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.

lunes, 21 de noviembre de 2022


Maybe, one of the most impressive spectacles which a polar expedition could have performed was the fire which burned the timbers of USS Rodgers and destroyed the entire ship at St Lawrence Bay (a place visited by Adolf Erik Nordeskjold in 1879), the 30th november of 1881, today almost 141 years ago. 

The ship, which was at its winter quarters since the first week of october, was located almost at the same latitude than the arctic circle. It was the beginning of USS Rodger´s first and last long polar night. The days lasted at that time of the year little more than two hours so, the light of the flames, which consumed the Rodgers during three days in a row, danced and shined and illuminated the surroundings of that long polar night most certainly, provoking a deep impression in the retinas of those natives who witnessed the spectacle. A sight hard to forget, particularly when the magazine blew up the second day after the fire had started.

This wasn´t of course the only and first ship which had caught fire in the arctic regions. Whalers, sometimes fully loaded with blubber, burned down here and there when having been beset by the ice for different reasons. It is difficult to ascertain the reasons why this ships could have started burning. According to the legend of the picture below, which very likely depicts the fate of the whalers Concordia and Gay Head wrecked during the whaling disaster of 1871 where 33 ships were lost (and some were found in the last decade), their crews could have started fires "to avoid dangers to other ships", or maybe, and more likely to avoid their cargo of being stolen by other whalers. However, in the particular case of this whaling disaster, other captains, pointed at the natives as the perpetrators of the accident which could have been produced while they were collecting all possible things from the abandoned ships. 

American whalers crushed in the ice (1872 - 1874)
Burning the Wrecks to Avoid Danger to Other Vessels 

The USS Rodgers had been sent for searching the missing USS Jeannette commanded by George De Long, which has penetrated Bering strait in 1879 in an attempt to reach the North Pole and from which nothing was heard since. At that the time, the whalers Vigilant and Mount Wollaston had also dissappeared, and the ship USRC Thomas Corwin had departed in 1880, a year before, to try to locate them. Another ship, the Alliance was participating in the searching.

During the summer of 1881, some intellegence came from the natives that the whalers had been found deserted and with some corpses still on board. Apparently, from some accounts, Mount Wollaston had sunk first and the crew came on board the Vigilant. After,  both crews were finally lost after the sunk of the second vessel (this apparently comes from a piece of news from the New York Times I couldn´t find available). 

After this pessimistic testimony, the Corwin joined forces with the Rodgers in the searching of the Jeannete. Jeannette wasn´t the only tragedy occurred during those years, as we are realising, but it is by far one of the most known together with Greely´s expedition which tragedy was being cooked that same year. 

Few people have the crews of the lost two whalers in mind. It is very hard to think that those ships could have dragged all the men to the bottom of the sea. The testimony of the natives, that there were some corpses on the deck of one of the ships, suggests that the whaler, or maybe both of them, were still floating when they were deserted near Herald island. Surely, the crews left the ships and dragged the boats with the intetntion of reaching Wrangel island and from there, try to reach the mainland, as the crew of the Karluk did years after, but we may never known what actually happened there. Probably we have here a fascinating account of survival as mysterious as the Franklin expedition itself.

The Rodgers, which was by then a very young two years old whaler (in fact, the first american steam whaler), departed from San Francisco the 16th of june 1881 with the orders to follow the same route that the Jeannete had taken two years before. 

The ship had made part of its homework before being destroyed by the fire. It had explored quite succesfully the coast of Wrangel island discovering that it was actually an island, and continued exploring the waters north of it till the ice pack stopped their advance. The Rodgers sailed the same waters where Karluk was going to be destroyed by the ice years after in 1914. The ship sailed then south towards Bering Strait at the end of september and prepared to winter at the beginning of October at St Lawrence bay. There, a party of men, led by Charles F. Putnam, was sent to explore the coast to find clues from the Jeannette with provisions for a year.

Route followed by the USS Rodgers while searching for USS Jeannette

The winter had already started, and they spent two months before something awful happened. Weather hadn´t been very kind since they arrived to those shores, so the hold of the Rodgers was still heavily loaded, no wooden hut had been built yet in the shores either.

It was 8:45 a.m. of 30th november 1881 when a fire started under the Donkey boiler room, a place where an auxiliary steam boiler was placed to operate deck machinery when the main boilers were stopped. From the accounts coming from some witnesses, it is very likely that the cause of the accident was that the floor under the boiler could have autoignited because of the heat coming from the boiler and started the unstoppable fire.

Maybe a default design in this brand new model of steam ship was the underlying reason. A whole description of this dangerous and mortal event is available here, in an article published in the New York Times 21st june 1882. where the letter which Robert Mallory Berry sent with William Henry Gilder, veteran of Frederick Schwatcka expedition in search for John Franklin and correspondant from the New York Times, more than a month after the fire, saw the light. 

The burning of the Rodgers

Fires were surely the most feared dangers a ship could endure, specially when trapped by ice in the polar regions. A fire could leave unsheltered tens of men in the most horrid conditions condemning them to a certain and slow death.

Expeditions used to keep a "fire-hole" in the ice permanently opened and constant watches during the time they were in their winter quarters. The struggle to fight the fire which lasted three days, started inmediately and though it was very fierce, the crew couldn´t save the ship and almost no cargo at all, clothing included. All kind of measures were taken, they tried to suffocate it closing the hatches, threw steam over it but to no avail.

