Better Fellows Never Breathed
Better Fellows Never Breathed

Better Fellows Never Breathed

Better Fellows Never Breathed


[Original chapter 8 of the Unravelling the Franklin Mystery manuscript, cut by publishers to reduce length]


“I certainly never saw any ships so deep before, and I felt anxious like a boy with a walnut shell in a basin of water, to see if the vessel could bear it.” – One of Franklin’s officers, quoted in Ipswich Journal, 16 August, 1845)

The final preparations were underway. On the 24th of April 1845, the First Naval Lord and Sir John Barrow inspected the Erebus and Terror. Four days later, the Erebus left the Dockyard to be followed a day later by her sister. The Terror then conducted a trial of her steam machinery which was enthusiastically reported in the Illustrated London News.

“The Terror made such excellent progress that she cast off her towing steamer and proceeded down the river without any additional assistance whatever.”

On Thursday, May 8th, Lord Haddington entertained Sir John Franklin, Captain Crozier and Commander Fitzjames at the Admiralty. Here they met with their brother officers and Arctic compatriots for the last time and received their best wishes. Barrow, Parry, Back and J.C. Ross were among those present.

During the final hectic days, Lady Franklin and Sophy Cracroft were frequent visitors to the ships, bringing last-minute presents and seeing to the comforts of the crews. Franklin was ordered by his wife to leave off snuff which was bad for him, and to resort to smelling salts instead, and his personal steward was given strict instructions as to the needs of his elderly master. Upon learning that the officers of the Erebus wished to have a monkey as mascot (to augment their menagerie – they already had 2 dogs and a cat), Lady Franklin made them a present of one.

On Monday, May 12th, the ships sailed to Greenhithe, where their compasses were swung, and the crews were given their advance pay. Lady Jane and Franklin’s daughter Eleanor sailed the first few miles downriver from Woolwich and apparently enjoyed themselves.

“Just as they were setting sail, a dove settled on one of the Masts, and remained there for some time. Every one was pleased with the good omen … we were much pleased with the officers, especially the Commander, Capt. Fitzjames, & the 1st Lieut. Mr. Gore. l have every hope that Papa will find them agreeable & entertaining companions – they seem already attached to him.”

The following Sunday, Franklin read Divine Service onboard the first time, taking his text from 1 Kings, 17 Chapt, 16th verse: “and the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord.” Sergeant of Marines David Bryant wrote, “I am happy to say that Sir John Franklin is a very religious man and has forbidden all drunkenness and swearing and all bad language by any Person.”

“The last days were a time of stress. Everything seemed to provide an omen. Jane, like John’s first wife, had dutifully stitched a Union Flag to flutter in triumph from an eminence overlooking the conquest of the Northwest Passage. On a cold day, whilst he was taking a nap, she threw it over him – ‘That’s how they treat a corpse!’ he groaned … Amongst those who had come to see Sir John off were two children of Sir Alexander Mackenzie … ‘We have all since but followed in your father’s footsteps,’ said Franklin magnanimously.’ ”

At 9 o’clock on the morning of Monday, May 19th, Franklin bid his ladies goodbye, and an hour later, the ships left the dock. The Erebus and Terror proceeded under the tow of the tug Rattler while the Monkey took the transport. Despite the preoccupations of command, Franklin kept an eye out for his loved ones. He later wrote to his wife that “I saw you & Eleanor & Sophy on the Pier watching our departure and progress and repeatedly waved my handkerchief – which I hope you saw.” Lady Jane usually wrote volumes of the most minute trivia to her friends. Her biographer stated “did not often allow her emotions to get the better of her powers of expression. But of the sailing of the Erebus we have no word.”

The squadron had scarcely departed when they encountered heavy weather and were forced to temporarily take shelter at anchor near Aldeburgh. Here the Monkey left them and was replaced by the Blazer, which had been sent with news and dispatches. Franklin describes the next few days.

“I considered it best in order to take all the advantages we could of the present moderate weather to retain the Blazer for the purpose of towing us, which she did, taking each ship alternately up to windward … It having been found on Monday the 26th instant when off the Fern islands, that the wind and sea were too high for the Erebus and Terror being kept in tow by the Rattler without repeatedly carrying away the hawsers and exposing the ships to come in contact with each other, I caused them to be cast off. – The weather at the time being very thick, I sent the Rattler to communicate the rendezvous to the Transport, which was far to windward.”

The vessels arrived at Stromness in the Orkney Islands a few days later. While here, Fitzjames authorized the short leave, which he had later cause to regret, while Crozier kept his men aboard. The ship’s water casks were topped up, and Mr. Osmer contracted for the replacements for the four bullocks which had died. The officers entertained some guests on board, one of whom later recalled their mood.

“Lieutenant Irving was very conspicuous among the officers who were that day in the cabin of the Terror, by his greater appearance of manly strength and calm decision – one apparently well fitted for the hardships foreseen but not dreaded. A general feeling of sure success pervaded them all.”

Franklin commented on the sailing qualities of his ships.

“We have had only one strong breeze, and that off the Faroe Islands, in which during thick weather we separated from the Rattler and the transport. The old Erebus and Terror, however, managed very well together, and were making tolerable progress … It is satisfactory to perceive that the Erebus and Terror sail so clearly together that they will be good company-keepers. The Transport sails better than either, but we must keep her close in hand going across the Atlantic.”

Franklin also tended to make light of the difficulties which awaited them.

