Full Interview with David Woodman

                David Woodman

David Woodman led a series of Arctic expeditions in search of evidence on Franklin's missing ships and men and authored Unravelling the Franklin Expedition: Inuit Testimony , based on 19th century Inuit testimony.

Lyle Dick – Interview with David Woodman, noted author on the history of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition and author of the book Strangers Among Us.

1) When and how did you first hear of the missing expedition of Sir John Franklin?

DW: A little prologue. I grew up diving and sailing in the Great Lakes and that’s all I was interested in as a teenager: sailing and diving. And because the Great Lakes have no coral or in those days no fish, it basically means you’re a wreck diver. So I wanted to find a wreck that no one else had found, a virgin wreck as every young wreck diver did. And quite simply I knew that circumstances would mean that I would have to find it in Canada. I thought I’d find it in Lake Superior, maybe, but in the back of my mind I always thought, perhaps in the Arctic. There were whaling ships wrecks or something that I could research and find. But as teenager do I didn’t put much research and thought into it, it was just something in the back of my mind: “I would like to do this someday.” And then I went to U of T, and I remember very distinctly, one Friday night I was walking out of the John Robarts library there and in the bin of books to be returned to the shelves, which you’re not supposed to actually mucker with because they’ve already been done, right on top was a book called The Voyage of the Fox. And I was a great Conrad fan, I had read anything that started with “The Voyage of” would grab my attention. So I picked it up thinking it was a fictional book and, of course, it’s the account of McClintock’s expedition that found the first remains of Franklin’s expedition, which I had probably been taught about in Canadian high school history but had forgotten. Right in the middle there was the Victory Point record, saying that the ships had been abandoned at this position. As a nineteen year old, I thought “well this is even easier than I thought. I just have to go to that place, maybe dig a hole in the ice, dive down, find a shipwreck and I’m done!” So I filed that away and started reading about Franklin’s expedition, totally focused on where are the ships. I was not interested in the disaster, I was not interested in the overall parameters of exploration history, as a scuba-diving teenage young man, all I wanted to do was find the ship, put my flippers on it. I was never a collector, I didn’t want to take pieces of it or anything; I just wanted to go there, find the ship that no one else had found and then come home and tell all my diving buddies that I’d found it! But it soon, very quickly, in my first research it became evident that the only way to find the ships was going to be, to use the Inuit testimony. There were no physical remains, there were no debris fields, there was nothing that I could do, except collect all the Inuit testimony I could possibly collect and filter it for any mention of where the ships had been abandoned. And after years of doing that, I was seduced into the other aspects of the tale, and became quite enamoured of the efficacy of Inuit testimony and how everyone else basically ignored it. All the other books, I was reading secondary sources as well, seemed to gloss it off as impenetrable, obtuse, sometimes just untrustworthy. And yet I was finding details in there that I thought made a lot more sense than what had been reconstructed by the armchair historians over the last century and a half. So I was taken from a very teenage motivation of doing something cool, slowly as I got more mature probably, into becoming enamoured with this story and the mystery. It turned into- people say I’m obsessed but I don’t like that word, I’m just stubborn and completest- but it turned into a good part of my non-professional life.

2) What happened to Franklin's party?

DW: In one word: too much geography, too little time. I think they were put into a no-win situation. I think that if you crashed a modern airliner in the west coast of King William Island now with twenty-nine of us and offered us no support, we would all die too. They were trapped: they were caught by a very cruel nature in that Peel Sound usually is open in that period. Now it’s almost always open but in that period, the 1840s, it was open about eight years out of ten and the other two years it was completely solidified. They sailed down during an open year, it solidified after them, and stayed solid every time someone came to look for them. So that everyone who came to look for them, they looked down Peel Sound and thought, well they couldn’t have gone that way, and looked somewhere else. People just don’t realize the scale of the problem. If you’re set down on King William Island that far from help hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles, and yet only sixty miles from the end of your quest- you know, if they had managed to make it to Point Turnagain, which was known geography, or even down to Cape Herschel which was also known geography, they would have the prize. It’s like a long distance runner, and he could see the finish line: you don’t want to abandon that now and retrace your steps. Even though people do it every year on Everest: they get to the last few hundred yards and they see the peak and the smart ones turn around if they know they aren’t going to make it in time, the more foolish ones carry on and end up having difficulties coming back or never making it back. And that was sort of the psychological situation the Franklin expedition was in, they were within sight of their goal the first year and they thought maybe we’ll get free next year and we’ll make it. Maybe we’ll get free next year and we’ll make it. And then eventually they got to the point where their options were constricted to the point of a dash for survival and none of them managed to survive.

