Saturday, December 29, 2012

Owen Beattie Makes Everyone Green

Green with envy, that is! At least, that's the theme of a Forward Prize-winning poem by UK poet and novelist Sheenagh Pugh. The poem appears in her anthology Stonelight, an eclectic collection that encompasses themes ranging from Arctic exploration to a tutor's urgings. "Envying Owen Beattie" is perhaps the least conventional in its message; as the title implies, Pugh yearns to be a part of the exhumations that unearthed Petty Officer John Torrington.

While I do not want to quote Pugh's poem directly (I did not request her permission to do that), I can tell readers of this blog that the piece is unabashedly honest. Pugh walks the reader through the emotional steps of the exhumation process via a series of tercets. The last four become very personal as Pugh contemplates bestowing a kiss upon the well-preserved body in an attempt to reawaken the young man who does not appear to be entirely deceased. Poetry on the Franklin Expedition abounds, but I know of no other poem that expresses such sentiments for a crewman.

Yet, just who was John Torrington? We know him as the chief stoker on board H.M.S. Terror. From what I've read, I know that he was new to the Royal Navy, a first entry. He was from Manchester, and his mother died in childbirth. By today's standards, he possessed very short stature. This is a frustrating paucity of information on a man who has oddly (and unwittingly) become the face of the Franklin Expedition.

Stonelight also contains poems about the geography and other explorers of the Arctic, including a rousing one about Elisha Kent Kane. Copies occasionally appear on eBay, and they are usually inexpensive.

January 1st will mark the 167th anniversary of John Shaw Torrington's passing. Let us take a moment to remember him and his comrades through poetry, prayer, or a few reverent thoughts. Doing so just might bring old John back to life....

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sir John and the Prince of Mountaineers

On the subject of mountaineering, I would like to mention another brave soul with a far more relevant connection to the Franklin Expedition: Edward Whymper. Dubbed "the Prince of Mountaineers" for his incredibly ambitious ascents (many of them firsts) of Alpine peaks, Whymper fared much better on the icy slopes than Maurice Wilson. He was also a man of great accomplishments, some of which may have been inspired by "Franklin and his gallant crew."

As a young man growing up in the 1850s, Whymper was immersed in the news of the futile searches for Franklin's lost Arctic expedition. His diary from his youth, edited by Ian Smith and published as The Apprenticeship of a Mountaineer: Edward Whymper's London Diary, is surprisingly laconic for a man of great aspirations, but he devoted at least a few sentences to his interest in the fate of Franklin. His family owned a successful wood engraving business, and young Edward made at least one Franklin-related image. Ian Smith, who is himself a mountaineer, recently authored an authoritative biography of Whymper, Shadow of the Matterhorn, that features an image of his print of a foundering HMS Terror on page 123. Whymper was undeniably a talented artist.

Smith, who is admirably thorough, mentions a few Whymper-Franklin connections, including Edward's association with Clements Markham, formerly a lieutenant on HMS Assistance, and his ownership of one of McClintock's sledges. Perhaps not too surprisingly, Whymper made plans to explore the Arctic himself, with the intent of penetrating remote regions of Greenland. He mentioned reading Elisha Kent Kane's account of the second Grinnell expedition in one of his London diary entries. Dr. Kane's words left such a lasting impression on Whymper that he decided to venture into those frozen wastes over a decade later.

I thoroughly recommend that readers of this blog get a read of both of Smith's books. Whymper is just one of probably many noteworthy figures who were inspired by the Franklin Expedition. In Whymper's case, the inspiration took him to great heights and secured his position as a formidable mountaineer and man of science.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Curious Parallel

It is worth mentioning that some Franklin Expedition fanatics are also interested in the history of mountaineering. This is not too surprising; the perils and stark beauty of the polar regions are quite comparable to the frigid and breathtaking heights of the world's loftiest peaks. Both are witnesses to exhilarating feats of survival as well as horrendous tragedies. The eccentric (some might say "insane") women and men who brave the high latitudes also sometimes have a lot in common with their counterparts who tackle the high altitudes. I would like to address one similarity, perhaps just a coincidence, that is simply too strange to ignore.

