Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Polar Expedition

Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Polar Expedition

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by Scott Cookman

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"Absorbing.artfully narrat[es] a possible course of events in the expedition's demise, based on the one official note and bits of debris (including evidence of cannibalism) found by searchers sent to look for Franklin in the 1850s. Adventure readers will flock to this fine regaling of the enduring mystery surrounding the best-known disaster in Arctic…  See more details below


"Absorbing.artfully narrat[es] a possible course of events in the expedition's demise, based on the one official note and bits of debris (including evidence of cannibalism) found by searchers sent to look for Franklin in the 1850s. Adventure readers will flock to this fine regaling of the enduring mystery surrounding the best-known disaster in Arctic exploration."--Booklist

"A great Victorian adventure story rediscovered and re-presented for a more enquiring time."--The Scotsman

"A vivid, sometimes harrowing chronicle of miscalculation and overweening Victorian pride in untried technology.a work of great compassion."--The Australian

It has been called the greatest disaster in the history of polar exploration. Led by Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, two state-of-the-art ships and 128 hand-picked men----the best and the brightest of the British empire----sailed from Greenland on July 12, 1845 in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. Fourteen days later, they were spotted for the last time by two whalers in Baffin Bay. What happened to these ships----and to the 129 men on board----has remained one of the most enduring mysteries in the annals of exploration. Drawing upon original research, Scott Cookman provides an unforgettable account of the ill-fated Franklin expedition, vividly reconstructing the lives of those touched by the voyage and its disaster. But, more importantly, he suggests a human culprit and presents a terrifying new explanation for what triggered the deaths of Franklin and all 128 of his men. This is a remarkable and shocking historical account of true-life suspense and intrigue.

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Editorial Reviews

A great Victorian adventure story rediscovered and re-presented for a more enquiring time.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin sailed into Arctic waters, the latest of many navigators to seek a "Northwest Passage" from the Atlantic to the Pacific. With him were 128 stalwarts of the Royal Navy; up-to-date maps and sophisticated tools; three years' worth of ample provisions; and two advanced ships, iron-clad, steam-heated and steam-powered. The ships were never seen again. In 1859, Lieutenant William Hobson, sunburnt and frostbitten, trekked across remote King William Island and found the last remains of the expedition: two notes attached to a cairn, a small, stranded boat and human bones, some showing evidence of cannibalism. Freelance writer Cookman's ably researched, sometimes eloquent account follows the doomed voyage, then proposes to solve the enduring mystery. Stuck in the ice, the men of the H.M.S. Terror and Erebus lasted months with barely a look outdoors; when cooking fuel ran short, something sickened the men. Cookman identifies the culprit as botulism, conveyed by the canned goods furnished by contractor Stephan Goldner. "Pinching pennies and cutting corners," Goldner defrauded the Navy by giving Franklin's men canned meats and vegetables "shoddily made and improperly sealed." Cookman drapes his central story with short accounts of the people involved, including Captain Franklin ("plodding, sober," and "fame-hungry" but steadfast) and Goldner, whose record of defaults and frauds (delivering ruptured cans, missing deadlines, packaging bones as meat) led the Navy to cease doing business with him in 1852. Hard-bitten readers who last year clamored over Shackleton's adventures will take to this grimmer tale of unscrupulous contractors, diligent historians and brave British explorers who never made it. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
The two ships of the Franklin expedition set out from Greenland on July 12, 1845, to find the Northwest Passage. Two weeks later, they passed through Baffin Bay and were never seen again. "It was as if Apollo 11...had disappeared on the dark side of the moon," writes Cookman (whose "Man & Mission" videos about the Mercury 7 astronauts are a main attraction at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame at Cape Canaveral). Here he examines the mystery of "the largest and best-equipped" expedition ever mounted, "the greatest Arctic tragedy of the age." Although he notes that what triggered the disaster may always be open to debate, his painstaking search through British Admiralty records reveals a possible cause: botulism, the deadly toxin resulting from improperly canned food, which he blames on the Admiralty's canned food contractor--"a scam artist" who "stalled, obfuscated, lied outright--and got away with it." Recommended for larger public libraries and academic libraries.--Robert C. Jones, Central Missouri State Univ., Warrensburg Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
The failed Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage was the best financed and most technologically sophisticated foray of its kind organized by the British Admiralty during the first half of the 19th century. Yet, all of its 128 members died.

Although author Scott Cookman cannot rely on firsthand accounts, because few notes from the expedition were recovered, he follows a paper trail leading to "smoking guns." Using background documents and written accounts of parallel Arctic expeditions, Cookman pieces together a compelling account of what might lie behind this disaster: overconfidence, penny-pinching, a series of poor decisions and unforeseeable blunders, fraud, botulism, and, finally, the cannibalism of despair.

