Thursday, April 14, 2016

Fantasy and Scholarship
A Case Study

19th Century Tin Cans

In two previous posts I talked about the infamous Franklin Expedition1 Here I would like to review a book about the Franklin Expedition. The book is called IceBlink2

There  is a large literature about the Franklin Expedition and the various expeditions in search of finding Franklin's fate.3 Some of it is crack brained, and some of it is well head scratching.4 Although this book is not cracked-brained it is definitely head scratching.

Of course the discovery of the very intact remains of the Erebus sunk in fairly shallow water just off O'Reilly island near King William's island in Nunavet in 2014 has reawakened interest in the Franklin Expedition  at least within Canada. Further it has verified stories told to McClintock and others about the fate of one of Franklin's ships told to them by the local Inuit.5

The book I'm reviewing was published many years before the rediscovery of the Erebus and so cannot take into account what has so far been discovered from the wreak and how that pertains to clearing up some of the mystery.

Like so much of the literature on the Franklin Expedition this book seeks to "solve" the mystery of what happened and to explain why a expedition, so seemingly well equipped, would perish down to the last man. For Franklin's was the largest expedition that the British would send to the Arctic in the 19th century. For to many it was puzzling and horrifying that the expedition perished to the last man.6

This book attempts to once again find a one cause that doomed the men in Franklin's expedition. But before I go into Cookman's theory let's look at the book in general.

The book is an overview of the Franklin Expedition. It contains much information about the Expedition. It sums up the reasons for the expedition, the ships and the crews and then explains nicely the subsequent disaster.

In the book Cookman describes accurately that:
Crozier's other officers were similarly the best the Royal Navy could offer, but similarly mismatched to the task at hand.7
But also says:
The officers who did volunteer were splendidly qualified in all aspects save a total ignorance of what they were getting themselves into.8
This is an indication of Cookman's position that to a certain extent Franklin's expedition was simply not well prepared to deal with the situation if things went seriously wrong. In fact Cookman emphasises that there was likely too many officers and not enough able bodied seamen. Certainly it is interesting that with the exception of Franklin and Crozier and 5 other officers most of the officers involved were new to polar travel. In fact Cookman indicates that only 8 of the initial 134 who sailed were in fact experienced polar hands.9

This goes with Cookman's contention that the ships were top heavy with Officers. In fact it appears Erebus had 20 Able-Bodied Seamen in a total crew of 68, The Terror with a crew of 65 had 19 Able-Bodied Seamen. For a total of 39 Able-Bodied Seamen. Both Ships had 24 Commissioned Officers, 6 Warrant Officers, 46  Petty Officers, 14 Royal Marines and 4 volunteers. Of the Petty Officers 8 were Stewards whose task was personal service of the Commissioned Officers.10

I think Cookman is right to think that this probably contributed in the end to the disaster.

But the ships themselves which Cookman describes has more or less state of the art at the time,11 were not that pleasant to be more or less trapped in during a long Arctic night. Cookman records in probably the best chapter12 in the book:
A single hatch (the fore hatch had been sealed) led down an almost vertical 7-foot ladderway to the lower deck. This was the only heated deck and the sole berthing place for everyone aboard: sixty-five to sixty-seven men in a space measuring 96 feet long and 28 feet wide, with but 7 feet of headroom. But for the headroom, this is roughly the size of a contemporary suburban home, comfortably accommodating a family of four or five. For sixty men , however, it resembled purgatory.
As confining as the officers' quarters were, the men's were positively cagelike. The entire crew, 4-two men and two midshipmen, ate, slept, and spent their off-duty hours penned in the forward third of the lower deck. This space, just 36 feet long and 28 feet wide, was horrendously overcrowded. Dr. Elie-Jean Leguillou, a ships surgeon in D'Urville's 1840 Antarctic expedition, reported such overcrowding 'conducive to the spread of contagious diseases ... if it was raining, snowing, the ship hemmed in by ice, there would be forty to sixty individuals in the orlop deck, spitting, drinking, eating, while all openings were tightly shut ... the smells from the hold, from the storeroom, the smoke, steam and smells from the kitchen, the exhalation from the lungs and skin were not dispersed by the faintest breath of fresh air; daylight hardly entered ...'13 
It is descriptions like this, about life on the ships and daily grind of naval routine that this book excels. That and being a pretty easy read about the basics of the expedition and disaster are the chief selling points of the book.

But sadly the book doesn't keep to that instead it advances a conjecture that is bluntly pretty dubious. That dubious conjecture is that the key to the Franklin mystery is botulism. Also that the villain of the piece is a Stephen Goldner who was contracted by the British admiralty to provision Franklin's ships with canned provisions. Now at the time canned food was a pretty new thing and Goldner had figured out a way to reduce cooking time by increasing the temperature of the water it was cooked in.14

Cookman describes Goldner has "evil" and makes no bones about Goldner being partly if not largely responsible for the Franklin disaster.15 Thus the book goes into the nitty gritty of Goldner's operation and what a house of horrors it is. From the inferior food used to fill the Admiralty's orders to the shoddy way the cans were made and the truly unsanitary conditions of Goldner's factory has he cut corners in order to make a profit. So not surprisingly much of the product was either spoiled or uneatable. Further Goldner broke his contract with the Admiralty by A) not providing the product in a timely fashion but at the last minute, apparently to avoid proper inspection, and B) not providing it in the manner agreed to, i.e., providing much of it in significantly larger cans than those agreed to.16

Why did Goldner do this? Well because he won his contracts with the Admiralty by providing lower bids than anyone else and thus could not make much if any profit except by cutting corners.

