Friday, 10 April 2009

Is the conventional interpretation of the ‘Victory Point’ note wrong?

The Franklin Expedition was last seen on either 29th or 31st July, 1845, when the tips of their ships’ masts were visible to Captain Martin of the whaler ‘Enterprise’ in the eastern reaches of Baffin Bay. Martin’s position then was 75 12' N, 61 6' W. From the Victory Point note we know they became beset off King William Island on 12th September, 1846, and from the graves at Beechey Island we know they over-wintered there in 1845-1846. Almost the only other significant information we have about what happened between these dates is given in this extract from the Victory Point note, and its duplicate also left on King William Island:

“HM Ships Erebus and Terror 28 of May 1847 Wintered in the Ice in Lat 70 5 N. Long 98 23 W Having wintered in 1846-7 at Beechey Island in Lat 74 43 28 N. Long. 91 39 15 W after having ascended Wellington Channel to Lat. 77. and returned by the West side of Cornwallis Island.”

This has always been read to mean that in the summer and autumn of 1845 the Expedition sailed past Beechey Island, up Wellington Channel to 77N, and then back south and east via the west side of Cornwallis Island to overwinter 1845-6 back at Beechey Island. (From the graves there we know the ‘wintering’ there took place in 1845-6 and not 1846-7). Then in spring / summer 1846 it left Beechey Island and sailed west and then south towards the North American coastline before becoming beset. But this depends on whether we think Fitzjames intended “having wintered Beechey Island” to be a subjunctive clause or the start of a second sentence. The conventional interpretation

“HM Ships Erebus and Terror 28 of May 1847 Wintered in the Ice in Lat 70 5 N. Long 98 23 W. Having wintered in 1846-7 at Beechey Island in Lat 74 43 28 N. Long. 91 39 15 W after having ascended Wellington Channel to Lat. 77. and returned by the West side of Cornwallis Island.”

could equally read:

“HM Ships Erebus and Terror 28 of May 1847 Wintered in the Ice in Lat 70 5 N. Long 98 23 W, having wintered in 1846-7 at Beechey Island in Lat 74 43 28 N. Long. 91 39 15 W, after having ascended Wellington Channel to Lat. 77. and returned by the West side of Cornwallis Island.”

As far as I can tell from textual examination, either is possible. Which is more likely?

I make the distance from Martin’s position in Baffin Bay to the 77N position north of Cornwallis Island, then back to Beechey Island by the west of Cornwallis Island, to be about 850 nautical miles. If they made this voyage in 1845, the Expedition would have had to maintain an average speed of c.0.4 knots over the whole journey, or almost 750 metres per hour, 24 hours a day, even without stopping to take magnetic observations. By contrast their 1846 voyage, from Beechey Island to the position they became beset off King William Island, a distance of about 320 nautical miles, would only have required an average speed of 0.1 knots, or under 200 metres per hour.

But if in 1845 they only sailed from Martin’s position as far as Beechey Island, a distance of 440 nautical miles, their average speed would only have needed to have been c.0.2 knots, or 370 metres per hour. Then in 1846 they would have had to have sailed from Beechey Island north to 77N, then turned back and sailed south by the west of Cornwallis Island to the point where they became beset, which is a distance of just over 700 nautical miles. That would have required an average speed of c0.3 knots, or about 550 metres per hour. The conventional interpretation suggests they made an extremely fast voyage in 1845 and a very slow one in 1846. The alternative interpretation permits more consistency in their progress. There are a couple of logical arguments which suggest that the ‘alternative’ explanation may have some merit.

· Sherard Osborn made an interesting comment about the assumed magnetic observatory at Cape Riley, which was close to their Beechey Island anchorage. The expedition was charged with taking very detailed magnetic observations on certain specific dates, which were called Term Dates. The idea was that on Term Dates, every magnetic observatory around the world would take readings at exactly the same time. Later, when all the readings could be analysed together, they would make possible retrospective global analysis of fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetism. The Term Date after the Expedition left Disko Island was 29th August, 1845. Osborne suggested the Expedition was very likely to have been at Cape Riley on 29th August, 1845, and if so there would have been very little time afterwards to make the long voyage to 77 degrees North and then back to Beechey Island before winter set in.

