1902 Encyclopedia > Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin
English Arctic explorer
(1786-1847)





SIR JOHN FRANKLIN (1786-1847), rear-admiral, was born at Spilsby, Lincolnshire, April 16, 1786. Sprang from a line of free-holders, or "franklins," his father inherited a small family estate, which was so deeply mortgaged by his immediate predecessor that it was found necessary to sell it; but by his success in commercial pursuits he was enabled to maintain and educate a family of twelve children. John, the youngest son, was destined for the church by his father, who, with this view, had purchased an advowson for him. He received the rudiments of education at St Ives, and afterwards attended Louth Grammar School for two years; but having employed a holiday in walking 12 miles with a companion to look at the sea, which up to that time he knew only by description, his imagination was so impressed that he determined to be a sailor. In the hope of dispelling what he considered to be a boyish fancy, his father sent him on a trial voyage to Lisbon in a merchantman; but it being found on his return that his wishes were unchanged, an entry on the quarterdeck of the "Polyphemus," 74, Captain Lawford, was procured for him in 1800; and this ship having led the line in the battle of Copenhagen in 1801, young Franklin had the honour of serving in Nelson's hardest-fought action. Two months after the action of Copenhagen, he joined the " Investigator," discovery-ship, comanded by his relative Captain Flinders, and under the training of that able scientific officer, while employed in exploring and mapping the coasts of Australia, he acquired a correctness of astronomical observation and a skill in surveying which proved of eminent utility in his future career. Franklin was on board the " Porpoise" when that ship and the " Cato" were wrecked, August 18, 1803, on a coral reef, off the coast of Australia (see FLINDERS). After this misfortune, Franklin proceeded to Canton, where he obtained a passage to England in the "Earl Camden," East Indiaman, commanded by Sir Nathaniel Dance, commodore of the China fleet of 16 sail. On the loth of February 1804 Captain Dance repulsed a strong French squadron, led by the redoubtable Admiral Linois. In this action Franklin performed the important duty of signal midshipman. On reaching England, he joined the " Bellerophon," 74, and in that ship he was again entrusted with the signals, a duty which he executed with his accustomed coolness and intrepidity in the great battle of Trafalgar. In the " Bedford," his next ship, he attained the rank of lieutenant, and remaining in her for six years, latterly as first lieutenant, served in the blockade of Flushing, on the coast of Portugal, and in other parts of the world, but chiefly on the Brazil station, whither the " Bedford " went as part of the convoy which escorted the royal family of Portugal to Rio de Janeiro in 1808. Iu the ill-managed and disastrous attack on New Orleans, he commanded the "Bedford's" boats in an engagement with the enemy's gunboats, one of which he boarded and captured, receiving a slight wound in the hand-to-hand fight.

On peace being established, Franklin turned his attention once more to the scientific branch of his profession, and sedulously extended his knowledge of surveying. In 1818 the discovery of a north-west passage became again, after a long interval, a national object, and Lieutenant Franklin was appointed to the "Trent," as second to Captain Buchan of the " Dorothea," hired vessels equipped for penetrating to the north of Spitzbergen, and, if possible, crossing the Polar Sea by that route. During a heavy storm, both ships were forced to seek for safety by boring into the closely packed ice, in which extremely hazardous operation the " Dorothea " was so much damaged that her reaching England became doubtful; but the "Trent" having sustained less injury, Franklin requested to be allowed to prosecute the voyage alone, or under Captain Buchan, who had the power of embarking in the " Trent" if he chose. The latter, however, declined to leave his officers and men at a time when the ship was almost in a sinking condition, and directed Franklin to convoy him to England. Though success did not attend this voyage, it brought Franklin into personal intercourse with the leading scientific men of London, and they were not slow in ascertaining his peculiar fitness for the command of such an enterprise. To calmness in danger, promptness and fertility of resource, and excellent seamanship, he added other qualities less common, more especially an ardent desire to promote science for its own sake, and not merely for the distinction which eminence in it confers, together with a love of truth that led him to do full justice to the merits of his subordinate officers, without wishing to claim their discoveries as a captain's right. Added to this, he had a cheerful buoyancy of mind, which, sustained by religious principle of a depth known only to his most intimate friends, was not depressed in the most gloomy times. It was, therefore, with full confidence in his ability and exertions that he was, in 1819, placed in command of an expedition appcinted to travel through Rupert's Land to the shores of the Arctic Sea, while Lieutenant Parry was despatched with two vessels to Lancaster Sound. At this period, the northern coast of America was known at two isolated points only, viz., the mouth of the Coppermine River, discovered by Hearne,—but placed erroneously by him four degrees of latitude too much to the north,—and the mouth of the Mackenzie. Lieutenant Franklin, accompanied by a surgeon, two midshipmen, and a few Orkney-men, embarked for Hudson's Bay, in June 1819. His instructions left the route he was to pursue much to his own judgment, guided by the information he might be able to collect at York Factory from the Hudson's Bay Company's servants there assembled. Wintering the first year on the Saskatchewan, the expedition was fed by the Hudson's Bay Company; the second winter was spent on the " barren grounds," the party subsisting on game and fish procured by their own exertions, or purchased from their native neighbours; and in the following summer the expedition descended the Coppermine River, and surveyed a considerable extent of the sea coast to the eastward. The survivors of this expedition travelled, from their start at York Factory to their return to it again, by land and water, 5550 miles. While engaged on this service, Franklin was promoted to be a commander, and after his return to England in 1822 he obtained the post rank of captain, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In the succeeding year he married Eleanor, the youngest daughter of Mr Porden, an eminent architect.

