12 Oct

It is all to easy to forget the ‘other’ man who contributed to the success of the expeditions. On the ‘Scotia’ expedition Captain Robertson was pivotal to its success.

He was one man with whom Bruce never fell out; Bruce admired the Captain’s superb ice navigation skills and his ‘miraculous’ ability to anticipate and avoid the numerous potential emergencies that ‘Scotia’ encountered on her exploration to the South in 1903.
Thomas Robertson was born in Peterhead in 1855. His father and both his grandfathers were whaling captains, and from childhood he had a close association with the sea. His apprenticeship was served on a Peterhead merchant vessel trading with Australia and China but, on his return to England he decided to join the whaling and sealing industry. In this work he went to the Arctic, first as Mate on the ‘Jan Mayen’ of Dundee and then, at the age of twenty-four, as Master of the ‘Polar Star’, in which role he made voyages to the seal and fishery grounds off East Greenland and the Davis Straits. These voyages gave valuable experience; the ships were sail driven – this was before steam was in general use on whaling ships- and the knowledge he gained in handling these sailing vessels through the iceberg- laden north, was an invaluable asset when later he commanded ships with steam auxiliary power.

Bruce first encountered Robertson on the Dundee Whaling Expedition to the Antarctic of 1892-1893 when he (Bruce), sailed as Surgeon/Naturalist on ‘Balaena’, one of the five whalers going South in search of Right Whales. Robertson was Captain of one of the smaller ships, the ‘Active’. Bruce was accompanied on the expedition by his friend and fellow student Burn Murdoch. When Burn Murdoch wrote a book, ‘From Edinburgh to the Antarctic’, criticising the captain for the few opportunities allowed for scientific work on the expedition, Robertson wrote a defence. He said that it was difficult for the ‘passengers’ to be aware of the petty tyrannies imposed on a whaling captain.

The two men met again in the summer of 1897. Bruce was a scientist on the Franz Josef expedition when Captain Robertson, now Captain of ‘Balaena’ and on a whaling sortie, visited the archipelago. The meeting led to Robertson being later appointed as Captain of the ‘Scotia’ in 1902 when his skill in avoiding getting trapped in the Polar ice was pivotal. His plan to avoid the ice that swept up from the southeast of the Weddell Sea by sailing above it, became a benchmark for later expeditions. His contribution to the success of the ‘Scotia’ expedition was readily acknowledged by Bruce.

Robertson was naturally ambitious to further his career. At this time Shackleton was Secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and Robertson wrote to him in October 1904:
Lieutenant Shackleton RNR
Dear Sir
As I was in command of the ship of the Scottish Antarctic expedition I would esteem it as a great honour if your society would make one a fellow. I did some work in the Antarctic some years ago and I think that an FRGS would help one in getting charge of some expedition where I would have a chance of doing some geographical work in the future.
Trusting you will lay my request before your council I am yours faithfully Thomas Robertson.

The council approved Robertson’s Fellowship of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and at their meeting on Thursday 20th October 1904, the council awarded the society’s silver medal to Captain Robertson. Bruce was awarded the Gold Medal.

Following the Antarctic expedition it was planned that ‘Scotia’ would see further use by the Universities of Scotland as a research vessel: however it became necessary to sell her, to recoup some of the expedition costs and she and Robertson were reunited as Robertson sailed her as a sealer and whaler off the Greenland coast. On the 15th February 1913 she was requisitioned, (still under Robertson’s command,) by the Board of Trade for use as a weathership on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in order to give iceberg warnings to shipping; for this a Marconi wireless was fitted so allowing communications with stations on the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland.

When members of Shackleton’s ‘Nimrod’ expedition were awarded the Polar Medal, Bruce submitted a request for the crew of ‘Scotia’ to be awarded the award. This was refused by Edward VII. Bruce reapplied in 1913 but the request was refused again by George V. Bruce wrote to Charles Price, Edinburgh MP and Bruce supporter, in August 1917, that ‘Robertson was dying without his well won white ribbon! The Mate is dead! The Second Mate is dead!! the Chief Engineer is dead!!! everyone as good men as have ever served on any Polar Expedition yet they did not receive the white ribbon. Surely it can merely be treated as an omission by the King, the public need never know that King Edward ever considered the matter’.
The medal was not awarded.

