Burial of John Franklin. Author: me


Kabloonas is the way in which the Inuit who live in the north part of Canada call those who haven´t their same ascendency.

The first time i read this word was in the book "Fatal Passage" by Ken McGoogan, when, as the result of the conversations between John Rae and some inuit, and trying to find any evidence of the ill-fated Sir John Franklin Expedition, some of then mentioned that they watched how some kabloonas walked to die in the proximities of the river Great Fish.

I wish to publish this blog to order and share all those anecdotes that I´ve been finding in the arctic literature about arctic expeditions. My interest began more than 15 years ago reading a little book of my brother about north and south pole expeditions. I began reading almost all the bibliography about Antarctic expeditions and the superknown expeditions of Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton, etc. After I was captured by the Nansen, Nobile and Engineer Andree. But the most disturbing thing in that little book, full of pictures, was the two pages dedicated to the last Franklin expedition of the S.XIX, on that moment I thought that given the time on which this and others expeditions happened, few or any additional information could be obtained about it. I couldn´t imagine that after those two pages It would be a huge iceberg full of stories, unresolved misteries, anecdotes, etc. I believe that this iceberg, on the contrary than others, would continue growing instead melting.

martes, 19 de julio de 2016


Those who are following regularly my posts will surely know my predilection about secondary actors, or the regular men if you prefer, who participated in the nineteenth century polar expeditions. I have been always interested on those who lived at the shadow of the success of their commanders and rest of officers. Every time I begin to dig in the life of any of these men I always find dozens of pieces dispersed with which I can assemble and solve the puzzle of their lives.There is not too much added value on doing what I am doing, but the effort of gathering small details which all together can  make a story. Many times, I find interesting parallel stories which can make you digress and drift to other courses which I must ignore not to lose forever the main track.

Now, the subject of my analisys is Thomas Abernethy, a scottish man who was born in 1802 in Peterhead, same birthplace than William Penny, the famous whaler Captain who in fact was born only seven years after Thomas. Peterhead was by then a prosperous town where the whaling industry was flourishing. It produced surely, together with Orkney and Shetland islands, a big part of the sailors who participated in the Arctic expeditions of the time.

The life of Thomas Abernethy has been a little mistery to me during some time. He appears here and there in several (six, to be precise) of the polar exploration accounts about which I have read. Sometimes his achievements appear in capital letters making him outstands over the grey mass of sailors who participated in those expeditions and others he is not mentioned at all.

There are only a couple of books where some paragraphs are dedicated specifically to the life of this man and that is more than we can say about other Arctic explorers. One of them is "The lands of silence" wrote by Clements Markham, who claimed to be an acquitance of Thomas, and the other is John Ross´s narrative of his second journey to the Northwest Passage in 1829-32. He is described in the appendix of Ross´s book with an unexpected kindness and detail. I would say, in a totally unusual way for these kinds of accounts.

It seems, according to Ross, that Thomas Abernethy was a tall man of about 1,80 m (6 feet), "well made and of florid complexion", of "Dark eyes and hair and an aquilinne nose", "decidedly the best looking man of the ship", " The most steady, active and more powerful man of the ship".

Such words, coming from a man like Ross, who was able to amputate with his own hands the arm of his engineer during one of his voyages of exploration and who was able to sail after John Franklin when he was in his seventies, makes you think that Thomas was a very uncommon man worthy of such praising. I don´t know you but, now, at this point, I would be even more intrigued about who and how was this phenomenon. It is clear, and we will see it after, that on performing his duties he earned the respect of his bosses and mates making of his, therefore, a prolific career. As we will learn, he was recommended several times for promotion by his commanders.

As it happened to John Ross, Thomas began his career at the early age of ten, (Ross did at nine), joining merchant ships and whalers from Peterhead. Ross says he got on board the ship "Friends" in 1811 on which he spent four years of apprenticeship. Apparently, Thomas went once to west indies and after, twice to Greenland. The only ship I have found with that name is a convict ship, a three masted ship of 331 tons, which in 1811 carried one hundred one convict women to New South Wales in Australia. The ship traveled first via Rio de Janeiro and then passed Cape Horn on its way to Sydney, where it arrived the 10th of october after a trip which lasted six months.  Maybe Ross wanted to omitt that his, I would say friend, was on board a convict ship. There are no mentions about those trips to Greenland.

