Sunday, 15 April 2012

Masques and Masks

On  the 1850 search expedition (Resolute, Assistance, Intrepid, and Pioneer) commanded by Horatio T Austin, Parry's practice of holding theatrical entertainments and costume parties (including one onboard the Fury where the then Midshipman Crozier appeared as a native of Africa, and others were chimney sweepers), to relieve the monotony of the long Arctic winter, was revived. Handwritten newspapers were circulated containing amusing original compositions as well as factual essays. These pastimes had not been pursued on James Clark Ross's 1848 expedition in Enterprise and Investigator but who knows what performances may have taken place on Franklin's ships?

A facsimile edition containing the five issues of The Illustrated Arctic News (in imitation of the Illustrated London News), was later printed and distributed after Austin's squadron had returned home. Part of the front page of the issue for December 31 1850 is shown below.

The illustration headed "ARCTIC SKETCHES" and subtitled "FASHIONS FOR THE MONTH" is of particular interest.

The figure on the left brings to mind (again!) Charles Francil Hall's account of Oookbarloo's tale of the black faced men with "little black noses" who frightened the Inuit dog sled driver with "three great noises".
"These men who were then all around him, had black faces, black hands, black clothes on - were black all over! They had little black noses, only so big: [the old lady here put her hand on the bridge of her nose showing that the noses were not more than half the length & size of common ones] & this Innuit was very much alarmed because he could not get away from these black men but especially was he frightened when they made three great noises [three rounds of cheers as Too- koo-li-too thinks these great noises were]."

A report from visitor to the Resolute, prior to the expedition's departure, would seem to explain the illustration.

" ... a sort of helmet is to be worn on the head, to which is attached a mask of knitted wool, wadded and lined with silk, and doubly thick over the nose, leaving only an aperture for the eyes. These masks are of different colours; and the whole attire, especially when the hands disappear in the huge fur gauntlets which complete it, is almost ludicrous."

Ludicrous to some, but possibly terrifying to others.

A modern photograph of  a man wearing a ski mask shows how the thick cloth of a mask can reduce the apparent size of the nose to a small bump, which may explain the little black noses.

Fabric fragments in the National Maritime Museum's collection of Franklin Relics appear to have once at least approximated black in colour and there is also an Inuit report of black clad bodies being found on the islet of Keeuna.

It is not difficult to find other nineteenth century reports of face masks being used to protect against cold weather.

In his narrative of his 1851 expedition, in the brig Prince Albert, Kennedy recounts:
"We had all been exercising our ingenuity in the contrivance of various little arrangements for the protection of the face against the effects of the frost, and this morning a curious observer might have studied with some interest the idiosyncrasies of individual genius as exhibited in the variety of grotesque appendages to noses, cheeks, eyes, chins, and every vulnerable spot of the human face divine. ... For the face some had cloth masks, with neat little crevices for the mouth, nose, and eyes;"
In his narrative of his 1836 voyage in HMS Terror, Captain Back recounts:
"By way of experiment Lieutenant Smyth put on a common mask, and at first considered it rather comfortable, until getting heated with exertion, a cake of ice was formed inside, which, not being the kind of lining he preferred, was immediately rejected, and from the face the mask was transferred to the end of a boarding pike, the point being thrust through one of the eyes, and carried in that way over his shoulder. With such a Gorgon's head, it was laughingly remarked, we need not fear to face a troop of bears."
Of Parry's 1821 voyage (Hecla and Griper), it was reported that:
"The sailors generally wore masks, warmly lined, when upon deck. Upon their return below they were examined by their messmates, for fear there should be any white spots upon their faces. These white spots were the effects of the intense cold in congealing the blood, and if not attended to, were the forerunners of mortification; they were, therefore, immediately rubbed with snow, until the free circulation returned."
In the first two of these examples it seems that the masks were improvised during the expeditions, and it is not difficult to find other examples of similar ingenuity....

It would be very surprising if the officers and crews of Franklin's ships did not find solutions to the problems of Arctic travel which were similar to those improvised on other expeditions. If that is accepted, then the simplest explanation for the terrifying appearance of the black faced men is that they were members of the ship's company who went on deck wearing their cold weather gear, complete with face masks, and when they saw the Inuit dog sled driver they gave him the traditional Royal Navy salutation of three cheers.

The tent mentioned in the story doesn't present any difficulties as long as we don't interpret the third-hand account of the original testimony too literally.

"Before the Captain took him down into his Cabin he told this Innuit to take a look over to the land, the Captain pointing out to him the exact spot where there was a big Tupik (tent). The Captain asked him if he saw the tent, & the Innuit told him he did. Then the Captain told him that black men, such as he had just seen, lived there, and that neither he (this Innuit) nor any nor any of his people must ever go there."

I now think the simplest explanation is that the tent was a magnetic observatory sited 200 yards away on the floe so that the instruments wouldn't be affected by the ship's ironwork. This would have been out of bounds for the ship's crew, and the Inuit too, and for the same reason - that any iron implements they carried would be detrimental to the measurements.

I've repeatedly come back to the puzzle of the black faced men because I believe it is important, particularly as it impacts on the possible chronology of other events attested by the Inuit, such as Kokleearngnun's 'great tuktoo hunt' and Bayne's 'Cemented Vaults'. My current view is that the visit of the anonymous dog sled driver occurred in the spring of 1847 when the expedition was not in distress, as the original text of the Victory Point record says - "All Well".

