18 Dec 20
Posted by: Lt Cdr D B Collins, RCN

A lot of ink has been spilled since the tragic 1845 Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin with 129 men and two HM Ships Erebus and Terror which ended with the loss of the ships and all the participants by the late 1840s. Three relief expeditions were dispatched and interest in the story was maintained for years not least due to the efforts of Jane, Lady Franklin, who wished to keep the memory of her naval husband (interestingly promoted rear admiral before his death was accepted) alive. A subject largely for anthropologists and historians, a new flurry of interest was generated by the discovery of Erebus (2014) and Terror (2016) in six fathoms of water far from where Franklin and his men had abandoned them (see Erebus by Michael Palin, 2018). The contemporary story remains one of what happened to the ships and men, how they died, the role of the indigenous Inuit in the area and where Sir John’s grave might be.

Into the fray enters retired Lieut Ernie Coleman RN, (not an NR member), a self-styled historian and Arctic adventurer. A recruiting officer towards the end of his career, Coleman has a strong interest in exploration and was in fact elected a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in 1991. He has written several books about the experience of the Royal Navy in polar exploration and undertook four trips to the Arctic in the early 1990s (with modest RN support) with the specific goal of finding John Franklin’s grave (he didn’t).  No Earthly Pole is mainly an account of those four trips and the travails involved with them, but the latter part of the book delves more broadly into some of the myths and still contestable issues surrounding the expedition.

Arctic travel, much less exploration, is not for the faint of heart. Facilities are often rudimentary and settlements of Inuit can be many miles apart. Transportation is by float plane or helicopter, and all-terrain vehicles, ski-doos or foot on the ground. In his hunt for Franklin’s grave, Coleman offers a Boys Own account of his experience, the characters he met and the challenges he encountered. He certainly demonstrates by his own experience the difficulty one can face in the North, mirroring unintentionally a sense of what Franklin and his team must have faced.  He writes fluently with a close eye to detail of conditions just above the Arctic Circle in his search area around Prince of Wales Island. He has a firm command of the records and journals of those who preceded him over the years in the search of ‘what happened’.

But what took this adventure tale to a higher level for me in the latter part of the book was Coleman’s review of the politics surrounding the expedition. First is the role of the Inuit, then and now. Current Canadian mythology has it that the finding of the two ships five years ago was down to the oral history of the Inuit (Coleman uses the word ‘native’ which is out of fashion in Canada now and Esquimo is considered derogatory). If only those searching decades ago had listened to the Elders, the ships would have been found much earlier, theoretically. Well, perhaps, but likely not. The ships drifted with the ice over some years before finally settling in the waters surrounding King William Island where they were found.  The role of the Inuit is even more problematic because it had been assumed that Franklin and his men would have been helped by the locals. It is not even clear that the expedition had any interaction with the Inuit before some of the survivors were attacked and killed as they left their ships to head overland. Some died of natural causes (tuberculosis, starvation) but not all. The involvement of the Inuit remains contentious.

One other point of controversy is whether lead poisoning led to the demise of the sailors. The solder of the tins used for packing food had a heavy lead content. It has been assumed that this was contributory to the deaths of many on the expedition, but Coleman demonstrates by the benefit of recent research that the sailors would have been no more exposed to lead in the Arctic that they would have been normally, even after consuming much tinned food.

But the main issue of concern is whether the crew of the ships lapsed into cannibalism as the end drew nigh for them. There have been many accounts that this was so: oral history from the Inuit, and examination of bones found of the dead sailors that had cut marks made by knives. A Scottish Hudson’s Bay Company surgeon and explorer, Dr John Rae, who visited the region after the disaster was sure that cannibalism was involved, based on what he told by the Inuit he met. This view was not well received in high Victorian England which maintained a rather romantic view of the expedition.  Coleman remains unsure and sceptical about the motives of those who made and still make the claims. It seems that some of the cut marks could have been made by Inuit when they attacked the sailors who, one assumes, posed a threat to them. The jury is still out. The author’s goal was to test certain academic and other theories, somewhat controversially, by those who have little knowledge of the Arctic or its conditions and he has certainly achieved that.

Sir John’s grave has yet to be found while the sites of the two ships have been made a national park in Canada. Coleman has made a useful contribution in adding to the Franklin canon. His is a personal tale of exploration and modest discovery. The volume is not meant to be an academic account so there are no footnotes, no index and a short bibliography (the Palin book noted above is not listed).  Recommended for those interested in travel in the High Arctic and the fate of the Franklin expedition.