3) Why did they fail?

DW: As I say, we would fail too, given their technology, without helicopters to come rescue us. There is a flavour in the more modern era to try and blame their decision-making or their technology. To a certain extent, the technology was simply inadequate: leather boots and woolen clothing, the very first tinned food and not a lot of it, very inefficient coal engines- part of that is definitely to blame. Part of it, another flavour is that there were too many of them and on too big ships. That Ray and Hall and Schwatka all managed to traverse the Arctic in small parties without the encumbrance of all of their civilized technology, just a few of them with rifles and sleeping bag and Inuit guide and you could accomplish amazing things. But that’s not the way they did it in those days. It’s like saying we could have landed a man on the moon by having just one man and a missile that was launched and crashed- yeah, we could have done that, would have gotten there a lot sooner! We put them in an ICBM. But that’s not the way they did it and that not the way they wanted to do it. They wanted to bring back scientific results that needed a lot of specialists, the northern magnetic pole was close by, they wanted the magnetic research results, they wanted the climate results, they wanted to show that this wasn’t just a glorified British Empire “go-put-my-flag-in-the-Arctic” and I’m sure that, you can tell from their journals, that a lot of them took their work very seriously. And you can’t do that. Hall never did that, Rae never did that, Schwatka never did that: they had much more focused goals. So to do that you need a lot more men, you need a lot more support, you need the big ship. So there’s that. And the last one is about the decision-making and I’ve always had, as a captain myself, I’ve always had issue with that. When I try and put myself in the leader’s mind set, knowing what they knew, not what I know, about the geography, and everything, I think they made quite rational decisions, all the way along. They didn’t work out, not everyone’s decisions work out, sometimes their problem is insoluble. The Inuit had never- in any of the Inuit testimony do they mention that the men were crazy or acting foolish or- they knew they were sick, but they had no inkling that these were stupid men, any stupider than all white men were stupid because they didn’t know how to live off the land like Inuit do.

4) Where are the ships?

Well, the Inuit tell of the sinking of two very distinct ships in very distinct ways. One was crushed in the ice very quickly, went to the bottom. They were quite mad that they got no relics off of it. There are some stories that say that men died in it, drowned in it, they went down so quickly. That was when the two ships were together. That ship I believe is in Erebus Bay, partially based on the fact that Erebus Bay is where the Inuit thought the white men first came ashore. They had no conception that the white men had been on the north coast earlier than that. They only found that out when the Natives who met McClintock in 1859 on his return were told that McClintock found things on the north shore, and those things had been untouched. So we know the Inuit had never been up there. The Inuit thought that that was where the white men first came in their land was Erebus Bay near what’s now called the Boat Place, in the depths of Erebus Bay. They also say that a boat came ashore from one of the two ships which implies it was open water between where the boats were and the shore and that they weren’t too far offshore, whereas in the north they were three days, fifteen miles off shore, you could not have seen the ships, much less rode a boat ashore. And that’s where the main relics have been found, as far as the boats and more kilograms of Franklin relics are found at Erebus Bay than any other single place. So I think one of the ships will be found in Erebus Bay within sight of the Boat Place and that will be the one that sank quickly. Then they talked of another boat all by itself, much farther south in Wilmot and Crampton Bay near O’Reilly Island or Grant Point. The geographical pointers are ambiguous. That’s the one that sank, it sank- it was visited while it was still in the ice and the men had abandoned it, there was a plank down to the ice, the decks had been swept, the cabins had been locked, it was left in perfect order by the last few white men- white men - and found by the Inuit in that state. Then it sank in its place and the mast heads were still above water which gives us an indication of depth and it shows that it sank fairly gently when the ice broke up. And that’s always been the focus of my search, because as again, going back to my first point, as a wreck diver that one will be a much more interesting wreck than the other one.

LD: Perhaps more accessible too.

DW: Probably more accessible, in better sheltered water and if it’s in pristine condition as it was described, it will be just an amazing wreck. Because one of the joys of working in cold and Arctic waters is that warm water usually eats wooden wrecks to nothing within a couple decades. They don’t like either fresh water in the Great Lakes or cold water in the Arctic. So it will be a very well preserved wreck as is the Investigator in Mercier Bay.

5) How do you know?

DW:I don’t know. Nobody knows.

LD: But you’ve done extensive research and a lot of thought has gone into your various conclusions and hypotheses. So I wanted you to share a little bit with us as to how you know what you do know.

