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21 Feb 23

At the popular end of the book market, the late 20th century saw Victorian hero-worship of the Royal Navy’s Arctic explorers supplanted by a near sneer. The Franklin expedition was a prime target with fingers pointed at surviving artefacts of little utility to shipwrecked survivors. In the last decade the largest artefacts of all have been discovered: the ships. Does this offer the opportunity for further reappraisal of the story of the voyage and its end? Matthew Betts is emphatic that it does. He dismisses the facile criticism that the Royal Navy failed to adopt indigenous modes of travel and subsistence. The mission of the Franklin expedition was to find a navigable Northwest passage. Hence, to tell that story adequately demands biographies of the ships as well as the men.

Dr Betts is eminently qualified to do this. He is a marine archaeologist. He is also a highly skilled craftsman, who, some two years before the discovery of the Terror wreck, set about the intensive research required to make an Admiralty-style builder’s model of the ship. His findings form the core of the book – half of its content. There are detailed descriptions of the construction of strengthened frame, reinforced hull, fittings, and important modifications before the final voyage, including state of the art technology, not least the locomotive engine and screw propulsion. Over 50 pages of meticulous plans enable visualisation of the spaces in which more than 60 men spent 35 months. It seems an oversight that this technical text was not complemented with a glossary.

On either side of the technical core is the ship’s life story, leading up to the extraordinarily fortuitous location of the wreck in the very bay which, seemingly equally fortuitously, had been named for it in 1910. Three episodes are high-lighted. In 1828 the bomb-vessel was wrecked on the Portuguese coast, breaking her back. Seamanship of the highest order got her afloat to sail to Plymouth for repair and preservation. Seven years later she was modified for polar operations. Here a rather more significant gap in the apparatus of the book becomes apparent, namely the lack of adequate maps. During the voyage under Captain George Back, Terror would be trapped by very different pack-ice conditions to those which had aided earlier exploration. Her people survived eight terrifying months as she was subjected to compression which wrenched the hull and displaced the sternpost. Again, determined seamanship got the ship home, in time to be repaired and enhanced for the third key episode, James Clark Ross’s voyage to Antarctica, with the famous close encounters with icebergs in heavy seas, and the near calamitous collision with Erebus.

Dr Betts concludes that by the time of the Franklin voyage, those who sailed in Terror had a deep faith in her, not least Francis Crozier, who continued as her captain, and remained in her after succession to command of the expedition. It was this faith in their ships which underpinned Franklin’s determined pursuit of his mission, taking him into what we now know is a bottle-neck where ice conditions determine in-year prospects of a navigable North-West Passage, and into a sterile environment, dreaded by the Inuit people in those “years without summers”. He suggests that a sudden clearing of the ice after the ships had been deserted led to the despatch back of parties who steamed the vessels to the locations where they have been found before the ice closed in again just as suddenly. He judges that for their people “the ships remained oases of light, heat and shelter”. A recurrent phrase in the book suggests rather more to this reviewer: Parry’s system. Edward Parry had shown how, with attention to amenities and routines, the Royal Navy’s stout and well-prepared polar ships were homes in which their people were kept fit and motivated through the Arctic winters and ready for further exploration. This should surely ring true for any of us who have seen long deployments in remote regions, especially around the poles.

There is much more to mull over in this book, which is highly recommended, especially for those building up a personal polar library.