David Woodman has very effectively captured the suffering that can transpire in extreme regions of the globe. His careful analyses of the Inuit testimony in Unravelling the Franklin Expedition reveal the horrors Franklin's officers and men had to endure. This literal trial by ice was not only physical, but mental. I can't help but think (and I'm not alone) that the combined effects of illness, lead poisoning, vicious weather, and starvation resulted in madness in at least some of those poor men. One curious particular might help to reinforce this sentiment: the well-preserved body found by Ogzeuckjeuwock and his mother Tooktoocheer, perhaps at Nuvertaro. The body of this Kabloona was "positively festooned with jewelry" (page 147). Woodman infers that this man might have been the last of his group to die. When Ogzeuckjeuwock "pulled the chain [hanging about the waist] it pulled the head up by the ears"--a macabre and puzzling detail. These two stood firm on their testimony, refusing to be told that they were perhaps mistaken. One wonders just what was going on inside that poor man's head that compelled him to embellish himself in such a fashion.

So, what does this have to do with mountaineering? Well, while reading the book Mountain Men: A History of the Remarkable Climbers and Determined Eccentrics Who First Scaled the World's Most Famous Peaks by Mick Conefrey and Tim Jordan, I came across a curious detail about the body of eccentric Maurice Wilson. Anyone familiar with Mt. Everest has probably heard of Wilson; those who have not will find a succinct article about him HERE. When Wilson's body was found on Everest's North Col, it was purportedly "festooned in women's handkerchiefs" (page 159). Conefrey and Jordan even used the same verb ("festooned")! Wilson was odd to begin with, but did the extreme conditions drive him to madness? Was it just a rumor generated by mistaken witnesses? Any conclusion is elusive.

The Arctic and the Himalayas are breathtaking places, but quite a few poor souls have taken their last breaths amid the cruel beauty. We will never know the full stories behind the cryptic behaviors of Maurice Wilson and the man found by Ogzeuckjeuwock and Tooktoocheer. All we can do is hope that they are at peace now, liberated from the torments of ostensible insanity.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Upon the China Station

The First Opium War, known more formally as the First Anglo-Chinese War, began in 1839 when relations between China and Great Britain deteriorated, largely due to massive quantities of British opium flooding the Chinese trade market. I will not elaborate on the moral implications and deleterious effects of this conflict (Wikipedia does an adequate job of that); rather, I would like to briefly mention the roles of several Royal Navy Men who would later become linked in a desperate fight for their survival in the Canadian Arctic.

HMS Volage was a 28-gun sixth rate ship that saw action during the early stages of the war. Young Thomas Hartnell, Able Seaman, served on her from January 1838 to May 1841 and was probably present during the First Battle of Chuenpee. This was an easy victory for the more maneuverable and heavily armed British ships. Thomas' older brother, John, joined the Volage in mid-September 1841, after Tom had already transferred to HMS Tortoise. One of Tom Hartnell's superior officers on the Volage was 1st Lt. Graham Gore; the two would later serve together on HMS Erebus on the last Franklin Expedition. The article "The Men who Sailed with Franklin" by Ralph Lloyd-Jones is an excellent source for the dates of service for Franklin's ratings.

Another young lieutenant (or "luff" in nautical parlance) who saw active service in the First Opium War was Henry T.D. Le Vesconte, who was appointed Mate of HMS Calliope, a ship very similar to the Volage. The Calliope was present at a number of key engagements, and even carried most of the Canton ransom money. After the war's end in 1842 (a victory for the British), Le Vesconte joined James Fitzjames on HMS Clio. William Battersby cleverly identified Fitzjames in the painting "The Signing of the Treaty of Nanking". Le Vesconte is also somewhere in this painting, perhaps standing  adjacent to his friend Fitzjames. Here is an image of that painting.

