Under the friendly shelter of Beechey Island, Franklin and his followers reposed from their arduous labours of 1845, and looked forward confidently to the success which must now attend’ their efforts in the following year. And had they not reason to be confident? Did they not know that, in their remarkable voyage up Wellington Channel and down the new Strait, west of Cornwallis Island, they had explored three hundred miles of previously unknown channels leading to the north- west? Could they not point to Cape Walker, and say, “Assuredly it will be an easy task next season to push our ships over the two hundred and fifty miles of water which must intervene between Cape Walker and King William’s Land.”
Of course they thought thus. And that their hopes were fulfilled, though they lived not to wear their honours, we know, alas! too well. The Polar winter came in upon them like a giant — it ever does so. No alternate frost and thaw, sunshine and gloom, there delays the advent of the winter. Within the frigid zone each season steps upon sea and earth to the appointed day, with all its distinctive characteristics strongly marked. In one night winter strikes nature with its mailed hand, and silence, coldness, death, reign supreme.
The soil and springs are frozen adamant: the streamlet no longer trickles from aneath the snow-choked ravines: the plains, slopes, and terraces of this land of barrenness are clad in winter livery of dazzling white: the adjacent seas and fiords can hardly be distinguished from the land, owing to the uniformity of colour. A shroud of snow envelopes the stricken region, except where sharp and clear against the hard blue sky stand out tho gaunt mountain precipices of North Devon and the dark and frowning cliffs of Beechey Island cliffs too steep for even snow-flake to hang upon. There they stand, huge ebon giants, brooding over the land of famine and suffering spread beneath their feet!
Day after day, in rapidly diminishing arcs, the sun at noon approaches the southern edge of the horizon. It is the first week of November, and I see before me a goodly array of officers and men issue from the ship, and proceed to scale the heights of the neighbouring island: they go to bid the bright sun good-bye until February, 1846. At noon, the upper edge of the orb gleams like a beacon-fire for a few minutes over the snow-enveloped shores of North Somerset — and it is gone — leaving them to three months of twilight and darkness. Offering up a silent, fervent prayer for themselves, who were standing there to see that sunset, and for their dear friends in the ice-beset barks at their feet, that they might all be spared to welcome back the life-imparting planet, we see these pilgrims to the God of light turn and descend into the darkness and gloom now hanging over the bay of the Erebus and Terror.
The tale of energetic battle with cold privation and festering monotony has been often told: why repeat that the officers and men under Franklin in their first winter within the frozen zone, as nobly bore the one and cheerfully combatted the other? The ruins and traces left behind them all attest it.
The observatory, with its double embankment of earth and stones, its neat finish, and the lavish expenditure of labour in pavement and pathway: the shooting gallery under the cliff, the seats formed of stones, the remains of pleasant picnics in empty bottles and meat-tins strewed about: the elaborate cairn upon the north point of Beechey — a pyramid eight feet high, and at least six feet long on each side of the base — constructed of old meat-tins filled with gravel: all tell the same tale of manful anxiety for physical employment to distract the mind from suffering and solitude.
On board the ships we picture to ourselves the Arctic school and theatre: the scholar and dramatist exerting themselves to kill monotony and amuse or instruct their comrades. There are not wanting traces at Cape Riley to show how earnestly the naturalists Goodair and Stanley laboured to collect specimens: now was their time to arrange and note upon their labours. There is more than one site still visible of tents in which the magnetical observations were obtained: now was the time to record and compare such observations. And, in addition to the charming novelty of a first winter in the frozen sea, the officers in so scientific an expedition had abundance of employment, in noting the various phenomena which were daily and hourly occurring around them.
But at length darkness and winter pass away, sunlight and spring return; pale faces again recover their natural rosy tint. Only three of the original party of one hundred and thirty-eight souls have succumbed ; * the rest, though thinner, are now inured and hardened to all the changes of the Arctic climate, and exhibit no lack of energy or strength.
* All the traces alluded to in these articles, as well as those delineated in the accompanying plate, were discovered at and about Beechey Island, in 1850-51. by the expeditions under Captain H. Austin, C B., Captain Penny, and Captain de Haven. The tombstones recorded the deaths of two seamen, on January 1st and January 4th, 1846, and that of a marine, who died on April 3rd of the same year.
