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Ch. 4: Sir John Franklin

THE MEMORABLE EXPLOITS OF SIR JOHN FRANKLIN

The generation now passing away can vividly recall, as one of the deepest impressions of its childhood, the profound and sustained interest excited by the mysterious fate of Sir John Franklin. His splendid record by sea and land, the fact that he was one of 'Nelson's men' and had fought at Copenhagen and Trafalgar, his feats as an explorer in the unknown wilds of North America and the torrid seas of Australasia, and, more than these, his high Christian courage and his devotion to the flag and country that he served—all had made of Franklin a hero whom the nation delighted to honour. His departure in 1846 with his two stout ships the Erebus and the Terror and a total company of one hundred and thirty-four men, including some of the ablest naval officers of the day, was hailed with high hopes that the mysterious north would at length be robbed of its secret. Then, as the years passed and the ships never returned, and no message from the explorers came out of the silent north, the nation, defiant of difficulty and danger, bent its energies towards the discovery of their fate. No less than forty-two expeditions were sent out in search of the missing ships. The efforts of the government were seconded by the munificence of private individuals, and by the generosity of naval officers who gladly gave their services for no other reward than the honour of the enterprise. The energies of the rescue parties were quickened by the devotion of Lady Franklin, who refused to abandon hope, and consecrated her every energy and her entire fortune to the search for her lost husband. Her conduct and her ardent appeals awoke a chivalrous spirit at home and abroad; men such as Kane, Bellot, M'Clintock and De Haven volunteered their services in the cause. At length, as with the passage of years anxiety deepened into despair, and as little by little it was learned that all were lost, the brave story of the death of Franklin and his men wrote itself in imperishable letters on the hearts of their fellow-countrymen. It found no parallel till more than half a century later, when another and a similar tragedy in the silent snows of the Antarctic called forth again the mingled pride and anguish with which Britain honours the memory of those fallen in her cause.

John Franklin belonged to the school of naval officers trained in the prolonged struggle of the great war with France. He entered the Royal Navy in 1800 at fourteen years of age, and within a year was engaged on his ship, the Polyphemus, in the great sea-fight at Copenhagen. During the brief truce that broke the long war after 1801, Franklin served under Flinders, the great explorer of the Australasian seas. On his way home in 1803 he was shipwrecked in Torres Strait, and, with ninety-three others of the company of H.M.S. Porpoise, was cast up on a sandbar, seven hundred and fifty miles from the nearest port. The party were rescued, Franklin reached England, and at once set out on a voyage to the China seas in the service of the East India Company. During the voyage the merchant fleet with which he sailed offered battle to a squadron of French men-of-war, which fled before them. The next year saw Franklin serving as signal midshipman on board the Bellerophon at Trafalgar. He remained in active service during the war, served in America, and was wounded in the British attempt to capture New Orleans. After the war Franklin, now a lieutenant, found himself, like so many other naval officers, unable, after the stirring life of the past fifteen years, to settle into the dull routine of peace service. Maritime discovery, especially since his voyage with Flinders, had always fascinated his mind, and he now offered himself for service in that Arctic region with which his name will ever be associated.

The long struggle of the war had halted the progress of discoveries in the northern seas. But on the conclusion of peace the attention of the nation, and of naval men in particular, was turned again towards the north. The Admiralty naturally sought an opportunity of giving honourable service to their officers and men. Great numbers of them had been thrown out of employment. Some migrated to the colonies or even took service abroad. At the same time the writings of Captain Scoresby, a whaling captain of scientific knowledge who published an account of the Greenland seas, and the influence of such men as Sir John Barrow, the secretary of the Admiralty, did much to create a renewal of public interest in the north. It was now recognized that the North-West Passage offered no commercial attractions. But it was felt that it would not be for the honour of the nation that the splendid discoveries of Hearne, Cook and Mackenzie should remain uncompleted. To trace the Arctic water-way from the Atlantic to the Pacific became now a supreme object, not of commercial interest, but of geographical research and of national pride. To this was added the fact that the progress of physical and natural science was opening up new fields of investigation for the explorers of the north.

