Letter from Lady Franklin [Regarding the Reward Payment Offered by the Admiralty] (1856)

(In continuation of Papers presented in September 1854-55) Presented to the House of Commons. 1856.

No. 49

Letter from Lady Franklin - (Received April16.)

LADY FRANKLIN presents her compliments to the Secretary of the Admiralty, and requests he will do her the favour to place the accompanying letter before the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty at the earliest opportunity.

60,Pall Mall,

April 18, 1856.

Inclosure 1 in No. 49

Lady Franklin respecting the adjudication of the Reward, to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.

60, Pall Mall, April 12, 1856

My Lords,

I HAVE the honour of laying before your Lordships a copy of the notice published by your orders in the Gazette of the 22nd of January last, and of soliciting your consideration of the motives which compel me respectfully to enter a protest against the early adjudication therein proposed. I should not have delayed until this late moment the execution of an intention formed soon after the publication of the notice and communicated many weeks since to Dr. Rae, but that I have been incapacitated from writing by serious illness, from which I am indeed but partially recovered.

The grounds upon which I venture to appeal to you against the present adjudication of the reward are the following:-

1. Because it cannot truly be affirmed of the crews of the Erebus and Terror that their fate has been ascertained, and therefore to adjudicate on such an assumption seems to be premature.

2. Because Dr. Rae has not by his efforts ascertained their fate.

3. Because it may yet happen that their fate will be positively and fully ascertained, and if so, those who by their efforts succeed in ascertaining it, will, should a premature adjudication take place, be deprived of their legitimate reward.

4. Because the adjudication, by affirming that there is nothing more to be disclosed, opposes a check to any further efforts for ascertaining the fate of the expedition, and appears to counteract the humane intention of the House of Commons in voting a large sum of money for that purpose.

I trust that in making some observations in explanation of these points, I shall not fail in the respect due to your Lordships, and that you will accord me that indulgence which the subject and my own deep personal interest in it may appear to claim.

1. It is not my intention, under the first of these heads to throw doubt upon the reports brought home by Dr. Rae, confirmed as they are, in some points, by the indisputable relics procured from the Esquimaux, but only to point out that they are convincing within certain limits only; and that much that has hitherto been considered as established, is only conjectural, and should lead to a suspension of judgement, rather than to a hasty enunciation of it.

It is not proved, by any facts we are in possession of, that the party of white men who arrived with their large boat (the remains of which, with many articles belonging to it have been found) within the estuary of the Great Fish River, and who are said to have perished there, were the only survivors of the crews of the Erebus and Terror, and that no other remnant of the original ships' companies, amounting to about 135 men, took a different route.

And even as to this (known) boat party, it has not been traced back to the ships or to the wrecks from which it was equipped; nor have the ships been sought for at all, though there is much reason to conclude from the nature of the objects brought home by Dr. Rae, and of others seen by Mr. Anderson on Montreal Island and the adjacent shore, that they had been pillaged by the Esquimaux, and were not far distant. What secrets may be hidden within those wrecked or stranded ships we know not - what may be buried in the graves of our unhappy countrymen or in caches not yet discovered we have yet to learn. The bodies and the graves which we were told of have not been found; the books (journals) said to be in the hands of the Esquimaux have not been recovered, and thus left in ignorance and darkness with so little obtained and so much yet to learn, can it be said and is it fitting to pronounce that the fate of the expedition is ascertained?

That your Lordships did not consider that this question was resolved by Dr. Rae's reports at the close of 1854, and by the relics which to a certain extent authenticated them, is shewn by your own proceedings when that tragic intelligence arrived, for it was immediately decided that steps must be taken to verify the truth of these reports which could not be accepted as conclusive, and that further intelligence must be sought for. There was but one feeling in the country on this sad occasion. No amount of expense would have been grudged to make a final expedition of search complete, for it was felt that after six long years of failure and disappointment, the clue which we had asked and prayed for was now in our hands, and that England's honour and credit were concerned in holding it fast and following it up till it led to the solution of the mystery.

