John Franklin

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John Franklin

Sir John Franklin (April 15, 1786June 11, 1847) was an English sea captain and Arctic explorer, whose fate and that of his last expedition was for many years a mystery.

Franklin was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire. He was one of 12 children of a family which had prospered in trade, and one of his sisters became the mother of Emily Tennyson (wife of the poet).

He decided on a naval career at the age of 14, and was present at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 and the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. During the latter, he served on board the ill-fated HMS Bellerophon. One of Franklin's uncles was Captain Matthew Flinders, with whom he also travelled to Australia. In 1814, he was at the Battle of New Orleans.

Franklin first travelled to the Arctic in 1818, as a lieutenant under the command of John Ross, and became fascinated by it. On a disastrous overland expedition into the Northwest Territories of Canada along the Coppermine River in 1819-1822, Franklin lost 11 of the 20 men in his party. Most died of starvation, but there was also at least one murder and suggestions of cannibalism. The survivors were forced to eat lichen and even attempted to eat their own leather boots. This gained Franklin the nickname of "the man who ate his boots".

In 1823, after returning to England, Franklin married a poet, Eleanor Porden. She died of tuberculosis in 1825, shortly after persuading her husband not to let her ill-health prevent him from setting off on another expedition to the Arctic. This expedition, a trip down the Mackenzie River to explore the shores of the Beaufort Sea, was better-supplied and more successful than his last.

In 1828, he was knighted by George IV and in the same year married Jane Griffin, a seasoned traveller who proved indomitable in the course of their life together. He was appointed Governor of Tasmania in 1836, but was removed from office in 1843, partly because of his attempts to reform the penal colony there.

Franklin was still obsessed with finding the Northwest Passage. Having succeeded in raising the necessary finance (from the British Admiralty), he set off with a party of 128 men in May, 1845, in two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. They never returned.

The disappearance of Franklin's expedition set off a frenzy of activity in the Arctic; several search parties were organised at Lady Franklin's urging and expense, and others went there simply because the search for Franklin had captured the popular imagination. At one point, there were 10 British and two American ships heading to the Arctic. Although all of them claimed to be looking for Franklin, a number of these expeditions were in fact searching for a route to the North Pole instead.

Ballads telling of Franklin and his fate had become quite popular. Lady Franklin had composed the lament Lord Franklin for her husband.

In the summer of 1850, several of the ships converged on Beechey Island, in Wellington Channel, where the first relics of the Franklin expedition were found: the graves of three men who had died from natural causes in 1846. But no messages had been left there by the Franklin party to provide further clues for the searchers.

In 1854, explorer John Rae discovered further evidence of the Franklin party's fate. Rae, in fact, was not searching for Franklin at all, but rather exploring the Boothia Peninsula on behalf of the Hudson Bay Company. On this journey, Rae met Inuit who told him of a party of 35 to 40 white men who had died of starvation near the mouth of the Back River. The Inuit also showed him many objects that were identifiable as having belonged to Franklin and his men.

Lady Franklin commissioned one last expedition under Francis Leopold McClintock to investigate Rae's report. In the summer of 1859, the McClintock party found a document in a cairn on King William Island left by Franklin's second-in-command, giving the date of his death. The message, dated April 27, 1848, additionally reported that the ships had been trapped in the ice, that many others had died, and that the survivors had abandoned the ships and were trying to reach the Back River. McClintock also found several bodies and an astonishing amount of abandoned equipment, and heard more details from the Inuit about the disastrous end of the expedition.

There are several theories about what happened to Franklin's men. Franklin was of a breed of imperial officers who believed in the subjugation of nature by civilisation, carrying silver plates and crystal decanters with him on the expedition. Perhaps the inevitable compromises of this strategy led to insufficient essentials, as well as an unwillingness or inability to learn survival techniques from the natives. It has also been suggested that the party died of lead poisoning or food poisoning from the canned food they were carrying with them. There is some evidence that they resorted to cannibalism. However, the most likely cause of death of most of the party, from the descriptions the Inuit gave of their end, was scurvy.

List of Franklin Search Expeditions


External links

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