1Exploration narratives written by British explorers on their return from unknown seas and lands depict “contact zones”, represented not as predetermined spaces where same and other come to meet on fixed grounds, but as problematic spaces “where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (Pratt 4). What takes place in these texts is not transaction, but rather negotiation, a process through which the writers represent the encounter with Otherness by providing the national community they belong to with written texts based on their personal experience. Material conditions of the exploration of new worlds are embedded in imperial rhetoric. Moreover, as Frederic Regard points out, exploration narratives allow for “the possibility not only of the shared ground of mutual understanding but also of a potentially unpredictable communicational dialectics” (Regard 6). The new territories the explorers discover and describe are generally constructed by discourses, knowledge systems, cultural structures of meaning, including myths and other narratives which constitute the foundations of a national community. These constructs ensure that the message is effectively received by those who stayed at home.
2It is now widely recognized that exploration and appropriation involve textual operations. Of course, exploration requires that bodies set foot on foreign soils, but it is writing that enables the Euro-expansionist project. Exploration is a matter of discursive coercion that aims at constituting the new world as an understandable and yielding object of imperial conquest (Collis 227), spreading from the invention of place-names to elaborately written chronicles.
3However, the the type of text, journals, letters and published narratives relating to exploration experiences, is significant. The diaries and letters written during the journey itself generally include physical details and openly subjective impressions, while narratives compiled and published after the end of the journey are literary constructions following certain conventions, rewriting personal adventures through fictional devices and tropes.
- 1 For much of the nineteenth century the polar regions were a source of fascination for the British p (...)
4In the investigation of the forms of imperial exploration narratives, the analysis of texts dealing with the polar regions leads to intriguing considerations. The British fascination for extreme and far-off places such as the Arctic is a noticeable starting point. The appeal of such North American spaces was also strongly connected with Britain’s mercantile, economic, scientific and military domination. The polar New World as a place of wonder and terror has a peculiar tradition of representation, where textual images of the sublime and the picturesque seem to converge.1 Moreover, language often proves inadequate to describe frozen and barren landscapes. The explorers’ task was to domesticate space by incorporating it into conventional discourses of discovery. Yet, devoid of any familiar European referents, the Arctic eluded European description, based on measuring, charting, and even physical penetration (Collis 226).
- 2 The title of the modern editions of Franklin’s text is different from the original. See Franklin 19 (...)
- 3 See Franklin 1995. Davis’ scholarly work on Franklin’s texts has been crucial to the arguments deve (...)
5Franklin’s first exploration of the northern shores of Canada is a remarkable case study. Franklin’s nautical enterprise captured the public imagination thanks to the publication of the Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the Years 1819-22 in 1823, which conveys the drama of an expedition plagued by harsh weather, bad planning, starvation and even murder.2 However, Franklin’s voyage to the Arctic Sea is also recorded in his journals and in his personal letters written during the expedition: these multiple written texts unfold different perspectives of Franklin’s highly popular mission. While scientific observations and material details make up the major part of Franklin’s journals and letters, a more gripping and sensational narration is developed in his Narrative published after the expedition. Only recently has Richard Davis transcribed and edited both Franklin’s journals and the correspondence relating to the 1819-22 expedition,3 while the Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the Years 1819-22 has been constantly republished since 1823.
6The journals of the expedition question the very concept of exploration, raising the problem of its ideological constructs, hermeneutic codes and ontological modes. As food becomes scarce and suffering increases, Franklin’s journals seem to relate a quest framed by trials and hardship. Meeting the Other becomes a twofold process involving the natives: initially casting the Indians as inferior beings whose function is to serve and obey, Franklin is gradually forced to allot them a greater role when they come to the rescue of the bone-weary, starving survivors. This is not an easy task. Slips and gaps signal the problematic attempt to write the Other when stereotypes have been deeply undermined. For example, in his journal, Richardson, one of Franklin’s officers, acknowledges the “humiliation” the English felt when they were unable to reward the Natives who had fed them and saved them, thus underlining the natives’ magnanimity: “We felt a great deal of humiliation at being compelled to leave men capable of such liberal sentiments and humane feelings in the beggarly manner in which we did” (Richardson 178-179). Franklin does not use the word “humiliation” when he relates the episode which occurred in December 1821. In November 1821 Franklin’s narrative clearly reveals a degree of cultural superiority as he writes of the care provided by the natives: “The Indians prepared our encampment, cooked for us, and fed us as if we had been children; evincing humanity that would have done honour to the most civilized people” (Franklin 1998, 462).
