Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Guys That Birds Are Named After #1: Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin wasn't a very good explorer. I'll cut him some slack, though, because exploring the uncharted Arctic in the early 1800's was probably really hard. And cold. On the other hand, he was known around the world as "The Man Who Ate His Boots."

Either way, his name lives on forever in the form of the Gull That Ate Its Boots Franklin's Gull.  

John Franklin was born in Spilsbury, Lincolnshire, England in 1786.  He joined the Navy at 14 and participated in a bunch of battles that I vaguely remember from Western Civ, including the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of New Orleans.

Franklin became enamored with the Arctic and the search for a Northwest passage to the Pacific.  In  1819 he led his first expedition in the region.  He decided, for some reason, to go overland instead of by boat.  It ended badly: 11 of the 20 crew members died, there were allegations of murder, cannibalism and, yes, boot eating.  

The first expedition wasn't a total loss, though, and Franklin managed to map over 1,800 miles (!) of Arctic coast.  Good job.

A second expedition in 1825 was better equipped (read: less footwear eating) and explored more of the western Canadian Arctic.

In 1836 Franklin realized that the Canadian Arctic was cold and lonely, and served time as the Lieutenant-Governor of what is now Tazmania.  Although this to me seems like a much better gig, Franklin blew it by pissing off his superiors.  The people of Tazmania liked him well enough, and there is still a statue of him in Hobart.

So, kicked out of paradise, Franklin took one last shot at finding the Northwest passage.  I say "one last shot" because this expedition ended terribly.  In fact, it's remembered as one of the biggest disasters in the history of Arctic exploration.  Let's get into it.

At the time it was the better equipped than any previous journey.  Franklin and 133 others set off from England in 1845 aboard two ships: the Erebus and the Terror (maybe not the names I would have picked).  They stopped in Greenland and were fine.  A whaling ship saw the boats, presumably in good shape, moored to an iceburg off the coast of Baffin Island (near where this gentleman lives today).  And then...nothing.  Not a word.

After a couple years Franklin's wife finally got England to send a search party.  Never before had so many men (129 after some had debarked at Greenland) been lost.  

The details were slow in coming.  The search for Franklin captured the public's imagination, but searching was difficult due to it being, you know, the Arctic.  In 1854 an explorer talked to some Inuit who told of a bunch of white men starving to death nearby and produced some artifacts that linked to the expedition.  Later, a clothed skeleton was found with a note in it's pocket that told of the party's ships being stuck in the ice for a year and a half and most everyone dying, including Franklin.  Poor guy.

And as a final kick-in-the-teeth, the Northwest passage was discovered by guys searching for Franklin.

Franklin and Franklin's Gull

Unlike this website had me thinking, Franklin's Gull had nothing to do with an awesome French ornithologist named Jean Louis Pierre Vieillot.  It had everything to do with Dr. John Richardson, who collected a specimen of this small, black-hooded gull on Franklin's 1823 Arctic expedition.  The bird had apparently been misidentified previously by Sabine (yes, that Sabine) as a Laughing Gull.  Richardson named it Franklin's Rosy Gull, and that name lasted for about 90 years (check out this page from an 1844 edition of Audubon's The Birds of America).  

More Franklin links!

Intro to Franklin's Gull from The Birds of North America. This is where I got the Richardson info.
The Fate of Franklin
A Medical Disaster article from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Yeah, no shit it was a medical disaster; everyone died.
Sir John Franklin Was Here!.


Carrie said...

I think that any gull, given a pair of leather boots and an opportunity, might eventually eat them.

I've had a weird fondness for Franklin ever since I saw the Nova special on his expedition way the hell back in my youth.

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