As soon as the temperature will admit of it, parties are despatched from the ships in various directions with sledges and tents: some have scientific objects in view; others are directed to try and procure game for their sickly comrades, or to eke out the store of provisions, now reduced to a two years’ stock: and, sad it is to record it, nearly all their preserved meats were those of the miscreant Goldner.
Exploratory parties were likewise not wanting; and those who came on their footsteps in after years saw the signs of their lost comrades’ zeal and industry on every side. From Caswell’s Tower, which looks towards Lancaster Sound, to Point Innis up Wellington Channel, the marks of camping places and the trails of their sledges were frequent.
It was sad to remark, from the form of their cooking places, and the deep ruts left by their sledges over the edge of the terraces which abound in the neighbourhood of Beechey Island, how little Franklin’s people were impressed with the importance of rendering their travelling equipment light and portable, both as a means of exploration whilst their ships were imprisoned, and to enable them to escape if their ships were destroyed.
The anxiety for their fate, expressed by many in Captain Austin’s expedition, when remarking upon the fearful expenditure of labour which must have been entailed on Franklin’s men in dragging about such sledges as they had evidently had with them, has only been too truly verified. The longest journey made by sledge parties from the Erebus and Terror at Beechey Island, so far as we know, does not exceed twenty miles; whereas three and four hundred miles outward has been recently done by our later Arctic explorers.
Franklin’s experience of travelling in the Hudson’s Bay Territory was evidently at fault in the rugged and desert region in which he was now sojourning; and he had no M’Clintock at his side to show him how, by mechanical skill and careful attention to weights and equipment, sledges might be constructed on which men might carry boats, tents, clothing, food, and fuel, and travel with impunity from February to August, and explore, as he himself has done in that time, nearly fourteen hundred miles of ground or frozen sea.
However, no anxieties then pressed on the minds of those gallant men; “large water” was all they thought of; give them that, and Behring’s Straits in their ships was still their destination.
The sun has ceased to set, night is as the day, the snow has long melted off land and floe, the detached parties have all returned to their ships, yards are crossed, rigging set up, sails bent, the graves of their shipmates are neatly paved round, shells from the bay are prettily arranged over the sailor’s last home by some old messmate. Franklin, with that Christian earnestness which ever formed Bo charming a trait in his character, selects, at the request of his men, epitaphs which appeal to the hearts of all, and perhaps no finer picture could be conceived than that firm and veteran leader leading his beloved crews on to the perilous execution of their worldly duty, yet calmly pointing to that text of Holy Writ in which the prophet warrior of old reminded his people of their God, “Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve.”
The garden on Beechey Island refuses to yield any vegetables from the seeds so carefully sown in it; but the officers have brought and transplanted within its border every tuft of saxifrage and pretty anemone and poppy which can be found. The pale pink of the one and delicate straw colour of the other form the only pleasing relief from the monotonous colouring of the barren land. Sportsmen return and declare the game to be too wild for farther sport; but cheer all by saying that the deer and hare have changed their coats from white to russet colour ; the ptarmigan’s brood have taken wing, the wild duck has long since led her callow young to the open lakes, or off to “holes of water” which are rapidly increasing under cliffs and projecting headlands—all the signs denote that the disruption of the frozen surface of the sea is at hand.
The day of release arrives: in the morning a black sky has been seen over the eastern portion of Barrow’s Straits, that together with a low barometer indicates a S.E. breeze. The cracks which radiate over the floes in every direction gradually widen, then close again, and form “heavy nips,” in which the fearful pressure occasions a dull grinding noise.
Presently the look-out man on Beechey Island throws out the signal. The floes are in motion! A loud hurrah welcomes the joyful signal — a race for the point to see the destruction of the ice. It moves indeed. A mighty agency is at work; the floe heaves and cracks, now presses fearfully in one direction, and then in another; occasionally the awful pressure acting horizontally upon a huge floe-piece makes it, though ten feet thick, curve up in a dome-like shape.
A dull moaning is heard as if the very ice cried mercy, and then, with a sharp report, the mass is shivered into fragments, hurled up one on top of the other. Water rapidly shows in all directions, and within twenty-four hours there is quite as much sea seen as there was of ice yesterday. Yet the ice-fields in bays and inlets are still fast; this is the land-floe, and in that of Beechey Island the ships are still fast locked; but anticipating such would be the case, all the spring long men have been carefully sprinkling ashes, sand, and gravel over the ice in a straight line from the Erebus and Terror to the entrance of the bay. The increased action of the sun upon these foreign substances has occasioned a rapid decay of the floe beneath them, and it only needs a little labour to extricate the expedition.
