Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Erebus -- the Gates of Hell

"We don't know when it started, or who took the decision, but some time in May 1848 British sailors from HMS Erebus and HMS Terror began butchering and eating their comrades. We do not know if they killed the living, picking out the weak, the young and the expendable, or whether they confined their attentions to the dead. But make no mistake they ate their shipmates, not one or two, but forty or fifty. British sailors carefully and deliberately used their knives, vital symbols of their profession, to strip the flesh from men who had been their friends. Their sharp blades left tell-tale marks on the victims' bones, marks that have endured to this day..."
Andrew Lambert, Prologue: The Gates of Hell, Sir John Franklin's Tragic Quest for The North West Passage

"That's the clue [recovered ship's davit] that tells you: look here. That's the flag. You can see the tackle from the ship ... different riggings in the centre."
John Geiger, president, Royal Canadian Geographical Society

"I am delighted to announce that this year's Victoria Strait Expedition has solved one of Canada's greatest mysteries, with the discovery of one of the two ships belonging to the Franklin expedition lost in 1846."
"We do have enough information to confirm its authenticity."
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

One of the Arctic's most enduring mysteries has at long last been solved; the whereabouts of Sir John Franklin's two ships from his last expedition to the frozen north in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. His second wife, Lady Jane Franklin, a personage in her own right with connections to influence and high society and the British admiralty, did all in her considerable will and passion to demand that Britain send out one rescue mission after another in search of her husband. To no avail.

And then over a century-and-a-half later, a Canadian prime minister for whom such historical mysteries connected to Canada's Arctic past, threading into the present, was determined to launch a modern-day search to succeed where in the past so many others had failed brought news of success. Two weeks ago on his annual trip to the Arctic, Prime Minister Harper spent several nights himself aboard HMCS Kingston, travelling from Pond Inlet to Arctic Bay in Nunavut.

Now, back in Ottawa, he had the great pleasure of announcing to the world that the mystery, at least part of it, has been solved. While it is not yet clear which of the two ships, the Erebus or the Terror, is the one that has finally been located at the 11-metre depth of the Arctic in Queen Maud Gulf, when deep-sea divers examine the well-preserved wreck for clues, including the bodies of those who sank with her, much will be revealed. It was known that lead poisoning killed some of the men and others died of a lethal combination of tuberculosis and pneumonia.

And then botulism also enters the mortuary scene. Past Franklin searchers picked up quantities of human bone on the west and south coasts of King William Island and the mainland at Starvation Cove in the last hundred years. It is not likely that Franklin's skeleton would be found among those on the sunken ship; he is held to have died before the vessels were abandoned, and Cape Felix seemed the likeliest interment spot.

One of the ill-fated ships has now been found, however, thanks to modern sonar technology. Days ago a coast guard helicopter pilot had seen a dark object the size of a man's forearm lying in the Arctic snow. On retrieval the orange-brown piece of metal in the notional shape of a tuning fork, had the markings of the British Royal Navy; a portion of a lifting mechanism for one of the two lost Franklin ships.

The unmanned, remotely-controlled submersible that was searching for sign of a submerged wreck had already scoured large areas of the ocean where it was thought most likely the ships were to be found. Discovered 11 metres below the water's surface, the as-yet unidentified of the two ships was surprisingly intact. It was, in fact, pure luck; the submersible had been blown off course by weather-and-water conditions, which brought it, amazingly, to hover right over the sunken vessel.

According to Ryan Harris, a senior underwater archaeologist and one of the people leading the Parks Canada-led search for the ships, the sonar image clarified that some of the deck structure remains intact, including the main mast; a discovery that followed by a day that of the fragment by a team of archaeologists in the King William Island search area, representing the first such artifacts to be found in the modern era.

"Mr. Harper has always been passionate about Canada's North and about the potential of Canada's North and its role in history and its importance to its sovereignty. The Franklin expedition, even though at the time a British expedition, fits into that history. It's about the Northwest Passage and opening up the North. It's not been any secret to us, the prime minister has placed a high importance on the North and there's no surprise he has shown such an interest and attention to this. There wouldn't have been an event today if he hadn't ratcheted up the government's commitment to the search", stated Guy Giorno, one-time chief of staff to the prime minister.
Franklin Expedition ship found
This is a prime minister who has an especial interest in Canadian history, following in the footsteps of his own father. Not only the history of Canada's far North, but the history of Canada's traditional sport, hockey; a man who made himself sufficiently knowledgeable to write a highly acclaimed history book of the game. But his talents don't stop there; he has a particular interest in music as an accomplished pianist and a singer whose voice carries him with distinction in impromptu performances accompanying his piano playing.

This is a man of multiple talents, including that of an able politician who has achieved to the highest political rung in Canadian politics. And who has led the country with distinction and honour. Yet the bored electorate consider him uncharismatic, dull and barely worth another run at the office he so ably administers carrying Canada well into the 21st Century.

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