- 4 For a complete biographical sketch of Franklin and his first Arctic expedition see the introduction (...)
7In 1819 John Franklin (1786-1848), a Royal Navy officer, was sent to explore the Northern coastal territories east of the mouth of the Coppermine River. At that time, America’s northern coast was known only around two areas: the mouth of the Coppermine River and the outlet of the Mackenzie River.4 The British Admiralty hoped that the survey of the coastline between and beyond these areas would enhance the process of maritime polar discovery. The Admiralty relied on the ability of a naval officer such as Franklin to explore the unknown – and presumably dangerous – regions of Northern Canada. John Barrow, second Secretary of the Admiralty and an advocate for daring explorations, recommended Franklin as the Commander of the expedition because of his skill in astronomical and geographical sciences. Barrow’s instructions included research on the magnetic element, observations for dip, declination and intensity, and the effects of aurora borealis on the magnetic needle (Lambert 31-34).
- 5 On empire and Arctic explorations see Simpson 1994.
- 6 Among the vast bibliography on the North-Western Passage, see Williams 2010.
- 7 These issues are developed in Hill 2009, 31.
8Thus, Franklin set out to determine the latitudes and longitudes of the Northern coast of North America from the mouth of the Coppermine River to the Eastern extremity of the continent in an attempt to map the Northwest Passage. In the first decades of the nineteenth century the Admiralty was keen on sending expeditions north because these missions were linked to the navigational needs of the British Empire.5 More specifically, the search for the Northwest Passage was at the centre of British interests, for commercial and strategic reasons.6 As a cultural construction, the Arctic represented a site for the development of imperial British masculinity and the reinforcement of a national identity.7 The names themselves given by Franklin to natural features (such as Cape Barrow, Hood River, Bathurst Inlet, etc.) stressed the important of discovery and domination, inspired by visions of wonders and the sublime in the North.
- 8 North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company traded in furs and were fierce enemies until 1821, when (...)
9Franklin’s expedition was both a sea voyage and a voyage along rivers and lakes, but it also entailed land travel. Obviously, Franklin was to make a journey into unexplored territories where harsh weather and very low temperatures made survival difficult; therefore the planning in terms of equipment, food and means of transport was crucial. Close contact with native peoples was considered a priority and the support of European trading companies operating in those regions was strong prerequisite. However, in those years the two fur trading companies that were supposed to help Franklin, the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, were in a state of war with each other.8
10Moreover, Franklin’s expedition was hampered by several unfortunate accidents from the very beginning. The Commander had to leave two thirds of his supplies behind, as there were not enough boatmen at York Factory, the main port on the south-west coast of Hudson Bay, from which the trek to the Great Slave Lake was to begin. Birch-bark canoes and scientific equipment for astronomical and scientific observations constituted a heavy load. Franklin first proceeded to the shores of the Polar Sea, and afterwards followed the coastline. At Fort Providence he met Akaitcho, the leader of the local Yellowknives who had been recruited as guides and hunters for Franklin’s expedition.
11As the British explorer writes in the first pages of his narrative, the main objective of his expedition was “to amend the very defective geography of the northern part of America” (Franklin 1998, 9). Franklin explains: “I was to be very careful to ascertain correctly the latitude and longitude of every remarkable spot upon our route, and of all the bays, harbours, rivers, headlands, etc. that might occur along the Northern Shore of North America” (Franklin 1998, 9-10).
