Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Visiting author William Battersby on James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition

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Visiting author William Battersby on James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition

British author William Battersby talks to Open Book about the legendary Franklin Expedition, his theory on lead-poisoning and his new book James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition (Dundurn, 2010).

Open Book:

The Franklin Expedition looms large in Canada's cultural mythology. What is it that interests you about the expedition?

William Battersby:

Although I have relatives who have lived in Canada for many years, it was not the Canadian aspects of it which first attracted my attention. It was simply the mystery. Even though the Expedition disappeared over 160 years ago, I found it very hard to see how the two ships, and the remains of most of the 129 men, could simply disappear. This was the first thing which claimed my attention. My degree was in Archaeology and I wondered whether, if I applied a very rigorous archaeological approach to the evidence which survives, I could find out anything new.

The other puzzle for me was the apparent anomaly that, while many similar British and other Expeditions of the time had the most extraordinary adventures in the Arctic and Antarctic, this was the only one to utterly disappear and to suffer a total loss. I considered this a disaster like the sinking of the Titanic or the tragic loss of the two US space shuttles. As well as being an archaeologist, I am also a pilot. Pilots tend to study disasters very carefully, for obvious reasons. When you look at accident causation, you find that they are very rarely a "bolt from the blue," but usually, with hindsight at least, you can see a train of events—bad luck, miscalculations, minor errors—which gradually build up until disaster strikes and the catastrophe becomes unavoidable. So in the same way that I tried to take an archaeological approach to reconstructing the history of the Expedition, I also tried to apply an air accident investigator's approach to reconstructing whatever the catastrophe was which overwhelmed the Expedition.

It was the combination of my interest being piqued by the human aspects of the story, and the feeling that I had particular training which might help me reassess it, which drove my interest and which still does.

Of course I now see the Franklin Expedition as a pivotal shared tragedy in Canadian and British history (and US history, come to that) with ramifications for all of us, but I did not realise all that when I first started my research. One of my personal regrets is that the Expedition is still much less widely known in Britain than it is in Canada.

OB:

Why did you choose to focus your study on James Fitzjames in particular?

WB:

I was lucky—this was serendipity. I never set out to research James Fitzjames specifically, nor did I set out to write a book about him.

I started by reading all the standard works on the Franklin Expedition and soon found many contradictions between them, even on basic matters of fact, such as the number of men who sailed on the Expedition and their names, ages and other details. I decided to build a database for myself of all the basic facts and figures about every man on the Expedition—date and place of birth, family, prior service in the Royal Navy or elsewhere, etc. I was looking for three things in doing this.

First I wanted to see how their earlier careers had interacted, i.e., who had served with whom. I found many interesting links this way. For example, I noticed that Graham Gore and Francis Crozier had both served 25 years earlier (as Volunteer and Mate respectively) on HMS Dotterell under Captain John Gore—Graham Gore's father. John Gore was well connected in British exploration circles at the time, and it seems to have been through him that Parry took Crozier on, and thus started Crozier's ultimately fatal career as an Explorer.

The second thing I was looking for was possible common disease exposure which might have affected a significant number of the men. I looked for tropical diseases, for example. Apart from some slightly disturbing signs of TB I largely drew a blank on this.

Finally I was seeking to build a database from which present-day relatives might be identified, to see if their families retained memories or relics, and could provide DNA samples to help identify men from their mortal remains.

It was my complete inability to find any hard and fast facts relating to Fitzjames in any of the appropriate sources that, again, piqued my interest. So as he was an important officer I started to dig into the primary sources. Here I found proof of deliberate obfuscation of the facts about him by a variety of sources—not least by Fitzjames himself! So I knew there was a mystery here, but I didn't know what it was. Since I didn't know what I was looking for, reconstructing his life with a view to finding out what was being concealed was the only option. It became an obsession for me. It was this which drove me to carry on where other people who had spotted these anomalies had given up and moved on to easier puzzles. I was helped by the fact that he was a fascinating man who had a hugely interesting life and had mixed with fascinating people, making him a pleasure to research. I think if he had been a bigot or a bore I would have given up.

OB:

What were you most surprised to discover about James Fitzjames?