But Robertson’s reputation as an outstanding seaman is assured. He had a remarkable record; in nearly forty years of Polar work he neither lost a ship, nor a man. He was a man to ride the waters with. In numerous emergencies, when a moment’s hesitation could have resulted in disaster, his natural gifts as an ice pilot were complimented by an intuition that on occasions seemed miraculous.

Taking sightings On Scotia Captain Robertson with Mr. Fitchie


Addison’s Disease and Deaths on Franklin’s North West Passage Expedition of the 1840s

12 Sep

I was interested to read that Professor Russell Taichman of the University of Michigan, an expert on the Franklin expedition and the North West Passage, has developed a new theory to help explain deaths amongst the Franklin naval crew -a mystery that continues to intrigue. As is well known there were no survivors amongst the 129 crew on this expedition. Malnutrition, scurvy, lead poisoning, tuberculosis and even botulism have been considered.
Professor Taichman and his colleagues now propose that tuberculosis, a very common disease at the time, could have damaged the adrenal glands and resulted in Addison’s disease an endocrine disorder, which causes a reduction of steroid hormone output. This condition, Professor Taichman suggests, may well have been the cause of some of the deaths. Their findings were published in the journal ‘Arctic’ earlier this year.
When, in 1846, the ships ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ became trapped near King William Island (northern Canada), they were well stocked with canned food and the crew spent two years on and around the island hoping that the ice would melt and their ships escape.
Inuit accounts described emaciated crewmembers with “hard, dry and black” mouths and Professor Taichman, decided to study the various cause-of-death theories and consider how each condition affects the oral cavity.
Taichman and Mark MacEachern, a librarian at the University of Michigan Taubman Health Sciences Library, cross-referenced the crew’s physical symptoms with known diseases. They analysed 1,718 medical citations and were interested to find that the suggestion of Addison’s disease kept appearing during the analysis. In the 1840s the most common cause of the disease was tuberculosis. Potential supporting evidence for tuberculosis was discovered when autopsies of three sailors who had died and were buried on a nearby island,revealed evidence of tuberculosis.
Addison’s disease was not described until 1855 and all of Addison’s six original patients had tuberculosis of the adrenal glands. Nowadays however, the diagnosis of Addison’s disease does not imply any particular underlying diagnosis (of which there are several). Sufferers have poor regulation of sodium, low blood pressure, a curious pigmentation of the mouth and skin creases of the hands; they become dehydrated, and cannot maintain their weight even when food is available. The diagnosis is easy to arrive at nowadays as long as the symptoms are recognised as being possibly due to Addison’s. I vividly remember one young lady who was reduced to literally crawling up stairs in her home before the diagnosis was finally considered.
TB causing Addison’s disease seems a very possible cause of death in some of these poor crewmembers in their terrible situation.


Autism and Bruce

30 Aug

A colleague has sent me an excerpt from an article in ‘The Times’ written by Kathy Lette regarding autism. Kathy’s son has autism, which she summarises as an inability to socialise, a chronic obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety, linked often, with a high I.Q. Kathy makes the point that autistic people often have abilities which may not be apparent and her advice is ‘feed their passions, as you never know where it might lead’.

A friend of mine also has a son with autistic characteristics. She comments that autistic people seem to think differently from the norm – it is certainly well known that they often speak without a filter, saying precisely what they are thinking, with little insight into the effects of their comments,so making social situations a minefield. Poor communication can result in misunderstandings and irascibility on both sides

In relation to Bruce; socialisation was not his forte. His friend Rudmose Brown, a loyal friend of many years, admitted this in his book on Bruce that aimed to bring Bruce to the attention of the wider world. Rudmose Brown wrote that even he, with all his loyalty and sympathy could not truly penetrate Bruce’s reticence and reserve. Bruce never fully confided in him and that: ‘there seemed to be a barrier that no man and certainly no woman ever crossed. He seldom if ever spoke of his family and childhood, rarely of his private concerns, and never of his philosophy of life’. This seems to me very suggestive of an autistic trait. Bruce never invited friends to his home, his wife Jessie, became increasingly isolated, separated from family and friends and with insufficient funds. When Bruce actually was at home, his granddaughter understands that he would bury himself in his study, ignoring trays of food left outside his door, compulsively immersed in his work. He was with his family, but not in it.

