Monday, 23 March 2009

The graves on Beechey Island

While we all hope that one day more written material will emerge from all the archaeological research into the Franklin Expedition, can we learn any more from what has already been found? Amongst the most poignant memorials of the Franklin Expedition are the graves of the three crewmembers who died on Beechey Island in 1846 during the first winter of the Expedition. While Dr. Owen Beattie and his team members have carried out a great deal of invaluable pathological research into the remains of the three men, little attention has been paid to the possible meanings of the inscriptions on the graves themselves. Each had an inscribed wooden headboard with the following inscriptions:
  • “Sacred to the memory of John Torrington, who departed this life January 1st, A.D.1846, on board of HM ship Terror, aged 20 years”
  • “Sacred to the memory of John Hartnell, AB, of HMS Erebus, died January 4th, 1846, aged twenty-five years. “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, consider your ways.” Haggai, I, 7”
  • “Sacred to the memory of William Braine, RM of HMS Erebus, died April 3rd, 1846, aged thirty-two years. “Choose ye this day whom you will serve”, Joshua xxiv, 15”

The choice of texts for the second and third deaths puzzled observers and still does today. And why had John Torrington not earned a text on his grave? Some commentators have said that these are forbidding inscriptions – ‘consider your ways!’ and ‘choose.. whom you will serve?’ It has been suggested they might signify dissent or even mutiny on the Expedition.

Why does John Torrington not have a Biblical quotation? This surely is because of the different characters of the two Captains, Crozier and Franklin. While Crozier was a conventional Anglican, Franklin had a real sense of Christian mission. John Torrington died aboard HMS Terror so Captain Crozier would have taken his funeral service and presumably chose not to put a text on the grave. The other two men were from HMS Erebus where Sir John Franklin was Captain. Franklin took his duties as spiritual leader very seriously. We know he held a Church service every Sunday and we even know what some of these services were like. Franklin took the first service of the Expedition on Sunday 18th May, 1845. After it Lieutenant Couch described him as ‘quite a Bishop. … Gives sermons out of his sermon books, and I can assure you add a great deal himself. They say they would sooner hear him than half the parsons of England’. Fitzjames wrote of the same service: ‘I like a man who is in earnest... Every one was struck with his extreme earnestness of manner, evidently proceeding from real conviction’. Fairholme said that Franklin had ‘the most beautiful and impressive manner I ever heard, even in a clergyman’ adding that ‘the service here is very different from in most ships’. On Sunday, 25thMay, 1845, when Franklin took the second service of the Expedition, he preached his sermon on 1 Kings xvii 16th verse: ‘and the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord’. He drew a straightforward message for the crew from the Old Testament text he selected - that the Expedition was well supplied with provisions and, provided they retained their faith, they would achieve their goal and come to no harm. Sergeant Daniel Bryant, Royal Marines, said that ‘Sir John called the ship’s company’s attention to that part of the sermon: and the whole of the ship’s company were very much pleased with Sir John’s appropriate text, and united in this point of view with Sir John, to accomplish our object which we have in view’. Franklin also held a second, more informal, service in his cabin every Sunday evening and Sergeant Bryant was so impressed with the ‘cruse of oil’ sermon that he said he would attend the evening sermon too, writing that ‘I shall always go as long as I am able. I could remain for hours to hear him.’ Both ships were fitted with barrel organs which could play ten psalm or hymn tunes, so these services had a musical accompaniment.

The Funerals of these men would have been important occasions and Franklin would have put in a lot of thought into the address he would preach at each. The text on the headboards must surely reflect his address. It would be strange to preach a sermon on one text and then inscribe a completely different one, and an obscure one, on the headboard. Can we draw any inferences from these texts which might inform us about what Franklin was trying to tell his men in these funeral addresses?

