Death on the Ice

Can I enthusiastically recommend the current (until 7 January 2018) ‘Death in the Ice’ exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich? It contains some fantastic Stuff (including artefacts found in the ongoing investigations of the recently discovered wrecks of the Erebus and Terror) but the layout and interpretation of the whole tragic and enthralling story are superbly done, especially the demonstration of the terrifying small space of the living quarters on the ships.

An added virtue for me (though not necessarily for the Museum!) is that in the three hours I spent there wandering round (and sitting down from time to time) there were only two other visitors in the same section as me. My only frustration was that I couldn’t take photos (understandable, because of the number of loan items, mostly from Canadian museums), and so had to scribble notes – though the very well produced and extremely reasonably priced little guidebook helped make up for this.

I became interested in the fate of Franklin at an early age, and have read a number of the contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of the expedition, the dozens of subsequent searches, and the extraordinary impact they made (largely thanks to the efforts of the devoted and redoubtable Lady Franklin) upon the general public both in Britain and in the United States. Now, the amazing discovery of the wrecks of both ships, in remarkably sound condition, has of course brought the whole saga back into the public eye, and offered the tantalising prospect of adding a few more pieces to the still baffling jigsaw of what really happened.

In no particular order, some of the most striking facts and artefacts for me were:

A small fragment of striped knitting, presumably from a larger garment, and remarkably similar in style – stocking stitch using very fine wool and slender needles – to the caps buried with Dutch whalers on Spitzbergen, now on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

A packet of needles, ‘Superfine Whitechapel Sharps No. 3’, made by F. Barnes and Co. London. Very large numbers of such packets were taken on the voyage, for trading with the Inuit, who valued them as finer and sharper than their own bone needles. The manufacturer may have been F. Barnes of Fenchurch Street and Birmingham, who gave evidence to the 1832 Select Committee of the House of Lords on the London and Birmingham Railway Bill (Engineers, Messrs George Stephenson and Son) about the need for timely and reliable transport for his heavy products, which wagons or stagecoaches could not supply. (There are several examples of iron from the wrecks being repurposed by the Inuit for knife blades and arrowheads.)

The lid of a tin which contained ‘Edwards Preserved Potato’, embossed with the Royal Arms. In 1852, The Lancet reported on the Analytical Sanitary Survey’s examination of various preserved foods, of which Edwards’ product was the tenth sample. It received glowing recommendations, including one from the ‘Officers and Surgeons of H.M.S. Resolute, Assistance, Pioneer, Intrepid’ – the Franklin search expedition of 1850–1, led by Horatio Thomas Austin.

One of the medical theories which try to explain the disaster was that the lead solder used to seal the tins weakened the crew by poisoning them. Another is that the seal failed, and botulism contaminated the content of the tins. Or there was scurvy … the pros and cons of all the theories are explored in the exhibition, and no consensus is arrived at.

A stunning portrait of Mikak and her son Tukauk, commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks from John Russell (friend of William Herschel and creator of an amazing portrait of the moon),

and painted in 1769, after this beautiful lady was ‘brought’ from Labrador to Britain in 1767. She and her two children were taken prisoner by a punitive raiding party led by John Lucan of Fort York, but in spite of this she appeared to have enjoyed her enforced stay, being (like Eenoopoalik in the 1840s) patronised by royalty and learning to write and speak English. As far as is known, she was the first Inuk to return from Europe to her home: several other Inuit had died from European diseases, especially smallpox. This remarkable painting is now in the Ethnological Museum of the University of Göttingen, having been given by Banks to his anthropologist friend Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (mentor of Johann Burckhardt) in 1797.

A pair of Staffordshire figures of Sir John and Lady Franklin, probably dating from about 1855. The maker is unknown, but the couple are very much in the tradition of Staffordshire mantelpiece figures of the famous: here are Nelson, from the same period, and Queen Victoria.

The figures show both that the Franklins had achieved a considerable level of celebrity – there was after all no point in making figures of unknown people – and also that Jane Franklin, thanks to her astute and vigorous campaign to keep the lost expedition in the public eye, was equally as well known as her husband.

A page of the diary of C.F. Hall – who himself later died in mysterious circumstances in the Arctic. I knew that Hall believed he had discovered evidence of the gold diggings undertaken by Martin Frobisher in 1578, but not that he heard from the Inuit the story of these Europeans’ arrival – it must have been a startling moment when he realised that the strangers being described were not members of the Franklin party but from the Elizabethan adventuring voyage of three hundred years earlier. Many more instances of the remarkable Inuit oral tradition are given in audio-visual displays throughout the expedition.

I could go on … I haven’t even started on the scientific aspects of the expedition, or the social life on board (which maintained the tradition of Arctic entertainment). One of the most moving displays is in fact outside, on the lawn as you approach the entrance of the National Maritime Museum: a grove of pennants, following the design of one made by Lady Franklin for Lieutenant Bedford Pim of the Resolute expedition, bearing an anchor (symbol of hope) and the motto of Sir John Barrow, sponsor at the Admiralty of so much polar research: ‘Hope on, hope ever’. Pim, on his sledge, bearing the pennant, discovered the ice-bound H.M.S. Investigator, under Robert McClure, whose trapped crew were in danger of death after three years in the ice. There are 129 pennants on the lawn, one for each of the crewmen who died, giving their name, rank and age where known: the eldest is Franklin himself (59 at the time of his death), the youngest, three ‘ship’s boys’, aged 18.


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1 Response to Death on the Ice

  1. Pingback: Fool’s Gold | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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