Wednesday, March 30, 2011

History: Lure Of The Lost

Captain Sir John Franklin was a visionary who, in 1845 at the age of 59, left England to cross the Atlantic and finally find the Northwest Passage. His expedition included two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, 129 men and enough provisions for a year. Unlike all those other men who had attempted to find the alleged river that ran from somewhere on the Canadian coast through North America to Alaska, Franklin was convinced that he would find the prize no one else could locate.

It will come as a shock to no one reading this that he did not find what did not exist. Instead his ships were frozen solid in ice and over the course of the next three years he and his crew died of various miseries including exposure, scurvy, lead poisoning, tuberculosis and starvation. Not one single soul survived the ill-fated journey and – for some reason I cannot fathom – Franklin was elevated to the level of heroism previously reserved for seamen like Drake and Nelson in Britain.

Despite ongoing reports from native Inuit that all the white men had died, wave after wave of explorers retraced the slogging, zombie-like shuffles of Franklin’s doomed crews. Most of these later adventurers were convinced that at least a man or two must have survived but time and again such hopes were dashed. Evidence repeatedly revealed that, instead of seeking out the help of the Native people who lived for centuries in the frozen north, the men of Erebus and Terror tried against all reason to get back home. Some even fell into the horrible last resort of cannibalism.

To this day research on the Franklin expedition continues unchecked, and books – both fictional and scholarly – continue to be written. There is a romantic quality to the idea of exploring, of course, but obviously this specific exploration raises a prurient interest in the unbearable last days and grisly deaths of the men involved. That’s how we humans are. The problem is that once you know, you can’t unknow. For all we wish it did, brain bleach does not exist. And yet we continue to try to find out more.

That’s why this article from Live Science is so interesting. Now, at last, researchers may be having some success at positively identify the departed who lost their lives on a fool’s errand. Attempts to identify the dead who have been found have been ongoing, but modern forensics are shedding some light on previous misconception, as in the example given in the article.

A body found in the 1870s was originally thought to be one Henry Le Vesconte, one of Erebus’ lieutenants, but new findings have put that assumption in question.  The remains, which were made available for study because of renovations to the Franklin Memorial in Greenwich where they were interred, have been put through the paces of modern CSI-style evaluation. The findings are extraordinary, if a little creepy.

Evidently the body is that of a young gentleman, between 25 and 40, tall in stature and possessed of an unusual lower jaw shape and one gold filling. Tests on the man’s tooth enamel showed he would have grown up in northern Britain, possibly somewhere in Scotland, and facial reconstruction experts made a clay image of what they imagine the seaman might have looked like based on a cast of his skull.

None of the evidence fit Lieutenant Le Vesconte but pointed instead to the 29-year-old surgeon’s mate and naturalist Henry Goodsir, also of Erebus. The reconstruction of the face is compared in the photo above (from the article) to a pre-expedition daguerreotype of Goodsir. It is hard to argue with the distinct similarity and the facts that the surgeon’s mate grew up in Scotland and was from the kind of wealthy family that could afford gold fillings. Le Vesconte, it is worth noting, was a foremast seaman from a middle class family who grew up in Devon.

The article stops short of saying that the remains are Goodsir’s, but you have to wonder at least. Doubtless research, and exploration, will continue in an attempt to find more evidence regarding the Franklin expedition. We tend to feel a pull towards the lost, as people and as researchers, and so the shuffling – and discovery – will go on.

Header: Photo via the National Maritime Museum


Undine said...

I can never make up my mind if archaeological "reconstruction" of that sort is enthralling or--as you so accurately put it--deeply creepy.

Not long ago, I read a quite interesting book called "Mysteries of the Arctic," which included a chapter on the Franklin expedition. As you suggested in your post, the author said that the main "mystery" about Franklin and his crew was how they managed not to survive. I felt horribly sorry for these men, of course, but at the same time I had a rather guilty feeling of irritation at their blundering. It was definitely not one of those stories I'd care to study in-depth.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! There have been quite a few movies and TV programs about the Franklin expedition too... probably more than it deserves.

I do like the zombie references, though...

Blue Flamingo said...

Fascinating. I didn't see mention of DNA testing in the Live Science article. I wonder if the investigating will continue, to include DNA extraction from the bones, to see if they can identify the remains. Pauline: I know you identify with another century, but you have to admit, this would be so very cool!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine, Blue Flamingo and Timmy!

The Franklin expedition always wrenches my gut. I never thought so much about it until I moved to the frozen North but now I have a sincere belief that at least some of those men would have survived if they had found a Native village to help them.

Possibly some members of the families of the men who suffered want to know what happened, how they died, were they participants in the alleged cannibalism, etc. But the closer you look, the more horrifying it becomes in my opinion. Like the deepest parts of the ocean, maybe some secrets should stay just that.