12In a letter addressed to Henry Goulburn, Under-Secretary of State in the Colonial Department, dated December 1819, the aims of the expedition and its organization details are laid out in detail:
In the want of further information than what I have received… it is impossible for me at present to determine on the mood of proceeding best to be adopted beyond Slave Lake. I am willing to indulge the Hope that rivers may be found of sufficient depth for loaded Canoes leading North to Methye No Name or Point Lake, by which materials & provisions for forming a Winter establishment may be conveyed (Franklin 1995, 334).
13The problems of the relationships with the Indians, as well as the scarcity of provisions and other equipment, are very apparent in most letters.
14Franklin was accompanied by five officers – among them John Richardson, a surgeon, George Back and Robert Hood, midshipmen – and by seventeen voyageurs and interpreters with their families. But the party was plagued by very slow progress, inadequate provisions, lack of group solidarity, and also by some misunderstandings with Akaitcho. The supply line proved to be dysfunctional and unusually harsh weather, coupled with the absence of game, meant that the explorers were never far from starvation. The assistance from the local fur trading companies and native peoples was inadequate.
15The crucial part of Franklin’s enterprise began in June 1821 when the British team reached the Coppermine River overland, descended it, and surveyed eastward along the coast. Then, to avoid a journey back along the coast, Franklin decided upon a 500 km march to Fort Enterprise where winter quarters had been established. Having mapped a considerable section of coast, Franklin delayed his return, and the ensuing trek was a disaster:
As we had nothing to eat, and were destitute of the means of making a fire, we remained in our beds all the day; but the covering of our blankets was insufficient to prevent us from feeling the severity of the frost, and suffering inconvenience from the drifting of the snow into our tents. […] Our tents were completely frozen, and the snow had drifted around them to a depth of three feet, and even in the inside there was a covering of several inches on our blankets. Our suffering from cold, in a comfortless canvass tent in such weather, with the temperature at 20°, and without fire, will be easily be imagined; it was, however, less than that which we felt from hunger (Franklin 1998, 395).
16In order to feed themselves, the party was reduced to eating rock lichen. Franklin, Back, and the stronger voyageurs were forced to leave behind several men, including Hood, who were too weak to keep up. In the encampment, Hood was near death from exhaustion, dehydration, and starvation, but he died at the hands of an Iroquois voyageur, Michel Terohaute, who apparently shot him in the head after a quarrel. Terohaute was subsequently executed by Richardson, who later suspected him of cannibalism. In his journal, the surgeon and naturalist Richardson suggests that the starving men waiting for the exploration party resorted to cannibalism to survive.
- 9 On Franklin’s third Arctic expedition see Cookman 2000. However, the bibliography on Franklin’s las (...)
17On the whole, half of Franklin’s party died of starvation and exposure, a murder was committed, followed by an execution and members of the British expedition had possible recourse to cannibalism. However, back in England, Franklin was soon ordered to return to the Polar Sea: the 1825-27 party explored 2000 km of coast to the Coppermine west. Despite these major achievements in geographical exploration, Franklin is best known for his third, doomed, Arctic expedition. Under his command, the Erebus and Terror sailed from England in 1845 and were last sighted in Baffin Bay in July 1845. Not a single man of the crew ever returned. The many expeditions searching for the missing ships led to the final mapping of much of Canada’s Arctic.9
- 10 Davis 1989 and Davis 2006 effectively develop the question of Franklin’s three different texts. Dav (...)
18In the case of Franklin’s first Arctic expedition, three different types of texts were produced: journals, letters and narratives.10 The general narrative itself includes several parts written by Franklin’s officers Richardson, Back and Hood. The Narrative was published after the end of the expedition and addressed to a wide audience; therefore techniques borrowed from literary sensationalism are massively employed.
- 11 “By this accident I had the misfortune to lose my portfolio, containing my journal from Fort Enterp (...)
19As far as the journals are concerned, they are not simply the record of daily events, because Franklin probably took daily notes and then wrote journal entries from these notes, presumably when he was allowed to rest and write up his impressions. We are also informed by Franklin himself that a large part of the journals were lost during the crossing of a series of rapids on the return voyage.11 Franklin reconstructed the exploration along the coast as far as Point Turnagain and the return journey as far as Belanger Rapids from memory (perhaps employing field notes and more frequently, the journals of his officers). Furthermore, the official correspondence includes letters written by Franklin to several members of the Admiralty and reveals Franklin’s constant preoccupation with material organization, and especially with the question of food supplies (a crucial issue, that explains the unsatisfactory outcome of the expedition, at least in terms of loss of human lives).