“I agree with [Sir James Ross] in the opinion that the navigation of the Arctic Sea is net near so full of danger as that of the Antarctic, nor, as far as i can learn, of the Spitzbergen Sea. It is very consolatory to me that you and my dear girl and Sophy have such correct views of the nature of our service, if is one unquestionably attended with difficulties and dangers, but not greater than those of former voyages; and we may trust in God’s merciful support and protection, if we seek it, putting forth at the same time our earnest endeavours to overcome them.

I am flattered by S.’s reasons for his supposing me so well fitted for the command of the expedition; even in some respects, you tell me, he thinks, better than Ross. I think perhaps that I have the tact of keeping the officers and men happily together in a greater degree than Ross, and for this reason: he is evidently ambitious and wishes to do everything himself. I possess not that feeling, but consider that the commander of any service, having established his character before, maintains it most by directing the exertions of his officers and studiously encouraging them to work under the assurance that their merits will be duly brought forward and appreciated.

Crozier has not had the opportunities of being much on board, on account of the weather; but when he does come he is cheerful and happy, and seems to think we are making good progress … Let me now assure you, my dearest Jane, that I am now amply provided with every requisite for my passage, and that I am entering on my voyage comforted with every hope of God’s merciful guidance and protection … I wish that I could write … of the happiness I feel in my officers, my crew, and my ship!”

While at sea, Sir John had continued to look out for the spiritual well-being of his men and consolidated his team of officers by holding regular “open house.”

Mr. Couch wrote that “he is quite a Bishop … gives sermons out of his sermon books, and I can assure you adds a great deal himself. [The crew] say they would sooner hear him than half the parsons in England. He has three (officers, of course, not parsons) every day to dinner with him, and when the weather permits the captain and officers of the Terror. He ordered stock and wine to be laid in enough for four every day, and for a cabin-full twice a week for three years. So you see what a liberal old man he is.”

Franklin wrote:

“l have begun, since leaving England, reading a chapter of the Old Testament with the commentaries of Henry upon it which I hope to continue. The Sunday is by all observed properly. We have Divine Service on the main deck every forenoon, and in the evening of that day all those who choose, and are not on watch, may attend the service in my cabin, which in fact all do, and a most interesting assembling of ourselves together it has proved and will, I trust, prove in future to be.”

The local pilot piloted the small squadron out of Stromness harbour, who, although he wished them well, could not be persuaded to prove his patriotism and support by refusing payment. After passing the small island of Rona, the ships were met by the long Atlantic swells, and the small tugs were thankfully released from their duty. An able seaman from the Terror was invalided and transferred to the Rattler for passage home, and then the crews mustered for the final parting with their compatriots. Fitzjames described the scene:

“The steamers Ratler [sic] and Blazer left us at noon yesterday … Their captains came on board and took our letters … The steamers then ranged alongside us, one on each side, as close as possible without touching, and, with the whole force of lungs of officers and men, gave us, not three, but a prolongation of cheers, to which, of course, we responded. Having done the same to the Terror, away they went, And in an hour or two were out of sight, leaving us with an old gull or two and the rocky Rona to look at, and then was the time to see if any one flinched from the undertaking. Every one’s cry was, “Now we are off at last!” No lingering look was cast behind.”

On June 6th, Franklin called a meeting of his officers during which he delegated various duties and set out his instructions for the conduct of the expedition.

“Soon after leaving the Orkneys, Sir John sent for us all into his cabin and read to us such portions of his orders as were not private, particularly as to observing everything, & collecting specimens, also his authority from the Admiralty for claiming for them, all our logs, journals, & everything connected with the expedition.”

None of the officers had cause to fear that their efforts would go unrewarded. Fitzjames wrote that Franklin “spoke delightfully of the zealous co-operation he expected from all, and his desire to do full justice to the exertions of each.”

Franklin wrote to his wife that “I impress at the same time upon them the assurance that these individual exertions will prove their best claim to the favourable notice of the Admiralty. Of this they are all aware, so likewise are they that I shall have pleasure in bringing their services duly before the proper authorities. I shall be excused by you if I add that it is gratifying to me to know that they have the confidence in me that I shall do them justice.”

It is apparent that Franklin did not brief his junior officers on their intended route at this time, for their letters home show only a very superficial understanding of where they were going. Irving’s ideas were fairly representative, “we shall fix our ships somewhere for the winter … We hope to reach Melville Island before the end of September, and pass the winter there, and try to reach Bering’s Straits the following summer.”

Commander Fitzjames’ private journal has already proven a valuable source for determining the characters of his shipmates. Not surprisingly, it also provides the best account of the crossing of the Atlantic. Although the events described are not dramatic, they accurately reflect the preoccupations of most sailors when at sea – weather, sleep, and the mundane daily activities of their friends.

“Her Majesty’s ship Erebus, at sea, June 8, 1845, Ten p.m. – You appeared very anxious that I should keep a journal for your especial [sic] perusal, Now, I do keep a journal, such as it is, which will be given to the Admiralty; but, to please you, I shall note down from time to time such things as may strike me, either in the form of a letter, or in any other form that may at the time suit my fancy. I shall probably never read over what I may have written, so you will excuse inaccuracies.

I commence tonight because I am in a good humour. Every one is shaking hands with himself. We have a fair wind, actually going seven knots, sea tolerably smooth, though we do roll a little, but this ship has the happy facility of being very steady below, while on deck she appears to he plunging and rolling greatly. Our lat. is now about 60 0’, so you will find out our “whereabouts”. The Terror is coming after us, the transport sailing close to us with as little sail as possible, for she could run us out of sight if she chose; they fear the ice, doubtless, not being built to shake it away.

