Taissumani, Oct. 5
“So Hazardous and Useless a Proceeding”
The search for the missing ships of Sir John Franklin was very much in the news this summer. Parks Canada continued its multi-year efforts to find the Erebus and Terror, and their project was covered extensively by the national media. The results, many would say, were predictable — a few fragments of evidence found on land, which pointed to the fact that someone had been there a century and a half earlier, but no trace of the elusive ships.
Somehow, this was portrayed in the media as a success, the money well spent, the results encouraging. Be forewarned — this sets the stage for more of the same next year.
Given the media’s uncritical coverage of the summer’s search, I thought it would be fun to look at very different coverage of a proposed search for Franklin and his crew, written over 150 years ago.
Eleven years after Franklin left England, never to return, and after a series of expeditions had already been carried out without finding the lost gentleman or his ships, a naval officer with the daunting name of Bedford Clapperton Pim proposed yet another search.
The Times of London weighed in on the subject in a most critical manner:
“Another expedition in search of Sir John Franklin is now meditated, and while it is yet time we would invoke the aid of public opinion to put a stop at once to so outrageous a proceeding.
“We cannot, of course, prevent individuals from doing whatever they may please. If a party of gentlemen choose to sail a brig to the centre of the Atlantic, and there agree to scuttle her, and go down in a friendly manner together, who shall stop them?
“We do, however, most vehemently protest against the extension of any assistance from the public funds, or from the public establishments, to so preposterous a scheme as another expedition in search of Sir John Franklin’s relics. The proposition was again brought forward on Monday evening at a meeting of the Geographical Society. Lieutenant Pim on that occasion read his outline of a ‘Plan for a further search after the missing expedition under Sir John Franklin.’
“Nothing, of course, can be made to appear more simple on paper, or more easy of accomplishment, than such a design. If we had lost all recollection of former years and former expeditions of the like kind, we might almost be tempted to add faith to the words of the speaker or of the writer. We cannot, however, but remember that just the same kind of thing was said or written years ago as each fresh expedition was planned and in due course despatched to the frost region. Nothing was more easy than to sail to the extreme eastern point of that great inlet in which Franklin had disappeared, or up this sound to the northward, or that arm of the sea to the southward, or round by Behring’s Straits, or in any of half-a-dozen directions.
“Most of these suggestions were followed, and we know what came of it. Some of the expeditionary ships were seized in fields of ice, and hurled back on the rocky coast. Others for a long time were lost to human knowledge. Ship was despatched after ship, and expedition after expedition, until, finally, by a miracle almost, the crews of the vessels were withdrawn, the vessels themselves being abandoned, jammed hard and firm in the ice.
“It is not our business in the course of these few remarks to discuss any results that have arisen from these exertions and sacrifices, save two. In the first place, Franklin and his unfortunate companions are dead long since. That much we know from the relics which Dr. Rae brought home. And, secondly, bitter experience has told us that these ice-expeditions, however speciously they may be introduced to public notice, invariably terminate in the most terrible anxieties, and in disappointment which may well be looked on as complete when we compare the results realized with the expectations formed and the promises held out.
“We are really so sick of the subject that we do not care to follow Lieutenant Pim and Sir Roderick Murchison into their discussions as to the best method of reaching the spot where some of Franklin’s relics may still be found.”
The Times went on to note that Lady Franklin, widow of the lost explorer, would send out an expedition of her own if the government failed to send one. They thought this a poor idea, writing, “We trust Lady Franklin may be better advised, but, of course, it is not within our province to make any remark upon the proceedings of private persons.”
They suggested, though, that if scientists wanted another expedition, “let them man the ships in their own proper persons, and prove that they do not shrink from the perils to which they would expose others.”
Their conclusion was harsh, but one which taxpayers of today might welcome: “The present Government, or any Government, will be most deeply to blame if they give any kind of encouragement to so hazardous and useless a proceeding.”