“Hands cut out ships!” pipes the cheery boatswain.
A hundred strong hands and a dozen ice saws are soon at work, whilst loud song and merriment awaken the long silent echoes of Beechey Island. The water is reached, the sail is made, the ships cast to the westward, and again they speed towards Cape Walker.
If we open a chart of the Arctic Regions,* it will be observed that westward and northward of the Parry Islands there is a wide sea whose limits are as yet unknown, and the ice which incumbers it has never yet been traversed by ship or sledge. All those navigators, Collinson and M’Clure in their ships, and M ‘Clintook and Mecham with their sledges, who have with much difficulty and danger skirted along the southern and eastern edge of this truly frozen sea, mention, in terms of wonderment, the stupendous thickness and massive proportions of the vast floes with which it is closely packed.
* Mr. Arrowsmith, of Soho Square, has publishod an excellent and cheap general map, on a small scale, which will be found very correct.
It was between this truly polar ice and the steep cliffs of Banks’s Land that Sir Robert M’Clure fairly fought his way in the memorable voyage of the Investigator. It was in the narrow and tortuous lane of water left between the low beach line of North America and the wall of ice formed by the grounded masses of this fearful pack that the gallant Collinson carried, in 1852 and 1853, the Enterprise by way of Behring’s Straits to and from the farther shores of Victoria Land; and it was in the far north-west of the Parry group that M’Clintock and Mecham, with their sledges in 1853 gazed, as Parry had done five-and-thirty years before, with astonishment on that pack-ice to which all they had seen in the seas between Prince Patrick’s Land and the Atlantic was a mere bagatelle.
It is not that the cold is here more intense, or that the climate is more rigorous, but this accumulation of ponderous ice arises simply from the want of any large direct communication between that portion of the Polar Sea and the warm waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Behring’s Strait is the only vent in a southwesterly direction, and that strait is so shallow that this polar ice (which has been found to draw as much as sixty and eighty feet of water, and to have hummocks upon it of a hundred feet in height), generally grounds in it, until thawed away by the action of the Pacific gulf stream; and, on the other hand, towards the Atlantic Ocean, the channels, as it will be observed, are most tortuous and much barred with islands.
The grand law of nature by which the ice of our Northern Pole is ever flowing towards the torrid zone, holds good, however, within the area to which we are alluding; and in spite of all obstacles, and although the accumulation of ice every winter exceeds the discharge and destruction, still the action is even southerly, as in the seas of Spitzbergen and Nova Zembla. The slow march of this ice-stream is, however, far more like that of the ice from some huge parent glacier than of anything else, for lanes of water, or clear spaces of sea, are seldom if ever seen amongst it; indeed, so compact, so impenetrable is its character, that as yet no navigator has ever succeeded in crossing any of the ice-streams from this sea of desolation.
One of these impenetrable ice-streams flows down between Melville and Banks’s Land, and impinging with fearful force upon the exposed western shores of Prince of Wales’s Land and the islands across Barrow’s Straits, curves down what we hope will be called M’Clintock Channel, until it is fairly blocked up in the narrows about King William’s Land. Here the southern edge of the ice-stream comes in contact with the warm waters flowing northward from the rivers of the continent of America, and undergoes a constant and rapid disintegration, the rear of the ice-stream ever pressing forward, yet constantly melted away,* as it reaches the limit which Providence has set upon it.
* Taking the drift of the lost Erebus and Terror from September, 1846, to April, 1848, as our guide, the ice-stream moves at about the rate of a mile and-a-half in a month.
As Franklin sailed to the west from Beechey Island, he fell upon the edge of this ice-stream in about the longitude of Cape Walker; then to the west of it, and of Lowther, Young, and Hamilton Islands, he observed the floes being broken up, and rapidly disintegrated by meeting the warm waters of Barrow’s Straits; but within and amongst that pack there could have been no hope of a passage, whilst on the other hand the ridges of pressed-up shingle and off-lying shoals round the land west of Cape Walker threatened destruction to the Erebus and Terror if they attempted that route; whereas, as far as they could look southward between Capes Walker and Bunuy, there stretched away a fair and promising channel leading direct to the American continent, and with ice in it of no very aged appearance.
