The Purpose of the Franklin Expedition

In the article dated 26 July Background to the Franklin Expedition the author stated that the purpose of the expedition led by Captain Sir John Franklin consisting of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror was to navigate the Northwest Passage through the Arctic. This is only part of the reason the expedition took place.

Then as now governments were loath to spend any money. Then as now naval expeditions were expensive. By 1844 it was well established that even if the Northwest Passage were navigated it would be commercially useless given how few good months for sailing there were in the Arctic. Very likely any ships trying to use it would be icelocked and have to winter over for at least one winter, hardly a commercially viable proposition. While discovering it did have a certain romantic allure, it was by itself far from sufficient by 1844 to provide a reason for the government to give a budget to an expedition in the Arctic.

Far more compelling and commercially important reasons were offered by the chance to do geological surveys of the region, to map out ice floes and the location of icebergs, recording these phenomena was relevant to help ships in the North Atlantic keep a watch for and predict potential hazards. This also was not sufficient to prompt an expedition given the expense for any naval vessel at sea, much less two, still less a fully equipped expedition into the Arctic.

Of far greater relevance was geomagnetic readings that could be done in the Arctic. Very close to magnetic north the expedition could take tens if not hundreds of readings each day to gather data on how compasses behaved, how far compass readings deviated in calculating position compared to other methods such as astronomy, and how compass readings changed as ships passed near magnetic north. Recording this data could only be done in the Arctic and could only be useful if it were taken at multiple locations. It was known that compass readings were imprecise and could be affected by the increasing use of iron in ships as the age of iron hulled and steamships began. Gathering data would help navigators determine their positions more precisely and help naval and commercial vessels save both time and difficulty in navigating the high seas. The data yielded from further observations could also help in the design of superior magnetic instruments. Gathering data from the Arctic and Antarctic was of keen interest in the British scientific community.

There were also questions of national prestige and claims to sovereignty on the line. Between the Napoleonic Wars and the end of the 19th Century Russia and Britain were locked in tense competition over spheres of influence in Central Asia and, until the purchase of Alaska by the United States, over the Arctic. For both the Russians and the British claims to territory could mean claims to potentially lucrative fishing or mineral rights. From the south, the United States was also bringing increasing pressure to bear as America began to industrialise, and expand both westward and northward. While nowhere near the strength of the Royal Navy, the days when the Royal Navy could halt, and board American vessels at will had gone. And America too was interested in the North Atlantic and potential sovereignty over any part of Canada that was not explicitly claimed by Britain. In the scientific realm, from observatories in Paris and Berlin, French and German scientists were taking magnetic and celestial readings and coming very very close to accurately predicting geographic locations without undertaking expensive naval expeditions. However, the Antarctic expedition of 1839 – 1843 commanded by Sir James Ross and his second in command Francis Crozier – yes that Crozier – had succeeded in obtaining both more precise magnetic readings, but had actually found the geographic location of the South Pole. And the actual location of the South Pole was quite a few miles away from where the observatory in Berlin had calculated it to be. Expensive naval expeditions thus made Britain a world leader in science and navigation that helped reinforce Britain’s naval dominance and reaffirmed Britain’s status as the preeminent European power.

All of these reasons taken together were enough to persuade the government to fund the largest, best equipped Royal Navy expedition through the Arctic to date. Navigating the Northwest passage was the headline event, providing the expedition with the glamour and glory of discovery, of putting things clearly on the map and symbolically opening the world. As will be covered in a subsequent article, it is no accident that John Franklin commanded the expedition. Not only was Franklin an Arctic veteran but he had begun his naval career recording magnetic and celestial data near Australia. After his second Arctic expedition, Franklin had, in addition to a successful deployment to Greece as Captain of HMS Rainbow, thrown himself into the latest studies and developments in magnetic science and kept abreast of all the changes. When Franklin was Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) he had consistently taken magnetic readings to help further the efforts of British science to more effectively understand Geomagnetism.

The Franklin Expedition was therefore a serious navigational and scientific endeavour. As has been mentioned, it was the best provisioned and equipped. Preparation for the Expedition took into account all the bitter experiences of previous expeditions and it would be equipped and prepared to minimise any risks to the men who comprised it and to help ensure that the ships would be able to return.

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