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The Franklin Expedition – August 1845 - 13 February 2011

On 1st August 1845 the Franklin Expedition was progressing well.

The ships were heavily provisioned and very overloaded. The holds were crammed fully, as were the decks and every available space, even Sir John Franklin's 'great cabin'. The open upper decks of both ships were piled so high with sacks of coal and barrels of provisions that there was only a narrow walkway from bow to stern. The weather was so mild that the three quarters of beef hanging in the rigging of each ship, which Franklin had hoped to preserve for the winter, were clearly not going to 'keep' so were being eaten. There was other fresh food still – chickens and mutton, and fish from the sea when nets could be lowered. As the barrels of salt beef and salt pork were emptied, Franklin was trying to refill them with downed seabirds so that the finite supplies of salted and 'preserved' (tinned) foods could be eked out as far as possible. And the preserved supplies had been tested so the officers and men were confident they had, at the very least, three years supplies on their current rations. Based on their success in replenishing supplies in the summer, and their low consumption of preserved food so far, some of the officers had told Captain Martin that they thought they could eke out their supplies for up to five years if needs be, rather than the official three years. That would enable the Expedition to survive on their ships until 1850. To be so well provisioned, especially as the after-holds of both ships were occupied by the new engines, was no mean feat.

Navigation was meeting the officers' expectations too. Since leaving Disko Bay three weeks ago, the ships had worked their way five hundred miles around Baffin Bay, quite close to the entrance to Lancaster Sound. Everyone was conscious that this vital waterway, although often ice-free in the summer, was their only realistic entrance to the North West Passage and only open for a limited time each year. Both Fitzjames and Crozier had been concerned that they would arrive at its entrance too late in the season and find it blocked, but their good progress to the end of July meant that they had caught up on their schedule.

Important scientific research had begun. We know that Harry Goodsir, the Expedition's scientist, was heavily engaged in research and had enrolled several of the ships' officers in helping him. He was focusing on Crustacea, investigating both microscopic plankton from the upper sea, 'whale food' as Fitzjames called it, and also samples brought up from the seabed when he could take them. Why was he so interested in Crustacea? This may have been a highly significant line of research for him. A friend of his back in England called Charles Darwin had formulated a radical theory to explain the diversity and origin of the different species of plants and animals, which Darwin called 'evolution'. Darwin was fully aware that this idea was social and theological dynamite as well as being a radical scientific concept. He had therefore shared it only with his immediate scientific circle. He was not prepared to publish until he could assemble irrefutable proof drawn from scientific observation. At that time Darwin was still seeking more evidence to support his theory before publishing it. In fact he was never happy with the evidence he could assemble an only published his research when he was forced to by Wallace. Had Darwin shared his secret theory with the ambitious Harry Goodsir, and was Goodsir trawling the unknown Crustacea of the Arctic seeking proof for his friend's radical theory? Well, I very much doubt that we will ever know, but it must be a realistic possibility.

On the debit side, we know that there were divisions in the leadership of the Expedition. Important strategy decisions were taken by Franklin on the Erebus, while the officers of the Terror, including Crozier, the most experienced polar navigator of the naval officers and Blanky, who had served four years under John Ross on the Victory Expedition as well as under Parry, were excluded from decision-making. Certainly in Crozier's case they resented it. Franklin took advice primarily from Reid, the Erebus' icemaster, and from Fitzjames. When the ships were feeling their way into Disko Bay, Franklin had been uncertain of their position and of the correct course. He had consulted Reid and Fitzjames, but not Crozier nearby HMS Terror. Franklin's navigation was flawed, and the decision he took was wrong. As a result the Expedition had wasted a whole day. Crozier HAD known their correct position and the course to take, but instead of letting Franklin know his mistake, he had simply followed Erebus. He does not seem to have felt guilt at the wasted day, instead noting that he had at least scored a point over the officers of the Erebus. Afterwards, it seems that Fitzjames and Crozier had had sharp words about this incident although we don't know what was said. But whatever happened, clearly relations between Crozier, officially second-in-command of the Expedition, on the one side and Franklin, Fitzjames and Reid on the other were not good.