20The official correspondence is obviously different from the private correspondence (now kept in the archives of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, UK), because in his personal communications Franklin sometimes expressed opinions contradicting those that appear in his public narrative and official records. Certainly, they help construct an image of Franklin’s personal attitudes and beliefs around the time of his first expedition. The letters seem to reveal a well-balanced man with close familial attachments and a strong sense of personal relationships, in spite of the increasingly technological nature of his subsequent Arctic undertakings (Davis 1997). As a whole, we can say that Franklin employed fragmented and complementary tales of male heroism and human failure.
21Richard Davis draws attention to the distinction between journals and Narrative (Davis 2006, 40-41). Both documents imply that a coherent pattern is constructed out of a day to day recording of facts. The accounts piece together texts written by Franklin himself, by his surgeon Richardson and his midshipmen Back and Hood; the story of the return journey is clearly reconstructed because Franklin had lost his original journals. If his journal entries mostly include measurements, temperatures and magnetic variations, the narrative charts a new imperial territory through the unrelenting demands the Arctic places on the human body. This “version” of the journey maps the virtues of national character and the boundaries of duty onto a geographical space.
22While the journals make no reference at all to the reader, the Narrative takes the reading public clearly into account. When writing his public chronicle, Franklin thinks of himself as a story-teller who seeks to win his audience’s favour. He writes to well-defined readers and not only in order to record data: “I ought perhaps to crave the reader’s indulgence towards the defective style of this work, which I trust will not be refused when it is considered that mine has been a life of constant employment in my profession from a very early age” (Franklin 1998, 12). Franklin thus apologizes for the stiffness of his narrative style admitting that he joined a merchant vessel at the age of thirteen and had no opportunity for education in the literary arts, being thrust early in life into sea-faring, surveying and fur-trading. As a Navy officer, he reshaped his new world experiences into written documents. He rearranged the language of the old world to articulate new experiences and concepts.
23Franklin and other explorers engaged with a literary process, not only as they struggled to convert real-world experiences into constructed written texts in their daily journals but also when they transformed those journals into book-length public narratives. If journals are day-by-day records kept for the benefit of the employer, the public narrative is an account prepared for national gratification after the end of the expedition. The author of the narrative acquires a kind of omniscient perspective, knowing the full outcome of the expedition, whereas the author of the journal records the events as they unfold. They constitute different texts for different audiences. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that journals of exploration are not strictly private documents: Lord Bathurst himself, Secretary of State for the Colonies, ordered Franklin to keep a journal “of [his] route and proceedings, describing therein every remarkable object that may occur… Marking and registering therein the temperature of the air, at least three times in the 24 hours; together with the state of the wind and weather, and such other meteorological phenomena as [he] may deem of sufficient importance to be noted down” (Franklin 1998, 9). Franklin collected the scientific data in charts and tables, while his journals deal with events, landscapes and the peoples encountered.
24Franklin’s memoirs – the public narrative – are simultaneously a personal account and a national production. The plot is chronological; the parameters of the text are partly defined by the Admiralty’s orders. Both recording time and documenting physical movement are not neutral operations, as they “locate” the explorer, reminding readers of the specific source of his narrative. While measurements of compass points and temperature locate the explorer in relation to home, the Canadian landscape profoundly troubles the explorer and also his readers. Franklin perceives the ice pack as a barren inhospitable wasteland, emphasizing life threatening immersions in freezing rivers and bays. In this sense, the wonders of the new world are represented through the category of the sublime, mediated by a prose becoming also evidence of a dramatic survival. For the explorer, the Arctic becomes a theatre of the sublime, the awe-inspiring power of the natural world exerting a strong appeal on Romantic sensibility. At the same time, the voyages of Franklin offer to sensation-starved audiences access to new wonders, described in a suitably reliable fashion by naval officers who are also men of science.
