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Exploration at the edge: Reassessing the fate of Sir John Franklin's last Arctic expedition

Durey, M. (2008) Exploration at the edge: Reassessing the fate of Sir John Franklin's last Arctic expedition. The Great Circle: Journal of the Australian Association for Maritime History, 30 (2). pp. 3-40.


Few historical figures can claim to have had so many of the Earth's topographical features named after them as Sir John Franklin. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin may dominate the place names of the United States of America, but the reach of Sir John Franklin's name is truly global, from the Arctic in the north to Australia and Antarctica in the south. The names of a river, an island, a fort, a strait, a cape, a bay, a sound, a point, a lake, a national park, a town, a village, two mountains and a mountain range memorialise the achievements of the Royal Navy explorer. In only one place has he failed to be commemorated: on the Moon. No fewer than six nineteenth-century polar explorers including Francis Crozier, Franklin's second-in-command on his final journey have features of the Moon named after them, but Sir John's name was rejected in the 1860s, no doubt because a crater already commemorated his namesake, Benjamin.

Despite Sir John Franklin's undoubted impact on the world's atlas, today he is remembered, if at all, only for his ultimately disastrous Arctic expedition in search of the final section of a navigable North - West Passage. Currently, many historians do not hold Franklin in high esteem, especially those based in North America and influenced by the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography. He has been criticised for his inflexibility, his cultural myopia and his ethnocentrism; he is parodied as 'the man who ate his boots' to prevent starvation and much is made of a comment by the American Dr. Richard King in 1845 that he had sailed to the Arctic 'to become the nucleus of an iceberg'. Yet, like Henry Hudson and James Cook before him and Robert Falcon Scott after, Franklin belongs in a pantheon of British maritime heroes who died, in extremis, on missions of exploration that helped to create and define the modern world. Perhaps paradoxically and like other explorers, he not only helped to open up the world but also, by his surveying so much of the North American coastline, helped to define and delimit it. Reserved, good-natured, dutiful but unlucky, Franklin was an unlikely but genuinely heroic figure whose reputation has not survived the passing of his era and its replacement by one which focuses on the dark underside of western imperial expansion rather than on its achievements. Modern explanations of the mystery of Franklin's last expedition need to be considered within this context. This article reviews the recent interpretations of Franklin and reassesses the evidence relating to his final expedition. It concludes that the lampooning of Franklin is unwarranted and that most of the mystery surrounding the crews' fate has now been satisfactorily explained.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Publisher: Australian Association for Maritime History
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