DW: My slant, my window into this mystery has always been through the Inuit testimony. Correlating who told who what, looking for the telling details, how many days did they walk between this camp and that camp, what did they find at that camp. You have to also filter the fact that to an Inuit any white man’s camp is going to look basically the same, any white man is going to look basically the same, any ship is going to look basically the same. And their world view is not our world view when it comes to chronology and geography so you have to, first of all, approach their tales with a bit of skepticism and say “Am I hearing about Parry in [1833] or am I hearing about Ross or could this be Franklin?” So the filter I used was to study all of the records of the known Arctic explorers, the ones that they brought back, and try and find any details that could not apply to them, with the assumptions that of there were details that could not apply to something we know, it’s almost like the Sherlock Holmes thing, perhaps they applied to Franklin, the only expedition where we don’t have the answers. By doing that and witling them down, and hopefully having a bit of a critical sensibility about them, but still believing overall in their veracity- I always was amazed at how observant they were and how faithful they were in retelling the same stories over and over again, and how they corroborated each other even though they didn’t know it sometimes. From one encampment to another, different individuals would say the same thing. I know it could be repetition, not corroboration; you have to always wonder about that, but anyway. Taking all of those details that could only apply to the Franklin Expedition and then try to weave a narrative that made sense with the very few physical remains we have. And I was- When I started, I didn’t think it was going to be possible, to weave a narrative that would include almost everything. Almost any detective will tell you that in any murder case it’s almost impossible to make every piece of evidence fit. Witnesses are bad, and this is all we’re dealing with, witnesses, now, who might have passed through one or two translations from their native tongue. I thought- best I could do what to shine a spotlight on one or two incidents maybe. But in the end, after years of looking at it, I could weave actually probably about two or three variant narratives that would encompass most if not all what I’d heard in testimony and were not inconsistent with the physical facts on the ground. And when I wrote the manuscript, I was actually called to task by the publisher who said you have too many variants in here. I would write one and then I’d say, “but, if you read it this way, it could mean this”. So they forced me to basically write one single narrative, my “best-shot” narrative, which I would be very hubristic to think is the true narrative, the truth is probably on the cutting room floor for parts of this narrative. But at least it seems to me to hang together and other people have thought so as well, not everyone’s agreed with it in the last thirty years, but it has- I’d say the major impact of the work that I did wasn’t to illuminate the Franklin Expedition, but was to re-illuminate the value of the oral traditions of the Inuit.

LD: Permit me to comment. It seems to me that what you’ve just described is a classic scientific approach of seeking to refute the evidence in the interest of proving this point or that point. You’re also trying to critique it and to disprove it in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. Is that a fair assessment of your method of approach?

DW: Well, when I started university I thought I was going to be a scientist. Then I found I didn’t have the brain power or the patience to be a good scientist. I liked having results faster. And I’ve always liked humanity so eventually I got a history degree, forty years later. I did look at it and said, all right, let’s make some testable assumptions, as scientists do. If I’m right, the wreck should be in one of these 2 places. Now the technology is to the point where we can go and look. If I’m right, Franklin’s grave should be along the shore between Collinson Inlet and Victory Point. So I led three different expeditions up there to try and find it. These are testable hypotheses. Whereas I’ve lost a lot of patience with people who theorize but have no testable hypothesis. If you’re going to hypothesize that lead poisoning played a role and that it came from the solder in the cans, then you’re going to have to call in a lot more than the fact that the isotopes are the same ratio which is one of the major points of that plank because the isotopes are the same ratio in all the mines of Northern Europe. All the lead mines of Northern Europe have that ratio. The lead in the Roman bones found in the graves in southern England have exactly the same ratio of lead than Franklin’s men’s bones. It doesn’t prove that it came from the solder of these tins made by Goldner, it just proves that the lead that they used was mined in Europe. Farrer went into much more detail as a food chemist, showing various ways that you could do a test and things that probably not pass a test and over the last thirty years a lot of them have failed the test. So that has fallen off. And there are a lot of wild speculations, you know from Latta, they were called up there because they were looking for aliens who had landed in the Arctic. Another lady in Florida says that she’s channeled Sir John Franklin and he’s told her where to look. Fine, I’m very open-minded about this, being a non-trained specialist of any kind, I’m a ship’s captain who wrote a book, basically. You got to have at least a kernel in there that I can test before I can take you too seriously.

LD: Your approach does seem very much along the lines of Sir Karl Popper’s conjectures and refutations. In my mind, it’s quite admirable because you’re not seeking to prove anything in particular, you’re seeking to refute it, in the interest of hopefully proving something.

