“Success and Succumbence on the Edge of a Knife”
When adventuring in the Canadian wilds, there are a few assets one must possess in order to reach whatever goal they seek. These can include any number of physical strengths or skills learned over a lifetime, but one thing that is perhaps the most important is mental fortitude. The ability to survive, to take what has been given and still continue to place one foot in front of the other, is a virtue that John Franklin placed a heavy weight upon in his Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, 1819-1822.
He wrote about his crew’s ability (and inability) to endure setback after setback on their adventure and how he himself held their morale in his hands. His story also included Michel Terohauté, a man whose determination to survive was greater than even Franklin’s and drove him to unexpected lengths. John Franklin’s Narrative carries his reader through a test of human survival and perseverance, illustrating the strength required to continue on when all hope seems lost, and the way a spirit can break when failure occurs.
For the purpose of this paper, the term “survival” encompasses a multitude of ideas. Survival does not happen immediately, but is instead a threshold that is reached when circumstances become so dire and draining that it is all one can do to stay upright. When battling “severe weather”, food shortages, and the mental toll of one’s party fracturing and succumbing to the elements, surviving becomes the only thing one can do. Survival is not something that can be won; it is a state of being, and while surviving a situation, one can continue until the situation improves, or one can fail. These are the only options, and within John Franklin’s Narrative, failure equals death.
Franklin enables the survival of himself, his crew, and his expedition itself in many ways over its course. This journey was not an easy one; alongside the difficult-to-impossible terrain and the sheer distances they travelled, this group of grown men could only subsist on tripe de roche, pemmican, and leather for so long before the circumstances took their toll on the party’s morale. Surviving was the only option for the men who had the strength for it, and had their leader been anyone with less mental fortitude than John Franklin, many of them likely would have been left behind and many more dead. He cared deeply for his crew and saw them as more than just employees, as shown in his indescribable distress when leaving Robert Hood and Dr. John Richardson behind in their camp, as well as his anguish of a similar manner at Vincenza Fontano being forced to turn back so late in their journey.
While there were those cases where Franklin’s companions were forced to admit defeat, these were not because of mental failings but instead because of the merciless terrain and lack of sustenance. This was why Ignace Perrault burst out crying when he realized he physically could not go any further; his spirit was still strong enough to continue, despite his body failing around him. Franklin’s uncanny mental fortitude had spread to his crewmates, giving them the necessary strength to proceed even when their companions were dropping like flies and splitting off one by one.
A special case within the subject of survival is
that of Michel Teroahauté, an Iroquois traveller who allegedly cannibalized two of his fellow crewmates. According to Franklin’s report, Michel and Jean Baptiste Belanger had become dizzy and weak and planned to return to Richardson and his small company the day after they split up. Another member of Franklin’s moving party, Ignace Perrault, collapsed of dizziness later that day and rejoined Michel and Belanger at their temporary camp. This left Michel, Belanger, and Perrault alone, which both Franklin and Dr. Richardson claimed to be the time that Michel took advantage of his crewmates’ states and killed them for food.
When talking of survival, one must take a Hearne-like stance in saying that “[n]ecessity … has no law”, meaning that in dire enough circumstances, one must be willing to do what must be done in order to survive. This is what survival is. Sure, Michel may have buckled under the mental pressure, but he survived in the only way he was able to. He and Franklin are really quite similar in this way; where Michel was able to put aside any moral qualms out of a need to physically survive, Franklin’s unconventional strength was his ability to mentally persevere and maintain his hope that success will come over the next knoll.
In conclusion, John Franklin’s Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea explored
the human ability to survive just as Franklin’s party explored the Canadian wilds. Franklin described himself and his crew both succeeding and failing at survival in different ways; success came in the form of Franklin and his meagre troupe finally returning to Fort Enterprise and eventually getting help from three Indigenous men sent by George Back (Franklin 101), while failure reared its head when Franklin’s companions were forced to submit to the elements, hunger, or exhaustion.
The truly astonishing thing about this whole expedition was that, in spite of all of the horrors that Franklin and his men had to endure, Franklin remained optimistic that everything would work out, and continued to explore even unto his death. While this can be taken as a fatal flaw, a hamartia, he would not have made the impact he did if he was any less driven.
His impression on the surviving members of his group was also incredibly meaningful, given that both Dr. John Richardson and John Hepburn went on numerous expeditions to find him when he went missing on his final journey northward. This bond, this camaraderie that lived on even after the events of the Narrative is one-of-a-kind and a true testament to Franklin’s ability to not only survive the Canadian wilds, but to place as much effort as possible into thriving.