 The boats, however could be saved and the defeated crew had to spend a couple of nights withouth further protection than their blankets. They tried after to retreat towards the closest siberian village of Nuniagmo, at seven miles from the landing point, without success. With all certainty, the light had been seen from the village and surely had frightened the natives who likely hadn´t seen something like before that in their entire lives. They are refered in the New York Times article as Tebanketchis? (in other places as Tehaunketchis) about which I have found no information.

Two natives, recruited at St Lawrence bay months before, were still on board the ship when the accident happened, and revealed themshelves of a very providential help to secure the safety of all onboard. They went to the village and came back with help for the castaways. The crew was splitted into several groups which were quickly distributed and lodged in the nearby villages. To some, it took eight hours to walk four miles, due to the one meter of thicknes of the snow, the bad weather and the poor condition of the men who couldn´t sleep and eat properly.  Putnam, who was camped north of the bay, heard about the incident and traveled south with supplies (an important part formed by tobacco and cigarrettes) to help Rodger´s crew. It was during his return to his camp when the poor man lost his life in a very dramatic way, I talked about his sad fate some time ago here.

There, in those siberian villages, they stood till were rescued and brought to Sitka, first by the whaler North Star, and then by the other searching ship, the Corwin. Thirty one men of thirty five were landed safe and sound in june of 1882 while Berry and H. J. Hunt  had departed northward the 23rd of december of 1881, following the coast in an attempt to find the Jeannette. They arrived at Nizhnekolymsk, at the banks of Kolyma river, where they heard about the awful fate suffered by some of the men from the Jeannette and helped together with the New York Herald correspondant, Jackson (No, no the same Jackson who found Nansen) in the search of the rest of the missing men. Gilder had been sent to the west to inform about the fat of the Rodgers. None of these three men were expected to come back to the east, they had to find their way westwards through Siberia,  a trip which was an adeventure inside another adventure.

What happened to USS Rodgers was, there is no doubt about that, something spectacular. The natives surely talked about that phenomenon during decades. That the consequences of those improvised fireworks  had been so harmless, may also be considered spectacular. It was a miracle that the only loss of the Rodgers was that of Putnam together with the deaths of the two pet dogs of the ship. The whalers which the Corwin was looking for weren´t so lucky, they were in a much more inhospitable region deprived of the presence of the natives who, feeding the Rodger´s men with rotten walrus meat and whatever edible thing they managed to find, made the impossible possible.


Ice pack and tundra: an account of the search for the Jeannette and a sledge journey through Siberia

The voyage of the Jeannette

Our lost explorers: the narrative of the Jeannette Arctic expedition as related by the survivors, and in the records and last journals of Lieutenant De Long

miércoles, 11 de mayo de 2022


Polar exploration has always inspired novels, movies, poems, sculptures, comics, songs but also occasionally theather plays. That´s the case of "Under the Polar Star, a romantic melodrama", a play I stumbled upon by chance while fishing polar related pictures in Google. It was a couple of posters showing scenes from the play which called powerfully my attention and which drove me directly to the search:

In this one above, what looks like a group of survivors is perched in a small ice floe looking alarmed, while they are calling one of his mates which lies on a smaller one further away.

A second poster shows the moment when the cabin boy is found to be actually a girl: 

The story is told in five acts by its author Clay Meredith Greene, a prolific writer, actor and director author of a good number of works, and was directed by William A Brady. Cinematography hasn´t been invented by the time the theater play was on the stages in 1896, a pity, because both men, writer and director, walked between these two different ages and directed also  movies in the subsequent years, "Under the polar star" could have been the first polar movie of all times.

The origin of the idea from which comes this play is unclear to me but, from what I have read, I have deduced, it could have been inspired by the recent expedition led by Fridtjof Nansen to the North Pole (1893-96), but also by Peary´s expeditions in the north of Greenland and maybe by some other earlier american expeditions like DeLong´s and Greely´s ones. Clay M. Green was born in 1850, so he could have followed during his adolescence the proceedings of these expeditions and have been impressed by the tragic outcome of some of them. But what is certain is that those were convulsive times, the activity in the arctic was frenetic. The North Pole was at siege and it would be a matter of time it would be eventually conquered, or at least that was what was said so. There is a particular episode in which the leader of the expedition is murdered and there are suspicions which lead to the expedition surgeon as the perpetrator, for me, a clear hint to Charles Francis Hall alleged poisoning by the surgeon of his expedition to the North Pole, Emil Bessels.

Undoubtedly, the marketing for the play was intense as the abundant collection of posters showing several of the more poignant scenes demonstrates:

Maybe the last one posted above, which shows the American flag upside down, is one of the bizarrests and which makes one wonder what was actually happening there. From others, and from the comments form the bottom of the pictures, it looks that maybe the story wasn´t a complete drama, but more likely a script written in a certain comical tone

The play was released in New York in the Academy of music the 20th of august of 1896, two days after Fridtjof Nansen and Johansen had arrived to Hammerfest, after his heroic attempt to reach the North Pole, where both explorers were enthusiastically received, and the same day that it was known that the Fram had also arrived safely to  Skjervøy.

Academy of Music, New York.

The theater, located in Manhattan, which counted with 4.000 seats (maybe too much for the available room, according to some critics),  was built in 1854 and demolished in 1926, thirty years after the play was represented.

I haven´t been able to find the whole script of the play but from the review written by Arthur Hoeber, an renowned painter who maybe is better know as art critic, in the Illustrated American of which he was assistant editor, we can get an idea about how the performance was:

"It may at once be conceded that this new play "Under the Polar Star"...has caught the popular fancy. Despite its absuddities and incongruity, it does not lack plentiful action and numerous climaxes, while there are go, snap and interest besides the pleasure affored the eye."

"Absuridities and incongruity" ...this makes one eager to have been present that day...

