WHAT'S THE CONTEXT:
John Franklin is one of the most alluring figures in Canada's history, and his writing plays a key role in early Canadian Exploration literature. One of the first explorers to map large sections of the Arctic sea, Franklin led several high profile expeditions into the Canadian North. However, while a famed explorer in his own right, he's perhaps best known for his demise. His final expedition ended under horrific circumstances when he and his entire crew of 129 men perished after their ships became trapped in polar ice while trying to find the fabled Northwest passage.
The disappearance of Franklin and his men became a source of mystery and intrigue, with rumours of cannibalism and possible led poisoning from canned food. It's been called the worst tragedy in the history of arctic exploration (The Canadian Encyclopedia), and for nearly 150 years, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror seemed to be lost forever. While they were discovered in 2012 and 2014, respectively, John Franklin's grave was never located.
John Franklin's published narrative that we'll be looking at here is about his first expedition to reach the arctic coast. While he and his men succeeded, the return trip inland was a disaster and 10 men were lost along the way. The text, titled Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, details his journey and also acts as an attempt on Franklin's part to defend himself and, as Cynthia Sugars and Laura Moss describe, 'explain the failures of the expedition and preserve his reputation.'
Earlier on in the narrative, Franklin describes his encounter with a Native chief named Akaitcho who assures them that 'he and his party would attend us to the end of our journey, and that they would do their utmost to provide us with the means of subsistence.' On the return journey, when resources are scant, and they're faced with perilous weather conditions, re-finding the Natives become the main hope for survival
The portion of Narrative of a Journey that details the return of Franklin and his men from the Arctic seaboard features brutal, shocking scenes straight out of The Revenant. The circumstances of the men are beyond extreme, with Franklin describing how 'As we had nothing to eat, and were destitute of the means of making a fire, we remained in our beds all day'. Completely out of food rations, before setting out 'the whole party ate the remains of their old shoes and whatever scraps of leather they had, to strengthen their stomachs for the fatigue of the day's journey.'
Franklin's detailing of the homeward journey showcases cold, hostile conditions with men unable to go a step further out of hunger, fatigue and exhaustion. He describes the loss of the first man, Vaillant, who the Doctor finds 'about a mile and a half in the rear, much exhausted with cold and fatigue. Having encouraged him to advance to the fire, after repeated solicitations he made the attempt, but fell down amongst the deep snow at every step.' When they try to have the other men bring him to the fire, 'they declared themselves unequal to the task'.
Franklin isn't describing just a rough day here: men are literally so physically depleted they cannot take a step further, and are unable to even work as a group to bring a man out of the snow where he is lying unconscious. It's horrific, and I can't imagine how it would feel to be forced to leave men behind. As Franklin states, 'I was distressed beyond description at the thought of leaving them in such a dangerous situation, and for a long time combated their proposal; but they strenuously urged, that this step afforded the only chance of safety for the party, and I reluctantly acceded to it.'
Franklin and 5 of his remaining men do manage to reach Fort Enterprise, the camp they had been headed towards. However, upon arriving, they find that 'to our infinite disappointment and grief we found it a perfectly desolate habitation. There was no deposit of provision, no trace of the Indians, no letter from Mr. Wentzel to point out where the Indians might be found.' Growing weaker and weaker, Franklin and his men remain at Fort Enterprise where men continue to die. So severely weakened, the survivors do not even have the strength to move the corpses of their deceased companions out of the fort.
At last, they wake up one morning to a shout from outside. It is the Natives, whose arrival Franklin describes as a 'seasonable interposition of Providence', and who go on to provide them with food and provisions, as well as help clear their room 'of the accumulation of dirt and fragments of pounded bones'. For Franklin and his men,
'The Indians set about every thing with an activity that amazed us. Indeed, contrasted with our emaciated figures and extreme debility, their frames appeared to us gigantic, and their strength supernatural... The Indians treated us with the utmost tenderness ... keeping by our sides, that they might lift us when we fell... The Indians prepared our encampment, cooked for us, and fed us as if we had been children; evincing humanity that would have done honour to the most civilized people.'
In summary, Franklin may not have survived his first expedition, and even made it to his third one, if it wasn't for the intervention of Akaitcho and his people who came, brought resources, and assisted the explorers until they were in better health.
WHY IT MATTERS NOW:
You can see why John Franklin's writing might matter in the Canadian literary canon. It encompasses pretty much every major theme of Canadian literature we've talked about so far: exploration of the unknown, discovery of new territories, survival in the face of harsh, unyielding landscapes, and furthermore, the concept of the contact zone, where various peoples, such as Natives and Europeans, come into contact and thus begin to form what we can see as a precursor to Canada's current cultural mosaic.
What's particularly striking to me is the reality of discovery: all the romantic ideals of exploration are peeled away, and what we're left with is men dying, and others racked with guilt as they're forced to move on in order to save themselves. It's clear that Franklin's text is considerable revised for publication, and as Sugars and Moss argue, it's written from an angle of Franklin trying to preserve his own face. Yet at the same time, I don't know how you couldn't feel distress and horror in this situation, and it isn't as if Franklin is portraying himself or his men in the best light. Rather than present himself and his men as powerful, capable and independent explorers, he showcases their weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and absolute depletion at the end of their expedition.
Ultimately, I think Franklin's text matters because of the way it works to undermine some major, and incorrect, assumptions about Canada and its history. The reality is that Canada never was a blank canvas, nor was it discovered by Europeans. It was here all along, and it was substantially populated by various Native groups long before any white men arrived.
Furthermore, these Native peoples were far from the wild, violent and barbaric men portrayed by other explorers like Samuel Hearne (discussed in my last post). Here, we have Franklin showing Akaitcho and the other natives they encounter as compassionate, giving and full of humanity. They effectively save their lives, and it's evident the gratitude the Franklin feels towards them. Rather than portray the Natives as childlike, uncivilized, and in need of assistance from Europeans, in this account the roles are reversed. It is the Natives who do the saving, and the Europeans who desperately need their help.
In the past few years, the historical mistreatment of Canada's aboriginal communities has become more and more discussed. I think there's a general understanding that we need to re-write our history books, and our collective memories of Canada's past, particularly those that frame Native peoples in a narrow, restrictive, and negative manner, and Europeans as the first Canadians who 'discovered' the New World. Franklin's account, that casts a light on some of the lesser talked about aspects of early exploration, and contains depictions of both Europeans and Natives that go against common stereotypical representations, contributes a useful voice to that project.