After the Lost Franklin Expedition

After the Lost Franklin Expedition; Lady Franklin and John Rae. By Peter Baxter. Pen and Sword History, Barnsley, 2019.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

In 1845 Britain was at the pinnacle of empire. Britons had conquered and colonised vast tracts of territory across the world. The peerless Royal Navy ruled the seas, basking in the glory of Trafalgar 40 years previously. But that victory ironically denied many courageous and capable officers of career-enhancing employment and these languished on half pay for years as the drawdown of the RN order of battle beached many of them.  Consequently, competition for commissions was intense and no more so than in the prestigious and potentially enriching field of polar exploration; most particularly in discovering the mythical North West Passage.

One such officer who may otherwise have faced redundancy was Captain Sir John Franklin. Present at Trafalgar his otherwise rather pedestrian early career was marked by participation in an 1819-1821 expedition to determine the latitude and longitude of the northern coast of North America. The expedition suffered horrendous privations, not least of which was Franklin and his companions reputedly eating the leather of their  moccasin shoes, thereby earning the sobriquet of ‘The Man Who Ate His Boots’ bestowed on Franklin by an adulatory press basking in the perceived glory of a triumph of British exploration, Notwithstanding his new found fame, the expedition was a series of disasters with hardly any of its objectives realised. 

Now, plucked from obscurity, knighted and promoted Captain RN, his life was further endowed by his marriage to the highly intelligent, personable and ambitious Jane Griffin. From the moment of her marriage Lady Jane Franklin’s life would be devoted to the advancement of her husband’s position and reputation, most notably in the years after his disappearance until her own death.  

In After the Lost Expedition, author Peter Baxter leads us through an enthralling and masterfully told narrative of high Victoriana.  Following his ‘boots’ escapade, inconsequential appointments in the fleet, and his marriage, Sir John was appointed lieutenant-governor of Tasmania in 1837. His tenure there gave rise to a festering division within the colony. Franklin was good-natured and naïve and his clever, sophisticated and influential wife became the main driver of policy and administration within the colony. Jane’s influence was keenly resented as a ‘governor in petticoats’ and the changes she sought to champion, particularly regarding penal reform, sharply contrasted to the administration of the previous highly regarded, and authoritarian, lieutenant-governor Arthur. Franklin was ‘recalled’ in 1843 –­ a mark of governmental disapproval – with the Franklins’ reputation sullied. 

Not for long however as the Franklins had some friends in the Admiralty and this, with Jane’s personable skills, resulted in Sir John’s appointment in command of an expedition to find the elusive North West Passage following previous failed attempts. HM Ships Erebus and Terror departed the Thames on 19 May 1845 and disappeared leading to a national outcry for searches to rescue the lost heroes. Foremost in movement was Lady Jane whose influential circle of friends in the RN and polar exploration circles ensured maximum media pressure was brought to bear. While several RN missions were tasked to seek the lost expedition and to continue the search for the Passage it was John Rae, a long term employee of the Hudson Bay Company and experienced polar warrior, who brought the first tentative information of the fate of the Franklin expedition. In the wilderness Rae came upon Inuit tribesmen who reported they had been told of Europeans who had expired in the snows and there were indications that some of the bodies had been cannibalised.

The events leading up to this meeting and its subsequent reporting by Rae on return to London is a masterpiece of storytelling. Baxter imbues the reader with the ethos of mid-19th century upper class British societal jealousies, influence peddling and reputation destruction. The author writes in the manner of a period novel, understating and poking a certain amount of fun at the inflated egos of the imperial polar exploration grandees. At the same time, he starkly describes the privations of life in the Arctic, not least was the expectation that expeditions would be beset by ice necessitating wintering; expeditions could experience two or even three winters before their missions could be completed. However, the rewards often justified these depredations; promotion, the award of a Geographic Society Gold Medal and a life of basking in reflected glory were highly sought after.

These munificent outcomes largely applied to RN officers; not to civilians and certainly not to John Rae. After intense reflection he decided not to follow up the Inuit information by trekking to the reported location of the bodies to establish the veracity of the reports. He returned to England in the expectation that this information should be reported as soon as possible given the obsession British society had for the lost expedition. Behind closed doors at the Admiralty he hinted that the bodies appeared to have been disturbed.  Shock followed this oblique reference and Rae was feted in the press for his discovery – the horrific secret having been withheld from publication.

How the dreadful facts leaked out is a superbly told example of a 19th century story ‘going viral’. As these events were transpiring the Crimean war had begun and the press media was transfixed with the Charge of the Light Brigade. Initially lauded as an example of British glory, when rumours of poor leadership began to circulate, the press recanted its praise. Now set on a course of righteous indignation the theme of incompetence extended into the Franklin affair. Pressures and inuendo ensnared Rae, who was looking forward to a post-exploration life of fame and fortune, with the insinuations of the ghastly secret. With ascending condemnation, Rae was pilloried for his horrendous assertion on the basis that Britons would ever indulge in such awfulness and on the word of disreputable savages. Lady Jane, formerly a close supporter, excoriated him and her Admiralty intimates inveigled against him and his otherwise important discoveries, denying him credit for his surveys. Lady Jane enlisted prominent advocates, one of which was the formidable author Charles Dickens, to pen vitriol against Rae. He eventually largely survived this reputational flaying and history shows that Rae was eventually proved correct.

The book only provides one overall map of North America which is insufficient to follow the progress of the various expeditions. Consequently, the more enthusiastic readers need to consult other sources should they wish to identify geographic locations and features. 

After the Lost Franklin Expedition immerses the reader in high Victorian melodrama with keen and incisive characterisation and a touch of satire. It is highly recommended to all us former colonials.                  

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