From Heroic Disaster to Simple Heroism–the Uses of the Franklin Expedition

Franklin Expedition End

On the morning of May 19, 1845, two British vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, left Greenhithe, England. Commanded by Sir John Franklin, their mission consisted of finding the Northwest Passage. The expedition was last seen by Europeans in July 1845 when crews on two British whalers encountered HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in Baffin Bay, near the southwest coast of Greenland. After that point, the expedition disappeared. By 1848, the Admiralty, which had heard nothing from the expedition for several years, began organizing search parties to find Franklin’s men and ships. The mystery of the expedition’s fate seized the British imagination. As years went by, various search parties, explorers, and scientists found clues that hinted at the expedition’s end. In 1854 John Rae, who was surveying the Boothia Peninsula for the Hudson’s Bay Company, encountered some Inuit people who told him about a group of white men who had starved to death near the mouth of the Back River. The Inuit showed him several objects that had clearly belonged to the expedition. In 1859, the Fox expedition, commissioned by Franklin’s wife and led by Francis Leopold McClintock, discovered a cairn on King William Island that contained two messages written on a single sheet of paper. The first, dated May 1847, indicated that HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had wintered in the ice off King William Island and that all was well. The second, dated April 1848, explained that the crews had abandoned their ice-bound ships only several days before and were headed to the Back River. By that point, nine officers and fifteen men had died, including Franklin. McClintock’s men found several skeletons, graves, and artifacts on the island. Succeeding expeditions found more of the same. Since then, historians, archaeologists, and scientists have pieced together the crew’s fate. When they abandoned their vessels, the men were already suffering from lead poisoning, possibly a result of their water distillation system and the badly soldered cans from which they obtained their food. Of the roughly 100 men who left the ships, many died crossing King William Island. Among skeletons that have been discovered, there is evidence that the men resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. About 30 or 40 reached the northern end of the Adelaide Peninsula on the Canadian mainland, but all eventually died there from the combined effects of starvation, scurvy, and exposure.

The demise of the Franklin expedition is a dramatic, interesting, and morbid story. The blog master of One Thing after Another was fascinated when he saw an exhibit about the expedition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England which included artifacts recovered from the tragedy. As we have seen in class and on this blog repeatedly, however, historical events are not merely interesting; they are also useful. For good for ill, they serve the purposes of scientists, economists, journalists, and, of course, politicians.

As the following article in Slate makes clear, the Franklin expedition now serves the purposes of Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister:

How could the story of the Franklin expedition possibly be useful to anybody? This article argues that Harper is using the search for expedition artifacts to assert Canada’s sovereignty over the Northwest Passage (which, as the earth warms, is increasingly becoming a viable trade route) and as well as over Canada’s northern possessions (where there are substantial mineral deposits). While asserting that sovereignty (and partially for its sake), he is also using the Franklin expedition as a founding myth to unite all Canadians behind principles that he sees as important. To quote the essay, “Harper envisions the far North not as a wintry and sparsely populated wasteland, but as the romantic birthplace of the nation” where “the Conservative values of patriotism, heroism, toughness, and adaptation to the land and sea all come together.” Franklin, so the argument goes “fits in with that narrative perfectly.” While the Franklin expedition has long been conceived of as a heroic disaster, Harper’s view requires reframing this episode as simply heroic.

Of course, we should not single out Harper for engaging in this kind of behavior. For better or for worse, politicians everywhere use historical events in the same way to stake claims about territory or national qualities. When Slobodan Milosevic, then Serbia’s newly elected president, spoke at the Field of Blackbirds  in 1989 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, he made claims about the special virtues of the Serbian people–as well as claims to Kosovo. In 2004, when Jacques Chirac, then the French president, visited Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and commemorated its heroism in sheltering Jews during the German occupation, he too made claims about that heroism and the national character. “Here, in adversity,” he asserted, “the soul of the [French] nation manifested itself. Here was the embodiment of our country’s conscience.” And so it goes. The public’s memory of the past is unceasingly refracted by these kinds of political projects.


One comment

  1. This post touches on one of my favorite topics: The Franklin Expedition (or the last Franklin Expedition). The post notes that “the mystery of the expedition’s fate seized the British imagination.” One of those seized imaginers was Charles Dickens, who wrote two articles on “The Lost Arctic Voyagers” in his periodical, *Household Words*, about the Franklin expedition (Dec 2 and Dec 9, 1854). Dickens hated Rae’s cannibalism claim, and Dickens’s articles rejected the idea that an Englishman could have sunk to the morally depraved act of cannibalism. After the Household Words articles, Dickens co-wrote (and starred in!) a play about a fictionalized version of the expedition, called *The Frozen Deep* (co-authored by Wilkie Collins). The first performance was in his own home, and he and Collins played the parts of Richard Wardour and Frank Aldersley. Quite recently, a novelization of Dickens’s fictionalization of the Franklin expedition (hard to follow, I know) was by Richard Flanagan in *Wanting* (2009). That novel opens with Mrs. Franklin asking Dickens for help rescuing her husband’s reputation from the accusations of cannibalism.

    This post above and all its details are so interesting, as it shows the broad reach of interest in the Franklin expedition. The insightful focus on how people “use” historical events is particularly thought-provoking.

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