Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Franklin Heroes

I've been kinda where Dan Francis is on the Franklin mystery.  (Update: And sde Tina Adcock's survey of historian's tweets on the subject.  I remember having coffee with Ken McGooghan years ago when he was about to publish his Fatal Passage -- and I really couldn't see that many people would be terribly interested in that story.  Mea culpa, Ken (though Ken's a John Rae guy more than a Franklinite). I don't think it is just politics that has restrained my enthusiasm for the way the recent search has been promoted.

But that photo above is indeed pretty cool, as is the work that produced it. And it ain't just the locals that are impressed. One British expert says of the discovery:
Today’s announcement by Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, that Parks Canada have located one of the ships of Sir John Franklin’s lost Expedition on the bed of Victory Strait, is the biggest archaeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb almost 100 years ago.  
The whole world owes a debt of thanks to the Canadian Government and Parks Canada for leading this search, and to the Inuit people of Nunavut who tried to help Franklin’s men and who faithfully kept alive their memories of the tragedy.
Two more Franklin heroes for me:  the Parks Canada people, my old colleagues, who struggle with both political interference and the kind of disdain that anyone "in government" has to face these days -- and still do lots of nifty research and give us some pretty terrific service on a thousand fronts.

And David Woodman, who over 20 years ago drew attention to the fact that the Inuit held most of the useful information for finding the Franklin ships, and was sustained once again by this discovery. I wrote in a 1991 review of his book  (full text of it below the jump) that it made me think an Inuit history of the Inuit would be more interesting than an Inuit history of the Franklin expedition.  But it's a terrific book and seems to have held up wonderfully well to the test of this search.

Update, Sept 11, 2014:  David Woodman gets in touch:
I too am very happy and relieved to find that the Franklin ship is, in essence, exactly where the Inuit said it was 150 years ago. Perhaps the major achievement of this find will not be restricted to the elucidation of the Franklin mystery (as interesting and important as that itself is), but this verification of oral history may cause a long-delayed re-evaluation of non-documentary historical sources in general.

Photo: Globe and Mail

David C. Woodman, Unravelling the Franklin Expedition: Inuit Testimony.  Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991.   [Reviewed by Christopher Moore for Books in Canada, Fall 1991]
      "Make no mistake about it, Franklin lives," Margaret Atwood wrote recently in these pages. The ill-fated Arctic explorer hasn't actually been sighted in the Pelly Bay Seven-Eleven, but recent stories by Atwood and Mordecai Richler (among others) show that in fiction he does indeed live on. Still, the Franklin facts and their interpretation have seemed pretty much established. Let poets and mythmakers make of him what they will, Franklin is dead. I doubted there was much more for any historian to say about the Franklin expedition -- until I read David Woodman's truly remarkable new account of what happened to those two ships and 129 men after they went into the ice near King William Island in 1846.

      Woodman thinks it is time to hear what the Inuit said about Franklin's fate. In the 1860s an American adventurer named Charles Francis Hall filled his notebooks with Inuit stories about the lost expedition, but Hall apparently listened without hearing. Having formed his own theory about Franklin's fate, he dismissed Inuit material that did not fit -- and then got himself killed seeking the North Pole.  Now, 120 years later, Woodman uses the Inuit evidence collected by Hall (and others) as the basis -- rather than the embroidery -- of a new interpretation.

      The standard interpretation is based on two notes Franklin's men left in a cairn -- and on the trail of their bodies across King William Island. It declares that they abandoned their ships early in 1848 and died that summer and fall in a hopeless and ill-planned march toward the Canadian mainland.  The Franklin "mystery" is why they were heading in the wrong direction carrying all the wrong materials. The standard explanation is 1) they were hidebound amateurs, and 2) they were crazy -- driven so either by the north itself (the old romantic version) or by lead poisoning (the modern, murderous-technology version). 

      The Inuit (at least as Woodman reads their stories) say otherwise.  Apparently Franklin's men were neither amateurish nor crazy.  They did not abandon their ships in 1848 and few of them died then. They knew what they were trying to do and where they were going, and they got a good deal further than anyone thought. Woodman thinks some of them were still alive and striving at least three years after the standard version writes them off. Chapter after riveting chapter, he presents (and argues for the credibility of) striking and poignant images of a body of men still doomed but much more enterprising than we have ever imagined.

      David Woodman has autopsied no corpses and unearthed no lost cairns. He has just done what historians should do: he has gone to the sources and paid attention to them.  From that deceptively simple (and never to be sufficiently praised) strategy, he has come up with what seems to be a persuasive new history.

      Can the old version survive? It is true that the Inuit stories Woodman uses are tangled and the translations dubious. He claims no expertise in either Inuktituk or Inuit enthnology, and his interpretations are complex and conjectural. There is fuel here for a lot of controversy, and at times I found myself thinking that with sources like these, an Inuit-based history of the Inuit would be more interesting than an Inuit-based history of Franklin.  But this book is compelling reading.  On a warm week at an Ontario lakefront cottage, I sat inside at a table turning unwieldy page proofs... and could not stop.

      The Franklin metaphor has been of arrogant modern men who will not adapt and who die for that failing. The Woodman version suggests that Franklin's people were resolute, well-organized, and adaptable -- and still outstripped the capacity of their environment to support them. Unfortunately for us, that grim idea may be even more apt for 21st century humanity.

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