The plot appears to be simple and involves a murderer supervillian, a love story performed by a cabin boy who happens to be a girl, a fact which surprisingly and wonderfully gives life to a blog post I wrote years ago where I played with the idea that some polar expeditions could have counted with girls "CABIN GIRLS UN ARCTIC EXPEDITIONS".

The reviewer follows making our mouths watering even more:

"The party are brought to the vicinity of the North Pole, and this is the excuse for a fine ensemble of ice and sea, of floes and bergs, and the brilliancy of limelights of many colors. The ingenious tricks of propierty man and scenic artist, of mechanical devices, steam and electricity, have rarely been surpassed in New York. .... All the scenes of ice and water are very vivid illusions while a pack of yelping, fighting Esquimau dogs, harnessed to a sled, add a touch of local color most effectively."

These last addition to the FX were provided by Peary who surely was still keeping the sledge dogs from his last expedition to Greenland of 1892.

Grace Henderson played the role of the cabin girl, acting under the name of Helen Blaine, a cabin girl of thirty six year old by that time. In her biography in Wikipedia, though short, her appearance in the play is described as follows:

"In 1896, she starred in Under the Polar Star, an elaborate play complete with a facsimile of a large sailing ship and real on-stage sled dogs."

Hoeber´s article includes some pictures made by the photographer Jimmy Hare, who a year before had become photographer for Illustrated American magazine, and to who we should thank the fact that we currently have the only known pictures taken from this play.

The number 10th of the Gallery of Plays and Players from Illustrated American gives some extra information and an extra picture taken of the play. There were seventeen actors in total, one of Spanish surname and what lookslike a french first name called Bijou Fernandez:

Many of these actors continued their careers as silent film actors. The case of Cuyler Hastings, who apparently performed brilliantly the the evil character of William Brandon, is a little bit dramatic. He was surely chosen by his intense look apart from his skills. He would play after the role of Sherlock Holmes for Conan Doyle´s "Sherlock Holmes" theater play written in 1897 but will end  dramatically and abruptly his career after shooting himself in 1914 because some sort of paralysis had driven him away from the scenes:

Cuyler Hastings

In this second article is mentioned that the first performance was indeed a coincidence with the appearance of the lost Nansen and his ship. The path followed by Greene´s script was as ardous as the conquest of the North Pole itself, it took several tries before William Brady decided to take the risks. The previous article posted above seems like an excerpt from this other and longer one, and there is no doubt it was  written by Hoeber as well.

Extra details about the plot are given in this article and can be read here:

The result was a success, the actors performed well but above all, the special effects did their job and not only captivated the public attention but even amazed the critic who reluctanly agreed to say:

"Despite the fact that the situations are a triffle forced there is much in the play of general interest, many thrilling situations and a great deal of humanity at its est and worst. The exceeding measure of success that the piece has obtained is due no less to the spectacular effects than to its dramatic reconstruction"

We know that the play was in the theaters, in the Boston theater specifically, at least till the 14th of february of the following year and for a last week the 7th of march, as these pieces of news advertises:

During my research, I have found other books under the title "Under the polar star", which nothing (apparently) has to do with our story but just the name. Google books includes, however, a reference to a publication of 12 pages by Boston Theatre but its content is not available. 

I wish I could have acces to the script of this mysterioys play and be able to imagine the rest what haven´t been told in my head. From my opinion, and having not explored much further and thoroughly the matter, this work, could perfectly be the first polar play performed on stage in a theater.

miércoles, 5 de enero de 2022


In the northwest coast of the now mythical King William island, not far from the northernmost corner of the triangle shape  wich it forms, a two meters high cairn was built the 29th may 1830 by James Clark Ross. That was the first time this island was visited by explorers. The next visitors would be Thomas Simpson and Warren Dease who, in 1839, would build another cairn in the south coast.

Ross, accompanied by some men and eight dogs, left on may 1830 their ship Victory in Felix Harbour to lead a sledge party which intention was to ascertain if there was any passage connecting Prince Regent Inlet with Point Turnagain. That was the furthest point reached by John Franklin in the north coast of the American continent during his expedition of 1819-21. 

The party crossed Boothia peninsula and the channel which separates it from King William Island, James Ross strait, to end landing in its northeast shore. They hadn´t found the navigable connection they were looking for, but had discovered a new piece of land in the very heart of the arctic archipielago.

Ross´s reflections, right after landing on the island which was destined to be remembered forever as the scenary of the biggest polar tragedy of all times, look to me somehow premonitory:

"No one will be surprised to hear how often during all these years we have formed the idle wish that men could live without food; a wish, idle and nonsensical as we felt it, that has ever intruding, since the necessity of eating was the ever-recurring obstacle to all our endeavours"

If these "idle and nonsensical" wishes had become true, Franklin´s expedition´s fate would have been a very different one. 

Once in these new land, they walked northwestward and reached Cape Felix, the northern tip of King William Island. From there, they carried out to the southwest following its shores. Ross was happy to see how now the coastline was leading him towards his target, Point Turnagain but Ross´s provisions were scarce. They were meant to last just twenty one days, a great contrast with the provisions carried by fututre parties which could travel for as long as three months, so the expedition had came to its end.

Thomas Abernethy and James Ross separated from the party and continued southward  some miles more till they decided to stop north of Back´s bay. This was the place where they decided to turn around and where they built the cairn which would become years after the recipient of the only (*) written message coming from the Franklin expedition. Ross describes the moment this way:

"We now therefore unfurled our flag for the usual ceremony, and took possession of what we saw as far as the distant point, while that on which we stood was named Victory point; being the " ne plus ultra " of our labour, as it afterwards proved, while it will remain a standing record of the exertions of that ship's crew. The point to the south-west was also named Cape Franklin: and if that be a name which has now been conferred on more places than one, these honours, not in fact very solid when so widely shared, are beyond all thought less than the merits of that oflicer deserve.

