The History of England

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John Franklin. The explorer of the north-west passage

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John Franklin. The explorer of the north-west passageJohn Franklin was born on April 16, 1786; he was the ninth child in his family. The Franklins had once been rich, but John’s grandfather had left his widow practically without money and John’s father, to support himself, was apprenticed to a small shop in Lincoln, where later he started his own business.

John’s parents decided to educate him for the church. They sent him, at the age of ten, to a private school, but soon took him back home and sent him to the Grammar School at Louth where, later, the poet Tennyson also became a pupil.

After his twelfth birthday, John spent a day on the Lincolnshire coast with his schoolfriends. He had never seen the sea before, and the ships thrilled him. So when next he saw his father he asked to be allowed to join the navy. Mr. Franklin did not like the idea for his son, but John stood his ground and his father sent him to Lisbon aboard a merchantman. He hoped that if John experienced some of the difficulties of a seafaring life he might change his mind. However John enjoyed every minute of the cruise, and his father understood that it was useless to resist him any more.

In the autumn of 1800 John Franklin—by now a boy of fourteen—left school and was taken to London by his eldest brother to buy his uniform. In October he left London to join his ship at Yarmouth.

A Voyage to Australia

Franklin’s uncle, a captain, who in 1796—1798 had accompanied George Bass in his disco­very of the Bass Strait between Australia and Tasmania- had been commissioned by the Admiralty to survey the coasts of Australia and to extend the work done by captain Cook. John Franklin persuaded his uncle to accept him as one of his midshipmen.

The expedition set off on the Investigator on July 7, 1801. On this voyage Franklin continued to study naviga­tion and astronomy.

By the summer of 1802 the expedition had surveyed the southern coast of Australia and had reached Port Jackson, the harbour for Sydney. They were thus six miles to the north of Botany Bay where captain Cook had first set foot on Australian soil thirty-two years before. They set up an observatory at Sydney and studied the findings of the pre­vious few months. Then they continued their survey up the eastern coast. As they passed through the Torres Strait they discovered that the Investigator was beginning to take in water and had to he repaired immediately. They had a lot of difficulties of the way back to Port Jackson, which, though about 800 miles away, was their nearest port.

When they reached Port Jackson they were told the In­vestigator could not be repaired. So they had to take another ship, the Porpoise in which they resumed their journey.

Again they ran into trouble in the Torres Strait: the Porpoise struck a reef, and they had to spend several weeks on a small island, 200 miles from the mainland.

The expedition to Australia played an important part in Franklin’s life. It gave Franklin a permanent interest in exploration.

After his return from Australia, Franklin took part in the famous Battle of Trafalgar. At that time he was still in his teens.

Exploration in the Arctic

Early in 1818 Franklin was invited to sail on another voyage of exploration, this time to the Arctic, and in command of a ship. The aim of the new ex­pedition was to explore the unknown north and north-west coasts of America and to try to open a shipping route from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. As part of this operation an attempt was also to be made to reach the North Pole. Four ships were to sail in pairs by different routes.

Franklin was chosen for the Spitsbergen route and was given command of a 25-ton brig, the Trent. But the expe­dition was not a success and the two ships got back to England only with great difficulty.

The following year the Admiralty asked Franklin to lead another Arctic expedition. This time Franklin was asked to make part of his journey overland and to explore from the west instead of from the east. The expedition occupied Franklin for nearly three years, and during that time he and his nine comrades endured terrible hardships.

They reached their starting point on Hudson Bay on August 30, 1819. As soon as everything was ready, the ex­plorers began a long 700-mile journey across Manitoba to the Saskatchewan River where, they had been told, supplies and a small group of native porters would be awating them. Franklin was nearly drowned at this stage of the journey.

When the explorers arrived at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River they found neither supplies nor natives awaiting them. So they went to a trading-post on Lake Athabaska from which Alexander Mackenzie had set out in 1789 to cross the Rocky Mountains. It was winter by then, and the lakes and rivers were frozen; so Franklin left seven members of the group at Cumberland House with the instructions to follow in the boat as soon as the rivers were free of ice again. He himself set out on dog-sleds accompa­nied by two seamen. The weather was so cold, he said after­wards, that “the mercury froze in our thermometer, and the tea in our teapot before we drank it”. They reached their destination safely on March 26, 1820.

It took the explorers over a year to reach the mouth of the Coppermine. Food supplies ran short; the weather was often so bad that they had to build log-cabins and live in them for weeks; and their journey was difficult because there was no one river which they could follow from begin­ning to end. They had to carry both their boat and their supplies for 150 miles. At last they reached the mouth of the Coppermine in the spring of 1821.

