Death in the Ice

As noted in an earlier post, I first heard the song ‘Lord Franklin’ in the late seventies, and was immediately taken with it – and all the more so when I learned the story behind the song. I was therefore pleased to learn that the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich were to stage Death in the ice, a major exhibition about Franklin’s fateful final expedition. I visited the exhibition last week, and am happy to say that my expectations were fully met.

It’s a very well presented exhibition which does a good job of presenting the background to Franklin’s expedition, details of his two ships and their crew, and details – insofar as they can be ascertained – of what befell them. Right at the start of the exhibition two massive video walls show projections of the Arctic landscape – to give you an idea of the environment Franklin and his men encountered (although inside, on a warm August day, the landscape looks beautiful – rather different if you were stuck in it in an Arctic winter, with insufficient food, and clothing which was not up to the job of keeping out the cold). Then we learn that the quest to discover the North West passage was a peculiarly British obsession, but also – thanks to successive expeditions approaching the route both from the Atlantic and from the Pacific in the East – that by 1845 when Franklin set sail, only 900 miles remained to be charted. I was particularly taken with a table-top projection which literally draws the map of North America and Canada, in accordance with the state of Europeans’ knowledge of the region as it developed over time, from John Cabot in 1497, through Frobisher, Cartier, Hudson, Cook (who charted practically the entire East coast), Ross, and many others.

I was rather surprised to find – given the early date of the Franklin expedition – that there exist photographic images of Franklin himself, and several of his crew.

Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) - daguerrotype by Baird. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) – daguerrotype by Baird. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

 

James Reid, Ice Master - daguerrotype by Baird. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

James Reid, Ice Master – daguerrotype by Baird. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

 

Lieutenant Graham Gore, Commander - daguerrotype by Baird. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Lieutenant Graham Gore, Commander – daguerrotype by Baird. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

I suppose Franklin’s status as a national hero, and the importance which the British government attached to his expedition, might account for these officers being photographed before setting off to the Arctic. (Franklin himself was already well-known to the British public as an intrepid explorer. He had earned the nickname “The man who ate his boots” when he ran into difficulties on an earlier expedition to the Arctic in 1819-1822. On that occasion some of his men died of starvation, while others were forced to eat lichen, and even tried to get sustenance by eating their own leather boots). It was the same factors, plus the indefatigable efforts of his widow Lady Jane Franklin, which ensured that several expeditions were sent out from 1848 onwards to try to discover the fate of her husband and crew.

Mind you, when Sir John Rae brought back evidence he had gathered from Inuit in the area – that they had encountered some 40 starving and desperate white men, and then, the following spring that they had found around 30 corpses, some showing clear signs of cannibalism – this testimony was deemed unreliable. The mid-nineteenth century British public simply could not bring itself to admit that gallant British seamen would ever come so low as to resort to cannibalism. Indeed Charles Dickens went into print to say as much:

DR. RAE may be considered to have established, by the mute but solemn testimony of the relics he has brought home, that SIR JOHN FRANKLIN and his party are no more. But, there is one passage in his melancholy report, some examination into the probabilities and improbabilities of which, we hope will tend to the consolation of those who take the nearest and dearest interest in the fate of that unfortunate expedition, by leading to the conclusion that there is no reason whatever to believe, that any of its members prolonged their existence by the dreadful expedient of eating the bodies of their dead companions. Quite apart from the very loose and unreliable nature of the Esquimaux representations (on which it would be necessary to receive with great caution, even the commonest and most natural occurrence), we believe we shall show, that close analogy and the mass of experience are decidedly against the reception of any such statement, and that it is in highest degree improbable that such men as the officers and crews of the two lost ships would or could, in any extremity of hunger, alleviate the pains of starvation by this horrible means.

Charles Dickens, The Lost Arctic Voyagers (1854)

If you’re interested, here’s Rae’s own account: The melancholy fate of Sir John Franklin and his party, as disclosed in Dr. Rae”s report; together with the despatches and letters of Captain M’Clure, and other officers employed in the Arctic expeditions (1854).

 

My wife commented that the museum had made a good exhibition despite not having very much to display. A little harsh, but it’s true there’s not that many artefacts actually from the fateful last journey of the Erebus and Terror. And few of those artefacts can be identified as belonging to a specific member of the crew. However amazingly, rather touchingly, Lieutenant Graham Gore’s battered personal copy of a hymnal – Christian Melodies published in 1836 by Thomas Ward and Co. – does survive, and is on display.

Graham Gore's copy of Christian Melodies. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Graham Gore’s copy of Christian Melodies. Image copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

That hymnal had in fact been discovered in May 1859 by the McClintock Search Expedition – one of the expeditions sent out to discover “the fate of Franklin”. But what makes this exhibition special is the fact that Franklin’s ship Erebus was only discovered in September 2014 – exactly three years ago today – so many of the objects on display here have never been seen in the UK before. I assume it was the discovery and examination of Erebus that prompted the current exhibition. And presumably the exhibition was in a fairly advanced stage of planning when Franklin’s second ship, Terror, was discovered just one year ago, on 3rd September 2016. No doubt as historians and archaeologists explore the evidence provided by this second wreck, we can look forward in future years to seeing more artefacts, and to reading new theories of what might have happened on that dreadful last journey.

In the meantime if, like me, you’re fascinated by the story of Franklin and his gallant men (and women? here’s an interesting development) then Death in the ice is highly recommended. It runs till January. The only thing missing is a rendition of this song:

Lord Franklin

 

If you’re planning on visiting Greenwich, there’s plenty more of interest. Among the museum’s permanent exhibitions is one on the Britain and the Atlantic, particularly Britain’s role in the slave trade (a subject on which I don’t seem to have any songs in my repertoire. Time to learn ‘The Flying Cloud’ perhaps?), and another on the East India Company (cue thoughts of ‘The East Indiaman’). And you can’t go to Greenwich without seeing the Old Royal Naval College, formerly the Royal Hospital for Seamen – where of course the hero of ‘On Board a Ninety-Eight’ spent his final days. A good day out.

One Comment to “Death in the Ice”

  1. I was really interested in this fascinating post so I’ll be meandering down to Greenwich in November to check out this exhibition. It is such a lovely song and I’ve always assumed that it’s an original melody: if so, it’s a triumph for Victorian singer-songwriters. I can never get out of my mind the thought that Sir John had been such a courageous explorer when he was younger that he deserved to live a quiet life out in Tasmania, but his ambitious wife had other ideas….
    Thank you for this and for your other interesting posts,
    Best wishes

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