Franklin Relics, Then and Now: Canadian Arctic Sovereignty on Display

by Tina Adcock

Tinned pemmican, similar to the one discussed in this posting, was used on Nares’ Arctic expedition in 1875. Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

It is spring in Canada, and the federal government’s fancy will presumably soon turn (again) to finding the final resting places of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. These ships bore 134 men north in 1845 on Sir John Franklin’s third and largest Arctic expedition. The British Admiralty charged Franklin with locating the fabled Northwest Passage or, failing that, undertaking scientific investigations. Franklin’s own fate has been known since 1859, but that of most of his crew and his ships is still shrouded in mystery.

Canada designated the remains of the Erebus and Terror a National Historic Site in 1992. It is the only such site lacking precise coordinates. The Chrétien government’s insistence on the ships’ yet-to-be-realized presence reflects Franklin’s privileged place in the Canadian cultural and historical imagination. Today, federal authorities seem to be seeking the absent ships in order to solidify Canada’s inherited claim to the contested waters of the Northwest Passage.

As a historian of the Canadian North, I’m fascinated by the Harper government’s obsession with locating Franklin’s ships. Adriana Craciun and Shane McCorristine have recently placed this search in a longer historical perspective. They find some interesting parallels between the motives and meanings of late nineteenth-century British and American searches, and Canadian ones undertaken in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Here I want to continue drawing connections across time by narrating the “object biography” of a tin of rations connected to the Franklin expedition, and discovered in 1923 by a Canadian civil servant. (1) I stumbled across the story of this tin over a year ago while researching northern field science and exploration between the wars. It’s stayed with me in part, I think, because it resonates so well with the ways in which governments past and present have tried to make sense of the Franklin tragedy and turn it to usable ends.

Where the current government is fixated on Franklin’s ships, Victorian officialdom was more concerned with smaller things. Provision tins were a common category of Franklin relic from the beginning. Such relics evoke the carefully composed mid-nineteenth-century displays that commemorated Britain’s latest naval hero in grandiose settings such as the British Museum. These tableaux were faithfully and widely reproduced for contemporary audiences, both in illustrated newspapers and through newer technologies such as stereoscopes. Yet, as Adriana Craciun points out, these venerated objects comprised only a fraction of the “small mountains of rubbish” that search parties found scattered along the coasts of King William and Beechey Islands. In their plenitude, these broken and discarded objects mocked searchers desperate to locate a different kind of material trace: written records that might give clues to the expedition’s ultimate fate. Even in the late nineteenth century, after dozens of expeditions had removed Franklin relics from the frozen northern ground, much was left over for “future disaster tourists,” as Craciun aptly puts it. The northern pastime of searching for Franklin relics was born. (2)

Something of that same spirit may have imbued Major L.T. Burwash as he picked his way over the rocky ground of Beechey Island in the summer of 1923. A mining engineer by training, he was then employed by the Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch (NWTYB). This small unit within the Department of the Interior handled the administration of the territories throughout the 1920s. Its officers sought to know, and therefore control the lands that fell under its purview. One means to this end, which commingled the concerns of sovereignty and science in typical fashion, was the Eastern Arctic Patrol (EAP). Inaugurated in 1922, the patrol served as an annual means to resupply and reconnoitre northern settlements and coastlines. In the years before Canada’s claim to the Arctic archipelago was fully recognized on the international stage, the EAP also provided a regular and tangible marker of Canada’s active sovereignty over its northernmost reaches. (3)

On a short stop ashore during the EAP of 1923, Burwash happened upon a cache left by one of the Franklin relief expeditions. (4) Its contents bore the marks of 75 years’ worth of exposure to the elements, not to mention the attention of hungry polar bears. Yet Burwash found one tin that was still sealed, and brought it back to Ottawa that fall. It lay unopened for a little over a year, at which point Burwash wrote to O.S. Finnie, the director of the NWTYB: “I thought it might be interesting to have this officially opened, and a record made of its content.”

On March 3, 1925, the tin (the present whereabouts of which are unknown) was opened in fine ceremonial fashion, in the presence of Burwash, Finnie, and six other civil servants with northern experience or interests. Inside lay a ten-pound cube of finely ground beef pemmican, speckled with desiccated currants. Both the tin and its contents were brown with rust, but Burwash opined that the pemmican was “apparently still suitable for human food in an extremity.” Several weeks later this argument was put to the test. The pemmican was delivered into the hands of Norman MacL. Harris, the chief scientist in the government’s Laboratory of Hygiene. Victorian depictions of Franklin relics enrolled such objects in recuperative narratives of scientific patriotism and endeavour. This tin’s contents were also recovered for science, by becoming the subject of experimentation. Harris published the results in a short note in Science that July. His tests discovered two kinds of bacteria that are today known to cause food poisoning, Bacterium welchii (now called Clostridium perfringens) and Bacillus cereus. Harris also tested for the presence of Bacillus botulinus (now called Clostridium botulinum), but the results were negative. (5)

The pemmican had done its duty for science (and, in the process, had lost a sliver of itself to the culture collection of the Society of American Bacteriologists). It was then coated with white shellac, deposited in a glass museum jar, and placed in the NWTYB’s museum of Arctic relics and handicrafts. In mid-nineteenth-century Britain, officially sanctioned and publicly displayed collections of Franklin relics served to underwrite national authority over the Northwest Passage. A similar visual rhetoric seems to have been at work here. After receiving the gift of the archipelago from Britain in 1880, the Canadian government had to consolidate its grasp of this unwieldy, distant place. Accumulating natural historical and cultural artifacts from the Arctic and exhibiting them in the halls of federal power was one way for the northern administration to demonstrate that the sovereign baton had passed from Britain to Canada.

