May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition
edited by Russell A. Potter, Regina Koellner, Peter Carney, and May Williamson
McGill-Queen’s University Press,
501 pages, $44.95
As Parks Canada divers resumed their investigations of Erebus and Terror shipwrecks in 2022, this book arrived to answer the growing international interest in the lost Franklin expedition. It is a collection of letters written to and from those voyagers who, together with Sir John Franklin, disappeared into the Arctic in 1845.
The men departed from England in high spirits, excited to think they would make history by becoming the first to sail through the Northwest Passage. The contrast between the hopes and dreams that emerge here and the catastrophe that ensued — the loss of both ships and of the 129 men aboard them — is poignant and terrible.
May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth allows us to hear the voices of those concerned, several of whom proved wonderfully eloquent. Erebus Commander James Fitzjames, for example, writes that assistant surgeon Harry Goodsir is “long & straight (like a yard of pumpwater) and walks upright on his toes, with his hands tucked up in each jacket pocket. He is perfectly good-humoured — very well informed on general points — in Natural History learned — was Curator of the Edinburgh Museum … laughs delightfully, cannot be in a passion — is enthusiastic about all ’ologies — draws the insides of microscopic animals with an imaginary pointed pencil….”
Or consider mate Edward Couch, who writes of landing on Disco Island in Greenland: “Old Sir John came up with us — very rough barren place, so I was obliged to help him up & down every minute — all the climbing places — I was surprised to see him attempt anything so risky but he managed very well considering.”
The book presents a compelling word portrait of Franklin, whose likeness emerges as refracted through 195 letters — several by him, still more by people either sailing with or already close to him. Fitzjames speaks for most when he writes: “We are very happy, and very fond of Sir John Franklin, who improves very much as we come to know more of him….”
Franklin emerges as obsessed with promulgating a 157-page pamphlet he had recently written in answer to the near destruction of his reputation in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Having been summarily recalled as colonial governor, Franklin bangs on about this pamphlet, anticipating that its publication “will give rise to all kinds of invention, scurrility, and falsehood … [in which case] I have left some very able and judicious friends well supplied with matter & willing to take up the Cudgel on my behalf.”
Many readers will also be surprised to learn that Franklin was an evangelical Christian who preached and led divine service twice every Sunday. To a sister he writes: “How delightful it is thus to know that the Gospel is spreading far and wide, and will do so till its blessed truths are disseminated throughout the Globe. Every ship in these days should go forth to strange lands bearing among its officers and crew a Missionary Spirit and may God grant such a spirit on board this ship!” So it rings out, the voice of nineteenth-century British colonialism.
In a brisk introduction, editor Russell A. Potter underlines the Inuit contribution to Arctic exploration and notes that Canadian Pierre Berton was the first to complain of the ethnocentric strain that surfaces in a few of these letters. Taken as a whole, this book is friendly and well-organized. Roughly chronological, it evolves through seven chapters, each opening with a point-form timeline of related events. The appendices include insightful end notes and capsule biographies of the letter writers.
May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth is a labour of love. For those who are seriously interested in Arctic exploration, it is a must-have.