Franklin first sailed north in 1818, as second in command of the first Arctic expedition of the nineteenth century. Two brigs, H.M.S. Dorothea under Captain Buchan, and H.M.S. Trent under Lieutenant John Franklin, set out from the Thames with a purpose which in audacity at least has never been surpassed. The new sentiment of supreme confidence in the navy inspired by the conquest of the seas is evinced by the fact that these two square-rigged sailing ships, clumsy and antiquated, built up with sundry extra beams inside and iron bands without, were directed to sail straight north across the North Pole and down the world on the other side. They did their best. They went churning northward through the foaming seas, and when they found that the ice was closing in on them, and that they were being blown down upon it in a gale as on to a lee shore, the order was given to put the helm up and charge full speed at the ice. It was the only possible way of escape, and it meant either sudden and awful death under the ice floes or else the piling up of the ships safe on top of them—'taking the ice' as Arctic sailors call it. The Dorothea and the Trent went driving at the ice with such a gale of snow about them that neither could see the other as they ran. They 'took the ice' with a mighty crash, amid a wild confusion of the elements, and when the storm cleared the two old hulls lay shattered but safe on the surface of the ice-pack. The whole larboard side of the Dorothea was smashed, but they brought her somehow to Spitzbergen, and there by wonderful patching enabled her to sail home.

The next year (1819) Lieutenant Franklin was off again on an Arctic journey, the record of which, written by himself, forms one of the most exciting stories of adventure ever written. The design this time was to follow the lead of Hearne and Mackenzie. Beginning where their labours ended, Franklin proposed to embark on the polar sea in canoes and follow the coast line. Franklin left England at the end of May. He was accompanied by Dr Richardson, a naval surgeon, afterwards Sir John Richardson, and second only to Franklin himself as an explorer and writer, Midshipman Back, later on to be Admiral Sir George Back, Midshipman Hood, and one Hepburn, a stout-hearted sailor of the Royal Navy. They sailed in the Hudson's Bay Company ship Prince of Wales, and passed through the straits to York Factory. Thence by canoe they went inland, up the Hayes river, through Lake Winnipeg and thence up the Saskatchewan to Cumberland House, a Hudson's Bay fort established by Samuel Hearne a few years after his famous journey. From York Factory to Cumberland House was a journey of six hundred and ninety miles. But this was only a beginning. During the winter of 1819-20 Franklin and his party made their way from Cumberland House to Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabaska, a distance, by the route traversed, of eight hundred and fifty-seven miles. From this fort the party, accompanied by Canadian voyageurs and Indian guides, made their way, in the summer of 1820, to Fort Providence, a lonely post of the North-West Company lying in latitude 62° on the northern shore of the Great Slave Lake.

These were the days of rivalry, and even open war, between the two great fur companies, the Hudson's Bay and the North-West. The Admiralty had commended Franklin's expeditions to the companies, who were to be requisitioned for the necessary supplies. But the disorders of the fur trade, and the demoralization of the Indians, owing to the free distribution of ardent spirits by the rival companies, rendered it impossible for the party to obtain adequate supplies and stores. Undeterred by difficulties, Franklin set out from Fort Providence to make his way to the Arctic seas at the mouth of the Coppermine. The expedition reached the height of land between the Great Slave Lake and the Coppermine, on the borders of the country which had been the scene of Hearne's exploits. The northern forest is here reduced to a thin growth of stunted pine and willow. It was now the end of August. The brief northern summer was drawing to its close. It was impossible to undertake the navigation of the Arctic coast till the ensuing summer. Franklin and his party built some rude log shanties which they called Fort Enterprise. Here, after having traversed over two thousand miles in all from York Factory, they spent their second winter in the north. It was a season of great hardship. With the poor materials at their hand it was impossible to make their huts weatherproof. The wind whistled through the ill-plastered seams of the logs. So intense was the winter cold that the trees about the fort froze hard to their centres. In cutting firewood the axes splintered as against stone. In the officers' room the thermometer, sixteen feet from the log fire, marked as low as fifteen degrees below zero in the day and forty below at night. For food the party lived on deer's meat with a little fish, tea twice a day (without sugar), and on Sunday a cup of chocolate as the luxury of the week to every man. But, undismayed by cold and hardship, they kept stoutly at their work. Richardson investigated the mosses and lichens beneath the snow and acquainted himself with the mineralogy of the neighbourhood. Franklin and the two lieutenants carried out observations, their fingers freezing with the cold of forty-six below zero at noon of the brief three-hour day in the heart of winter. Sunday was a day of rest. The officers dressed in their best attire. Franklin read the service of the Church of England to his assembled company. For the French-Canadian Roman Catholics, Franklin did the best he could; he read to them the creed of the Church of England in French. In the leisure part of the day a bundle of London newspapers was perused again and again.