Hartnell’s text comes from the Book of Haggai. This was an exhortation by the prophet Haggai to the people of Israel to rebuild the second Temple at Jerusalem after the end of the Babylonian Captivity. Analysis of it enables us to suggest how Franklin might have seen Hartnell’s death and the lessons he might draw for the Expedition. Haggai is one of the shortest Books in the Bible and only a Biblical expert like Franklin could preach from it. In the Book the Prophet Haggai speaks three times to the Jews. Haggai’s first prophecy was made because the Jews had not rebuilt build the Temple in Jerusalem, concentrating instead on rebuilding their houses. God was angry and as a consequence the Jews were suffering from bad weather (Haggai 1:10), not enough to eat or drink and, apparently, inflation. God spoke through Haggai and asked the Jews to reconsider their priorities. This was the passage Franklin selected for John Hartnell’s grave: “Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Consider your ways”. The second prophecy of Haggai was prompted because the Jews responded that the Temple they would rebuild would not be as magnificent as the first Temple which had been built by King Solomon. God explained through the Prophet that if they did their best, He would ensure that whatever they did would become better than the old Temple, even if they could not understand why. This was taken to relate to the fact that Jesus would in time come to the new Temple and in this sense it would be more magnificent than King Solomon’s Temple. Hartnell was a junior member of the Expedition, so this choice of text could be used to show that his contribution should be valued as much as any other member of the Expedition. To the Expedition Franklin was saying that his crews were working hard and were well provided for in material ways and that if they ‘built the Temple’ with him, God would approve of them and grant them further help, but in ways which they could not necessarily understand. This message would have appealed especially to Franklin since, as a Freemason, he may well have taken the Masonic understanding of and relationship with the Temple very seriously. We can well imagine that a preacher with Franklin’s powers of oratory would deliver a surprising, challenging, moving and ultimately uplifting sermon on this text.

William Braine died three months later. He was a Royal Marine Private on HMS Erebus. Like John Hartnell, he received a carefully selected Biblical quotation on his tombstone. Again, it has been seen as forbidding. This is misconceived. In fact the quotation has an optimistic and even triumphalist message for the crew. But it also suggests that there had been a massive change in Franklin’s view of his own future on the Expedition. Chapter 24 is the last chapter of the Book of Joshua in which, with God’s help, the people of Israel triumph. It starts with Joshua calling together the warriors from the two tribes of Reuben and Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh, who had come over the Jordan with him to help fight the Canaanites. Joshua commends them for their obedience to Moses, to him and to God. It may be significant that Joshua is addressing the fighting men of the Israelites and that William Braine was a soldier too, a Royal Marine.

Joshua then sends the people on their way, having recapitulated to them all the great things God has done for them since they chose to follow Him alone. It is difficult to see how Franklin could have resisted referring to God’s promise in Chapter 23, verse 4 that “I have allotted to you these nations that remain... even unto the Great Sea westward (toward the going down of the Sun).” Surely Franklin would have referred to this passage, identifying the ‘great sea westward’ with the Pacific Ocean? (Joshua of course was referring to the Mediterranean.) Joshua tells the people that they should stick to the Laws of Moses and the covenant with God, and that if they did they would be sacrosanct as God’s people, but that they must show this covenant with their lives. This is an optimistic message.

What is quite extraordinary is that Joshua was speaking to the people of Israel in the knowledge that his own death was close and that they would have to continue without him. In 23.14 Joshua says “this day I am going the way of all the earth, and you know in all your hearts, and in all your souls, that not one thing has failed of all the good things which Yahweh your God has spoken concerning you. All have come about for you. Not one thing has failed of them.” Franklin must have understand that Joshua, the original preacher of this text, was dying and knew he was; and nor could his congregation have missed this implication. We know that in fact Franklin actually died a little over a year later, on 11th June 1847. Joshua was giving the people precise instructions to keep to the right ways and the rightful worship of God, and challenging them to affirm that they would, after he died. It was from precisely this passage that Franklin took the text inscribed on Braine’s grave:

“And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”.

Was Franklin asking the same thing of his men in this address?

In the Book of Joshua, the people chose the side of righteousness and rejected the false Gods, so Joshua finalised a covenant with them to confirm that. The Book closes with an account of the great covenant ceremony at Shechem, where Joshua had already written the words of the covenant on stones (8.32). Shechem was the place Moses had declared a covenant ceremony should take place on entering the land (Deuteronomy 27.2-8). It was there that Joshua finalised the covenant with the people that they will do their duty, at which point he died. Did Franklin draw a parallel between Beechey Island, where the Expedition had ‘entered the land’, and the Biblical Shechem, especially if Franklin knew that he was not going to survive much longer? Were these two graves – three including John Torrington’s –Franklin’s “altar in accordance with Exodus” 20.24-25 and “sanctuary there in response to God’s revelation” (Deuteronomy 27.5)?

The difference between the two texts is striking: the first is optimistic but the second may imply that Sir John Franklin’s health had broken during the hard winter of 1845-6. The address might be an acknowledgment that he was dying but a message that his men could still succeed after his death if they stuck to their ‘Covenant’? Of course this is speculation, and without more evidence we will never know whether this is the meaning Franklin attributed to these texts. But the analysis is intriguing and does at least suggest that the view that they imply any dissent on the Expedition at this stage is wide of the mark.