6th. – Today has been a gloomy day, as far as sunshine is concerned, and the wind has drawn round to the northward, though so little of it, that the old Erebus cannot keep her head the right way, or, as we term it, she “falls off” with the roll of the sea. Seven or eight large grampuses came shooting past us to the south-west, which Mr. Goodsir declared were delightful animals … At dinner today Sir John gave us a pleasant account of his expectations of being able to get through the ice on the coast of America, and his disbelief in the idea that there is open sea to the northward.

7th.      11 P.M.- Pitching heavily, breeze increasing from WNW. It came on as the sun was thinking of setting, about nine, in the form of a bank, behind which he vanished; it then rose in the form of an arch, and I expected wind; but, having overspread the sky, it settled into a steadily increasing breeze. Barometer rising as rapidly as it fell, and I have been prognosticating a sort of gale in consequence. It was calm all last night, cloudy all today. Passed the day in working and making observations, when the sun did peep out, with Le Vescomte. There is nothing in this day’s journal that will interest or amuse you …”

8th. We had a heavy sea and stiff breeze today; but it moderated at four o’clock, and the sun came out clear and beautiful. In latitude 62, at nine o’clock this evening, we tacked (if you know what that is), and stood to the south-west. We saw a ship from Peterhead today.

10th. – I was beginning to write last night, but the ship was tumbling about to such are extent that I went to bed, and had to turn out again immediately and get the top-sails reefed, as it blew hard in squalls. The ship pitched about as much as I ever saw any vessel, but still very easily. Reid says he does not like to see the wind “seeking a corner to blow into.” I worked observations all yesterday, and today took several on deck. The weather moderated this morning, and all day we have had little wind and tolerably smooth sea. A clear, fine sunset at a quarter to ten, and Goodsir examining “mollusca”, in a meecroscope. He is in ecstasies about a bag full of blubber-like stuff, which he has just hauled up in a net, and which turns out to be whale’s food and other animals … I meant to go to bed when I finished the other sheet; but went to look at some beautiful specimens of crustaceous animals in the microscope, one of which, about a quarter of an inch long, is an entirely new animal, and has a peacock’s tail. Goodsir is drawing it. And now I must really say good night; it is past one o’clock.”

Lt. Fairholme was Goodsir’s principal assistant in his dredging endeavours and considered the naturalist to be a “most superior man.” Living in closer proximity to the crew than Fitzjames, who, as captain of the Erebus was necessarily more aloof, Fairholme was more readily able to report on the mood below decks during the Atlantic transit.

“Saturday night seems to be kept up in due nautical form around my cabin, a fiddle going as hard as it can, & 2 or 3 different songs from the forecastle, in short, all seem quite happy.”

The next days found a succession of weather fronts pass over the ships.

“11th and 12th, – All yesterday it blew very hard, with so much sea that we shipped one or two over the quarter-deck:, by which I got a good drenching once. The sea is of the most perfect transparency – a beautiful, delicate, cold-looking green, or ultramarine. Long rollers, as if carved out of the essence of glass bottles, came rolling towards us; now and then topped with a beautiful pot-of-Porter-looking head. At sunset the wind moderated, and was calm at night … We are now only six miles from Iceland – south of it.

14th. – Yesterday evening the sea went down much, and the wind became very light. This morning the wind was quite fair, having been so more or less all night; but instead of having clear weather as with the north-east wind, it came to south-east, and brought hard rain and thick fogs all day. We are now, however, (eleven P.M.), going seven knots and a quarter in a thick fog, with the Terror on one side and transport on the other, keeping close for fear of losing sight of us. Nothing has been written for you these last few days – not because I had nothing to say, or did not think of you, but because 1 have had plenty to do in the writing and calculating way; and because, just as i was beginning to get paper and ink ready, I found I was in bed, and fell asleep.

Today is “Waterloo day”, and we drank the Duke’s health at Sir John’s table. There was talk before we left England of a brevet on this day; if this be true, I think it more than probable that I shall get the rank of captain. With this idea, I took a glass of brandy and water at ten o’clock, which, allowing for difference of longitude, answers to half-past seven in London, and drank your health, in petto – fancying you might be drinking wine. In fact, we took an imaginary glass of wine together, and I don’t care how soon we may take a real one. Now I am laughing, for Reid has just said, scratching his head, “Why mister Jems, you never seem to me to sleep at arl, you’re always writin!” I tell him that when I do sleep, I do twice as much as other people in the same time.

This is Saturday night. Reid and Osmar are drinking “Sweethearts and wives” and they wanted me to join. I said I had not the one, and did not want the other. Good night.

15th. – Wind fair and strong, with a high sea; but we carried on much sail, heeling over much; and we actually fancy we went nine knots. In the evening it moderated, and the weather was clear and cool.

16th. – Calm day, sea glassy smooth, cloudy weather, no sun. After breakfast I went on board the Terror, to see Captain Crozier about my “Fox” observations (Fox being a dipping-needle invented by him) … Crozier and Little, first lieutenant, and Lieutenant Griffiths, the agent for transport, dined on board with Sir John.”

This rare break from the rough weather apparently afforded an opportunity for much socializing. Lt. Fairholme wrote of his own visit between the ships.