The winter passed safely; the party now entered upon the most arduous part of their undertaking. Canoes were built and dragged on improvised sledges to the Coppermine. Franklin descended the river, surveying its course as he went. He passed by the scene of the massacre witnessed by Hearne, and found himself, late in July of 1821, on the shores of the Arctic. The distance from Fort Enterprise was three hundred and thirty-four miles, for one hundred and seventeen of which the canoes and baggage had been hauled over snow and ice.

Franklin and his followers, in two canoes, embarked on the polar sea and traced the course of the coast eastward for five hundred and fifty miles. The sailors were as men restored to their own element. But the Canadian voyageurs were filled with dread at the great waves of the open ocean. All that Franklin saw of the Arctic coast encouraged his belief that the American continent is separated by stretches of sea from the great masses of land that had been already discovered in the Arctic. The North-West Passage, ice-blocked and useless, was still a geographical fact. Eager in the pursuit of his investigations he went on eastward as long as he dared—too long in fact. Food was running low. His voyageurs had lost heart, appalled at the immense spaces of ice and sea through which their frail canoes went onward into the unknown. Reluctantly, Franklin decided to turn back. But it was too late to return by water. The northern gales drove the ice in against the coast. Franklin and his men, dragging and carrying one of the canoes, took to the land, in order to make their way across the barren grounds. By this means they hoped to reach the upper waters of the Coppermine and thence Fort Enterprise, where supplies were to have been placed for them during the summer. Their journey was disastrous. Bitter cold set in as they marched. Food failed them. Day after day they tramped on, often with blinding snow in their faces, with no other sustenance than the bitter weed called tripe de roche that can here and there be scraped from the rocks beneath the snow. At times they found frozen remnants of deer that had been killed by wolves, a few bones with putrid meat adhering to them. These they eagerly devoured. But often day after day passed without even this miserable sustenance. At night they lay down beside a clump of willows, trying, often in vain, to make a fire of the green twigs dragged from under the snow. So great was their famine, Franklin says, that the very sensation of hunger passed away, leaving only an exhaustion too great for words. Lieutenant Back, gaunt and emaciated, staggered forward leaning on a stick, refusing to give in. Richardson could hardly walk, while Lieutenant Hood, emaciated to the last degree, was helped on by his comrades as best they could. The Canadians and Indians suffered less in body, but, lacking the stern purpose of the officers, they were distraught with the horror of the death that seemed to await them. In their fear they had refused to carry the canoe, and had smashed it and thrown it aside. In this miserable condition the party reached, on September 26, the Coppermine river, to find it flowing still unfrozen in an angry flood which they could not cross. In vain they ranged the banks above and below. Below them was a great lake; beside and above them a swift, deep current broken by rapids. There was no crossing. They tried to gather willow faggots, and bind them into a raft. But the green wood sank so easily that only one man could get upon the raft: to paddle or pole it in the running water was impossible. A line was made of strips of skin, and Richardson volunteered to swim the river so as to haul the raft across with the line. The bitter cold of the water paralysed his limbs. He was seen to sink beneath the leaping waters. His companions dragged him back to the bank, where for hours he lay as if lifeless beside the fire of willow branches, so emaciated that he seemed a mere skeleton when they took off his wet clothing. His comrades gazed at him with a sort of horror. Thus for days they waited. At last, with infinite patience, one of the Canadians made a sort of canoe with willow sticks and canvas. In this, with a line attached, they crossed the river one by one.

They were now only forty miles from Fort Enterprise. But their strength was failing. Hood could not go on. The party divided. Franklin and Back went forward with most of the men, while Richardson and sailor Hepburn volunteered to stay with Hood till help could be sent. The others left them in a little tent, with some rounds of ammunition and willow branches gathered for the fire. A little further on the march, three of Franklin's followers, too exhausted to go on, dropped out, proposing to make their way back to Richardson and Hood.

The little party at the tent in the snow waited in vain. Days passed, and no help came. One of the three men who had left Franklin, an Indian called Michel, joined them, saying that the others had gone astray in the snow. But he was strange and sullen, sleeping apart and wandering off by himself to hunt. Presently, from the man's strange talk and from some meat which he brought back from his hunting and declared to be part of a wolf, Richardson realized the awful truth that Michel had killed his companions and was feeding on their bodies. A worse thing followed. Richardson and Hepburn, gathering wood a few days later, heard the report of a gun from beside the fire where they had left Lieutenant Hood, who was now in the last stage of exhaustion. They returned to find Michel beside the dead body of their comrade. He had been shot through the back of the head. Michel swore that Hood had killed himself. Richardson knew the truth, but both he and Hepburn were too enfeebled by privation to offer fight to the armed and powerful madman. The three set out for Fort Enterprise, Michel carrying a loaded gun, two pistols and a bayonet, muttering to himself and evidently meditating a new crime. Richardson, a man of iron nerve, forestalled him. Watching his opportunity, he put a pistol to the Indian's head and blew his brains out.

