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Exhibit review: Death in the Ice



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I attended the Anchorage Museum’s media preview of its new exhibition of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, which had been seeking the Northwest Passage in 1845.

The European powers had been fascinated with finding a Northwest Passage and with Polar exploration since the late Middle Ages. If you’re old enough to have had a U.S. or World History course, you’ll remember names like Hudson, Cabot, and Cartier, who made their mark on maps.

The Napoleonic Wars interrupted exploration but with the return of peace, the great powers returned to exploration of the unknown areas of the planet, and especially the fascinating Arctic and Antarctic regions.

The British Admiralty was seeking to complete the mapping of a Northwest Passage in the mid 1840s. Sir John Franklin was not on their short list to command the mission.

Franklin was a failed governor of Tasmania but wealthy and well-connected, and he had a well-connected and aggressive wife.   He wanted to restore his reputation so ultimately he was tapped to command the expedition to the Arctic.

We have no idea how good Franklin was as a commander and ship’s master and a somewhat deeper than superficial look doesn’t give us much indication. It really doesn’t matter; Royal Navy capital ships were nominally commanded by some guy who could afford to buy the flag; some guy who’d worked his way up from a ship’s boy at 14 to become the sailing master really ran the ship, though his uniform wasn’t as nice.

HMS Erebus and Terror were “bomb ships;” heavily built ships built for shore bombardment. Both were reinforced for Arctic service and both had new steam engines for auxiliary propulsion, fresh water production, and steam heat. Both, however, were quite old, one built in the ‘Teens, the other in the Twenties. Despite their formidable reputation, the British Navy’s vessels were notoriously cheaply, corruptly, and shoddily built; a British frigate captain’s fondest dream was to be assigned to a French or American prize vessel.

We may be allowed to wonder just how substantial the two aging vessels really were, despite their modernization and their lavish provenance.

We really don’t know and aren’t likely to definitively know what led to the demise of the Franklin Expedition. It is pretty clear that command and discipline disintegrated, but that could have been from death and attrition or from something like a mutiny; we just don’t know.

The British elite had a fit of apoplexy over the allegations of cannibalism, but cannibalism has been with us for a very long time in survival situations, and the infamous Donner Party cannibalism episode was only a couple of years after the Franklin event.

The only thing we know is that everyone died, and at least from the view of 150 years later, it looks like there might have been some chance of survivability had the right decisions been made.  All we can do is speculate, so let’s turn to the exhibit.

I like this exhibit; it has some really cool maritime archeology.

That said, if you can’t read a Patrick O’Brien book without looking up a term, you’re not going to understand a lot of this exhibit.  It is pretty thin gruel about what life on a 19th Century sailing vessel was like; “Master and Commander” will give you a better view.

The Museum needs to bulk up the narrative or provide some docents. The guy in charge of the exhibition couldn’t tell me if the crew were primarily Naval ratings recruited to the mission, or simply guys “shanghaied” from British bars for service on a ship; the Brits did that sort of thing.

As for the cannibalism, the British elites had a fit about the allegations, saying that the Royal Navy’s men would never do such a thing, but the question unanswered is whether the men were the Royal Navy’s men. Once that is answered, then we can talk about whether the Royal Navy’s men would have eaten their fellows were they hungry enough.

Then, we get into the political correctness of whether or not the Franklin Expedition could have survived had they reached out to the Native people for local knowledge.

First, the crew of the vessels were as old or older than the average Inuit adult they might have come in contact with. The Inuit life skills didn’t give them a particularly impressive life expectancy in the harsh Arctic climate. I’ll grant some over-weaning British arrogance; the British elite could not have conceived of asking aboriginal people what to do.

But then there are questions of just how well they could communicate with the language differences, and just how much interest either would have had in helping the other.

The great sin of historiography is presentism; looking at the past through the eyes of the present.

“Death in the Ice” looks at the events of the late 1840s through the politically correct eyes of the 2000-teens. A sailing ship in the early 19th Century left port even more alone than a space ship today would leave for Mars.  A sailing ship leaving for the far side of the world, whether the Arctic or the Pacific, was totally out of touch until it returned to its home port or ran into another ship that could forward some communications.

Franklin and his crew left England as well prepared and equipped as the knowledge of their time allowed. They screwed up, and they died; that’s what happens if you don’t get it right. That is a lesson we today should take to heart instead of looking for politically correct ”life hacks.”

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.

Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.


  1. I would describe this review as vintage Art Chance. Before seeing the exhibit I’d suggest reading at least the Wikipedia entry on the exhibition. There are some interesting books on it and research on the vessels is going on now.

  2. As with the previous commenter, I’m disappointed that the reviewer didn’t do any background research — if he had, he might have known that Sir John Franklin himself was the lad who joined the Navy at the age of 14 and worked his way up the ranks; neither he nor any of the other officers purchased their commissions, and the sailors were volunteers, many of them veteran seamen. Whether Inuit knowledge would have helped or not, it’s not true that their “life expectancy” was significantly lower than the average white person of that era. The ships had Inuit vocabulary books aboard, and at least two of the officers spoke some Inuktitut, so communication would have been possible — and indeed, the whole point of the exhibit’s section on Inuit evidence is that there was contact, and that the Inuit oral tradition was remarkably accurate. That’s been shown by the key role of this evidence in finding the first of the ships, HMS “Erebus” in 2014. Nothing “politically correct” about that — it’s just a plain old historical fact.