Afterwards, he enroled in the whaler Hannibal on which he travelled to Davis strait three times. The whaler Hannibal, according with the "Peterhead Almanac and Directory", fished almost yearly seals (better not to check the growing number of seals they hunted within the years) and whales in Greenland and Davis Strait from 1819 to 1847.

Cew of the Peterhead whaler Hope 1880 (I don´t think crews of 1820´s looked too different from these men).

The whalers had to go further north to fish in Davis Strait because whales become more and more scarce in front of the shores of Greenland. That provoked those known disasters, as the one which happened in 1830, where from 91 ships which were fishing in Davis strait, 19 were lost, two of them whalers from Peterhead (The Resolution and Hope). Hannibal made it and could come back home having fished only two whales (on each of the two previous seasons they got eleven).

The Hannibal wrecked in Norway in 1848 on its way back from Davis strait. The captain by then, J. Lowrie, found rough weather. They were carrying the crew of another ship on board. Lowrie decided to try to reach Peterhead instead of looking for safety in Shetland islands. His ship was driven by a gale to the shores of Norway where it wrecked. All the hands were lost but one, a seaman called Watt, who was called after life "Piper George Watt". I can´t avoid being curious about what was of the life of this man. Sailors of the time were quite superstitious and particularly, whalers seem to be the more supertitious of all. I would bet that this poor man was either condemned to ostracism or considered as an amulet of good luck. I am prone to believe what happened was the former guess...

During its first years the ship was under the command of William Robertson. We don´t know exactly which years were those on which Thomas went to Davis Strait, maybe the seasons corresponding to the years 1819, 1820 and 1821, but what it is sure is that the experience he gained there prepared his way to form part of the coming Arctic expeditions and therefore opened the way to put his name discretely in the Hall of fame of Polar exploration.

Ross also mentions that after the time in the north he performed some coast guard services in Oporto but I haven´t be able to find any trace of his life during this time. There are some gaps in his naval career about which I couldn´t get any information. For example, what he did from 1815 to 1819 and what he did between 1822 and 1823 before going with Parry in 1824, on which was going to be his first Arctic expedition (the third expedition which Parry commanded).

In 1824, HMS Fury and HMS Hecla, commanded by Edward Parry, departed from England again with the intention of discovering the elusive Northwest Passage. Thomas was 22 when came on board HMS Fury. The ship would wreck the following summer in Somerset Island in the course of the expedition. That wasn´t a very succesful mission, Parry had an incomparable luck during his first attempt to cross the passage in 1819 but since then things had gone quite worst.

Fury was severly damaged by the ice in Prince Regent Inlet and had to be abandoned. It seems that Thomas´s work in Fury Beach, the name of the place where they had to abandon the ship, was of the utmost importance. At least that´s what Ross says about him though Parry doesn´t mention it any single time in his narrative. It took the expedition days to empty the holds, take Fury´s cargo to the beach and haul the ship to the shore. The crews of both ships worked together countless hours on doing that. There is no doubt that there were lots of opportunities to demonstrate courage during the whole process and Thomas exuded that characteristic.

The Fury grounded on Fury Beach, from William Edward Parry, Journal of a Third Voyage, 1825 

In 1827 Parry commanded another Polar expedition on board HMS Hecla, this time the journey consisted on an attempt to reach the North Pole. The previous try had been performed unsuccesfully by David Buchan and John Franklin in 1818. His predecesors basically had pushed untiringly  their ships, HMS Dorothea and HMS Trent, against the sea ice formed north of Spitzbergen with the result that Buchan´s ship, Dorothea, ended severily damaged. Buchan, defeated, ordered to withdraw against the will of a young and temerary John Franklin who wanted to go ahead alone with his ship.

HMS Hecla left London on March 1827. On their way north they crossed their way with two Peterhead whalers, Alpheus and Active, maybe Thomas could have find there some old friends from his whaler days. They arrived at Spitzbergen and begun the 23th of june to walk on the ice towards the North Pole .

