Finding Franklin

Sherrill Grace
Sherrill Grace will present on the narrative of Sir John Franklin and his ill-fated expedition as part of the Arctic-Wise series at the College.

When Sherrill Grace grew up in Quebec and Ontario, summer wasn't complete without a trip "up North."

Sherrill, Professor Emerita in the Department of English at UBC, recalls the excitement of escapism—leaving the noisy city for the pristine, rolling mountains of the Laurentians or the expansive lakes of Algonquin Park. Even though this is still the vacation routine for many Canadian families, Sherrill notes that behind "going North" to escape it all lies a long history of myth-making.

"But as a child, you're not questioning," she says. "You just grow up with that sense of, 'Oh yes. Now the time has come for me to get back in touch with life, [going] swimming, hiking in the bush, and scratching mosquito bites.'"

Soon enough Sherrill became curious about the actual North—the Arctic—which she had never been to. This curiosity helped inform her work as an interdisciplinary researcher in 20th Century Canadian literature and culture, drama, theatre, film, music, as well as biography and autobiography.

"I thought, 'I'm a Canadianist, but there's a third of the country at least that I haven't been to. Maybe I should start exploring.'"

And with that thought, Sherrill's whole perspective on Canada shifted. She packed her bags and visited Baffin Island in the late 1980s.

"That was it. I fell in love," she says. "It's an impressive, challenging, rigorous, beautiful part of Canada. It's just astonishing—the people, the languages, the landscapes, [and] the history."

There, Sherrill became invested in meeting the Inuit and hearing their stories. Soon after she travelled to the Central and Western Arctic to learn more.

Throughout her travels, though, she couldn't forget about the one ghost story that has pervaded Canadian culture for 170 years.

The captivating myth of Franklin

"The minute you start thinking about the Arctic, Sir John Franklin's name pops up," Sherrill says. "He's become a mythic presence in Canada [and] in the Canadian imagination."

In 1845, explorer Sir John Franklin's mission to find the Northwest Passage ended in disaster. The British naval leader's two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, disappeared in what is now Canada's Arctic. The crew, unable to withstand the cold climate, resorted to cannibalism and eventually died.

Since that ill-fated mission, the story has remained unresolved and has captivated Canadians—from pop culture icons like Stan Rogers to politicians on the campaign trail. No matter who talks about the expedition, the same question persists: what actually happened to Franklin and his crew?

Sherrill remembers when historic news hit in 1984. A team of forensic anthropologists, led by the University of Alberta's Owen Beattie, uncovered three frozen British seamen on Beechey Island in the High Arctic. Those sailors were from the Franklin expedition.

"I was watching the news and I was blown away because of [all of the] metaphors and images," Sherrill says.

In particular, she remembers the now iconic image of John Torrington, one of the seamen, who looked as if he was frozen in time.

"Just the visual shock of melting that permafrost away and revealing a recognizable young man… I'm thinking that today, [that image] would go viral!" she says with a laugh.

That notion of iconic imagery inspired Sherrill to dig deeper into the mythology of the expedition. Franklin's mission became part of her nationally and internationally-renowned book Canada and the Idea of North (2001), which explores the northern images and ideas in Canadian popular culture and thought.

Since that book was published, though, a lot has changed.

Discovery and uncertainty

In the summer of 2014, the nation was floored. An expedition led by Parks Canada discovered the wreck of the HMS Erebus.

While a momentous occasion, Sherrill emphasizes that the discovery marks a turning point in the Franklin narrative.

"If next summer they find the Terror, what's going to happen to all of this mystery and mythology, the mystique of Franklin?

"Will there be another Stan Rogers to sing a song about it… or will the ghosts finally be laid [to rest]?"

Sherrill points to the discussion surrounding the HMS Erebus last summer. Several scientists and historians were debating whether the ship should be raised from the ocean floor for further study.

Sherrill still hesitates at this suggestion, citing that, for technical reasons, it's better to leave it unexposed to air. But she also has an incredibly thoughtful concern.

"There are, in my mind, other reasons: respect, mystery, and not indulging in the hubris [that] took Franklin up there in the first place."

Do we have to know everything about everything? Or can we just let things be? Sherrill leaves these as open questions, pausing as she reflects on the history of efforts to recover the ships' wrecks—from the very day they were announced missing.

John Rae, a Scottish doctor, was the first to report the fate of the Franklin Expedition. On the request of Lady Jane Franklin, he trekked to King William Island. Even though he didn't actually get to the island, he did meet with the Inuit and received items from the wreck. He also listened to their account of Franklin and his crew, including how they had tried to help. The whole visit, John treated their perspective with grace and respect.

"[They told him] that the ships went down off the northwest end of King William Island," Sherrill says, "that a group of white men had died and, in the last stages, had resorted to cannibalism."

When John returned to London with that story, both the admiralty and Lady Jane were furious. Then, Lady Jane turned to author Charles Dickens.

In the pursuit to protect the Empire's image, Dickens twisted the truth and portrayed the Inuit—then known as "Eskimos"—as cannibals.

"By publishing this, and by Charles Dickens saying it, this then gets to be the accepted story," Sherrill says. "Franklin's a hero, he really did find the Northwest Passage. He didn't live to come back and tell us because he has and his men were attached a bunch of 'savages' and eaten.

"And so we preserve Franklin as a hero."

If Franklin hadn't refused help from the Inuit, Sherrill says, we might have heard a different tale.

"It was in-built racism and a sense of superiority that contributed very significantly to the disaster."

The North as interdisciplinary

For Sherrill, the issues surrounding Franklin's expedition reveal that the Arctic should be approached in an interdisciplinary way. From urgent concerns of climate change to the preservation of indigenous languages, she stresses that the region is multi-faceted.

"There are political, social, cultural, artistic, scientific, economic, and deeply human issues," Sherrill says. "And that part of Canada doesn't belong to us to tramp all over and exploit. It belongs to us and the people who live there as [a place] to take care of and to preserve, sustainably."

No matter how much academics read or study, though, Sherrill notes that they have to make the same visit that she did years ago.

"Go!" she says with a laugh. "Go and see with your own eyes and experience for yourself. Keep your ears open. Listen. Pay attention to what's around you—to the people, to the natural environment."

That effort, Sherrill states, will encourage a well-rounded approach to understanding and solving the pressing topics of the Canadian Arctic in the 21st century.

"The more you know, the better placed you are to make political, economic, and research decisions about your future."

Sherrill Grace presented her talk, "Re-Thinking Franklin and the Northwest Passage," on Wednesday, September 30, 2015 at 5 p.m.
Her lecture was the first in the Arctic-Wise: Bridging Northern Knowledges of Change series. For more in the series click here.