Readers will find an excellent summary of the First Anglo-Chinese War and its participants in Battersby's exquisite book James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition.

In writing this cursory post, this website was of great assistance. It is an index of Royal Navy ships and their services, and I recommend it to all of you.

The men who fought bravely in the First Opium War endured great hardships. It is a genuine tragedy that some of them would go on to endure further hardships in a much different environment, equally far-removed from their native Britain.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Good Surgeon Is In: Alexander McDonald's Portrait and Prose

Richard Beard's daguerreotypes of Sir John Franklin and some of his officers give us a privileged glimpse into a world of wonder. These images help to provide an identity and soul to each of the heroic men the represent. That is why the absence of images for the officers of HMS Terror (with the exception of Captain Crozier) is so frustrating. We yearn to put faces with those names of yore. Fortunately, an acquisition by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK, has helped us do just that, at least for one man: Assistant Surgeon Alexander McDonald.

McDonald's portrait, painted by an unknown artist circa 1840, was acquired by the NMM in late 2008. You can read about the acquisition and view a high-quality image of it HERE. You can also purchase a print of the portrait and read some brief biographical info HERE. Another article from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, further illuminates the brief life of this intellectually gifted young man.

The surgeon had served in the Arctic on a whaler prior to joining the Franklin Expedition and published an account of his journey with the lengthy title A Narrative of Some Passages in the History of Eenoolooapik, a Young Eskimaux. You can read it HERE. The book includes important ethnographic information on the Inuit, and while I have not yet read it, I recommended it wholeheartedly. It is a historical gem.

Looking at the portrait of the boyish McDonald, it is incomprehensible to think that he would perish under terrible circumstances a mere few years after sitting before the unknown artist's canvas, his mind full of hope and unrealized dreams.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Viscount from the Beautiful Island

In my previous post, I wrote about a famous cousin of Lt. Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte. Now, I would like to shift focus to the good lieutenant himself, as well as a brief outline of his family's origins.

The Le Vesconte family traces its roots to the island of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. Since 1875, the Societe Jersiaise, a society that promotes cultural studies of the island, has published the Annual Bulletin, a treasure trove of information on the history and people of the scenic island. It was through one of the Bulletin's articles, available HERE on theislandwiki, that I learned a bit about one of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated officers, including a remarkable example of family oral traditions.

The surname Le Vesconte is a corruption of the French term for viscount, vimconte. The Le Vescontes on H.T.D.'s line trace their origins to the island of Jersey and, subsequently, to Devon in the southern UK. One of their descendants, Jean Arthur, published the aforementioned Bulletin article in 1974. In it, the author detailed a quest to locate a Bible that H.T.D. took with him on the Franklin Expedition. According to the family's oral traditions, he was chosen for the Expedition "because of his knowledge of the Bering Strait." An unspecified search party later found his Bible in the snow, along with human remains. The former point puzzles me, as Lt. Le Vesconte had no prior experience in the Arctic, but his knowledge could have been obtained through study. Regardless, his friendship with Commander James Fitzjames was probably the main impetus behind his participation on the Expedition.

Arthur was able to examine a New Testament (found on King William Island) in the National Maritime Museum's collection and compare it with a sample of Lt. Le Vesconte's handwriting, but the comparison "proved inconclusive". Interestingly, the handwriting sample came from a lovely sketch of the Erebus and Terror by the lieutenant in 1845, which is reproduced in the article. Glenn M. Stein, FRGS, presents a thought-provoking discussion of this sketch HERE.

This simple example of family history opened up a doorway to a fascinating world for Jean Arthur. Such is the allure and mystique of all things Franklin: the mystery never ends, and one new discovery leads to a profusion of compelling questions.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Adventure Runs in the Family

Lt. Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte is a singular-looking fellow. His steady gaze and erect posture suggest a competent officer; his eloquent and observant prose reveals a perceptive and intelligent human being. As history can tell us, he was brave and adventurous enough to join Franklin's expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. He is not, however, the only one in his family to have embarked on a dangerous, and ultimately fatal, quest.