“One of my visits was paid on a calm day, about half way across, in Peter Halkett’s [newly invented inflatable] boat. Then the Terror was 1/2 a mile from us. Le Visconte went with me, & it carried us capitally. It just holds three & we got on board the Terror, paid our visit, & got back again, without the least wet or discomfort, altho’ we were of course sitting much below the level of the sea. The exertion of paddling is rather severe, or rather, it was so then, from neither of us having had much practice lately.”

Fitzjames’ Journal tells of the preparations for nearing the ice.

“17th, – The sun shone out, and we had a smooth day; air cold. Since the 11th, the thermometer on deck in the shade has never been above 50 degrees or below 45 degrees, night or day; generally 46 or 48 degrees. At night cloudy, with a bright light on the horizon to the north-east, which Gore says is Aurora Borealis. Reid calls it “ice-blink”. I say it is the reflection of sunset, though it is north-east. It looks like a large town on fire, twenty miles off.

18th. – The “crow’s-nest” is up – which is usually a cask: lined with canvas – at the fore-top-mast-head, for a man to stand in to look out for channels in the ice. With us, it is a sort of canvas cylinder, hooped, and is at the main-top-gallant-mast-head (if you know where that is). Reid, who will have the peculiar privilege of being perched up there, says it is a very expensive one.

19th. – Twelve o’clock at night. I suppose we are 140 or 150 miles from Cape Farewell. Blowing hard, but not a rough sea, although there is a swell. When I say hard, I mean fresh; we can carry much sail, and do. I can scarcely manage to get Sir John to shorten sail at all. Still cloudy. At half-past ten, a bright light appeared in the north-west, which was set down as Aurora, but turned out really to be the reflection of sunset. The clouds and mist moved off as if a blanket were being withdrawn, leaving an orange-coloured clearness underneath in the form of an arch, with a well-defined dark horizon, which clearness turned out to be a real clear sky, cold looking and fine; and now the officer of the watch comes to tell me the wind is lighter, and we certainly are quieter. “Shake a reef out, set the fore-top-gallant-sail (the main being set) Call me at six if anything happens.” Good night, good night.”

As the Erebus and Terror approached Cape Farewell, the southernmost tip of Greenland, they fell in with a severe gale, the usual state of affairs in that part of the world.

“21st. – In Davis Straits. Cape Desolation at noon today, bearing east ninety miles, but we can’t see it. We have just done with a glorious gale of wind, which has been sending us on in grand style. I wrote last on Thursday night, and shall sum up from thence. On Friday, the 20th (and Thursday night also, though I did go to bed so quietly) we kicked and plunged and danced in a tremendous manner, the sea running all manner of ways; the day was nearly calm, with a very heavy swell, the ship rolling deeply. A number of “bottle-noses”, a species of whale, about twenty-eight feet long, came dancing about us; their head is very peculiar, and unless they are very close, so as to see their beak under water, one fancies their foreheads are snouts poked up above the water. All this night we jumped and danced again with a strong breeze dead foul for us, which at midnight had turned into a complete gale; the air cold, though the thermometer stood fixed at 42 degrees. On Saturday calm again, and smooth water. Molimaules, and trees with the bark rubbed off by ice, floating about, Sir John at dinner; most amusing with anecdotes of an Indian chief, whom he met in the journey in which he suffered so much – named, 1 think, Akatcho, who appears to have been a fine character.

Sunday, 22nd. – It began to blow hard suddenly at seven in the morning from east (you must recollect that our course is westerly). We struggled through the church service on the lower deck, the ships rolling and tumbling much, the sea curling astern beautifully.”

During the next week, as the Erebus and Terror wended their            way northward through Davis Strait, the men enjoyed beautiful weather and Fitzjames’ journal takes on a tone of delighted wonderment as he experienced the as-yet-benign splendour of the Arctic.

“23rd. – We had the highest sea I ever saw; it was very fine. I know nothing finer than a gale of wind, particularly when you are running before it. We had a few seas on our decks, one of which found its way down on to our table, just as we had done dinner. I dined at our mess today, Sir John finding his guests could not hold on and eat too. We are packed close, and can’t move very far. But the good humour of every one is perfect; and we do dance before it so finely – I mean before the wind. It rained hard all yesterday and all night; and this morning a glorious sun and a clear blue air, sent us all up to dry ourselves and our clothes.

I am writing this at half-past ten, in broad daylight. Sir John says, that in his voyage to Hudson’s Bay, he passed the very spot we were on yesterday, and was sailing through ice. We have not yet seen ice or land. The sea is beginning to get colder. The air is still at 41 degrees, but today it felt delightfully cold. The monkey has, however, just put on a blanket, frock, and trowsers, which the sailors have made him (or rather her), so I suppose it is getting cold.

Wednesday, 25th. – At one this morning, I was on deck looking at the west coast of Greenland and an iceberg, although the land was forty miles off, and the berg six or eight … The coast of Greenland looks rugged, and sparkling with snow, the shadows and ravines forming deep black marks: we regret not being a little nearer to see it better … The air is delightfully cool and bracing, and everybody is in good humour, either with himself or his neighbours. I have been on deck all day, taking observations. Goodsir is catching the most extraordinary animals in a net, and is in ecstasies. Gore and Des Vouex are over the side, poking with nets and long poles, with cigars in their mouths, and Osmar laughing; he is really an original, and a delightfully dry fellow. I am very sleepy and tired, but did not like to go to bed without writing on the first day on which we have seen Arctic land. Reid says, “We shall soon see the Huskimays” which he says are vulgarly called “Yacks” by the whalers, and “Huskis” for shortness.

