On May 19, 1845, Sir John Franklin, commanding HMS Erebus and Terror, left England to search for an elusive North-West Passage (see image). This was only the latest in a long series of expeditions stretching back 350 years, seeking a maritime route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic. But this expedition was different from all the rest — both ships and 129 men vanished in the Arctic wastes. By 1847, there was growing concern for the missing expedition, and both overland and seaborne search parties were dispatched to try and find Franklin and his men.
For over a decade, British and foreign expeditions combed the Arctic, first to rescue the explorers, and later to ascertain their fate. A document recovered in 1859 revealed that the Erebus and Terror were abandoned in the ice off King William Island's northwest coast in April 1848, having spent two winters frozen in. It also stated that a total of nine officers and 15 men had died thusfar; Franklin had died the previous June. Also in 1848, a young British officer (still in his teens) received a promotion to become Lieut. John Edmund Commerell, RN. Commerell had joined the Navy six years before and was surely watching the unfolding Franklin Search drama with even more interest than the usual rapt interest in Victorian Britain...
Theories as to how and why all the suvivors died have been put forth over time, and up to the present day; what emerges is a deadly combination of disease, bad provisions, starvation and cold. Searchers found three graves on Beechey Island, and later a pathetic trail of bones and man-made objects dotting a path to the North American mainland. Franklin's people intended to reach a fur trading outpost in northern Canada by traveling up the Great Fish River (now Back River). Erebus and Terror were never found — buried under frozen waves.
Every polar explorer could not help but know the Franklin story, including Karl Weyprecht. He was a scientist and co-commander of the 1872-74 Austro-Hungarian Polar Expedition, who afterwards advocated the first IPY. The expedition discovered Franz Josef Land, and experienced a scenario strangely similar to Franklin's saga and came close to suffering an identical fate. Weyprecht put the scientific observations made during the expedition in context by stating, "But whatever interest all these observations may possess, they do not possess that scientific value, even supported by a long column of figures, which under other circumstances might have been the case. They only furnish us with a picture of the extreme effects of the forces of Nature in the Arctic regions, but leave us completely in the dark with respect to their causes.” Nations glory seeking and grabbing land in the polar regions was not the answer -- Weyprecht knew it and Franklin and his men had paid the price for it.
Exactly 50 years from the day the Franklin Expedition departed, the Council of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) determined a special meeting would be held the following day to commemorate the event. On that day, some 300 Fellows of the Society and their friends viewed a collection of Franklin relics brought back by search expeditions, which were held in the museum at Greenwich. The gathering included several veterans of these expeditions and relatives of Franklin and his officers. Also attending was Commandant Le Clerc, French naval attaché and representative of the Paris Geographical Society (in the 1850s, two French naval officers were seconded to the RN to participate in the search, one of whom drowned in Wellington Channel in the performance of his duties). In the museum's Painted Hall hung many portraits of British naval heroes, to include Sir John Franklin. Mrs. Lefroy, one of his nieces, placed a wreath of flowers around his likeness. Later on, Le Clerc solemnly placed a wreath at the memorial obelisk of departed Lieut. Joseph René Bellot, which was situated in front of the Greenwich Hospital (see image).
The evening drifted in, as did a dinner hosted by the Geographical Club, for veterans of the search expeditions so many decades ago. Also present was HRH the Duke of York and United States' ambassador to Great Britain (Americans had also voyaged to the Arctic in search of Franklin). After dinner, all the guests attended the special RGS meeting. An exhibition of many items associated the Franklin Expedition and search expeditions -- photographs, maps, portraits, pictures of Arctic scenery, a sledge from the 1850s -- were viewed in two large rooms lent by the Senate of the University of London.
That evening's speakers included Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Edmund Commerell, VC, GCB, CB (see image). The whiskered and heavily bemedalled gentleman had come a long way since first donning a naval uniform in 1842, including receiving a Victoria Cross during the 1854-55 Crimean War. As will be appreciated, Commerell owed a great deal to Sir John Franklin's decision making half-a-century before:
"I am called upon by the [RGS] President, as a pure outsider, to give you a little bit of opinion on Arctic Expeditions, because I have never been there, though I have been very near there. I volunteered to go with Sir John Franklin in 1845. Lieutenant le Visconte [sic] whom I was serving with at that time, and Captain Fitzjames, whom I served with in a ship previously, did the best they could with Sir John to give me a chance of going; but, ladies and gentlemen, I am happy to tell you that I was too young at that time. My experience of over fifty years in the service has taught me that you can look nowhere for better officers, in the ordinary run of duty, and better seamen, than in these Arctic Expeditions. We know very well that it has been an excellent school in every way; an excellent school in hardihood, I may say almost of life, because I believe men who serve for two or three years, and survive an Arctic Expedition, are pretty certain to live, according to the survival of the fittest."
And what befell Commerell's former shipmates, Le Vesconte and Fitzjames? A skeleton found on the south coast of King William Island by an 1869 American expedition, and eventually sent back to England, was believed to be that of Le Vesconte. The remains are now buried at the base of the Franklin Monument in Greenwich, in a container bearing the follwing inscription on its lid: 'This box contains Human Bones, conjectured to have been the skeleton of Lt. H.T.D. Le Vesconte', plus a description of their finding by the Americans. What happened to Capt. James Fitzjames is unknown. His thoughts and observations of his wooden world survived the ravages of time, in the form of letters sent home to friends from Greenland, before the ships disappeared into the ice. The "boy volunteer" Commerell retired in 1899, and two years later, passed from the scene — one of the last direct links to men who perished on Sir John Franklin's last expedition.
copyright 2006 Glenn M. Stein, FRGS
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Saturday, 02 September 2006 07:50
Polar History: 1845 – The Franklin ExpeditionWritten by Glenn Stein
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