Thanks to the tireless work of Franklin researchers and the well-travelled Wills family, we know that Lt. Le Vesconte is a Wills by his mother's side of the family. The Wills family maintains an extraordinarily comprehensive genealogical website: HERE . His mother was Sarah Wills; she married Commander Henry Le Vesconte. One of Sarah's eight siblings was Dr. William Wills, who had seven children. Among those children was William John Wills, the same William Wills who acted as second-in-command of the famed Burke and Wills Expedition in Australia! Henry T.D. Le Vesconte and William John Wills, both famed and ill-fated explorers, are first cousins!

The Burke and Wills Expedition (more formally known as the Victorian Exploration Expedition), much like the Franklin Expedition, was one centered on geographical discovery. In 1860-61, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills set out with a small party to survey the Australian continent from south to north. Wills was a trained surveyor and was recommended to the expedition by the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria. Burke was appointed as commander, despite his marked lack of experience in exploration. The expedition had a rough start and made unsatisfactory progress at first; searing summer heat was punctuated by monsoons that caused considerable hardships. Burke's later decision to split the party resulted in profound logistical problems, and his failure to mark the location of a note he cached sealed the fate of his small splinter party. Burke and Wills died of malnutrition (more specifically, beriberi) at Cooper Creek. As was the case with the Franklin Expedition, several relief expeditions were organized. Alfred Howitt ascertained the sad fate of Burke's small, detached party when he reached John King, the sole survivor.

The Victorian Exploration Expedition and the Franklin Expedition are both characterized by tragedy, nutritional problems, and bad luck. The former endured searing heat; the latter, freezing cold. Yet, both contributed greatly to humanity's knowledge of geography. Franklin's men essentially found a northwest passage, while Burke and Wills completed the map of Australia.

I strongly recommend a visit to Mike Wills' website on his fascinating family. There, you will find two photos of a letter written by Lt. Le Vesconte to his father, as well as a journey some of the Wills descendants took through Australia to trace their ancestors' footsteps.

When I think of Le Vesconte's short but eventful life, I think of a quote I once read in a biography of T.E. Lawrence. It was taken from Pliny the Younger's letter to Tacitus, in which he essentially states that the most fortunate man is one who can do things worth recording AND write things worth reading.  Le Vesconte, Wills, and all those who strike out for distant horizons, are all worthy of praise.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

An American James Fitzjames: Stephen Decatur, Jr.

June 18th of this year marked the bicentennial of the Anglo-American War of 1812. It was a conflict that forged some of America's most celebrated naval icons, including Isaac Hull, Oliver Hazard Perry, James Lawrence, and Stephen Decatur, Jr., to name a few. Those who have read the histories will not soon forget Perry's heroics at the Battle of Lake Erie (exploits that earned him the moniker "The Hero of Lake Erie") or Lawrence's dying command, "Don't give up the ship!"

Yet, even among this pantheon of naval officers, one star shines especially bright: Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr., USN. Decatur's dauntless exploits in the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812 made him a national hero and legend. It turns out that he had a few things in common with another naval legend: Captain James Fitzjames, RN. Both men were noted for their handsome appearances and winning personalities; both implemented clever disguises and narrowly escaped danger in the vicinity of the Middle East. Decatur and Fitzjames were also talented artists: Decatur constructed model ships, while Fitzjames made gorgeous drawings that appear almost photographic. And, sadly, both men died tragic, painful, and very untimely deaths. Decatur lost his life in a duel with fellow officer James Barron, while Fitzjames met his demise on the unforgiving wastes of King William Island, Nunavut.

According to Decatur's Wikipedia entry, a seaman present at his funeral exclaimed, "He was the friend of the flag, the sailor's friend; the navy has lost its mainmast." I think two very storied navies lost their mainmasts with the passing of these remarkable, strikingly similar gentlemen.

