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.

viernes, 25 de septiembre de 2015


In a cold morning of April of 1851, like a ghost vision, a huge iceberg was seen from a ship which was sailing north ninety miles east off the shores of Newfoundland. Nothing strange till here, all the ships that followed that route, which were many, came frequently along with massive icebergs which sailed south from Davis strait towards the open sea.

The brig "Renovation" of 325 tons was sailing north the "morning" of the 22 th of april from Limerick, Ireland to Quebec. They sailed at a speed of eight or nine knots when they saw five miles away a big iceberg which was carrying a very strange load, two three masted ships which were apparently deserted. One of the ships was standing upright while the other was slightly inclined towards one of its sides.
The brig renovation sights two ships
Those two ghost ships and the five miles long iceberg which were carrying them were in sight during three quarters of an hour. Apparently all the Renovation´s crew and passengers could take a look at them. Though by that time, the Admiralty had announced that there was a huge sum of money offered as reward for those who could bring news about the whereabouts of the Franklin expedition ships and its members, it seems that anybody on board the Renovation was aware of this fact. Surely most of the people on board, if not all, was  unaware that the Franklin expedition had dissappeared. They surely didn´t even know about their existence. If they had had knowledge of this situation perhaps things would have happened differently.

Here, there are two different versions about what happened during those crucial moments. One of them tells the story that Captain Coward of the Renovation, who was ill lying in his bunk, was asked by the acting captain, the mate Robert Simpson, about what to do. According with this version Coward ordered not to approach the iceberg and  to continue the route. The second version says that, Robert Simpson, didn´t ask what to do and that he simply went ahead because he wasn´t familiar with sailing among ice floes or icebergs.

What would have they found on those misterious ships if they had approached them is something that unfortunately we will never know.

The ship Renovation reached her destiny time after, and it wasn´t after a letter was written a month later by one of the passengers, John Supple Lynch, that this events reached the public and attracted some attention. The incredible story was corroborated not only by Robert Simpson, but for other crew members like James Silk. By then, the idea that the ships on the iceberg were Erebus and the Terror began to take shape.

Lynch´s letter was published in The "Limerick Chronicle" but it wasn´t before a year that the shock wave reached London and the Admiralty. When news arrived, the Admiralty convulsed. Well, in fact it was public opinion which set fire on their trousers, people wanted to know. A frenetic activity mobilized the whole world. News not only filled newspapers of the time but also newspapers of almost one hundred years after, like this piece of news of the Argus from Melburne published in 1942 or this other published in 1937.

Erasmus Ommanney, the Arctic veteran, was appointed by the Admiralty to clarify the story. He was sent to Limerick to gather further information. Robert Simpson, as I said above, corroborated the story and even drew a sketch showing the position of the ships in the iceberg. The sketch showed the ships lying over the water line of the iceberg and completely dry. There were other sightings which confirmed the fact, another German brig,  Kneip, had seen the ships too.

Five miles is not a long distance, it is more or less the distance ships begin to dissapear under the line of the horizon. If you have ever seen this phenomenon, you know well you can distinguish a ship from anything else at such distance.

How could the men who saw the iceberg be wrong then on identifying without any doubt that the there were actually two big ships with three masts in it? Robert Simpson and John Lynch explored the ships with a telescope and they took notice of close details about their general state. One of the ships was well embedded in ice, all their masts were complete even with some of the yards still hanging from them. The masts of the other, the one which was inclined, was hanging over the sea and only their lower parts stood. This ship was placed in such position that it was showing her deck entirely to the eyes of the people who was looking at it from the Renovation. The ice which embedded the ships was said to be three years old. They were empty and there were no boats. Whoever had manned the ships had fled on board all their boats.

Captain Ommanney had no doubt about the authenticity of the sighting, but, a question still floated in the air: which ships were those? answering that incognita was a very different question.

The Admiralty produced an extensive report called “Vessels in the North Atlantic: copies of communications between the Admiralty and any Public Authorities at home and abroad, in reference to certain vessels observed on an ice-berg in the North Atlantic in 1851, and supposed to have been abandoned.” which seems to be still in the archives of the National Maritime Museum. I have obtained this particular piece of information from Russell´s Potter blog (infinite source of knowledge). There, he shares a paper written by Joe O, Farrell which deserves a reading.

The role of this report is studied in this paper together with other considerations. Though part of the content of Farrel´s paper is currently out of date, mainly because of the finding of Investigator and Erebus, it is still interesting the reading of his analisys about the sea currents in the part of the Arctic archipielago where Erebus and Terror dissapeared.

The bottom line about the content of the Admiralty report is that it ended without any conclusion. -This is mainly due because the authors dismissed the possibility that a ship could travel such long distances dragged by the ice. The estimated impossible that a ship could travel 2.000 miles from the heart of the arctic archipielago to the east shores of Newfoundland.

It wasn´t till 1855 that the ship Resolute would be found after having traveled the inmense distance of 1.000 miles after scaping her icy prison. Farrell rightly wonders what would have happened if the Resolute had been found some years before. I suppose that perhaps a fleet of Royal Navy ships would have been sent to look for Franklin all around the Atlantic Ocean instead of looking for him in the Arctic.

