John Franklin: Traveller on Undiscovered Seas

By John Wilson

Lantzville, B.C.: XYZ Publishing, 2001.

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


It is somewhat ironic that, in an era of much renewed interest in the last expedition of Sir John Franklin, the most engaging, concise, and authoritative biography of Franklin to appear in decades arrives in the form of a modest paperback aimed at young readers published by a small press in Canada. I say somewhat ironic, as it is no surprise to those familiar with the earlier works of John Wilson, which have included both a juvenile fiction title based on the Franklin expedition (Across Frozen Seas) as well as a fine historical novel written as the journal of Commander James Fitzjames (North With Franklin). In part, this is because most of the mysteries surrounding the fate of Franklin's last expedition have little to do with Franklin the man; his death came in 1847, nearly a year before his ships were abandoned, the very point at which most recent studies begin. Still, given the recent explosion of interest in Sir Ernest Shackleton, it seems odd that Franklin's life has received no new biographical treatment; in the annals of tragic heroes, he is almost without peer, and his story has inspired numerous poets and novelists for a century and a half (Charles Dickens and Jules Verne among them). Yet something in Franklin resists scrutiny; he looks better as an image, trapped forever in Beard's daguerreotype, than he does as a text.

Part of this strange discrepancy may well be due to Franklin's seemingly impervious personality. He had, apparently, no vices, save for a somewhat extreme feeling about the observation of the Sabbath; one would have to look far and wide in the historical record to discover , among those with whom he served, a single soul with a bad word to say about him. His writings, public and private, are blandly forthright, and steadfast even when composed under the most terrible of conditions. Yet he certainly made mistakes -- most egregiously, on his first land expedition to the "Polar Sea," in which he lost the bulk of his men to starvation and murder, all because he trusted compass and chronometer more than the warnings of his native hosts. John Wilson, very much to his credit, does nothing to gloss over this episode -- in fact, he begins his books with a vivid recounting of the worst moments of that disaster, narrated in the historical present. It is a wise choice, as this moment infuses with interest the life of a man whose outward personality was as placid and smooth as a new-frozen sheet of one-year ice stretching across a broad bay.

Wilson then recommences his narrative, beginning with Franklin's upbringing in Spilsby, his schooling, and his early adventures at sea. Franklin's voyage around Australia with his uncle, Matthew Flinders, is vividly recounted, as are Franklin's naval experiences at Copenhagen and Trafalgar. Just enough time is spent here to shed some light on Franklin's ready learning, fortitude, and abundant supply of good luck. But the pace is brisk -- ice, after all, is the element which we most keenly anticipate -- and soon enough, we arrive in 1818 as Franklin sails the leak-ridden Trent along with Captain Buchan on the Dorothea on their abortive voyage north of the Spitsbergen Islands. Franklin's fortitude is again called upon, as the Trent is so severely buffeted by the ice that she leans ominously from port to starboard, causing the ship's bell to toll by itself in a most ominous manner, but as ever he pulls through.

All of which brings the reader back to moment of the book's opening scene. The immense logistical difficulties which plagued Franklin's first Arctic land expedition are detailed vividly, and the question of Franklin's "cultural arrogance" is squarely addressed. Wilson quite frankly notes that, though we can today quite readily criticize Franklin's prejudices and presumptions, he was in these respects very much a creature of his class, professional training, and times -- one could hardly expect him to suddenly abandon these ideological constraints and grant either his First Nations hosts or his voyageur guides the same kind of authority he granted to his instruments and written orders. Nevertheless, one can't help but wonder why, if such a man as Dr. John Rae, who shared much of Franklin's outlook (even though he was a Hudson's Bay man rather than a naval officer), could work with and come to trust the Athabascans and Inuit, why Franklin was such a slow learner. Perhaps a kind of answer may be found in German novelist's Sten Nadolny's fictive Franklin that here rings true -- a quality of slowness, of dogged persistence, that at times worked for Franklin and at other times delayed the crucial correction of a fundamental error.

What matters most greatly, here and elsewhere in John Franklin, is that Wilson trusts his young readers to make critical judgements of their own. He offers a framework for understanding, and does not pull any punches; neither does he cook up any pat theories -- all of which contribute to the credible and even-handed tone which sets this biography apart from most other Franklin treatments. He also has done a commendable job in checking his information against primary sources, avoiding the oversights of many previous writers, and even gleaning a few new historical details. I was fascinated to learn, for instance, that Franklin at Trafalgar engaged a ship commanded by Galiano (the first to map much of Canada's western coast), and that the reputed child of John Hood and "Greenstockings" was actually listed in an 1823 census taken at Fort Resolution.

Wilson also gives his readers a much more detailed picture of Eleanor Porden, Franklin's first wife, as well as of Jane Griffin, later Lady Jane Franklin. Their vastly different personalities, along with other incidents of Franklin's personal life during the decades between his second land expedition and his final, fatal voyage, shed considerable new light on Franklin's own curious blend of passion and passivity. The portrait of the Franklins' time is Tasmania is forthright -- it was, after all, a penal colony -- and insightful. The genocide of the aboriginal peoples of the land is not glossed over, nor is the ineffectuality of Franklin's gentle and patient disposition -- good qualities for an Arctic commander, but poor for the Governor of a quarrelsome, divided colony.

Wilson's account of Franklin's final expedition in 1845 is concise yet moving. He takes account of recent historical studies, and is frank about the possibilities of lead-poisoning, mutiny, and cannibalism. Quite rightly, he sees a dangerous trend in Franklin's, and the Admiralty's thinking; in trying ever harder to 'take it all with them' and avoid relying on local resources, they eventually created an expedition almost guaranteed to fail. Franklin's massive ships, weighted down with coal and supplies, drew too much water to navigate the shallower inland waters, and the tinned foods meant to support life ended up poisoning his men. Franklin's last bit of luck, Wilson aptly notes, was that "he did not live to see the tragedy that his final expedition became."

This book, admirable in its succinctness, and aptly suited for its target audience of young readers, is nonetheless something more: it is the best life of Franklin yet produced. Those with a morbid or inexhaustible curiosity will of course still turn to Cyriax's very thorough account, recently reprinted by the Arctic Press; those who seek the details of the last years of Franklin's final expedition will want to consult the further evidence given in David Woodman's two notable studies. But for general readers, be they fourteen or forty or a hundred, there could be no better introduction to the life and journeys of Franklin's than Wilson's modest but wonderfully engaging book.