In a second expedition, which left home in 1825 (his wife dying within the same year), Franklin descended the Mackenzie and traced the coast-line through 37 degrees of longitude, from the mouth of the Coppermine River, where his former survey commenced, to near the 150th meridian, and approaching within 160 miles of the most easterly point attained by Captain Beechey, who was co-operating with him from Behring's Strait. His exertions were fully appreciated at home and abroad. He was knighted in 1829, received the honorary degree of D.C.L. from the university of Oxford, was awarded the gold medal of the Geographical Society of Paris, and was elected in 1846 correspondent of the Paris Academy of Sciences. Though the surveys executed by himself and by a detachment under command of Dr Richardson comprised one, and within a few miles of two, of the spaces for which a parliamentary reward was offered, the Board of Longitude declined making the award; but a bill was soon afterwards laid before parliament by the secretary of the Admiralty abrogating the reward altogether, on the ground of the discoveries contemplated having been thus effected. The results of these expeditions are described by Franklin and his companion Dr (afterwards Sir John) Richardson in two magnificent works published in 1824-29. In 1828 he married his second wife, Jane, second daughter of Mr John Griffin. His next official employment was on the Mediterranean station, in command of the " Rainbow," and his ship soon became proverbial in the squadron for the happiness and comfort of her officers and crew. As an acknowledgment of the essential service he had rendered off Patras in the " war of liberation," he received the Cross of the Redeemer of Greece from King Otho, and after his return to England he was created Knight Commander of the Guelphic order of Hanover.

In 1836 Sir John accepted the lieutenant-governorship of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). His government, which lasted till the end of 1843, was marked by several events of much interest. One of his most popular measures was the opening of the doors of the legislative council to the public. He also originated a college, endowing it largely from his private funds with money and lands, in the hope that it would eventually prove the means of affording to all parties secular and religious instruction of the highest kind. He requested Dr Arnold to select some one competent to take the direction of this institution; and the choice fell on the Rev. John Philip Gell. In his time also the colony of Victoria was founded by settlers from Tasmania; and towards its close, transportation to New South Wales having been abolished, the convicts from every part of the British empire were sent to Tasmania. On an increase to the lieutenant-governor's salary being voted by the colonial legislature, Sir John declined to derive any advantage from it personally, while he secured the augmentation to his successors. In 1838 he founded a scientific society at Hobart Town (now called the " Royal Society of Tasmania "), the meetings of which were held in Government House, and its papers printed at his expense. He welcomed eagerly the various expeditions for exploration and surveying which visited Hobart Town under command of Captains Wickham, Stokes, Owen Stanley, and others. Conspicuous among these, and of especial interest to himself, were the French and English Antarctic expeditions of Dumont D'Urville and Sir James C. Ross,—the latter commanding the "Erebus" and "Terror," with which the name of Franklin was to be for ever so pathetically connected. A magnetic observatory, fixed at Hobart Town as a dependency of the central establishment under Colonel Sabine, was an object of deep interest up to the moment of his leaving the colony, j Thus pleasantly occupied, the years allotted to a colonial governorship drew to a close. Franklin had passed through phases of difficulty common to all governors of colonies remote from the imperial centre; and it was impossible for | an impartial and high-minded ruler to avoid collision with _ personal interests. But that his unflinching efforts for the I social as well as the political advancement of the colony were already appreciated was abundantly proved by the affection and respect universally testified by the addresses which proceeded from every section of the community, and by the demonstrations from all classes on his departure. A local newspaper, describing the scene in much detail, adds, " Thus departed from among us as true and upright a governor as ever the destinies of a British colony were entrusted to." That this was no evanescent feeling is attested by the fact that several years afterwards the colonists showed their remembrance of his virtues and services by sending to Lady Franklin a subscription of £1700 in aid of her efforts in the search for their former governor, and later still by a unanimous vote of the legislature for the erection of a statue in honour of him at Hobart Town.

