Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin, Captain, Digital Portrait Gallery



(16th April 1786 – 11th June 1847)

FEW persons are better entitled to call the interest they have excited a national one, than the individual whose services are the subject of the ensuing sketch. To the credit of our country be it spoken, that England was the first to set the example of voyages of scientific discovery. The early navigators renewed the days of their Saxon or Danish ancestors; their path was blood, and their desire gain. The attempts set on foot by one or two enlightened merchants, and carried into action by several daring sailors, to find out the north-west passage, may be considered the commencement of that system which has even in our own time been pursued with so much success. The navigators of Great Britain are as much an order by themselves, as the philosophers and poets of other countries ; and the subject of our Memoir is among the most distinguished of his class.

JOHN FRANKLIN was born at Spilsby, in Lincolnshire, in 1786. In his fourteenth year he entered the navy, a profession for which he had always shown strong partiality, and was at once initiated into its utmost peril and glory, by being on board the Polyphemus, under the command of Captain Law-ford, at the battle of Copenhagen. He escaped without a wound, while a brother midshipman was killed in that tremendous action. He next joined the Investigator under the command of Captain Flinders, who was bound on a voyage of discovery to the coast of New Holland. Under this able sea-man, who was his uncle by marriage, he acquired much of the knowledge so invaluable to his after career. Young Franklin was one of the midshipmen appointed to attend the Captain whenever he made excursions in boats, or visited the shore, for the purpose of statistical or mathematical observations. After some time, the Investigator being unfit for further service, the officers were ordered home in the Porpoise, commanded by Lieutenant Fowler.

Captain Flinders having discovered a passage in the strait which divides New Holland and New Guinea, was anxious to return with the Porpoise by a way that seemed to be alike safe and expeditious. But on the 10th of August, 1803, both ships struck on a coral reef. Captain Flinders now took the command upon himself, and with Mr. Park, the chief officer of the Cato, proceeded in the largest cutter for Port Jackson, upwards of 300 miles distant. Ninety-four persons remained on the coral bank, a bleak barren rock, supported for above two months only by what they had saved from the wreck.

Mr. Franklin next sailed with Captain Fowler to Canton, and there embarked on board the Earl Camden, Captain Dance, and had the charge of the signals during the celebrated engagement in the straits of Malacca, where the French Admiral Linois was so completely defeated. This victory was the more glorious, as the British fleet only consisted of Bombay merchant ships and East Indiamen. Yet, heavily laden, and ill suited as they were for nautical warfare, they entirely baffled a French line-of-battle ship, two heavy frigates, a sloop of war, and a brig of eighteen guns.

Mr. Franklin was next appointed to the, Bellerophon, Captain Loring, at whose express direction he was employed as signal-midshipman in the memorable battle of Trafalgar; a service of great danger, as the Bellerophon being engaged yard-arm and yard-arm with the Aigle, a French seventy-four, the poop where he stood was swept by the enemy's musketry. Out of forty companions, only seven, of whom he was one, escaped without wounds or death. A singular instance of intrepidity, and of the respect given to it even by a foe, occurred in this engagement. The ensign having been twice shot away and rehoisted, on the third time Christopher Beaty, the yeoman of the signals, exclaimed, "Well, that is too bad ; the fellows will say we have struck ;" and seizing a union jack, he jumped up the mizzen-rigging, and stopped the corners the whole breadth of the rigging, in the most cool and determined manner :—the enemy, who had never before allowed a man to show himself without firing, struck with Beaty's daring, paused in their discharge, and stood looking, as if in admiration of his brave conduct.

For the next two years Mr. Franklin served in the channel fleet and the Rochefort squadron, under Admiral Cornwallis, Lord St. Vincent, and Sir Richard Strachan.

He afterwards went on board the Bedford, was employed on shore by Sir Putney Malcolm, and on December 12th, 1814, distinguished himself particularly in the attack on the American gun-boats, whose capture was one of the most dashing exploits performed during the war. He was here slightly wounded. The whole of this attack, indeed, deserves to be more noticed than it has yet been, as it was one of the bravest and most peculiar actions that occurred in this arduous struggle. Mr. Franklin was in the command of the Bedford's boats, and the first to board one of the enemy's schooners, which surrendered to him. His conduct obtained the highest praise, both from the naval and military commanders, was honorably mentioned in the official despatches, and also procured for him the first lieutenancy of the Forth, Captain Sir William Bolton. This ship conveyed the Duchess d' Angouleme to France, on the restoration of the Bourbons. Twice before in the Bedford, Mr. Franklin had formed part of a royal convoy. That ship escorted the Emperor of the Brazils to South America, and was part of the squadron commanded by his Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence, which accompanied the allied sovereigns to England. He was also engaged in land service, being attached to the body of seamen belonging to the expedition which succeeded in carrying the fort on the left banks of the Mississippi.