On Victory point we erected a cairn of stones six feet high, and we enclosed in it a canister containing a brief account of the proceedings of the expedition since its departure from England. Such has been the custom, and to that it was our business to conform ; though I must say, that we did not entertain the most remote hope that our little history would ever meet an European's eye, even had it escaped the accident of falling into the hands of the Esquimaux.

Yet we should have gone about our work with something like hope, if not confidence, had we then known that we were reputed as lost men, if even still alive, and that our ancient and tried friend Back was about to seek for us, and to restore us once more to society and home. And if it is not impossible that the course of his present investigations from Cape Turnagain east-ward may lead him to this very spot, that he may find the record and proof of our own "turnagain," we have known what it is for the wanderer in these solitudes to alight upon such traces of friends and of home, and can almost envy him the imagined happiness; while we shall rejoice to hear that he has done that in which we failed, and perhaps not less than if we had ourselves succeeded in completing this long pursued and perilous work."

The Victory point cairn was born. It was elegantly crowned with the Union Jack and stood proud looking defiantly to the icy waters which laid to its west. "More explorers will come to put an end to this war", it looked to be saying..., and they actually did, but to fight a hopeless battle instead.

As we have read above, Ross seemed to have some sort of prophetic powers. Apart from the aforementioned appropiated reflection about the ´so human´ necessity of food (specially in this barren lands), he named the farthest piece of land at sight as Cape Franklin. Apparently, after being christened, the cape started to intone an inaudible syren´s chant which attracted the Franklin expedition to its perdition. The crews from Erebus and Terror landed close to this point in april of 1848. Their target now wasn´t to continue the exploration, but to run towards safety in a desperate race to survive.

It would had been a coincidence that Franklin, who died in june of 1847, had been buried in the cape which bears his name. A coincidence similar to that of the watery grave, Terror bay, in which was found HMS Terror shipwreck not long time ago. But however prophetical Ross could be, he was wrong this time about the fate of the record he left in the cairn. He failed to foreseen that the paper he had left would be indeed taken by european hands seventeen years later in 1847, or at least that is what I think it should have happened.

It was by chance, while consulting the detailed map of John Ross narrative of his voyage of 1829-33, that I found this interesting drawing of  the landscape as it was seen from Victory point placed in the down left corner upside down.


I am not completely sure if I had seen this before. The drawing sounds very familiar to me, but I can´t remember where or when I have seen this. The sight of the Union Jack waving happily at Victory point years before it would become the monument of a tragedy looks very dramatic to me. It was built to take possesion of a land and also to indicate from where future expeditions should resume the exploration of the Northwest passage but now it is only reminded as the bearer of bad news.

The next visitors to this region, Simpson and Dease, mentioned above, drew in the maps part of the south coast of the island and discovered the strait which separates the mainland from King William island.

They had linked the discoveries made by Franklin with the same land discovered by Ross, though they didn´t visit Ross furthest point. There were, therefore, blank spaces in the map still to explore. It was necessary to look for a passage which could link Barrow strait with this new waters discovered by Ross and Simpson. It would be the Franklin expedition which would fill those gaps during all the years they were locked in that region.

The Franklin expedition would be the first on arriving to Victory point after its discovery. They should have taken Ross´s note and interchanged it for their own one as it was the custom. That was the way those cairn were used for in the arctic regions by the explorers, as some sort of mailboxes, places to leave news and also to receive them. But that maybe didn´t happen that way.

The so called "Victory point record", contents an erratic description of the manipulation of the paper which is said to have been allegedly deposited for first time in Ross´s cairn. After being recovered by another sledge party, it was fulfilled with a much more pesimistic message and left in another cairn four miles southward from its original position. What the note says is the following:

"This paper was found by Lt. Irving under the cairn supposed to have been built by Sir James Ross in 1831—4 miles to the Northward—where it had been deposited by the late Commander Gore in May 1847. Sir James Ross' pillar has not however been found and the paper has been transferred to this position which is that in which Sir J. Ross' pillar was erected"

The last assertion makes ones hesitates if Graham Gore, the first on depositing the message, had actually found Ross´s cairn in Victory point or if he had put it under a different one northwards. Maybe, the men who James Ross have left behind when he decided to push a little bit forward, had built another cairn while they waited for his commander. This place was called Point Culgruff. 

The paper was left for second time in a different place, which was suppossed to be the actual location of Ross´s cairn, but from the note I have deduced that this latter no longer existed and had to be rebuilt. That could mean that the Franklin expedition didn´t get Ross´s note after all and it may be still there.

There, the informative paper, one of the only two, left by the expedition in the island, had to wait more than ten years before being discovered by McClintock´s expedition in 1859.

The northwest coast of the island was barely visited by the natives by that time. That Franklin´s note was untouched during that long period is a proof of that. However, Inuit presence wasn´t too far. Ross describes in his narrative that there were Inuit stone huts in the northeast coast and that there were also many remains of fishing camps and boats at the other side of the channel, in the west coast of Boothia peninsula.

Lieutenant Hobson, who accompanied McClintock in his searching expedition found the cairn and the note left by the Franklin expedition inside it. McClintock reached the cairn days after and demolished it in an unsuccesful attempt of finding any further clue, just to build it again to continue its life as a post office.