Sir John found, on reaching England, that the confidence of the Admiralty in him was undiminished, as was shown by his being offered in 1845 the command of an expedition for the discovery of the North-West passage; this offer he accepted. The prestige of Arctic service and of his former experiences attracted a crowd of volunteers of all classes, from whom were selected a body of officers conspicuous for talent and energy. Thus supported, with crews carefully chosen (some of whom had been engaged in the whaling service), victualled for three years, and furnished with every appliance then known, Franklin's expedition, consisting of the "Erebus" and "Terror" (134 officers and men), with a transport ship to convey additional stores as far as Disco in Greenland, sailed from Greenhithe on the 19th of May 1845. The ships were last seen on the 26th of July in Baffin's Bay by a whaler which was moored to an iceberg in lat. 74° 48' N. and long. 66° 13' W.; and at that time the expedition was proceeding prosperously. Letters written by Franklin a few days previous to that date were coached in language of cheerful anticipation of success, while those received from his officers expressed their glowing hope, their admiration of the seaman-like qualities of their commander, and the happiness they had in serving under him.





Franklin's instructions were framed (in conjunction with Sir John Barrow and upon his own suggestions) by the eminent explorers with whom his former work had closely connected him. The experience of Parry made it evident that a fresh attempt to force ships through the heavy ice seen by him to the south-west of Melville Island would be futile, as has since been fully proved. On the other hand, Franklin's surveys of the north coast of America had long before satisfied him that a navigable passage existed along it, from the Fish River to Behring's Strait. He was therefore directed to pursue a course towards the coast after he had approached the longitude of about 98° W., and was allowed the single alternative of previously examining "Wellington Channel if the navigation were open. An explicit prohibition was given against a westerly course beyond the longitude of 98° W.

