In May 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin set sail to the Canadian Arctic in order to complete the North-West Passage. The Royal Navy had been intensively pursuing this objective for the previous four decades, and now it finally appeared to be within their grasp. Only a few hundred miles separated Montreal Island, the eastern most point reached by explorers from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1839, from the westernmost point reached by Sir John Ross in the Gulf of Boothia in 1831.


The task was not quite as simple as it appeared, however. The remaining section of the Northwest Passage lay within an unmapped area encompassing some 70,000 square miles and through waters that were choked with ice even in summer. A portly 59, Franklin had not seen Arctic service for two decades. He set out with 134 men, an extremely large number for a polar expedition, for if supplies ran low it would be impossible to feed so many mouths from the minimal sustenance that nature could provide.

Franklin’s expedition thus entailed a huge potential for disaster, even by the risky standards of polar exploration. And it did not take long for that potential to be realised. After a whaling vessel spotted Franklin’s two ships moored to an iceberg in Baffin Bay in July 1845, the expedition vanished without a trace. At first, there was little concern, but by 1848 the Admiralty and the British public were seriously alarmed. Over the next decade, dozens of rescue expeditions searched for Franklin, but it was not until 1854 that a clue emerged when the Hudson’s Bay Company’s John Rae encountered a group of Inuit near Pelly Bay in present-day Nunavut. Spotting one of them with a gold cap-band similar to those worn by British naval officers, Rae inquired about its origin. The Inuit told him that a few years earlier they had encountered around 40 emaciated kabloonas (white men) moving south towards the Great Fish river. The following spring, they found a camp containing about 30 corpses.

In 1859, Rae’s information was confirmed when an expedition headed by Captain Francis Leopold McClintock found a cairn containing a note written by one of Franklin’s officers. The note revealed that in September 1846, Franklin’s ships had been trapped by ice off King William Island. When they were still beset in the spring of 1848, most of the 105 surviving men attempted to head south on foot, though some may have remained with the ships. (Franklin was not among either group; he had died on 11 June 1847.)

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The only hope for the southward trekkers was to reach the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post on the Great Slave Lake, 850 miles to the south over some of the most barren terrain in the world. The strongest men struggled for nearly three months to the southern coast of King William Island, only 80 miles from the ships. Their last camp was discovered a decade later by McClintock’s men, who found one of the ship’s boats mounted on a sledge with two skeletons inside. Fourteen more bodies lay beneath the boat. The bones were scarred by knife-cuts, suggesting that the men had resorted to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to stay alive.

By any standard, the Franklin expedition had been a disaster that had produced by far the worst loss of life in the history of polar exploration. The calamitous result, however, did not prevent Franklin from becoming a hero. By the late 1850s, when it was clear that he was dead, he was lauded in terms that would have made Nelson blush. In 1860, Franklin’s fellow naval officer and Arctic explorer Sherard Osborn referred to him as “the Alpha and Omega of modern Arctic exploration”. “In all things, and under all circumstances,” said Osborn, “Franklin stands sans peur et sans reproche… Combining the highest qualities of hand and head, we find Franklin labouring equally well in the field of battle and in the field of maritime discovery; and it is in the double character of naval hero and distinguished navigator, that he may almost be said to stand alone in our history.”

Franklin would get a memorial in Westminster Abbey and another in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, as well as statues in central London, Hobart in Tasmania, and his birthplace of Spilsby in Lincolnshire. He was celebrated in verse, song and art well into the late 19th century.

This sort of thing – the elevation of an epic failure to heroic status – sorely vexes some British commentators. The comedian Tim Brooke-Taylor writes: “When it comes down to it, the British aren’t honestly that fussed about winning. Better a gallant loser than an outright victor in most of our eyes, and if we do have to win, it has to be by the narrowest margin. What makes British heroism so impressive is the way we lose, going down with all guns blazing, fighting to the last man, rallying around the standard. These are the ideals and examples that raise a lump in every good British throat – and which are partially responsible for the loss of the empire.”

The elevation of an epic failure to heroic status sorely vexes some British commentators

Writing in The Guardian in 2010 about the upcoming celebrations for the centennial of Captain Scott’s death in the Antarctic in 1912, John Crace suggests that “decline and fall is a paradigm of British life over much of the last hundred years. Perhaps we get the national heroes we deserve.” And in praising Britain’s uncharacteristic sporting success in the 2012 London Olympics, Jeremy Paxman asserts: “The background murmur of the last 40 years in Britain has been ‘We’re rubbish’; that the country is a land of heroic failures… Sporting failure has fitted comfortably into the story of a nation in decline, a country that has lost an empire and failed to find the goal net.”

In their shared exasperation, Brooke-Taylor, Crace and Paxman link the celebration of failure to Britain’s loss of the empire and to a broader narrative of national decline. Such complaints are one manifestation of a strain in British culture known as ‘declinism’, which asserts, in the words of the historian Jim Tomlinson, that British economic and imperial decline in the 20th century was “not… the result of the inevitable competitive rough and tumble development of global capitalism, but… of pathological failings in British society”.

