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.
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.
"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."
"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.