In 1818, two expeditions were fitted out for the discovery, if possible, of the long sought passage to the North Pole. Lieutenant Franklin commanded the tender, the Trent, attached to the Dorothea, Captain Buchan ; to which post he was recommended by the late Sir Joseph Banks, who was one of his very early friends and patrons. The great object of this expedition was to make for the North Pole, and if it reached that destination, to enter the Pacific by Behring's straits. The attempt was, however, unsuccessful.

Immediately on his return he was appointed to the command of an overland expedition to the shores of the Polar seas, and by this means open, if possible, a communication with Captain Parry, who had just sailed for Davis's straits. This was a most important point to effect ; for could they have succeeded in the junction, the continuance of the coast eastward from the Coppermine river to Repulse Bay or Melville Peninsula, might have been inferred, though not actually traced ; and at any rate the opening to the Atlantic have been assured.

Captain Franklin sailed from England in 1819. in the Prince of Wales. In August he arrived in Hudson's Bay. The second week in September the adventurers set forth for Cumberland House on the Pine Island Lake. The distance was 690 miles. The ascent of the Hill-river was laborious to an excess. The boats had usually to be dragged up by ropes, and the goods to be continually taken out and carried across the land, or portages, as they are called by the natives and hunters. The cold was intense ; yet Captain Franklin and his companions arrived in July at the Coppermine river, after a journey of 815 miles in snow shoes weighing three pounds, their ankles swollen with exertion, and chilled by the frost. He then sailed between five and six hundred miles along the coast, thus making the most important additions to our geographical knowledge, furnishing data whereby to correct our very defective maps, and enlarging the stores of natural history.
The sufferings of Captain Franklin and his party seem, on their return, to have been beyond human endurance. Cold, famine, and fatigue assailed them in their severest forms. What a picture of suffering is a day like the following! and yet that was but the very commencement : " As we had nothing to eat, and were destitute of the means of making a fire, we remained in our beds the whole day ; but the covering of our blankets was insufficient to prevent us from feeling the severity of the frost, and suffering inconvenience from the drifting of the snow into our tents. There was no abatement of the storm the next day ; our tents were completely frozen, and the snow had drifted around them to a depth of three feet ; and even in the inside there was a covering several inches thick on the blankets. Our suffering from cold, in a canvass tent, with the temperature at 20', and without fire, will easily be imagined ; it was, however, less than that which we felt from hunger."

Their only food, during this dreadful journey, was a chance deer or partridge, and some tripe de roche. They were at last reduced to the dreadful extremity of eating their shoes. A piece of singed leather was an absolute dainty ; and the bones and putrid skins of animals, left in the snow, were greedily devoured. Capt. Franklin thus describes another day, the sample of many : " The first operation, after encamping, was to thaw our frozen shoes, if a sufficient fire could be made, and dry ones were put on ; each person then wrote his notes of the daily occurrences, and evening prayers were read. As soon as supper was prepared, it was eaten, generally in the dark, and we went to bed, and kept up a cheerful conversation until our blankets were thawed by the heat of our hodies, and we had gathered sufficient warmth to enable us to fall asleep. On many nights we had not even the luxury of going to bed in dry clothes ; for when the fire was insufficient to dry our shoes, we durst not pull them off, lest they should freeze so hard as to be unfit to put them on in the morning."

We remember nothing in fictitious narrative that ever affected us so painfully as when, after all their toil and hardship, the travellers reach Fort Enterprise, and find it perfectly desolate. " It would be impossible to describe our sensations,"  says the admirable volume published by Captain Franklin, " after entering this miserable abode, and discovering how we had been neglected : the whole party shed tears, not so much for their own fate, as for that of our friends in the rear, whose lives depended on immediate relief." Reduced by hunger and fatigue to a state of infant weakness, Captain Franklin's occupation was to search for skins under the snow ; but he had not strength to drag more than two, though the distance was not twenty yards. These very skins, their chief sustenance, were so putrid as to be loathed even by men suffering this extremity of famine. So reduced to weakness were the party, that when any number sat or lay down, they were obliged to keep a companion or two standing on the watch, to help them to rise again!!!"

We cannot here but point attention to the religious spirit which alone supported them through such utter misery. Captain Franklin states, "We read prayers, and a portion of the New Testament, in the morning and evening; and I may remark, that the performance of these duties always afforded us the greatest consolation, serving to reanimate our hope in the mercy of the Omnipotent. who alone could save and deliver us. "—" Owing to our loss of flesh, the hardness of the floor, from which we were only protected by a blanket, produced soreness over the body, and especially those parts on which the weight rested in lying; yet to turn ourselves for relief was matter of toil and difficulty."