"Besides placing a copy of the record taken away by Hobson from the cairn, we both put records of our own in it ; and I also buried one under a large stone ten feet true north from it, stating the explorations and discoveries we had made."

It would take another long period before the cairn was visited again. Twenty years later, Frederick Schwatcka and William Gilder´s expedition, found it the 11th july 1879 and retrieved McClintock´s note. The cairn had again carried out its mission succesfuly. In Gilder´s words:

"It, however, proved to be a copy of the Crozier record found by Lieutenant Hobson, of McClintock's expedition, and was in the handwriting of Sir Leopold McClintock. The document was written with a lead pencil on note-paper, and was partially illegible from exposure. It was literally as follows :"

Gilder and Schwatcka tried to find the other record mentioned by McClintock following his instructions, but they never found it. In the narrative of their voyage, it is not mentioned if following the tradition, Schwatka had left any note under the cairn, so we may assume they didn´t.

There were others who visited the place many years after, like Burwash (1930), who in his report said that "No rock in place was found in the area", or Henry Larsen (1949), but, as far as I know the cairn at Victory point had by then disappeared. None of the cairns photographed by Burwash seems to be our Victory point cairn but others build towards Cape Jane Franklin:

So, it is likely that the Victory point cairn was destroyed years after Schwacka´s visit between 1879 and 1930, not reaching the age of one hundred years. However, it is strange that other cairns, like those found by Burwash, survived along all these years, and the more prominent Victory´s cairn didn´t.  

As far as I know, the cairn at Victory point no longer exists, I don´t think it has ever been rebuilt since then, though I may be wrong. On the other hand, it is interesting to remark that paradoxically, whereas the Victory point record is now perfectly safe and well preserved in England (as the fabulous blog by Logan Zachary showed us), Ross´s note has apparently dissappeared forever. I cannot but conjecture that the Franklin expedition actually could have taken it and that maybe now, the canister with Ross´s note, lays in a shelg inside the Erebus or the Terror waiting to be recovered.

This wasn´t intended to be the story of the Victory point record, that, was beautifully told by Russell Potter in this blog post. This was meant to be the history of a cairn, a story of hope in many senses. It was built with the intention of being a starting point, but it became instead the bottle which desperately pretended to convey the message about the whereabouts of the Franklin expedition castaways. It would have been surely confused, if he could have had thoughts at all, when it welcomed a promising Franklin expedition in 1847 only to observe powerless how a year after its one hundred remainder men landed in the nearby shores to start a desperate race towards tragedy, privations and death.

I really wish, nonsensically like Ross, that this silent witness could actually be able to talk to tell us what happened there. Maybe we should rebuild it again, sit in front, and then ask.

(*) There were in fact other written records, but the one found in Victory point was the one which gave more information.

martes, 28 de diciembre de 2021


The private expedition led by William Kennedy and organized by Lady Franklin in 1851 to find his husband and the crews of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, was as unsuccessful as many others had been before, at least regarding what had to do with the accomplishment of their mission. However, this was one of the first which would include some new ingredients in the recipe of "How to perform polar expeditions" which would be adopted by future explorers, including McClintock´s famous journey in the Yacht Fox, and surely also opened the way to the new concept of modern exploration which would be used by eminent explorers like Nansen, Amundsen, Peary, etc.

Though Franklin wasn´t ultimately found, it can´t be denied that the significance of the geographical discoveries made by Kennedy, together with the fact that the expedition didn´t lose a single man during the whole journey (in spite of the many dangerous situations which had to be confronted), and that they had to spend a long winter at a very high latitude, should be considered as an outstanding triumph.

The ship, Prince Albert, was very different from almost all of their predecessors. It only weighted 90 tons, a third of the tonnage of for example the ships they were after, HMS Erebus and Terror. Only Sir John Ross before, had previously experimented this strategy during his expedition of 1829-33 in the Victory (85 tons which were extended to 150 after the modifications) and later with the Felix in 1850. Small ships were much more useful and manoeuverable in those treacherus waters allowing them to get closer to the shores to perform more appropiated reconnaissances of the ground

The vessel had been reinforced to make him able to endure her coming fight with the ice. This wasn´t her first mission, the previous season the Royal Navy Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth and the outlandish civilian William Park Snow, had spent the summer of 1850 looking for Franklin. The expedition had been a disaster from the beginning. The combination of a civil crew with a navy captain, seasoned with the presence of the peculiar Snow, who had convinced Lady Franklin to let him participate because of his spectral visions, led to continuous disagreements among the captain and the crew. The expedition returned prematurely for several reasons, but mainly because Snow foresaw an opportunity of gathering attention and fame if he could be the first on bringing the news of the recent discoveries which had been made in Beechey island about the Franklin expedition.

Prince Albert leaving Beechey island the day they returned after being there for some days. The ship at the background must be the North Star, the only ship which was still in the area.

Lady Franklin wanted to give it another try. This time, the crew was selected more carefully. It was also quite inferior in the number of men, though likely not in experience, compared with the regular amount employed by Navy expeditions. Its 18 members would be much easier to feed in the arctic enviroment than 60, a common figure for the crew of, for example, a bomber class ship. 

Also, Kennedy´s background made of him an appropiate candidate for the mission. He was born originally in Cumberland House, in the remote region of Saskatchewan and, though he was sent to Orkney island to the school where he would spend eight years, he had been living the rest of the time in the wildest regions of North America working first as a HBC employee, and later in his own fishery business in Lake Huron till he was contracted to lead this searching expedition to captain the Prince Albert. He knew well the rigours of that hostile land and how to deal with all of them.

