Saturday, October 11, 2014

Unravelling the Franklin Mystery

Inuit Testimony

Discovery last month of the Erebus is good reason to plunge into this exhaustive analysis of Inuit testimony, though even dedicated Franklinophiles may require extensive page-flipping to check maps and keep straight (for example) the difference between Ukjulingmiut and Utkuhikhalingmiut.

And yet I read compulsively, for in these pages are the only eyewitness accounts of the Franklin expedition's demise. I felt closer to actual events than any with other Franklin book I've read.

True, the accounts are confusing and contradictory, but there are reasons aplenty for this. The physical evidence of the expedition’s passing is cryptic, and not just the muddled picture offered by the bones and relics, but also the few puzzling sentences on a single sheet of paper which is the only surviving written record.

Finally, with regard to Inuit testimony, cultural differences and translation difficulties cloud the issue, as well as references to other expeditions and the use of similar names in different circumstances.

For example, Woodman cites four locations known to the Inuit as Shartoo, all containing wreckage. Then there is Aglooka, "he who takes long strides," identified by Charles Francis Hall as Crozier, second-in-command. Yet the name was also bestowed by Inuit on at least four other Europeans: John Ross, James Clark Ross, William Parry, and John Rae.

So, with a quote from Sherlock Holmes and "a little judicious cropping," Woodman pieces together a cohesive scenario which...

...allowed use of all of the native recollections, solved some troubling discrepancies in the physical evidence, and led to some significant new conclusions as to the fate of the beleagured sailors.

But he does not claim to have reached "incontrovertible conclusions."

Even the picture thus formed is incomplete, a corner here, a bit of coherent background there. These too can be arranged in other patterns to reach quite different results.

The result is a variation on the "standard reconstruction" of events with minor differences in chronology, and a scenario that makes sense of the seemingly disorderly retreat of the crews. The departure for Back River on the mainland, as recorded in the note left by the expedition, may have referred to a hunting expedition, not a wholesale evacuation.

One of the ships is believed to have ended up in the vicinity of O'Reilly Island on the west side of Adelaide Peninsula. Woodman suspects it was the Terror, that it had been remanned, and that Kirkwall Island is a more likely spot to search for it.

Woodman also observes that the arrival of such a large group of men may have had serious consequences for the local Inuit. Their numbers appear to have declined drastically around this time, perhaps due to the depletion of game caused by the hunting efforts of the ships' crews.

Modern Searches

Since the book came out in 1992, Woodman has himself taken part in several searches. His "interpretation of the Inuit testimony," writes John Lorinc in the summer 2014 issue of Canadian Geographic, "has inspired most of the search missions undertaken since 1997."

In 2008 Parks Canada initiated searches of their own, and drawing on fresh Inuit testimony added a new search area -- Victoria Strait between King William Island and the Royal Geographical Society Islands.

The Erebus was found by the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition, a discovery welcomed by many as a validation of Inuit oral history. The exact location of the ship has not yet been revealed.

Parks Canada search areas (Canadian Geographic, summer 2014)