26th. – A delightful day we have had; quite calm; hot sun. All sorts of beasts being caught in nets. We take turn to fish with a net at the end of a long pole, and bring up most strange animals. Crozier dined on board, and Hodgson came, looking very ill. We saw several icebergs a long way off, which we hoped would come near us; the scenery and rugged peaks of Greenland twenty miles off.

27th. – Today has been hot and calm and delightful; got bottom in forty fathoms, and pulled up starfish and shells and strange beasts, and, what is better, pulled up plenty of large codfish – enough for a good feed or two for all hands … This morning a brig came close to us, and her skipper came on board – a rough old fellow, from Shetland. He has come to fish for cod on the banks, and for salmon in the “Fiords” – a new scheme quite in these parts. He came to see the little old man who had the wife at Stromness, who had been a mate with him.”

Fitzjames fails to mention that the Baretto Junior became separated from the Erebus and Terror in fog on this day, only to rejoin “a few days later.”

“29th. – I went on board the Terror in the evening, for it was quite calm, and found Hodgson better, When we came on board, we pulled up for Goodsir beasts, star-fish, mud, and shells, from a depth of 250 fathoms, and caught more cod. Last night I remained up till a late hour, trying to read a watch by the light of certain blubbers, remarkable jelly-like fish, which emit a bright phosphorescent light when shaken in a basin. Land in sight, under dense masses of clouds. We have found the transport, and a Danish brig is close to us.

30th. – Today, at six o’clock in the evening, we crossed the Arctic circle, latitude 66 30’, and the sun’s declination happening to be more than 23 10,’ he will not set to us tonight at all. I regret that it is too cloudy to see him at midnight. This evening, sea smooth; no icebergs.”

Although he does not mention it in his journal, we know that sometime during this day one of the forms provided by the Admiralty was tossed overboard in a soldered tin cylinder. Presumably, many of the one thousand forms had been thrown overboard during the Atlantic crossing, however, only this one ever found its way to shore. Written by Commander Fitzjames, and signed by Franklin, it simply reported that the Erebus was then in Latitude 66 North, Longitude 54 20’W, “In Company with HMS Terror and Transport Baretto Junior – Coast of Greenland about 35 miles – All well. A Danish Brig in Company.” The cylinder containing this record was picked up on July 14th, 1849, near Egedesminde, on the west coast of Greenland, about one hundred and fifty miles from where it had been thrown into the sea.

Ten years later, a similar record would be found ashore, which would contain all of the information that would ever be obtained from the ships concerning their eventual fate.

The rough passage across the Atlantic had varying effects on the men’s health. Franklin, who had been suffering from influenza upon his departure, wrote that “coming to sea has entirely removed my cough, and that my health is so good that the officers often exclaim that I am quite a different-looking person since I sailed.”

On the other hand, Fitzjames repeatedly remarked on Lt. Hodgson’s poor health, and Irving wrote home that “the sudden change from summer back to winter has caused us all to suffer from chilblains. Some are so bad that they cannot put on their shoes. I have had my hands much swollen; but they say that in two or three weeks all this will go away.”

Such minor irritations could not dampen Fitzjames’ enthusiasm.

“This morning was damp and foggy, but it cleared away, and we are now sailing with the dark blue land on our right, twenty miles off, relieved by snowy peaks, and a line of craggy icebergs, as far as the eye can reach ahead. In a few hours we shall be among them. 1 have just been up in the crow’s nest, and the appearance of these icy craigs and pinnacles, is beautiful and singular; far in, close to the land, is a perfect glacier, equal to any Swiss one. Still, on we go – on, on – the three of us, though the transport wishes herself back again, no doubt … It is a fine, clear, sunshiny night; the Danish brig is closer in-shore, occasionally hidden from our view by a berg; 180 were in sight at one time.”

As the Erebus and Terror approached the traditional anchorage at Disco Bay, the thoughts of the officers turned towards the task awaiting them. Only after the Baretto Junior was unloaded and the Arctic gear overhauled would they be ready to commence their explorations in earnest.

Sir John commenced organizing his crews and his thoughts for the upcoming challenges.

“There appears less snow on the lower parts of the hills than I had expected to see there. We hope to hear from the Danish commandant at Disco what had been the prevailing winds during the winter and spring, and in what state he supposes the ice to be now to the north and north-west, and where the whalers are. After I had issued such written orders as I thought necessary for the internal discipline and arrangements of the ship, as well as the instructions to the officers respecting the various observations which they would be required to make, and for their general guidance, I devoted myself to the preparation of a code of signals to be used between the Erebus and Terror when amongst the ice … These first duties over, I have employed my time in carefully reading again the voyages of the earlier navigators as given in Barrow’s collection of them … you will conclude, of course, that Parry’s voyages have not been overlooked, nor Ross’s (Sir John, I mean), in this examination … The despatches of Dease and Simpson to the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the letters of Richardson and myself to the Geographical Society and Beaufort, on which Back’s last expedition was based, are also among them; these likewise will be serviceable to me. These readings I consider matters of duty.”

Commander Fitzjames was more concerned with the dangers inherent in closing a poorly-known coast.

