Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation

Felix Driver looks at the biography of an explorer lost on a prestige expedition in search of a supposed sea route that tantalised Victorian Britain

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Reviewed by: Felix Driver
Author: Andrew Lambert
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Price (RRP): £20

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If mere facts were all that were at stake in the history of exploration, it would be a dry and soulless affair: once mapped, forever forgotten. In this business, however, the moral of the tale is what truly matters, and questions of motive, character and reputation loom as large as they ever have done.

The seemingly inexhaustible stream of new studies of explorers is testament to the biographer’s ability to make something new out of the most familiar of materials. That is one reason why we can never quite escape the North-West passage.

Andrew Lambert does his best to help us try. In seeking to present a new Franklin, he wants to dislodge some fairly basic assumptions: “John Franklin was not an explorer, a traveller or a discoverer”. He was, rather, a navigator who put himself at the heart of the early Victorian ‘magnetic crusade’, mobilising government and public opinion in support of a global scientific programme.

Here the principal geographical objective of Franklin’s last expedition – locating the North-West passage, a navigable sea route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans – is variously described as a shorthand, a headline, even a lie: its real agenda was scientific not sensational. Lambert insists that it was magnetic science, not geographical curiosity, that inspired the most disastrous expedition in the history of polar exploration.

Andrew Lambert presents a picture of metropolitan science in which influential fixers like Barrow and Murchison, (two of the co-founders of the Royal Geographical Society) manipulated government and public opinion in their own interests. They justified their grand projects for observation and survey on the basis of utility and national interest – accurate navigation depended on an understanding of geomagnetism, while scientific pre-eminence would ensure global influence. They found ready support among cadres of overqualified naval officers seeking employment after 1815.

Once a midshipman in Matthew Flinders’s Investigator voyage, Franklin rose through the ranks, becoming captain of his own vessel, leader of land-based expeditions, and then, somewhat less heroically, governor of Tasmania. His achievements prior to his ill-fated final voyage in 1845 receive a more generous treatment here than in many other biographies. However, the emphasis is less on heroics than on moral seriousness and philosophical commitment: this Franklin is barely recognisable as “the man who ate his own boots”.

Lambert’s emphasis on the politics and prestige of science helps to account for the considerable sums invested by the government in polar expeditions. However, in separating mere exploration from true science he reiterates, without really questioning, a major point of contention in the mid-Victorian history of geography.

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In the end, perhaps the significance of Franklin’s doomed expedition lies less in its scientific rationale than in the repeated – and truly tragic – collective efforts to redeem its failure, reflected in some 30 expeditions to the Arctic as well as in the potent afterlife of the Franklin myth itself.