A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks (34 page)

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The presence of a much more diverse library is revealed in the letters sent home by officers after
Erebus
and
Terror
had reached Greenland, when a ship accompanying them returned to England with correspondence. In a letter dated 18 June, Fitzjames on
Erebus
wrote ‘To-day we set to work, and got a catalogue made of all our books, and find we have amongst us, a most splendid collection.' Another letter, sent by James Walter Fairholme, 24-year-old third lieutenant on
Erebus
, a ‘smart, agreeable companion, and a well-informed man' according to Fitzjames, was more detailed:

I've here got a catalogue made out of all the books, public and private there are on board (and the Terror is doing the same) and we find there is scarcely a book that we can think of as being required that is not on the list. We shall supply each other with these lists, and thus, when a book is wanted, the Librarian (Goodsir) will at once know which ship and what cabin it is in.

The quantity of books delivered to the ships before departure, not just the ‘Seaman's Libraries' but also books on polar exploration, phrasebooks for the ‘Esquimaux' language Inuktitut and other technical and scientific treatises, was such that Franklin asked for special bookcases to be fitted. In the absence of Fitzjames' catalogue – which may survive in the wrecks, along with more of the books – we can only guess at the full list of titles. We know that they included Charles Hutton Gregory's
Practical Rules for the Management of a Locomotive Engine,
provided on each of the ships. Fairholme, an avid reader like Franklin, wrote from Greenland that he was reading
Indications of the Creator
by William Whewell,
Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
and Sir Paul Edmund de Strzelecki's
Physical description of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land
. Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was an extraordinary polymath who coined the words ‘scientist' and ‘physicist' but was later to oppose Darwin's theory of evolution;
Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
, published anonymously in 1844 by the Scottish writer Robert Chambers, was one of the works to which Whewell objected, an attempt to integrate natural sciences with a history of creation. The third book, de Strzelecki's
Physical description
, was on board because Franklin had previously been Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land, and indeed Franklin's own book on his time there was also present in manuscript or proof form and had been read by Fairholme as well.

Like the seventeenth-century books from Amsterdam on the
Sacrificio d'Abramo
discussed in Chapter 9, the collection on
Erebus
and
Terror
provides an invaluable snapshot of reading at one point in history across a wide social and educational spectrum. Just as the seventeenth-century collection represents the boundary between the medieval and the Enlightenment, so the Franklin expedition library represents a world on the cusp of a great intellectual and scientific awakening. The men on the ships may have missed Darwin's first published thoughts on natural selection by a matter of weeks – as we have seen – but Fairholme's reading shows that they were as up to date as they could reasonably be, and there is ample evidence that they saw the advancement of science as part of their endeavour. Franklin's correspondence from Disko Bay off Greenland shows that he had taken the time to send back specimens of molluscs collected by the Assistant Surgeon, Dr Goodsir – also the Librarian – on the passage to Greenland, suggesting that such collections may have
been made subsequently and could still be inside the wrecked ships.

It is uplifting to see the importance of reading for these men and to know that books were with them to the end. The fact that many of the books discovered by the McClintock expedition and the Inuit were devotional in nature shows the strength of their Christian faith and the comfort that this gave them in the most extreme of circumstances. One of the most poignant items acquired by John Rae from the Inuit in 1854, brought from the camp where the men had all died of starvation – and where the Inuit saw the evidence for cannibalism – was a page from the Reverend John Todd's
The students' manual: designed by specific direction, to aid in forming and strengthening the intellectual & moral character & habits of students
, folded in such a way that a passage of dialogue with a rendering from the Book of Isaiah (43:2) was visible:

‘Are you not afraid to die?

‘No.'

‘No! Why does the uncertainty of another state give you no concern?'

‘Because God has said to me, “Fear not; when thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.”'