  1. William,

    All quite fascinating and tremendous food for thought!


  2. I agree with much of your conjecture, and especially with your argument against too much conjecture. Which is just why I think that there's no evidence in Braine's inscription for the idea of a terminally ill Franklin. While the narrative context of the verse is material to understanding why it was selected, the epitaph was for Braine, not for Franklin, and the speaker of these lines (assuming Franklin gave the elegy) would not necessarily be, or be seen as, re-enacting their original context. There is a hint, though, that as Braine was a Royal Marine, that perhaps he was involved in some kind of altercation -- but this, too, is impossible to establish on such slight evidence.

  3. Thanks chaps.

    Yes, this IS speculation, but that's what's blogs are for. I would not write this up as a formal academic paper (if anyone would publish it).

    Nonetheless I find it surprising that no-one has previously looked for the meaning in these texts, and of course at SOME stage whatever illness killed Franklin must have become apparent.

  4. You're assuming Franklin died of a lengthy illness. He could possibly have died from an injury as well, or a more sudden event such as a stroke or a heart attack. If he were really gravely ill enough for the crews to know about it and anticipate his demise, it would be remarkable for him to linger on for more than an entire year to June of 1847!

    On the other hand, it is worth noting that the marker from HMS Terror had no Biblical verse -- you are surely right that this reflects a difference between the two ships' commanders, a point not made before, so far as I'm aware.

  5. Russell,

    I hope I have been sufficiently careful to separate fact from speculation. The facts are that there were Biblical texts written on the two Erebus graves, and that these have not been considered up to now as having any possible meaning. It may be that there is more information to be gleaned from them. For example, they seem to show a difference of approach in man management between Franklin (and Fitzjames) and Crozier, which was already apparent before the ships left Greenland.

    I suggest it is very likely that a sermon or address was preached around the texts on the other two graves, though that is not certain of course. Discussing what the content of those sermons might have been is definitely speculative. But I see no harm in speculation, given that we have so little hard evidence and provided we don't build speculations on speculations.

    As far as Franklin suffering from a lengthy illness is concerned, I'd suggest there are several pointers that he might have done. He personally signed the note which was thrown overboard on July 1845, as Captain of HMS Erebus, but he did not sign the similar papers which Gore deposited on KIng William Island in 1847. Instead they were not signed at all. Fitzjames (presumably) simply completed them with the wording 'Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition' in place of a signature. If Sir John was fit and well at that point, why would he not have signed them? And '... commanding the Expedition' is a slightly strange wording too, because it avoids mentioning who was in effective command of Erebus. That might have been a thorny issue if Franklin was disabled but not prepared to admit he was no longer in control. All this suggests that maybe his death was not instant, as it would be if he was eaten by a Polar Bear or choked on a Gin and Tonic.

    All I really wanted to do with this thread was show that the graves were an example of potentially important material which has been known about for a long time but neglected. There are other examples.

    Why not one of us start a thread on speculating what killed Franklin?

  6. "Commanding the Expedition" is not unexpected language -- though HMS "Erebus" was Franklin's ship of command, the daily management of the vessel was Fitzjames -- this much is clear in Franklin's original sailing orders from the Admiralty. That he did not sign the Gore papers is indeed unusual, and may be a sign that he was alive but disabled even before this party left the ships. While we're speculating, what this suggests to me is some non-fatal but disabling event such as a stroke. Nevertheless, I'd be reluctant to reason backwards from this fact to the Bible verses chosen for the Beechey headboards more than a year earlier.

    But even if we allow that the text on the boards was the rubric for a sermon by Sir John, it does not to my mind follow that he saw himself as Joshua, or that the original context of this one line was necessarily his topic. A search of this phrase on Google and Google Books produces dozens and dozens of sermons with this line as their key text, none of them preached by dying men (although the idea of everyone's eventual death and final judgment is certainly present).

    For example, here is a passage from the Rev. J.S. Baker's Revival Sermons, published in 1847, which contains this very line:

    "Can you say that you do wait for the Lord more than they who do thus long for the breaking of the day, and the rising of the morning star? You are waiting God's time ? Is this really so? Then, be it thus; but remember, the present is his time, as it is written—" Behold now is the accepted time—behold, now is the day of salvation." And again : "Choose ye this day whom you will serve." And again, "To-day, if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts." And now my friends, in closing, hear me! O, do attend to what I say! Only a little while, and we shall have done with the scenes of this transitory state—only a little while, and our race will have been run, our probation closed, and our character and destiny sealed for ever."

