Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition
In Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition, Paul Watson revisits Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to complete a Northwest Passage through the Arctic on the ships, Erebus and Terror, with a complement of 129 men. The well-equipped voyage disappeared into the arctic landscape and despite one of the largest international search and rescue efforts in history, few traces were ever recovered. The fate of the Franklin expedition captivated people across the Victorian world and with the discovery of the expedition’s ships Erebus and Terror in 2014 and 2016, the Franklin saga was again thrust into the limelight. Watson’s book presents the next chapter in the Franklin story.
Watson arranges his narrative chronologically while assessing historic and contemporary search efforts, archaeological research, and Inuit oral history regarding the expedition’s disappearance. The first half of the book describes the Victorian era and the circumstances and history of the Franklin Expedition, its loss, and subsequent search efforts. Watson weaves an epic “rich with the timeless contradictions of the human condition” (xxxi). In the second half of the book, he combines ethnography, Inuit ethnohistory, and historical archaeology to carry the reader beyond what is known historically, into the present day. Watson’s narrative credits the work of Louie Kamookak, a self-trained Inuit historian, as well as myriad scientists, researchers, and benefactors, whose devotion to solving the Franklin mystery led to the relocation of the expedition’s lost ships. Watson, a Pulitzer Prize winning Canadian photojournalist, was a member of the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition launched by the Canadian government in a renewed effort to discover the lost Franklin ships along with any information on the fate of the expedition’s participants.
The volume is an enjoyable read for Franklin scholars and general readers alike, not overly technical, while expanding upon the history as well as current scientific research. Watson’s discussion of previous underwater archaeological work in the region stresses the importance of preservation and conservation for research agendas. He makes an important and powerful argument for the value of provenance and systematic excavation. Focusing on the 1980 rediscovery of the Breadalbane, a Franklin era support vessel lost to the ice, Watson recounts the removal of the ship’s wheel and accentuates the methodological undercurrents of the contemporary historical and archaeological work being conducted in the region.
A popular rather than scholarly book, Watson emphasizes the contributions of Inuit ethnohistory, but makes no mention of recent ethnographic work by scholars such as Dorothy Harley Eber, whose important volume Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers was published in 2008. Additionally, Watson mentions numerous locations in the text that are not depicted on the maps he provides, making it challenging for readers new to the Franklin saga to follow the movements of not only the Franklin expeditionaries, but also the modern-day search efforts. Despite these minor shortcomings, Watson’s tale of interconnectedness, across space, time, and cultures, as well as scientific disciplines and governmental agencies is a valuable contribution to the literature of the Franklin Expedition.
Reviewed by Christina Bolte, University of West Florida
- New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017
- 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xxxii + 384 pages
- Illustrations, maps, notes, index. $27.95
- ISBN: 9780393249385