But even this bodily suffering was aggravated by its mental effects. "In proportion as our strength decayed, (he adds,) our minds exhibited symptoms of weakness, evinced by a kind of unreasonable pettishness with each other. Each of us thought the other weaker in intellect than himself, and more in need of advice and assistance. So trifling a circumstance as a change of place, recommended by one as being warmer or more comfortable, and refused by the other from a dread of motion, frequently called forth fretful expressions, which were no sooner uttered than atoned for, to be repeated, perhaps, in the course of a few minutes." Relief arrived at length. Three Indians brought them provisions, and were received with equal delight and thankfulness.

We have only given a brief outline of this extraordinary adventure, which occupied the years 1819, 20, 21, and 22; and must refer to Captain Franklin's own works, for the filling up of the noble picture of exertion and endurance. Such men are indeed the great ornaments of their country. The traveller who braves every danger, and suffers every hardship in the pursuit of information, must look to opinion as his chief reward. That reward has, in its most extended sense, been given to Captain Franklin. Universal was the applause and sympathy with which he was met on his return to England ; and, we may be permitted to say, never were they more truly merited.

In 1823 he married Miss Porden ; a lady whose poetical talents had already been employed in celebrating those heroes of the north. "The Arctic Expedition" had alluded very gracefully to their gallant efforts.* It is not, therefore to be won dered at, that the hero of imagination became the object of admiration, when  circumstances threw them together. The happiness of this marriage was very brief. Mrs. Franklin had a predisposition to consumption, and the disease was at its height when her husband was ordered on another voyage of Arctic discovery. Mrs. Franklin had always entered enthusiastically into his plans ; and, with all the energy of a highly-toned mind, it was the wife who gave the support in this trying separation. They parted, and she expired five days after ; leaving an infant daughter, who still survives. No hazard in Captain Franklin's life of arduous duty could ever have equalled this painful sacrifice. We will quote his own simple and touching allusion to it .

Sail, sail, adventurous barks ! go fearless forth ;
Storm, on his glacier seat, the misty North.
Give to mankind the inhospitable zone.
And Britain's trident plant in seas unknown.
Go ! sure wherever science fills the mind,
Or grief for man long severed from his kind,
That anxious natives watch the changing gales,
And prayers and blessings swell your flagging sails."

"During our absence, the men had pitched the tent on the beach, and I caused the silk union flag to be hoisted, which my deeply lamented wife had made, and presented to me as a parting gift, under the express injunction that it was not to be unfurled before the expedition reached the sea. I will not attempt to describe my emotions as it expanded to the breeze, however natural, and, for the moment, irresistible. I felt that it was my duty to suppress them, and that I had no right, by an indulgence in my own sorrows, to cloud the animated countenances of my companions. Joining, therefore, with the best grace that I could command, in the general excitement, I endeavoured to return, with corresponding cheerfulness, their warm congratulations, on having thus planted the British flag on this remote island of the polar sea." For the information collected, and the hardships endured, in this his last voyage, we refer the reader to Captain Franklin's own most interesting account. We shall only allude to a discovery made very nearly at his own serious expense. He had, in Garry's Island, picked up a piece of wood-coal, and put it into his pocket. In the course of the evening it ignited spontaneously, and scorched the metal powder-horn by his side.

This last expedition was performed in 1825, 26, and 27 ; and, it was hoped, would have enabled our brave and intelligent countrymen to meet Captain Beechey, who was at the same time navigating Kotzebue's Sound, from the Pacific, and thus have accomplished a survey of the whole northern coast of the American continent. But much as was done, this final desire was not perfected. Yet the approach was so close as to leave nothing of scientific value to be wished for.

" Could I have known, (says Capt. Franklin,) or by possibility imagined, that a party from the Blossom had been at the distance of only one hundred and sixty miles from me, no difficulties, dangers, or discouraging circumstances should have prevailed on me to return : but taking into account the uncertainty of all voyages in a sea obstructed by ice, I had no right to expect that the Blossom had advanced beyond Kotzebue Inlet, or that any party from her had doubled Icy Cape. It is useless now to speculate on the probable result of a proceeding which did not take place ; but I may observe, that, had we gone forward as soon as the weather permitted, namely, on the 18th, it is scarcely possible that any changes of circumstances could have enabled us to overtake the Blossom's barge.

" The distance of the coast, traced westward from the mouth of the Mackenzie, was three hundred and seventy-four miles, without discovering in all that space one harbour in which a ship could find shelter. It is, in fact, one of the most dreary, miserable, and uninteresting portions of sea-coast to be found in any part of the world."

