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The Myth of the Franklin Expedition (by Ted Betts)

By 49thShelf
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Sir John Franklin set out from Greenhithe, England, on the morning of May 19, 1845 to discover the Northwest Passage. He and his 129 member crew were never seen again. While bones and artifacts, and even graves, have been uncovered, their ships have never been found and the mystery of their disappearance has endured for 150 years. The resurgent interest in the mysteries of the Franklin expedition in the last 25 years was initiated by, and continues to be spurred on by Canadian writers. In a way, the historical and scientific writing, and the modern fiction it has inspired, is only catching up to generations of writing on Franklin by artists and folklorists and dramatists and poets. As Margaret Atwood noted in her 1995 book, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, though, the Franklin mystery has been told and re-told so many times that it has created a fundamental Canadian myth. Ted Betts is a Canadian lawyer and historian who occasionally writes at the Franklin's Ghost blog.
The Arctic Grail

The Arctic Grail

The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909
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Why it's on the list ...
If you were to pick one book to start with, it really has to be The Arctic Grail, the classic book by the iconic Canadian writer and historian Pierre Berton. Following shortly on the heels of Owen Beattie’s forensic discoveries, and no doubt inspired by them, it is an excellent survey of arctic exploration and the central role the Franklin Expedition and, more importantly, the decades searching for Franklin had in mapping and exploring the Arctic.
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Unravelling the Franklin Mystery
Why it's on the list ...
Historian David C. Woodman is one of the first modern writers to recognise the profound importance, accuracy and reliability of Inuit oral history and to analyse it in-depth. He concludes from his investigations, among other startling discoveries, that the Inuit probably did visit Franklin's ships while the crew was still on board, that there were some Inuit who actually saw the sinking of one of the ships
and that the crew, or at least some of them, may have lived for years longer than supposed. This is a book for the real Franklinophile. Consider also Woodman's harder-to-find follow-up Strangers Among Us (1995).
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Why it's on the list ...
No reading list of Franklin history or of northern Canadian exploration would be complete without at least a few books from historian Ken McGoogan. Two of McGoogan’s Fatal Passage Quartet related directly to the lost Franklin expedition. Hudson Bay Company chief explorer John Rae charted more of Canada’s northern coastline on foot than possibly any other. It was Rae who not only uncovered the true story of Franklin– the location of the disaster and cannibalism (the telling of which doomed his career and reputation)– but also, according to the author was the true discoverer of the Northwest Passage and received
£10,000 for it. In Fatal Passage, McGoogan tries to re-insert Rae into his rightful place in history.
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On the Proper Use of Stars

The sun was shining on that 19th day of May in 1845 when the Erebus and the Terror were preparing to cast off at Greenhithe, their reflections shivering on the greenish water of the port where floated garlands, handfuls of rice, and small dead fish. A crowd of a good ten thousand was assembled on the docks to witness the departure of Sir John Franklin, hero of the Arctic, who was setting off once again to conquer the mythic Northwest Passage, as always for the greater glory of the Empire. On the deck of the Erebus, in full regalia, the explorer was holding aloft a coloured handkerchief so that his wife Jane, Lady Franklin, could easily make him out in the midst of his inferiors, who were waving handkerchiefs of black silk. A brass band struck up the first bars of “God Save the Queen,” the chords joining the cheers and farewells; emotion was nearly at its peak. One might have thought, as a shrewd observer noted in the newspaper the following day, that England was celebrating the explorer’s triumphant return, not his departure. A dove flew lazily across the sky and touched down on the mast of the Terror, observing all the agitation with its head tipped a little to one side before settling comfortably, as if to hatch an egg. All agreed that it was a good omen.
Then the ships lumbered off to tackle unknown seas. The spectators went home. The hero of the Arctic, who was having difficulty recovering from a nasty bout of influenza, descended to his cabin, where he sipped a little tea and before long dozed off. Soon sailors, aides, and officers from the two ships returned to their respective posts. On the deck of the Terror, Francis Crozier, second-in- command of the expedition and commander of the aforementioned ship, stood alone, looking back at the V-shaped wake left in the water. Hearing a muffled sound behind him on the deck, he turned around and nearly stepped on the dove, which had tumbled from the mast. He took one wing between his thumb and forefinger: still warm, the limp bird stared at him with its round eyes. Quite unceremoniously Crozier flung the creature into the sea. The surgeon’s dog, Neptune, a rather ungainly mixture of beagle and wolfhound, pretended for a moment that he wanted to dive in after the bird, but changed his mind and proceeded instead to circle three times before he lay down on the deck and let out a loud fart.

