Bones of Empire: Cook and Franklin Reaching to Alaska for a Northwest Passage (II)

Sir John Barrow. John Jackson [ca 1825]. After spending his early adult years in China and South Africa, Barrow was appointed secretary to the Admiralty in 1804, a post he held for forty years. He was a great promoter of the Arctic voyages that searched for the Northwest Passage in northern Canada, including those of John Ross, William Edward Parry, James Clark Ross, and John Franklin. Barrow Strait in the Canadian Arctic and Point Barrcw in Alaska are named for him. National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 886.


But those Britons who were not themselves living beyond the United Kingdom, or who did not have loved ones living abroad, paid little attention to imperial affairs. It fell upon Barrow, who was doubtless prodded until he died in 1820 by famed naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, to reply to questions from editor Douglas to plan the British Navy's subsequent eighteenth-century exploration of the Pacific's Northwest Coast, particularly the intricate coastline of Southeast Alaska. Barrow even planned "against all logic" the first post-Napoleonic voyages by the British Navy to Spitsbergen and Baffin Bay in search of an open polar sea and a passage, attempting to reach the long-sought passageway from the Atlantic, to assail the ice until the passage yielded itself up.





Erebus and Terror, Sir John Franklin's expedition. Edward William Cooke [ca. 1850]. Franklin's expedition was meant to traverse the part of northern Canada's Northwest Passage that had not yet been navigated. He was a Royal Navy officer and experienced explorer, having served on three previous Arctic expeditions. Leaving England in 1845 aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the expedition became icebound in the Canadian Arctic. Cooke was an accomplished maritime artist and engraver who drew an imagined scene of Franklin’s predicament. The entire expedition of 129 men, including Franklin, was lost by 148, although a massive British and American search for the expedition continued for many years. Pictures and Manuscripts Branch, National Library of Australia, NIC7402.


He had, however, already gained some momentum from the abolitionist movement of the late eighteenth century, as the anti-slavery advocates spoke to the great preoccupation of Britons at home, over 90 percent of whom were worshipping Christians. Imperial activity and Christianity collided with Parliament's passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, but they came together in the belief that God had ordained Britain to fulfil the Great Commission by taking the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. In so doing, the Church Missionary Society sent its first missionaries abroad in 1815, and that initiative represented a design by Britain to take up the Great Commission just as Napoleon met his defeat at Waterloo. "Such perceptions of a national mission and providential purpose continued throughout the nineteenth century."

Britannia's rule of the waves and this providential role for the empire grew inextricably linked with the naval victory by Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Nile in August 1798. Nelson had begun his career on an Arctic voyage that sailed beyond Spitsbergen before being repelled by ice at the same time as Cook searched Antarctica during his second voyage.

Although Nelson died in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, his defeat of Napoleon's navy "led to the freeing of the Holy Land from Napoleon's army," which was taken as "evidence of Britain's providential purpose, . . . linking Britain's imperial expansion with the biblical language of the Promised Land. It was in 1804 that William Blake penned his celebrated poem 'Jerusalem', with its conception of England as the new Israel." Fulfilling the Great Commission understandably could be aligned with opening a shorter way from the imperial center to the homes of the heathen who stood in need of hearing about personal salvation.

Although Barrow published many articles about the exploration of the Arctic, he is perhaps best remembered for two volumes, published twenty-eight years apart, that bookended the British Navy's search for a northwest passage in his lifetime. In 1818, A Chronological History of Voyages into the Arctic Region provided mariners of his age with a well-researched compendium of all prior efforts to discover northeast, northwest, or polar passages. It was in this book's last chapter that he launched his campaign, identifying a passage as "almost the only interesting discovery that remains to be made in geography." He was certain the Arctic was porous, pervious, penetrable, and permeable—an impediment to the dream of an aspiring empire for a shortcut to the Orient but not one impossible to vanquish. Once discovered, a passage would, beyond any other geographical assistance, help Britain constellate its power and riches. Ever since Martin Frobisher brought two hundred tons of rocks home from Baffin Island in the sixteenth century, British faithful turned it from Terra nullius into the next El Dorado, a myth that even Cook was unable to resist.

In his sequel, Voyages of Discovery and Research within the Arctic Regions (1846), Barrow recounted the campaign launched by the Royal Navy to discover a northwest passage after the defeat of Napoleon, when the supply of able officers and seamen quickly became a surplus that needed putting to use or disbanding. Before this opportunity fell into his lap, Barrow had already decided that a passage must exist. By uniting national honor with the unexamined righteousness of scientific curiosity and the magnanimity of British diplomacy, Barrow forged a triumphal rhetorical dynamo for the promotion of his darling projects that only a full-blown catastrophe such as the disappearance of an entire expedition could effectively show was flawed and perilous. Thereby, overbearing hubris displaced faith in the Royal Navy's forty years' effort to discover the secret of the Arctic, but it did so even as it remained bound up in the enchantment of the Great Commission being Britain's commission, and perhaps even of God being an Englishman.

