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A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge

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FRANKLIN DISCOVERS THE NORTH-WEST PASSAGE

[432] THE whole coast-line of North America had now been charted, but the famous North-West Passage, for which so many lives had been laid down, had yet to be found. Sir John Barrow, "the father of modern Arctic discovery," Secretary to the Admiralty, now decided to dispatch another expedition to forge this last link and to connect, if possible, the chain of all former discoveries.

Many were the volunteers who came forward to serve in the new Arctic expedition. But Sir John Franklin claimed the command as his special right.

"No service," he declared, "is nearer to my heart."

He was reminded that rumour put his age at sixty, and that after a long life of hard work he had earned some rest.

"No, no!" cried the explorer; "I am only fifty-nine!"

This decided the point, and Franklin was appointed to the Erebus  and Terror, recently returned from the Antarctic expedition of Sir James Ross. The ships were provisioned for three years, and with a crew of one hundred and twenty-nine men and several officers, Sir John Franklin left England for the last time on 19th May 1845. He was never seen again!

All were in the highest spirits, determined to solve the mystery of the North-West Passage once and for all! So certain were they of success that one of the officers wrote to a friend: "Write to Panama and the Sandwich Islands every six months."

[433] On 4th July the ships anchored near the island of Disco on the west coast of Greenland. After which all is silence. The rest of the story, "one of the saddest ever told in connection with Arctic exploration," is dovetailed together from the various scraps of information that have been collected by those who sailed in search of the lost expedition year by year.

In 1848, Sir James Ross had sailed off in search of his missing friend, and had reached a spot within three hundred miles of the Erebus  and Terror  four months after they had been abandoned, but he returned with no news of Franklin.

Then Sir John Richardson started off, but found no trace. Others followed. The Government offered £20,000, to which Lady Franklin added £3000, to any one who should bring news of Franklin. By the autumn of 1850 there were fifteen ships engaged in the search. A few traces were found. It was discovered that Sir John Franklin had spent his first winter (1845–46) at Beechey Island. Carlin M'Clure sailed along the north coast of America and made his way from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean—thus showing the existence of a north-west passage, for which he and his men were highly rewarded, for at this time no one knew that Franklin had already found a passage though he had not lived to tell the story of triumph and success. But it was not till after years of silence that the story of the missing expedition was cleared up. Lady Franklin purchased and fitted out a little steam yacht, the Fox, of one hundred and seventy-seven tons. The command was given to Captain M'Clintock, known to be an able and enthusiastic Arctic navigator. He was to rescue any "possible survivor of the Erebus  and Terror, and to try and recover any records of the lost expedition."


[Illustration]

ESKIMOS AT CAPE YORK WATCHING THE APPROACH OF THE FOX.

The 12th August found the little Fox  in Melville Bay made fast to an iceberg, and a few days later she was frozen [434] firmly into an ice-pack. For two hundred and forty-two days she was beset, drifting all through the long, bitter winter with the ice, till on 25th April 1858, after having been carried over a thousand miles, she was released. M'Clintock, undaunted by danger, turned northwards, and by May he had reached Melville Bay. Thence up Lancaster Sound, he reached Beechey Island in August and found there three lonely graves of three sailors from the Erebus  and Terror. Here the English commander erected a tablet sent out by Lady Franklin.

On the morning of 16th August, M'Clintock sailed from Beechey Island, but the short summer was passing quickly and they had no fresh news of the Franklin expedition. Half-way through Bellot Strait the Fox  was again ice-bound, and another long winter had to be faced. By the [435] middle of February 1859 there was light enough to start some sledging along the west coast of Boothia Felix. Days passed and M'Clintock struggled on to the south, but no Eskimos appeared and no traces of the lost explorers were to be found. Suddenly they discovered four men walking after them.


[Illustration]

THE THREE GRAVES ON BEECHY ISLAND.

A naval button on one of the Eskimos attracted their attention.

"It came," said the Eskimo, "from some white people who were starved upon an island where there are salmon, but none of them had seen the white men."

Here was news at last—M`Clintock travelled on some ten miles to Cape Victoria, where the Eskimos built him a "commodious snow-hut in half an hour." Next morning the entire village of Eskimos arrived—some forty-five people—bringing relics of the white men. There were silver spoons, part of a gold chain, buttons, knives made of [436] the iron and wood of the wrecked ships. But none of these people had seen the white men—one man said he had seen their bones upon the island where they died, but some were buried. They said a ship "having three masts had been crushed by the ice out in the sea to the west of King William's Island." One old man made a rough sketch of the coast-line with his spear upon the snow; he said it was eight journeys to where the ship sank.