25Franklin’s focus on the explorer’s body does not imply a special focus on personal issues, but rather, the author of the Narrative consciously writes as a naval officer and thus as a representative of his nation as Arctic exploration is defined by physical hardship (Hill 41-43). On the one hand, the male body resists absorption into an alien geography, on the other, a strategy negotiating a desolate and unfriendly environment relies on physical strength. Franklin gives his reader a startling tale of English masculinity and endurance, somewhat associated with defeat and marred by the suspect of cannibalistic practices.
26By considering the different and overlapping texts produced by Franklin and comparing Narrative, diary and correspondence, we throw further light on Franklin’s first expedition and show that an intentional and well-planned process of selection of episodes is at the basis of the narrative, subsuming the features of a dramatic romance, while journals and letters are written to the Admiralty, and deal with the development of the exploration journey, emphasizing the official duties of Franklin, revealing his major preoccupations. In his narrative memoir, Franklin recollects that his expedition had to fight every step of the way against an increasing number of obstacles. In turbulent waters and dangerous rapids, the Canadian native boatmen seemed very skilful, while the Englishmen appeared inexperienced. The Canadian voyageurs were worried by the idea of a journey northwards along the totally unknown coast:
Our Canadian voyagers complained much of the cold but they were amused with their first view of the sea and particularly with the sight of the seals that were swimming about near the entrance of the river, but these sensations gave place to despondency before the evening had elapsed. They were terrified at the idea of a voyage through an icy sea in bark canoes. They speculated on the length of the journey, the roughness of the waves, the uncertainty of provisions, the exposure to cold where we could expect no fuel, and the prospect of having to traverse the barren grounds to get to some establishment. The two interpreters expressed their apprehensions with the least disguise and again urgently applied to be discharged, but only one of the Canadians made a similar request. (Franklin 1998, 355)
27In this passage, Franklin seems to attribute the partial failure of the expedition to the fear and cowardice of the natives. At the end of his Narrative, Franklin takes up Back’s own account: “and thus terminated our long, fatiguing, and disastrous travels in North America, having journeyed by water and by land (including our navigation of the Polar sea) five thousand five hundred and fifty miles” (Franklin 1998, 483). The final rescue does not cancel hardship and sufferings: eleven of the voyageurs and one Englishman had died. Yet, the survival narrative has made Franklin’s publication a best-seller ever since: his tale of suffering and endurance is an epic of suffering shaped into a tragedy. Franklin’s exploits in the Arctic wilderness earned him lasting fame in Britain. If the narrative underlines the fatigue and disaster of the expedition, while recording the vastness of the territories and seas explored, the last entry in Franklin’s journals (6th September 1822) is devoted to an elaborate speech of thanks. Official language is employed. The explorer thanks Mr Simpson, the governor-in-chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company, along with Mr MacTavish, and overlooks all the difficulties encountered during the journey:
I cannot close my journal of this place, without bearing my sincere testimony to the unremitting attention & kindness we have experienced from Mr Simpson, the Governor of the Northern department, Mr MacTavish Chief factor in charge, and all the Gentlemen of this post. The two former, have readily met our wishes in every particular since our arrival, and I beg to offer them my best thanks (Franklin 1995, 275).
- 12 Robert Hood is the author of the Narrative of the Proceedings of an Expedition of Discovery in Nort (...)
28Nursed back to health, Franklin returned home at the end of 1822. Despite the setbacks, Franklin added hundreds of miles of coastline to the Arctic chart. He also produced useful magnetic readings, while Richardson collected precious botanical and zoological specimens. In his journal, Hood described the flora, fauna, and geography of the land, and recorded observations on the climate.12
- 13 See Brandt 2011.
- 14 See Back 1994.
