Rivers of ink have been written about John Franklin, Fancis Crozier, James Fitzjames and other members of the Franklin last and lost expedition. But not too much have been said about the Ice Master of the HMS Terror, Thomas Blanky. Only few references exist here and there in some books and articles., enough to realize that the poor man spent a long part of his live in Hell.
Thomas Blanky was by then a battered veteran of several Arctic expeditions when he joined the Franklin expedition as Ice Master of the Terror with 45 years. From the William Battersby´s book, about the life of James Fitzjames, I have learnt that Thomas was a Yorkshire man who hid a little mistery which endarkened a bit his own origins. Apparently he concealed his Jewish origins and borne a false surname.
But It is again the almost magical book written by Richard Cyriax which put some light about forgotten details of the Franklin expedition. From his book I have found not only the details of his birth place and date of birth but also data about the Arctic expeditions on which he participated.
He was born in Whitby in 1800 and worked as an able seaman in merchant ships, whalers and in ships of exploration for three Arctic expeditions before getting involved in his last adventure in 1845. His Arctic Curriculum, in chronological order, is the following: he was able seaman in the George Lyon expedition aboard the HMS Griper in 1824, able seaman during the fourth and last Parry expedition to the North Pole in the HMS Hecla in 1827 and as mate during the ardous and hazardous long voyage of John Ross aboard the Victory during the years 1829 to 1833.
|John Ross, unfinished sketch of shelter and boats (1829-1833)|
He addressed a letter from Whalefish island to his wife. Part of those last words were published in the Quarterly Review. Its content said:
" Should we not be at home in the fall of 1848, or early in the spring of 1849 you may anticipate that we had made the passage, or are likely to do so, and if so, it may be form five to six years it might be into the seventh were we return; and should it be so, do not allow any person to dishearten you on the length of our absence, but look forward with hope, that Providence will at length restore us safely to you."
Encouraging words, indeed, which couldn´t be further from the cruel reality which would fall over their heads.
The expectations of Thomas Blanky about the duration and end of the journey cast a weird contrast if you compare them with those last words written by James Reid, his counterpart in the HMS Erebus. Reid told his wife the following:
"It may be two years, it may be three or four, but I am quite willing to go"
"Mr Enderby has been a good friend to me. He will look after you if I should never return"
Thomas Blanky clearly weighed rightly that the expedition could last much more than the time the organizers had imagined. Clearly his previous experience during the four years of the John Ross´s voyage to the Arctic in the Victory had left a deep print in his mind and his point of view was much closer to reality than the one of any other member of the expedition. Despite of that, the fact of having survived the odyssey of struggling for four winters in the Arctic, could have led him to believe that everything was possible and that being captured in the jaws of the Arctic archipielago not necessarilly had to mean death. That could possibily be the reasons wich made his last words look much more optimistic than the Reid´s ones.
Blanky performed the role of a main character during several situations in the John Ross exedition. He participated in several important and long sledge trips during the Victory expedition. He was with James C. Ross when they reached the North Magnetic Pole and he risked his credibility before Ross´s eyes when he spoke on behalf of the men of the expedition after they had abandoned the Victory. While dragging the boats towards Fury Beach the men wanted to propose their Captain to abandon the boats and keep on walking to the Fury Beach food caché only dragging the sledges. John Ross from his side, perceived this as an act of mutiny, and if it not were because Thomas Blanky had deserved the unconditional admiration of the Captain Ross during the whole journey, he could have seen truncated his career, but that not happened, quite the contrary. When they reached England in 1833 he obtained a good recommendation from John Ross which led him to command his own merchant ship. After that, and for some reason, surely his veteran background, he gained a vacancy as ice master in the HMS Terror, which, sadly in his turn led him to his irremisible death.
If we consider and imagine that Thomas could have survived at least five years during the last Franklin expedition, as certain relics could seem to demonstrate, and that he could have participated in the death march which had taken place from the year 1848 to 1850(?), then he would have spent nine years of his live confronting the hardest conditions of his live, (not counting the three years of his previous Arctic expeditions). Strangely, after having suffered the hard experience of the Victory expedition he accepted joining this second and dangerous feat. If I were had asked to do that, I would surely have rejected gently the offer, but he didn´t not. As it uses to happen to old and experienced mountaniers. The call of the Arctic or the mountains is a tantalizing voice which one can hardly ignore.
Paradoxically, the men of the Franklin expedition thought on Blanky as a living talisman who could only bring them good luck.
It has become for me a kind of obsession during these last three years looking for paintings, drawings and sketches which could help me to put a face to those men who participated, perished or were related with the nineteenth century Arctic expeditions. Lots of those men haven´t left any portrait,. Only with some luck we could find an errant silhoutte after hours fishing in the Google ocean, I sometimes feel as if I were an Inuit trying to catch a seal in an ice hole. But it happens that sometimes the solution is right under our noses, and one only can find them if one knows where to look for. I thought that this could be the case of Thomas Blanky who could be one of the three happy men who are dancing in the left corner of this not very well known sketch, or perhaps is he the man who is waving the hat close to the boat?
|"Commander Ross planting the British standard on the true position of the magnetic pole"|
Six men participated on that sledge trip, Commander James Ross, Thomas Blanky, Thomas Abernethy and three other men who were the lucky ones on reaching the mystic place. The sketch represents seven men, an extra one and a boat which definitely wasn´t carried with them to the North Magnetic Pole. For that reason, and because those other seven men who are painted in the background climbing a nonexistent hill, I harbour serious doubts about the accuracy of this representation, but it is a nice feeling thinking that he could have been inmortalised for ever though in this inexact way.