M'Clintock hastened back to the ship with his news—he had by his sleigh-journey added one hundred and twenty miles to the old charts and "completed the discovery of the coast-line of Continental America."

On 2nd April more sledge-parties started out to reach King William's Island—the cold was still intense, the glare of the sun painful to their eyes. The faces and lips of the men were blistered and cracked; their fingers were constantly frostbitten. After nearly three weeks' travelling they found snow-huts and Eskimos at Cape Victoria. Here they found more traces of Franklin's party—preserved meat tins, brass knives, a mahogany board. In answer to their inquiries, they heard that two ships had been seen by the natives of King William's Island; one had been seen to sink in deep water, the other was forced on shore and broken up. "It was in the fall of the year (August or September)," they said, when the ships were destroyed, that all the white people went away to the large river, taking a boat with them, and that in the following winter their bones were found there.


[Illustration]

EXPLORING PARTIES STARTING FROM THE FOX.

M'Clintock now made his way to the opposite coast of King William's Island. Here he found Eskimos with pieces of silver-plate bearing the crest and initials of Sir John Franklin and some of his officers. They said it was five days' journey to the wreck, of which little now remained. There had been many books, said the Eskimos, but they had been destroyed by the weather. One woman volunteered [438] a statement. "Many of the white men," she said, "dropped by the way as they went to the Great River. Some were buried and some were not. Their bodies were discovered during the winter following." Moving onwards, M'Clintock reached the Great Fish River on the morning of 12th May. A furious gale was raging and the air was heavy with snow, but they encamped there to search for relics. With pickaxes and shovels they searched in vain. No Eskimos were to be found, and at last in despair the little party of explorers faced homewards. M'Clintock was slowly walking near the beach, when he suddenly came upon a human skeleton, lying face downwards, half buried in the snow. It wore a blue jacket with slashed sleeves and braided edging and a greatcoat of pilot-cloth.

The old woman was right. "They fell down and died as they walked along." And now the reward of the explorers was at hand. On the north-west coast of King William's Island was found a cairn and a blue ship's paper, weather-worn and ragged, relating in simple language, written by one of the ship's officers, the fate of the Franklin expedition. The first entry was cheerful enough. In 1846 all was well. His Majesty's ships, Erebus  and Terror, wintered in the ice—at Beechey Island, after having ascended Wellington Channel and returned to the west side of Cornwallis Island. Sir John Franklin was commanding the expedition. The results of their first year's labour was encouraging. In 1846 they had been within twelve miles of King William's Island, when winter stopped them. But a later entry, written in April 1848, states that the ships were deserted on 22nd April, having been beset in ice since September 1846—that Sir John Franklin had died on 11th June 1847, and that Captain Crozier was in command.

Then came the last words, "And start to-morrow twenty-sixth for Back's Fish River." That was all.

[439] After a diligent search in the neighbourhood for journals or relics, M'Clintock led his party along the coast, till on 30th May they found another relic in the shape of a large boat, with a quantity of tattered clothing lying in her. She had been evidently equipped for the ascent of the Great Fish River. She had been built at Woolwich Dockyard; near her lay two human skeletons, a pair of worker slippers, some watches, guns, a Vicar of Wakefield, a small Bible, New Testament, and Prayer Book, seven or eight pairs of boots, some silk handkerchiefs, towels, soap, sponge, combs, twine, nails, shot, and cartridges, needle and thread cases, some tea and chocolate, and a little tobacco.

Everything was carefully collected and brought back to the ship, which was reached on 19th June. Two months later the little Fox  was free from ice and M'Clintock reached London towards the end of September, to make known his great discovery.

The rest of the story is well known. Most of us know the interesting collection of Franklin relics in the United Service Institution in London, and the monument in Waterloo Place to "the great navigator and his brave companions who sacrificed their lives in completing the discovery of the North-West Passage."

It was acknowledged "that to Sir John Franklin is due the priority of discovery of the North-West Passage—that last link to forge which he sacrificed his life."

And on the marble monument in Westminster Abbey, Tennyson, a nephew of Sir John Franklin, wrote his well-known lines—

"Not here, the white north hath thy bones, and thou,

Heroic Sailor Soul,

Art passing on thy happier voyage now

Towards no earthly pole."


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