Monday, 7 June 2010

Englishmen on Ice 16 - Voyage of the Fox - the message in the tin

Continuing my series on the tangled, pretty much ghastly, history of 19th Century Arctic exploration as recounted in the publications and Archive of John Murray:

Francis McClintocks' book of 1859, which is the climax of this sequence, 'The Voyage of the Fox' does exactly what it promises - it really is 'a narrative of the discovery of the fate of John Franklin'.

(Franklin's 1845 Expedition had vanished into a wilderness of rumour and tales of cannibalism, as outlined in previous entries)

The book is beautifully produced, and has a pocket in the inside cover containing one of the nicest maps I've ever seen - which is pictured here. It is written in the plain prose of the English hero. It is based on daily journal entries but with a terrific forward narrative sense. Published very quickly after his return, the writing was an essential element of the expedition. Perhaps the central element. McClintock was going out there, after all, to find and tell a story.

And the Voyage succeeded. McClintock came back with the story of noble self sacrifice that England wanted to hear. His Lieutenant, Hobson, found a cairn at what was known as Victory Point, and a metal can lying beside it, soldering broken, open to the air, containing a single sheet of paper. Here is the original, courtesy of the excellent online resources of the National Martime Museum.

This was the real find of the voyage- and to this day, this is the only written relic of the lost expedition. McLintock's book contains a quite beautiful facsimile of it...reproduced below...and I hope some of my colleagues here can tell me how it was done...was it photographed? It certainly seems that way. But if so, how did they NOT reproduce the burn marks...? Did the burns happen later? How? Was it the Germans?

A puzzle for another time.

McClintock describes the document on page 283 of the first edition, in his chapter for May 1859...

"In the first place, the record paper was one of the printed forms usually supplied to discovery ships for the purpose of being enclosed in bottles and thrown overboard at sea...blanks being left for the date and position."(The printed form English, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish and German: "Whoever finds this paper is requested to forward it to the Secretary of the Admiralty, London, with a note of the time and place at which it was found; or, if more convenient, to deliver it for that purpose to the British Consul at the nearest port.") McClintock continues:

"The paper has been written on twice, the first time filled out neatly in available space by Lt Gore, and says:

'28th of may, 1847. HM Ships "Erebus and Terror wintered in the ice in lat 70 o5 North, long 98 23 W. Having wintered in 1846-7 at Beechey Island in lat 74 43 28 N, long. 91 39 15 W after having ascended Wellington Channel to lat 77 and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island. Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition. All Well. Party consisting of 2 officers and 6 men left the ships on Monday 24th May 1847' "(an error in dates? we know they wintered at Beechey Island in 1845-6..because burials had been found there and dated... so where were they when this was written? The same place perhaps, but in 1846/7? Sorry...can't resist doing a bit of CSI myself...) Also, this paper must have been taken out from the tin - it was written on again by Fitzjames and Crozier , two officers on the expedition, on April 25th 1848, in a fevered scrawl round the outside reading:

"April 25th 1848 HM ships Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues NNW of this, having been beset since Sept 1846 [6!]. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls under the command of Captain FRM Crozier landed here in lat 69 37' 42" N long 98 41W. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th of June 1847; and the total loss by deaths of the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men signed FRM Crozier Captain and senior officer, James Fitzjames, Captain HMS Erebus".

And a senior officer's endorsement in Crozier's writing:

"and start (on) tomorrow, 26th, for Back's 'Fish River".

The document also says that it has been moved four miles from Point Victory where it had been deposited by the late Lt Gore.

But they must have already been in write twice over on the same piece of paper. To head South from their wrecked ships must have been a last, desperate hope...and sure enough, all that has been found since are bones...or as McClintock puts it:

"A sad tale was never told in fewer words".

The image of the original document found on McClintock's voyage shown in this blog entry is © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

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