Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Martin W. Sandler's "Resolute: The Epic Search for the Northwest Passage and John Franklin, and the Discovery of the Queen's Ghost Ship" (Steak Knives)

In 1855, HMS Resolute was found adrift near Baffin Island, a ghost ship slipping alongside the broken up pack ice.  While weather-beaten, it was in surprisingly good shape for drifting almost 2000 kilometers from where it had been imprisoned and abandoned in the ice of the Northwest Passage a few years earlier.  The unlikely circumstances leading up to this strange encounter, AND those following, are remarkable ones.
The title ‘Resolute’ can be a misleading one.  While the text certainly details a great deal of the Resolute story in the process, it’s really an overview of 19th Century Arctic exploration, much of which centered on attempts to find the Northwest Passage.  The account covers a few early thrusts for the pole, as well as several early attempts by land and sea to discover the passage to the greater honour and commercial gain of the Empire (and the ambitious personalities leading the expeditions, of course).  Sandler regales the reader with the stories of a host of notable names from early Arctic exploration – most notably and prominently for our purposes here is that of Sir JohnFranklin.

The fate of Franklin’s 1845 passage attempt – his ships, the Erebus and Terror, remain undiscovered to this day – was a great and ongoing concern of the day.  How had this incredibly well provisioned and outfitted expedition come to its unfortunate end?*

A keen desire for answers on the part of the public, a still-kindling need to discover the passage, and a doting widow/wife lobbying home and foreign governments to send rescue expeditions all led to a glut of rescue missions being sent in the years immediately following Franklin’s disappearance.  Sandler describes this as an ‘Arctic Traffic Jam,’ as scores of vessels fan out to solve the mystery – several of which run into their own harrowing close calls in this unforgiving environment.

HMS Resolute - an etching.
HMS Resolute was one amongst this armada of rescue vehicles, and one of a group of four overseen by one Edward Belcher.  Resolute’s crew are themselves lodged in the ice of a small, remote harbour for 2 years (recall this is a rescue operation).  Despite being well-provisioned for at least another year in the ice, Belcher recalls the captains of his 3 support ships insisting that they abandon their ships in the ice.  Resolute’s crew, along with the ‘rescued’ crew of the Investigator (Captain of which, Robert McClure, being credited on the journey with ‘finding’ – but not ‘traversing’ – the Northwest Passage) retreat to the mothership reluctantly.  Belcher’s decision was unpopular with Resolute’s Captain, and created great resistance.  Belcher was called before the Admiralty to defend his loss of 3 intact vessels, but was ultimately acquitted. 

This takes us to it’s discovery by the whalers a over a year later, and beyond…

By the law of the sea at the time, Resolute was fair salvage for the whale ship’s owners – a far greater prize than a hold full of baleen.   As a result, the captain took the dangerous move of splitting his crew between the two vessels, leaving Resolute more than under-manned for it’s size, and for an already treacherous route home.
In the midst of a tense period of antagonistic politics between the U.S.A. and the British Empire, Congress purchased the Resolute from the whale ship owners, re-fitted it in meticulous attention to detail and quality, and sailed it to Britain to present as a gift of good will.  The popular and political generation of good will in Britain was overwhelming.

To call the HMS Resolute a ship that stopped a war is easy in hindsight.  Perhaps it did, though I’d argue that an atmosphere that made the return of the ship possible suggests that there was at least some spirit of compromise and temperance already on the air.

The Resolute Desk
(I currently use a Linnarp from Ikea)
Either way, it was a gesture that did not go unremembered.  When the Resolute was finally broken up later in the 19th Century, 3 desks were created from its planks.  One went to Lady Franklin, another to an American benefactor, and the third, and most impressive went to the White House.  It's been used in one way or another by most sitting presidents since, and continues to be used in the oval office since Clinton's years.  [This desk also figures in the plot of the practically unwatchable National Treasure 2, but that's another story.]

*But let's come back to the Franklin story for a moment... 

Amongst the many rescue and 'answer seeking' voyages that followed the disappearance of the Erebus and Terror, several small pieces or clues did emerge.  Some raised more questions than they did answers (e.g. cairns with no documents or caches to be found, and skeletons seemingly hauling useless items miles away from reported wrecks in a great waste of effort/energy).  Early efforts brought back compelling clues in the form of indigenous people's testimony that suggested the survivors resorted to cannibalism.  This was difficult/impossible for the public to accept for a disciplined expedition fitted out as a prize of the Empire.  Lady Franklin (and Charles Dickens, as it happens) both argued vehemently against this suggestion.  While many of the hows and whys remain unanswered, modern analysis of remains supports the stories of the locals.  Bones show wear marks that only *modern* utensils could leave (early retorts suggested the Inuit themselves ate the survivors).  Jaw bones were removed, suggesting that the protein rich brain was also harvested in several cases.  This is sad but understandable, given the extreme circumstances, despite modern revulsion and Victorian denial.  The author offers other evidence to suggest that in the haste to provision the mission, the cannery cut corners in cooking and sealing the cans of food in such a way that spoilage and lead poisoning (canning was in it's infancy at the time) were likely.  Chemical analysis of hair, etc. from remains supports this theory, as high levels of lead were discovered.  Franklin died well before abandonment of ships and cannibalism set in, perhaps as an early victim to the very stores that were meant to maintain the mission.

Grave markers from the Franklin expedition remain to this day -
silent lack of testimony for how and why they came to their end. 
At least these 3 went uneaten...

Part of the mission's failure must be chalked up to a simple principle that earlier/contemporary explorers recognized but went unheeded by the Admiralty.  It was recognized by my boy Roald Amundsen, who made the first successful traverse of the Northwest Passage (in addition to being the first to the South Pole, and possibly the North Pole) based on this piece of now obvious, common sense.  His Gjoa was a tiny, light ship that lifted up above the ice as the freeze came, rather than being squeezed and smashed between the shifting pack.

Amundsen's Gjoa (today, in Oslo) -
small and light enough to
rise above the ice.
The fact is, a smaller, lighter team is far more adapted and capable of making this journey.  Further, it makes a great deal of sense to work with and learn from the locals as to how to live off the land, and find sufficient fresh protein to stave off scurvy and starvation.  Further still, adopting sled dogs rather than 'man hauling' cargo over the ice is a great way to spare the crew and rations.  Franklin's expedition was a full-on antithesis to these principles - a big assed, over the top effort the size of which almost certainly contributed directly to its inflexibility and demise.
This book is an all around great set of steak knives.  While the title is misleading in the full scope of the text, it's a welcome expansion, touching on many great tales of early Arctic exploration on land and sea.

Erebus & Terror -
An image to capture the imagination and dread of the Victorian mind.

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