Deadly Winter: The Life of Sir John Franklin

by Martyn Beardsley

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2002; London: Chatham, 2002.


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


Despite the recent upsurge of interest in Arctic and Antarctic exploration, Sir John Franklin has not fared particularly well in the public's imagination. Not sexy like Shackleton, not eccentric like Hall, nor monomaniacal like Peary, he has been largely overshadowed by the mystery of his own disappearance, within which, it has often seemed, his personality vanished as well. His reputation has also felt the sting of larger criticisms of the British Admiralty's cultural imperialism, and slowness to learn from its own mistakes. The lone surviving photograph of Franklin, which dominates the cover of Beardsley's new biography, has only added to the modern impression of Franklin as a stiff, stuffed, starched man, looking more than slightly ridiculous in his cocked hat and uniform -- a man more suited for a Terry Gilliam animation than a marble hall of heroes.

With Deadly Winter, the first full-length biography of Franklin in more than two decades, Martyn Beardsley gives us a fresh, richly-faceted new look at Franklin, one which, by setting his accomplishments in the context of his own historical era, casts him in a far brighter light. There are considerable benefits to Beardsley's approach, as Franklin the man steps forth from his seemingly staid portraiture with remarkable vividness and clarity -- but there are also drawbacks, as Beardsley's sometimes selective vision draws our attention away from some of the legitimate criticisms Franklin has faced both in his time and our own. He also downplays the evidence from Inuit oral tradition and recent archaeological work, which has to a large degree confirmed the reports of cannibalism among the crews first brought back by Dr. John Rae in 1854. Nevertheless, the book's considerable strengths far outweigh its limitations in this regard, and as Beardsley quite rightly observes, the speculation over the ultimate fate of Franklin's 1845 expedition is really peripheral to history's assessment of Franklin as a commander, since he died in 1847 nearly a year before the abandonment of his ships.

For those who have always found Franklin to be something of an enigma, the rewards of Beardsley's approach are immense; we finally get a clear sense of Franklin's evolving personality, from the lively youth who impressed his shipmates on Matthew Flinders' voyage around Australia, to the cool-headed midshipman aboard the H.M.S. Bellerophon at Trafalgar, to the young commander who kept his head as the H.M.S. Trent was battered by the relentless ice north of the Spitzbergen Islands. Franklin's religious passion, largely a blur in most other accounts, is traced here to an influential circle of Calvinists, led by Lady Lucy Barry, with whose views Franklin acknowledged himself to have been deeply impressed. The disagreement over matters of religion with his first wife, Eleanor Ann Porden, comes into far clearer relief as a result, and their strange admixture of love and distance -- complicated by Franklin's departure to the Arctic from what turned out to be Eleanor's death-bed -- is poignantly yet dispassionately surveyed. Franklin's early expeditions, in particular the two land-based parties he led in the early 1820's, are recounted with remarkable verve, augmented by numerous small but significant details unearthed by Beardsley's painstaking research. While it may be true that there is no startling new evidence here, Beardsley is a careful researcher, and has always returned wherever possible to the primary sources rather than relying on the word of previous historians.

Among the more interesting documents he has found is a small oval portrait of Eleanor Ann Porden, which if known before has been very well-hidden. Numerous excerpts from Franklin's letters cast considerable light on his early years as an explorer, as well as on his time as Governor on Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). Indeed, the account Breadsley gives of the factional morass which led to his dismissal from this post does a remarkable job of laying out the maneuvers by which Franklin's authority was subverted by his supposed subordinates, and also explains why, more than a century and a half later, Franklin is so fondly remembered by the nation he once governed. The description of the events from this date up through the organization of Franklin's final expedition of 1845 is also remarkably lucid and detailed, and does a great deal to clarify and correct the ill-informed and melodramatic account offered by some recent books such as Scott Cookman's regrettable Ice Blink.

The only part of this book which disappoints is Beardsley's handling of the mystery underlying the fate of Franklin's crews on his last expedition. Beardsley, whose careful consideration of the evidence in earlier chapters is so admirable, here quotes from Ernie Coleman's conjectural and unsubstantiated claims about an Inuit attack, but gives no similar credence to Anne Keenleyside, the forensic anthropologist upon whose study of the cannibalism issue much of the debate rests. Keenleyside, who studied the skeletal remains of a number of Franklin's crewmembers, found evidence of cut-marks "consistent with de-fleshing"; an examination of these marks under a scanning electron microscope showed that they had been made by sharpened, metal blades.1.