Richardson and Hepburn dragged themselves forward mile by mile, encouraged by the thought of the blazing fires and the abundant food that they expected to find at Fort Enterprise. They reached the fort just in the dusk of an October evening. All about it was silence. There were no tracks in the newly fallen snow. Only a thin thread of smoke from the chimney gave a sign of life. Hurriedly they made their way in. To their horror and dismay they found Franklin and three companions, two Canadians and an Indian, stretched out in the last stages of famine. 'No words can convey an idea,' wrote Dr Richardson later on, 'of the filth and wretchedness that met our eyes on looking around. Our own misery had stolen upon us by degrees and we were accustomed to the contemplation of each other's emaciated figures, but the ghastly countenances, dilated eye-balls, and sepulchral voices of Captain Franklin and those with him were more than we could bear.' Franklin, on his part, was equally dismayed at the appearance of Richardson and Hepburn. 'We were all shocked,' he says in his journal, 'at beholding the emaciated countenances of the doctor and Hepburn, as they strongly evidenced their extremely debilitated state. The alteration in our appearance was equally distressing to them, for since the swellings had subsided we were little more than skin and bone. The doctor particularly remarked the sepulchral tone of our voices, which he requested us to make more cheerful if possible, unconscious that his own partook of the same key.'

Franklin related to the new-comers how he and his followers had reached Fort Enterprise, and to their infinite disappointment and grief had found it perfectly desolate. There was no depot of provisions, as had been arranged, nor any trace of a letter or other message from the traders at Fort Providence or from the Indians. Lieutenant Back, who had reached the fort a little in advance of Franklin, had gone on in the hope of finding Indian hunters, or perhaps of reaching Fort Providence and sending relief. They had no food except a little tripe de roche, and Franklin had thus found himself, as he explained to Richardson, in the deserted fort with five companions, in a state of utter destitution. Food there was none. From the refuse heaps of the winter before, now buried under the snow, they dug out pieces of bone and a few deer-skins; on this, with a little tripe de roche, they endeavoured to subsist. The log house was falling into decay. The seams gaped and the piercing air entered on every side with the thermometer twenty below zero. Franklin and his companions had tried in vain to stop the chinks and to make a fire by tearing up the rough boards of the floor. But their strength was insufficient. Already for two weeks before their arrival at Fort Enterprise they had had no meat. It was impossible that they could have existed long in the miserable shelter of the deserted fort. Franklin had endeavoured to go on. Leaving three of his companions, now too exhausted to walk far, he and the other two, a Canadian and an Eskimo, set out to try to reach help in the direction of Fort Providence. The snow was deep, and their strength was so far gone that in six hours they only struggled four miles on their way. At night they lay down beside one another in the snow, huddled together for warmth, with a bitter wind blowing over their emaciated bodies. The next morning, in recommencing their march, Franklin stumbled and fell, breaking his snow-shoe in the fall. Realizing that he could never hope to traverse the one hundred and eighty-six miles to Fort Providence, he directed his companions to go on, and he himself made his way back to Fort Enterprise. There he had remained for a fortnight until found by Richardson and Hepburn. So weak had Franklin and his three companions become that they could not find the strength to go on cutting down the log buildings of the fort to make a fire. Adam, the Indian, lay prostrate in his bunk, his body covered with hideous swellings. The two Canadians, Peltier and Samandré, suffered such pain in their joints that they could scarcely move a step. A herd of deer had appeared on the ice of the river near by, but none of the men had strength to pursue them, nor could any one of them, said Franklin, have found the strength to raise a gun and fire it.

Such had been the position of things when Richardson and Hepburn, themselves almost in the last stage of exhaustion, found their unhappy comrades. Richardson was a man of striking energy, of the kind that knows no surrender. He set himself to gather wood, built up a blazing fire, dressed as well as he could the swollen body of the Indian, and tried to bring some order into the filth and squalor of the hut. Hepburn meantime had killed a partridge, which the doctor then divided among them in six parts, the first fresh meat that Franklin and those with him had tasted for thirty-one days. This done, 'the doctor,' so runs Franklin's story, 'brought out his prayer book and testament, and some prayers and psalms and portions of scripture appropriate to the situation were read.'

