bears a ‘W.W’ roughly scratched on the back and front of the handle. Those are the initials of Wiiliam Wentzell, an Able Seaman on HMS 'Terror'.

The material McClintock bought is all readily portable and exactly matches the goods which our Inuit sources say they recovered from it.  It’s very interesting how closely these tally.  Possibly William Wentzel, William Closson and the man who carved the ‘illegible letters’ on his knife were among the last survivors living on this ship?

Hall, McClintock and Schwatka were all told that a 'dead white man' was found on the ship.  All agreed that he was large.  Koo-nik told Hall that this man’s body was partially decomposed ‘smelt very bad’ and that his body was lying on the floor in a locked cabin. That’s my interpretation of what she told Hall, that the Inuit ‘broke into a place that was fastened up and there found a very large white man who was dead’.  The same basic story was told to McClintock also.

At some point later the Inuit returned to find that the ship had sunk with only her masts visible above sea-level.  If the ship which has been found had its masts set when it sank, then it looks as though their tips would have been visible while they remained erected.  So this tallies.  The loss of the ship was clearly a shock to the Inuit as it largely cut them off from the valuable materials contained within.  Persistently the accounts blame the Inuit who visited the ship for ‘breaking a hole’ in it, so that when the ice holding the ship afloat melted it sank.  This has always seemed rather unlikely – the ships were so stoutly constructed you would need very substantial tools to cut a hole in their hulls. When we look at the images Parks Canada has released we can see that the ship has huge damage to its stern – which is basically missing.  That damage must have been caused by ice, but perhaps it was how the Inuit gained access to the ship.  If men of the Expedition were living on the ship at the time, they would have known that damage of this magnitude meant they had to abandon ship and seek salvation by the ship's boats or land.  So as well as being the entry point for the Inuit, it looks like this damage was the trigger for the last men to abandon the ship, as they would know that once the ice melted it would sink. 

So why did the Inuit blame themselves (or each other?) for damaging the ship so badly that they were responsible for its sinking?  Perhaps the story of the breaking of the interior door into the cabin containing the corpse grew with the telling, and later this action was blamed at second hand for causing the damage which sank the ship. 

There is a similar consistency in the accounts of sightings of men from this ship ashore hunting.  The stories describe three men and a dog, and it is intriguing that the Expedition took a Newfoundland dog named Neptune with them.  Newfoundlands (sadly) don't live to be very old, but if 'Nep' had been one when the Expedition sailed he could still have been an active dog six or seven years later.  It seems highly significant that he WAS alive at this point - starving men don't keep a dog for very long...  Given the remarkable consistency of what our Inuit witnesses said they saw with the finds McClintock recovered and the evidence from the ship today, there is no reason to doubt them and you can find detailed accounts of these sightings in Woodman, Eber and elsewhere.  Of course it doesn’t mean that ONLY three men survived on the ship – this was, we are told, a hunting party which leaves open the prospect of other men remaining on the ship.

Perhaps I am being na├»ve, but to me the evidence that the ship was ‘housed’ with its awning, coal or wood was burned and hunting parties sent out from it, which included a domestic dog, suggests that the party on board the ship was in some reasonable order, at least when it first arrived.  Provisioning by hunting, sealing and fishing must always have been hard, but the men who survived would have become proficient and, of course, there would be fewer mouths to feed as time passed.  Perhaps this ship arrived at its anchorage in reasonable order and the final blow, which forced the men to abandon it and seek salvation ashore, was the ice damage to the stern and the side of the ship which we see in the images released by Parks Canada.
I am sure that much more evidence will emerge in due course and existing finds and accounts will have to be re-assessed in much more detail than in this brief account.  However, this is my first 'stab' at assimilating what we have learned.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Perceptive interview with David Woodman

Here is a very insightful commentary by David Woodman. He is vindicated to a huge extent by the recent find of the Franklin ship.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Franklin ship found

And here is the news which the world has waited for since 1848 - the finding of one of Franklin's ships. 

Today’s announcement by Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, that Parks Canada have located one of the ships of Sir John Franklin’s lost Expedition on the bed of Victory Strait, is the biggest archaeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb almost 100 years ago.                                                                                                                

The whole world owes a debt of thanks to the Canadian Government and Parks Canada for leading this search, and to the Inuit people of Nunavut who tried to help Franklin’s men and who faithfully kept alive their memories of the tragedy.  From the images it is clear that a huge amount of evidence will be preserved from the Expedition, possibly even including the remains of the men and maybe, just possibly, some of their photographs.  Preserving the wreck and recovering the evidence will be a painstaking and difficult task which will take many years.  But today we should remember the loss of those men and rejoice that throughout the 170 years since they sailed the world never entirely forgot them and that the people of Nunavut and Canada have made this astonishing news possible.
I am sure much more will be released about the ship in the next few days but it is already clear that much of it has survived.  In the years to come as researchers investigate it and recover what evidence they can from it I am sure our understanding of what happened to Franklin and his men will be revolutionised.
And in the excitement, let us just spare a moment, and perhaps a prayer, for the men who died and whose frozen watery tomb this is, and for their loved ones, every single one of whom lived out their days and died without ever knowing what happened to their menfolk.