My Lords, I shrink from recalling the pain and woful [sic] disappointment I felt, and which many others felt with me, when the response to this generous excitement in the public mind, and the sole result of your deliberations, was no more than a birch bark canoe expedition down the Great Fish River, confided to the Hudson's Bay Company, but unsustained by any naval resources. In vain was it pleaded that a vessel might be sent to co-operate with this river party, who, if they ever reached the sea, could not venture to embark upon it in their frail canoes; and, if this were not granted, that at least a naval officer might accompany and direct the expedition, since it was well known that the Hudson's Bay Company, with all their zeal to accomplish the objects required of them in the most effectual manner, would not be able to supply to it an officer competent to make the indispensable observations for latitude and longitude. To the credit of Dr. Rae and the Hudson's Bay Company's officers about to be employed, I may observe that he made a similar recommendation, being persuaded that those brave and right-minded servants of the company would not hesitate to place themselves under the leadership of an officer in Her Majesty's Navy, provided he were one already tried and distinguished in Arctic service. To add to the original deficiencies of this over-land or river expedition, it failed to secure an interpreter, so that all the information it has brought back from the Esquimaux, and that derived chiefly from a few women, was transmitted only by signs.

Every praise is due to the exertions of the two zealous officers, who, under all these disadvantages, were able to accomplish anything : but it is scarcely to be wondered at if, after a rapid survey of 9 days only, within a very limited district, which did not extend even to King William Island where our fugitive countrymen were first seen, they were compelled by the state of the damaged boats hastily to return, and have thrown no new light upon the history of those whose fate they went to ascertain. Mr. Anderson has been able to confirm the evidences of a large party from the Erebus and Terror having arrived from the sea within the estuary of the Great Fish River ; but his negative testimony on other matters, such as the bodies and the graves which were not to be found, tends rather to throw doubt upon than to confirm them.

I may here, perhaps, be allowed to add, without prejudice to that excellent servant of the Hudson's Bay Company, Mr. Anderson, that he is so far from considering, the fate of the expedition has been fully ascertained by the results of his late survey, or that there is nothing more to be done, that he has felt it to be a duty to express to me since his return, as he had done before he started, his decided opinion that a vessel should be sent out to the vicinity of King William's Land to pursue the search. With about twenty men, well armed, and two interpreters, he considers that two parties might be dispatched from it to explore the east and west sides of Victoria Strait, as well as the lower part of Regent Inlet, his own opinion being that the wrecks of the vessels are to be found in Victoria's Strait, on the west coast of Boothia, between Bellot Strait and King William's Land. On the 15th of September last, Mr. A. writes to me, that he had himself made preparations for a second season of search ; but, I presume that, having no instructions on this head, they have not been turned to any account. It is evident he considers, that the Esquimaux tribes on the shores of the strait hold the secret we are in search of, and that something more than a flying visit of a few days must be effected, before their, perhaps guilty, fears can be allayed, and their confidence won.

The view I have thus ventured to submit, that there is much more conclusive evidence to be yet obtained as to the fate of the expedition, and that the means of obtaining it had not been used, but are within our reach, is not confined to myself alone, in which case I might, notwithstanding my deep personal interest in the matter, hesitate to advance it. It would be in my power to adduce the most positive evidence that the sentiments and views I have taken the liberty of expressing, are shared by some of the highest authorities to whom your Lordships have been accustomed to refer in the Arctic matters, as also by those brave and experienced officers who have most distinguished themselves in Arctic service ; and I would entreat of you, before you place an extinguisher upon the light which has arisen in that dark corner of the earth, whither we have been directed as by the finger of God, that you will, as you have done before, call together those Arctic officers, and obtain their individual and collective judgement in this emergency.