Like many of the men on
Terror
and
Erebus
, James Fairholme, the keen reader who wrote to his father about the library, had experienced considerable adventure before joining the Franklin expedition. The youngest of the nine commissioned officers on the expedition, Fairholme had entered the Royal Navy in 1834 aged thirteen and served first in the Caribbean, where the Royal Navy was mainly focused on the suppression of the transatlantic slave trade – illegal in the British Empire since 1807 but carried on by ships of other nations and with slaves still being smuggled into the United States. In 1838 he was made second-in-command of a captured slave ship that was wrecked on the coast of Africa, where he and the crew were taken prisoner by the Moors and then liberated sixteen days later on the bank of the Senegal River by a party of Africans under a French officer. The following year he joined HMS
Ganges
, an 84-gun ship-of-the-line built of teak in Bombay in 1821, and was present when
Ganges
bombarded Beirut during the British intervention in the war between the Ottoman Turks and their renegade viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali – part of the
British attempt to prop up the Ottoman Empire as a buffer against Russia, a concern that would eventually lead to the Crimean War of 1853–6.

Towards the end of 1840 he became attached to an ill-fated expedition to the river Niger, organised with the intent of abolishing the slave trade on the river, introducing new agricultural techniques, promoting Christianity and increasing general commerce, the conception of the ‘Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilisation of Africa'. Like the Franklin expedition five years later, the ‘African Colonization Expedition' received much attention in the press, both for its promise and for its outcome. Three steamers had been specially built in Liverpool, the
Soudan
, the
Albert
and the
Wilberforce
, the last two named after Prince Albert, a sponsor of the Society, and William Wilberforce, champion of the abolitionist movement. Setting off in May 1841 with Fairholme as mate on the
Albert
, the expedition reached as far as Egga in present-day Nigeria some 350 miles inland before returning to Cape Coast Castle in Ghana in September. Almost a third of the 150 men had died of fever and most of the rest were stricken by it. Fairholme never read the report –
Narrative of the Expedition sent by her Majesty's Government to the River Niger in 1841
– because it was not published until 1848, three years after the Franklin expedition had left. One who did read it was Charles Dickens, who reviewed it caustically in the
Literary Examiner
and alluded to it in his novel
Bleak House
. He objected to what he saw as misguided foreign philanthropism when there was much greater need at home, where as many as one in ten people in England by mid-century were living as paupers.

Fairholme, by now a lieutenant, was invalided home with illness contracted in Africa, and then had postings at Portsmouth and Devonport before being appointed in March 1845 to
Erebus
on the recommendation of Fitzjames – then a commander – who had been a fellow-officer on
Ganges
. The daguerreotype images of the officers taken shortly before they sailed, probably on the instigation of Lady Franklin, show a physically robust, confident man looking older than his years, as indeed he noted in a letter to his father sent in May from the ships' last port of call in Scotland:

I hope Elizabeth got the photograph. Lady Franklin said she thought it made me look too old, but as I had Fitzjames' coat on at the time,
to save myself the trouble of getting my own, you will perceive that I am a Commander! And have anchors on the epaulettes so it will do capitally when that really is the case.

His last writings to survive are those in the letters that describe his reading sent back from Disko Bay in July, including what may have been his final words to his father: ‘At present Saturday night seems to be kept up in true nautical form around my cabin, a fiddle going as hard as it can and 2 or 3 different songs from the forecastle. In short all seems quite happy…' After that the only words from the expedition are the matter-of-fact notes discovered in the cairn in 1859 quoted at the beginning of this chapter; the only evidence of Fairholme was a spoon and fork with the family crest bought from the Inuit in 1859 by the same expedition, and another spoon by Rae at Repulse Bay in 1854. Poignantly, the motto on the crest is
spero melioro
, ‘I hope for better things'. There is no way of knowing whether he perished at one of the sites where those items were found or was one of the nine officers said in the note from the cairn to have died by that date, 28 April 1848.