Monday, August 20, 2012

"An Old Man-of-War's-Man's Yarn"

At the University of Pennsylvania, located in the city of Philadelphia, a stained glass window features the following sagacious words of Francis Bacon: "Some books are to be tasted; others to be swallowed; and some few to be chewed and digested." A novella by the obscure author Richard Heathcote Gooch is definitely one of those books to be "chewed and digested", at least by Franklin aficionados. Gooch was a clerk in the London Custom House from 1845 to 1882; in 1870, he published An Old Man-of-War's-Man's Yarn: An Actual Incident (never Before Narrated) of the Expedition of the Late Sir John Franklin. The book is short, and the plot is simple, but the words are undeniably moving. While on holiday near Ramsgate, Kent, Gooch encountered a very old man selling pipe lights by the shore. After a bit of conversation, the author learned that the old man "had two sons on the Erebus with Sir John Franklin"--none other than John and Thomas Hartnell!

Gooch's particulars are largely fictional, but they were inspired by that fateful meeting with the elderly Thomas Hartnell, Sr. near the cliffs of Dumpton. Gooch must have felt as strongly as we do about the impact of the Franklin tragedy; otherwise, he would not have endeavored to publish his account. Interestingly, the finished work is dedicated to Charles Dickens, Esq.

I strongly recommend that those whose interest has been piqued take a look at this book, especially since it is available in its entirety on Google Books: HERE

I found the writing style to be engaging and similar to that of Coulson Kernahan, author of the memorable In Good Company. At any rate, it is a lovely, melancholy little story. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Hartnells of Nelson Street

As an avid fan of classic films, I could not resist alluding to one of my favorites for the title of this post: "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1934, MGM). Though not as famous as the Barretts, the Hartnells of Nelson Street (Road, actually) are a truly noteworthy family and, in my humble opinion, just as illustrious. This post will attempt to introduce the family that lost two promising lives to the Arctic's avaricious grip.

Thanks to a website called, I found out that John and Thomas (born 1820 and 1822, respectively) were the first two children of Thomas Hartnell, a shipwright, and his wife Sarah, who was born in 1796. They had three other children: Mary Ann (born 1826), Charles (born 1828), and Betsey (born 1832). They lived in Gillingham, Kent, which is in the very southeastern UK and in close proximity to the Chatham Dockyards on the River Medway. All three sons followed the call of the sea; two (John and Thomas, Jr.) would perish thousands of miles from home in one of history's greatest maritime tragedies: the lost Franklin Expedition.

A few Google searches later, I came across a fascinating article from the "Medway Messenger" dated October 10, 2011. In it, Brian Spenceley, Professor Emeritus of Physics at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada, reminisced about witnessing the autopsy of his ancestor, John Hartnell. Spenceley had accompanied Dr. Owen Beattie and his team to Beechey Island to photograph the proceedings. Even more importantly, the article stated that Hartnell lived on Nelson Street (presumably with the rest of the family), and that eight other seamen from the Medway towns also took part in the Franklin Expedition. Further research could uncover the identities of the other eight men.

With the help of Google Maps, I was able to take a virtual "drive" down Nelson Road. I hope to visit in person one day and take a tour of the Chatham Dockyards where Thomas Hartnell, Sr. probably found employment in the construction and repair of ships. The loss of two sons must have dealt a terrible blow to this hardworking family.

Welcome to "Stars Over Ice"!

I have been fascinated by the history of exploration and adventure my entire life. This blog will serve as a place to share all the riveting stories I have encountered during my readings and travels, with emphasis on US and British naval history.

During the past year and a half, I developed a keen interest in the unparalleled tragedy of Sir John Franklin's last Arctic expedition. By sharing some of my research, which is rudimentary at best, I hope to perpetuate the captivating personalities of "Franklin and his gallant crew". The poignant story of the Hartnell brothers, Thomas and John (both of whom were Able Seamen on HMS Erebus), is of particular interest to me.

Here's to the days of "iron men in wooden ships"!