25 May 1845
Scarcely one week has gone by since we weighed anchor, and the country that I left seems now to be farther away than the Moon and the stars above our heads, ever the same and ever different.
The sea is calm and the ships are sound. The Terror is my oldest friend, perhaps my only friend on this voyage when I cannot count on the presence of Ross, with whom I crossed the boundaries of Antarctica and into whose hands I would have agreed without hesitation to place my life once more. I insisted in vain that we have on board some of those whalers who know the treacherous waters of the Arctic better than any lieutenant of the British Navy, brave men to whom we owe most of the discoveries of this land of ice. Alas, the crew put together by Fitzjames is in the image of the man who chose it: elegant, enthusiastic, sure of itself, but sorely lacking in experience. Of the twenty-one officers – in the exclusive service of whom there are no fewer than eight men who I hope will not balk when the time comes that they must pull off their white gloves to scrub the deck or to furl the sails – only Sir John, the two ice masters, and I myself have ventured before into one or the other of the Polar circles. The most curious know nothing of the Arctic, may God have mercy upon us, save what they have read in the accounts of Parry and of Franklin himself, of which they recite passages with the same fervour as if they were verses of the Gospels. They are excited, like schoolboys being taken to the circus.
Scarcely one week and three times I have been summoned to dine on board the Erebus, Sir John seeming to believe that his duties include planning exquisite suppers and seeing to it that his officers do not suffer from boredom. In the morning he has brought to me small cards upon which it is written in careful script that “Sir John Franklin, Captain of the Erebus, requests the honour of the presence at his table of Francis Crozier, Captain of the Terror” – as if I were likely to confuse him with the captain of another vessel and present myself mistakenly on a ship where I was not expected. The men who are to bring him my reply wait, soaking wet, apparently astounded at such elaborate courtesies, while I turn the card over to write my answer, following which they row back in order to deliver the precious bit of paper. I must recommend that the lookouts agree upon a code so as to avoid these jaunts that transform our seamen pointlessly into messenger boys.
One dines well on the Erebus. Five bullocks that accompanied us on board the Baretto Junior, the supply ship, were sacrificed in a veritable hecatomb and prepared in various fashions. Yesterday we had a sole meunière, a splendid rib roast with buttered carrots and potatoes, and custard with berries, all served on silver plates struck with the arms or the monogram of the owner. The ridiculous is not pushed to the point of requiring that I supply my own cutlery, but I do use that of Sir John, who has apparently brought more than is strictly necessary.
We converse cheerfully about the voyage that is beginning, as if it were a hunting expedition with hounds, though I doubt that most of these gentlemen have ever killed any game more formidable than a partridge or, possibly, a fox. Most, like DesVoeux, harbour a boundless admiration for Sir John, hero of the Arctic, whose accounts of his courageous deeds had marked their childhood, the man who ate his boots and, contrary to all expectations, had been able to survive on his own in a wild and hostile place.
At the sight of this happy gathering, of the valets who serve and take away the dishes under their silver lids, of the wines that accompany each new course, one might think he was at a supper at the country home of a gentleman whose livestock had experienced a particularly productive year or who had just married off his daughter. Except that there is no lady present – although it is true that they must withdraw in any case once the last bit of food has been swallowed, to leave the gentlemen to their cigars and port – and the candelabra are fixed firmly to the table, where there are silver goblets in place of crystal stemware. Without forgetting of course that once the merrymaking is over, rather than requesting that my carriage be brought, I ask for oarsmen to be called who, at the end of a voyage that can require as much as two hours on the rollers of the Atlantic, will take me back to the Terror, which I think of as the only home I’ve ever had.

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Why it's on the list ...
The lost Franklin expedition has inspired not only serious research and study by non-fiction writers, but a library of Canadian fiction as well. The science and history quickly inspired Margaret Atwood to write the short story "The Age of
Lead” (1989) from Wilderness Tips and a significant portion of Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here (1990) as well as more recent fiction such as Helen Humphreys' short story “Franklin’s Library” (2005) and the mystery/detective novel by the late, prize winning Canadian author Dennis Richard Murphy
in Darkness at the Stroke of Noon (2008). But it is Dominque Fortier’s
captivating and elegant historical fiction On The Proper Use of Stars, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2008 (and was beautifully translated in 2010 by Sheila Fischman) that truly shows us the magneticism of this slowly unraveling mystery that pulls us ever north.
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