“July 2nd. – The weather was so thick, that we could not see when we had gone far enough, but found ourselves in the forenoon right under a dense, black-looking coast topped with snow, with long furrows and ravines of snow, and canopied with a mass of clouds and mist. In bold relief, at the foot of this black mass, the most fantastically formed and perfectly white bergs shone out. This was Disco, and we showed our colours to the Danish flag, hoisted on the house or but of the Governor of the Danish settlement, called Lievely, near its south end. We are now beating up to Whale-fish islands, which are in the bay formed by the south end of Disco and the mainland, where we clear the transport etc., and shall probably be in tomorrow morning early, as we are now (ten p.m.) eighteen miles from them. The scenery is grand, but desolate, beyond expression … Osmar has just come from on deck (midnight), and is dancing with an imaginary skipping-rope. I said to him, ‘What a happy fellow you are, always in good humour,’ His answer is, ‘Well sir, if I am not happy here, I don’t know where else 1 could be.’ ”

It was not to be as easy to find their anchorage as Fitzjames thought.

“July 3rd. – This morning, instead of going into Whale-fish Islands, by some mistake, Reid fancied we were wrong, and away we went up to the end of the bay, thirty miles, to the (mouth of the Waigat Channel, looking for them – the bay full of the most glorious icebergs, packed close along the shore. At noon we found our mistake, and had our sail for nothing, which would be good fun but for the delay. I went on board the Terror in the evening, and found Captain Crozier knew the mistake, but fancied we had given up the idea of going there, Fortunately, the wind favoured us right round the bay, and we had a delightful sail. We are now running into these Whale-fish Islands.

4th, evening, – you will bear in mind that all this time the sun is up. Finding ourselves at last off these rocky islands, we sent Le Vescomte in the gig to reconnoitre, as Captain Crozier, who had been here some years ago, did not recognize the place – a certain flag-staff on a hill having been carried away. Very soon out paddled five “Huskimays”, in the smallest possible canoes, all in a row, and two going ahead kept near the ship, and piloted her into a safe place among the rocks, where we are now moored in a channel just four times the ship’s length in breadth, and perfectly land-locked. I was ashore all day on Boat Island, observing, with “Fox”, and got very wet and cold; but plunging into cold water, when I got on board, made me quite warm.”

Franklin characteristically forgave the mistake of his navigators and made no mention of it in his reports or letters. He was much more interested in the natives, so he invited them on board. He found that “all of them had clean-washed faces and hair neatly combed up” and that they “were cleaner in their dress and persons than those I have before met,” but was less impressed after visiting their huts a few days later, remarking that he would prefer seeing his ship “apart from the odours that surround their residences.”

Franklin engaged two men to take a letter to the Governor at Disco, finding that “one man would not undertake to go across the bay (twenty miles) alone.” The next day he received an answer from the officer in charge (the Governor being absent on leave) that “not understanding English, he had been unable to read my letter.” The presence of an English-speaking boatswain and carpenter to whom he was referred made up for the deficiency.

The seamen of the Erebus and Terror immediately began to transfer the stores from the Baretto Junior. They worked all day Friday and Saturday, but Franklin was not the man to drive his men too hard on the Sabbath after an ocean crossing. Fitzjames described how the men spent their well-earned day off.

“A fine sunshiny night, and we had a delightful sunshiny day, quite warm, the air clear, ice glistening in all directions … Every man nearly on shore, running about for a sort of holiday, getting eider duck’s eggs, etc.; curious mosses and plants being collected, as also shells.”

As the crew exercised on the hills, Mr. Goodsir collected the numerous specimens of flora which sprouted enthusiastically from the barren soil in the short-lived flush of summer. Franklin went on a shopping spree for his ladies, sending Lady Jane a “pair of sealskin boots, made by one of the Esquimaux,” while Eleanor and Sophy received “pockets for holding a watch, also made of sealskin, as specimens of the female work.”

The other officers were busily engaged in drawing, Fitzjames and Gore having executed sketches of the anchorage for Lady Franklin and a framed drawing of the departure of the tugs, which Gore had done previously. Fairholme also sent home a charcoal rendering of the ships engaged in offloading their stores. Franklin was deeply touched by these presents for his wife from his single officers. “ I feel much gratified by the kind feelings of the officers towards you,” he wrote.

The crews worked for 6 days to transfer the stores from the Baretto Junior. Fitzjames wrote, “it was a heavy job, clearing the transport, and took us longer than we imagined it would have done, though we worked from four [a.m.] till six [p.m.]” Lieutenant Griffiths remarked that “the difficulty was not to unload the stores from the transport, but to stow them on board the Erebus and Terror; and when at last the work had been completed the decks of both ships were crowded with casks and coal and their cabins were nearly filled.”

Franklin ensured that while the seamen laboured over the stores, the officers were also fruitfully employed.

“As Parry has described our anchorage, so have we found it to be, a most snug place tor clearing the transport (which is now alongside for that purpose) as well as tor the magnetical and astronomical observations which have very soon commenced, under Crozier and Fitzjames, on the same spot which Parry occupied in 1824. I accompanied Mr. Le Vesconte to the top of the highest land, that we might procure a view of the groups of islands and rocks in this neighbourhood, and take bearings for placing them on the chart. Nothing can be more sterile than these islands are, a mere collection of rocks with a few masses and swamp-loving plants in the watercourses. Mosquitoes, however, are most abundant and of large size. I have not yet heard many complaints made as to their biting.”

As the fourteen-hour workdays dragged on, the crews were undoubtedly eager to be finished and once again on their way. Franklin was in no hurry as “both care and time are requisite to make the best stowage,” remarking that “this necessary delay is favourable for the magnetic and other observations which .. are carrying forward on shore.”

Fitzjames wrote, “Le Vescomte and I on the island since Am this morning, surveying. It is very satisfactory to me that he takes to surveying, as I said he would. Sir John is much pleased with him. All yesterday I was on the island with Fairholme, with the dipping-needle. We have a little square wooden house to cover ourselves. Very large mosquitoes biting us. I shall send you one.”

