Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Exploring for the Empire: Franklin, Rae, Dickens, and the Natives in Canadian and Australian Historiography and Literature

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Exploring for the Empire: Franklin, Rae, Dickens, and the Natives in Canadian and Australian Historiography and Literature

Article excerpt


Empires are bound to create heroes; it is in their nature to produce overreachers, who help fashion, sustain, and extend empires. It is almost as if empires1 were the raison d'etre for heroes, and the other way around. But how much of a hero is a hero? How did s/he come to be one and how did s/he remain one? One important aspect is certainly the mythmaking about such men (or women) in the discourse of such an empire - and their violent or spectacular death. Sir John Franklin, a Royal Navy Officer lost on his fourth Arctic expedition in 1845, is a commendable example of this conjuncture, whereas the case of the physician and explorer John Rae - who survived the extended search for the lost Franklin expedition - points to the bitter ironies concerning the Empire's heroes. The achievements and death of Franklin helped make him one of the most cherished heroes of the British Empire.2 This article outlines Franklin's and Rae's Arctic expeditions and takes a critical look at their journals before discussing Ken McGoogan's Fatal Passage. The article demonstrates the nineteenth-century determination to aggrandize the British Empire, as well as the many aspects of supremacist imperial attitudes that showed in connection with Arctic expeditions and that also thwarted the success of such endeavours. Finally, the article discusses how Rudy Wiebe's A Discovery of Strangers and Richard Flanagan's Wanting reframe Franklin's expeditions and his time as Governor of Tasmania, contextualizing and writing back to Charles Dickens's exoneration of Franklin and to the British Empire discourse.

Here, I do not employ the concept of empire in Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's sense as a new form of global capitalist imperialism, although empires, including the British one, have always moved in that direction.3 I use a concept established in postcolonial studies, where we think of empires as nations that engage in large-scale exploration, colonization, warfare, and expansion, that control large parts of the world, and gain wealth through imperial trade and exploitation of these colonies. Empire ideology intensely permeated British society of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, as many critics agree today.4 Some even assert that the very ideas of Englishness and Britishness were generated by and depended on imperialism.5 Concepts and practices of racism, patriotism, militarism, masculinism, adventurism, and the study of geography informed British "imperial culture."6 The British Empire was perceived as a 'white' English-speaking, cultural, and political community, sharing a common language, literature, religion, laws, ideals, institutions, and sports - or, "the triple bond of blood, religion and language."7

David Armitage defines the British Empire as Protestant and Anglo-British, with a crusading national identity and an ideology of conquest rooted in English internal colonialism:

External 'imperialism' was the offspring of 'internal colonialism,' as the English developed their ideologies of racial supremacy, political hegemony, cultural superiority and divinely appointed civilising mission in their relation with a 'Celtic fringe,' beginning in Ireland in the sixteenth century

- or in the twelfth century, as John Gillingham and Rees Davis hold.8 These 'Celtic fringes', now subject to colonization and anglicization, also by way of a double discourse strategy of 'othering' and 'same-ing', were compared to the Celtic-speaking 'barbarians' encountered by Caesar in Gaul and Iron-Age Britain as well.9 In contrast to the territorial Roman Empire, the British Empire was driven by commercial interests that required maritime engagement and power. Britain's self-conception was honed into the image of an 'empire of the seas' 'upon which the sun never set', engendered by the exploits of Francis Drake, John Hawkins, and Walter Raleigh, and sustained by the Royal Navy's maritime mastery,10 and by oceanic and Arctic exploration. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.