2. It seems almost superfluous to observe, if the fate of the crews of the Erebus and Terror has not been ascertained, that Dr. Rae has not succeeded in ascertaining it. And thus I might be spared the ungrateful task of considering whether or not he made the efforts implied in your Lordships' proclamation as a condition of reward, were it not that, by passing over this clause, I seem to admit an assumption that endangers the main truth I wish to establish. It is with great reluctance that I find myself obliged to contest Dr. Rae's claim to having, by virtue of his efforts, ascertained the fate of my husband and his companions, for we are indebted to him (short of this), for such valuable information, supported by such tangible proofs of a few facts, as might have enabled us, had ampler means been employed, to set the question at rest, and as enables us still to do so. Had Dr. Rae verified some of the reports he received at second or third hand from the Esquimaux, by personal investigation, and made use of the facts thus attained to get at further truths, or even, had he hastened home with no other object than to provoke the organisation of a much more complete and effective search than any he could himself accomplish on the spot, his claims would bear a different aspect. But he did not go out of his way to test the startling facts communicated to him, and he returned home, as he expressly tells your Lordships in his official letter, to stop further expeditions (in other parts) - a praiseworthy object, perhaps, but one widely different from that for which the reward was offered. It is but due, however, to Dr. Rae, to add that, when the Fish River Expedition was resolved upon, he gave his ready advice for its organisation, though he declined the command of it, which was proposed to him. He also declares himself favourable at this moment, to farther search, were it only, as he has assured me, to secure for his statements that confirmation which he anticipates. Much more gladly would I plead, did I not feel that it is beyond my province, that Dr. Rae should receive an adequate reward for his late and former services, than oppose his right to that which is put forth in the third clause of the Gazette notice, to which it appears to me he has not made good his title.

3. For the sake of those who may yet advance a stronger claim to it, I am again compelled respectfully to protest against the premature adjudication contemplated in the Gazette notice. When in the early part of the Session of 1849, the House of Commons unanimously voted £20,000 for the encouragement of private enterprise and of private enterprise alone, in the search of the lost objects of national solicitude, they placed no restrictions as to the period during which the reward was to be held out, it could never have been contemplated that while the community was divided in opinion as to the evidence of facts, and while a great majority of those best informed on the subject and others the most deeply interested in it, were dissatisfied with that evidence, and demanded better, an arbitrary edict such as that involved in the premature adjudication of the reward, should, in favour of any one candidate of doubtful pretensions, shut out all future ones. I would fain submit to your Lordships, that so long as private funds are embarked in the same cause, and that active measures are in progress or in contemplation, to clear up the mystery as to the fate of the crews of the Erebus and Terror, it would be unjust to place an arbitrary limit to the operation of an act designed expressly for that object, and so proclaimed at the time "By Her Majesty's Government."

And here I feel compelled to state that, though it is my humble hope and fervent prayer that the Government of my country will themselves complete the work they have begun, and not leave it to a weak and helpless woman to attempt the doing that imperfectly which they themselves can do so easily and well, yet, if need be, such is my painful resolve, God helping me.

In the name then of those brave men who will devote themselves to this labour of love and duty, I feel called upon to claim that they should not be shut out, by a premature adjudication, from the reward which may become their due. It may yet fall to their lot to ascertain all, or much of what we want to know, and to bring back some journal, or some precious fragment, otherwise lost to us for ever.

Should these last of the explorers accomplish any of these things, will you ignore their services and claims, because, in the spring of 1856, you had deemed that the fate of the expedition was ascertained, and had given away the reward? I have a right to use this argument, though in carrying it into its consequences I feel it may be doing injustice to your Lordships, as well as to the devoted volunteers who will undertake what they have to do in a higher spirit than any hope of pecuniary recompense can put into them.

But I may illustrate the argument by a more immediate example - that of the zealous and enterprising Captain Penny. It may not be known to your Lordships that Captain Penny, before his departure from England last year, in command of two whaling ships, informed me that the reports brought home by Dr. Rae reminded him of some vague rumours of a fight between whites and Esquimaux, which had reached him in Northumberland Sound the preceding season, from a great distance, travelling through successive tribes of natives. And Captain Penny added, that in spite of all the difficulties he foresaw in the execution of his project, it was his intention to engage some of the most intelligent and trustworthy natives, domesticated at his whaling station, to trace back these rumours to their source, whether that source were the catastrophe at the Great Fish River, or any other which may have overtaken a separate portion of the crews of the Erebus and Terror, in some other locality. Now, though I have no great hope (considering the distance to be traversed and other obstacles), that much success will attend Captain Penny's laudable efforts, and am sure that no thought of qualifying himself for the Government reward entered into his speculations, yet, would it be fair to adjudicate that reward at this moment, in the face of such a fact?

