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.

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