It's recorded that the faces of members of sledging parties sometimes became 'as black as ebony' with soot from cooking over tallow lamps. This would not happen on board the ships as they were equipped with efficient coal fired galley stoves and there would have been no excuse for not washing. There was a widely held, though erroneous, belief that a lack of cleanliness increased the likelihood of scurvy so the officers took great pains to ensure that the ships and men were clean and wholesome as possible. The inuit account makes clear that the black faced men were under the control of the Captain so, to my mind, theories that these men were dirty because of a breakdown of discipline simply won't wash.


  1. Bravo Peter!

    The frustration is that in so many cases we can never be SURE exactly what Inuit account refer to. For example, take the reference to the tent ashore. Some have suggested that this was a separate encampment for men who were guilty of cannibalism, or that it was a powder store. Your proposal that it was the Magnetic Observatory makes complete sense. But we can never know for sure. Similarly, in the case of the 'black men', we can't know whether this was men engaged in a farce, or men covered in black smoke from blubber stoves. But really this doesn't matter. What you have done is shown that the Inuit account makes complete sense as an accurate description of a visit to the Erebus and Terror in 1847.

    Thanks for publishing this. It should strengthen the resolve of everyone to look afresh at Inuit accounts and try better to integrate them into the story.

  2. Tally Ho, Peter! I heartily echo William's remarks.

  3. Peter, this is spot on, and I quite agree with you. The camp on land, though, could have been prohibited for many reasons -- presence of gunpowder, for instance, which more than once led to tragedy when Inuit came upon it unawares -- or, as has been proposed, cannibalism (which I think unlikely). Clearly, the officer was taking advantage of Inuit fears about black men with black faces, whatever the cause. I have also always wondered why the captain takes the Inuk down below before gesturing to land -- this would only make sense if done from the captain's quarters at the stern, which on both ships featured a bank of glass windows -- rather than gesturing from on deck. In any case, a very astute and thought-provoking statement of the case!!

  4. Thanks, William, Marty, Russell,

    As I read it, the Captain points out the tent before taking the Inuk below deck, but given that what we have to work with is Hall's account of Tookoolitoo's translation of Ookbarloo's recounting of the tales of the un-named dog-sled driver, from about twenty years earlier, we shouldn't make too much out of nuances of language. When the Captain "told this Innuit to take a look over to the land" we can't take it for granted that the actual land of King William's Island was visible from the ship's deck. It could reasonably mean to look in the direction of the land (which was not visible) or Hall's word "land" could be a translation of something less specific, more like "ground" or "surface". This leeway in interpretation permits the ships to be out of sight of land, close to where they would be abandoned in the spring of 1848, and the tent to be 200 yards away on the floe. It's perfectly reaonable that the forbidden tent could be a gunpowder store, and Woodman (p245) mentions several accounts which suggest it was normal practice when over wintering to house the powder in an isolated store ashore to reduce the risk of fire. A sketch in the National Maritime museum from Back's 1836 expedition gives an impression of how far the (astromomical?) observatory was from the ship which to me looks about the right distance to match Hall's account. There are several possibilities for the tent which allow this story to be an authentic account of a visit to the ships before the 1848 abandonment, which I would say is the simplest, most parsimonious, explanation.

  5. Thank you for expounding further on this, Peter. Your post is very well-reasoned with ample supporting evidence.

  6. The distance from the ship can be readily deduced from the horizon line; it cannot have been much more than 20 nautical miles. This places whatever place the captain forbad the Inuk from visiting in the shoreline area of Erebus Bay or the NE coastal area of the Graham Gore peninsula. The testimony of Tooktoocheer's son Ogzeuckjewock about the "boat place" is clear enough: "Poo-yet-ta had seen guns of Ag-loo-ka at Neitchille but didn't know the nature of the black sand stuff (powder). An igloo was blown to atoms by a little son of Poo-yet-ta & another lad who were afterward playing with the powder canister." So we know gunpowder was cached near the boat place, and it would make perfect sense for the officer to forbid the Inuk to go near there ...

    The weak point in the observatory explanation is that the Netsilik didn't have much in the way of metal implements until after they obtained metal from the expired members of Franklin's crew.

  7. Good points. The 'black men' episode was on the Inuk's third visit so he may have previously been given metal implements as presents, but I realise there is no need for the tent to be a magnetic observatory. The danger of gunpowder would indeed be a perfect reason but there would also be concerns about pilfering from any kind of observatory or store.

    From near my home I can see ships about 20 miles away in the English Channel, but that's from high ground and they are huge container ships. It would require a much shorter distance from deck level to recognise a canvas tent against a snowy background. I'd guess about 1/2 a mile at best but this is something which could be tested in the field if there are widely differing views. The tent was distant enough from the ship that it needed to be pointed out and confirmation sought that the visitor had seen it, but close enough to be recognised as a tent.

    I'd argue that the requirement for the tent to be this close would be a factor in rejecting the possibility that the tent was on land. If the ship or ships was, as I would judge it, within 1/2 mile from the shore for any reasonable time then I would expect traces of occupation to have been discovered as at were found at Beechey Island.