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Captains, Convicts, Canibals, Conspiracy!

March 27, 2014

I thought that this on this entry I would take a look at one of Australia’s pre-decimal banknotes as a change of direction. The gentleman I have chosen appeared on our Five Pounds bank-note from 1954 until 1966 when the change over to decimal currency occurred and the note issue was discontinued. He was truly a remarkable man for his era and was involved in many daring expeditions acting as mid-shipman, a navigator and a ship’s captain. He was also in his lifetime a state governor and the author of several significant historical works. His final days still remain a mystery to one and all.

Sir John Franklin

He was Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin KCH (Knight Commander of the Royal Guelphic Order) FRGS (Fellow Royal Geographical Society) RN (Royal Navy) and a brief biopsy of his life follows.

John Franklin was born to a large family in Lincolnshire in 1786. He was the 4th youngest of 12 children. He was greatly influenced in his youth by his uncle Captain Matthew Flinders, who appeared on Australia’s Ten Shillings bank-note, Franklin’s father was not at all happy about his son making a life for himself as a mariner but eventually acquiesced and managed to secure him an appointment through the Royal Navy on-board H.M.S. Polyphemus, a 64-gun ship of the Royal Navy. It was launched on 27 April 1782 at Sheerness and during her service she participated in the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen, the Battle of Trafalgar, the Siege of Santo Domingo and then later she was used as a powder hulk and was eventually broken up in 1827. One of his very first duties saw him travel as a midshipman with his uncle Matthew Flinders on his historic exploration and circumnavigation of Australia from 1801 till 1803. This journey was covered in Flinders famous book “Voyage to Terra Australis” which covered the circumnavigation and also his imprisonment by the French on the island of Mauritius from 1804-1810.

He returned to England in 1903 and shortly there after accompanied Captain Dance on the East India Company’s ship the Earl Camden, giving chase and discouraging Admiral Linois at the Battle of Pulo Aura in the straits of Malacca on 14 February 1804. During the Napoleonic Wars he served in the battles of Trafalgar during 1805 and those of New Orleans in 1814.

His next major command post was with Captain David Buchan on his Arctic expedition of 1818 as Commander of the Trent. The Spitsbergen expedition sought to reach the North Pole as one of several attempts made at the end of the hostilities with France to reach the top of the world. Due to severe ice and storms the expedition failed to reach the Pole and they returned to port after weeks of being trapped in ice.His next notable expedition was a trip to Hudson Bay in 1819 where he was instructed to chart the northern coast of Canada up to the Coppermine River.

Sir John Franklin

During the next 3 years he lost over half of his crew with 11 men dying and the rest being forced to survive off anything that came to hand. Later reports insinuated that cannibalism may have been practiced. Most certainly the men ate lichen and moss from the rocks and even attempted eating their own leather boots. Franklin was to become known as, “The man who ate his boots”. This was just one of three Arctic and two Canadian expeditions that he undertook.

In 1836 he was promoted to the position of Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land but this only lasted 7 years. Franklin was a reformist and his desire to see the Tasmanian penal colony transformed into a more humane environment for the convicts, won him no friends in his own circles. The people and of course the convicts of Tasmania liked him but the society in Franklin’s own sphere, shunned him. He was eventually recalled to England. His legacy in Tasmania lives on in the small town of Franklin nestled on the Huon River which is named in his honour. Better known particularly after the Franklin Dam controversy was the Franklin River on the West Coast of Tasmania. His statue stands today on the site of the original Government House in Hobart at Franklin Square.

After several years back in England he once again set out on his 3rd Arctic expedition. The fabled North West Passage would be found if it existed. This one would prove to be his undoing. After his second exploration he had left only 500 km’s of coastline uncharted. They took 2 ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.

Both ships were unique in their day as they had been fitted with steam engines from the London and Greenwich Railway and enabled a them to make 4 knots when under power. Additionally there was a combined steam-based heating and distillation system for the crew comfort in the freezing conditions. Large quantities of fresh water for the engine’s boilers could be made with the on-board distillation mechanism. A special design feature allowed them to withdraw the iron rudder and propeller into protective nacelles to stop them being damaged. The expedition had enough stores on-board to see them through for 3 years. Most was conventionally preserved food or tinned food supplies. It was later discovered that the tinned supplies had been soldered closed. As lead poisoning was attributed in part to the demise of the expedition this was significant. They also suspect that the lead pipes and lead solder used in the on-board water systems may also have been a contributing factor to the physical and mental decline of the expedition members. The admiralty had obviously kitted out the expedition with what must have been the highest technology available in the day.


In September of 1846 the ships were ice-bound in Victoria Strait adjacent to King William island. This area is about half way between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. After a period of 21 months being icebound and the supplies running low they attempted to cross the ice to the North American mainland. By this point 23 men had died. The remaining crew set out with very little to sustain them and virtually no real protection against the elements. Terror and Erebus never sailed again. A note which was recovered much later on King William Island claimed that Franklin died there on 11 June 1847. This has never been proven nor the location of his actual grave site.

Some two years after the expedition set sail his wife finally made pleas to the Admiralty in London requesting that they send out someone to search for her husband and the rest of the expedition party. As the Admiralty was aware that Franklin had taken stores which would last for 3 years they delayed the search for another 12 months.

The initial search for Franklin, his ships and crew was conducted in three parts. Sir James Clark Ross headed a search party through Lancaster Sound. Captain Henry Kellett also traveled to the region through the Bering Strait near Alaska. John Rae and Sir John Richardson meanwhile conducted a land search that began at the Mackenzie River. No proof or evidence of any kind was discovered by any of them as to the final fate of Franklin’s expedition. ironically one of the search ships was HMS Investigator, the ship that Franklin sailed around Australia in with Captain Matthew Flinders.

