Part one: Australia, 1880

Exactly 140 years ago, on 25th December 1880, people across Australia would have woken up on a baking hot morning, enjoyed all the festivity of a Victorian Christmas in the middle of an Antipodean summer, and settled down afterwards to read a newspaper.

On that day, a writer brought snow and ice and loss and death into their lives.  The article was called “A Fragment from the Story of Franklin’s Fate” and the writer identified himself only as “An Arctic Man of Two Voyages”. It wasn’t this man’s first pseudonym, and it wouldn’t be his last.

His real name was Robert Anstruther Goodsir, and he took part in two expeditions to the Arctic in search of his beloved elder brother Harry Duncan Spens Goodsir, who was missing along with the rest of the Franklin Expedition.

This is the first post in a series where I present Robert’s article with illustrations and annotations that will put the events into context and correct the many errors that crept into his version of events after 30 long years of stress and grief. These notes will be in red and gathered at end of each chapter. All sources, credits, and thank-yous will be listed at the end of the final chapter.

So, without further ado, get a glass or mug of your drink of choice, and take a seat. It’s Christmas Day in Australia 1880. The dinner’s over, the brandy’s flowing, and you’ve just picked up your favourite newspaper…

The masthead of The Australasian newspaper.

A FRAGMENT FROM THE TALE OF FRANKLIN’S FATE

By “An Arctic Man of Two Voyages”

I suppose there are few men past middle age who have not the scenes and incidents of certain days of their lives deeply and vividly impressed on their memories.

It is to such a day in my own mental records that I am now carried back as I read of the recent discoveries of the last sad Franklin relics.

A cutting from the Australasian newspaper, about the return of the Schwatka expedition.It is to the day on which we discovered the first traces of the ill-fated ships and their crews – ere yet we had come to talk of “relics”, ere yet the least sanguine had lost hope.

And albeit it is but an old tale re-told, I can tell it with undimmed memory, for as I put down the paper¹ I have just been reading, and with closed eyes sadly allow each clearly cut outline, each unblurred detail to display itself to my mental vision, I forget that I have to bridge over 30 years and three months to do so; I forget that most of the eager faces I see so plainly about me have long been dust; I forget that nearly all of the well known voices I hear so distinctly have long been stilled in the grave.

I write now of what I saw, and what I did and felt on that day with as little stretch of memory as when I sat down the same evening to enter it all in my journal.

JOURNALS AND LOG-BOOKS

Much writing in journals and filling-in of log-books was done that night.

There are but few who may read these lines that can recollect or realise the intense interest with which everything connected with the name of Franklin at that time excited.

An etching from the Illustrated London News, showing Erebus and Terror as they left England.

Five years and six months had then elapsed since they had sailed from Greenhythe on the 15th of May, 1845.

Alas six times five years have now run into the past, and still all we hear of is – relics.

A composite image of Old John Ross, Elisha Kent Kane, and Sherard Osborn
Sir John Ross, Elisha Kent Kane, and Sherard Osborn.

Sir John Ross that night, in his close little cabin in the Felix, recorded many marvellous things.

Kane, in the Advance, was indicting all that his bright, observant eye had seen.

Sherard Osborn that night must have filled sundry folios of that huge, ponderous bank-ledger-looking tome – an awe-inspiring volume it was, which used to make us wonder at the man who could have the courage to contemplate the idea of ever living to cover its wide-spreading pages with closely, neatly written MS.

A map showing the locations of Assistance Harbour, Cape Hotham, Cape Spencer, Beechey Island and Cape Riley
Map courtesy illuminator dot blog

The day previous to that of our memorable landing at Beechey Island (which had been appointed a place of rendezvous by the different commanders), we had crossed the mouth of Wellington Channel and stood some ten miles to the westward².

Here Captain Penny, of the Lady Franklin brig, examined a bay with the view of making it his winter quarters.

Captain Ommanney had also before this examined the bay with the same view, and named it Assistance Harbour, though, as it turned out, only Penny’s two brigs and Sir John Ross’s little Felix ultimately wintered in this place. 

BEECHEY ISLAND

Here a party, of which I was one, was landed to examine the coast thence to Cape Hotham³, on the western side of the mouth of Wellington Channel, whilst the vessels put about and ran back under easy sail to Beechey Island, where they made fast for the night to the “land ice”.

During our walk that day, and close examination of the beach, we found various undoubted proofs that parties from the Erebus and Terror had been here before us, but still nothing of any importance.

At one place, which I recollect looked as if it had been camped at for some time, I picked up a nondescript sort of apparatus made of hoop iron, something between a long grappling iron and a naturalist’s dredge. Many conjectures were formed at the time as to what this had been used for. 

