In 1845 Sir John Franklin left Britain in search for the Northwest passage. He never returned. Did his crew start eating each other or were they killed by the Inuitby Matt Ridley / August 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
The discovery of George Mallory’s body on Mount Everest failed to solve the mystery of whether he reached the summit. It will, however, encourage a small but growing band of people who spend each summer trying to discover the fate of a larger, older and still more mysterious expedition in the Canadian Arctic: the Franklin expedition of 1845.
Controversial, tragic and stubborn mysteries like these have a far greater hold on the public imagination than heroic successes. Indeed, for a stiff fee you can join an annual expedition to the Arctic to seek clues to the fate of that Franklin expedition. Like the Northwest passage itself, it keeps drawing people back.
Like George Mallory’s discoverers, modern Franklin seekers have begun to find important clues in recent years, including skeletons and boats. They have also begun to fall out over interpreting the evidence. What they badly need, and many still believe they will find, is a logbook or journal.
As Fergus Fleming says in Barrow’s Boys, his book about the Admiralty explorers of the 19th century, Sir John Franklin was the consummate British explorer-a glorious failure. Like Captain Scott, he discovered less than his rivals but became more famous by dying in the process. Even in his lifetime his fame eclipsed more successful Arctic explorers, because his first expedition in 1819 was so badly planned that he ended up eating his boots and losing many companions to starvation-possibly even to cannibalism.
But much worse was to come. In 1845, when the Admiralty despatched its biggest and most expensive expedition to try to penetrate the Northwest passage, it gave the command to Franklin. This was a bizarre appointment. Though he was by all accounts a likeable man, Franklin had just returned from a disastrous tour as governor of Tasmania. His previous Arctic experience was 20 years in the past and mostly overland, not on ship. He was shy, indecisive, stiff and traditional. He was 59 years old and in poor health.
Nor was he given the right ships. By then it was painfully obvious that only small, shallow-draft vessels could penetrate the ice-choked straits north of Canada, and that only small crews, capable of supplementing their diet with fresh fish, seal and caribou, could avoid the inevitable onset of scurvy. The problem was that this strategy was promulgated by John Ross, who had himself survived four years in the Arctic before…