Sir John Franklin

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Sir John Franklin


English Explorer and Naval Officer

Famed arctic explorer John Franklin was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire. Following elementary and grammar school education, he went to sea over his father's objections. When he was 14, Franklin's father, a cloth merchant, was persuaded to help his son secure a place in the Royal Navy as a volunteer on HMS Polyphemus, and the lad saw action during the Battle of Copenhagen (1801). This was the first of a series of naval assignments that took him to Australia, China, Europe, South America, and the Caribbean during the next 15 years. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, during which he had been wounded and mentioned in dispatches, he was discharged in the standard manner as a lieutenant on half pay. He was not yet thirty.

What saved his career was the decision by the Royal Navy in 1818 to resume Arctic exploration, specifically the search for a northwest passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the islands lying to the north of the Canadian mainland. Franklin was selected for this duty in part because of his excellent war record and also because early in his career he had accompanied his uncle, Captain Michael Flinders (1774-1814), in an exploration of Australia.

Franklin commanded several expeditions, some by land, to the Canadian Arctic in 1818, 1819-1822, and 1825-1827. Franklin's weaknesses as a leader and explorer, notably his insistence on adhering to the admiralty's instructions when they did not apply to existing conditions, and his inability to adapt his objectives to changing circumstances in the field, were for the most part overlooked. The new geographic information he brought back did not, in the view of some critics, justify the personnel he'd lost owing to starvation or exposure and the cost in terms of effort, ships, and equipment. On the other hand, he won great respect for his efforts to be self sufficient while on the ice and for his courage in the face of daunting adversities. Promoted to commander early in 1821 and post captain in November 1822, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society in the latter year. He published narratives of two of his expeditions in 1823 and 1828. He was awarded a gold medal by the Geographic Society of Paris and an honorary degree from Oxford University. He was knighted in 1829.

During the 1830s, the British Admiralty once again discontinued Arctic exploration, and Franklin served as a peacekeeper during Greece's struggle for independence. He was later (in 1837) appointed lieutenant governor of Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania). His efforts at reform in that penal colony, in the face of political opposition and his administrative inexperience, resulted in his dismissal in 1843. In 1842 he published an account of some of his experiences.

Renewed interest on the part of the Royal Navy to find the northwest passage led to Franklin's appointment as commander of his final expedition, and he left England in May 1845 with two well-equipped Royal Navy vessels, Erebus and Terror, 129 men, and sufficient supplies for three years. Last observed by some whalers in Baffin Bay several months later, Franklin and his crew were never seen alive again. In the 14 years after he failed to return, more than 30 search expeditions were sent out by the admiralty, the Hudson's Bay Company, and by Lady Jane Franklin, his second wife, most between 1847 and 1859. In the meantime, Franklin was promoted to rear admiral in 1852. Lady Franklin attracted much sympathy, particularly in Britain and the United States, where several search expeditions were mounted. While looking for Franklin, would-be rescuers themselves mapped much new territory. Confirmation of his death came only in 1854, when Inuit residents in the region of King William Island provided information concerning the final days of Franklin and his men. Not until 1859, however, were the human remains of Franklin's party and their belongings finally located there. Franklin's vessels had evidently been caught in the ice near that point, and he died there at age 61 in June 1847. Several parties of survivors themselves subsequently died while trying to reach the mainland of Canada. In reconstructing the routes they had taken, searchers confirmed the Northwest Passage route. It was not until the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's (1872-1928?) voyage of 1903-06, however, that any vessel successfully negotiated the passage.

Through his considerable efforts, Franklin, a figure of great persistence and winning personality, contributed much new cartographic information to what had been known about Canada and Alaska's Arctic coastlines.


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Sir John Franklin

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