EREBUS AND TERROR

During the whole day’s march a bright look-out was kept for cairns, under which we expected to find papers left by the Erebus and Terror, but we did not fall across anything of the kind.

I may as well say something here on this subject.

All the Arctic ships, from Franklin’s downwards, were supplied by the Admiralty with printed forms in four different languages, with blanks left wherein to insert all the necessary information for assisting search parties to follow them up with relief.

The omission of Sir John Franklin to leave any of these papers was always unaccountable.

An etching of Sir John Franklin.
Sir John Franklin.

My own idea was, and is, that at this time they were buoyed up with full confidence in the ultimate quick success of their voyage.

Sir James Ross – and I mention it with all respect to the memory of the great Antarctic voyager – was buoyed up with the same false hope, which may account for his want of success in yielding succour to those he was in search of during his voyage of 1848-9.

Sir James always asserted, and believed, during his stay at Port Leopold, that Sir John Franklin was at that time safe in Pall Mall.

If my memory serves me aright on this point, the first of these papers ever found was that got long years afterwards by M’Clintock, in which was mentioned the death of Sir John Franklin, in 1847. 

TENDER-HEARTED HERO

The brave and gentle old man, who had already undergone such unparalleled sufferings in the most inhospitable portions of God’s globe – the tender hearted hero, who, as the Indian wonderingly said, was too merciful to kill a mosquito died at last, like Livingstone, in harness and on the field of his labours.

But, mercifully, as we know now, spared the harrowing scenes through which the last survivors of his ill-fated crews had to pass.

An image of members of the crew of the Franklin Expedition.

Part one: Australia 1880 – Part two: Humble headstones, painted black – Part three: Silent for four long winters – Part four: “Cabined, cribbed, confined – Part five: Unreliable memories


Notes

General notes: Robert makes a number of errors throughout this report. In his defence, he had no way to check the finer details 30 years later: his 1850-51 expedition journals were confiscated by the Admiralty alongside those of his captain, the whaler William Penny. The late W. Gilles Ross wrote in his 2019 book Hunters on the Track that paperwork related to this episode was later “weeded” – i.e. intentionally destroyed.

Personnel: The people named in this section of the article are Captain Erasmus Ommanney of HMS Assistance (second in command of the Royal Navy squadron led by Captain Horatio Austin); Captain William Penny, in charge of the Lady Franklin and Sophia brigs financed by Lady Jane Franklin and sailing under Navy orders; Sir John Ross, who took part independently with his little ship Felix; Lieutenant Sherard Osborn, in charge of HMS Pioneer, the steam tender to Horatio Austin’s HMS Resolute, and Elisha Kent Kane, surgeon of the USS Advance, one of two US Navy brigs sent to support the search.

¹ Robert was inspired to write this article after reading a report in The Australasian about the Schwatka expedition and the Franklin relics they discovered. I believe the report in question was this piece published on 27th November 1880, based on Robert’s phrase “30 years and three months”. His own relic discoveries were made on 27th August 1850. 

² Robert is mistaken here. HMS Assistance and its steam tender HMS Intrepid had left for Cape Hotham on 25th August 1850 after discovering Franklin relics at Cape Riley and examining a cairn on Beechey Island. Intrepid raced ahead but Captain Penny and the Lady Franklin caught the Assistance after she became beset. On hearing that Ommanney had not searched all of Beechey Island, Penny turned his ships around and went straight there. Penny, Robert and Carl Petersen landed at Cape Spencer on 26th August 1850. 

³ Nobody, bar Lieutenant John Bertie Cator and the Intrepid, had got anywhere near Cape Hotham at this stage in the expedition. For a detailed account of the timeline and a comprehensive debunking of the various myths and narrative confusion around these discoveries, please read The Cape Riley Rake by Logan Zachary at illuminator dot blog.

⁴ The items picked up at Cape Spencer included the “Mr McDonald” scrap that forms part of the Beechey Papers.

⁵ Robert didn’t find this relic – it was picked up by Erasmus Ommanney at Cape Riley on 23rd August and brought on board the Assistance. Captain Penny saw it when he came aboard Ommanney’s ship and it would have been the main topic of conversation as Penny, Petersen and Robert examined the shore at Cape Spencer on the 26th. This is covered in Appendix 4 of Logan’s Cape Riley Rake post.

⁶ Sir James Clark Ross had led the first official Franklin search in 1848-49, with the ships Enterprise and Investigator. They didn’t realise it at the time, but Robert and William Penny had sailed very close to JCR’s winter quarters during Robert’s first Arctic search expedition, on the whaler Advice.