WB:

Well, that's an easy one! The one thing there has always been an absolute consensus about is Fitzjames' Englishness. He is always portrayed as the quintessential upper-class Englishman—almost to the point of caricature. Recently writers have taken to suggesting he spoke with a "slight lisp" (for which there is no evidence). So the biggest surprise of all was his true ethnicity and the realisation that he had been born in the Americas. I was so surprised as to be almost shocked.

OB:

Tell us about your research process for this book. What were some of the richest sources of information?

WB:

My research really started with the rather scary knowledge that almost every word ever published about him was suspect and likely to be wrong, so I would not be able to use any secondary sources at all. The primary sources were the Admiralty's files, from which I was able to construct a huge chronology of his life in a single spreadsheet. The other immensely rich sources were the two archives of his letters, one at the National Maritime Museum and the other at the Royal Geographical Society. These I gradually transcribed and slotted into my chronological spreadsheet. Finally I was able to find references to him in books and memoirs written by his contemporaries, especially his life-long friend Edward Charlewood and the various memoirs of people who served on the Euphrates Expedition, and slot these in too. All of this took the best part of a year, but it was worth it because it transformed him on my computer from a shadowy figure alluded to by other people into an astonishingly vibrant character described in tens of thousands of his own words, all in chronological order.

OB:

Your book proposes an alternative theory for the origin of the lead poisoning that is thought to have affected the crew of the Franklin Expedition. Would you explain it for us?

WB:

Actually, I don't refer to that aspect of my research in this book at all. That's deliberate, because whatever the source of the lead poisoning was, Fitzjames would not have been aware of it, so it's not really part of his story.

I separately published a paper in 2008, and there will be more to come, describing this thesis. Some people still seem to downplay the extent of the lead poisoning observed in members of the Expedition. But Owen Beattie's work shows quite unambiguously that it was very, very serious and must have been a major burden for the Expedition. At first sight it seems obvious that the lead-soldered food tins were the source of this lead. But when I was re-examining this, I found that it was very difficult to reconcile the evidence of the massive and pervasive exposure to lead that these men must have had with the relatively small amounts of tinned food they took. Only around 16% of their provisions were in cans. I also wondered why other Expeditions which took tinned food, such as the Euphrates Expedition on which Fitzjames also served, did not appear to suffer from lead-poisoning at all.

I knew that lead is more difficult to absorb into the body through solid food than water, and that many outbreaks of lead poisoning have been caused by lead polluting a water supply. I wondered whether this was the case on the Erebus and the Terror, especially since a large proportion of their supplies were taken concentrated and had to be diluted with fresh water—flour to make biscuits and bread, concentrated spirits to be diluted, soup and gravy concentrates, etc. In my 2008 paper I suggested that water was the most likely source of lead poisoning and proposed that the combined steam heating system and distillation plants said to be fitted to the ships were responsible.

I am more than ever sure that water was the source of the poisoning, but there has been a remarkable development since my 2008 paper. Following its publication I met a brilliant English researcher called Peter Carney, and we have worked together to refine the theory and better understand the equipment of the ships. Astonishingly, Peter and I have concluded that, despite being stated as fact by every single published authority, in reality there WAS no steam heating and distillation system fitted to either ship. This assertion is based entirely on a description written by a contemporary journalist. But what he said he saw cannot be reconciled with the evidence from the ships' plans. We believe in the dark interior of the ships this journalist confused the ships' engines, warm air heating systems and ice-melting tanks. We now think it was these ice-tanks, which from the plan appear to have had lead pipes and washers, which were the true source of the water polluted with lead. The detailed thinking will shortly be published in a new paper in the Journal of the Newcomen Society.

OB:

Do you think we will ever know the whole story about what happened to the members of the Franklin Expedition?

WB:

No. But I think cumulatively the work of people like David Woodman and the team at Parks Canada searching for the ships will fill in a lot of the gaps. This story I not over yet!


William Battersby is an investment manager, a trained archaeologist and pilot. He has researched the Franklin Expedition for many years and is the author of an article on the lead poisoning suffered by its members in the Journal of the Hakluyt Society. He lives and works in London, England. Follow his blog and visit the website www.jamesfitzjames.net for links to reviews and more.

For more information about James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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