Barrow went to his grave with the passage unsailed and the fate unknown of the voyage he sent off under Franklin's command in 1845. Without the benefit of his pen, the whole world would learn the horrible outcome. Only a very few words survived to adumbrate the annihilation of Franklin and his 129 fellow explorers. Written on a standard naval form first dated May 24, 1847, and subsequently dated April 25, 1848, the crew initially announced that, although HMS Erebus and Terror were beset in ice, the expedition was "all well." But just one year later, an officer wrote that the ships were deserted and an alarming number—"9 officers & 15 Men"— had perished, Franklin among them, and that the remainder were setting out by foot in search of salvation, which they never found. A decade after they were written, those words were found in a tin cylinder, the rust of which had stained the paper, in a cairn on the barren west coast of Qikiqtaq/King William Island in a period of constant blizzards. The Admiralty sent several recovery operations in the late 1840s and early 1.850s. The one that found the words in a cairn comprised a salvage expedition commanded by Captain Francis Leopold McClintock, who remarked that "a sad tale was never told in fewer words." In the absence of an explorer on his home-ward voyage, there stood in for him—for his flesh, his blood, his bones—only 180 words, including names, dates, and readings of longitude and latitude, aching to narrate in compressed form all that had occurred.

Of course, the Inuit had many words but, not being written, they would not have counted for Barrow had he lived to hear them. They would have held meaning but not significance. Meanwhile, like Douglas before him, Barrow controlled the navy's output of official narratives. He put flesh on the bones of empire by writing voluminously, if not editing individual volumes as assiduously as Douglas. Moreover, he enjoyed a sparkling working relationship with the publishing house that issued not just most of the books by nineteenth-century Royal Navy explorers of the Arctic (most of them as sumptuous, well-engraved quartos), but also the Quarterly Review, a periodical in which Barrow anonymously reviewed his officers' volumes as they appeared, sometimes even quoting himself, thereby advancing his cause.

But Barrow's faith came from reliance on knowledge, especially scientific and geographical knowledge, the keys to national honor, individual fame, and navigational success in high latitudes. When, therefore, he assigned praise or blame to explorers, Barrow tended to judge their character in terms of their willingness to affirm the existence of a passage, and of either their expertise or ignorance in the use of various instruments of mensuration or their narratives' efforts or failures to explain the results observed or obtained. For example, instead of denying the existence of the phantom Greek explorer Juan de Fuca, Barrow contributed to the allure attached to his name of a supposed waterway from the Pacific to the Atlantic, today's Strait of Juan de Fuca, a 100-mile-long waterway that washes the south shore of Vancouver Island and the north shore of the state of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Fuca made nautical mistakes, Barrow granted, but in 1592 "instruments were imperfect, and theory had made but little progress." By contrast, he disparaged the work of Canon Douglas for discounting the account of Fuca as "the fabric of imposture." "He committed an act of great injustice to the memory of the old pilot," fumed Barrow, before dilating on that injustice and despite later referring to Douglas as "a learned writer" of the official narratives of Cook's second and third voyages to the Pacific.'

By the next decade, instrumentation had apparently made great advances, for Barrow offered only showers of praise for Henry Hudson, who sailed on his first Arctic voyage in 1607: "an experienced and intrepid seaman, well skilled in the theory as well as the practice of navigation, and in the use of nautical instruments . . . he is the first of the northern navigators, and probably the first Englishman, who made observations on the inclination or dip of the magnetic needle." Mutinied against by Henry Greene, Hudson and six others were set adrift by the mutineers. He comes across as a spotless martyr to the cause. The fact that he disappeared somewhere in lower Hudson Bay—a dead end as far as a northwest passage is concerned—is not Barrow's concern.

Hudson's disappearance was not to be the last of a British explorer of the Arctic. Barrow was centrally involved in appointing to command of the great expedition of 1845 a fifty-eight-year-old (fifty-nine by the time HMS Erebus and Terror set sail from Greenhithe on May 19) that was meant to show, by dint of finally discovering the Northwest Passage, that the time had at last come to display British supremacy over all the waves, including the frozen ones. In the meantime, however, a few other events had played a role in Barrow's project. One for the perpetrator of which he arranged a brisk dismissal was the conclusion reached by Captain John Ross, who had sailed into Baffin Bay in 1818 and hastily retreated back out of it after mistakenly observing that it, like Hudson Bay, was a dead end. Ross had even named what he perceived to be a mountain range. The very next summer, William Edward Parry who had been with Ross and who doubted the existence of mountains, found open water. He was given command by Barrow of two ships and sailed through Lancaster Sound almost effortlessly during an unusually ice-free summer, cruising west along a strait that he named after—who else?—Barrow as far as Melville Island.

This was a triumph. Reaching past 110°W longitude, the expedition garnered a £5,000 prize. In one fell swoop, Parry had added well over six hundred miles to the world's map. Even if he did not yet appreciate that he had entered into a maze, the world's second largest archipelago (after Indonesia), how could he not be full of hope? His ships were beset in Winter Harbour at roughly the mid-point between the west coast of Greenland and Bering Strait. Irony would have been the last tone anyone could conceive of adopting to greet this triumph, and yet time would heap irony on it, for no westbound ship managed to sail farther throughout the nineteenth century than Parry had on the very first voyage past Baffin Bay.