Eventually, word spread that a reward had been posted for the discovery of the expeditions whereabouts. With 20,000 pounds as the prize, fortune hunters from both continents sent ships out in search of the lost men. It is believed that as many as a dozen ships had joined in from America and Britain.

Of the 24 officers and 110 crew the first found were on Beachey Island where 3 graves bearing remains and relics were uncovered. In the following four decades 25 more searches were instigated but none of them found anything to change what was known already. Astoundingly, these subsequent searches, as men raced to claim the rich reward, saw more ships and men lost without a trace than the original expedition they were searching for. Another “Bermuda Triangle” in the arctic circle? A Scottish explorer by the name of Dr John Rae believes that he found the true answer to their disappearance after talking to Inuit hunters who recalled seeing the men stumbling across the ice and succumbing to the starvation, cold and sickness. They also reported watching acts of cannibalism take place.

On August 17th 1984 Owen Beattie a Physical anthropologist from the University of Alberta began a decade long study of the examination of the remains of the 3 crew members which were exhumed at Beechey island for autopsy. The bodies had been buried in black wood coffins and were remarkably well-preserved.

He was able to measure the lead levels from the hair and soft body tissues. His study was listed as, “1845–48 Franklin Expedition Forensic Anthropology Project”. His 3 main conclusions on the cause of death were pneumonia, tuberculosis and possibly lead poisoning.

A book was also released “Frozen In time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition”. Released in September 2004. In 1997 the initial claim by Dr Rae of cannibalism was vindicated when blade-cut marks on the bones of some of the crew found on King William Island were identified. This strongly suggested that conditions had become so dire that some crew members resorted to cannibalism. the study also concluded that cause of death was probably attributable to scurvy, poisoned food (the lead in the tin cans), starvation and botulism had accounted for the deaths of all members of the Franklin expedition.

In a further book on the tragedy “The Franklin Conspiracy: Cover-up, Betrayal, and the Astonishing Secret” By Jeffrey Blair Latta the following interesting questions were raised.

Able Seaman John Torrington

John Torrington was the first to be exhumed and was remarkably well-preserved after 138 years in the ice. He was 20 years old and examination of his body showed signs of scarring on the lungs which indicated tuberculosis. Beattie did not return for the bodies of Hartnell and Braine until two years later. He had not exhumed them on his previous visit but had surprisingly noted evidence that the grave site had indeed been disturbed on a previous occasion. Heavy damage marks were visible in the lid of the coffin and material had been pulled out on one side. During his two years away he had discovered that it was Captain Edward Inglefield and Dr. Peter Sutherland who had done this in September 1854, two years after the graves had originally been discovered. Inglefield was at Beechey Island as Captain of the Isabelle, collecting mail from the five ship naval flotilla which was sent in search of Franklin using public funds raised by his wife. No mention was made of this in Inglefield’s diary or log book and it was only through a letter sent to Admiral Francis Beaufort that he admitted digging down by moonlight and feeling out the body by touch to determine that he had indeed died of a, “wasting sickness”.

Able Seaman John Hartnell

Beattie determined it would have taken 3 men 20 hours to dig down to the coffin so Inglefield must have been on his ship all day whilst the men laboured and why would he turn up at the completion of their work without a lantern and be content to let touch guide his judgement? No mention of the activities that day were noted in any of his journals. Why not? Why would he lie about such a thing and omit mention of the exhumation unless he discovered something in the grave that he felt could not be reported to the public. If so, then what? X-rays taken of the exhumed dead bodies held further surprises when it was discovered that Hartnell’s body had already undergone an autopsy. The “Y” incision was also odd as it was upside down to modern-day techniques with the “Y” centered on the bowel area when it was the heart, lungs and liver that had been removed. these had then been dumped en mass back into the body cavity and the rib cage cut away for access was replaced upside down. Who had done this? Maybe a better question is, what had done this?

Corpse of Willaim Braine

Local Inuits say they came across one of the ships floating in melt ice which was abandoned. They went below decks and there they saw the form of a giant man lying in the hold. Anthropologists have speculated that this “form” may have been a ships figurehead but then again maybe it was something all together else. Another mystery as no ship from the expedition was ever recovered.More surprises lay in wait when the body of William Braine was exhumed. One arm was tucked underneath the body and one of his undershirts was on back to front, concluding that the body had been dressed and placed in the coffin in a great hurry. Green staining from fluids was also apparent suggesting decomposition prior to burial which is a considerable feat of ineptitude in April in the Arctic. A final discovery by Beattie was that Hartnell’s veins had no trace of blood in them only water.

A further anomaly was that one corpse was missing its brain (the cavity was full of ice) and not because of decomposition, as both men were buried within a few days of each other in similar conditions and the other corpse had its brain still intact. Overall it is a mystery without equal, the facts are strange beyond belief. The death of 129 men, a fifteen year search, tales by locals of “Shaman Lights” and the local Inuit reporting only that, “A year of horror came to the land!”. Shaman spirits can be either benevolent or malevolent and are said to be able to take over the spirits of the living. Something to rival Roswell and the JFK conspiracy? Who can say? Was Franklin sent to the Arctic to investigate reports of un-natural phenomenon? Why was the Royal Navy so slow to act on his rescue and so unwilling to report their findings at the end? I guess the answer may never be known.

The well-known ballad, “Lord Franklin” has these lines which neatly sums up the finality:

In Baffin’s Bay where the whale-fish blow
The fate of Franklin no man can know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin with his seamen does dwell.

Visit us here at Noteworthy Collectibles to get your Sir John Franklin portrait on a Five Pound Bank Note!


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