Who that has stood as they did on Cape Walker can doubt which route Pranklin preferred under such circumstances?
The middle of August, and a fortnight of navigation are before them. A lead! a lead! and large water! away to the south, calls the icemaster from the crow’s nest, and from under the friendly shelter of Cape Walker the Expedition bears away, and they progress a-pace down what we know as Peel’s Channel.
On the eastern hand rise the steep black cliffs of North Somerset, cut here and there with deep cleft and snow-filled ravine; along the base a ridge of ice is piled up; full forty feet high, it gleams in white and blue against the granite cliff, and is reflected in the calm waters of an Arctic summer’s day — how still, how calm, how sublimely grand — but the experienced seaman is not beguiled by the deceptive beauty of such a scene, but thinks of the dark and stormy nights when, and that before many short days are past, the north-west hurricane will again launch against those cliffs, the ice-fields of Melville Strait.
On the western hand, the sandstone cliffs, and the sheltered coves of Prince of Wales’s Land, have donned their brightest looks, and siren-like, lure the discoverer, by many an unexplored bay and fiord, to delay awhile and visit them. It may not be; the Erebus and Terror press on, for is not Cape Herschel of King William’s Land and the American continent ahead — are they not fast nearing it? Once there, will they not have discovered the long-sought passage? Will they not have done that ”one thing whereby great minds may become notable.”
Two degrees of latitude are passed over; the passage contracts; for awhile it looks as if they were in a cul-de-sac; islands locked in with one another, excite some anxiety for a channel. The two ships are close to each other, the eager officers and men crowd gunwale and tops. Hepburn Island bars the way: they round it. Hurrah, hurrah! the path opens before them, the lands on either hand recede, as sea, an open sea, is before them. They dip their ensigns, and cheer each other in friendly congratulation: joy, joy! another one hundred miles, and King William’s Island will rise in view. The prize is now within their grasp, whatever be the cost.
The sailor’s prayer for open water is, however, only granted in a limited sense, for directly the coast of Prince of Wales’s Island is lost to view, and that they are no longer shielded by land to the west, the great ice-stream from Melville Island again falls upon it. The Erebus and Terror pass a channel leading into Regent’s Inlet, our Bellot Channel; they advance down the edge of that ice stream as far as latitude 71°.
The only passage to the coast of America that Franklin knows of, is now nearly south-west of his position, it leads between King William’s and Victoria Land. For, alas! in his chart King William’s Land [see opposite] was represented to be connected with Boothia by a deep bay, called Poet’s Bay. It is true that to the southwest the hopeless looking ice-stream bars his way, and that to the south-east the road looks clear and promising; but then, did not his chart say that there was no channel east of King William’s Land, by which to reach the American shore? There was no alternative, they must enter the pack or ice-stream, and go with it to the southwest.
Had they not already passed over two-hundred out of the three-hundred miles between Cape Walker and Jape Herschel? Were they the men to flinch from a struggle for the remaining hundred miles? That struggle commenced as the winter closed in, and just as King William’s Land was in sight, the Erebus and Terror became beset, and eventually fixed for the winter of 1846-7, in latitude 70°. 5″ north, and longitude 98° 23” west, about twelve miles due north, of Cape Felix.
More dangerous and unpromising winter-quarters could hardly have fallen to their lot, but they were helpless in that ice-stream. Sixteen years previously Sir James Ross had stood upon Cape Felix. He travelled on foot in the early spring of 1830, from Victoria Harbour in the Gulf of Boothia, and explored the northern coast of King William’s Land, and standing on the 29th of May, on this very Cape Felix, remarked with astonishment the fearful nature of the oceanic ice, which was pressed upon the shores; and he mentions that in some places the pressure had driven the floes inland, half a mile beyond the highest tidemark!
Such the terrible winter-quarters of those lone barks and their gallant crews; and if that season of monotony and hardship was trying to them in Beechey Island, where they could in some measure change the scene by travelling in one direction or the other, how infinitely more so it must have been with nothing round them, but ice hummock and floe-piece, with the ships constantly subjected to pressure and ice-nip, and the crews often threatened during the depth of winter with the probability of having their ships swallowed up in an arctic-tempest, when the ice-fields would rear, and crush themselves one against the other under the influence of the awful pressure from the north-west.
