Frozen voices from the past: Captain Horatio Austin’s Log of the HMS Resolute and the first traces of the lost Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin

Generously supported by donations to the University of Melbourne’s Annual Appeal, access to hidden treasures in the Rare Books Collection is being enhanced using digital technologies…

Situation of HMS Resolute, Baffins Bay, June 1858

Monstrous icebergs, eerily tolling ships’ bells, fogs so dense that sky and sea solidify into a single ghostly whiteness, and uninhabited boats snap-frozen in time.  Such are the haunting images described in accounts of the early exploration expeditions in the Arctic.

Imagine three Icebergs, as big as St Pauls tilting at each other, and we in our poor vessels!’ wrote ship’s master George McDougall in October 1850.[i]

One of these stories – that of the lost 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin to find the elusive Northwest Passage – has persisted in the public imagination for almost 170 years, casting its icy spectre over many books, poetry, songs, documentaries and feature films.   Infused with heightened elements – vast frigid oceans, a devoted wife who would not give up the search for her husband, and a solitary and remote landscape – the mystery gripped a Victorian reading public who avidly awaited newspaper articles and naval reports on the fate of the voyage.  The alien world of the Arctic provided a vivid background for successive instalments of the story, and depictions of the unfamiliar environment were brought to life using the new technologies of moving panoramas and magic lantern shows:

Imagined yet unseen, the Arctic functioned for the nineteenth century much as the moon and outer space did for the twentieth: a place where, against a backdrop of nameless coastlines and unfamiliar seas, the human drama was enacted in its most condensed and absolute form.[ii]

Lost expedition of Sir John Franklin (1845-1848)

In May 1845 the 59-year old British naval captain, Sir John Franklin, set sail on his fourth and final expedition to the Arctic, charged with navigating the remaining 330-mile unexplored section of the Northwest Passage.  After spending the winter of 1845-1846 encamped at Beechey Island, the two ships and crew of 129 became trapped in ice in Victoria Strait in September 1846.  For the next 18 months the party remained marooned surviving on tinned food; a note found later disclosed that Franklin died on 11 June 1847, whilst the last of the crew were lost in an attempt to reach safety overland, succumbing to starvation and the elements in mid-1848.

Captain Horatio Austin’s Log of the HMS Resolute (28th February – 28th October 1850)

The puzzle explaining the events of the ill-fated mission has been pieced together from fragmentary evidence over two centuries.  The 2014 and 2016 Canadian discoveries of the wrecks of Franklin’s lost ships, the Erebus and the Terror, became the most compelling breakthroughs associated with the mystery, providing tangible evidence of the last days of the trapped expedition before the vessels were abandoned by the stricken party.  

With the recent digitisation of the Log of the HMS Resolute (commanded by Royal Navy Captain Horatio Austin, and the first search expedition to find traces of Franklin’s party), another original record has been added to this ongoing historical interpretation.

In 1850 no less than 16 expeditions (including English, American and privately commissioned parties) with a combined crew of 689, negotiated the frigid waters of the Arctic circle in search for Franklin’s missing ships.  Austin’s official British naval expedition of four vessels comprised the rigged barques Resolute and Assistance, accompanied by the steam powered Pioneer and Intrepid to break through the ice and carve a safe passage for the commanding ships.

The convoy was described somewhat inelegantly by Austin’s undermaster:

The Resolute and Assistance were sailing ships rigged as barks, their hulls strengthened according to the most orthodox Arctic rules, until, instead of presenting the appearance of a body intended for progress through the water, they resembled nothing so much as very ungainly snuff boxes.[iii]

Austin was an experienced and capable officer, and his preoccupations as commander of the expedition and seamen are evident in the log’s entries, which are dominated by observations of the constantly changing movement of the water and ice floes:

Thursday 25th July: ‘Ice pressing heavily against the Bows; ship raised 17 inches forward. Tried to heave her astern but without effect’

The pages of the log are stained at the edges with the splashes of seawater, and the patterns of the handwriting of the page convey the immediacy of the captain’s concerns.  Austin’s agitation is apparent in the less tidily rendered entry for Monday 29th July in which the ship is shifted upwards by the grip of the ice, setting its bell into involuntary motion:

Outer floe closed on ship giving her a very severe nip, which caused such a tremulous motion thro’out her as to ring all the Cabin Bells most violently; it also occasioned a singular action on the Masts.

