Book review: New volume details the roots of the Franklin Expedition as told by its participants

“May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Expedition”

Edited by Russell A. Potter, Regina Koellner, Peter Carney, and Mary Williamson; McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022; 504 pages; $49.95.

Owing to its tragic end, still wrapped in mystery 18 decades later, we tend not to equate the word “optimism” with the Franklin Expedition. Its failure was so catastrophic that we easily forget that it was launched with the utmost confidence in its success. So much so that its captain, Sir John Franklin, wrote, “No one ever embarked on an expedition with more causes of rejoicing than ourselves.” How quickly those causes would evaporate.

Franklin’s missive is one of nearly 200 letters found in a sizable volume of correspondence from expedition participants gathered together and recently published under the title “May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth.” It’s a collection offering insight into how the endeavor was seen by its members, and into the the essential characters of some of its key players.

“I never left England with less regret,” wrote James Fitzjames, commander under Franklin of the Erebus, one of the two ships that sailed into oblivion, “and I account for this by the ardent hope I have of doing what we are going to try and of being back again soon.”

As with all the others, he would never return.

The 1845 Franklin Expedition was the penultimate attempt at discovering the Northwest Passage, a sea route along the northern tier of North America that would provide England with a coveted shortcut to the Pacific Ocean and East Asia. Conceived by the British Admiralty, the Franklin Expedition consisted of two ships carrying a total of 129 men, tasked with navigating through the maze of islands off Canada’s Arctic coast in hopes of reaching the Bering Sea and sailing home from there.


They never emerged. It would take years of searches to determine that the ships had become icebound on the northwestern coast of King William Island, that a desperate march south in hopes of escape had commenced, and that no one had survived. Evidence of cannibalism on human remains grimly indicated the horrors endured by the last to succumb to starvation.

The failed expedition has obsessed armchair and professional explorers ever since. Only in 2014 and 2016 respectively were the wrecks of the two ships finally located, their locations far from where they were abandoned, raising perhaps more questions than their discoveries answered. Countless books have been written about the expedition and its calamitous end, but this one is different. This one is about its beginning, as told by its participants.

The letters begin in 1844, when the expedition was still just a possibility. As the idea first emerged, it was assumed that James Clark Ross, a veteran of Arctic exploration, would command it. Newly married, he declined. Many of the early letters are addressed to him by Franklin, and also by Francis Crozier, who would helm the Terror, the second of the two ships that would be dispatched the following year. For both, being assigned to the journey was a career move, and for Franklin, who had recently been removed as lieutenant governor of Tasmania, it was an opportunity to restore a tarnished reputation (Franklin’s obsession with recovering his good name is a recurring theme in his letters throughout the book). The two men, as well as Fitzjames, were established figures in the Admiralty, and here we watch them come together over a common goal, putting themselves forward to accomplish it.

Once the go-ahead was given for the expedition, the planning stage commenced and the second section of this book is filled with letters regarding the preparations. “The speed with which they proceeded was indeed remarkable,” the editors write, “from rumor to plan to actual expedition, all in the course of scarcely six months.” Three years’ worth of canned food was to be taken along, provisions that multiple writers cite as an assurance of their impending success.

The ships left London on May 12, 1845, initially towed by steamers until they were clear of Scotland. Remarkably, letters not just from officers, but also from engineers, ice masters and other crewmen have survived down to our time, painting a picture of onboard life. Franklin appears to have been held in high esteem by all. Deeply religious, he led services on Sundays that were heavily attended. Fitzjames, briefly floated as commander of the expedition, happily took his position under Franklin. Harry Goodsir, the assistant surgeon and de facto naturalist on the Erebus, gathered, examined, and cataloged hundreds of specimens of life forms hauled out of the sea. A monkey that was brought along caused no end of havoc.

From the Orkneys, they sailed to the northwest (“Our passage across was very boisterous,” Crozier wrote). In the Whalefish Islands off Greenland, they stopped to load provisions that had been carried that far by a transport ship. There the longest and most detailed letters were written. Descriptions of the sea, the growing presence of icebergs, and the desolate landscape abound.

It was also here that the men encountered the Inuit, with descriptions of the Indigenous residents ranging from condescendingly factual observations to openly racist condemnations. Absent is much recognition that the Inuit knew how to survive Arctic conditions, a crucial blindness on the men’s part.

And it’s here that Franklin wrote his final letters to his wife, Lady Jane, cementing the love story that dominated the long search that followed the expedition’s disappearance. Her letters to him, written after concern for the expedition’s fate had taken hold, are among those found in the final section.

“All these things combined cannot but enliven our hearts,” Charles Osmer wrote to his wife from off Greenland, discussing the extensive provisions, and the modern state of the ships. He was confident, as were others. In these final letters, taken back to England by the transport ship, it was still an expedition filled with promise. This is where our correspondents take leave of us. They were never heard from again. These letters, which introduce us to those who were lost, briefly bring them and their hopes back to life, if only on the page.

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David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at