John Franklin (1786-1847) was the most famous vanisher of the Victorian era. He joined the Navy as a midshipman at the age of 14, and fought in the battles of Copenhagen and Trafalgar. When peace with the French broke out, he turned his attention to Arctic exploration, and in particular to solving the conundrum of the Northwest Passage, the mythical clear-water route which would, if it existed, link the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans above the northern coast of the American continent. The first expedition Franklin led to the Arctic was an arduous overland journey from Hudson Bay to the shores of the so-called Polar Ocean east of the Coppermine River. Between 1819 and 1822, Franklin and his twenty-strong team covered 5550 miles on foot. Their expedition was a triumph of surveying - they managed to chart hundreds of miles of previously unknown coastline - but their inexperience in polar travel and inadequate supplies meant that the journey back to civilisation, across the 'Barren Ground', turned into a catastrophe. Food ran out while they were still days from safety, and the men were forced to eat lichen, their belts and their boots (which they boiled up to make leather soup). Nine men died of starvation. One of the French-Canadian guides, suspected of cannibalism, was executed.
LRB 18 December 2003 | PDF Download