The natives from nearby Lievely told the explorers that the summer had come exceptionally early. Fitzjames, new to Arctic exploration, rashly theorized that they might reach Asia in one season!

“They believe it to be one of the mildest seasons and earliest summers ever known, and that the ice is clear away from this to Lancaster Sound. Keep this to yourself, for Sir John is naturally very anxious that people in England should not be too sanguine about the season. Besides, the papers would have all sorts of stories, not true. I do believe we have a good chance of getting through this year, if it is to be done at all; but I hope we shall not, as I want to have a winter for magnetic observations … We sail, if possible, tomorrow night, and hope to get to Lancaster Sound by the 1st of August, which, however, is a lottery … Should you hear nothing till next June, send a letter, via Petersburg, to Petro Paulowski, in Kamschatka, where Osmer was in the BLOSSOM, and had letters from England in three months.”

Even Osmer, an Arctic veteran, apparently felt supremely confident, for he told his wife to “expect him home by the autumn of 1846, and, after that he should stay there.”

Franklin was less ready to give way to his enthusiasm, however even he was in high spirits at the prospect of an easy voyage through the “Middle Ice” of Baffin Bay, affording time to transit Lancaster Sound and perhaps reach Cape Walker in short time. He thought that the fine weather “must be favourable for the opening of the ice, “ allowing them to “be quite in time to avail ourselves of any openings Westward of Barrow’s Strait.”

Others of the crew were not so sure. Crozier inexplicably thought that they were “sadly late,” and more significantly, the ice masters were less inclined to make unwarranted assumptions. Blankey’s letter is less prone to groundless optimism.

“The season is a very open one, much such an one as when we came out with Captain Ross. We are all in good health and spirits, one and all appearing to be of the same determination, that is, to persevere in making a passage to the north-west. Should we not be at home in the fall of 1848, or early in the spring of 1849 you may anticipate that we have made the passage, or likely to do so; and if so, it may be from five to six; years, – it might be into the seventh, ere we return; and should it be so, do not allow any person to dishearten you on the length of our absence, but look forward with hope that Providence will at length of time restore us safely to you.”

As the Baretto Junior slowly emptied of stores, the thoughts of the officers and men naturally turned to their loved ones at home, and the last letters were thoughtfully penned. Those that survive deal, as such letters, will, mainly with personal trivialities, but they also show in their unadorned simplicity the characters of their authors.

Irving: “Two years is a long time without any tidings, and perhaps we may be three years at least. Do not give us up if you hear NOTHING … I am very sanguine of succeeding in the object of our expedition. Everything has been done that the latest improvements in the various branches of arts relating to nautical matters could suggest; and every preservation against the climate provided for the health and comfort of the crews … I have every cause to be pleased with my shipmates, and barring the want of all communications, I ought to enjoy myself very much, as everything is new, and after all, there is nothing like variety – at least it is so at sea … We leave with three complete year’s provisions, so, even should we not cast up for so long, you need not think that we have been eating our shoes … We are going to have a school for the men. Our Captain reads prayers on Sundays. We are exempt from many of the temptations of the world, and I hope we shall have grace to find that it has been good for us to have been separated from the world, and that God has been with us in all our wanderings. May we submit ourselves to His pleasure in all things.”

Fairholme: “We have had beautiful weather, the sun shining for twenty four hours and upwards and the mean temperature at about thirty eight degrees. Our appetites are enormous in this sharp weather … Fortnum and Mason have done their part well and we find all their stores of the best description. Our mess is very comfortable … There are two important members of the Expedition who I must not forget to mention, viz Neptune and Jacko. Old Nep has lost much of his unwieldiness since we left and now runs up and down our step ladders with ease. He is the most lovable dog I ever knew and is a very general favourite. I often give him an extra kiss on William’s account [Fairholme’s brother] and he seems to know that it comes from a friend!

The Monkey continues to be the annoyance and pest of the whole ship and yet not a person in her would hurt him for the world. He is a dreadful thief but such a very amusing one that his robberies bring very little sympathy for the unfortunate losers! The Doctor declares that Jacko is in a rapid consumption and he has certainly a very bad cough, but the only other symptom I can see of it, is the rapid consumption of everything eatable that he can lay his paws on!”

Crozier: “We have now a mean draught of 16′ and all our provisions are not on board. I send home our largest cutter … and various other things of weight as I think it better to have the provisions, come what may … What I fear is that, from our being so late, we shall have no time to look around and judge for ourselves but blunder into the ice and make a second 1824 of it … Now I do wish the engine was again on the Dover line and the engineer sitting on top of it, he is a dead and alive wretch full of difficulties and is now quite dissatisfied because he has not the leading stoker to assist him in doing nothing as on board Erebus … If we can do something worthy of the country … it will be an ample reward for all my anxiety and believe me Henry, there will be no lack of them.”

Franklin wrote official reports to the Admiralty about the progress of the journey to date and chatty letters to his principal friends. To Mr. Robert Brown he wrote:

“What I most fear respecting my wife is that, if we do not return at the time she has fixed in her mind, she may become very anxious, and 1 shall in such a case be greatly obliged to my friends to remind her that we may be so circumstanced at the end of the first winter and even of the second as to wish to try some other part in case we have not previously succeeded, and, having abundance of provisions and fuel, we may do that with safety. In order to prevent too great anxiety either on her part or that of my daughter, they should be encouraged not to look for our arrival earnestly till our provisions get short.”

