Ah yes. The bumbling middle-aged white man, given a job he has no business having by his contemporaries, and then ignoring the excellent advice of the truly skilled and knowledgeable and doing precisely what he wants because he, of course, is entirely infallible. This man is considered villain among most of the women (and plenty of the men) I know.
He’s also John Franklin, the man often and probably incorrectly credited with the discovery of the Northwest Passage in the mid 1800s.
In Dead Reckoning, Ken McGoogan makes an argument against this orthodoxy and instead makes one for the efforts of many people, including the Inuit and Voyageurs, who did in fact provide valuable service to many a would-be Arctic explorer.
McGoogan provides examples of successful exploration (less deaths, more data). In all these cases, the men involved relied heavily on advice from their Inuit and First Nations and learned their lessons well. Inuit oral tradition recognizes and remembers these explorers.
“In the 1980s, after criticizing several other explorers for their arrogance and insensitivity, the Frenchman Jean Malaurie would hale the “extraordinary agreements” Kane made with the Inuit and observe that “the favorable memory that Kane has left among my Eskimo friends is vague, certainly, but tenacious,” writes McGoogan of Kane, who did not screw up anywhere near the scale Franklin did.
McGoogan questions: what did Franklin do, really? During his first Arctic exploration, a whole lot of his men died. In his last, they all did.
“Others, given the benefit of hindsight and the accretion of evidence, have wondered whether Franklin was as competent as some of his contemporaries believed,” writes McGoogan.
Actually, there is a good chance Franklin wouldn’t have been north to get lost without his wife.
Lady Franklin was the Kim Kardashian of her day—excellent at marketing, self-promotion, making an advantageous marriage, furthering her husband’s reputation and managing public perception. That intake of breath you just heard was Northwest Passage armchair enthusiasts suddenly feeling offended and not knowing why.
McGoogan writes: “Jane Franklin understood that, as regards to history and enduring reputation, perception creates the only truth that counts. And at controlling perception, she knew no peers.” Except Kim Kardashian. And she wasn’t born yet.
Actually, Lady Franklin should get more credit for her role in arctic exploration. It was she who pushed Parliament and the Admiralty to look for Franklin. The parties who went out looking explored and documented more coastlines and entry points into the arctic. She herself financed and organized key expeditions.
“But for her, the opening of the Arctic would have required additional decades,” McGoogan writes.
And she, like women then (and now?), was overlooked. She remained committed to ensuring her husband’s place in history, despite her own accomplishments, which were extensive. She circumnavigated the globe at age 70 in sailing ships for goodness sakes. McGoogan has a whole book about her called Lady Franklin’s Revenge. Her machinations and overlooked contributions feel contemporary. It’s not like that never happens now.
So who did in fact discover the Northwest Passage? McGoogan leaves it open to interpretation. Certainly, it was group effort spread over decades and compounding knowledge. An explorer named John Rae found the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage. He too gets overlooked thanks to Lady Franklin’s public relations campaign.
But we should be careful about assigning credit where it doesn’t belong. “In truth, Franklin discovered no Passage,” McGoogan writes. “The man himself died a few months after his ships got trapped in the pack ice. And when his crews marched south to seek help, they forged no link in any chain.”
Other contemporary writers support McGoogan’s stance.
Dead Reckoning, although written about events long past, is actually a cautionary tale, about the arrogance of ignoring the intelligence of people around you, of overlooking the contribution of women and marginalized peoples, and about the frailty of history.
History isn’t set: it’s flexible, depending on one’s interpretation. It’s worth considering, as each day slips into the past, what story we’re actually telling and how it will be reinterpreted, more truthfully, at some point in the future. Revisionist history is a popular topic right now, and will continue to be until we ensure voices are heard in equal measure.
Also, McGoogan has a blog that you can read here and a plentiful booklist with several titles about Arctic exploration to choose from. His books might be the only sort my father and I agree about.