The God of storms, who thus lashed the wintry north with his might, shielded however those brave men; and now, inured to the dangers of icy seas, they slept and laboured not less pleasantly because the floes were rocking their wooden homes; and consoled themselves, that they were only then; ninety miles from Cape Herschel, and that even a sledge party could reach it next spring (1847), before the navigation would be open.Thus their second winter passes.
King William’s Land shows out here and there from its winter livery; for evaporation serves to denude those barren lands of snow, long before any thaw takes place. May comes in, the unsetting sun in dazzling splendour pours its flood of perpetual light over the broken, shattered blocks of ice, while from the great ice-stream, drops of water form on the black sides of the weather-beaten ships, and icicles hang pendant from the edge of hummocks; yet it is still intensely cold in the shade.
Lieutenant Graham Gore, and Mr. F. Des Vaux, mate, both of the Erebus, are about to leave the ships for the land; they have six men with them. Why do all grasp them so fervently by the hand? Why do even the sick come up to give them a parting cheer? Surely they went forth to bring back the assurance that the expedition was really in the direct channel leading to those waters traversed in former years by Franklin; and to tell them all that they really were the discoverers of the long-sought passage.
One footprint was left by Gore and Des Vaux, in a cairn beyond Cape Victory on the west coast of King William’s Land; it tells us that “on May 24th, 1847, all were well on board the ships, and that Sir John Franklin still commanded.”
Graham Gore probably traversed the short distance between his cairn, and that on Cape Herschel in a week; and we can fancy him and the enthusiastic Des Vaux, casting one glance upon the long-sought shores of America, and hastening back to share their delight with those imprisoned in the ships.
Alas why do their shipmates meet the flushed travellers with sorrow imprinted on pale countenances? Why, as they cheer at the glad tidings they bring, does the tear suffuse the eye of these rough and hardy men? Their chief lies on his death-bed; a long career of honour and of worth is drawing to its close. The shout of victory, which cheered the last hour of Nelson and of Wolfe, rang not less heartily round the bed of the gallant Franklin, and lit up that kind eye with its last gleam of triumph. Like them, his last thought must have been of his country’s glory, and the welfare of those whom he well knew must now hope in vain for his return.
A toll for the brave — the drooping ensigns of England trail only half-mast; officers and men with sad faces walk lightly as if they feared to disturb the mortal remains of him they love so much. The solemn peal of the ship’s bell reverberates amongst the masses of solid ice; a group of affectionate followers stand round a huge chasm amongst the ice-stream, and Fitzjames, who had sworn only to part from him in death, reads the service for the dead over the grave of Franklin.
Oh! mourn him not, seamen and brother Englishmen! unless ye can point to a more honourable end or a nobler grave. Like another Moses, he fell when his work was accomplished, with the long object of his life in view. The discoverer of the North-west Passage had his Pisgah, and so long as his countrymen shall hold dear disinterested devotion and gallant perseverance in a good cause, so long shall they point to the career and fate of Admiral Sir John Franklin
The autumn comes. It is not without anxiety that Crozier and Fitzjames contemplate the prospect before them; but they keep those feelings to themselves. The Pacific is far off; the safe retreat of their men up the Great Fish River, or Coppermine, is fraught with peril, unless their countrymen at home have established depots of provisions at their embouchures; and worse still their provisions fail next year, and scurvy is already showing itself amongst the crews.
At last the icestream moves — it swings to and fro — the vessels are thrown into one position of danger and then another. Days elapse — ah! they count the hours before winter will assuredly come back; and how they pray for water — water to float the ships in; only one narrow lane through this hard-hearted pack — one narrow lane for ninety miles, and they are saved! but, if not * * * * Thy will be done!The ice-stream moves south; the men fear to remark to each other how slowly; the march of a glacier down the Alpine pass is almost as rapid. Yet it does move south, and they look to heaven and thank their God. Ten miles, twenty miles, are passed over, still beset; not a foot of open water in sight, yet still they drift to the south. Thirty miles are now accomplished; they have only sixty miles of ice between them and the sea, off the American coast — nay, less; for only let them get round that west extreme of King William’s, which is seen projecting into the ice-stream, and they are saved!