Franklin’s last letter to his wife filled sixteen pages.

“Tuesday, July 8. – I mention this the more particularly that you may not have the slightest apprehension respecting our welfare, though we should have to winter twice; and with respect to this point let me entreat you and Eleanor not to be too anxious, for it is very possible that our prospects of success and the health of our officers and men might justify our passing a second winter in these regions. If we do not succeed in our attempt, we shall try in other places, and through God’s blessing we hope to set the question at rest. Parry, Ross, and Richardson will be the best persons to consult on every occasion that you may feel anxious, each of whom will give you the result of their judgement and experience and advise you in every way …

Saturday, July l2th. – This is another lovely and clear day, which makes me desirous of getting away, which I think we shall do tonight, for both ships are now busy in swinging to obtain the dip and deviation of the compass, which is our last operation in harbour. I have just written the sketch of my official letter to the Admiralty for Mr. Osmer to copy. Fitzjames has seen the draft and approves of it. It is short, and only gives those points the Admiralty wish to receive … Mr. Osmer has begged me to present the kind remembrances of all the officers to you. Be assured that you have their best wishes, and I feel confident of having their cordial co-operation. This observation may also be applied to Crozier and the officers of the Terror, I hope Crozier has written to you, and I have no doubt that he was desirous of doing it. I trust that I have not omitted any point that you wished to be informed upon. If so, exercise your own excellent judgement if it relates to any of our personal matters. This also I particularly wish you to do with regard to my dear Eleanor and Gell, if the latter should come home and get settled before my return. They will both prove blessings and comforts to you and to me. I have written to each of my dearest friends to comfort and assist you with their best counsel. To the Almighty care I commit you and dear Eleanor. I trust He will shield you under His wings and grant the continual aid of His Holy Spirit. Again that God may bless and support you both is and will be the constant prayer of your most affectionate husband.”

After the departure of Lieutenant Griffiths and the Baretto Junior, the Erebus and Terror continued northward along the Greenland coast. It is probable that they passed the Danish settlement of Upernavik on the 19th of July, for Captain Straiton of the Eagle reported seeing two barques in Latitude 72 45’N, longitude 58W on that date.

The next certain knowledge of the ships was an encounter with the whaler Enterprise commanded by Captain Martin. He later submitted a report to the Admiralty.

“Peterhead, 14th November, 1845. Mr. Martin of the whaling-ship Enterprise of Peterhead presents his respectful compliments to Sir John Barrow, and begs to inform him that he fell in with the Discovery ships Erebus and Terror on the 25th of July last, in Latitude 75 12 North, and Longitude 61 6 West, both made fast to an iceberg. Mr. M. spoke to Sir John Franklin and several of his officers all of whom with the crews of both vessels were in excellent health and spirits. From the state of the vessels and everything Mr. M. is of opinion that they reached the West side of Davis Straits by about the middle of August.”

The final contact came the next day when the ships fell in with another whaler, Prince of Wales, commanded by Captain Dannett.

“Melville Bay; July 26th, 1845. – At 8 p.m. received on board ten of the chief officers of the expedition under the command of Captain Sir John Franklin, of the Terror and Erebus. Both ships’ crews are all well, and in remarkable spirits, expecting to finish the operation in good time. They are made fast to a large iceberg, with a temporary observatory fixed upon it. They were in latitude 74 48′, longitude 66 13W.”

Although it can be of no importance, disagreement exists as to whether the dubious honour of being the last to sight the Erebus and Terror belongs to Captain Dannett or to Captain Martin. The latter was interviewed by the “Times” in 1851. At that time, he gave a slightly different statement, saying that “a few days later, on July 26th or 28th, several of Sir John Franklin’s officers visited him” and that “the next day Sir John Franklin sent him an invitation, which he could not accept, to dine on board the Erebus. He lost sight of the Erebus and Terror, which were moored to an iceberg, two days later.”

This version of events is in disagreement with Martin’s original statement that the Erebus and Terror were only “alongside the Enterprise for about 15 minutes.” The elaboration to the press six years after the event was probably mistaken. In another source, the first meeting date is given as the 22nd. The date in his original statement, the 25th, could then be “a few days later” and should be considered more likely.

The log of the Prince of Wales showed that the ships were seen to the west of Martin’s position, and although a two-day eastward drift is not impossible, it is less likely than that Captain Dannett, who never sought publicity, was the last to see the ships.

Lieutenant Griffiths submitted his report to John Barrow upon his return.

“The two ships were perfectly) crammed, and were very deep, drawing seventeen feet. I felt quite low-spirited an leaving Sir John and his officers – better fellows never breathed. They were all in the highest possible spirits, and determined on succeeding if success were possible. I have very great hopes, knowing their capabilities, having witnessed their arrangements, and the spirit by which they are actuated – a set of more undaunted fellows never were got together, or officers better selected. Never were ships more appropriately fitted or better adapted for the arduous service they have to perform. Yes, indeed, certain I am if there be a passage, and that icy barriers will be only sufficiently propitious to give them but half the length of their ship, force themselves through they will at all risks and hazard. God speed them and send them back by Bering’s Strait to their native England, covered with imperishable fame.”

A three hundred mile gap, two stout ships, enthusiastic and skillful crews, who could predict disaster? In the end they would find the Northwest Passage, they would force their vessels into almost impenetrable barriers, and they would gain “imperishable fame”. But they would never return home. As the Erebus and Terror disappeared into the ice their history ended and their mystery began.


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