The pemmican reposed in this museum for some time, outlasting both the NWTYB (which was dissolved in 1931) and the interwar peace. It enjoyed a brief second life in the autumn of 1943, when Douglas Ripley, the secretary of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” magazine, wrote to the Bureau of the Northwest Territories. Ripley had somehow learned of the pemmican’s existence, and requested a snapshot of it for an upcoming issue.

The parallel with earlier British experience is again interesting. As Craciun notes, once the Franklin relics were thrust into broad view in the 1850s, they soon escaped the constraints of their original presentation. Objects and their representations circulated serendipitously through the public sphere, sometimes taking on unexpected connotations. In 1860, Lady Jane Franklin was dismayed to find that an unauthorized exhibition catalogue of the relics depicted them in “Barnam’s style” [sic]—as cheap, commercial entertainment catering to the lowest common denominator. Less than ten years later, a set of Franklin relics collected by the American explorer Charles Francis Hall actually did make a guest appearance in Barnum’s American Museum.

When the Deputy Commissioner of the Northwest Territories, R.A. Gibson, received Ripley’s request, he reacted in a manner not unlike that of Lady Franklin. A long-serving career bureaucrat, Gibson had strictly controlled the northern administration’s public face for the past quarter-century. No doubt perceiving the potential for absurdity in Ripley’s request, Gibson attempted to seize control of the narrative. He asked that a concise article be written to accompany the requested snapshot, in which the circumstances of the pemmican’s recovery and preservation would be made clear. A reference to Harris’ article in Science was to be included, to reassert the contributions that the pemmican had made to knowledge. Nor was the issue of Arctic sovereignty overlooked. Gibson’s colleague, Major D.L. McKeand, noted that although Canada’s control of the archipelago had long since been confirmed, “it would do no harm to let the world know through ‘Believe It or Not’ that the Arctic Islands are in the Northwest Territories and an integral part of the Dominion.” (6)

Appearing first as a solemn memento of high-minded imperial endeavour, and then as an exotic comestible from a fusty distant age, the pemmican’s significance shifted over the first half of the twentieth century. But the use to which the Dominion government put it in the 1920s and 1940s bears more than a passing resemblance to the actions of its British forebears in the 1850s and its Canadian successors in the 2000s. This relic and hundreds of others like it originally may have signified nothing more than British presence in the North American Arctic, and perhaps also the implied right or ability of British subjects to travel freely there. But these objects accrued greater symbolic and practical weight as the years passed, and as British and Euro-Canadian control over the North hardened. As Janice Cavell has shown, nineteenth-century British explorers of the Arctic gradually became naturalized Canadian heroes (and sometimes villains) in the twentieth century. Their bones and the objects they discarded are the foundations on which Canada’s northern sovereignty is now perceived to rest. That is why the once-present, but now-absent tin of pemmican mattered then, and why the absent—but perhaps soon-to-be-present?—Erebus and Terror matter now.


(1) The story of the tin is assembled from the records found in “Sealed tin of rations from Franklin expedition,” file 4763, reel T-13266, RG 85, Library and Archives Canada.

(2) The nineteenth-century examples and interpretations in this piece are drawn from Adriana Craciun’s fine work on Victorian understandings of the Franklin relics. See Craciun, “Franklin Relics.”

(3) In this respect, the EAP is not dissimilar to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trips north, or Parks Canada’s expeditions in search of the Erebus and Terror, both of which have become annual or near-annual fixtures in recent years.

(4) The provenience of the cache is unclear. Extant primary sources attribute it variously to one of the 1848 search expeditions or to Sir Edward Belcher’s expedition of 1852-54.

(5) See Harris, “Bacteriological Note.” His decision to administer this last test is interesting in light of subsequent scholarship, some of which suggests that botulism might have played a role in the expedition’s demise. See especially Scott Cookman, Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin’s Polar Expedition (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2001).

(6) I have not yet been able to determine whether or not the pemmican ever appeared in the magazine.


Cavell, Janice. “Comparing Mythologies: Twentieth-Century Canadian Constructions of Sir John Franklin.” In Norman Hillmer and Adam Chapnick, eds., Canadas of the Mind: The Making and Unmaking of Canadian Nationalisms in the Twentieth Century. 15-45. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007.

Cavell, Janice and Jeff Noakes. Acts of Occupation: Canada and Arctic Sovereignty, 1918-25. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

Craciun, Adriana. “The Franklin Mystery.” Literary Review of Canada, May 2012. Accessed May 6, 2014.

Craciun, Adriana. “The Franklin Relics in the Arctic Archive.” Victorian Literature and Culture 42 (2014): 1-31.

Geller, Peter. Northern Exposures: Photographing and Filming the Canadian North, 1920-45. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004.

Harris, Norman MacL. “A Bacteriological Note Relative to the Franklin Arctic Relief Expedition of 1848.” Science NS vol. 62, no. 1594 (July 17, 1925): 57-58.

McCorristine, Shane. “Searching for Franklin: A Modern Canadian Ghost Story.” British Journal of Canadian Studies 26, no. 1 (2012): 39-57.

Parks Canada. “The Underwater Archaeology Search for Franklin’s Lost Vessels: HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site.” Accessed May 7, 2014.

Potter, Russell A. Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818-1875. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.

About the author:

Tina Adcock is an assistant professor of history and Canadian studies at the University of Maine and a member of the Findings/Trouvailles editorial board.