The results of Goldner's cost cutting was that lead, the solder used to seal the cans together, leaked lead into the food and thus gave the consumers of same lead poisoning. And of course much the food thus preserved in cans was either uneatable or spoilt.17 So it appears that Goldner did indeed make a contribution to the Franklin disaster. Not satisfied with this, sadly, Cookman goes on.

Cookman tells a lot about botulism, what causes it and how it kills.18 This is all interesting but in the end utterly pointless. Why? Well because Cookman admits that proper cooking of the food destroys the poison and bacteria and further despite pages and pages of speculation of the possible effects of botulism on the crews of Franklin's ships Cookman provides no evidence whatsoever that a single member of Franklin's crew died of botulism poisoning.19

Instead Cookman speculates / fantasizes. For example:
By the summer of 1847, the food cans had undergone two deep freezes and three thaws. This repeated freeze-thaw dynamic produced massive bacterial colonies and quite enough clostridium botulinum poison to kill every man on the expedition a million times over.20
This abundance of canned food and appetite, along with a shortage of fuel and a bare minimum of cooking time, left them [The sledging parties] more exposed to greater concentrations of botulinum toxins than anyone.
Brought to a roiling boil aboard ship, on the cook's efficient Frazer's Patent coal stove, the canned food was made safe. Away from the ship, warmed fitfully over a spirit stove, or worse -ingested wholly uncooked- deadly concentrations of toxins would have remained.21 
Thus Cookman speculates that the horrible death total of 1847-1848 was the result of eating insufficiently cooked canned preserved food and that due to insufficient cooking time and fuel this particularly affected the sledging parties.. Now this wouldn't be so annoying if it was clearly labeled speculation but Cookman generally avoids making it clear that he is engaged in utter speculation with no evidence to support it.22

And there is one other serious problem with Cookman's theory aside from it being sheer speculation. Goldner provided the British Admiralty with canned provisions for a number of Arctic expeditions after the Franklin expedition sailed. Given the evidence collected later by the Admiralty and a Parliamentary investigation it appears Goldner continued his slipshod practices, one would expect evidence of botulism in those expeditions. Cookman does not give any evidence whatsoever that anything like botulism was a problem in those expeditions, although spoilt food etc., was a problem. So it appears that Franklin's expedition uniquely suffered from botulism from Goldner's canned goods. This failure to find botulism etc., in the other British expeditions to the Arctic supplied with Goldner's shoddy goods does not help Cookman's speculation in the slightest. In fact I do not see in the book any sign that Cookman investigated the other expeditions for any signs of botulism period.23

Eventually even the Admiralty tired of Goldner's antics and shoddy products and they cut him off. After which Goldner, after writing several desperate letters begging for business, disappeared.24

I should mention here that Cookman's condemnation of Goldner, although Goldner deserves it for his shoddy products, is a mite narrow In it's focus. The fact is for years and years the British Admiralty in its pursuit of saving money routinely accepted the cheapest bids, put up with Goldner's  antics and bad products. Why? Because Goldner was cheap! I would say the British Admiralty was at least partly responsible for what ever ill effects Goldner's actual, rather than fanciful, damage to Franklin's expedition it caused.

And of course Cookman talks about cannibalism. A subject that can hardly be avoided when talking about the Franklin expedition. Especially since the issue is frankly settled and that Franklin's crews in desperation did resort to cannibalism.25 Not satisfied with this Cookman again speculates and uses the opportunity to tell true stories of people who engaged in cannibalism to survive.26

Thus Cookman speculates:
Faced with certain death, Crozier was forced to make a horrible and repugnant decision, the only one left him. It was certainly Crozier who made it: he was the ranking officer and among the few officers the native Inuit later reported seeing alive. He apparently chose life. He may have put it to an officer's vote or perhaps a vote of the whole party, but at most this would have merely been a ratification. The decision had to have been Crozier's. 
More than likely, on of the surviving surgeons was deputed to butcher the corpse. Assistant Surgeon Harry Goodsir of the Erebus had trained as an anatomist, so was particularly qualified.
No part of the body, at this stage, was wasted. The heart, liver, and kidneys, all major organs, were probably extracted entire. More than likely the cooks, Diggle and Wall, chopped these up into tidbits with an axe and dropped them into the stew.27

Well that is a lot of sensationalist speculation. I will spare the reader any quotes from Cookman's later fantasy of men drawing lots to see who would be killed so the others could eat him.28

Cookman I regret to say has a tendency to speculate and go beyond, in some cases well beyond, what the evidence says and all to often is insufficiently judicious in labelling his speculations, speculations.

