Saturday 11 February 2012

Cans of Confusion

Copyright Paul Ward,

Aside from the exhumations of the 1980s, there has been very little scholarly work published concerning the traces left by the Franklin party's 1845-6 overwintering at Beechey Island.

I was therefore pleased to read an article by Todd Hansen (plus an addendum), recently published in Polar Record, which answered several questions which had been bugging me for ages.

Near the South East end of Beechey island, many large, rusting, empty tin cans can be seen to this day. Some are arranged into a memorial cross. Plenty of photographs of these can be found on the web, some referring to the theory that the lead solder contributed to the expedition's demise.

However, these are not the cans supplied by Goldner to Franklin's expedition in 1845. They are the cans left behind in August 1854 by Edward Belcher's searching expedition. Many intact cans were left in Northumberland House, which was built as a refuge in the hope that any wandering survivors of the lost expedition might find it. Empty cans were also built into a cairn mimicking the cairn built by Franklin's men near the North West corner of the island.

James Clark Ross, in his 1847 Account of the Antarctic expedition, wrote "it would be better that the canisters in which the meats are preserved should be of a much stouter tin", and it appears this advice was taken as Belcher's cans, although rusty, still look quite sturdy while Franklin's cans have almost entirely disintegrated. The site of the 'Franklin can cairn', reported by the first searchers to reach Beechey, is now marked by a mossy crater containing rusty fragments. The crater was made by searchers digging up the gravel where the cairn stood and the growth of moss is attributed to the minerals provided by the decay of the cans.

Site of the 'Franklin can cairn', Beechey Island. Copyright Todd Hansen

An additional puzzle concerns the number of can-built cairns found by the searchers: Was there one can-cairn or several?.

The account published in 1852 by Peter Sutherland, the surgeon to William Penny's expedition in the brigs  'Lady Franklin' and 'Sophia' includes the paragraph:

        The meat-tins were piled up in heaps in the same regular manner as shot is piled up; each had been filled with loose shingle, and when the tiers of a single layer were completed the interstices were also filled up with shingle. In this way several mounds were raised to a height of nearly two feet, and they varied in breadth from three to four yards. Six or seven hundred tins were counted, and many more besides these were dug up and emptied out in search of documents.

The information that there were "several mounds" of cans is contradicted by the same author in a letter to the Times, on 20th January 1852, which describes "upwards of 600 empty tin canisters which were found in one heap". The best explanation I can think of for this discrepancy is that there was but a single cairn which Sutherland had first seen after it had already been partly dismantled by searchers looking for a record. He put what he saw into his journal manuscript but the letter to the Times reflects the truth he learned subsequently.

There is an interesting post-script to the story of the cans left at Northumberland House. In 1885 the remaining stores were pillaged by Inuits (they found many of the preserved meats to be bad). The story was reported by Alexander Fairweather, Captain of a Dundee whaler, who was able to save a collection of documents left by visitors to Beechey Island, from Belcher in 1854 to Allan Young in 1875.  More than twenty years later Fairweather's ship, the Terra Nova, would carry Scott's fateful expedition to the Antarctic.

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