In 1847, though there was no real public anxiety as to the fate of the expedition, preparations began to be made for the possible necessit3r of succouring the explorers. As time passed, however, and no tidings of the expedition reached England, the search began in earnest; expedition after expedition was despatched in quest of them in 1848 and succeeding years, regardless of cost or hazard. In this great national undertaking Sir John's heroic wife took a part which will ennoble her name for all time Between 1848 aud 1854 about fifteen expeditions were sent out by England and America in the hope of rescuing, or at least finding traces of, tire missing explorers. The details cf the work done by those expeditions will be given in the article on POLAR REGIONS ; here we shall confine ourselves to the results, so far as the search for Franklin was concerned. Lady Franklin's exertions were unwearied; she exhausted her private funds in sending out auxiliary vessels to quarters not comprised in the public search, and by her pathetic appeals she roused the sympathy of the whole civilized world. Traces of the missing ships were discovered by Ommanney and Penny in August 1850, and were brought home by the " Prince Albert," fitted out by Lady Franklin with the especial object of following to the southward the route which would be almost certainly taken by Franklin in carrying out his instructions. It was thus ascertained that the first winter had been spent behind Beechey Island, where they had remained at least as late as April 1846. No further tidings were obtained until the spring of 1854, when Dr Rae, then conducting an exploring party of the Hudson's Bay Company from Repulse Bay, was told by the Eskimo that (as was inferred) in 1850 white men, to the number of about forty, had been seen dragging a boat over the ice near the north shore of King William's Island, and that later in the same season, but before the breaking up of the ice, the bodies of the whole party were found by the natives at a point a short distance to the north-west of Back's Great Fish River, where they had perished from the united effects of cold aud famine. The latter statement was afterwards disproved by the discovery of skeletons upon the presumed line of route; but indisputable proof was given that the Eskimo had communicated with members of the missing expedition, by the various articles obtained from them and brought home by Dr Rae, who, on his return to England, claimed, and succeeded in obtaining, the reward of ¿£10,000 offered by the Admiralty in 1849, "to any party or parties who, in the judgment of the Board of Admiralty, shall, by virtue of his or her efforts, first succeed in ascertaining" the fate of the missing expedition. On account of the information obtained by Dr Rae, a party in two canoes under Messrs Anderson and Stewart was in 1855 sent by Government down the Great Fish River, and they succeeded in obtaining from the Eskimo at the mouth of the river a considerable number of articles which had evidently belonged to the Franklin expedition; and many others were picked up on Montreal Island, articles evidently belonging to a boat which, it was reported, had been cut up by the Eskimo. This expedition was unable to make so thorough a search as was desirable, but it was clear from the results obtained by it, and from the examinations which had been made by the many other expeditions of all straits and inlets and coasts except the region to the north of Great Fish River, that King William's Island, the west coast of Boothia, and the neighbouring sea were the fields likely to yield the most satisfactory results. It was clear that a party from the " Erebus " and " Terror" had endeavoured to reach by the Fish River route the settlements of the Hudson Bay Company, and equally evident that the expedition in making a southerly course had been arrested within the channel into which the Great Fish River empties itself. At this time Government was wholly taken up with the events in the East, and when the war was over, it was deemed useless to spend any more money and risk any more lives in what was regarded as a hopeless quest. But Lady Franklin's pious devotion to the memory of her noble husband prompted her to make one last effort to ascertain his fate; to this object she dedicated all her available means, aided, as she had been before, by the subscriptions of sympathizing friends, her judgment being confirmed by the opinion of all those best able to form one as to the hopefulness as well as the feasibility of such an attempt. Accordingly she purchased and fitted out the little yacht " Fox," which sailed from Aberdeen in July 1857 ; the command was accepted by Captain (afterwards Sir) Leopold M'Clintock, whose high reputation had been won in three of the Government expeditions sent out in search of Franklin. Having been compelled to pass the first winter in Baffin's Bay, it was not till the autumn of 1858 that the expedition passed down Prince Regent's Inlet, and the "Fox" put into winter quarters at Port Kennedy at the eastern end of Bellot Strait, between North Somerset and Boothia Felix. In the spring of 1859 three sledging parties went out, Captain (now Sir) Allen Young to examine Prince of Wales Island, Lieutenant (now Captain) Hobson the north and west coasts of King William's Island, and M'Clintock the east and south coasts of the latter, the west coast of Boothia, and the region about the mouth of Great Fish River. The search was successful so far as ascertaining the course and fate of the expedition is concerned. From the Eskimo in Boothia many relics were obtained, and reports as to the fate of the ships and men; all along the west and south coast of King William's Island remains of articles belonging to the ships were discovered, and skeletons that told a terrible tale of disaster. Above all, in a cairn at Point Victory a precious record was discovered by Lieut. Hobson that briefly told the history of the expedition up to April 25, 1848, three years after it set out full of hope. In 1845-6 the "Erebus" and " Terror" wintered at Beechey Island on the S.W. coast of North Devon, in lat. 74° 43' 28" N.,long. 91° 39' 15" W., after having ascended Wellington Channel to lat. 77° and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island. This statement was signed by Graham Gore, lieutenant, and Charles F. Des Vceux, mate, and bore date May 28,1847. These two officers and six men, it was further told, left the ships on May 24, 1847, no doubt for an exploring journey, at which time all was well.

