Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Searching for Franklin: A Contemporary Canadian Ghost Story1

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Searching for Franklin: A Contemporary Canadian Ghost Story1

Article excerpt

When in 2008 Parks Canada signalled its intention to sponsor a marine hunt for the sunken and lost ships of the 1845 Northwest Passage expedition led by Sir John Franklin, one of the main reasons given by federal authorities was the need to assert their claims to Arctic sovereignty in an unstable and tense circumpolar geopolitical environment. The wrecks of the Erebus and Terror in this context were seen as important due to their historic associations with the development of Canada as a nation. I argue that the phantasmic nature of these shipwrecks, as well as the rhetorics of the supernatural associated with the Franklin expedition in history, literature, documentary, popular culture and heritage policy, discloses a haunting inheritance in the modern Canadian imagination. Through an examination of recent Franklin searches this article locates the place of this 'quintessential interdisciplinary, diachronic, semiotic subject' in the contemporary imagination.

Keywords: Arctic; spectrality, John Franklin, Canada, Northwest Passage

The end of the twentieth century witnessed the publication of a plethora of novels and other literary treatments that re-imagined the career of Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) and the tragic circumstances of the expedition under his leadership which sought to traverse the Northwest Passage through the Arctic in 1845. The disappearance of this expedition, one of the most prominent episodes in the history of exploration, incited frenzied speculations about its fate throughout the Victorian era and beyond in which spiritualists and clairvoyants, as well as writers and investigators, endeavoured to imagine what really happened (Ross 2003). Through the mystery of its disappearance, the Franklin expedition came to occupy a spectral place in contemporary culture: as Margaret Atwood put it, 'Because Franklin was never really "found", he continues to live on as a haunting presence' (1995: 10).

The impact of the loss of HMS Terror, Erebus and 129 men, and subsequent revelations of cannibalism, on Victorian society has been compared to that of the Challenger space shuttle disaster in late-twentieth century society (Stein 2007), and sporadic attempts were made, starting in the 1850s, to piece together a coherent narrative through the mapping of skeletons (see Figure 1). Contiguous with the emergence of 'Franklin fiction' - speculative, postmodern, postcolonial and historical re-imaginings of the Franklin expedition - the searches for relics, bodies and the Franklin shipwrecks in what is now Nunavut, Canada, which commenced on a large scale in the 1980s, disclosed a ghostly inheritance haunting modern Canada. If the North has functioned in Canada as a grand national myth for the past century - the 'True North, Strong and Free' - an idea more than a location (Francis 1997: 152-71; Grace 2007), then the particular details of this disaster can be seen to occupy a central role in how the nation deals with its Arctic possessions.2

In this article I want to offer a fresh perspective on the rituals surrounding the Franklin searches by tracking the huge upsurge in interest in locating Franklin bodies and relics. When in 2008 Parks Canada, the national heritage agency, signalled its intention to sponsor a marine hunt for the lost Franklin ships, one of the main reasons given was the need to assert Canadian claims to Arctic sovereignty in an unstable and tense circumpolar geopolitical environment. The wrecks of the Erebus and Terror in this context were seen as important due to their historic associations with the development of Canada as a nation. I explore the tensions and ambivalences underlying these searches and argue that it is through appeals to spectrality (through the use of gothic language, the uncovering of hidden traumas, locating lost objects and so on) that nations seek to possess the past, but that these strategies also entail a recognition of how the past - or indeed, multiple pasts - may irrevocably haunt the present. …

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