By Scott Cookman. John Wiley & Sons, 2000, 244 pp.
In 1845, Sir John Franklin set out to lead England’s greatest effort to find the Northwest Passage. His expedition included two well-equipped ships, several years’ worth of provisions, and 128 officers and men. All vanished in the Arctic.
What happened? The lack of diaries, log books, and other original source material has made it impossible to know, but people have been speculating about it for more than 150 years.
Scott Cookman offers his contribution to the literature in Ice Blink, the title taken, he says, from a term that 19th-century sailors used for polar mirages. Drawing, as everyone must, on such data as the remains of the expedition discovered in later searches, the locations and condition of the skeletons, Inuit reports, known weather conditions of the time, comparisons with other polar journeys, and especially, he notes, British Admiralty records, he recreates his version of events.
Cookman provides an informative background to the story. He describes how the bomb ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were outfitted with state-of-the-art technology, including steam power and propellers. He details the lavish provisioning of the expedition. And he profiles the leading players, notably Sir John Barrow, Second Secretary of the Admiralty, who planned the expedition; Sir John Franklin, a man of almost 60 who had not had been in the Arctic for nearly 20 years, who had always been plagued by bad luck, and who was not Barrow’s first choice as commander; and Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, second in command, who had extensive experience on the ice but was passed over for the role of commander because he was Irish and “common.”
The story that Cookman tells is grim. Trapped in the ice near Beechey Island for one winter, the ships are again trapped in the ice near King William Island the following winter—this time for good: In 1847 spring weather fails to arrive, the ice holds fast, and the men are forced to remain aboard the ships, where quarters are cramped, cold prevails as coal is running low, rations are diminished, and men are dying from some unidentifiable disease. Franklin himself dies. When they finally abandon the ships, Crozier leads his group of starving, exhausted men, pulling supplies across the ice, on a journey that turns out to be a “death march.” Skeletal remains of the men show signs of cannibalism.
This tragic story has raised many questions, among them the issue of what led to the deaths of 24 men aboard ship. Among various possibilities, people have posited tuberculosis, lead poisoning, and scurvy.
Cookman identifies the killer as botulism, caused by the improper preparation of the canned goods by an unscrupulous purveyor, Stephan Goldner. Detailing at length the canning process, filthy conditions, and inferior goods that Goldner probably used, as well as evidence from cans that were later found, he makes a good case.
But one problem with the book is that the author so overplays the significance of botulism on the expedition that he seems to lose sight of the larger picture. Botulism, he says, “savaged the ships…, forced their desertion, and cast the survivors out upon the ice to their ultimate doom.” But this isn’t supported by his story. The ships were trapped in the ice. The 105 men were miles from help. They hadn’t coal, they ran out of food, there was no game to hunt and no food to forage. However scurrilous Goldner was, it wasn’t botulism that brought down the expedition.
A second problem is that though Cookman has a good sense of narrative, he overwrites, and he over-recreates. It’s one thing to imagine what conditions were like, but quite another to attribute thoughts and emotions to people, as the author repeatedly does. He says, for example, of Crozier: “He had grown used to death. The dead were done with suffering at least. He was numb; the tears didn’t come anymore; the twist in his stomach constricted no further; he felt everything less and less.” Really? We have no way of knowing this. It seems to me this fictionalization weakens the inherently riveting story.
The strengths of Ice Blink are the author’s enthusiasm for his subject, which energizes his narrative, and the quantity of information he provides. The recent discovery of Erebus and Terror is sure to add to that information. The very location of the ships, which was not what researchers expected, has already raised questions. No doubt new interpretations, more debate—and more books—about this ever-fascinating expedition will follow.