Monday, 7 June 2010

Englishmen on Ice 14 - The Voyage of the Fox - The Penelope of England gets Odysseus' Honour back - The Meaning of the Message

In 1857, a ship called the 'Fox' departed on a search for Franklin's lost arctic expedition, captained by one Francis McClintock and financed (again) by Lady Franklin herself - the mission, to find evidence of Franklin's party and it's noble demise. Upon his return, McClintock's journal was published as : "The Voyage of the 'Fox' in the Arctic seas, a narrative of the discovery of the fate of Sir John Franklin and his companions". The title page is pictured here, published, as had been all the major Arctic narratives of the century so far, by John Murray, in 1859.

And what a publication it is! And what a vindication of a lost English hero! What an addition to the myth of self-sacrifice! What a tribute to Lady Jane Franklin - the Penelope of England!

Franklin's 1845 expedition to find the North West Passage, which is the main subject of this series of posts, had vanished without trace. In 1854, evidence of disaster, of cannibalism and degradation had been returned to England by the beastly Dr Orcadian working for the Hudson Bay Company. The record had to be set straight...and the good order of the universe restored!

Murray's triumphant, beautiful publication of McClintock's book was only one element of a fierce PR campaign by Lady Franklin. Queen Victoria and Albert met the Fox on its return...and there was no way the message was not going to be positive. And just in case the plain facts of McClintock's journal didn't do the trick, the text is bolstered and interpreted in advance by a couple of 'spin doctors'. First, an Admiralty letter recognizing McClintock's triumph, and giving the official seal of (retrospective and grudging) approval to what had been a private and unofficial voyage.

(The Admiralty had given up on Franklin years before...but now they were anxious to add their voice to this panegyric affirmation of the only acceptable truth):

"I am commanded by my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to acquaint you that, in consideration of the important services performed by you in bringing home the only authentic intelligence of the death of the late Sir John Franklin and the fate of the crews of the Erebus and Terror, Her Majesty has been sanction the time you [McClintock] were absent on these discoveries in the Arctic Regions, viz. from the 30th June 1857 to the 21st September 1859, to reckon as time served by a captain in command of one of her Majesty's Ships, and my Lords have given the necessary directions accordingly..."

So McClintock and his men aren't going to lose their Navy Pay after all. There follows a second preface to the main narrative, also by the Admiralty,which starts:

'The following narrative of the bold adventure which has successfully revealed the last discoveries and the fate of Franklin, is published at the request of the friends of that illustrious navigator. The gallant McClintock,when he had penned his journal amid the Arctic ices, had no idea whatever of publishing it...he and his companions have cleared up this great mystery.
To the honour of the British nation, and also let it be said to that of the United States of America, many have been the efforts made to discover the route followed by our missing explorers. The highly deserving men who have so zealously searched the Arctic seas and lands in this cause must now rejoice that the merit of rescuing from the frozen north the record of the last days of Franklin, has fallen to the share of his noble minded widow.

Lady Franklin has shown indeed what a devoted and true-hearted Englishwoman can accomplish. The moment that relics of the expedition were brought home (in 1854) by Rae, and that she heard of the account given to him by the Esquimaux of a large party of Englishmen having been seen struggling with difficulties near the mouth of the Back or Great Fish River, she resolved to expend all her available means (already much exhausted by four other independent expeditions) in an exploration of the limited area to which the search must thenceforth be necessarily restricted."

Later the preface says that the search lead McClintock to believe Franklin’s party reached...

"as far as lat 70 degrees five minutes north and long 98 degrees 23 minutes west, where the ships were beset, it is clear that he [Franklin], who, with others, had previously ascertained the existence of a channel along the north coast of America, with which the sea wherein he was interred had a direct communication, was the first real discoverer of the North West passage. This great fact must therefore be inscribed upon the monument of Franklin."

The wish has become the fact, and entered the history books: it is now an official fact that Franklin found the Northwest Passage, even though, as I've said in other blogs, it didn't exist.

It said so on the statues, on the monument in Westminster Abbey (that took another ten years of Lady Franklin's lobbying...but she was like a Joanna Lumley by then...they weren't going to say no)...and it said so in the school books. Do follow the Abbey link..the inscription is priceless...

For me, the really compelling Franklin narrative here is hers, not his. She was a better traveller than him (she went round the world...she was in the Crimea, Egypt, Syria...)...she was the first white woman to walk from Melbourne to Sydney...but she was also instrumental in his failure as Governor of Van Diemen's Land, and in promoting him to lead the last expedition...and so in his death...and those of his companions...

and then, perhaps in expiation, in creating his legend.

She had ships named for her, plays written...she wasn't Penelope at all...she was Odysseus. And an extraordinary, terrible Englishwoman. If I was going to write a play about all this, she would be the main character in it.

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