This time, the strategy was a little bit different. Parry, following a Franklin´s original idea, had the intention of reaching the ice with his ship and then drag with Lapland reindeers two boats, of a specific design, on the ice till reaching the North Pole.

If you know something about Friedjof Nansen´s attempt, you will realize how difficult and dangerous Parry´s plan could result. Nansen chose a more sportive and modern way to do the things, he prefered to travel light and fast, just two men, two sledges and two kayaks. Parry´s strategy proved to be futile. Polar ice drift would make them to go forth and forward making them to walk dozens of miles not to advance a single second of latitude, besides the ice was all but smooth and plain. High ridges cut their way constantly making them make huge physical efforts.

Parry´s boats Endeavour and Enterprise

Parry, however, had read from Scoresby and Phipps that the Polar ice was smooth as a road, and that sometimes happen, but this time it wasn´t the case. The boats were about seven meters length and Parry had prepared two five feet wheels to carry the boats on that "road". Each boat had assigned a crew of fourteen, two officers, two marines and ten men. Eight rein deers were bought to drag the boats though they weren´t finally used by Parry because the actual ice conditions.

They dragged the boats from 10 to 12 hours a day sleeping during daylight and walking by night. Depending on the state of the ice, sometimes they only advanced a mile a day. They drag and crawled oftenly upon all fours on deep snow, under the rain and under snow drifts. It was a painful experience but the men usually laughed to this situation saying" We were a long time getting to this 83 º" latitude which, by the way, they never reached...they returned after having reached a latitude of 82 º 45´. The nothernmost point reached till that time and a mark which won´t be beated till 50 years after. After the massive effort done and 48 days of hard work, they were only at a distance of 172 miles from the ship for which they had to travel 580 or 600 miles.

In that same journey participated James C. Ross and Crozier, it was surely here where it was planted the seed which forged later Thomas´s pass to participate in their Antarctic expedition of 1839-42.

Thomas was promoted, because of Parry´s recommendation, as gunner of HMS Blossom, on which he served from 1827 to 1829. It was during this time that he married the daughter of George Fiddis, the carpenter of all the previous Parry´s expeditions. I don´t know if they had descendants or not, I couldn´t find any information about it.

Then it came the John Ross´s Victory expedition of 1829-33 (one of my favourites), where Thomas participated as second mate . He was now a 27 years old veteran which had seventeen years of experience, many of them in Polar seas.

In this expedition he is explicitly mentioned a good number of times by John Ross. He begins the narrative saying that Thomas and the carpenter Chimham were two of their best acquisitions for the journey.

Such was the confidence on him that he was one of the few, together with Thomas Blanky about whom I wrote some lines time ago, who accompanied James Ross in his sledge trip to locate the North Magnetic Pole. I would say that for the crew of Victory, this was a fact comparable to the decission taken by R.F. Scott when he decided who would accompany him in his final voyage to the South pole. 

When Ross had to explore separatedly from the main sledge party any possible way to go forward, it was Thomas who accompanied him as if he was his right hand. When the men were exhausted and had to rest during this long trip it was always Thomas who was besides Ross looking for the best route to follow. Same happened when the ship Victory had to be abandoned in Prince Regent Inlet. The ship´s boats had to be hauled all the way north to Port leopold where they hoped to find help coming from the whalers which were fishing in Lancaster sound. Thomas, was the man chosen by James Ross to find the best way to make the boats pass.

Somerset House in Fury Beach, 1833
John Ross expedition of 1829-33 could be considered as an equivalent of the Ernest Shackleton feat of 1914. He and almost all his crew survived four winters in the Arctic against all hope. They had to look for their safety when there was no chance for help, the same as Shackleton did. They finally were rescued by the whaler Isabella in Lancaster sound and brought back to England. When arriving, John Ross recommended Thomas promotion and he was appointed to HMS Seringapatam. 


