The Gates of Hell

Sir John Franklin’s Tragic Quest

for the Northwest Passage

by Andrew Lambert

Yale, 456 pp., $32.50

As is often the case with revisionist histories, this one demystifies and demythologizes its subject, the ill-fated British expedition to the Arctic led by a naval captain, Sir John Franklin. That Andrew Lambert intends to challenge the conventional version of the Franklin expedition is clear from the outset. He begins his prologue with this arresting sentence, which surely would have shocked the civilized sensibilities of mid-Victorian Britain: “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.”

Lambert thus asserts as fact what has, in the past, been considered arguable: that the crew of the Franklin expedition, stranded in the Arctic, engaged in cannibalism. The controversy surrounding this claim, according to Lambert, derives from the simple fact Victorian Britons did not want to imagine their fellow Englishmen as cannibals, and so ignored the evidence. Today, along with human bones which show evidence of being cut by knives, and accounts of the Inuit who encountered the crew (both of which were known and ignored by contemporaries who trekked to the Arctic in search of Franklin), there is forensic science to support the claim. But while this is undoubtedly the most gripping aspect of The Gates of Hell, cannibalism accounts for only a small part of Lambert’s history. It is, nonetheless, an important part of his thesis; namely, that, for a variety of reasons, chiefly a love of patriotic heroism, the “history” of the Franklin expedition was untrue from its first draft. Lambert seeks to correct the record.

A teenaged John Franklin joined the Royal Navy in 1800 when seafaring and science were a common enterprise. At the root of this phenomenon was the Prussian Alexander von Humboldt, who sought a comprehensive scientific understanding of the natural world based on empirical observation. Humboldt’s vision of science united with exploration caught the British imagination, including that of the young midshipman John Franklin. His early naval service was a combination of warfare with Napoleonic France and naval science—specifically geomagnetism, studying compass deviation. Franklin became enthralled with the Arctic while serving on (and leading) expeditions from 1818 through the mid-1820s, and the exoticism of the Arctic—along with Franklin’s unquestioned leadership gifts, which ensured success in the face of brutal conditions—made him a national hero and, thanks to his observations on magnetism, a leading figure in British science as well. After service in the Mediterranean, and a stint as lieutenant-governor of the penal colony that is now Tasmania in Australia, Franklin was dispatched in 1845, at the age of 59, on a final Arctic voyage.

Advertised as a mission to complete the Northwest Passage, it had a primarily scientific purpose. Lambert contends that the British government well knew that there was no economically useful Northwest Passage across the North American continent, and would not have risked two naval vessels and a crew of 129 men to complete it. In any event, Franklin and his crew failed to return. Evidence from the expedition discovered later suggests that the ships became trapped by ice, stranding Franklin and his crew miles from the fresh food needed to survive. (On the question of cannibalism, Franklin was neither a consumer nor consumed; records left by the crew indicate that he died before any cannibalism occurred.) Many probably died of scurvy induced by a lack of nourishment and an insufficient supply of lemon juice.

In tragic detail, Lambert recounts the innumerable missions sent, first, to recover the crew and then, once it was clear there could be no survivors, to recover remnants. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane, was most responsible for convincing the Admiralty, time and again, to send these missions out—usually at great cost—and the leader of one such expedition, Francis McClintock, reported that, based on traces he discovered, Franklin had completed the Northwest Passage. Correctly believing that this fictional achievement would grant her late husband the legacy she was determined to establish for him, Lady Franklin promoted the claim that the mission’s chief object was completion of the Northwest Passage. Not true, according to Lambert, who explains that the scientific community in Britain was more than happy to wash its hands of the failure by endorsing Lady Franklin’s narrative. Moreover, the Humboldtian vision that had driven Franklin had been displaced by Darwinian biology. Lambert notes that exploration, not science, was what fascinated the British public, and the recasting of the Franklin mission followed this change in taste and secured his popular legacy.

In my view, Lambert exaggerates the consequences of the fabricated history. “By awarding Franklin the dubious distinction of finding a useless geographical curiosity that he was not looking for,” he writes, “the Victorians turned a catastrophe into a morality tale, a public endorsement of obedience, duty, and resolve.” He goes on to indict this misunderstanding for contributing to the subsequent deaths of Robert Falcon Scott and his crew in the Antarctic and the massive British casualties in the trenches of World War I. But even a clear understanding of Franklin and his expedition must feature the sense of duty and patriotic sacrifice, which Lambert finds so destructive. Indeed, even Lambert praises Franklin as “an inspirational leader” and “the noblest of public men,” driven by a sense of duty to God and country.

The only difference between Lambert’s Franklin and the Franklin of the Victorians is that Lambert’s did his duty for science. This is an important distinction, in its way, but does nothing to diminish Franklin’s nobility of character or patriotic sacrifice.

Zachary Bennett, editor of the Davidson Reader, was an intern at The Weekly Standard.

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