DW: I think one of the last sentences in my book is that someday someone is going to find some relic, maybe, I hope. I’m pretty convinced that they buried their logs or copies of their logs somewhere in the Arctic tundra. It would have been within the purview of their orders and normal practice, especially when they knew there were not perhaps going to make it. It would have been something they would have done. So someday, by accident, someone will find these things. And I think one of the last sentences in my book is that that will immediately render all speculative histories, including this one, irrelevant. But, as we said, the loss of 129 British explorers was unfortunate but a major airline crash kills that many people now. We’ve recovered all of the data that they collected by now, in much better form. We mapped the Arctic ourselves, we’ve got all the data from their weather observations and from their physical specimens and their ethnobiology, and all the rest of it. So why are we still interested in it? And it’s basically the same reason why we’re still interested in the Battle of Troy and Homer: because of the stories that tell us about ourselves and how far people can go and what happens in extremest to brave men and also the stories that the Inuit tell us which are being lost generation by generation and deserve to be preserved.

6) Why do you care?

DW: Well I care- like I say, I would like to say I had a great calling but I wanted to find a wreck, as a young man. I became interested in the story as a middle aged man. And now as an old man, I try and justify all of the effort and thought that I put into it in some way- as the fact, that some people are called, or put in a position to push the boundaries of human experience. They go to the moon, or they do something extraordinary that the rest of us don’t get a chance to do or don’t want to do. They put themselves out there. And if they die and we don’t know what happened to them then we sort of have a debt to pay: we have to try and find out what happened to them. I always say that if Apollo 8, which was the Christmas one that went around the moon for the first time and was out of touch with earth for the first time when it went beyond the dark side of the moon, if it had crashed on the dark side of the moon and we never heard from them again we would have had to go find out what happened. The Franklin expedition for its time was an equivalent thing.

LD: You feel almost a certain moral imperative to tell their story-

DW: Well I think any of us- If we went walking in the woods and disappeared we would like to know that someone will try and find out what happened to us, even as individuals. So when expeditions like La Pérouse or Dr. Livingston or any of these people who are out pushing the boundaries for the rest of us, and something happens to them, I think that as a species we should always- we’d never get them to go if we thought if you disappear we’re not going to come looking for you. We can learn lessons from what happened to them. It helped Scott later in Antarctica have better equipment or you know, help everybody.

7) What is the significance of Franklin's last expedition?

This is a tough one because I know why it’s significant to me but I have a very hard time explaining why it’s significant to anyone else. I think Margaret Atwood and some others have done [a] much better job of weaving the Franklin narrative into Canadian history and world history and exploring how partially the mythology has helped shaped Canada. Our prime minister right now is building a narrative for Arctic sovereignty on the explorations of a group of British sailors. There’s various levels of significance: all the way from mineral rights and Arctic that is opening up with global warming to whatever. I think the main significance to me are the stories. I think it’s almost Homeric in its scope. It has its own Penelope, Lady Franklin waiting at home, it has so many elements of cannibalism and exploration and man against nature that it’s sort of a timeless story. Once you get into it you find echoes of it everywhere. So that’s the significance to me and I think that once people do get their teeth into it, a lot of them seem to become a little crazy about it. And it’s just worthwhile. Like I say, I grew up reading Homer and loving it, knowing that I’d never was going to find out what happened to a bunch of Achaean Greeks and Trojans who don’t even exist anymore in the North West corner of Turkey. But I just loved the stories. And I think that that’s what it comes down to, it’s what we tell each other, it’s the stories.

LD: And it seems to be the great enduring Canadian mystery.

DW: I’d say it’s got to be top five, maybe top three. Even with my bias. Canadian historical mysteries- we don’t have a long history so it’s not even a Canadian history mystery because there was no Canada in 1845. But, yeah, for us, definitely, it’s a local story. Canadians need some of those. We haven’t got thousands of years of history to fall back on. And it does tell us something about the people who live there now, people who are going to live in the Arctic in the future, they’ll all be able to say I remember. One of the favourite things I did was, one of my guides , his last name was Puhtoorak, just sitting in a snowbound tent and I was telling him, you’re probably related to an Inuit hunter called Puhtoorak who was the first one to find a camp with dead white men from the expedition we’re looking for and he had no conception that he was- and I’m sure he is related- from Gjoa Haven with a name like that- probably his great great great grandfather or somebody was the Puhtoorak. But he had no idea but he just lit up.

LD: And it’s exciting to help people reconnect with their own history.

Sunken ship