Six years after John Ross´s expedition, Thomas Abernethy was chosen as ice master and gunner of Erebus for the Antarctic expedition of 1839. It was Thomas Abernethy and Oakley, according to James Ross with their accustomed boldness and humanity, who tried to rescue with a boat to James Angley, the quater-master who fell overboard from the mainyard during a gale in Antarctic waters. Angley had reached the life-buoy which was threw to help him. Due to the rough weather James Ross ordered Thomas not to go. Ross's intention was triying to reach the buoy manouvering the ship, but the poor man, who hadn´t tied himself to the buoy´s mast was swallowed by the angry sea before he could be rescued. There were another previous incident when a sailor called Roberts also fell from the rigging to the sea. This time Oakley lowered his boat to help him, unfortunately, weather was so bad that a wave threw the four men on board to the sea. It was then when Thomas lowered another boat and risking his life rescued the four men. The poor sailor who had fell formerly was lost. Maybe this experience was the one which made Ross to take the decission not to allow Thomas to use the boat to rescue Angley in the second incident.

In Robert McCormick alternative account of the Antarctic expedition, the adjectives which acompany the name of Thomas are "worthy, able, Captain´s Ross old follower, ever the foremost in all emergencies" and so on. Abernethy seems to have accompanied McCormick in a good number of his proceedings, of special help on hunting , catching and chasing penguins.

Erebus and Terror among icebergs

There is not an official account about James Clark Ross´s journey in HMS Enterprise and HMS Investigator of 1848-49, so I can´t say nothing about the role of Thomas during this expedition apart of the fact that he was the Ice Master of HMS Enterprise. The only input I could get, and is not a very favourable one, is that Thomas was "A good seaman, an athletic, healthy person, but a heavy drinker who presented disciplinary problems, though James Ross seems to have no difficulty with him". It seems that Thomas had a dark side after all, but maybe not that bad as for not counting with him for a responsible vacancy such as Ice Master was.

Not too much time after returning to England with Ross, Thomas rejected a proposal to sail as Ice master with the Captain Horatio Austin in 1850 in his Franklin search expedition. Instead of, he wrote to Henry Pelly, governor of the Hudson Bay Company which was organising a private initiative to locate Franklin, to apply for the vacancy as Ice Master in the schooner Felix. The ship would be commanded by an aged John Ross. The letter was signed by Thomas but was clearly written by James Clark Ross. As we have seen earlier, it seems that by the time of the Felix expedition, Thomas 's  problems with alcohol had escalated. John Ross had to deal with that issue the best way possible.

North-West searching expedition for Sir John Fran Lin, Sir John Ross Yacht Felix at Anchor in Loch Ryan
It has been always said that J.C. Ross, besides having been the first on reaching the North Magnetic Pole, would have  held for a long time (50 years) the record of having reached both, the northernmost and southernmost latitudes during his voyage to the North Pole and South pole respectively. It is for me quite clear that Thomas Abernethy would have shared that privilege too, though of course his name is much less, if any at all, known than the name of James Clark Ross. 

There is a common point in almost all the expeditions on which Thomas Abernethy participated, and that is the presence of James Clark Ross. He was second lieutenant in the third Parry voyage of 1824-25, second in command in Hecla when they tried to reach the North Pole, second in command during the second voyage of John Ross in the Victory, he was the leader of the Antarctic expedition of 1839-42 and he commanded too the ships HMS Enterprise and HMS Investigator which were sent to locate the missing Franklin expedition. The only expedition on which James C. Ross didn´t participate was the John Ross attempt to find Franklin in 1850. It seems as if their fates were strongly linked, maybe linked by a frank friendship. One has to wonder what would have happened if James Ross would have been commander, instead of Franklin, of the lost expedition of 1845. Thomas surely would have perished, as it happened to Thomas Blanky, together with the rest of the crews of Erebus and Terror.

Thomas died at Peterhead in 1860 only 58 years old. As I said before, I don´t know if Thomas left any children behind but at least we know there is a cape which bears his name in the proximity of Matty island, located between the east coast of King William Island and the mainland on the north side of Wolstenholme sound.

Thanks to Peter Carney for always supplying me with some valuable sources of information.

2 comentarios:

  1. Fantastic, Andrés.
    Very impressive post.

  2. Thanks Javier! I am working on updating the post with new information about him.I hope to be able to share it soon.