· If the Expedition returned to Beechey Island in 1845 after ascended Wellington Channel to 77 degrees north, why did it do so by the west side of Cornwallis Island? This makes no sense when Beechey Island lay to the south and east of their position. Also, their maps did not show Cornwallis Island to be an island, so how could they have known that an unexplored channel to its south and west would lead them back where they wanted to go? But this route would makes sense if they made the ascent to 77N in 1846, as it would have allowed a much more direct route south to Peel Sound. There would have been time in 1845-6 for parties to have surveyed the area, and Peel Strait and the west of Cornwallis Island both lie within 100 nautical miles of Beechey Island. We know there were traces of sledging expeditions sent out from the Erebus and Terror in the snow and ice on the land around Beechey Island, but trails along the sea ice would not have survived.

The truth is that we don’t know which of these interpretations of the Victory Point note is correct, and we never will unless further written evidence comes to light. The only facts we know about what happened after the ships left Captain Dannet is that they overwintered 1845-6 at Beechey Island, became beset off King William Island on 12th September 1846 and before doing so attempted the North West Passage firstly to the north and then secondly to the south.


  1. An excellent outline of the issues! It's worth noting that, short of the Passage itself, the next priority of Franklin's orders was making magnetic observations; the information about Term Dates is fascinating and has not to my knowledge ever been brought up before in this context.

    While I see the logic in the circumnavigation would have made more sense in 1846, I would still mention Adam Beck's note as a complicating factor. Beck himself testified that he found a message on a "shining skin" attached to a pole on a high point overlooking Beechey. There were English words upon it which he did not understand, but it ended with the date "3d September 1846." The "skin" -- which John Ross assumed to be a piece of tin -- was lost when Beck had to scramble down the loose shale and ice. but he brought the pole itself back to Ross as proof of the truth of his story. Ross noted the matter, and the claimed date, in his diary.

    This seems to admit of two interpretations -- either Franklin and his men were not able to leave Beechey until September 3rd, in which case they'd have had only 9 days to reach the place where they became beset, or else that a party from the ships *revisited* Beechey late in the summer of 1846, perhaps after circumnavigating Cornwallis and before again attempting and finding Peel Sound open. You seem to have an excellent knack for calculating distance and speed; would nine days have been enough, under full sail, for the ships to have made it from Beechey to the point where they were caught in the ice?

    I'll be starting a separate post just on Beck and his testimony over on my blog, but wanted to mention this evidence here as it may have interesting implications for your thoughts on the VP record.

  2. William, very nice to meet you. Mike Wing here from Ottawa, Ontario. I can't really add much - you put this alternate interpretation very well. It certainly does give food for thought.

  3. Fascinating interpretation of events. Have you read this theory anywhere else, even in musings?

  4. Ted,

    I have not. This is 'all my own work'!

    I'd be interested in your thoughts.


  5. Well done then. I'm too much of a Franklin "rookie" to offer up my own thoughts and would need to digest this some more to test it against other thoughts (though I'm trying to learn more and get others to learn more).

    A starting point would be: what gave the early searchers the impression that Franklin circumnavigated Cornwallis Island before wintering, an impression so strong that it has not been questioned before now?

    Really appreciate your website and can't wait for your book on Fitzjames. Any Canadian publication date yet?

  6. Ted,

    I think there are two reasons:

    1) The note IS ambiguous. Once the 1845 circumnavigation was proposed I don;t think anyone has considerd an alternative.

    2) Most maps are difficult to read in very high latitudes due to the projection used. So most people have not realised how far east of 'the west of Cornwallis Island' Beechey Island is. Google maps makes this much clearer.


  7. Has anyone here come across the theory of 'Franklin conspiracy' author J.B.Latta? Most of the book is a nonsense but his interpretation of the 1848 part of the message is interesting. Essentially that the 'Start on tomorrow for Back's fish river' part of the message actually belongs to 1847 and had nothing to do with the abandonment.

  8. Hi William
    I am the chairman of the Abbots langley his. soc.
    You gave us a talk on James Fitzjames.

    How does one get 2 tickets for your book launch Hidden Tracks at trinity house on 27th July 2010 6pm-9:30pm

    Lesley Brooks ALLHS
    PS. thanks very much for most interesting talk on behalf of ALLHS

  9. Hi Lesley,

    Please email me - william [AT] and I will sedn you joining instructions. I'm not actually printing invitations and sending them out.

    I'm so glad you found the talk interesting.

    If anyone else is interested in coming along to the book launch, please ask them to email me.

    By the way 'Hidden Tracks' was my working title for the book. The publisher changed it to 'James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition'...