Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Captain Francis Crozier

Last Man Standing?

In YK part of my job involved visits to a massive government warehouse that held everything from beer to kayaks. One day I stumbled across a forgotten flat of small blue volumes published by the GNWT.

Second-in-Command by May Fluhmann summarized in brief chapters the life of Francis Crozier, who was second-in-command on Franklin's last voyage. The book was a genuine work of scholarship, for Fluhmann had access to Crozier's correspondence from 1828 to 1845. But the volume had a slightly amateurish air, and I doubt it was ever widely available or attracted much notice.

Now there's been a resurgence of interest in Crozier. Dan Simmons made him the central figure in his novel, The Terror, which came out in 2007. And in the previous year Michael Smith published a more complete, more polished biography, which cites May Fluhmann as one of its sources.

Smith's book of necessity covers much familiar ground. For me, the most interesting part was Crozier's role in a four-year Antarctic expedition, of which he was second-in-command under his close friend James Clark Ross. According to Smith, both men were so unnerved by the voyage that afterward they were never quite the same. Ross began drinking heavily, and Crozier subsided into a depression from which he never recovered.

A second reason for Crozier's depression was his failure to win the hand of Sophy Cracroft. His "uncertain state of mind" caused him to "stand aside from the leadership battle" for what was to become Franklin's last expedition, even though he was the most experienced officer available and the logical choice for the position.

After Franklin was given the job, Crozier did a volte-face and agreed to act as second-in-command. Smith suggests that Crozier did so in the hope of gaining favour with Sophy, who was Franklin's niece and Lady Franklin's constant companion.

Soon Crozier began to rue his decision. Franklin had not been North in 17 years. Worse, Crozier had no hand in selecting the crews, a task that was given to Fitzjames, who was third-in-command but with no Arctic experience. Crozier turfed two of the men selected by Fitzjames as being "perfectly useless either at their trade or anything else."

Smith describes Crozier's last letter to Ross as "the dark, brooding missive of a troubled man harbouring major doubts about the dangerous undertaking which lay ahead." Many are the ironies, mysteries, and tantalizing possibilities surrounding that doomed voyage. According to Inuit oral history, Crozier was one of the last survivors. Indeed, it has even been suggested that he lived among the Inuit for many years afterward.

The two ships, Erebus and Terror, have never been found.