September, 1847, has come in; the new ice is forming fast; the drift of the ice-stream diminishes — can it have stopped? Mercy ! mercy! It sways to and fro; — gaunt, scurvy-stricken men watch the daily movement with bated breath; the ships have ceased to drift; they are now fifteen miles north of Cape Victory. God, in His mercy, shield those gallant crews! The dread winter of 1847-48 closes around these forlorn and now desperate men; — disease and scurvy, want and cold, now indeed press them heavily. Brave men are suffering; we will not look upon their sore trial.
The sun of 1848 rises again upon the imprisoned expedition, and never did it look down on a nobler, yet sadder sight . Nine officers and twelve men have perished during the past season of trial; the survivors, one hundred and four in number, are assembled round their leaders — Crozier and Fitzjames — a wan, half-starved crew.
Poor souls, they are going to escape for their lives by ascending the Great Fish Puver. Fitzjames, still vigorous, conceals his fears of ever saving so many in the hunger-stricken region they have to traverse. As the constant friend and companion of Franklin, he knows but too well from the fearful experiences of his lamented chief, what toil, hardship and want await them before a country capable of supporting life can be reached.
All that long last winter has he pored over the graphic and touching tale of Franklin’s overland journeys in Arctic America, and culled but small hope; yet he knows there is no time for despondency; the men look to their officers for hope and confidence at such a juncture, and shall he be wanting at such a crisis? No, assuredly not; and he strives hard, by kind and cheering words — to impart new courage to many a drooping heart.
The fresh preserved provisions on board the ships have failed; salted meat is simply poison to the scurvy-stricken men; they must quit the ships or die, and if they must die, is it not better that they should do so making a last gallant struggle for life? and, at any rate, they can leave their bleaching skeletons as a monument upon Cape Herschel, of having successfully done their duty.
Yes, of course it is. They pile up their sledges with all description of gear, for as yet they know not how much their strength has diminished. Each ship’s company brings a large whale-boat which has been carefully fitted upon a sledge; in them the sick and disabled are tenderly packed; each man carries a great quantity of clothing — care is taken to have plenty of guns, powder, and shot, for they can drag at the utmost but forty days’ provision with them, and at the expiration of that time they hope to be in a country where their guns will feed them.
Every trinket and piece of silver in the ships is carefully divided amongst the men; they hope to conciliate the natives with these baubles, or to procure food, and so far as fore-sight could afford the party every hope of safety, all has been done; but one fatal error occurred,— the question of weight to be dragged, with diminished physical power, has never been taken into consideration; or, if considered, no proper remedy applied.
On the 22nd of April, 1848, these gallant men fell into the drag-ropes of their sledges and boats; the colours were hoisted on their dear old ships, three hearty cheers were given for the stout craft that had borne them so nobly through many perils, and without a blush at deserting Her Majesty’s ships Erebus and Terror, Captains Crozier and Fitzjames lead the road to the nearest point of land, named Cape Victory. *
* So called by Captain Sir James Ross in bla exploration of 1830. It was the farthest point reached on King William’s Land by that indefatigable Arctic traveller.
Poor souls, they were three days traversing the intervening distance of fifteen miles, and the sad conviction was already pressing upon them, that they had over-estimated their physical strength and powers of endurance. Around the large cairn erected upon Point Victory the shivering diseased men cast away everything that could be spared; indeed perhaps much that, at that inclement season, they still needed to shield their half-starved frames from the biting blast. Pickaxes, shovels, rope, blocks, clothing, stores of all sorts, except provisions, sextants, quadrants, oars, and even a medicine-case, expressly fitted up for the journey, were here thrown away.
Unrolling the record left here in the previous year by the good and gallant Gore, Captain Fitzjames proceeded to write round its margin those few, alas too few; but graphic words, which tell us all we shall ever know of this last sad page in their touching history. The ink had to be thawed by fire, and benumbed must the hand have been that wrote those words; yet the writing is that of the same firm, self-reliant, light-hearted man who, three short years previously had been noted at Greenhithe as the life of the expedition.
In spite of frostbites and fatigue, the party presses on. They must keep marching southward towards the mainland where they hope to find deer and salmon, for upon their sledges they have only got forty days’ provision, and that store will be expended by the 7th of June, at latest.
