Creating Myth: The Franklin Expedition

by Colleen Mondor

I first learned about Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin in a college course named "Polar Exploration and its Literature." I was struck then by how much of polar history was affected by this rather ordinary couple who seemed destined to largely unremarkable lives but found themselves, one dead and one alive, as the center of arctic exploration for decades. How this came to be, and how so much of it was due to the inability of the British government and people to relinquish faith in myths they needed to be true reveals much about the conflict between nature and myth in the mid–nineteenth century. Over 150 years later, the Franklin expedition still elicits endless mystery and sparks stories where the questions of why and how are asked again and again.

When John Franklin departed England in 1845 with 123 men and two ships he was just another in a line of British naval officers seeking the Northwest Passage. This was not his first journey to the north, but he had been out of the region for 16 years in a variety of bureaucratic jobs and was 59 years old. He was not the first choice for the mission but he was the only politically acceptable one. It didn’t hurt that Lady Jane successfully petitioned everyone involved in the decision, as she was determined to obtain this assignment for her husband as a way to capture glory she felt he had long been denied. The expedition was sold to the British public as the greatest and most technologically modern effort to find the passage; it could not fail. The President of the Geographical Society, Roderick Murchison, spoke for many at the time when he said, "I have the fullest confidence that everything will be done for the promotion of science, and for the honor of the British name and navy, that human efforts can accomplish. The name Franklin alone is, indeed, a national guarantee."

Two years later the Erebus and Terror were long overdue and, for all intents and purposes, had simply vanished.

The north was seen as far more than a geographic destination long before the Franklin expedition. The Northwest Passage was always about being first, just as the North Pole itself would be in the following century. While everyone wanted to find an open water route for strictly commercial purposes, they wanted to be first for far more significant ones. "It would be somewhat mortifying," said John Barrow, when considering other countries, "if a naval power but of yesterday should complete a discovery in the nineteenth century, which so happily commenced by Englishmen in the sixteenth." Barrow was Second Secretary of the Admiralty and from that perch he directed Arctic exploration. The passage had to exist because he believed it did (he also believed in the Open Polar Sea), and it would be found by the British navy because there was no one better to find it. This firm conviction the British navy had in its own superiority was awesome to behold and contributed a great deal to its almost complete lack of knowledge about the north. When accomplished British whaler William Scoresby first broached the subject of the passage with the Admiralty in 1810, he cautioned that conditions in the Arctic changed from one year to the next, thus making discovery of the passage difficult at best. He was rebuffed in his offers to lead an expedition, however, as he did not carry the appropriate upper class credentials and also because he refused to endorse the myth of the Open Polar Sea, something that was critical to British planning but that Scoresby knew from firsthand experience in the north could not possibly exist. Thus, valuable firsthand knowledge of the region was ignored for the dreams of those who relied upon the open sea story to make the passage more possible.

(Scoresby’s reputation did not suffer from his antagonistic relationship with Barrow and indeed found literary immortality when fan Philip Pullman gave his name to the explorer Lee Scoresby in the His Dark Materials trilogy.)

The ironclad belief in the power of the British navy against all odds and in defiance of all reason died hard, on the rare occasion when it was allowed to die at all. As the years went by and the Franklin expedition did not return, Lady Jane galvanized public response and threw all of her collective power as dedicated wife and loyal British subject into spearheading a massive rescue effort to find him and his men, whom all were convinced must be alive.In this endeavor she was aided not only by Franklin’s fellow explorers (many of whom had personal friends among his crew), but by the media as well. As Martin Sandler recounts in his comprehensive and highly readable history of the expedition, Resolute, "Newspapers became filled with accounts of past expeditions, of northern discoveries already made, of the ways in which the passage–seekers were bringing greater glory to the nation than even the most honored military heroes, all wrapped around the burning question — where was Franklin?"

Over the next several years one of the greatest search efforts in maritime history unfolded. By modern calculations, the British government spent over 40 million dollars trying to find Franklin and ten ships and at least a dozen searchers were lost in the process. The Americans also launched numerous expeditions, one of which produced its own legendary explorer, Elisha Kent Kane, and another that spawned a tale both bizarre and tragic. Over the years, as explorers continued to crisscross the Arctic in search of clues to the mystery, Franklin was easily elevated to legendary status. John Franklin became the quintessential lost explorer and, as the years went by, his story became less that of a career bureaucrat who was grossly unprepared for his journey and more the story of the British navy itself. He was not a memorable man in real life and yet somehow, in failing so spectacularly, Franklin became greater than all the successful explorers who traveled before (and after) him. As Roald Amundsen later wrote, "What appealed to me most were the sufferings that John Franklin and his men had to endure. A strange ambition burned within me, to endure the same privations. . . .I decided to be an explorer." In death Franklin became a hero to thousands, as long as everyone ignored how preventable his tragedy was, and how many other men had to die in pursuit of his expedition’s sad and ignoble truth.

Dan Simmons used the Franklin expedition for the collision of multiple northern myths in his recent thriller, The Terror. Opening in October 1847, after Franklin is now known to have already died, the book explores not only the complete breakdown of civility among the survivors, but throws in both a Yeti–like killer picking them off one by one and a mysterious mute Inuit woman who not only seems to be possibly controlling the monster, but is a virgin who still manages to be sexually aggressive. Lest readers miss any of the allusions, in the text Simmons retells the story of Sedna,the Inuit Goddess of the Sea whose origin myth explains the creation of fish, seals, whales and other sea creatures and whose appeasement was necessary to ensure fair weather and good hunting. Sedna, a beautiful woman who suffered great pain and disfigurement through the callous treatment of her father, demanded that her subjects travel through great peril to pay homage to her. This was a lesson that seems to illustrate the entire search for the Northwest Passage and explains the suffering inherent in all such heroic journeys — but particularly those in the north.

There are two key points in the Franklin myth that Simmons specifically addresses in his book, however: the reliance on cannibalism to stay alive and the lingering questions surrounding the death of Francis Crozier, the captain of the Erebus and the officer who was known to assume overall command upon Franklin’s death. The Inuit swore for years that a white stranger was seen near many of their villages, and British explorer Frederick Schwatka was convinced when he was told the stories that it was Crozier who apparently survived but chose not to be rescued. While no one could explain why he would do this — other than the inherent trauma from seeing so many men under his command die in horrible conditions —Simmons uses fiction to suggest that it is not the possibility of shame ("He will always be the captain who let all his men die") that prevents him from seeking civilization, it is for love. "He has to believe that his dreams — mere dreams — and that his love for this woman should make him surrender a lifetime of rationality to become…Become what? Someone and something else."

For Simmons, Crozier was the one given the chance to love the human incarnation of Sedna, and, because she offered him a combination of wildness (especially when it came to sex) and domesticity (a long held myth about native women), he chose to stay. This is what trumped Crozier’s commitment to God and country, and even more significantly, his promise to the British navy.