He was certainly obsessive, perhaps he needed to be, the work of his Scottish Oceanograpghical Laboratory was overwhelming, Thousands of specimens from his voyage to the Weddell Sea had to be sorted, described, reported, sent to experts in the United Kingdom and Europe and amalgamated into seven hefty volumes (six scientific). His laboratory became his home as he laboured for years with his magnum opus. He had no time for anything but his work.

He could well have been anxious He certainly could be irritable. His friend and admirer the meteorologist Mossman wrote, ‘I hear Bruce has had a row with Keltie. I do not know what about but I think it is a great pity that he should “fall out” with so many people’. Neither was Bruce reserved about recording his irritation in print without pause for consideration of the effects of his comments – as a young naturalist his anger was aroused by a review of his friend, Burn Murdoch’s account of a whaling voyage to the Antarctic. Bruce wrote provocatively and to no less a person than the Editor of ‘Natural Science’, saying that he agreed with Burn Murdoch that science should be for everyone and he supported his friend’s comment that it was a hideous marvel that though Dundonians had shown enterprise in sending four ships to the Antarctic, they had shown a total disregard for the scientific possibilities of such a cruise, (this, predictably, met with an ‘anything but a friendly reception in Dundee seafaring circles’).

Again, on reviewing Admiralty maps of an Arctic island he published–‘I find more or less a definite map of the island but, on inspection I found this to be, as I expected, little more than a conglomeration of a series of indefinite sketches, all inaccurate but each one less inaccurate than the resulting conglomerate’.

Commenting on ‘rivalry’ between the Royal Geographic Society and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society he wrote ‘I did not know that there was this rivalry between the London and Scottish Societies, which caused them either to try or prevent the other getting geographical information. It is scarcely in the scientific spirit’.

Such comments must have been counter productive, antagonising those he wished to influence, but Bruce could not see this – he lacked insight. His situation was made worse because he was looking for support at the same time as Scott and Shackleton, both men of charm and persuasion and both moreover, able to contact people of influence. These were lines of approach not open to Bruce.

It is always difficult to make a diagnosis retrospectively but I think the evidence suggests that Bruce displayed a strong autistic tendency that prejudiced his reputation and reduced recognition with regard to his considerable achievements. He might have achieved more if he had not had these traits and had been able to get on better with other people – alternatively, there is a fine line between being single minded and being obsessive and it can be argued that he might not have achieved anything without an autistic streak which lead to his obsession, and his scientific successes.

William Speirs Bruce and Autism

7 Aug

I have now spent some years reading, writing and thinking about Bruce. Bruce led an important Scottish expedition to Antarctica on his ship ‘Scotia’. Subsequently he spent years building up the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in Edinburgh, which, he hoped would be a permanent national establishment. In addition he started the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate. The syndicate aimed to prospect for minerals in the Arctic and in this work he became thoroughly enmeshed in geopolitics as he petitioned the British Government to annex Spitsbergen

I have come to the conclusion that his (considerable) financial and logistical problems were exacerbated by the fact that he exhibited characteristics that today would be considered as part of the autistic spectrum. These characteristics significantly complicated his dealings with other people.

Autism is of course a wide field, but reasons for considering Bruce belonged in this field are:

Bruce’s loyal friend R.N Rudmose Brown (who wrote a biography of Bruce after his death, an appreciation of his many talents), wrote that even with him (Rudmose Brown), there was never a complete confidence: ‘There seemed to be a barrier that no man and certainly no woman ever crossed. He seldom if ever spoke of his family and childhood, rarely of his private concerns & never of his philosophy of life’.