I recommend this book highly for students of history, science, and public health seeking to learn about what can go wrong on a supposedly well-planned mission of any kind. The volume is well written, although it occasionally gets bogged down in excessive detail. Yet, its clinical description of the preparation of what probably was poisoned food and the subsequent impact of that food on the crew is worth the nightmares the book may generate! Ice Blink is highly instructive as regards the pitfalls that inevitably come to plague the "best laid plans of mice and men." Highly Recommended, Grades 7-College, Teaching Professional, General Audience. REVIEWER: Warren Fish (Paul Revere Middle School)

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Chapter One

The Epitaphs

By Admiralty Order, 18 January 1854: It is directed that if they are not heard of previous to 31 March 1854, the Officers & Ships companies are to be removed from the Navy List & are to be considered as having died in the service. Wages are to be paid to their Relatives to that date; as of 1 April 1854, all books and papers are to be dispensed with.

—Admiralty Order No. 263

The only thing Sir John Franklin left behind were two faded ship's muster books. He sent them back from Greenland on July 12, 1845, just before his entire expedition—the largest, best-equipped England had ever sent in search of the Northwest Passage—disappeared in the Arctic.

    By Admiralty regulation, the muster listed "the Names of all Persons forming the complement of the ships, with particulars." By twist of fate, this accounting proved the epitaph of Franklin and every man aboard.

    William Orren's was typical. The paymaster simply listed him AB, or able-bodied seaman, aboard Franklin's flagship HMS Erebus. He was thirty-four that summer. He gave his birthplace as Chatham, Kent, near the mouth of the River Thames. He signed on with the expedition and appeared for duty the same day—March 19, 1845—exactly two months before it sailed.

    Orren was either eager to get back to sea or, more likely, to collect the higher pay the Royal Navy offered for "Discovery Service." His previous posting had been the Woolwich dockyards, whereskeleton crews manned a mothball fleet of ships laid up "in ordinary," or out of service. He'd been in the navy for fifteen years. His "first entry" was recorded at age nineteen, when he signed aboard the HMS Swan. He must've been a rather dull-witted fellow or happy being a simple jack tar, because in all those years he never advanced a grade in rank.

    The muster book shows 16 shillings (worth about U.S. $55 in 1998 values) deducted from his pay for tobacco, slop (heavy) clothing, and a horsehair mattress. This wasn't much; an experienced sailor, his seabag must have been ready. Offsetting the deductions was two months' advance pay—l0 pounds and 4 shillings (about U.S. $688 today). At a time when a common laborer made 18 pounds a year ($1,210 U.S.), this was quite a windfall.

    The paymaster counted the coins out to him at pay parade—ten gold sovereigns and four silver shillings—and by tradition placed them on top of his outstretched cap. Knowing he was bound for three years in the Arctic, with no ports of call or chance to spend it, the money was probably gone before he was—most of it gone on gambling, rounds of gin (a penny a glass), and prostitutes (sixpence for a "knee trembler" in an alley) before sailing.

    Nothing more was ever heard of Able-Bodied Seaman Orren, or of Sir Franklin himself for that matter. Their names—and 127 others—were checked off in the muster books in 1854. On each page, an Admiralty clerk repeatedly made the same notation: "See Memo in Red Ink on Muster Table." There the clerk inked a single sentence:

"Officers & Ships Co. are to be considered as having died in the service and their Wages are to be paid to their Relatives to 31 March 1854."

    Thus the Admiralty closed the book on the Franklin Expedition—the greatest disaster in the history of polar exploration and one that rocked Victorian England to its core. Franklin and the rest—129 hand-picked officers and men—were written off with no more explanation. Indeed the Royal Navy, stunned by the dimensions of the catastrophe, had no explanation to offer. Its most advanced, expensive, and sophisticated technology had inexplicably failed; its finest, most qualified personnel had inexplicably failed. It was as if Apollo 11, confidently embarked for mankind's first lunar landing, had disappeared on the dark side of the moon.

    The shock was devastating, the failure to find a reason for it humiliating. The navy simply closed ranks and officially, bureaucratically, put an end to the whole affair.

    For the families of the men who perished, the "Wages to be paid to their Relatives" were little comfort. The men had been missing for nine years before the Admiralty reckoned them dead, during which their loved ones had been living on nothing but hope. As the clerk forcefully underlined, they would be compensated no longer.

    The cause of the disaster was never determined.

    The Franklin Expedition remains one of the most enduring mysteries in the annals of exploration. Something—or someone—turned the greatest Arctic expedition of its time into the greatest Arctic tragedy of the age.

    What, or more intriguingly, who was responsible will always be open to debate. But an answer to the expedition's fate lies, riddlelike, in its story.

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What People are saying about this

Nathan Miller
Ice Blink is a gripping tale of adventure overlayed with tragedy. Readers will come away from it with a fresh understanding - and a deep compassion - for the men of Sir John Franklin's illustrated polar expedition.
— Nathan Miller, author of War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II

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Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Polar Expedition 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While no one truly knows the final outcome of the men on thisexpwdiition, Scott Cookman gives a plausible explanation of what might have been the outcome. All of it sourced.