In addition to these terrifying moments, the log captures bursts of animation and high spirits on board, such as the call for ‘all hands on deck’ when a break in the floe was detected (Friday 2nd August) and a cheering when the ships were finally set free (Wednesday 14th August).   It was not until midnight on Friday 16th August that Austin could at last record ‘only 7 Bergs to be seen and no other ice’.  It was the first clear sailing for three weeks.

 

Discovery of the first traces of the lost Franklin expedition

Just two weeks later (27th August) amongst the monotony of weather readings, a fillip at last appears in the entries:

9.30pm: ‘Heavy pack ice on port…a Boat came alongside with Mr Stewart Master of Sophia bringing intelligence of Assistance having found traces of the missing Expedition on C[ape] Riley’.

11pm ‘Mr Stewart left and Pioneer proceeded at full speed’. 

Steadfastly remaining at the helm of his ship, Austin stayed on board whilst the ship’s master and surgeon were despatched to investigate what turned out to be traces of Franklin’s first winter camp on Beechey Island.  The log reveals that even amidst the excitement of the discovery, Austin remained faithful to his responsibilities, taking weather and ice readings from the vantage point of the crow’s nest, rather than joining the search party on land.

Significance of the journal

A special project to enhance the discovery of historically significant items in the Baillieu Library’s Rare Books Collection (generously funded by donations to the Annual Appeal) has supported the cataloguing and digitisation of the Log of the HMS Resolute.  Until recently, the principal primary source for the voyage was The Illustrated Arctic News[iv], a shipboard newspaper compiled in handwritten form by George McDougall (Resolute) and Sherard Osborn (Intrepid) whilst the ships wintered in the pack ice of Barrow Strait in 1850-1851. The newspaper was published on the return of the Austin search party to England in 1852, and both McDougall and Osborn subsequently printed separate detailed accounts of their experiences.[v]

Winter camp of the Franklin expedition, Beechey Island, 1845

George McArthur, the first great benefactor to the University of Melbourne Library

It is with a continued source of wonder that we learn about how rare books have come into our collection.  We do know that the Resolute’s log was donated to the University of Melbourne Library in 1903 by Scottish immigrant George McArthur, a Maldon baker and book collector, and the Library’s first major benefactor.  The exact circumstances of the purchase of the log remain elusive; it is recorded that McArthur travelled to Europe in 1866, the year following Austin’s death, and again in 1886 ‘and brought back many things to add to the valuable collections he then had’.[vi]  He also maintained corresponding relationships with prominent London booksellers, such as Francis Edwards, from whom he made valuable purchases in the 1890s.  It is possible given McArthur’s interest in maritime history, that he was able to purchase Austin’s log at a time when its significance may have been passed over by others less fascinated and attuned.   How enriched our Rare Books Collection is to have benefitted from his insight.

Susan Thomas, Rare Books Curator

Endnotes & further reading:

[i] McDougall, George F. The eventful voyage of HM discovery ship ‘Resolute’ to the Arctic regions in search of Sir John Franklin and the missing crews of HM discovery ships ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’, 1852, 1852, 1854… London: Longman et al, 1857, p. 99.

[ii] Potter, Russell. Arctic spectacles: the frozen north in visual culture, 1818-1875.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, c2007, p. 3.

[iii]The Illustrated Arctic News, published on board HMS Resolute: Captain Horatio T. Austin, C.B. in Search of the Expedition under Sir John Franklin. London : Ackermann, 1852.

[iv] McDougall, George F. Op cit, p. xxxix.

[v] Osborn, Sherard. Stray leaves from an Arctic journal; or eighteen months in the polar regions, in search of Sir John Franklin’s Expedition, in the years 1850-51. London: Longman, 1852; Osborn, Sherard. The career, last voyage, and fate of Captain Sir John Franklin.  London: Bradbury & Evans, 1860.

[vi] Lugton, Mary. George McArthur of Maldon: his life and book collection.  Unpublished thesis (Master of Librarianship), Monash University, 1989, p. 3.


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