On the other side, to the east of Mackenzie's River, (where the expedition divided into two parties, one proceeding eastward under Captain Franklin,) Dr. Richardson traversed five hundred miles ; and both together greatly enlarged the bounds of geographical discovery, as well as geology, natural history, and other branches of science.

Of the hardships which attended this journey, though nothing like those of the former, an idea may be formed from the following extract : At the end of the second year, when " owing to the severe extremity of the weather in the months of January and February, the sources from whence they had derived their food failed them. All the animals but the wolf and the fox had migrated to the southward ; the stock of dried meat was expended ; the fish caught did not allow more than three or four small herrings to each man, and, being out of season, not only afforded very little nourishment, but caused frequent and general indisposition. Under such circumstances they were obliged to have recourse to their provision of pemmican and portable soup, which had been set apart for the voyage along the sea-coast. Towards March, however, their situation began to improve.

" From this period (says the narrative) we had a sufficient supply of provision, because the fisheries improved, and we received deer from time to time. The men who had been indisposed gained strength, from the increased quantity, and amended quality, of the food ; and we had also the gratification of seeing the dogs daily fatten, amidst the general plenty. The conduct of the men during the season of scarcity was beyond all praise ; and the following anecdote is worthy of record, as displaying the excellent feeling of a British seaman, and as speaking the sentiments of the whole party. Talking with Robert Spinks as to the difference of his present food from that to which he had been accustomed on board ship, I said, I was glad the necessity was over of keeping them on short allowance. Why, Sir,' said he, we never minded
about the short allowance, but were fearful of having to use the pemmican intended for next summer ; we only care about the next voyage, and shall all be glad when the spring comes, that we may set off; besides, at the worst time, we could always spare a fish for each of our dogs.' "

On the termination of his second voyage, to the credit of America be it mentioned, one of Captain Franklin's first tributes came from the United States. The Corporation of New York Toted to him a copy of the Memoir published by the Committee, on celebrating the completion of the New York canals, and the medal struck on that occasion. A deputation of the Committee presented this token of their admiration. Another proof how highly foreign countries estimate his efforts in the cause of science, occurred when the Geographical Society of Paris voted him their gold medal, value 1200 francs, and constituted him one of their members. On his arrival in England, his Majesty was graciously pleased to confer upon him the honour of knighthood. The University of Oxford likewise gave him the degree of Doctor of Common Law. Captain Sir John Franklin is also Fellow of the Royal and Geological, and a member of the Astronomical Societies. The Wernerian and Philosophical Societies of Bristol have made him an honorary member.

Uniting the enthusiasm of enterprise with the most steady perseverance of purpose, and gifted at once with that energy which communicates its own spirit to the companions of its toils, inspiring them with that reliance which inferiors are so quick in discerning, if it be deserved by their leader; brave, humane, and devoted to his country's service, Captain Franklin may and will be held up as a model to his profession. One circumstance we must mention as especially deserving of praise—the strong attachment he appears to have inspired in all those beneath his command. Self-denial seems to have been his secret ; and it was never more evinced than when, at the close of his second voyage, he placed all his hop under the command of his judgment, and resolved to return. He thus speaks of the enthusiastic confidence of his party : " I felt it was my business to judge of their capacity of so doing, and not to allow myself to be seduced by their ardour, however honorable to them and cheering to me."

Disinterestedness is one of his most honorable characteristics.

After his return home, we have understood, that Sir John Franklin refused the most tempting offers which could detach him from the naval service. Among others, he declined the Australian Commission, at present enjoyed by Captain Parry ; and we have reason to know that the sum of £2000 per annum was insufficient to divert him from the path he had marked out for his life to tread.

In 1829, Sir John married a second time, Miss Griffin, a lady of fortune and great accomplishments ; and we are sure our readers will join in wishing him that repose in domestic happiness which he has so hardly earned. But his abilities are of too high an order to admit of his country sparing him while yet in the vigour of life. He lately sailed in the command of a noble vessel for the Mediterranean ; a station, upon which some of the most important questions which may agitate the political world are likely to be brought to issue, and where it is consequently most expedient to have officers of great skill, tried judgment, conduct, and experience.

Facts, says the old proverb, are stubborn things, and a short summary of the most striking events in his life will be our best panegyric. He was present at the four great naval achievements in the late war : at the battle of Copenhagen-at that in the Straits of Malacca—at the battle of Trafalgar—and the capture of the American gun-boats. He has made one voyage of discovery to New Holland, during which he suffered shipwreck, and three voyages to the Arctic regions —the second quite unparalleled in the history of human enterprise and human endurance. We give him the highest praise when we say that Captain Franklin's history is even less honorable to himself than it is to his country. With defenders like him, the British flag will still be one which " has braved a thousand years the battle and the breeze."