Wrapped in the Union Flag

Voyages of Discovery and Research within the Arctic Regions, from the Year 1818 to the Present Time, by John BarrowPicking up Sarah’s theme of celebrity . . .  I’ve mentioned before the amount of useful and interesting information to be gleaned from the Eagle comic in the 1950s. Another story which I read then (I think it might have been in the Annual rather than the comic) and never really forgot was that of Sir John Franklin’s wife, solicitously draping a Union Flag (was she sewing it, or am I confusing her with Betsey Ross or Dolley Madison?) over her snoozing husband. ‘He stirred. “Don’t you know”, he said, “that sailors are wrapped in the flag when they are dead?”’

I haven’t been able to trace the source of this (probably apocryphal) incident, though in searching I came across an interesting article by Sophie Gilmartin about the significance of Landseer’s famous painting, Man Proposes, God Disposes, which turns out to be yet another manifestation of the fascination which the story of Franklin’s final expedition exerted over mid-Victorian Britain, not least because of Lady Franklin’s determined efforts to keep her husband’s mysterious fate in the public eye.

Franklin was born in 1786, the ninth of twelve children, and though he didn’t run away to sea, at the age of fourteen he persuaded his father to let him go from Hull to Lisbon on a merchant vessel, and after that he was hooked. Shortly afterwards, he was a midshipman in the Royal Navy, and taking part in the battle of Copenhagen. Although from a modest background in Lincolnshire, Franklin just happened to be the nephew of Matthew Flinders, and took part in his uncle’s circumnavigation of Australia in the Investigator. The nearly disastrous ending of this voyage (the ship had to be abandoned as unseaworthy, and the boat they transferred into, the Porpoise, sank, leaving them stranded on a sandbank for six weeks…) may have concentrated Franklin’s mind on having state-of-the art vessels for his later expeditions.

Franklin was at Trafalgar, on H.M.S. Bellerophon (the legendary ‘Billy Ruffian’), whose Captain Cooke (along with 26 other crewmen) was killed during the battle, though he was no longer part of the crew when Napoleon surrendered to its captain in 1815 and spent three weeks on board. The end of the war led to very many junior officers being discharged on half-pay, but Franklin was lucky enough to gain a place on one of the two Arctic expeditions organised by Sir John Barrow in 1818. Pack-ice north of Spitsbergen meant that nothing significant was achieved, but the following year, he was put in command of an expedition (to be supported by the resources of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company) to explore the north coast of the American continent. Almost everything that could go wrong did (especially inefficiency or downright bad faith on the part of the two companies), and eleven of the twenty men on the expedition died (they were reduced to eating lichen, and there were allegations of cannibalism among the French-Canadian and Native American guides). But when Franklin and the survivors returned, he was greeted as a hero in the noble and stoical British mould: his subsequent book was enormously popular, and although it could be argued that the expedition had in fact achieved very little in exchange for the suffering and death of its participants, Franklin was in future the inevitable first choice as leader for any Arctic venture.

His next expedition (1825–7) was successful both in terms of its efficiency and the amount of accurate surveying carried out; another book was also hugely popular, he was knighted, and remarried (his first wife had died just after he left England in 1825). But then the Admiralty put a stop to the ‘Arctic project’. Franklin was stationed in the Mediterranean from 1830 to 1833, but was then effectively unemployed until, in 1836, he was offered the governorship of Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania). With no previous experience, and taking over in difficult circumstances, he was almost inevitably unpopular with the small community of colonists, and his laudable attempts to improve conditions among the convicts and to prevent the extinction of the local aborigines ended in failure. Recalled after six years, he found that the Admiralty had revived its interest in Arctic exploration; a potential north-west passage had almost been mapped, with only a 300-mile stretch left unexplored.

Franklin lobbied for, and was given, command. His two ships, the Erebus and Terror (on which the young Joseph Hooker had sailed to the Antarctic under the command of Sir James Clark Ross) were steam-powered, their hulls specially designed for polar sailing, and the equipment and the supplies on board were also state-of-the-art: some of the food was preserved by the new technology of canning. The expedition sailed down the Thames on 19 May 1845; the ships were spotted in Baffin Bay by a whaler on 26 July. Then they disappeared.

Inevitably, it took some time for anyone to become concerned. It was normal for expeditions to be out of contact for at least a year. But after two years, Lady Franklin and the families of other crew members began to pressurise the Admiralty into sending a search party, and in fact no fewer than thirty expeditions were sent in the following twelve years, some despatched by the Admiralty (who kindly promoted Franklin to rear-admiral in 1852) and several by the American philanthropist Henry Grinnell, who was moved by the frequent appeals of Lady Franklin, a superb publicist for her cause. And many of the participants in these expeditions wrote accounts.

The Voyage of the Prince Albert in Search of Sir John Franklin (1851), A Short Narrative of the Second Voyage of the Prince Albert, in Search of Sir John Franklin (1853), The Last of the Arctic Voyages (1855), A Personal Narrative of the Discovery of the North-West Passage (1857), Arctic Explorations: The Second Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin (1856), and many, many more. Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens contrived a play, The Frozen Deep, in 1856; Landseer’s great picture was unveiled in 1864; and at the same time, spurred by the interest in all things Arctic, the newly formed Hakluyt Society was publishing editions of earlier accounts of Arctic voyages and explorers.

In 1854, the experienced explorer and surgeon John Rae, who worked for the Hudson Bay Company, had known Franklin personally, and had taken part in several of the search expeditions, reported to the Admiralty that he had met Inuit hunters who spoke of 30-40 Europeans who had starved to death; fragments obtained from the Inuit appeared to confirm that this was a remnant of Franklin’s crew. Rae included in his account the Inuit suspicion that these men had cannibalised the bodies of their companions, and when this news became public, there was outrage, most of it directed at Rae, who was accused of making up his account to obtain the £10,000 reward on offer. However, discoveries in 1859 included more bodies, and two written messages, one of which said that Franklin had died on 11 June 1847, after which the ice-bound ships were abandoned and the surviving crew had attempted to walk to safety.

The story of Franklin’s doomed expedition has never ceased to fascinate, and the search for the remains of the two ships continues to this day. Theories abound: were the crews fatally weakened by the food from the tin cans, which were sealed with lead? Was there disease, unusually bad weather, or just bad luck (that Union Flag…)? It is interesting that although subsequent assessments of Franklin himself have varied, no blame has attached to him for the disaster – he is consistently portrayed as a competent, kindly, dogged and undoubtedly courageous commander, and an archetype of the British naval officer, devoted to duty until death.


PS: 2014 update – of course, since this piece was written, we have reissued many more books on polar exploration: see the complete list here. But in the last few weeks, amazing news from Canada has produced images of one of the sunken ships,a nd further exploration is continuing. Updates are regularly posted on the Parks Canada website.

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