Wednesday, 19 January 2011

In search of James Fitzjames

While the British can seem obsessed with the exploits of Scott and Shackleton in Antarctica, Canadians are fascinated with the fate of the 1845 Franklin Expedition that set out in search of Northwest Passage, an Arctic waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, plus 129 crew members disappeared and little is known as to what happened - other than there is evidence that some of them survived for a number of years, along with lurid tales of cannibalism and lead poisoning.

A whole publishing industry has grown up around the expedition, while marine archaeologists regularly try and establish what exactly happened to the crew. Much has been written about Sir John Franklin, the leader, but there is scant information about other members of the crew, particularly James Fitzjames, the third in command on the voyage and captain of the Erebus. That was until William Battersby's James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition was published last year.

The author recently talked about how he came to write Fitzjames's biography at Kennington's Durning Library, as a guest of the Friends of the library. He explained that as someone working in institutional investment marketing he travelled incessantly, often to San Francisco. On one flight the financier found himself reading Barrow's Boys while travelling above the Arctic, the area where the grisly events contained in the book took place. He became obsessed with the Franklin expedition and after leaving his job during Lehman Brothers bank collapse, decided to pursue this interest, resurrecting his original training as an archaeologist.

Battersby was aware of the many theories about the expedition but found himself irritated by numerous inconsistencies. So he decided to start from scratch and look at the subject afresh. Initial research led him to deciding to concentrate on the life of Fitzjames.

The talk consisted of a romp through the sailor's relatively short life (he was 32 when he joined the expedition). Previous references to the man usually had him down a fast-rising adventurous glamour boy of the British navy. He took part in the first steamer trip down the the Euphrates River and fought China during the first Opium War. Then, at the age of 29, he was promoted from lieutenant to commander. This has usually been attributed to an aristocratic background. However, after trawling through a mountain of archive material, Battersby discovered that Fitzjames was illegitimate and a self-made man, plus many more facts about the man.

This was a fascinating talk that brought Fitzjames and navy life in the 1840s alive. It was illustrated with such newly discovered details as unseen paintings by the sailor and the fact HMS Erebus and HMS Terror can, on close inspection, be seen reflected in the band around his hat (picture above).

There were plenty of questions but, inevitably, the one that generated the most interest was over a slide featuring the skulls, minus jawbones, of some of the Franklin expedition members. There's no getting away from the fact that all talk of this failed voyage from over 160 years ago will always turn to cannibalism.

More on the book can be seen here and here.

Thanks to the Friends of Durning Library for organising such an illuminating evening. Mention must also be made of the fact that they are fighting hard to prevent sections of the service being closed down as part of the current UK spending cuts. The talk was yet another example of the varied services public libraries provide for the community.

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