Monday, 7 June 2010

Englishmen on Ice (Part 18) - The modern search for Franklin's Bones.

'Unravelling The Franklin Mystery - Inuit Testimony' by David C Woodman, McGill-Queen's University Press 1991

If any of this stuff on Franklin et al has been interesting, I must recommend the above as the single most interesting book I've read on the 19th Century search for the North West Passage.

Woodman meticulously reconstructs the Franklin narrative into discreet episodes and locations...and his suppositions have the advantages of detail, and of decisions, desperate and logical, being made.

How can he possibly do this, 150 years on...?

It's very simple. He simply takes seriously the gathered testimony of the witnesses.

Witnesses, cry the ghosts of McClintock, Lady Franklin and Charles Dickens...(see previous posts) What witnesses are you talking about?

Inuits...or "Esquimaux" as the 19th Century would have it. Dr Rae, the Orcadian who brought back the first evidence of the expedition's demise (Posts 11 and 12), had heard the story and got artefacts from the Esquimaux. What Woodman has done, is to gather Rae's, and other, later Inuit narratives, and take them seriously. Simple, really.

He, and the recovered testimony of the "savages", make a compelling narrative...if necessarily an heuristic one. As he says himself:

"The problem with Inuit traditions does not in the end have much to do with whether they are 'true' in the historical sense.We cannot even remotely approach a verdict on any of them 'beyond a reasonable doubt'. The difficulty lies only in determining which truth we are hearing - whether Kokllarngnun visited Parry, Ross or Franklin - and in deciphering testimony concerning identically named places like "Omanek" or "Shartoo".

These were events WITHIN the Inuit world, is what he's saying...and the significance of events and chronology is consequently framed within a narrative that serves different societal purposes, from the societal purpose served, for example, by McClintock's "Voyage of the Fox", just as did Dickens' version of the only possible truth as Published in his magazine 'Household Words' .

(Sorry to keep referring you back to previous entries, but I think it's worth it, I really do.)

Woodman concludes his evidence based reconstruction of the disaster like this:

"The crews of the Erebus and Terror were simply in a no win situation. They found an open passage which was unknown to their contemporaries, and which treacherously froze solid behind them...those sent to their aid incorrectly concluded that this passage was non-existent. The Erebus and terror became trapped in what was possibly the least favoured spot in the Canadian Arctic. A similarly equipped modern group, knowing what we do today, might not fare any better... if they came to grief in Poctes Bay, then Victoria Strait was the only alternative.

If Crozier led his men in search of fresh meat, then he also went the right way. (they may have been responding to the tinned meat being inedible and actually poisonous). The stories of the final survivors living with Too-shoo-art-theriu could indicate that at least some of the men absorbed as much of the native ways as they could...
Finally Woodman reflects:

"a letter written by Willem Barents, the intrepid Dutch explorer who spent the winter of 1595 at Ice Haven on Novaya Zemlya was recovered intact in 1871, 276 years later.

I have little doubt that somewhere, probably ten feet from the remains of a once prominent marker, a Franklin record was similarly buried in the permafrost. When discovered, it will render all speculative books, this one included, obsolete. "

Next, and finally on my own Arctic Exploration, some reflections on what I might make of all this, if I were to make anything at all...did I find the North West Passage in the John Murray Archive?

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