Bruce clearly did have problems with social communications. His letter to his supporter, the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, Dr. Hugh Robert Mill, illustrates this. ‘I was intending to tell Mrs. Mill and yourself the other day that I was intending to marry, but when the time came it seemed even more difficult to say so than to reach the South Pole. Such is the case however andI should not like the event to take place without having told you’.

His poor communication skills would have made him irascible – he had quarrels through out his career and seems to have been unaware of the effect that his outspoken comments made on recipients. These quarrels could go on for years. A colleague from student days wrote that he was ‘as Prickly as the Scottish thistle itself’. Another long term associate and supporter (who regularly sent money to help the Bruce family out), wrote ‘I hear Bruce has had a row with Keltie. I do not know what about but I think it is a great pity that he should “fall out” with so many people. Even when one is slighted it is just as well to keep quiet. If a man is doing good work and he is respected he is bound to come out on top sooner than later’.

During his work he had ongoing problems with the British Government, which must have been worsened by his regular outspoken and written criticism of the government’s lack of support for his Scottish demands when compared with its comparative generosity to the English explorers Scott and Shackleton. The government’s refusal to annex Spitsbergen again promoted his public criticism. This, and his (politically unwise) harnessing of his demands to Scottish nationalist sympathies must have alienated the authorities and affected their response to his regular demands for financial backing.

He had scant insight into the demands of family life – even when he was ‘with’ the family he was not ‘in’ it. When he was at home he remained doggedly immersed in his current project, totally ignoring other demands on his time. He would spend days in his study, immersed in his work, ignoring the trays of food left outside the door. He was prepared to sail on his Antarctic expedition the ‘Scotia’ with no pay, apparently without thought of the effect on his wife, struggling to make ends meet, isolated from friends and family, and with a small baby. Although concerned about his children he spent little time with them. The marriage did not last.

Finally, he had a collecting mania. Apparently every scrap of paper he had ever received was in his office after his death!


21 Jul

It is interesting that the frozen Arctic, long considered to be of no commercial or strategic importance, is now increasingly significant in world geopolitics. It was a prescient move when Russia claimed Franz Joseph Land in 1919. The potential benefits of the region seem to multiply. Currently an Eastern Arctic oil strike has boosted Russia’s aim to turn the region into an important source of energy.
Oil has been found in a field below the LAPTEV Sea. This sea lies on the northern coast of Siberia. To the west is the Taymyr Peninsula which is topped by Severnaya Zemlya and to the east are the New Siberian Islands, an archipelago in the extreme north of Russia on the North of the East Siberian coast
To say the least, this is a challenging area for oil extraction. The climate is one of the most severe of the Arctic seas. The air temperature is below 0 °С for 11 months a year on the north, and 9 months on the south. The average temperature in January, the coldest month, varies across the sea between −31 °C (−24 °F) and −34 °C (−29 °F) with a minimum of −50 °C (−58 °F). In July, the temperature rises to 0 °С (maximum 4 °С) in the north and to 5 °С (maximum 10 °С) in the south. Strong winds, plus blizzards and snowstorms are common and snow can fall in the summer The sea is characterized by a temperatures, which ranges from −1.8 °C (28.8 °F) in the north to −0.8 °C (30.6 °F) in the south-eastern parts). The distance to Moscow is over 4.000 km.

But the point is that successful extraction will reduce Russian dependence on her current oil sources such as the oil fields in Siberia, and reduce the effect of Western sanctions after the Ukraine crisis – apparently cooperation with America fell through, secondarily to sanctions after the military intervention in the Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

To facilitate transport, a nuclear- powered icebreaker is being built in St Petersburg. This will be the biggest and most powerful of its kind in the world.