29Franklin’s expedition narrative, helped by sensational press coverage, was very successful, combining frozen wastes, high drama, contact with unknown Inuit peoples, suffering, cannibalism and a final rescue. This mixture of literary characteristics made Franklin known as “the man who ate his boots”, in reference to a desperate measure he apparently took when faced with the prospect of starving.13 Through his narrative, he laid open a new world full of horrors but also fascinating wonders for his readers. A series of engravings effectively contributed to this awe-inspiring representation of the American Arctic. The engravings were based on drawings and paintings by the two midshipmen Back and Hood, who made their artistic contribution to Franklin’s expedition. They were obliged to mediate between conventional European pictorial tradition and the strangeness of a non European landscape to convey a visual rendering of their Arctic experience.14
30The original long appendices devoted to magnetic phenomena and the links between atmospheric and terrestrial magnetism and all the scientific apparatus were not reprinted in the ensuing editions. Very soon afterwards, Franklin returned to the Canadian North, but this time he would bring all his men back home. In his second Narrative Franklin improved his style, focusing on drama and spectacle at the expense of science and navigation.
- 15 Cavell 2008 compares the representation of Akaitcho in Franklin’s Journals and Narrative: Franklin (...)
31The result of Franklin’s enterprises was the creation of a composite map of the river systems and coastline of the far North. The expedition leader and his men borrowed native technologies of travel on snow and open rivers and appropriated native methodologies of hunting and cooking. The use of native guides and hunters, travelling with their families, connected the British explorer to the community economics of indigenous cultures. Moreover, Franklin considered his guide Akaitcho an exceptional individual who saved the remnant of the expedition from sure starvation.15 The “idealization” of the natives as natural friends and allies of the British explorers belongs to a long tradition dating back to the British conquest of Canada against the French. In most cases, the expeditions relied on the skills and know-how of the inhabitants of the North.
32Franklin’s “thrice-told tales” (Davis 1989) convey three different perspectives in relation to their audiences. The variations depend on the author’s perception of his reading public. In spite of the similarities between Franklin’s journals and his Narrative, careful scrutiny reveals subtle but significant changes as the targeted audience shifts from a few select Admiralty officials to a larger reading public. In particular, Franklin’s perception of his surroundings as a strange and beautiful landscape adds a romantic strain to his language, a similar aesthetic appreciation of scenery being generally absent from the journals’ more empirical account of new lands.
33I.S. Maclaren has examined the relation between the aesthetics of landscape appreciation widely shared in early nineteenth-century English culture and the way in which the Arctic environment was depicted by Franklin and other members of his expedition, investigating the extent to which the Arctic explorer depended on British convention of landscape appreciation (the sublime and the picturesque) for the comprehension of Arctic space (Maclaren 57-59). Whereas the sublime conjured up images of foreign lands and seas governed by forces that could not be grasped by the human mind, the picturesque reassured travelling Britons as regards their identity and culture, and was employed to represent remote and hostile territories. Thus, in his narrative, Franklin describes the Hudson’s Bay Company brig driven to shore by the currents: “The extreme density of the fog precluded us from any means of ascertaining the direction in which we were driving until half past twelve, when we had the alarming view of a barren rugged shore within a few yards, towering over the mast-head” (Franklin 1998, 26). The sublime effect is produced by a cliff that is barren and rugged. The following month, on the Hayes River, the reader is assured that a picturesque prospect will make things more pleasant and favourable: “We made an effort, on the morning of the 13th, to stem the current under sail, but as the course of the river was very serpentine, we found that greater progress could be made by tracking. Steel River presents much beautiful scenery…” (Franklin 1998, 41). When the picturesque and the sublime are combined, they create a recognizable landscape, both threatening and familiar. However, the translation of alien places and experiences into familiar European terms is not always effective, and a process of negotiation with Otherness, not fully integrated into the dominant discourse, is often developed (Belyea 23). The perception of the landscape shaping the Narrative is not though simply a condition of Franklin’s own visual and cultural conditioning, but a conscious effort to fulfill the expectations of his audience and confer an aesthetic value to an otherwise scientific and official report.
34In conclusion, Franklin’s appeal to a wider audience especially lies in his forceful description of an alien topography as well as in his dramatic narration of the explorers’ struggle to survive in extreme conditions.