I have spoken reluctantly of a private expedition, at my own cost, which, in despair of your Lordships completing the work you have begun, and not till then, I may be forced to undertake. And it may not be superfluous, though I trust it is so, that I should state I can have no personal interest in desiring that the adjudication of the reward should be delayed till the result of that expedition, or of any other be known. Even in the event of the reward being adjudged in whole or in part, to those engaged in my private expedition, this could in no degree relieve me from any portion of my own pecuniary obligations to them, or from any expenditure whatever. My funds since the settlement of my late husband's affairs, are equal to the ample equipment of the Isabel schooner, which is now lying in dock, waiting, at a considerable current expense to me, her possible destination ; and, unless these my independent funds should become exhausted, which I do not forsee, I shall not even ask your Lordships for the ordinary pension of a rear-admiral's widow, to which I presume I am entitled. My request to your Lordships will be limited to such assistance as is entirely independent of money, and indeed, to such as I have been assured, on the highest authority, will not be denied.

4. And this leads me to add, as my last ground for remonstrating against the immediate decision which Dr. Rae's claim have given you occasion to announce, that its greatest evil, and that of which I should have the most reason to complain, would be the discouragement it gives to many a noble-minded man, who, in volunteering for this service, desires to do so with the confidence that he has your Lordships' approbation as well as permission. Your present adjudication would be to tell the public and the navy in particular that, in your Lordship's opinion, all has been done that can or need be done ; that there is nothing more to learn or nothing worth knowing, or nothing commensurate with the cost and risk incurred (little as that cost and risk would be) to obtain it ; and it is to brand with infatuation and obstinacy the feelings and convictions that prompt a different course. But if indeed the object of so many years' labour and anxiety spent, but not wasted, in wrong directions, is to be abandoned at the very moment when we know where and how to grasp it - if that which has hitherto been a nation's duty, be now dwindled to a private concern - at least let me entreat that you will not strive to stifle these last private efforts by any act of yours.

Permit me to add one concluding observation:-

It may be surmised that, at the [present] moment, I have a new incentive to farther search, inasmuch as justice has hitherto been withheld from my husband and his companions as the first discoverers of a north-west passage, and withheld on the ground that future investigation was necessary, in order to determine the extent to which it might be found that they had carried those discoveries to which they had sacrificed their lives.

Such was the barren, though kindly-expressed result of an appeal, which believing my motives must be above suspicion, I took courage to make to a Select Committee of the House of Commons, appointed to inquire into the claims of Sir Robert Maclure to reward, when I found that the right of my husband's expedition - not to reward, but - to the distinction of prior discovery was ignored, or not understood, or forgotten. And yet one would have supposed that the full examination of any conflicting claims lay at the very root of just judgement, and that those who could not plead their own cause because their voices were hushed in the grave, would have found an advocate in every man in that assembly, as they did find, I gratefully acknowledge, in some.

But this painful remembrance does not enter, or enters but little into the feelings which prompt my efforts for farther search, which I should not desire the less, even did I anticipate that its consequences might be to dissipate the convictions I now have, instead of to confirm them. Nor, perhaps, should I have touched upon this subject at all, except as leading me with less appearance of presumption to express my opinion, that it is due to a set of men who have solved the problem of centuries by the sacrifice of their lives and in the very act of dying, that their remains should be sought for in the place where they perished, and that, as they assuredly devised some means of preserving from destruction the last words they dictated to those they loved and the records of their five long years of suffering and adventure, the recovery of these precious documents should be the aim of persevering exertion and held out as a fitting object for reward.

The best tribute that could be paid to the first and only martyrs to the great Arctic discoveries of the present century, would be a national and final expedition for this holy purpose. The objections against a useless repetition of the attempt will be unanswerable, when once an adequate effort for the attainment of these objects has been made in vain ; and then may England feel that she is relieved of her responsibilities, and can close with honour one of the noblest episodes in her naval history.

I have trespassed long on your Lordships' patience, for which I beg to apologise, while renewing my respectful protest against the impending adjudication of the reward, and my earnest request that it may be delayed til such time as the result of the last expedition be known.

I have, &c.


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About this document ...

  • Written by: Lady Jane Franklin
  • Published in: Further Papers Relative to the Recent Arctic Expeditions in Search of Sir J. Franklin and the crews of Her Majesty's Ships "Erebus" and "Terror;" including the reports of Dr. Kane and Messrs. Anderson and Stewart.
  • Published by: Harrison and Sons
  • Place: London
  • Date: 1856
  • Page(s): 58-63
Sunken ship