That said I do agree with Cookman that in the past there has been too much Franklin bashing and that a lot of it is unfair.29 For example Cookman points out that the huge quantity of stuff left by Franklin's crew near Victory Point was almost certainly not dragged there over a three day period and left there but almost certainly dragged there and stored over a period of at least a few weeks likely in preparation for abandoning the ships. Further brass curtain rods and the lightening conductor would have useful in dealing with the lightening storms common in the featureless and flat terrain of King William Island.30

Cookman like a lot of writers about the Franklin expedition seeks a single cause solution to the mystery of what went wrong. Some blame British cultural arrogance, others blame lead poisoning and Cookman finds his single solution in botulism, even though he makes prudential statements about the disaster having multiple causes. Well there was no one single cause but a multiplicity of factors that produced the catastrophic results.

In my opinion the expedition was insufficiently prepared for what would happen if things went really wrong. Certainly the Admiralty's failure to plan for some sort of search if they had not heard from the expedition after X number of years speaks ill of them. And bluntly the expedition was too large. Its very size meant that if something went really wrong things would become disastrously serious. Smaller crew(s) would have made disaster easier to cope with. As it is they were trapped in the ice in a remote, very hard to get too region of the Canadian Arctic, and in an area that was sorely deficient in game and a region hard to get out of or into.31

And of course a key element is the disaster was that Franklin thought that King William island was a peninsula. That being the case Franklin was forced to sail into the relentless ice stream that crashed into the north west coast of King William island. Thus locking them into the ice stream for two terrible winters and then forcing them to abandon the ships. If Franklin had known that the island was an island then he could have sailed down the east coast and avoided the ice stream entirely. Whether or not Franklin would have completed the voyage is another issue. The bottom line is that the Rae and Simpson straits on the eastern and southern coasts of King William island are difficult and treacherous, especially the Simpson strait. It is doubtful that the Terror and Erebus, not designed to manoeuvre in such waters could have done it. Has it is the Goja captained by Amundsen had really serious problems getting through the Simpson strait, running aground once, even though it was only 1/3 the size of either of Franklin's ships and far more manoeuvrable.32

Despite that it is likely that some at least of Franklin's crew would have survived if Franklin had tried to sail around King William island even if the attempt had failed.

That is just one of the many contingent factors that worked into creating the Franklin disaster. For that disaster has its appeal not just in that it failed but that in, it appears, everyone perished and that is why it continues to exert a fascination. It is the train accident in which everyone died.

Not satisfied with the horrible completeness of the tragedy many have tried to explain it and sadly many of their explanations are little better than fantasy and in Cookman's case fantasy plays far to big a role in his otherwise good book.

Man Proposes God Deposes

1. See Here and Here.

2. Cookman, Scott, IceBlink, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, Toronto, 2000.

3.  See Berton, Pierre, The Arctic Grail, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1988, pp. 147-341, for an overview of the Franklin Expedition and the Expeditions to find him.

4. I will spare the reader any cites of the crack-brained stuff.

5. See CBC News Here.

6. There have been various explanations over the years but the prevalent tendency has been an attempt to find the one cause that destroyed them. See

7. Cookman, p. 63.

8. IBID, p. 62.

9. IBID., p. 61

10. IBID., p. 227-232.

11. IBID., pp. 36-41.

12. IBID., pp. 95-104.

13. IBID, pp. 95, 99.

14. IBID, pp. 113-114. Goldner's process involved using a nitrate of soda to raise the temperature from 212 F. to 250 F.

15. IBID., p. 108.

16. IBID, pp. 108-129.

17. IBID.

18. IBID., pp. 127-129, 132-133, 142-143, 150-151.

19. For sheer speculation see IBID., pp. 144-153.

20. IBID., p. 145.

21. IBID., p. 149.

22. IBID., Footnote 19. For a brief review of this theory see Lambert, Andrew, Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation, faber and faber, London, 2009, p. 344.

23. See IBID., pp. 186-195.

24. IBID.

25. See Lambert, pp. 347-349, Keenleyside, A., Bertulli, A. M., Fricke, H. C., The Final Days of the Franklin Expedition: New Skeletal Evidence, Arctic, v. 50, (1997), pp. 36-46, and Beattie, Owen, Geiger, John, Frozen in Time, Western Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon Saskatchewan, 1988, pp. 58-62, See also Beattie, Owen, A Report on Newly Discovered Human Skeletal Remains from the Last Sir John Franklin Expedition, The Musk Ox, No. 33, Winter 1983, pp. 68-77.

26. Cookman, pp. 174-185.

27. IBID., pp. 176-177.

28. IBID., pp. 183-185.

29. IBID., pp. 202-203.

30. IBID., pp. 157-159. Perhaps the best example of Franklin bashing is Stefansson, Vilhjalmer, Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic, MacMillan Co., New York, 1939, pp. 36-129.

31. See Berton, Pierre, The Arctic Grail, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1988, pp. 326-341, and Berton, Pierre, My Country, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1976, pp. 181-182.

32. Berton,1988, pp. 328, 543-544.

Pierre Cloutier

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