In the 1980s in particular, declinism enjoyed considerable influence, as it suited the Thatcherite view that British decline had been a failure of will, rather than being caused by anti-colonial challenges to empire, international economic competition, or ageing industrial infrastructure. Declinist arguments had many strands, but one iteration focused on the British tendency to celebrate failure. In his 1985 dual biography of the Antarctic explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, the polar historian Roland Huntford sought an explanation for why the British had for so long admired Scott, whom he denigrated as a “bungler” who had not only lost the race to the pole but had also killed himself and four of his companions in the process. In Huntford’s view, Scott’s undeserved lofty stature was due to the fact that he was “a suitable hero for a nation in decline”.

There is a serious problem, however, both with these types of declinist arguments and with a linkage of the celebration of heroic failure to British decline. Returning to the story of Sir John Franklin, it’s important to note that his elevation to heroic status occurred in 1850, not 1950. And he is only one of many examples of failures being celebrated as heroes in British culture that can be found as far back as the early 19th century, when explorers like Mungo Park, who died in 1806 while tracing the course of the river Niger through central Africa, and soldiers like Rollo Gillespie, who died in 1814 while leading a foolhardy attack at the battle of Kalunga during the Anglo-Nepalese War, served as prototypes. By the 1840s and 1850s, when Franklin disappeared into the Arctic ice and the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, it was a common mode of assessing and elevating the actions of British heroes.

Heroic failure thus cannot be blamed for, or even viewed as a reflection of, Britain’s decline, as it began at a time when British power was at its apex. In reality, the emergence of heroic failure as a cultural ideal had nothing to do with Britain’s decline as a great power and everything to do with its rise. At first glance, such an argument seems paradoxical, but it becomes less so once the distinctive cultural history of Britain’s great-power status is taken into account.

That status was from the 18th century onwards heavily reliant upon the British empire as the source of national wealth, security and greatness. The empire was so crucial to Britain’s sense of itself as a nation, that in the moments when it failed to live up to its ideals, it challenged not only the efficacy of colonial administration, but national values and self-conceptions.

It was inevitable, however, that such a large and complex entity would at times be something less than idealistic. The empire was, by the standards of its own time, benevolent and noble, but it was also, equally by the standards of its own time, oppressive and violent. The empire could be imagined as a zone in which cultural enlightenment and Christianity were promoted. But this idealised vision was challenged by thorny issues such as slavery, which was not abolished until 1834, as well as by the massive military force that was required to maintain the security of existing colonies and to conquer new territory – all of which made it difficult to see the empire as based on consent rather than coercion.

This ever-present tension between ideal and reality required a cultural conception of empire that de-emphasised its coercive and violent aspects. Such a conception relied heavily on factual and fictional stories that depicted the empire in a positive light. Those stories frequently featured failures as their heroes because they helped the British to see themselves as something other than conquerors and oppressors. By presenting alternative visions of empire, failed heroes maintained the pretence that the empire was about things besides power, force and domination. The 24th Foot making a desperate last stand at Isandlwana; General Gordon facing annihilation at the hands of the Mahdi in Khartoum; Captain Scott and his companions dying of starvation and exposure on the return journey from the South Pole – all of these failed heroes, and numerous others, made it possible for the British to see themselves as selfless and self-sacrificing in an era in which they nakedly pursued national aggrandisement via imperial conquest.

Heroic failure endures as a British ideal because, as Britain’s place in the world has evolved over the last century, it has proven adaptable to a variety of circumstances. During the Second World War, it provided a comforting myth of resilience in the face of adversity. In 1941, George Orwell wrote in his essay England Your England: “In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious. They do not retain among their historical memories the name of a single military victory. English literature, like other literatures, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a tale of disasters and retreats… The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.”

In the 1960s, heroic failure was adapted as a symbol of Britain’s changing imperial values in an era of decolonisation, exemplified by films such as Zulu (1964), which uses the battle of Isandlwana as a backdrop to set in motion its examination of the moral ambiguities of empire, and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), a complex combination of epic and satire that repurposes the most famous heroic failure in British history for a post-imperial and counter-cultural era. In more recent decades, as I’ve already discussed, heroic failure has come to serve as a metaphor for British decline, and has sometimes even been blamed for it.

The evolution of heroic failure to serve a variety of national purposes over the course of the 20th century, however, should not be permitted to conceal the reason for which it first emerged in the 19th: to help hide the uncomfortable realities of imperialism. The British empire was created by an island nation conquering a vast amount of territory far beyond its shores, something that could only have happened as a result of deliberate and aggressive intent.

The British reluctance to accept this inconvenient truth led essayist and historian JR Seeley to pen his famous dictum that the British had “conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind”. In Seeley’s eyes, the British were unique in lacking a “violent military character” as colonial rulers; it was impossible for Britain to be a despotic conqueror of other peoples, because that was fundamentally incompatible with the nation’s ideals.

Seeley thus crafted one counter-narrative – of ‘absent-mindedness’ – to blunt the uncomfortable realities of empire. It was – and remains – important to the British to see themselves not as aggressive, authoritarian and violent imperial conquerors, but as high-minded administrators who acquired much of their colonial territory by accident or at least from benevolent motives. They ruled this territory with a velvet glove rather than an iron fist, and sacrificed their own lives in order to benefit the places over which they ruled. Heroic failure helped them to do all of that.

Stephanie Barczewski is professor of history at Clemson University in South Carolina and a specialist in modern British cultural history.


This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine