Missing, Submerged and Floating Objects: Franklin’s ship and the Northwest Passage

For those of you interested in Canadian history and geopolitics, the recent news story featuring the underwater discovery of one of Sir John Franklin’s ships (either the HMS Terror or the HMS Erebus) will not be news to you.

Hoping to discover a new trade network and resource potential in the Arctic, Franklin’s expedition (British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition) was trapped in the ice somewhere close to King William Island and surviving members of the expedition tried to escape but died of starvation in 1846 (and stories of cannibalism have added further spice to this story). Ever since then fragments relating to the expedition have been discovered including human remains, but the wreck of the ships had remained elusive until this summer.

In the last week or so, a slew of commentaries have appeared in Canada and elsewhere. And academic commentators such as Adriana Craciun and journalists such as Ken McGoogan have produced perceptive pieces picking up the connections between Arctic geopolitics, Inuit oral histories and Canadian pre-occupation with sovereignty, especially over the fabled Northwest Passage. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was swift to connect the missing Franklin ship to the sovereignty of Canada, “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty”.

As Arctic geopolitical scholars appreciate, the legal status of the Northwest Passage is disputed – Canadian authorities believe that it is part of the country’s historic ‘internal waters’ and international observers such as the United States believe that it is an international strait where third parties enjoy certain transit/innocent passage rights. So what floats through the Northwest Passage (or travels underwater in the case of submarines) had and continues to be a source of concern to Canada. In recent years, Canada has sought to practice ‘total Arctic surveillance’ in order to demonstrate that it is an ‘observant state’. These waters need watching, in other words. Political geographers such as Phil Steinberg have ‘watched’ these developments closely.

The discovery of objects relating to a nineteenth century British Arctic expedition might seem a bit out of place when it comes to a discussion about the contemporary international legal status of the Northwest Passage and surveillance projects like ‘Northern Watch’ but actually it helps us better understand both the historic colonisation of Canada and the contemporary geopolitics of the Canadian Arctic. One of the interesting aspects of Canada’s settler-colonial history is that the north of the country was and is rather different, where natural and human objects such as field boundaries, hedges, trees and later roads and railways played a crucial role in colonising, settling and administering southern Canada. Historical geographers such as Graeme Wynn have played a vital role in providing us with insights into the geographies of the settlement process. In the north of Canada, these kinds of objects and technologies were harder to ‘ground’, as population numbers were modest and the land itself less conducive to activities such as agriculture and infrastructural development.

For much of the twentieth century and beyond, Canadian political leaders have called for new settling projects. In the 1940s and 1950s, mindful of the growing influence of the United States and the worsening Cold War, prime ministers such as John Diefenbaker called for a ‘Northern Vision’, one in which infrastructural and security-related investment would strengthen Canada’s grip on its northern possessions. As Diefenbaker noted in a speech in February 1958, “We will open that northland for development by improving transportation and communication and by the development of power, by the building of access roads. We will make an inventory of our hydroelectric potential”.

But this desire to settle and exploit the Canadian North had a bio-political quality as well. The nadir of this impulse was the re-location of indigenous peoples from northern Quebec to Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay. It was a miserable failure but it speaks to the notion that a number of Inuit families and their possessions were seen as objects of settlement and sovereignty in the High North. While apologies have been offered and memorials established, it serves as a reminder of how sovereign anxieties related to a vast territory led to extraordinary measures to try and make northern Canada appear more like southern Canada with its fixed pattern of settlements, road networks and the like.

Since 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has enjoyed his own Arctic obsessions – as he might say ‘We are a northern country’. Spurred on by fears of Russian Arctic expansionism, objects such as the map, the flag, and the ship have been put to work charting, flagging and surveying the Canadian north. Every summer, Harper makes a summer tour of the Canadian Arctic and offers pronouncements about Canadian ambitions both in the hear and now and the future. There are lots of references to what we might call ‘sovereignty labour’- building things, reporting things and evaluating things. But we might also note the role of Harper’s ‘affectual labour’ – he travels north to ‘reassure’ southern Canadians that their sovereign interests are being protected while explaining to northern Canadians that he ‘cares’ about their everyday lives and future ambitions. All of this coincides with Operation Nanook, which is billed as a sovereignty and futures-orientated training exercise.This summer was no different and the fundamental aim remains: “To assert Canada’s sovereignty over its northernmost regions”.

But some things proved pretty elusive. In 1967,’Project Franklin’ was launched as part of the 100th anniversary celebrations regarding the establishment of Canada. The aim was to locate the grave and records of Franklin and his party. Nothing was found. Some two decades and a bit later, in 1992 to be exact, Parks Canada designated Franklin’s missing ships as national historic sites even though no one knew where they might be. And the reason for doing so was that these objects, even if they were not to be found within Canadian waters, were an integral part of Canadian national history and indeed Arctic sovereignty. So even if the objects themselves were never found, they were fizzing with possibilities. Since then Parks Canada have worked with the Canadian Coast Guard to conduct periodic searches for the lost vessels – other objects such as tent rings and copper hull sheathing were found that were believed to be connected with the Franklin expedition in the meantime.

And for those of you wanting more on the above then Adriana Cracuin’s splendid essay in Literary Review of Canada does a great job in spelling out how and why these missing objects came to assume such importance to sovereignty and settling impulses of the contemporary Canadian state. One interesting counter-reaction I thought came from Rebecca Kudloo the  president of the Inuit Women’s group, Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, and who was reported as saying, “”If the government is willing to spend millions of dollars on a missing Franklin ship, why aren’t they spending millions of dollars on violence against women?” Her organisation has been heavily involved in confronting domestic violence against Inuit women as well as everyday violence affecting indigenous women in northern communities. Reminding us not only of spending priorities but also the way in which some missing objects such as sunken ships involving dead white British men from the Victorian era enjoy greater publicity and exposure than missing and murdered Inuit women.

All of this is so very timely for our new students taking the MSc Geopolitics and Security, and for those electing to do my option on the contemporary geopolitics of the Polar Regions then I promise you we will be discussing the extraordinary power of missing objects and their relationship to geopolitical projects and visions. To help us further, the British Library are also organising a special lecture on 1 December entitled ‘The Search for Franklin’s Lost Ships’ and there is an exhibition to look forward to entitled ‘Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage’ which will run from 14 November 2014 to 29 March 2015.


3 thoughts on “Missing, Submerged and Floating Objects: Franklin’s ship and the Northwest Passage

  1. Thanks: very interesting and thought-provoking! We need to be reminded of the (then) unforeseen consequences of European Arctic exploration, as well as being gripped by the continuing story of Franklin’s expedition. I can’t think of any obvious parallel in the nineteenth century for the output of publicity and publishing given to the mystery?

  2. Pingback: Of Franklin, the Northwest Passage, Scotland, and Crimea |

  3. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #13 | Whewell's Ghost

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