Daphne Bramham: Accidental historian’s work researching Inuit testimony was key to finding Franklin’s lost ship

Had searchers paid more attention to Inuit eyewitnesses’ accounts of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage, it might not have taken more than a century-and-a-half to unravel what happened.

Yet even up until September 2014, when the first of Franklin’s two ships was found, modern historians had continued to ignore what local Inuit said because it ran counter to the heroic, 19th-century British narrative.

Finding the Erebus was “a moment of pure elation,” says underwater archeologist Ryan Harris, who was the first to dive the wreck and confirm that it was indeed one of the ships under the command of the British rear-admiral.

“It was cathartic were growing doubts that we were looking in the wrong area,” the Parks Canada archeologist said.

Amie Gibbins
Amie Gibbins David Woodman in an igloo in 2002.

Harris said there was one book that was invaluable to the discovery, called Unravelling The Franklin Mystery: The Inuit Testimony.

Its author is David Woodman, an accidental historian. For more than 30 years, he used and his own money to do the research.

Woodman, now 60, is a former B.C. Ferries captain. He retired a couple of months ago to Port Coquitlam and spends as much time as he can doting on his grandson.

David Holland
David HollandDavid Woodman on an Arctic expedition in 2004.

Despite spending a lifetime at sea, Woodman has never been all that interested in Franklin or his journey. What drove Woodman’s research were the wrecks. It’s always been all about the wrecks.

His — Woodman insists it’s not an obsession — began more than 40 years ago. As a 19-year-old scuba diver exploring wrecks in the Great Lakes, Woodman wanted bragging rights in the bar for having discovered a wreck of his own.

By chance, one day as he was leaving the University of Toronto’s library, he found Francis McClintock’s 1908 book, The Voyage Of The Fox, about the author’s failed Franklin , in the re-shelving pile.

“Right in the middle of the book there’s a copy of the only note ever left by Franklin, and right at the top it said, ‘Ships abandoned latitude 70.5 north and longitude 98.23 minutes west.** **… And I think, this is dead easy. I’ll go, dig a hole in the ice and it’s all done.”

Woodman knew virtually nothing about Franklin and figured he’d do some more research, having no idea that thousands of books had been written about the expedition.

“I gave myself a year to find this thing,” he said.

Handout
HandoutNote by Sir Franklin showing the final wintering position of his expedition through the Northwest Passage.

At the end of the year, the only thing Woodman knew for certain was that he didn’t like university. He quit and joined the navy, but kept .

The navy sent him to England, where Woodman spent his spare time at the National Maritime Museum, the British Museum, the Scott Polar Institute and talking to experts.

The more he learned, the less satisfied he was with “the heroic myth” of the expedition that was commonly told.

“I started to get the sense that the whole story had been glossed over, that there was a lot more there that to look at because it was not amenable to the myth that they all walked away (from the ships) in 1848; that they stayed in a disciplined party even as the weaker ones dropped off, even if maybe some disreputable guys at the end ate each other.”

What he was reading suggested it was more complicated than that.

“Maybe because I was a naval officer and not an academic — and I’m a contrarian anyway — I began to think (the experts) had got it wrong.”

Some Inuit said they had seen the men on foot in 1850, two years after they were all believed to be dead. Another said he had been on one of the ships in 1849 and everybody was fine.

Woodman was struck by how the Inuit oral record had been so completely discounted. His analogy? It was like the police going to an accident scene, doing all the forensic work, but never talking to the witnesses.

Once back in Canada, Woodman turned his attention to Charles Francis Hall, who began his search for the Franklin expedition on in 1869 and spent five years talking to Inuit there. His collected papers are the mother lode of Inuit testimony.

“I went to the Smithsonian (Institute in Washington, D.C.) and, apparently, I was the first person in 100 years to ask to see the Hall collection,” says Woodman.

Every day for a week, from the museum’s opening at 6:30 a.m. until the 8:30 p.m. closing, Woodman sifted through disorganized papers and deciphered nearly illegible pencilled script that sometimes circled the edges of a page to conserve paper.

Most of what he found was “irrelevant dross.” But every once in a while, there was a little nugget.

Some Inuit told Hall’s guides about seeing a ship lying on its side with a hole in it. Others reported seeing masts sticking above the water off King William Island. One said he had seen a body on a ship before it sank.

Among the complicating factors are the translations. Hall’s notes say things like the ship was found three miles west on the first-year ice. But the Inuit didn’t use miles or directions like west. Then, because there were two ships, the sightings may have been confused.