On his first land expedition to the Arctic, Lieutenant John Franklin bestowed the name of Fort Enterprise on his wintering shacks north of Great Slave Lake on what he would name Winter River and Winter Lake one winter after Parry was beset in the ice of what he had named Winter Harbour, ten degrees of latitude farther north. It is no wonder. "Enterprise" for Empire confirms Barrow's relentlessly voiced optimism, a geographical climax for nineteenth-century voyages into the passage from the Atlantic Ocean. Winter Harbour was a sort of Cape of Good Hope, marking the turning point of a darling project for a quick, efficient, consummate discovery, one that paid tribute to Britain's storied list of master mariners, Cook and Vancouver particularly. Alaska seemed almost in view.

Thereafter, and despite the best efforts of Barrow and publisher Murray, no voyage came close to sailing a passage, and disaster threatened or inflicted itself sufficiently often to render Parry's first voyage nearly a waking dream in retrospect. Franklin lost eleven of twenty men on his expedition in the same years. In his next three voyages north, Parry ran out of water, aqueous or gelid, in Foxe Basin, lost one of his ships, which ice unceremoniously heaved ashore in Prince Regent Inlet, and went faster south on drifting pack ice than north while trying to reach the North Pole by sledge. The next explorers to reach his Winter Harbour had sailed through Bering Strait and along the Alaska Coast, lost their ship in Mercy Bay, Banks Island, and walked across McClure Strait from the west to reach that point on Melville Island. The passage was conquered in a most pedestrian, inglorious manner.

Between 1848 and 1858, the British Admiralty sent out thirty-two ships in search of the lost Franklin voyage of 1845. Most returned empty-handed but flung words at the passage as compensation and consolation. Barrow, who had learned from Douglas, had trained the reading public and naval officers alike in the by then tried and true formula: if at first you don't succeed, robustly defend national and institutional honor and redeem failure and disaster by publishing a costly, amply engraved (and not with mere lithographs) quarto, full of narrative and scientific appendices, as well as images prepared by top engravers. Publisher Murray continued the policy after the demise of his friend Barrow.

The passage existed; only ice got in the way of sailing it and rendering Cook's "needless, pointless, stupid death" all the more worthy of honor. But, as he lay dying, Barrow could not have imagined the utter vanishing of Franklin's fourth venture north, could not have imagined that Franklin had pre-deceased him. He also could not have imagined that the only words that would survive the voyage of HMS Erebus and Terror would sound full of hope--"all well"—one year and, as McClintock noted, almost hopeless—ships "deserted," Franklin dead, loss by death of more than two dozen—the next. Nor could Barrow have imagined the imputation of cannibalism. That was as unthinkable as Cook's having permitted himself to be worshipped by Hawaiians. But Hudson's Bay Company Chief Factor John Rae not only met Inuit who recounted the story of kabloona who had eaten each other on King William Island, but also wielded words so ably that he vanquished the illustrious novelist, Charles Dickens, who opposed him in his own weekly periodical.

The nightmare was full-blown. There did not exist words and images sufficient to provide a cover-up, as Cook's inclination to be worshipped or his impetuous, angry rush ashore to take hostages until his cutter was returned would be successfully covered up (or perhaps only drowned by waves of grief followed by ones of adulation). Words did not redeem the empire in Victorian times. No books supplied the antidote. Not only were the bones laid bare, the flesh had been stripped from them, and Dickens could not successfully play Douglas or Barrow in their stead. Britain bled. In the 1850s, the empire bled over Crimea and the charge of the Light Brigade. It bled over the Indian Mutiny. It bled over the Arctic.

Rae's report of eyewitness testimony was the death knell, but the most telling words in the tale of the bones of empire go less to the oft-quoted tribute from1866—"they forged the last link with their lives"—than to an image, painted by Edwin Landseer two years before. Why Thomas Holloway would have purchased Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) for his college for women is anyone's guess, but surely eating some humble imperial pie had something to do with it. Landseer's work focuses the mind on the tearing apart of the agents of empire, subtly but still highly suggestively letting polar bears stand in for desperate mariners. Sea horses at the western end; polar bears near the eastern. When He disposed, God dissented.

Among the objects that McClintock's expedition had located near the skeletons on King William Island was a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) by Oliver Goldsmith, a romance novel with a happy ending. The imperialists ought to have been reading Frankenstein (1818), which Mary Shelley published anonymously by the time Ross sailed in search of a passage out of Baffin Bay, full of words that anticipate how the hubris and overweening ambition of an individual's darling project to find the imagined passageway—Cook at the dinner table in 1776, unable to resist the temptation of a third voyage; Barrow at his writing desk hardly fifty years later, shaping a dream to find the passage over the top of Canada and Alaska—both of which end, like Prometheus, in death. It seems the Empire wore no clothes; its agents, Cook and Franklin, forged the last link with their bones. And the bones, whether bodies or books, embracing Britain's lurid and dubious search for the illusory passage, still rattle.