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The Peglar Pocket Book (2): The Words in the Roundel - 4 September 2011

On the other side of the sheet with the 'Oh Death, Whare is thy Sting' wording is the mysterious roundel. As I said in my previous posting, the entire page is blank save for what looks like a single sentence written in a circle. Inside this word circle is what looks like another single sentence written in six lines, each of only two or three words. The whole is only twenty-five or twenty-six words altogether. But what did they mean? Why are they written in a circle? I can honestly say that never in my life have I devoted so much brain-power to so few words.

In Cyriax and Jones 1954, the wording of the circular sentence was reconstructed as follows: 'He I ...ave wonder... Money a night ..glin a bouat the harmonic', which does not make much sense. After much poring over it, and many sharings of thoughts with Prof. Russell Potter (as always, thanks Russell) and others, I have come up with what I think is a fairly accurate representation of what was actually written: '‘He ..... money a thought going ar bouart the harmonic.’ Which I think, apart from an uncertainty over how the sentence started, reads '… many have thought of going about the harmonic'.

That might be what it reads, but what on earth does that sentence mean?

And then Prof. Russell Potter threw a wonderful inspired thought across to me. I hope he won't object to me both crediting him with this thought, and placing it on my blog. Russell pointed out that these words are written in a circle, and that a circle has 'harmonic properties' which are specifically related to its poles. I'm afraid the mathematics of all this is way beyond me, but scouring the internet comes up with frightening pages like this which do at least show that 'going about the harmonic' might have some meaning in the sense of linking poles.

If this is its meaning, then perhaps 'going about the harmonic' was a wordplay current on the ships of the Franklin Expedition? At that time only these ships, and those men who had sailed on them both in 1839-43 and 1845-8, had 'been about the harmonic', that is, travelled from the southern magnetic pole to the northern. Crozier was one man who had been on both Expeditions and who therefore could claim this distinction. 'Going about the harmonic' has a certain logic, and a nautical feel to it as well. And if my reconstruction is right, the sentence is more or less complete and it's a bit difficult to come up with any other meaning. But as a 'catchphrase' this was certainly quite an obscure one. It could hardly have been in currency among the sailors, although it might perhaps have been an 'in' joke between the officers most experienced in magnetism. Who were, of course, Crozier, Franklin and Fitzjames.

So if this is an Expedition officers' 'catchphrase', used to frame a text, what might the words within the circle mean? Well, after a lot of brain cudgelling, partly because all the words are written backwards, I realised that the second word on the first line was 'Erebus'. That enabled me to reconstruct the prior word as 'Smh', or put in the correct letter order, 'HMS'. So suddenly I had a sentence containing not only the word 'Terror' but also the familiar 'HMS Erebus'. There's no question this sentence had something to do with the Franklin Expedition! The fourth line I had already realised was '[something] Lord our God' and 'Peglar' has long been recognised on the third line. So with a little more playing at this 200-year-old game of Scrabble I came up with:

HMS Erebus

tell the Ca[ptain]

{you are (?) peglar}

Oh Lord our God

the Terror Camp

be clear

This is more than a little tentative obviously, but I think is getting towards an understanding of it. I now think it is possible the line including the word Peglar may not be contemporary with the rest of the message. I mentioned earlier that I thought this piece of paper might be a reused and opened out envelope. If so perhaps the Peglar line was the original addressing of this envelope an not part of this message at all?

If this reconstruction is correct, then a meaning can be ascribed to the message. It is addressed to the Captain of HMS Erebus to tell him that 'Oh Lord our God the Terror Camp be clear'. This suggests that at some point the survivors of HMS Terror had been encamped together at a particular location, but that they were no longer there. Had they moved elsewhere – or does 'clear' have the more sinister meaning that no one was left alive there? The inclusion of 'Oh Lord our God' suggests that this message was written in pretty desperate times.

So many other questions crowd in. Where might this 'Terror Camp' have been? Where would its inhabitants have moved, if they did? Does it suggest that the Terror had sunk or been destroyed, while the Erebus was still afloat or intact? Another interesting thought is that if this was sent by the senior officer survivor of the Terror, then that was presumably Crozier, and if it was addressed to the Captain of HMS Erebus, that was presumably Fitzjames. But maybe by then either or both of those officers were dead. All of these are questions which cannot be answered, inspired by a reading of twenty-five words which may well be wrong. Yet one can't help asking the questions.

Given that we have so little evidence, I can't resist the temptation to try to wring as much meaning as I can out of every scrap. Is there any independent corroboration for this interpretation? Well, possibly yes. The Pocket Book was found in the pocket of a coat worn by a man who from his clothing had been an Officer's Steward. One of the duties of an Officer's Steward was to carry messages for officers. This suggests to me that even if my reconstruction of the exact content of the message is incorrect, my proposal that this text WAS a message from one officer to another is likely to be correct. Possibly this man died trying to take a message from one officer to another, and indeed it is possible that this was the very message he died carrying. I know this is SHAMELESS speculation, but given that we have so little evidence from the latter stages of the Expedition, I think every scrap that survives is important.

As always, thanks to all those who have collaborated with me on this, with all brickbats for speculation and inaccuracies directed only at me, please..

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