Coleman, a relentless champion of the Royal Navy, claims that the cut-marks are inconsistent with de-fleshing and that they are more likely the result of ceremonial mutilation. It is true that such mutilation was sometimes practiced, though more often on Inuit than by Inuit -- the scene Samuel Hearne witnessed at Bloody Falls being a case in point. Bones known to have been mutilated in this way have also been the subject of a modern forensic study published a few years ago in Arctic Archaeology.2 I contacted Scott Fairgreave, one of the the authors of this study, and he was quite clear on the matter: the cut-marks on the bones found at the Franklin site (technically known as Ng-Lj2) are inconsistent with the kind of ritual mutilation he has studied. All of which is not to say that there is no ambiguity in the forensic evidence, but the inclusion of Coleman's conjectures clouds rather than clears the air on this question.

Thus, while Beardlsey may be correct in a literal sense to state that there is no absolute evidence about who ate whom, he sets aside what most today feel is the preponderance of evidence, from both forensic study and the (remarkably consistent) Inuit oral tradition. Given the tremendous amount of work done by historians such as David Woodman in this area, it is most regrettable that the average reader of Beardsley's book will come away with very little sense of the Inuit testimony which casts such a cold and clear light on the tragic, final march and desperate end of the last remnants of Franklin's crews. The story is by no means fully resolved -- the discovery of the location of Franklin's ships, human remains, or even written records is still a possibility, and would re-write all the books -- but it is unfortunate that Beardsley, having chosen to address the issue, has not given more credence to the Inuit evidence. I fear that he is in part motivated, as were many admirers of Franklin before him, by a desire to shield his hero from such a taint -- and yet there are many (even among the group of "Canadians, Eskimos, and anyone with a bee in their bonnet about the British Empire" whom Beardsley represents as too trusting of the Inuit testimony) whose admiration of Franklin is not lessened by the likelihood of the "last resource."

The curious factor with Franklin is that, even in his failure, he achieved something great, something which continues to fascinate and haunt us nearly a hundred and sixty years after his death. There was then, deep within the spirit of the"discovery service," a sense that exploration was a cause which sometimes demanded martyrs -- risk (and failure) were integral to this ethos, not anitpodal to it. Scott, for this reason, will always loom larger than Shackleton, and Admunsen -- the man who stole not one but two prizes from the British -- rejected for making it look too easy. Admunsen was willing not only to use dogs, but to eat them when no longer needed, two things which the British always regarded with repugnance. For them, it was better to die nobly hauling a sledge by human power, and by the lights of the Victorians, there was none nobler than Franklin.

Beardsley, in the conclusion of his book, says that he set out on his research with an open mind, but secretly cherished the hope that Franklin had something more of the heroic about him than many recent books had suggested. This hope has certainly been fulfilled. Beardsley has done a remarkable job of resurrecting Franklin's reputation, and showing that, by the light of his day -- and ours as well -- Franklin was clearly a man of tremendous patience and integrity, whose character was founded upon a powerful sense of purpose. Despite (and partly because of) his flaws and occasional errors of judgement, he emerges as a compelling figure, a fitting representative of the Victorian spirit of exploration. One mystery, at least is solved: why was it that so many people thought so highly of Franklin, among them such figures as Dickens, Tennyson, Swinburne, and even Joseph Conrad? The answer is, that they found much to admire; Beardsely's Franklin is a man they would all recognize and hail.


Want to learn more about this title? Click here for an interview with the author, Martyn Beardsley.


Click here for an abstract of Dr. Keenleyside's findings about cannibalism and lead poisoning among Franklin's men

Click here for Mr. E.C. Coleman's opposing view on the same subject


1. A. Keenleyside. M. Bertulli, H.C. Fricke, "The Final Days of the Franklin Expedition: New Skeletal Evidence," Arctic 50:1(March 1997), 36-46.

2. Melbye, J., and S. I. Fairgrieve, "A Massacre and Possible Cannibalism in the Canadian Arctic: New Evidence from the Saunaktuk Site (NgTn-1). Arctic Anthropology 31 (2): 57–77. (1994)