How are they to live after that? is a sad thought which flashes across the mind of many. They sigh, but will not impart their anxieties to each other. Seamen-like, the light joke and merry laugh still flashes from mouth to mouth, and seems for the while to lighten the poor heart of its load of misery.
Poor lost ones! we mark them day by day, growing weaker under the fearful toil of dragging such ponderous sledges and boats, as well as their disabled comrades, through the deep snow, and over rugged ice; we hear the cheering appeal of the gallant officers to the despairing ones, the kind applause heartily bestowed to the self-sacrificing and the brave.
Bodily endurance has its limits, devotion to one’s brother man its bounds, and halfway between Cape Victory where they landed, and Cape Herschel, it becomes apparent that if any are to be saved there must be a division of the party, and that the weak and disabled must stay behind, or return to the ships. One of the large boats is here turned with her bow northward, some stay here, the rest push on.
Of those who thus remained, or tried to return, all we know is, that in long years afterwards, two skeletons were found in that boat, and that the wandering Esquimaux found on board one ship, the bones of another “large man with long teeth,” as they described him. On the fate of the rest of the sick and weak, and they must have formed a large proportion of the original party of 106 souls that landed on Cape Victory, we need not dwell.
The rest push on, they have tried to cheer their shipmates with the hope that they will yet return to save them — vain hope! Yet we see them with bending bodies, and with the sweat-drops freezing upon their pallid faces, straining every nerve to save sweet life —they pass from sight into the snow-storm, which the warm south wind kindly sends to shroud the worn-out ones, who gently lie down to die; and they died so peacefully, so calmly, with the mind sweetly wandering back to the homes and friends of their childhood; the long-remembered prayer upon their lips, and their last fleeting thoughts of some long-treasured love for one they would some day meet in Heaven.
The cairn on Cape Herschel was reached, no one had been there since “Deare and Simpson” in 1839, except themselves. Here the last record was placed of their success and sad position, and then this forlorn hope of desperate men pushed on towards the Great Fish River; and, if we needed any proof of Franklin’s Expedition having been the “first to discover the North-west passage,” or of the utter extremity to which this retreating party was reduced, we need but point to the bleaching skeleton which lies a few miles southward of Cape Herschel; that silent witness has been accorded us, and he still lies as he fell, on his face, with his head towards his home.
His comrades had neither turned, nor buried him. But why pursue the subject farther? why attempt to lift the veil with which the All Merciful has been pleased to shut out from mortal ken, the last sad hour of brave men battling with famine and disease.
All we know farther of this “forlorn hope” is that Dr. Rae, from Esquimaux report, states that about forty white men were seen early one spring, dragging a boat and sledges south upon, or near, King William’s Land. The men were thin, and supposed to be getting short of provisions; the party was led by a stout middle-aged man.
Later in the season, after the arrival of the wild fowl (May), but before the ice broke up, the bodies of thirty persons, and some graves, were discovered on the continent, and five other corpses on an island; some of these bodies were in a tent, others under the boat which had been turned over to afford shelter.
Of those corpses seen on the island, one was supposed to be a chief; he had a telescope over his shoulders, and a double-barrelled gun beneath him. The native description of the locality where this sad scene was discovered agreed exactly with Montreal Island and Point Ogle, at the entrance of the Great Fish River; and knowing what we now do of the position of the ships, the date of abandonment, and taking all circumstances into consideration, it is now vain to suppose that any survivors exist of the crews of the Erebus and Terror; nor is it likely that records of their voyage will now be found, as we may be assured that no Christian officers or men, would for one moment think of dragging logs, books, or journals with them when they were obliged to abandon their dying comrades on King William’s Land: and, indeed, when it is remembered that they neither cached journals or books of any description at Cape Victory, or the deserted boat, it is not probable that any were ever taken out of the vessels at a juncture when the sole object must have been to save life — and life only.
We shall soon learn, from the publication of Captain M’Clintock’s journals, how a woman’s devoted love, and a generous nation’s sympathy, at last cleared up the mystery which once hung over the voyage of her Majesty’s ships Erebus and Terror, and secured to Franklin and his followers the honour for which they died — that of being the First Discoverers of the North- West Passage.