Another festering sore in the relationship between Crozier and his flagship was the issue of magnetic observations. Carrying out these was an important objective of the Expedition and Fitzjames had early been appointed to take charge. Crozier had become an expert in terrestrial magnetism and resented Fitzjames being given this appointment. But this seems a little unreasonable – Fitzjames had had a good scientific and mathematical education and had earlier been involved in magnetic research while on the Euphrates Expedition of 1835-1838. This resentment on Crozier's part looks somewhat unreasonable as there is no evidence that Fitzjames' magnetic research was flawed. However, this unhappiness on Crozier's part was a further source of friction in the officer cadre.

Fitzjames and Le Vesconte had taken magnetic observations at Disko Bay in early July 1845. As the ships sailed, these readings would have continued to be taken, but the most important and accurate observations could only be taken on land. So sensitive were the instruments that they had to be kept away from vibration and shielded from the weather. The Expedition took two specially made collapsible wooden huts to contain them. They'd first been erected at Disko Bay, but then taken down and now they were stored in the hold. Wherever possible, they would be erected on shore on secure stone foundations so that readings could be taken by Fitzjames and his team. The observations of fluctuations in the strength and direction of the magnetic field were recorded but could not be analysed until the Expedition arrived home. These observations were regarded as so important because no one at the time understood what caused the strength and variation of the earth's magnetic field to fluctuate. It was felt that if the underlying cause of these could be understood, it might be possible to predict future movements in the magnetic poles and fluctuations in magnetic strength. If this was possible, then it might in turn be possible to devise navigational instruments of exceptional accuracy. After all, already advances in magnetic science had solved the problems of navigating iron ships by compass – something impossible only a few years before. Every sailor on the Expedition understood the importance of this, and would have been keen to help with the observations and in getting them back to England. Ironically it turned out in the end that the force driving these changes in magnetism is actually the Sun, so in practice it was impossible to develop navigational instruments along these lines. But nobody knew that at the time.

The most important magnetic observations were those taken on so called 'Term Dates'. There were Magnetic Observatories established around the world. On each 'Term Date', every Observatory would strive to take observations every five minutes over exactly the same 24 hour period. Later, all of these observations could be compared to build up a global picture of the world's magnetic field. As the Expedition was so far away from other Observatories, their observations on each Term Date would be extremely important. But due to the extreme sensitivity of the instruments, these observations could only be taken ashore.

The next Term Date was 29th August, 1845. We know that the Expedition would have striven to have Fitzjames and the magnetic party established ashore on that date. But where? The only Franklin Expedition magnetic observatory ever identified in the Lancaster Sound area is the one at Cape Riley. Here were found the characteristic stone foundations for the prefabricated wooden huts. Later searchers even found a page with numbers, presumably magnetic observations, written in Fitzjames' handwriting. It seems unarguable therefore that this was a Franklin Expedition Magnetic Observatory. Was the Expedition here on 29th August, the Term Date? The distance from Captain Martin's parting with them to Cape Riley, following the route the Erebus and Terror would have taken, is about 440 miles, or about nine miles per day. Since the first part of their journey, from Disko Bay to the position they parted from Captains Dannet and Martin, was about five hundred nautical miles and took them 13 days, or 38 miles per day on average, this makes Cape Riley easily attainable, theoretically at least, by 29th August. All of this suggests that Cape Riley was the site of the 29th August term date observations.

If so then this is a plausible reconstruction of the first month of the Franklin Expedition following their 'disappearance'. Yet already there is an uncertainty. Did the ships stand by off Cape Riley while the Magnetic observations were taken on 29th August, or were Fitzjames and the magnetic team left there while the ships continued on their voyage and arranged later to return? That sounds rather risky, but as I will discuss in the next blog post, in my opinion this is a vital question in assessing what happened next.

Most of the sources are given in my Fitzjames book, and the information about the Term Dates comes from Sherrard Osborne. If anyone wants any more references, or to discuss any aspects of this reconstruction, please make a comment. I'll be very happy to discuss or debate any issues, and of course to change the narrative to correct my inevitable mistakes!

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