There are airfields and bases on the offshore Arctic areas and President Putin is quoted as saying that the Arctic is an extremely important region that will ensure the future of his country. Russian capabilities will increase as she develops the Arctic Region

William Speirs Bruce campaigned energetically for the annexation of Spitsbergen. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, would have no part in this, writing in 1917 that there was no sound reason to consider annexation – this would require an armed force to safeguard the claim, a claim that, by itself would not prevent the island being used by enemies of Britain. In fact in 1918, in the post W.W.1 Versailles Treaty, the dawning international consensus was that Denmark would ’get’ Schleswig (southern Jutland), Sweden, the Baltic Islands, and Spitsbergen would become part of the Kingdom of Norway, i.e. given away without any consideration of its mineral wealth or strategic value. In world politics British interests were focused on the East, in Mesopotamia and elsewhere.
How times change!

Norman Einstein-ownwork


25 Jun

At Cape Adare in Antarctica, a New Zealand Antarctic Conservationist has unexpectedly found a watercolour, painted by Edward Wilson nearly 120 years ago.
Wilson came from an artistic family; he was an instinctive artist from early childhood. His mother Mary Agnes, who taught her son the rudiments of drawing, was a cousin of the artist Frederick William Yeames (A.R.A.), known particularly for the painting ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father? the painting depicting a small Royalist boy being interrogated by Cromwellians in the reign of Charles I,
As a child Wilson wanted to be a naturalist. A dayboy in Cheltenham College, he spent hours and hours at a farm leased by his mother, observing, recording and sketching its teeming profusion of wildlife – he had a famously quick eye for spotting the small inhabitants of hedgerows and became a remarkable field naturalist.
He studied medicine; initially at Cambridge for preclinical work, followed by clinical training at St George’s Hospital London. Throughout, his interest in art continued. He was a follower of Ruskin, England’s greatest art critic and later he greatly admired Turner who, Ruskin wrote, represented nature with an accuracy that made him unique.
His artistic ability was recognised and appreciated when he was in St George’s; he drew hospital pathological specimens for publication in ‘The Lancet’, he was given the rare privilege of unrestricted entry to the Zoological Society grounds, his drawings of fellow students were cherished.
He was always a keen ornithologist–it was said that he could not only recognise each bird song, but identify what that bird was doing as it sang! He received advice from established bird artists and illustrated ornithological publications, here his aim was to make his bird pictures lifelike – he hated paintings of stuffed birds. ‘No one would think of painting preserved flowers –why on earth do they paint preserved birds?’
Near the end of his medical training he became ill with a chest complaint thought to be tuberculosis. Amazingly, in those days patients were not necessarily isolated and initially he went to a house party in Norway where he continued painting. His symptoms persisted and he was sent to a Spa in Davos (where patients without a temperature sat at communal tables, no doubt passing their germs nicely around)! and it is here in 1899, that it is thought that he painted the image found at Cape Adare, a dead Tree Creeper (a European woodland bird). The painting had the initial T on it.
Josefin Bergmark-Jimenez the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust conservationist, who found the painting, was reported as being unable to stop looking at it, she was thrilled by its vibrancy. But the provenance of the painting was not immediately clear until Bergmark-Jimenez attended a lecture on Wilson in Canterbury University, when she immediately recognised Wilson’s authorship. This may well have been the lecture I gave at Canterbury University on the 8th March 2017! I do hope so!
Apart from naturalist subjects, Wilson was an ‘exploration’ artist. ’The Discovery’ expedition of 1901 was probably the last expedition where artistry was the main method of producing accurate records of the previously unknown continent and Wilson made extensive drawings and paintings of the Antarctic interior He had accurate colour recall, never using a colour grid and when Scott checked the distances shown in his paintings, he found them to be astonishingly accurate. When ‘Discovery’ reached England Wilson’s exhibited paintings were viewed by thousands of visitors fascinated to learn about the unknown continent.
Wilson was, undoubtedly, one of the most outstanding artists to have worked in the Antarctic.

New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust


12 Jun

In 1903 William Speirs Bruce departed his winter base in the South Orkneys and sailed to Argentina for refueling and refit of his ship the Scotia. On arrival in Buenos Aires he offered the continued control of his South Orkney meteorological and magnetic huts to Argentina and agreed to transport Argentine scientist to the site to continue the scientific work under the leadership of his meteorologist Mossman. His rationale was firstly, to ensure that his team’s detailed work would continue and secondly, to further his dream of a coordinated complex of meteorological stations in and around the Southern Atlantic. His motives were purely scientific.
On arrival at Buenos Aires Bruce contacted both the British First Minister
Mr. W. Haggard and the head of the Argentine Meteorological Service – a Mr. Walter Davies. Haggard contacted both the British and Argentine governments and the Argentine authorities responded with remarkable alacrity, thanking Dr. Bruce and promptly accepting the offer within a few days (incidentally about three months before Haggard heard from the British authorities)!
The Argentinean government clearly knew what they were doing. They allocated the work of ‘Postmaster’ to one of their staff. Stamps were issued representing the South Orkneys as an Argentinean suburb. This was a most significant decision -the presence of a postmaster is an internationally recognized part of demonstrating effective administration and authority over any claimed and occupied area. The South Orkney station has now been continuously manned by Argentina for the past 114 years. Bruce’s decision thus opened the door for the claims and counter claims in the region that continue to this day.
Argentina’s claim is based on her continued occupation of the station. British claims to the area are via the Falkland Islands Dependencies, a complex constitutional arrangement for administering British territories in Sub-Antarctica and Antarctica. In 1908 the Dependencies were listed as: South Georgia, the South Orkneys, South Shetlands, and the Sandwich Islands, and the territory of Graham’s Land, an area south of the 50th parallel S, and between 20° and 80° W. longitude. The agreement was modified in 1917 when it was recognized that this definition could be interpreted as a claim on Southern Argentina and Chile! Also explicitly, to extend to the South Pole.
Argentina’s challenge to the Dependencies came first in the late 1920s and then more extensively in the second-world war. In response, in the height of World War II, in the Antarctic Summer of 1943/44, Britain established what became a permanent occupation called ‘Operation Tabarin’. This was primarily a political statement — the Admiralty and Colonial Office aimed to strengthen British territorial rights to the sovereignty of the Falklands Island Dependency, whilst the Foreign Office aimed at minimizing disruption to Britain’s long-standing ties with Argentina and, particularly at that dark time, to ensure the shipment of war-time meat supplies.
Tabarin was the basis from which Britain’s subsequent post-war, long-term involvement in Antarctica developed. The Falklands Island Dependency Survey was renamed the British Antarctic Survey in 1962, its northern boundary changed to 60°. The organization now operates three research stations in the British Antarctic Territory: year round at Rothera, Halley, and summer only at Signy. In addition there are two summer field support stations: Fossil Bluff and Sky Blu.
In addition to continuous climatic, oceanographic, geographic, ice, atmospheric and space weather observations, findings include the record of a volcanic eruption from under the Antarctica ice sheet, which occurred over 2.000 years ago. This was, apparently, the biggest eruption in the last 10,000 years. The volcanic ash was found on the ice surface. A world-changing observation in 1985 was the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. This led to an international reduction in the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone depleting substances (ODS) which are mainly responsible for man-made chemical ozone depletion and which were used, for example, in fridges and inhalers.
Halley Research Station is built on a floating ice shelf in the Weddell Sea. The current Halley (VI), is the world’s first re-locatable research facility and indeed has been moved recently because of huge ice cracks in the ice shelf.
Signy is in the South Orkneys Island where Bruce’s work was based. It is a laboratory for biological research open from November to April each year (the southern hemisphere summer).
Bruce is not forgotten here. The Scotia Sea in the South Atlantic is named for his expedition. Also the research community named a laboratory on Signy Island for him in 2016.

Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror

19 May

When I qualified in medicine we knew about chromosomes; curving long threads of DNA that carry our hereditary information, about germ cells, about mitosis when chromosomes duplicate to create daughter calls.
We did not know about forensic DNA profiling, also commonly referred to as DNA fingerprinting. This should not be confused with the fingerprinting techniques carried out at countries’ borders. DNA profiling came into general use in the 1980s, developed by Sir Alec Jeffreys. It is a process whereby DNA samples are matched. Each sample shows everyone’s unique properties but also shows characteristics that are similar to their relatives. Comparison of the DNA of bones from archeological specimens with samples of the DNA of known relatives, may allow for identification of the deceased.
This process is now to be used to gain further information about the causes of the deaths of the crews of HMS Erebus and Terror. This famous expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, set out from Britain in 1845. Its aim was to find a way through the North West Passage, a route that many believed would dramatically reduce the transit time between the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and open up a new trade route.
None of the 129 crew members were to survive. The ships became trapped in heavy ice. Sir John and twenty-five of the crew died in 1847. The ships were abandoned in April 1848 and the remaining crew (104 men) began their desperate trek from the northwest coast of King William Land towards the mainland.
Precise details of their fate remained a mystery despite numerous expeditions to ascertain their fate, although for years fragments relating to the expedition were found frozen in ice. Erebus herself was finally located in 2014 in the Queen Maud Gulf, below King William Island, her ship’s bell was recovered in November. In September 2016, the wreck of HMS Terror was found submerged in Terror Bay, which is off the southwest coast of King William Island. Both ships were in remarkably good condition despite being lost in the icy wastes for nearly 170 years.
There is a poignant memorial to the disaster in Waterloo Place in London, which I have often studied. On the memorial are the names of all the crew members. Many theories have been advanced to explain the catastrophe: lead poisoning, scurvy, infection, notably tuberculosis. The ships were well stocked with provisions but clearly food ran out for some of the parties; Dr. John Ray who investigated the fate of the Franklin expedition in 1854, reported stories of cannibalism.
Now, researchers have extracted and sequenced DNA from the skeletal remains of 24 crew members from the expedition. The samples were from numerous different sites including King William Island. Thirty-seven tooth and bone samples were tested and DNA extracted from thirty-two and it is hoped that the work may help actually identify the crew by comparative DNA (if living descendants can be found), also that information about the cause of death will be obtained. The study was recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Four of the samples were identified as females; unexpected, as the ship’s documentation did not record women on board. Two possibilities relating to this finding are a) the DNA has degraded over the 160 years since the crew were lost or b) that there were women actually serving in the ship dressed as men – this is thought unlikely, it would have been difficult for four women to successfully concealed their identity. Another study found zinc deficiency in toenails of one of the mummies.
The expedition remained in the public conscience for years. The suggestion of cannibalism apparently infuriated Charles Dickens who collaborated with his friend Wilkie Collins on a Franklin based play The Frozen Deep. Landseer’s painting Man Proposes, God Disposes, shows man ‘proposing’ in the form of a shipwreck and God ‘disposing’ in the form of two bears. But the discovery of Franklin’s ships is one of the most important archeological finds in exploration history. Finding the ships has been likened to the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Stephen Harper, Canada’s Prime Minister in 2014, emphasized the importance of Franklin’s ships in Canadian history – the expedition laid the foundation for Canada’s Arctic control- all the waterways in the North –West Passage are claimed as Canadian.

the ships used by Sir John Franklin published by Illustratated London News 24 May 1845/Getty images


29 Apr

William Speirs Bruce visited Franz-Joseph Land in 1896 as a member of the Jackson–Harmsworth Expedition (1894-97), eager to further his apprenticeship in the natural sciences within the icy environment of the Arctic.

Franz-Joseph Land is an archipelago of nearly 200 islands. At 80 -82 °N, it was and remains, ice bound for much of the year. The Franz-Joseph Expedition, which he joined, aimed to survey the Land and, if possible,find a way to the North Pole. This expedition became newsworthy, when Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen (who had not been heard of for three years and were assumed to have perished on their attempt to reach the North Pole),reached Franz -Joseph Land on their southern retreat, a month before Bruce arrived. Nansen was supportive to Bruce who always wanted to return to the icy archipelago and who was persistently concerned about ‘foreign’ interests in the Arctic Islands. He was dismayed at the Russian annexation of Franz Joseph Land in 1914. The Russian steamer ‘Gherta’ reached the archipelago on the 18th August and hoisted the Russian flag.