Pieces of Franklin Expedition ships found

Now here's some really significant news. 

CBC tell us that a team led by Doug Stenton, the Director, Heritage at the Government of Nunavut, has found what looks like two pieces of debris from either HMS Erebus or HMS Terror.  One piece is apparently the iron fitting from a davit, the mechanism used for lifting ships' boats in and out of the ship, and the other described as 'possibly a plug for a deck hawse, the iron pipe through which the ship’s chain cable would descend into the chain locker below'.  These finds were made close to the shoreline on Hat Island, which is located here.  You can see CBC's report here.

This is highly significance because, while perhaps thousands of relics from the Franklin Expedition have been found since people started searched for the ships and their men back in 1848, almost everything is material which the men carried themselves - not part of the ships.  So if you look at the National Maritime Museum collection of Franklin Expedition remains, which must be the largest in the world, it's a bewildering range of material from clothes to spectacles to guns - all poignant and having personal associations with the lost men - but not a single item was directly part of the fabric of the lost ships. 

So remains of the Erebus and Terror themselves are extremely rare.  I am only aware of three earlier finds of material which we can reasonably have formed part of the ships: 
  • On 20th August, 1851, when the great Dr. John Rae was exploring the Victoria Strait coastline of Victoria Island, he found a piece of pine wood 'resembling the butt-end of a small flag-staff' which had white rope attached to it by two copper nails.  The wood was marked with the 'broad arrow' and the rope contained a red worsted thread.  Both of these were marks which the British government used (and in the case of the 'broad arrow', still uses) to mark its property.  Half a mile further on Rae found a 3' 8" piece of oak, partly squared, which he interpreted as a ship's stanchion.  It is interested that Rae reported the rope as being nailed to the staff.  Nailing a flag to the mast is typically an act of defiance on going in to battle to ensure that the flag cannot be lowered.  Had Franklin's men nailed their colours to the masts when they 'deserted' the Erebus and the Terror?
  • Two years later a party from HMS Enterprise under Captain Collinson found two apparently more substantial pieces of fragmented wood in the same area, apparently on the coast of Victoria Island.  Both had on them the 'broad arrow', and they were interpreted to be two pieces of a broken door frame or hatchway from a Royal Navy ship. One piece even had on it the remains of the latch.  The pieces were apparently brought back to Britain although they seem now to have been lost.  As with Rae's find, it's difficult to account for these unless they had formed part of the Erebus or Terror.
  • In 1954 Paul Cooper found a 7.5 cm thick piece of pine planking on the coast of King William Island, of exactly the type use in the decking of the Erebus and Terror.  This is held in the collection of the Canadian Museum of History - details here.
And now Doug Stenton's team have made what looks like the fourth find of material directly from the Erebus or the Terror - a huge achievement. 

What might we learn from these remains?  With the possible exception of the door frame, all these fragments come from the upper works or external parts of the ship or ships.  Presumably these scraps were part of the debris left on the surface of the ice after one of the ships was crushed and sank under the ice, taking its more substantial components down to the seabed.  It's interesting also that these remains are so widely dispersed.  What might their locations tell us about where the ship or ships went down?  My 'back of the envelope' estimate from google earth places Hat Island at least sixty nautical miles away from the likely location of the Collinson and Rae finds and perhaps eighty nautical miles from Franklin Point.  So we now have four sites where ships' remains have been found, forming a triangle roughly 60 by 80 nautical miles.  For someone who understands the pattern of ice flows and currents in that part of the world, this triangle must help narrow down the position where at least one of the ships sank. 

Friday, 17 January 2014

Ottawa Life article

This presents a very clear explanation of the recent Millar, Bowman and Battersby paper.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Millar, Bowman and Battersby - reassessing the evidence for lead poisoning on the Franklin Expedition

Things have been a little quiet on the ‘Franklin front’ lately.  Parks Canada has completed another year of valuable work, but without finding either ship. Little new evidence has emerged but here’s something I hope readers find interesting - an attempt to reassess an important part of the evidence we DO have relating to the Franklin Expedition.

All my adult life it has been axiomatic that the Expedition was brought low by lead poisoning.  Indeed my own initial research into the Expedition was an attempt to find an alternative source for lead poisoning other than from tinned food, BASED ON THIS ASSUMPTION which I took as a fact.

Enter Keith Millar.  I first met Keith about a year ago although we had corresponded and spoken on the phone for longer.  Keith is Professor of Medical Psychology in the Medical School at Glasgow University and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Health and Wellbeing. He is ideally qualified to assess the medical background of the men Franklin Expedition.  Like so many of us he has caught the ‘Franklin bug’ and become fascinated by trying to unpick the mystery of what happened to those ships and men.  His idea was to look again at what the evidence for lead poisoning actually is, and then to see how it compares with people today who live with a high exposure to lead. Keith realised that this would involve very careful assessment of what might be quite sparse data and invited as co-author his eminent colleague from Glasgow University, Adrian Bowman, who is Professor and Head of Statistics in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at Glasgow University.  The results of this work has been published in ‘Polar Record’ and the link to the paper is here.