That those ships were not Erebus and Terror is something we already know. Erebus was found last year at the bottom of the sea west of Adelaide Peninsula, and it is expected that Terror will appear sooner than later too somewhere in front of the west coast of King William Island. So then, which ships are those which rode south on that immensive iceberg?

If you have reached this point and want to know my opinion, I think that more likely, those two ships could have been two whalers. If you have read something about the whaling history in Davis Strait you will soon realise how dangerous that business was. The impressive number of casualties occurred during whaler´s expeditions makes the Franklin expedition tragedy looks like a joke. Tens of ships were lost from the end of the mid eighteen to the twenty century. Hundreds of whalers drowned or perished by scurvy, hunger or cold in the frozen waters of Davis strait. As a sample you can check the list, which appears in the book Arctic Whalers by Basil Lubbock, of whaler´s shipwrecks happened in the Arctic from 1746 to 1907  (I definitely have to read this book).

From Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez´s book, I learnt that in 1777 some whalers were trapped in the ice. 350 souls tried to reach safety wandering on the sea ice but only 140 survived. In 1830 other whalers were also trapped in Melville bay. This time 1.000 men saved miracously their lives. Years after, in 1835 and 1836 other ships were lost and again the number of casualties grew. A dangerous life which equals or even exceeds the risks assumed by our  always beloved arctic explorers.

But there were more shipwrecks years after, some of them happened not long time before the sighting of the two ships. The18th of June of 1849, James Saunders, was commanding the ship North Star in his way north to carry supplies for James Clark Ross´s expedition. They found near Upernavik some whale boats which were sailing south. The boats belonged the whaler Lady Jane, an old veteran from Newcastle which had shipwrecked in the north.  It took Saunders a month finding a way north among the ice, then, he encountered two more whaling boats traveling south. These boats came from the whaler Prince of Wales, an old good friend of some Arctic explorers.

So at least, two ships had been abandoned in 1849 in the ice three years before the brig Renovation found her icy floating treasure. Were those two the only ones left in the ice? If we read about the whaling history of Tyne we learn that at the same time that the whaler Lady Jane was crushed by ice  three ships more were abandoned:

"On 12 June 1849 she (Lady Jane) was crushed in the ice of Melville Bay with three other ships and lost without trace. News of the tragedy did not reach Newcastle until 5 October. Patterson, with a crew of 50, secured the seven boats belonging to the ship and trekked 500 miles across country to the Danish settlement of Proven, without loss of life."

The ships lost in Melville Bay were:

-  Lady Jane from Newcastle, crushed
- Superior from Peterhead,crusshed
- Mary from Aberdeen lost with all hands
- Prince of Wales, wrecked.

If those four ships were close to each other when they were abandoned is something I can´t assure here, but from what I have read and from what I have seen in old paintings of the time, it seems that usually, whalers, stayed close to each other in order to be assisted by their neighbours in case of danger and necessity. Specially when they were surronded by ice floes.

Ships rescuing 32 whaling ships that were lost in the ice off Point Barrow.
Apparently those four ships were crushed by the ice. This doesn´t coincide with the description of the ships seen over the iceberg which apparently were in good shape. But, cannot a crushed ship be lifted by the pressure of the ice and eventually avoid sinking at least for a while?.

The class of the watched ships could perfectly match the class of the whalers which usually hunt in the arctic. Both kind of ships usually had three masts. They were robust ships which could easily be confused with exploration ships. Sometimes exploration´s ships were used as whalers, Don´t you remember that Isabella, the ship on which John Ross sailed in search of the Northwest passage in his expedition of 1818, was also the whaler which rescued him in 1833 near Port Leopold?.
Isabella and Alexander, 1818.
Analysing the list of shipwrecks from the book "Arctic Whalers" we realise that only two years before the tragedy of 1849, three more whalers were "lost in ice", the ships were: Bon Accord, Caledonia and Alfred.  Could be two of these  our ships?

Those same years 1847 and 1849, William Penny, the Peterhead whaling master, somehow, tried while conducting his whaling trips to ascertain too the fate of the Franklin expedition. He entered Lancaster sound in 1847 with the whaler Saint Andrew and attempted to get into it again in 1849 with the whaler Advice. He was lucky and succeded in returning home safely, he even gain the command of one of the exploration ships sent after Franklin sometime after. Perhaps the rest the whalers which were lost those same years were pushing their own luck trying to find any trace about the Franklin expedition too.

I could be digressing here forever and ever but the truth is that we will never know which were the ships trapped on that iceberg. They must be by now somewhere in the bottom of the Atlantic ocean at the latitude big icebergs melt but of a thing I am quite certain now, and this is that our frozen ships were two of those whalers abandoned in the ice during one of those two cold summers of 1847 or 1849.


1 comentario:

  1. The ships were seen on an ice floe, not a berg, in the vicinity of Newfoundland, where ships went out around that time to hunt seals. Sometimes they got stuck in the ice and were deserted for many days until the ice loosened up. Sometimes they sank, other times they were sailed back to Newfoundland. The records of ships deserted or crushed by ice for other years was good, but there are few records for that period of time.