Bruce was prescient in sensing the huge potential of the Arctic Islands. The
Arctic is now thought to account for 13% of undiscovered oil, 30% of undiscovered natural gas and 20% of natural gas liquids – possibly one-quarter of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas and worth in the region of $30 trillion (£21.1 trillion).

Russia has built bases on Franz Josef Land to the concern of the US and other nations.These bases can house about 150 people for up to 18 months and are equipped with every facility including, it is said, nuclear- ready warplanes. This reinforces both Russia’s defense capability, and her other interests in the region and could be considered a threat to Finland, Sweden, Norway and other countries interests in the Arctic region.

In 2015 Russia submitted a revised bid (the first turned down), to the United Nations for territories in the Arctic claiming over 463,000 square miles of Arctic sea shelf extending more than 350 nautical miles from her shore. President Putin has visited the archipelago, again emphasising the need to protect Russia’s economic and security interests in the Arctic.Russia has an active Arctic Brigade.

According to some estimates, the Arctic summer ice cap will completely vanish by the year 2050. This will improve access to the Arctic resources, hence bringing more challenges.

Clearly the region is a political hot spot, demanding international statesmanship and co-operation, hopefully without confrontation.

Fridtjof Nansen said ‘The great thing is to move forwards responsibly, steered by the best knowledge we can gather’ Lets hope this happens.

Image Fox News


18 Apr

It is a remarkable thought, when Russian – American relations are at a low point, that Alaska was once part of the Russian Empire. Russia sold Alaska to the United States 150 years ago. If Russia were in possession of the territory today the geopolitical situation would be unrecognisably different.

The first Russian settlement in Alaska was founded in 1784. This was followed quickly by other settlements. The attraction was sea otter fur, which was greatly in demand. The otters in Alaska had thicker, glossier and blacker fur than those on the Pacific N/W coast and California i.e. more sought after. British settlements in Alaska at about this time consisted of a few scattered trading outposts though Captain James Cook had sailed and charted the west coast of North America on ‘Resolution’ in 1778. (One of his midshipmen was George Vancouver who was to return and chart the west coast, hence Vancouver and Vancouver Island).

Over the next century, Russia lost the Crimean War (1853-56), her monopoly on trade was weakened by the British Hudson’s Bay Company, which set up a post on the southern edge of Russian America in 1833, there were concerns about a potential gold rush with an attendant influx from America, finally, the supply of otters diminished drastically.

These financial difficulties and low profits, coupled with the desire to keep Alaska out of British hands contributed to Russia’s willingness to sell its possessions in North America.Czar,Nicholas II also hoped the deal would result in a closer relationship with the United Stated (and a potential union against Britain). On August 1, 1867 U.S. Secretary of State, William Seward, approved the purchase of Alaska for $7,200,000. The United States flag was raised on October 18, 1867 (now called Alaska Day); the region changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

The purchase was not universally popular: ‘Seward’s Folly’ and ‘Seward’s Icebox’ were some of the comments. The foolhardiness of slavishly following popular opinion has been amply shown subsequently in relation to this purchase.

In an article in The New York Times, (31/3/2017), Evan Gershkovich, writes that ‘Russia’s sale of Alaska was a day of mourning for some hard-right Russian nationalists who see the transaction as a gigantic blunder by the ailing Czarist Empire, one that reverberates as the major powers vie for influence over the arctic and its natural riches in an age of climate change’, a comment vividly illustrated by the fact that there is oil in the bedrock below waters surrounding Spitsbergen and the Spitsbergen Treaty finishes in 2020. Mr. Putin has apparently commented that the development of a missile system in Alaska is one of the most pressing security issues.

President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Bill for Alaska to become the 49th State of the Union in 1959. Congress passed the Bill on 3 January.

This sale would never have happened after the Russian revolution. It could be said that Seward’s purchase of the territory was the best ever use of Federal Funds. Perhaps there should be a Seward Day.