Monday, 7 June 2010

Englishmen on Ice Part Five - Arctic Treasure - Franklin's Notebook 1821

New Treasure. These are some of John Franklin's original notes on his first failed mission to find the Northwest Passage through the seas north of Canada from 1819 t0 1822. They were written in a hut on the Coppermine River while eating his boots...and the lichen off rocks...which they, you're going to love this ..."Tripes des Roches" like it was the choicest item in a Piccadilly resteraunt.

It is how the British got an empire, you know. Blind bravery and NO conception of where they were.

Just to digress a tad into some observation then some speculation...

It was Roald Amudsen, the same Norwegian bounder who had the bad taste not only to get to the South Pole first, before Captain Scott, but also to come back alive with all his men, who actually also earlier had had the sheer lack of sportsmanship to be the first to successfully sail a boat all the way through through the Northwest Passage accross the top of Canada, in 1907, similarly, without loss of life. (Did the man understand NOTHING?)

Amudsen's success in the navigation of the Northwest Passage in 1907, as later in Antarctica in 1912, was founded on his very unBritish (because realistic) assessment of the lunatic nature of the enterprise. To get to the Pole? Well, famously...go fast and dirty...with dogs...hundreds of dogs...who you could feed to the other dogs...while Scott of the Antarctic, like Franklin before him, wanted to go with horses and tractors, like he could turn the place into Surrey or somewhere...

British explorers went to these places not just because they were THERE...but because they wanted to make USE of them...demonstrate that there was nowhere on Earth that an Englishman could not feel at home...

Likewise, it was John Barrow's monomania that the North West Passage would be found to be a practical shipping opposed to a geographical curiosity, that killed all those men. British commercial pragmatism, in this instance, as in so many others, amounted to lunacy.

Amudsen knew the Northwest Passage was an abstraction, that's all...that variable ice melt and movement meant that now this way was navigable...but tomorrow it wouldn't you focus on the practicalities of the lunatic task in hand...and give yourself four years supplies, a small crew, and no expectations of "practical" application of your journey.

An odd example of an acknowledgemt of the abstract, hence Germanic, nature of the enterprise, being paradoxically pragmatic. Or is that a hopelessly tangled thesis. Perhaps I'll develop it later. Or perhaps not.

Meanwhile, on these documents, you can see the water damage and wear, quite faded, written in pencil...not as poignant as Scott's last journal, but much of it written with as little expectation of survival. Looking at the thing you can feel the pain and exhaustion in the faded, blunted pencil can feel the cold.

Hence an arctic treasure that bears the marks of its physical provenance...stained by snow and sweat.

Earlier posts here have looked at the context of that first voyage. This object from the archive speaks of geographical failure, but of cultural success. It sold like hot cakes. Which Franklin could probably have done with at the time.

Likewise, a dose of Norwegian realism would have been handy for the expeditions that followed Franklin on an expedition to find something that was never there : a viable trade route accross the top of America, as we'll see...

Next time, a quick glance at the contents of Franklin's bestseller...before we go on, deeper and deeper into desolation...

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