Captain William Kennedy

The second in command was the French sub-officer Joseph René Bellot. From my point of view, there is no doubt this was more a formal appointment than a practical one. Bellot have asked to Kennedy and Lady Franklin to let him to participate in the expedition. He hadn´t any previous experience in arctic expeditions, but only an unstoppable will, shared by so many young officers of the time, to be part of the phenomenon which was currently happening and which was gathering the attention of the whole world. That, apparently convinced Lady Franklin who allowed him to join the expedition. In Kennedý´s narrative there are many mentions to him, in no few occasions the author mentions Bellot´s involvement in some incidents which could have perfectly well ended with his life. Maybe his lack of experience was the cause of all of them. He would eventually and sadly die during his second expedition with Edward Inglefield in 1853. My opinion about Bellot was high so far, but from the reading of Kennedy´s account of the voyage and from what I have read in some other places, like this website, for iinstance, it may have changed a bit. But elucidating this will be surely matter of another different post.

The small crew which accompanied Kennedy had among its ranks several arctic veterans. Among his members was John Hepburn, the old companion of John Franklin during his overland expedition of 1819-22 to the mouth of the Coppermine River, about who I have written earlier. Apart from the ice master, who was of course a veteran whaler captain, there were five men which had served in the same ship during the previous searching expedition, one who has accompanied John Rae and other who had traveled with John Richardson in their respective overland expeditions. The rest were Sheatland and Orkney weathered men.

Besides the usual stock of provisions and clothing, normal for this kind of expeditions, they carried or bought other interesting items not as common. Kennedy ordered the construction of kayak made of tin (which I wonder where it ended), kites and also bought in Upernavick six greenland dogs to drag sledges during the planned winter trips, not an habitual thing to find in the military expeditions. Some of the men knew well how to build igloos and snowshoes. These facts refute somehow the common say that the expeditions of that time ever learnt how to survive in the arctic regions. In Kennedy´s narrative is the first time, I think, I have read the term Innuit as well. But this doesn´t mean that Kennedy stuck only to traditional and aborigin methods, he also made widely use of explosives, Copelands blasting cylinders (which I assume was dinamite)  as he called them, which were used here and there as if in a war declared to the ice, and apparently resulted quite useful in some occasions to release his small ship.

Kennedy´s narrative of the journey "A short narrative of the second voyage of the Prince Albert in search of Sir John Franklin"is an easy and very enjoyable book. Surely he made the most of his years in Orkney. One can feel some sort of a modern, light and funny style of writing which combines very smartly the numerous entertaining anecdotes (which made me smile broadly) with the more boring descriptive parts. I have swalled the book in just two nights, breathing for that time very vividly the same atmosphere that surrounded those men.

The expedition sailed from Aberdeen the 22nd of may of 1851 to reach Stromness three days after. There, Kennedy got together with Lady Franklin and Sophie Cracroft, an encounter which Kennedy describes as follows:

"There, in our little cabin with her estimable neice, sat the truly feminine yet heroic spirit who presided over our gallant little enterprise, one whose name — if her husband's is already associated with the highest honours of geographical discovery — will not be the less so hereafter in the hearts of Englishmen, with honours of another kind — the most noble, devoted, and unwearied efforts to rescue or solve the fate of our missing countrymen."

This "Truly femenine" remark made me raised a brow. Was she supposed to be otherwise?. I wonder if the always witty Kennedy hides something behind those words. The scene continues:

"One by one each of our little party was introduced, and cheered by her words of wise and affectionate counsels. If ever three English cheers were given with the heart's best feelings of a British sailor, they were given, when stepping over the vessel's side, our noble patroness waved us her last adieu and God's blessing on our voyage."

From Orkney islands, the expedition sailed west following a parallel, as whalers and expeditions used to do, till they arrived to Farewell to sail then northward till they reached Whalefish island and Upernavik. Once in Baffin Bay, they sailed to the north end of those waters and then crossed the always naughty and dangerous central part of the bay to penetrate finally into Lancaster sound. Once there, Kennedy´s orders included the possibility to explore Prince Regent Inlet. It was thought that Franklin could have followed that route to try to find a channel in its west coast which could have lead him to the west side of Sommerset land (it would be Kennedy who would discover that this land was in fact an island and that there was in fact a strait which connects Prince Regent inlet with Peel sound) and that was what the captain precisely did.

There were also several cairns which they had necessarily to visit to ascertain if Franklin was or had been in the surroindings. Cairns built in prominent points, specially those who had been built where previous expeditions had wintered, were used as mailboxes. Expedition after expedition usually visited them to learn about the whereabouts or discoveries made by precedent expeditions and used to leave there their own proceedings. 

Port Leopold, where the first searching expedition led by James Clark Ross in 1848 had to winter, was one of these obligated stops. Prince Albert couldn´t approach it due to the amount of ice, so Kennedy and some men decided to try to land using a boat. They made it and searched for the cairns and rest of remains without finding any clue from Franklin. Unfortunately, when they tried to rejoin their comrades, the ship had been dragged south by drifting ice. The desperated captain had no other option than to prepare themselves for the winter. For that purpose, he used the abandoned steam launch left by James Ross some years before:

"The first object to be attended to, was the erecting of some sort of shelter against the daily increasing inclemency of the weather, and for this purpose the launch, left here by Sir James Ross, was selected. Her main- mast was laid on supports at the bow and stern, about nine feet in height, and by spreading two of her sails over this a very tolerable roof was obtained. A stove was set up in the body of the boat with the pipes running through the roof, and we were soon sitting by a comfortable fire, which after our long exposure to the wet and cold we stood very much in need of."

