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Thursday, January 08, 2009


Sandler, Martin W. Resolute: The Epic Search for the Northwest Passage and John Franklin, and the Discovery of the Queen's Ghost Ship.

Sandler is the author of more than 50 books and has received two Pulitzer nominations. This book covers a broad range of the history of arctic exploration and relates the importance of the failed Franklin expedition in the eventual discovery of the Northwest Passage.

It is the story of a strange breed of men who were willing to risk their lives repeatedly for the glory of discovery and national pride. As Sandler puts it, "It is an epic tale--an adventure, a mystery, and detective story all rolled into one, played out against the harshest backdrop in the world" (xvii). The book contains many stories of courage and determination, of foolhardiness and despair, and of a singular obsession.

John Barrow, the Father of Arctic Exploration, became the British Admiralty's Second Secretary in 1804, and for more than 40 years, he championed the search for the Northwest Passage and the Open Polar Sea, sending out one expedition after another. Unfortunately, there was no Open Polar Sea, and even the Northwest Passage, when finally discovered, offered no guarantees of passage and no possibility of commercial gain.

Covering the early expeditions led by John Ross, Edward Parry, David Buchan, Frederick Beechey, and others, Sandler leads us gradually to the Franklin Expedition in 1845. Sir John Franklin captained The Erebus and Francis Crozier captained The Terror, huge ships that had been specially refitted for their arctic mission with many dramatic improvements for the time, but were, nevertheless, too deep of draft for the arctic.

The ships were provisioned for a minimum of three years, and for as many as five years if they encountered conditions that froze them in the ice for as long as the second Ross expedition (which survived four arctic winters). Barrow had done everything he could to ensure Franklin's success.

Except... listen to the whalers and other non-navy explorers or even to John Ross, who warned against the huge ships and large crews.

The Erebus and The Terror sailed from England with great fanfare in 1845. They vanished into the arctic ice.

In 1848, with no word having been received, the Admiralty became more and more concerned (and so did Lady Jane Franklin, whose efforts were indefatigable in petitioning for rescue mission after rescue mission).

These missions to discover the fate of the Franklin Expedition met with a number of strange fates including the loss of ships and men, court martial, deception, and possibly, murder.

John Rae, who discovered through his Inuit connections, the probability of the demise of the entire crew and the possibility of cannibalism delivered the news to an audience unwilling to believe. That Englishmen might resort to eating their fellows horrified Victorian England, and Rae's reputation suffered terrible injury. Later discoveries, however, have confirmed that cannibalism did occur.

In truth, we will never no exactly what happened, because the only written document to survive (an earlier document left in a cairn, with a later addendum by Crozier and Fitzjames) is brief and records only that Franklin died in 1847 and that a total of 9 officers and 15 seamen of the 128 man expedition had been lost. No other journals, logs, or documents have survived.

There were so many people, so many expeditions, so many tragedies, that it was difficult to keep it all straight, but the account of arctic exploration-- from Ross's first expedition in 1818 through all of the rescue missions and searches for artifacts and documents-- makes fascinating reading. I simply can't begin to list all of the participants or all of the circumstances, assumption, and theories.

The final search -- for documents, not survivors-- was in 1880. Well, not exactly the last -- in 1984 and 1992 modern expeditions searched for information and in 2006, the Nova documentary was filmed.

Although the ship Resolute is a small part of the story (and a pretty amazing tale in its own right), I think Sandler used it in the title partly because Barrow and the explorers themselves were so resolute in pursuit of the Northwest Passage.

Nonfiction. History. 2006. 249 pages + 35 pages of appendices, notes, bibliography


  1. I think I would probably like this book. I will have to add it to the pile!

  2. Must have, must're very helpful, finding all these great books for me to read.

  3. Kailana - It boggles the mind to see how many men in the 1800's tackled those extreme temperatures and the dangers of the ice, again and again!

    Bybee - :) There are so many books written about the arctic; I had no idea. The Shackleton book you read is also on my list. I'll work my way through the arctic and antarctic--slowly, but surely.

  4. This sounds like a fantastic follow up to The Terror!

  5. stefanie - It was interesting to see the way Dan Simmons was able to include so many actual facts in a way that fit so snugly with the direction his novel was taking. I can't wait to get a copy of Frozen in Time.

  6. OMG I just finished a novel (Arctic Drift) where the Erebus and Terror were a backdrop to the story. I didn't realize that the ships and the Franklin expedition were real. I will have to read this one because the history is fascinating.

  7. violette - Another one to add to the list! And a novel! I love mixing fiction with nonfiction. Thanks for the recommendation.