But beyond the consolation of manifesting a brave and devout spirit, there was little that Richardson could do for his companions. The second night after his arrival Peltier died. There was no strength left in the party to lift his body out into the snow. It lay beside them in the hut, and before another day passed Samandré, the other Canadian, lay dead beside it. For a week the survivors remained in the hut, waiting for death. Then at last, and just in time, help reached them.

On November 7, nearly a month after Franklin's first arrival at the fort, they heard the sound of a musket and the shouting of men outside. Three Indians stood before the door. The valiant Lieutenant Back, after sufferings almost as great as their own, had reached a band of Indian hunters and had sent three men travelling at top speed with enough food to keep the party alive till further succour could be brought. Franklin and his friends were saved by one of the narrowest escapes recorded in the history of northern adventure. Another week passed before the relief party of the Indians reached them, and even then Franklin and his companions were so enfeebled by privation that they could only travel with difficulty, and a month passed before they found themselves safe and sound within the shelter of Fort Providence on the Great Slave Lake. There they remained till the winter passed. A seven weeks' journey took them to York Factory on Hudson Bay, whence they sailed to England. Franklin's journey overland and on the waters of the polar sea had covered in all five thousand five hundred and fifty miles and had occupied nearly three years.

On his return to England Franklin found himself at once the object of a wide public interest. Already during his absence he had been made a commander, and the Admiralty now promoted him to the rank of captain, while the national recognition of his services was shortly afterwards confirmed by the honour of knighthood. One might think that after the perils which he had braved and the horrors which he had experienced, Sir John would have been content to retire upon his laurels. But it was not so. There is something in the snow-covered land of the Arctic, its isolation from the world and the long silence of its winter darkness, that exercises a strange fascination upon those who have the hardihood to brave its perils. It was a moment too when interest in Arctic discovery and the advancement thereby of scientific knowledge had reached the highest point yet known. During Franklin's absence Captain Ross and Lieutenant Parry had been sent by sea into the Arctic waters. Parry had met with wonderful success, striking from Baffin Bay through the northern archipelago and reaching half-way to Bering Strait.

Franklin was eager to be off again. The year 1825 saw him start once more to resume the survey of the polar coast of America. The plan now was to learn something of the western half of the North American coast, so as to connect the discoveries of Sir Alexander Mackenzie with those made by Cook and others through Bering Strait. Franklin was again accompanied by his gallant friend, Dr Richardson. They passed again overland through the fur country, where the recent union of the rival companies had brought about a new era. They descended the Mackenzie river, wintered on Great Bear Lake, and descended thence to the sea. Franklin struck out westward, his party surveying the coast in open boats. Their journey from their winter quarters to the sea and along the coast covered a thousand miles, and extended to within one hundred and sixty miles of the point that had then been reached by explorers from Bering Strait. At the same time Richardson, going eastward from the Mackenzie, surveyed the coast as far as the Coppermine river. Their discoveries thus connected the Pacific waters with the Atlantic, with the exception of one hundred and sixty miles on the north-west, where water was known to exist and only ice blocked the way, and of a line north and south which should bring the discoveries of Parry into connection with those of Franklin. These two were the missing links now needed in the chain of the North-West Passage.

But more than twenty years were to elapse before the discoveries thus made were carried to their completion. Franklin himself, claimed by other duties, was unable to continue his work in the Arctic, and his appointment to the governorship of Tasmania called him for a time to another sphere. Yet, little by little, the exploration of the Arctic regions was carried on, each explorer adding something to what was already known, and each hoping that the honour of the discovery of the great passage would fall to his lot. Franklin's comrade Back, now a captain and presently to be admiral, made his way in 1834 from Canada to the polar sea down the river that bears his name. Three years later Simpson, in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, succeeded in traversing the coast from the Mackenzie to Point Barrow, completing the missing link in the western end of the chain. John and James Ross brought the exploration of the northern archipelago to a point that made it certain that somewhere or other a way through must exist to connect Baffin Bay with the coastal waters. At last the time came, in 1844, when the British Admiralty determined to make a supreme effort to unite the explorations of twenty-five years by a final act of discovery. The result was the last expedition of Sir John Franklin, glorious in its disaster, and leaving behind it a tale that will never be forgotten while the annals of the British nation remain.

Stephen Leacock

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