But luckily, after more than a month isolated in that place, Joseph René Bellot arrived providentially to rescue them. The ship had been freed from his icy jail and had found a suitable place to winter in Batty Bay, 80 km southward. This was the third attempt that Bellot had made to find his captain, in one of the previous he had fallen to the water through the ice spending one of his lifes.

During the return journey, a very interesting scene, worthy of being introduced in a humoristic sketch of a TV show, took place. The episode, told by the always entertaining Kennedy deserves to be presented here almost entirely:

"We pitched the tent, spread the oil-cloth, and with some coals, ..., boiled a good kettle of tea for all hands.

These preparations were, however, but introductory to another, which we found a most difficult problem indeed — namely, to contrive how we were all to pass the night in the single little tent we had brought with us. We all got in, certainly, and got the kettle in the middle ; but as for lying down to sleep, it was utterly out of the question. A London omnibus, on a racing day after live o´clock, was the only parallel I could think of to our attempt to stow thirteen men, including our colossal carpenter, into a tent intended for six. 

At last, after some deliberation, it was arranged that we should sit down six in a row, on each side, which would leave us about three feet clear to stretch our legs. Mr. Bellot, who formed the thirteenth, being the most compact and stowable of the party, agreed to squeeze in underneath them, stipulating only for a clear foot square for his head alongside the tea-kettle. Being unprovided with a candlestick, even if there had been room to place one anywhere, it was arranged that each of us should hold the candle in his hand for a quarter of an hour, and then pass it to his neighbour, and thus by the aid of our flickering taper, through the thick steam of the boiling kettle, we had just enough light to prevent us putting our tea into our neighbour's mouth, instead of our own.

" Well, boys," suggests our ever jovial first mate, Henry Anderson, 'now we are fairly seated, I´m thinking, as we can do nothing else, we had best make a night of it again. What say you to a song, Dick?'^ Whereupon, nothing loath, Mr. Richard Webb strikes up, in the first style of forecastle execu- tion, " Susannah, don't you cry for me,  which is of course received by the company with the utmost enthusiasm. Mr. Webb, your health and song," and general applause, and emptying of tea-cans, which Mr. John Smith, pleadiag inability to sing, undertakes to replenish for the night."

" Kenneth, you monster, take that clumsy foot of yours off my stomach, will you?" cries out poor Mr. Bellot, smothered beneath the weight of four-and- twenty legs, upon which the carpenter, in his eager- ness to comply, probably drives his foot into Mr. Bellot's eye.

And so, passing the song and the joke around — Mr. Bellot, occasionally making a sudden desperate effort to get up, and sitting down again in despair — with a long " blow " like a grampus — we make what Anderson calls " a night of it." No management, however, can make our solitary candle last out beyond twelve 'o'clock, or thereabout. Notwithstanding this extinguisher to the entertainments of the evening Mr. Anderson_, — while some are dozing and hob-a- nobbing in their dreams, — may still be heard keeping it up with unabated spirit in the dark, wakening every sleeper now and then with some tremendous chorus he has contrived to get up among his friends, for the '^'Bay of Biscay,^' or some favourite Greenland melody, with its inspiriting burthen of " Cheeri-lie, ah ! cheeri-lie."

Each of us got up, as may be supposed, pretty soon next morning, and certainly not much refreshed by our over-night's performances, and after a rough jour- ney over broken ice, arranged to camp early, in order to give us time before dark to erect a snow-house, and avoid the black hole of Calcutta style of encampment of the previous night."

Undoubtedly a night not to be easily forgotten, I myself have spent a nigh like that in the mountains of Sierra Nevada, Spain. It was a very cold december and we had camped at about 3.000 m of attitude or maybe more. During the night the wind broke the sticks of the tent, so after a whole restless night, we started to walk towards the nearest town. The weather was equally awful and the next night caught us. We saw an old hut and rushed into it trying to look for shelter, but the hut was crowded. There was no room to lay inside so we had to sit, the same way Kennedy and men had to, and spend a second tirelessly night seated pouring out the drippling water from the melted snow from the roof every fifteen minutes. Getting out to pee obliged to reformulate the whole puzzle every time. We called it "A Macarena night", I have somewhere the whole episode written down.

Coming back to our story and in spite of these incidents, the whole team reached the ship safe and sound time after. Kennedy had planned to start the searching with sledge parties very soon, in the middle of the winter, maybe shocking for a regular searching expedition but not for this one. In january of 1852, Kennedy, Bellot and another man travelled 50 km southward to reach the next mailbox, Fury Beach to look for clues, but the place hadn´t been visited since a previous sledge party had done so in the course of James Clark Ross expedition of 1848. 

Then, another sledge party was organized. This time they had the target of exploring the southwest region below cape Walker. The plan was to travel southwards to Fury Beach, follow the coast of Creswell bay and then, some miles south more turn to the west to reach Prince of Wales and the area where Franklin has orders to go. It was this sledge party which reached the east entrance of Bellot strait, a strait which John Ross had missed during his long expedition of 1829-33. The party travelled west and discovered doing so the strait which would be christened as Bellot strait. 

At arriving at the west end of it, Kennedy judged that there wasn´t any navigable strait to the north which could lead to Victoria strait, though there was actually one, Peel sound, which it is thought was used by Franklin to sail southwards till he got trapped north of King William island. The party crossed the sound and continued west, advancing still  many miles more westward till they decided to turn to the north. 