For 160 years after the McClintock expedition there was no further evidence of Fairholme, but then in 2015 the archaeologists from Parks Canada first observed a lower-deck cabin on
Erebus
that they believe to have been his. A haunting video shows intact drawers and a bed, very possibly the place where he lay writing that last letter to his father while the music wafted down from the men in the forecastle, now shrouded in silt. In a box in a drawer the archaeologists discovered a pair of epaulettes, beautifully preserved – not the epaulettes of a commander that he had worn for the photograph but those of a lieutenant, taken with him on
Erebus
and preserved for all that time in the frigid waters of the Arctic.

What John Rae had discovered in 1854 seemed incredible at the time: that some of the men had survived for almost five years in the Arctic, from the arrival of the expedition at Beechey Island in 1845 to the date at which the Inuit last saw men alive in 1850. But Franklin had in fact provisioned for up to five years on reduced rations. What made this possible was the tin can for preserved food, patented in 1811 and still being perfected. The problem was revealed by forensic analysis of the three men who were buried on Beechey Island during the first winter.
They all died of tuberculosis or pneumonia, common and often fatal illnesses in Victorian England, but analysis of tissue samples also showed that they contained up to twenty times the level of lead that would have been expected at that period. The culprit was almost certainly the solder used to seal the cans, causing lead to contaminate the food. Lead poisoning would have become progressively more debilitating, resulting in lassitude, confusion and various physical symptoms. Another problem was the age-old scourge of sailors: scurvy. By the late eighteenth century it was known that scurvy was caused by lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, and Franklin had included a large supply of lime juice to maintain vitamin levels – but what he did not know is that lime juice loses its vitamin potency over time. The description by the Inuit of blackened faces suggests men in the final stages of scurvy, part of the grim succession of symptoms that included swollen gums, teeth falling out, and bleeding from the eyes and other parts of the body, eventually rendering the sufferer helpless and fatally weakened.

The testimony of the Inuit and the evidence of the bones found on King William Island show that those men who survived beyond the supply of tinned food then consumed the last of their resources – the bodies of their fellow shipmates. A study published in the
International Journal of Osteoarchaeology
in 2016 showed that the bones exhibit evidence of three stages of cannibalism: first, flesh being stripped from an articulated corpse, revealed by cut marks on the bones; second, dismemberment and the removal of remaining flesh; and third, so-called ‘end-stage' cannibalism, where bones are broken and boiled to extract marrow fat. To the very last, these men were caught in a dreadful conundrum, where the food they were consuming to try to keep alive was also killing them – just as the tinned food was both sustaining and poisoning them, so the diseased and toxic flesh of their shipmates would have sealed their fate too. A worse end can scarcely be imagined.

On 31 March 1854, the Admiralty removed Franklin and the other men from the Royal Navy paybooks; Rae's report on his return from the Arctic several months later confirmed the ‘melancholy fate' of Sir John and his party, ‘Intelligence which may fairly be considered decisive' as the
Illustrated London News
put it. James Fairholme was declared legally dead in 1858 as a result of a dispute regarding inheritance. There was to be no such closure for Lady Franklin, nor would she accept that her husband might not have discovered the Northwest Passage. The Franklin Monument erected in 1866 opposite the Royal
Society in London, with the names of all of the men of the two ships, a bronze panel showing the funeral of Franklin on the ice and a statue of Franklin himself on top, is inscribed ‘To the great arctic navigator and his brave companions who sacrificed their lives in completing the discovery of the North West Passage.
A.D
. 1847–8.' In truth, the passage was not to be traversed by a European until Roald Amundsen did so in 1903, going through the strait discovered by Rae close to the wrecks of
Erebus
and
Terror
and then west towards the Beaufort Sea, using only six men and a 45-ton fishing boat – and while overwintering on King William Island learning from the Inuit to use dogs for sleds and coats made from animal skins rather than wool, techniques that were instrumental in the success of his expedition to the South Pole in 1911.

BOOK: A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks
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