15 Sep 2017

In this guest blog Professor Andrew Lambert looks at an alternative reason why Franklin was employed to lead the 1845 expedition into the Arctic and why it is that this reason is often overlooked.

While the conventional version of the Franklin disaster assumes the mission had been sent to complete the navigation of the North West Passage, a narrative imposed on the mission by Lady Franklin after the news of cannibalism reached London, the reality is very different.

Researching the earth's magnetic field

By the late 1820s Franklin and other experienced Arctic travellers accepted that even if a passage existed it would be useless for commercial purposes. This insight ended the search for a passage, but it did not end research on the nature and movement of the earth’s magnetic field, a dynamic science which some British experts believed, following Alexander von Humbolt’s pioneering work, could provide a predictive navigational tool, to be used in the same way as the heavenly bodies, in essence a Victorian version of GPS.

After 1830 Franklin and fellow naval magnetic scientists continued to study the phenomena, and Franklin built the world’s southernmost magnetic observatory at Hobart, where he served as Governor. His friend Captain James Clark Ross, who had located Magnetic North in 1832, brought HM ships Erebus and Terror to Hobart and circumnavigated Antarctica, to locate Magnetic South. When Franklin, Ross and the two ships returned to Britain the ships were refitted, and a new team of magnetic observers were trained, under Franklin’s leadership, to return to Magnetic North and conduct six months of detailed magnetic observations, in a global project to create geo-magnetic charts that would demonstrate if the earth’s magnetic field moved in a predictable way, and could be used as a navigational resource.

Franklin: leading magnetic scientist

The necessary instruments, large, heavy and fragile, could only be carried to this location by sea. That was why two big ships and 129 men were sent, Franklin took command because he was the Navy’s leading magnetic scientist, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. There was no plan for overland exploring. Franklin brought his two ships to Magnetic North, an unprecedented feat of navigational skill, and conducted the necessary observations. However, the ships were unable to escape the ice, and were ultimately abandoned. Well aware of Franklin’s scientific agenda James Clark Ross, the first to search for him, tried to reach Magnetic North, but was beaten back by extreme weather.

Changing the story

When Franklin’s expedition disappeared, and scientists realised that terrestrial magnetism would not provide a navigational tool, they were quick to shift the focus to exploration, and Lady Franklin, who wished to be the widow of a hero, not a cannibal, complied in awarding Sir John the credit of ‘discovering’ the North West Passage. 

That version needs to be replaced by the magnetic mission that dominated Franklin’s instructions, and the science that dominated his career, from 1803 until his death, that of the earth’s terrestrial magnetic signature, and its impact on navigation. Only then will we understand the reason why. 

Andrew Lambert is Professor of Naval History at King's College, London, and is author of Franklin Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation. 

Death in the ice

Discover the shocking story of Franklin's final expedition to the Arctic in this world-first exhibition. Objects from the recently discovered wreck of the HMS Erebus together with other artefacts and curiosities will be on display, many for the first time, aiming to uncover the mysterious fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew. Can the latest discoveries shed light on one of history's most enduring mysteries?

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