"Being now satisfied that Sir James Ross had in his land journey along the western shore of North Somerset in 1849, mistaken the very low and level land over which we had been travelling for a western sea, I felt no longer justified in continuing a westerly course. Whatever passage might exist to the S. W. of Cape Walker, I felt assured must now be on our north. I determined, therefore, from this time forward to direct our course north- ward, until we should fall upon some channel which we knew must exist not far from us, in this direction, by which Franklin might have passed to the S.W. "

For Kennedy it was clear that in a southwest direction from Cape Walker, there wasn´t any sea or channell but an inmense extension of land, Prince of Wales land, which in Kennedy´s opinion was linked to Somerset (now) island. They chose to travel in an opposite direction to where Franklin was, but still, Kennedy and his men were at 250 km north of Cape Felix, the north tip of King William island.

The trip, which lasted three whole months and went through 1.700 km brought no news about the Franklin expedition but was also a demonstration of how well adapted were the men to that harsh enviroment and how far a well prepared party of men, helped by sledge dog, could go. Igloos were built almos daily, and not a single casualty resulted from the adventure. The men were also expert hunters, as some anecdotes shows us:

"John Smith and I made an endeavour to approach some deer which were quietly feeding upon the stunted heather, which, as already stated, forms almost the only vegetation of this barren district, in the manner adopted by the Indians of Hudson´s Bay, by fixing our guns to the head, so as to give the appearance of horns, and crawling on all fours. We had succeeded in approaching within a fair distance for a shot, and were preparing to do execution upon them, when some movement of the sledges attracted their attention, and with a snuff of the air and a toss of their graceful antlers they bounded away, and were soon out of reach of our guns."

They found an awful weather during the whole journey. There were very long delays provoked by the pitiful conditions, some of them lasted even a whole week (in the metheorological annex is recorded a temperature of -42 ºC during the month of january). This surely shortened the distance they could have made in other circunstance. Kennedy fills his narrative with witty paragraphs which gives an idea of how bad things were and which makes the reading a real pleasure. One of my favourites is this:

"I have a strong opinion that old Eolus, with his den of ruffianly winds, that so shamefully belaboured the piousneas, must have emigrated to North Somerset since the days of Virgil. Such a high carnival of northerly gales as, during the winter months, swept round the poor little Albert, and nearly smothered us under an avalanche of snow, I believe never was heard of in any other known region of the globe. Where they all came from, and how they did not long before the winter was over blow themselves fairly out, was a wonder to us all the year round. " I have known but one gale since we entered Batty Bay,' once observed our veteran friend Hepburn, " and that was the gale that began when we came and ended when we went away."

In another occasion, Kennedy tells how he and some other mates got lost in very bad weather while they were trying to reach the ship. One of the men fell and hurt himself a leg. The man told the others he could not give a step forward. Then the captain, told him not to worry, they would leave him wrapped up in a muskox blanket and would bury him in the snow till they could come back after for him. The reaction was somehow easily foreseen:

"This Arctic prescription had a magical effect upon our patient — the back and the broken bones were speedily forgotten, and in a short time he was on his legs again, and we all trudging on once more in the old rough and tumble style of progression, till about midnight, we found ourselves standing under the lee of something which looked like a bank of snow, but which, to our great gratification, proved to be the powder-house we had erected on shore in the beginning of the winter."

The 6th of august of 1852 the ship sailed from Batty bay after having spent in that place for 330 days, almost an entire year. The crew was by then afflicted with scurvy, which had shown up affecting both, the sledge party and the remaining crew of the ship. However, they sailed to Beechey island in an attempt to offer their help to Horatio Austin´s squadron. Only the supply vessel North star was there, but a combination of the state of healthof his crew, the strict rules of the royal navy to which those who wanted to stay must be submittted and the lack of experience of many of the men belonging Austin´s  squadron dissuaded them to stay a further winter:

 "On being made acquainted with the nature of the Admiralty regulations, to which they would be subjected by their removal to the North Star, first Sutherland, and subsequently Smith, withdrew their offer, alleging, as a farther reason for their change of purpose, their fears, which I found were shared by the Prince Albert's crew in general, that the fresh men from England would not be able to bear the same fatigue as themselves, some of whom had been all their lives more or less at this hard exploring labour. Mr» Bellot and myself were thus most reluctantly compelled to abandon our enterprise, and the disap- pointment seemed to be scarcely less felt by that fine young officer, Mr. Alston, of H.M.S. North Star, who had so nobly desired to be the companion of our future adventures."

So, Prince Albert sailed east to Baffin Bay and arrived to Aberdeen the 7 th de october with all men safe and sound on board and having discovered what was going to be a pivotal piece of the puzzle to complete a sailing route through the northwest passage

William Kennedy, in his conclusions, elegantly eludes the question ahout if there was still any chance to find any survivor from the Franklin expedition, and points to the testimonies of maybe more prudent arctic prominent explorers of the moment like Kane and others who were sure that men from Franklin expedition could have survived in those arctic regions and be still alive, due to their use of igloos (which we don´t know if they were able to build) and the abundant game which they could hunt (which we know now there is so scarce in the region they were trapped than even Inuit people don´t visit it.

I would have liked to ask directly to Kennedy himself about his opinion, who he diverted to these others instead of answering himself the question. I would have liked to ask this to one who struggled for three months during his sledge trip and had to combat the scurvy which appeared the very first winter in spite of all the provisions, apart of their own, which they had at hand and used from Whaler point, Fury beach, etc.and his abilities for hunting. Surely Lady Franklin won´t have liked to know that answer. Some of the more astounding assertions which trusted on the British endurance and capabilities came from Edward Sabine:

"Colonel Sabine said, when asked, did he think our countrymen could exist in the rigour of those Polar regions ? ' The Esquimaux/ said he, ' live there ; and, where they live. English- men can live"

A thing, which we know now, that is not entirely true.