    • Genius, rely on what I said instead of just making unfounded insinuations, a typical lefty sort of thing. I’m always just amazed at how little reading comprehension and analytical skills you geniuses have. My point was that command had far more to do with social and economic rank than anything else. Franklin didn’t get this command because of his background, he got it because of his social and economic rank.

      My point about the Inuit, was that that there is no evidence that they had any superior survival skills. All you have to do is look at life expectancies before and after European contact. Now, I know that doesn’t fit well into lefty mindset, but the evil white man lived a lot longer, and the Native people lived a lot longer after contact with the evil white man.

      I don’t doubt that Inuit oral history was accurate; I’ve done a lot of work with Southern oral tradition, which is often far more accurate than “academic” history. That said, what evidence do we have that interaction with the Inuit would have made more of the Franklin crews survive? Now, you can go nestle in your little world of lefty illusions being fact; sleep well.

      • It’s sad to see domestic US politics enter into a question that should be based on known historical facts. As one would imagine, there’s very little historical data about Inuit life expectancy in the pre-contact period for comparison. In any case, it’s hard to dispute that Inuit, who thrived in the Arctic for many centuries thanks to their keen hunting skills and adaptive technologies, did a far better job of surviving on the land than most 19th-century European explorers. The key issue with Franklin is that his expedition was designed to get through by ship; little provision was made for living off the land, and few aboard would have had experience hunting sea mammals. Those explorers who learned from and adopted Inuit techniques — dog-drawn sledges, snow houses, and a diet of fresh meat — fared better, among them Dr. John Rae, a Scot who was part of the search for Franklin, as well as Roald Amundsen, who spent two winters among the Inuit learning their ways. That said, the culture of the British Royal Navy was such that they were unlikely to consider adopting native ways, which was derided at the time as a “vulgar subterfuge” that could only undercut the glory and honor due Polar heroes.

      • Art…..comments such as those we see, are usually borne out of pure jealousy. The way of sad sack Lefties.

        • Jealousy! Of what? Your narrow mindedness of dismissing a comment by one of the most respected Franklin Expedition scholars? A review full of errors of an exhibition that was already successful in London, Ottawa and Mystic Seaport?
          No, you don’t need a naval dictionary to understand this exhibition, only an open mind. Although I do understand that this is a bit tricky when “political correctness” is an insult to you. ?

          • Please understand; I have exactly zero respect for “academics.” I don’t care that sycophants in cool places liked it. I didn’t dislike it, I just thought it was superficial, vacuous, and very PC, the kind of thing that lefty idiots like.

      • Who’s a lefty Art? I voted for Nixon twice. Being a lunatic isn’t the same as being a conservative, although in certain parts of Alaska they’re the same. Your review of the exhibit and analysis of the Franklin Expedition wouldn’t get a passing grade in a high school history class.

        • Regina and James Mason…..Old wacko Lefties. This is the way they always play the game, Art. Try to show who has the superior intellect. When they aren’t on drugs or alcohol, I give them all a room temperature IQ. Born losers…..all. That’s why we have Trump in the WH, and Dunleavy running the state.

        • James, I wouldn’t want to get a passing grade in a high school, or even college, history class; it is all leftist BS.

          I dealt with the crap they tried to feed my kids in the Nineties, and I actually took some UA college history classes in the mid-Nineties; utter BS.

          • You should have sat through one of Terrence Cole’s History classes. Hard to believe he could get a Ph.D., because he appeared to have an attention deficit disorder in the classroom. A real twitchy guy, like he was always swatting at pretend mosquitoes. Lousy professor and demonstrated his Leftist leanings for the entire lecture. UAF hire. Go figure.

  3. Any info on lead poisoning from canned goods? As to cultural differences… are we to assume these British fellows were more open to indigenous knowledge than Mr. Scott was in Antarctica? (By indigenous I mean Norwegian). Mr. Scott shunned dogs in favor of ponies. Nonetheless, given the tech of the day, these guys had some real stones

    • The canned goods were indeed contaminated with lead solder, but the latest opinion is lead poisoning was probably not as big a factor as scurvy and general malnutrition.

  4. Interesting read. I’ve always wondered if cannibals have any preference in tastes, such as ….. a Brit v. a Spaniard, or, a Puerto Rican v. an Italian. Personally, I think fate was met on this voyage when some of Franklin’s sailors got liberty ashore and took all of the long johns, and the chef ran off with the dough.

  5. The Inuit probably relished the taste of “English crumpets” after another long season of walrus tongue and muktuk.

    • Personally, I always thought muktuk and a Bud made for pretty good snack food on long hunts.

      • ….and the Hawaiians had a taste for English sea captains. What was it with the need for White flesh?

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