    Come to think of it, this sounds very much like the sort of sermon old Sir John might very well have preached!

  7. My attention was drawn to your 'Blog'(?) by a good friend. May I make the following comments? Although I emphatically do not agree with everything Professor Potter says, he knows his stuff well enough to be listened to very carefully. I certainly agree that attaching some sort of self-death prophecy to Franklin as a result of a biblical verse on a tombstone is stretching matters somewhat.

    From my own experience (36 years in the Royal Navy)the biblical quotations mean exactly what they say - and were intended as a warning for the remainder of the ship's companies (not 'crews', please). I can well imagine Franklin wishing to tie improper behaviour in with a subsequent death. It was vital for him to retain a high moral tone amongst his ship's companies. With his own rigid Victorian rectitude as an example, he would have seen any dissolute behaviour amongst his men as an embarrassment to himself as well as them, and is likely to have recorded the fact on their tombstone as a salutary lesson to others.

    As for the question of lead poisoning. Firstly, Beattie's work was compromised by the selection of evidence he chose (one important member of his Beechey Island visit was with me on my third visit to King William Island). Apparently, much of the measurement came from the hair of the bodies. Lead readings in hair varies along its length. There was a strong rumour circulating among many of Beatie's team that only the portions that showed high lead levels were used for the ultimate lead level measurments - thus warping the whole procedure.

    You also say that there is no evidence that the meat in the tins was tainted. Please consider the following -

    1. The tinned food was intended to be used later in the expedition. Unlike expeditions to hotter climates - which varied the tinned food with the salted meat - Franklin had a practically unlimited supply of fresh water in which to prepare the salted meat. His order of victualling would have been, fresh meat, livestock (including birds shot when the opportunity arose), salted meat, tinned food. Yet why were so many cans used early in the expedition?

    2. There were piles of cans on Beechey Island - ie. early in the expedition. These cans were found close by a 'blacksmith's shop'. This could only mean that the cans were being recycled to provide thin sheets of metal (very valuable as a means of repair), and to extract the lead for use as musket balls or shot. Why were so many cans available so early in the expedition?

    3. Although a very valuable artifact amongst the Eskimos, very few tins have been found in their possession - or along the route. Why?

    The answer to the above questions lie in the simple reason that, at some time, probably once they had entered Lancaster Sound, it was discovered that the canned food was almost entirely rotten. The vast majority would have been dumped overboard, some retained for recycling, only a few would have been made available to the native population.

    Of course, Franklin could have turned back - but I would not have, would you?

    Although your suggestion that the lead could have come from the heating system used on board is interesting, you appear to have overlooked that fact that lead plumbing was commonly used in England at that time. I do not know whether or not the body can build up a tolerance to lead over time - but millions of people were taking their water from lead pipes, apparently without much harm coming to them. Franklin and his seamen would have been subjected to just the same systems of plumbing.

    You also say that 'other ship's crews eating similar food did not suffer significant lead poisoning'. How do you know? Do you have examples of other autopsies being carried on other expeditions? I do not know of any. It is very dificult to prove a negative. Furthermore, it must not be forgotten that that men on Beechey Island all died of pneumonia or tuburculosis - not lead poisoning.

    One thing I must take issue with you. I cannot conceivably imagine that the officer's would have commandeered distilled water for their own use. That is not the RN way, and I cannot believe that Franklin, Crozier, FitzJames, or any of the other officers would have countenance such a thing.

    Professor Potter is quite right about the use of the phrase 'Commanding the Expedition', FitzJames would have been, to all extents and purposes, captain of the Erebus. Although a Commander, he had commanded his own ship and therefore had the necessary experience. Franklin, on the other hand, was the expedition leader and would have taken little part in the day-to-day running of the ship.

    There were a few other thing - but as you have by now lost the will to live - I shall draw to a close.

    Best wishes,
    E C Coleman

  8. Thank you for your carefully considered comments. We really ought to have 'lead' comments under the lead piece of the blog so if I may I'll put my thoughts on your comments there.

    My point about the biblical quotations is simply that they are very interesting and it surprises me that no-one else has considered them. It is intriguing - no more - that the second quotation COULD imply that the preacher was ill.. Of course in itself this is far too flimsy to be considered as 'evidence'.