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An Heroic Sailor-Soul by Nigel Roth

Dernière mise à jour : 4 mars 2021

On April 19, 1865, around twenty-five million Americans attended memorial services for the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, in Washington DC, and all over the vast United States.

On February 16, eight years earlier, a medical officer in the United States Navy died, and his funeral services were attended by even more Americans, from sea to shining sea.

And, you’ve probably never even heard of Elisha Kent Kane.

A year before this forgotten hero was born, a man began traipsing from Hudson Bay, east from the Coppermine riverhead, with mapmaking in mind. During the three years it took him and his expedition party to cover the distance required, he managed to lose more than half of his complement of men, either by way of starvation or murder, with cannibalism thrown in to stave off the hunger. When that didn’t work, they turned to eating their footwear, giving John Franklin the moniker of ‘the man who ate his boots’.

A decade before those men tried to map the north coast of Canada and ended up chewing their orthopedics, a man was born in Spilsby, six miles away from Franklin's own birthplace in Somersby, Lincolnshire, who would claim his own fame by becoming the longest serving poet laureate ever, once he’d completed his education at the King Edward Grammar School in Louth, large parts of which are now my house.

One of Alfred Tennyson’s poems was this one, written about his wife Emily’s uncle, the aforementioned shoe-muncher John Franklin.

Not here! the white North has thy bones; and thou,

Heroic sailor-soul,

Art passing on thine happier voyage now

Toward no earthly pole.

Not a happy ditty, but integral to our essay.

You see this is a story of three men, interconnected, and joined in ways that include, most significantly for me, and thus for you, the drawing room of my house.

Let’s begin with Franklin.

Having returned to England in 1822, thinner and more Canadian, Franklin married the Romantic poet, Eleanor Anne Porden, whose epic poem Cœur de Lion, or The Third Crusade, stretched to sixteen ‘books’, and was written while Franklin explored.

He fairly promptly left again, however, to once more trace the North American coast, this time beginning at the Mackenzie River, and then northeast with Frederick William Beechey from the Bering Strait, and finally down the Mackenzie, becoming the rather mediocre ‘second’ European to reach its mouth.

After that non-event, he returned to Lincolnshire, buried his first wife, who we presume had died, married his second, Jane Griffin, and was knighted by George IV, receiving diverse other accolades for traversing various things.

Meanwhile, our poet Tennyson was thirteen, and had left that same King Edward Grammar school in Louth, slamming the door of my drawing room on his way out maybe, to spend seven years learning as many words as he could, before going to Trinity College, Cambridge, and beginning his writing career. There he quickly published his first work, Poems by Two Brothers, in 1827, and his first solo collection, Poems Chiefly Lyrical, in 1830, and, although two of the poems from that collection, ‘Claribel’ and ‘Mariana’ became his most celebrated, they were, like most of his work, overly-sentimental, and, to put it mildly, awful.

He was certainly a very Victorian poet; unrelentingly verbose, uncontrollably pleonastic, and used peripheral periphrasis without limit. In other words, words he didn’t use, they were really, really long-winded.

And, now to Kane, the son of a district judge, and grandson of an American Revolutionary War patriot, a real one.

In 1843, at the age of just twenty-three, Kane became an assistant surgeon in the United States Navy, serving in the Africa Squadron and during the Mexican-American War, where he showed considerable compassion for the Mexicans he had been asked to slaughter. After this, he was appointed senior medical officer of the Grinnell Arctic Expedition, which spent several years searching relentlessly, but unsuccessfully for the lost Arctic expedition of, you’ve guessed it, one Sir John Franklin.

All they found was a deserted winter camp.

The camp was indeed Franklin’s, and he’d stayed there on his 1845 voyage to chart the Northwest passage. With two sturdy ships for the journey, the Erebus and the Terror, and fifty-nine years of experience, expertise, and rheumatism, he was trusted by the Admiralty to complete the mission.

The ships were state-of-the-art for the time, with steam engines, an innovative steam-based heating system to keep the men un-frostbitten, a distillation machine to provide fresh water for the engine's boilers, a brilliant mechanism that allowed the rudder and propeller to be protected from ice damage, a huge library of more than one-thousand books, and three full years of preserved and tinned rations.

And, off they jolly well went.

Well, as far as Greenland that is, where Franklin misjudged the location of Whitefish Bay on the brilliantly-named Disko Island, and had to backtrack until they found it. They wintered there before beginning the charting task which actually never got started as both ships became trapped in ice and probably never sailed again.

The last sighting of the expedition was in the summer of 1845, when the Erebus and the Terror were spotted moored, oddly, to an iceberg, near where Kane found that expedition camp.

Meanwhile, now in London, Tennyson was creating more elongated nonsense like Break Break Break, about a particularly long tennis game, and The Lady of Shalott, about a woman who loved small onions. In 1850 he reached his pinnacle, thankfully, writing what he felt was his masterpiece, In Memoriam AHH, and was appointed Poet Laureate, succeeding the equally-dull and dewy-eyed William Wordsworth, who went off to wander lonely, as a cloud.

In-between vomiting up poetry, he busied himself with decorating his new home on the Isle of Wight, where he’d spend his winters.

Around this time, Franklin, lost already, probably didn’t know whether it was winter, summer, or the Ninth Circle of Hell. It had been two years since the expedition had been heard from, and his devoted but rather-bored-with-playing-solitaire wife asked the Admiralty to go find him. They agreed, but waited a year to let the rest of Franklin’s rations dissolve into a toxic soup in their lead-leaking tins.

One of those belated rescue missions was the Second Grinnell Expedition, which set out in 1853, from New York, hoping to determine the fate of Franklin's Lost Expedition. As commander, Kane led the team first to Greenland to search for the unlucky commander, before setting a new record for penetrating farther north than any other explorer had done before, and charting more than fifteen-hundred kilometers of unexplored coastline north of 82°. They were also the first to discover the open Polar Sea, collected geographical, climatic, and magnetic observations that proved invaluable to our understanding of this far region, and discovered the ice-free Kennedy Channel.

Finally, after abandoning his icebound ship, Kane bravely led his team on an eighty-three day march to Upernavik, making it back to New York in October of 1855, with the loss of only one life.

Not bad for someone suffering from scurvy and feeling rather unwell the whole time.

Kane published the record of his journey a year after he returned, in Arctic Explorations: The Second Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, 1853, ‘54, ‘55, a first edition of which sits in front of me, on the shelves, in my drawing room.

They never did determine the fate of Franklin, but he probably died on King William Island in Nunavut, along with the rest of his crew, of starvation, hypothermia, pneumonia, tuberculosis, or scurvy, or a toxic combination of them all. And, if that didn’t get them, it was probably the lead poisoning they got from the badly-preserved food tins they had to survive on while they waited for the Admiralty to finish their tiffin.

And so, while Tennyson’s ghost whiles away his hours writing ditties on my slant-front desk, and Franklin’s spirit doodles icebergs while slouching uselessly in my wingback, it is Kane’s narrative of an epic journey of survival and heroic deeds in unknown lands, that takes pride of place on the tea table in my drawing room, as he did, in memoriam, across the great United States, one-hundred and sixty-four years ago next month.

photo by Ekrulila

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