Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

The Discovery of HMS Investigator

HMS Investigator

In 1845, Sir John Franklin and 128 men sailed into the Arctic aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in search of the Northwest Passage. They were never heard from again. The mystery of the search for Franklin took decades to solve. Theories about the causes of the expedition’s demise continue to the present.

The irony of the Franklin expedition is that it accomplished more in failure than it ever could have in success. The disappearance of the party sparked dozens of relief expeditions from Britain and led to a comprehensive survey of the Canadian Arctic archipelago and its native peoples.

For the United States, which entered the search effort in 1850, the rescue of Franklin became the driving force for U.S. exploration of the Arctic, a 60-year effort that established the polar regions as next frontier after the American west.

Last week an expedition organized by Parks Canada found HMS Investigator which set out to find the Franklin party in 1850. In taking up the search for Investigator, Parks Canada made itself a part of the 150 year old legacy of the Franklin search. It also established a place in a much larger lost-explorer theme that became dominant in the 19th century as explorers set out to find other explorers who had gone missing.

Yet in his editorial about the discovery, Canadian Minister of the Environment Jim Prentice is eager to point the different, distinctly modern, uniquely Canadian elements of the Parks Canada search.

Jim Prentice, Canadian Minister of the Environment

First, it was done on the cheap:

This modern-day expedition was typically Canadian: quietly conceived and carried out on a modest budget from an unassuming cluster of 10 orange Mountain Equipment Co-op tents scattered on the rocky shore of Mercy Bay.

Second, the crew was quintessentially Canadian:

The senior marine archaeologist manning the sonar was Calgary-born Ryan Harris. Alongside him were archaeologists Jonathan Moore, who hails from Kingston, Ont., and Thierry Boyer of Montreal. Also present was soft-spoken John Lucas, a Canadian of Inuit ancestry and the senior Parks Canada officer for Aulavik National Park.

With some substitutions of names and technology, this statement sounds a lot like the patriotic boosterism of the British Admiralty or the American Geographical Society 150 years ago.

Ultimately Prentise’s interest in showing this effort as ‘exceptionally’ Canadian make it sound a lot like other efforts in 19th century frontier conquering. While their are the usual nods to the importance of archeology and the history of indigenous peoples, he ends his editorial on the subject that was of highest importance to the Great Powers in the late 1800s: territorial rights.

Most importantly, however, the quest for the Investigator celebrates our Arctic heritage and speaks to the exercise of our sovereignty in the Arctic Archipelago today.

Things change, things stay the same.

Most importantly, however, the quest for the Investigator celebrates our Arctic heritage and speaks to the exercise of our sovereignty in the Arctic Archipelago today.

Read more: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2010/08/09/jim-prentice-reclaiming-a-piece-of-our-history/#ixzz0wEB3dyOD


  Russell A. Potter wrote @

Michael, great post. I’m sure all this is but a sample of the heated nationalistic rhetoric that we’re sure to see if “Erebus” or “Terror” are found. It’s curious to reflect, though, that Great Britain, empire though she was, didn’t take much of an interest in the Arctic in terms of sovereignty; “veni vidi” was enough for them, and they left “vici” for another day. The great mass of the Canadian north was under the control of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but again, they managed it for resources, not with any idea of “territory” (excepting in the way a salesman talks about it).

So the problem of northern sovereignty is indeed uniquely Canadian, even if some of its rhetoric is a bit warmed-over. How does one maintain defend a claim to such vast tracts of land” In the past, Canada tried everything from forcibly relocating Inuit to dispatching “High Arctic Rangers” who were reimbursed by the Government for dog-sledding year-round with little Canadian flags flying from the backs of their sleds.

So now it’s colonizing the history of its former colonizers.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

@Russell: good point. I was too loose in equating Arctic chest thumping with Arctic sovereignty. They are different. The better model here for Canada is probably Russia – which, beyond the symbolism of conquering the Arctic frontier – also sees big portions of it as national territory.

  David Goldenberg wrote @

You tell a great story.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks David.

[…] HMS Investigator, the first ship to attempt to find the northwest passage, over at the aptly named It's time to eat the dogs. For slightly more modern fare, check out the History of Science post on the first computer with a […]

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