So what does the paper say?

It surprised me when Keith dug into the evidence to find that there is a lot less than I had thought.  I knew the three men buried at King William Island had been found to have lead in their hair, bone and soft tissue.  But it turns out that the bones recovered from King William Island, and analysed for lead, represent many fewer individuals than I had realised – perhaps as few as seven men.  Ten men still represent a reasonable sample of those who died on the Expedition, but it is a smaller sample than I had realised.

Another point was a bit of an eye-opener to me.  I’ve always know that lead poisons you when it is in your bloodstream and soft tissue, and not in your bones.  I’d understood from Beattie and Geiger’s ‘Frozen in Time’ that the soft tissue and hair samples taken from the Beechey Island bodies proved that lead poisoning there had been ‘catastrophic’ for the men.  But Keith’s careful assessment of their actual raw data shows that the evidence for this is less clear, and a lot less certain, than I had previously understood. 

Although less extensive and compelling than I had realised, there IS evidence for both a short term (from hair and soft tissue) and a long term (in bone) exposure to lead.  But how much of this lead uptake took place on the Expedition and how much was in the men before they left England? The problem with answering this question is that Keith could find no practical control population to compare the Franklin bones with, so we really can’t be sure.  So if the Franklin men were ‘zombified’ with lead (an allegation I have seen) then who is to say that my great-great grandparents, and the rest of the population living in England then, weren’t 'zombified' as well? We know Victorian society was intimately exposed to lead – in pipes, wallpaper, toys, make-up, etc.  The problem is that until someone can come up with control samples, we simply don’t know whether Franklin’s men had any more lead in them that the rest of the population.

So what can the evidence we DO have tell us? What Keith does is ‘maps’ the evidence for lead in the men’s bones which IS secure against similar hard evidence from people alive today who we know have been heavily exposed to lead.  This is where Adrian Bowman comes in with his painstaking analysis of this data. 

Keith used data for the amount of lead in the men’s tibias (shinbones) because this can be compared with statistics for tibia-lead in present day populations.  But the tibias of the three men who were buried on Beechey Island were not sampled, and we only actually have four tibia samples from King William Island.  As I said before, when we get down to serious analysis we find we have much less evidence that we thought.  Any results must be fairly tentative because they are based on a small sample.  If just one more tibia of a Franklin sailor was to be found and analysed, it would increase the size of the sample by 25%!
Adrian was able to ‘map’ the distribution of these four men’s samples against five comparable studies of present day people which Keith was able to locate. Keith as a clinician is ideally placed to interpret this.  He reads this evidence as suggesting that there was probably quite a wide variation both in the men’s exposure to lead and in the effect it had on them.  Some of the men may have been affected to the point of being declared sick, yet others almost certainly experienced absolutely no ill effects at all. 

That may sound like a fairly limited conclusion but I actually think it is extremely important.  This paper shows that to conclude that the men of the Erebus and Terror were ‘zombified’ by lead poisoning is completely untenable – the evidence does not exist.  Similarly the suggestion that their officers’ decision making abilities must have been impaired by lead poisoning – something I have seen quite often stated as a fact - is equally untenable.  It MIGHT have happened, but there is no clear proof. Because we have no ‘control’ data, and we now know that the ships were equipped and provisioned no differently from other ships of the time, we have no evidence that lead was any more of a problem on this voyage than on others.  No one says that the crew of the Investigator were ‘zombified’ by lead, or that Robert McClure’s decision making was impaired by lead. Yet McClure and his men could well have operated with exactly the same lead in them that Franklin’s men had. 

And the experience of the Investigator is also salutary in another respect.  Their ship was beset with just as much finality as the Erebus and Terror, and it was only with the most remarkable luck that the men were rescued.  Luck, in other words, played a more important role in their fate than lead.  It seems likely that ice and weather conditions at the time of the Franklin Expedition were especially challenging. This is something which is discussed in a very interesting 1985 paper "Arctic Climate during the Franklin era" by Alt, Koerner, Fisher and Bourgeois which Keith drew my attention to recently. The Franklin Expedition had no ability to forecast weather or ice conditions and such factors were completely outside their control.  Perhaps if they had had the luck of McClure some of them might just have made it though the North West Passage? Maybe emerging in their boats as Sir John Ross had done in 1833, and as some of Franklin's officers suspected they would, too, before they even sailed from Greenhithe!  Again, this is a matter of luck rather than lead. 

The basic problem, and the basic mystery, of Franklin’s Expedition is that no one lived to tell the tale, and none of their written records have survived to be read. So we simply don’t know what happened. The whole ‘lead’ saga is a valiant effort to extract as much knowledge as we can from very little evidence.  Probably in the past we have all been guilty (me as much as anyone) of trying to squeeze more information from the limited evidence that we have than is justified. So until we can read more of what the men wrote (more about that in a future post), or until Parks Canada can locate a ship, we will probably have to resist the temptation to over-interpret such limited data.