It is always interesting to read of the modern popular take of Sir John Franklin as “unimaginative” incompetent and the author of his final Arctic Expeditions demise (see the comments in this CBC article). Franklin was chosen, partly because of lobbying, but partly because he was the British Officer with the most Arctic experience. His final trip was his fourth to Arctic regions.
Yes, his first overland expedition was beset with disaster, starvation, murder and a summary execution, but to state that he never learned from it, or that it wasn’t successful in part is just wrong. The expedition mapped a large part of the Arctic and Arctic Coast, from the mouth of the Coppermine River to Point Turnagain.
More importantly he did learn from his experiences and mounted a very successful Second overland expedition that mapped much of the Arctic Coast in the other direction.
People tend to point to the size of the Franklin’s last expedition (and compare it to Rae’s small party led by natives) as a reason for the failure, and miss the point that they were looking for a commercial route through the Northwest Passage, much of which had been mapped. The whole idea was to be able to find a passage for ships through the NW Passage, not dog teams. They were, at the time, the best equipped Arctic Expedition ever, employing ships with reinforced hulls for the ice, that were equipped with steam engines, and they had some of the best officers available for their crew. It was provisioned with over three years of food and supplies (Hmmm…. And they didn’t start looking for them for how long?) and were expected to take at least two years to make the passage.
They also ran into some very bad luck. Inuit testimony recounts there being “no summers” those years, resulting in greater ice pack than even they expected. Problems with the quality of their provisions (supplied by a government contract) were out of their hands. There is actually a suggestion (again by Inuit testimony) that there were still provisions left on board the ships. And of course, by the time the crew was making their death march south, well Franklin was already long dead, probably from natural causes, given his age.
People who point to the Rae expedition as the model of success (and don’t get me wrong he was a very successful, capable Arctic explorer) ignore the fact that starvation regularly visited the Arctic Regions. A similar small expedition looking for Franklin evidence, the US Schwatka expedition, small, guided by Inuit and traveling in Inuit style, narrowly escaped starvation on their return to the Repulse Bay area from King William Island. Indeed starvation constantly stalked Inuit throughout the Arctic. It can be a very unforgiving place, even for those who have thrived up here for thousands of years.
In fact a major Starvation Event took place on King William Island shortly after the Franklin tragedy It may have been even caused by the Franklin expedition, as (once again according to Inuit testimony) at some point the Franklin survivors had shot many caribou, carcasses were lined up from shore to the ships. Tragically many of the people best able to offer evidence of the Franklin Expeditions final years (there were probably still survivors in 1851) perished in that starvation event.
It is true that when Rae brought back his stories that the Inuit had told him, of starvation and cannibalism that they were discounted, but it is hardly surprising. The British at time were not prepared to believe that their officers and men would resort to eating human flesh, and it was all to easy for them to dismiss the reports. But the British empire at the time all too often looked at indigenous people with indifference at best and disdain at worse. Wrong? Of course it was, but given the times it could hardly be unexpected.
For a good analysis of just what the Inuit have told us about Franklin I heartily recommend David C. Woodman's book Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony, an excellent insightful book.