ANCHORAGE MUSEUM’S “FRANKLIN EXPEDITION”
By ART CHANCE
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.