The success of the first year's work, thus briefly stated, was greater than has been since attained within any one season in arctic service. The alternative course permitted by Franklin's instructions had been attempted but was not pursued, and in the autumn of 1846 he followed that which was especially commended to him. But on his attempting to reach the coast of America, the obstruction of heavy ice, which presses down from Melville Island through M'Clintock Channel (not then known to exist) upon King William's Island had finally arrested his progress. It must be remembered that in the chart carried out by Franklin this island was laid down as a part of the mainland of Boothia, and he therefore could pursue his way only down its western coast. The record that revealed all which has been briefly stated was written upon one of the forms supplied by the Admiralty to surveying vessels, to be thrown overboard after the required data had been filled in. But upon the margin around the printed form was an addendum dated the 25th April 1848, which extinguished all hopes of a successful termination of their grand enterprise. The facts are best conveyed by the terse and expressive words of the record, which is therefore given verbatim :—" April 25th 1848. H. M. Ships 'Terror' and 'Erebus' were deserted on 22d April, five leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls under the command of Captain F. R. M. Crozier, landed here in lat. 69° 37' 42" N., long. 98° 41' W. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June 1847 ; and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men." The handwriting is that of Captain Fitzjames, to whose signature is appended that of Captain Crozier, who also adds the words of chief importance, namely, that they would " start on tomorrow 26th April 1848 for Back's Fish River." A briefer record has never been told of so tragic a story. Thus it was reserved for the latest effort of Lady Franklin to develop not only the fate of her husband's expedition, but also the steps of its progress up to crowning success, mingled indeed with disaster almost unprecedented.

All of the party had without doubt been greatly reduced through want of sufficient food, and the injurious effects of three winters in these regions. They had greatly over-rated their strength in attempting to drag with them two boats, besides heavily laden sledges, and doubtless had soon been compelled to abandon much of their burden, and leave one boat on the shore of King William's Island, where it was found, near the middle of the west coast, by M'Clintock; it contained two skeletons. From the Eskimo we learn that the men dropped down as they walked, and often had to be left unburied. Although many relics were found in possession of the Eskimo, there seems no reason to believe that the retreating crews met with foul play. From all that can be gathered, one of the vessels must have been crushed in the ice and the other stranded on the shore of King William's Island, where it lay for years, forming a mint of wealth for the neighbouring Eskimo. M'Clintock examined all the shores of the island with the greatest care, but found no trace of a stranded vessel.

This is all we know of the fate of Franklin and his brave men. His memory is cherished as one of the most conspicuous of the naval heroes of Britain, and as one of the most successful and daring of her explorers. He is certainly entitled to the honour of being the first discoverer of the North-West Passage; the point reached by the ships brought him to within a few miles of that attained from the westward by the explorations of earlier years; he had indeed all but traversed the entire distance between Baffin's Bay and Behring:s Strait. On the monument erected to Franklin by his country, in Waterloo Place, London, the honour of discovering the passage is justly awarded to him and his companions,—a fact which was also affirmed by the president of the Royal Geographical Society, when presenting to Lady Franklin in 1860 their gold medal. More recently a fine monument, erected in 1875 in Westminster Abbey, commemorates the heroic deeds and fate of Sir John Franklin, the death (which occurred in that year) of Lady Franklin, and the inseparable connexion of her name with the fame of her husband. Most of the Franklin relics brought home by M'Clintock were presented by Lady Franklin to the United Service Museum, while those given by Dr Rae to the Admiralty are deposited in Greenwich Hospital. Captain Hall, so well known in connexion with the "Polaris" expedition, spent five years with the Eskimo, and made two journeys in endeavouring to trace the remnant of Franklin's party, bringing bacii in 1869 a number of additional reiics and some information confirmatory of that given by M'Clintock. In 1878 a search expedition was sent out from America in consequence of a tale told to Mr Barry, the mate of a whaler, by some Nechelli Eskimo met by him at Whale Point, Hudson's Bay. He obtained from these Eskimo some spoons bearing Franklin's crest. The Eskimo were understood to say that these were received from a party of white men, who passed a winter near their settlement, and all died. The white men, the Eskimo stated, left a number of books with writing in them, which were buried. The story has some points about it that make one inclined to doubt its accuracy. Still it is satisfactory that the search party has been sent out, and we can only hope that it will be rewarded by discovering some of the records of the unfortunate expedition. (J. S. K.)







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