By the mid-1980s, Woodman was living in Victoria, married with children. Most nights when he was there, having brought his own ship safely home, Woodman stayed up into the small hours organizing his theories and notes into chapters, typing away on his Commodore 64 in the garage using the freezer as a desk.

In 1988, Pierre Berton’s book The Arctic Grail became a bestseller and sparked a renewed interest in Franklin and the Arctic. But what Woodman recalls is turning its pages and, with his red pen, writing notes: “Plagiarized. Wrong. Plagiarized. Absolutely wrong.”

Woodman’s wife, Franca, had had enough. Although Woodman remained concerned there was some fatal flaw in his contrarian analysis, Franca insisted it was time to at least try to get the manuscript published.

While he was away at sea, McGill/Queen’s University Press agreed to take it. Three years later in 1991, Unravelling The Franklin Mystery was published at about a third of its original length.

Yet, even after all the editing, it remains a specialist’s book. Even Woodman warns against attempting it without having first read at least a few others on the subject.

“My ambitions for the book were that I would make enough money to buy a computer with a hard drive and a word processor that had ‘search and replace’. And my wildest dream was that I’d have enough money left to take my kids to Disneyland,” he said.

Against the odds — and testament to the allure of Franklin — the book was a bestseller and, at 35, Woodman’s modest ambitions had been realized and surpassed.

Between 1992 and 2004, he was involved in 10 to search for the wrecks in the places that he’d written and thought about for nearly two decades.

“The best detail we had was Grant Point, where someone actually saw the ship,” he says. “So, for most of my work in the field, I worked near Grant Point. I basically eliminated that whole section, much to my disgust, because I had been pretty convinced that that’s where the ship was.”

His attention shifted south to O’Reilly Island for the last two years before the money dried up.

I started to get the sense that the whole story had been glossed over, that there was a lot more there that nobody wanted to look at because it was not amenable to the myth

Tom Gross
Tom GrossDavid Woodman at Cape Felix in 1999.

By then, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had an Arctic strategy. But so did the Russians, who, in 2007, planted their flag in the Arctic seabed under the North Pole, staking a claim to billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves.

The search for the Franklin ships became part of Canada’s sovereignty agenda.

Although the Erebus was found in “an unlikely area” far south of where Woodman expected, it’s consistent with the Inuit testimony.

“I’m quite heartened by the details,” says Woodman. “It was found in shallow water and we were told that the masts were still above water and that it was intact.

“Unfortunately, the main thing we’re looking for now is the body because the Inuit say there was a body on board.”

Over the years, Woodman has developed a deep empathy for Franklin and his men. He rejects critics who blame Franklin for not following the Inuit example of what to eat and how to dress.

It would have been impossible, he says. It takes eight sealskins to make a single set of clothing. Where would they have been able to find enough to clothe 129 men, let alone kill the seals at the precise time of the year when their pelts are best?

As the search continues on the Erebus, as well as for the Terror, Woodman expects more evidence will be found supporting his theory that Franklin’s men left in three separate stages and didn’t stay together as traditional wisdom has it.

JEAN LEVAC / OTTAWA CITIZEN/POSTMEDIA NEWS
JEAN LEVAC / CITIZEN/POSTMEDIA NEWSRyan Harris, the senior underwater archeologist for Parks Canada, with then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2014, alongside an image of the Erebus on the Arctic seabed.

But he’s cautious about asserting the validity of all oral histories and is skeptical that what Inuit have to say now about Franklin has much value. Too much time has elapsed and, like the childhood game of telephone, what they have heard is only a faint echo of what their ancestors might have said.

Despite Woodman’s influential work and promises from Harris and others that they’d let him know if they found a ship, they never did: They were all sworn to secrecy by the prime minister’s office.

On Sept. 9, 2014, Stephen Harper announced the discovery of the Erebus, with Harris at his side in Ottawa.

That night when Woodman came home, he found a note from Franca saying that the Erebus had been found and that she’d recorded the TV news report.

Forty years of research had been vindicated.

But the tragedy is that Woodman still hasn’t done one thing he set out to do. He has yet to dive “his” wreck.

Above the Arctic Circle: For 12 days, I am one of a group of privileged visitors, including two scientists from the Vancouver Aquarium, on a 96-passenger expedition ship operated by Squamish-based One Ocean Expeditions making a journey through the Northwest Passage. Click here to read more from Daphne Bramham’s Arctic series

About Daphne Bramham, Postmedia News