They began the next stage of their journey, the explo­ration of the coast, on July 21, 1821. They used canoes which belonged to a group of American Indian natives who accompanied them. The going had become harder than ever. Franklin got to only a little beyond the 110th longitude before he was forced back by bad weather conditions and food shortage. But he explored the coast as far as he went very carefully and gathered much information.

His return journey to Hudson Bay was even worse than the outward journey had been. The explorers lost their ca­noes and had to make rafts. Their food supplies gave out, and they ate the decayed carcasses of animals that had been dead for months. Their clothes froze to their bodies; and the men became so weak and exhausted that they fell With nearly every step. Some of the natives and both of the seamen died.

When Franklin arrived back in England in October 1822 he said that his experiences had showed him one thing: that there was a North-West Passage and it could be disco­vered. He said he wanted to make another attempt to find it.

A New Attempt

John Franklin, after his return to England, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He went to live in London with his family which he loved very much, but he could not stay at home for long. Franklin’s mind was soon on his next expedition.

In February 1825, Franklin set out for the third time to explore the Arctic. This time his plan was not so great, he wanted to explore carefully the coastline to the west of the section which he had explored already: that is, the terri­tory between the Coppermine River and Bering Strait.

Franklin’s plan was adopted by the Admiralty; and he prepared to begin his new expedition. He said good-bye to his small daughter and his wife, who was very ill.

When the party arrived at Lake Huron in April Franklin received news that his wife had died six days after his departure from England. He did not show his great distress to his companions.

The party reached the sea on August 14 and landed on a small island off the coast. As winter was then coming, Franklin decided not to begin the exploration of the coast itself until the following spring or summer. So they returned inland to set up winter quarters by the Great Bear Lake, quarters which his companions called Fort Franklin.

The explorers left their winter quarters the following June. They divided into two sections in the delta of the Mackenzie. Franklin led his party down a westerly fork.

The journey along the coast was by no means as easy as the journey overland. Icebergs, strong winds, and fogs— all of them were too bad for the time of the year—delayed the party daily, and the boats were badly damaged by ice. The party did not join a naval force which was waiting for it and turned back. Franklin did not know that they were only 160 miles away from it because he misjudged the distance he had come.

Franklin had failed again but, in fact, his expedition had collected very important information. The party had explored 374 miles of coastline in the direction of Bering Strait.

The Search for the Passage Continues

In 1843 the Admiralty planned yet another Arctic expedition in search of the North-West Passage. When Franklin learned about it he immediately applied for the post of the leader.

“But you are sixty,” said the First Lord of the Admiral­ty. “No, no,—only fifty-nine,” Franklin answered. And he said that he still felt young enough to make another voyage.

This was the largest and best equipped expedition that John Franklin led. His two ships, the Terror and the Ere­bus, were the first steamships in the Arctic. They carried about 130 officers and men and were equipped with every modern nautical appliance then known, together with food provisions for three years.

The Terror and the Erebus sailed on May 18, 1845 and by July 26 they had reached the entrance to Lancaster Sound, where they were seen by a whaler. A fair wind then carried them westwards into the unknown sound—and they were never seen again.

Nearly fifty search parties set out from both England and America to trace them.

In 1850 a number of meat canisters were discovered on Beechey Island, which led to the belief that they had spent their first winter on that island. Then, in 1854, some Eski­mos said that, four years before, they had seen a party of white men dragging a boat over the ice by King William Island. They showed some silver spoons which they had taken from the boat when, later, they had found it abandon­ed. The spoons belonged to Franklin.

Another expedition, after searching for nearly two years, discovered a boat, skeletons, nautical instruments and some books on King William Island. Then a metal container was discovered and several dirty sheets of paper in it. One of them was headed: Finder, please, deliver to the Admiralty. The paper said that the explorers, after entering Barrow Strait, had turned northwards up Wellington Channel, had spent the winter of 1845—1846 on Beechey Island, and had then returned to Barrow Strait down the western side of Cornwallis Island. During 1846 they had sailed to within twelve miles of the north of King William Island, but there they had been finally halted by ice. The ships the Terror and the Erebus were deserted on April 22 and another note said: “Sir John Franklin died on June 11, 1847 …” The paper gave no more news.

The full story of John Franklin’s last expedition will never be known. But when the various search parties had assembled their bits of information and it became known how far John Franklin had sailed, he was recognized as the first discoverer of the North-West Passage. Later a monu­ment was erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey. It bears an inscription that John Franklin perished while discovering the North-West Passage.

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