Interview with Andrew Lambert, author of Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation.
RP = Russell Potter
AL = Andrew Lambert
RP: So what was it that first drew
you to study the life and achievements of Sir John Franklin?
AL: As a historian of the 19th C. Royal Navy the story of Sir John Franklin was always in the background, a tragic tale of suffering and death that ran alongside the Navy's mainstream activities. Finally in August and September 2004 I was offered the chance to go to the Arctic and retrace part of the story on the ground, working with John Murray of Crossing the Line Films, and Director Peter Bate, whom I had worked with before. The combination of a rapid re-read of the main Franklin texts, especially Richard Cyriax's book, and the experience of the expedition turned curiosity into a book.
you visited some of the Franklin sites for the filming, did you find that
actually standing on the ground where Franklin and his men died made a
difference in your feeling or approach to the subject?
AL: Getting to Point Victory, Erebus Bay, Cape Felix, Terror Bay and Starvation Cove brought home the sheer desolation of the west coast of King William Island, and the overland journey emphasized just how a hundred miles is in that part of the world. It also provided a month of totally focused time in the Arctic to think about Franklin and discuss the subject with two enthusiasts and a local expert. Standing at Point Victory brings it all home, this is the worst place on earth….
RP: I’d certainly agree with you there. The vast flatness and emptiness of that
quarter of King William Island is
simply staggering. But back to
your book: you've placed considerable emphasis on the
centrality of magnetic observations in authorizing and planning
the Franklin expedition. This would have involved the setting up of
magnetic observatories on pre-set "term dates" in order to make
global comparisons. Could you explain this system a bit further?
AL: The Global magnetic project that had been running for two decades involved a chain of fixed and mobile observatories around the world, primarily in the British Empire. Using the latest Gaussian theory and measuring systems, and newly refined instruments the international project was due to expire in 1846. The ‘term dates’ were the days on which specific observations of magnetic intensity, direction and variation were to be taken across the world at set times, to generate a global magnetic chart.
more "magnetic" question: Rear Admiral Noel
Wright, writing on Franklin in the late 1950's, placed a similar emphasis on
Franklin's magnetic mission. He believed that a substantial observatory,
manned over a long period, would have been established near the North Magnetic
Pole, and believed that some misfortune occurring to this (necessarily)
officer-rich party was to blame for the disproportionate number of deaths among
officers as of the 1848 record. He even believed that Franklin would
likely have been buried there. What do you think of his hypotheses?
AL: I think Wright was correct to emphasise the magnetic mission, and there is a large square of stones at Cape Felix, the closest land point to the magnetic pole on King William Island. I suspect this was the site of the main observatory – which had to be ashore as the ships were heavily magnetized by the engines and other fittings. Franklin could have been buried anywhere, at sea, on land, in the ship’s hold, at Point Victory, or Cape Felix. But no-one has ever found any evidence, so it remains mystery.
RP: Crozier biographer Michael Smith has described Francis Crozier as "the Navy's most experienced magnetic authority still on active service," and noted that he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1843 largely on the basis of his 'untiring assiduity' in the field of terrestrial magnetism. And yet, in your book, you don't say much about Crozier's strangely lessened role in the expedition's most vital work, save to suggest that he may not have been, as it were, held in reserve for later work. What's your sense of the role his selection played for the expedition as a whole?
AL: Crozier was an experienced magnetic observer, and that ensured he was taken and would have directed land-based observations once the ships were locked in the ice. Fitzjames was given charge of them at sea because Franklin and Crozier were ultimately responsible for their ships. He was not the ‘most experienced’ that would be Franklin, a magnetic observer since his time with Flinders in 1802-3. He was elected FRS in the 1820s. Appointing Crozier demonstrated that he was an experienced and highly capable officer, a friend and a way of recognising James Clark Ross’s role in the securing Franklin the command. The observation records would have revealed Crozier’s role more clearly – but he and Graham Gore were the best men to assist Franklin. That said Fitzjames has more experience than his letters imply – with the Chesney Euphrates Expedition.
RP: In connection with my last question, it's been noted by many that Fitzjames, who had personal connections with Sir John Barrow, was given the surprising role of selecting the junior officers, which would ordinarily have been Crozier's. You note that this meant that very few men with Arctic experience were chosen; do you think this may have been a factor in the expedition's failure?
AL: Crozier chose his own first lieutenant, but Franklin left Fitzjames to pick the other junior officers as expedition leader. This was normal naval practice.
I do not think the expedition was a ‘failure’. It failed to return home, but we have to assume that it succeeded in completing the magnetic mission. The officers were of a high quality, and with three arctic veterans, ice masters and some experienced seamen there is no need to seek human causation. Changeable weather and ice patterns, scurvy and starvation are adequate, with the added benefits of tuberculosis and pneumonia.
RP: I note that you are quickly (and eloquently) dismissive of the more popular Franklin monomanias of lead-poisoning, botulism, and the like. And yet, might not these things theories have something to contribute, taken in context? As a follow-up, do you see more of value that could be learned from archaeological and/or forensic work generally?
AL: Monocausal explanations for large scale disasters may appeal to some, but this was a complex catastrophe. Owen Beattie did not say that lead poisoning killed them, and there is no evidence for botulism, but there is plenty for TB, pneumonia, scurvy and cannibalism. As lawyer by training I always err towards the known and the simple when examining evidence. No theory that requires complex scenarios can be persuasive without strong evidence. The archaeology has given up a lot of evidence, and it all points the same way. More evidence may turn up, but until it does I’m happiest with the standard version: scurvy, starvation and cannibalism, although I would add that there is evidence for a virulent strain of TB.
RP: Was your decision not
to tackle the Inuit testimony on Franklin's men in detail based more on a sense
that this evidence was of uncertain trustworthiness, or that it was too complex
and too fraught with ambiguity to be readily digested? As a follow-up: do
you feel that David C. Woodman's work with this evidence has added something to
our understanding of Franklin?
AL: My treatment of the Inuit testimony reflects a close study of David Woodman’s work, and Charles Hall’s methods. It is not criticism to say that Hall did not collect his evidence according to modern oral history standards, he led the witnesses, and may have underestimated the willingness of his hosts to oblige him in their answers. He was also, to put it mildly, somewhat unbalanced. You could never secure a conviction by relying on those witnesses. I think David Woodman’s work is highly important. It has given the Inuit back their integrity, their accounts of cannibalism were true, and it has raised the possibility that the disaster was more complex and long drawn out than the older accounts argued. It fundamentally changed the course of Franklin scholarship. That said my book demonstrates that I am not persuaded. The evidence is consistent with a single abandonment, and a collapsing march south. The jury is out.
RP: What do you think it is that has made Franklin a subject of such enduring fascination over the past 160 years and more? If the "Erebus" or "Terror" were to be found, do you think it would diminish or intensify this interest?
AL: The Franklin story has fascinated and horrified for over 160 years because, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it has everything: Horror, ice, blasphemy and mystery. We still don’t know the full story, and I suspect we never will. Finding the Erebus and Terror would spark a great deal of interest, but it wouldn’t add much to the story. There would be no paperwork to explain how they were lost, leaving them as mute as the tragic skeletal remains of the expedition that litter the route of the death march. It may be as well that we do not know it all: we need a few mysteries to keep the past alive.