Reinterpreting the graves at Beechey Island

While we all hope that one day more written material will emerge from all the archaeological research into the Franklin Expedition, can we learn any more from what has already been found? Amongst the most poignant memorials of the Franklin Expedition are the graves of the three crewmembers who died on Beechey Island in 1846 during the first winter of the Expedition. While Dr. Owen Beattie and his team members have carried out a great deal of invaluable pathological research into the remains of the three men, little attention has been paid to the possible meanings of the inscriptions on the graves themselves. Each had an inscribed wooden headboard with the following inscriptions:

Sacred to the memory of John Torrington, who departed this life January 1st, A.D.1846, on board of HM ship Terror, aged 20 years

Sacred to the memory of John Hartnell, AB, of HMS Erebus, died January 4th, 1846, aged twenty-five years. “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, consider your ways.” Haggai, I, 7

Sacred to the memory of William Braine, RM of HMS Erebus, died April 3rd, 1846, aged thirty-two years. “Choose ye this day whom you will serve”, Joshua xxiv, 15

The Graves at Beechey Island. Photo by kind permission of Wolfgang Opel.
The Graves at Beechey Island. Photo by kind permission of Wolfgang Opel.

The choice of texts for the second and third deaths puzzled observers and still does today. And why had John Torrington not earned a text on his grave? Some commentators have said that these are forbidding inscriptions – ‘consider your ways!’ and ‘choose.. whom you will serve?’ It has been suggested they might signify dissent or even mutiny on the Expedition.

Why does John Torrington not have a Biblical quotation? This surely is because of the different characters of the two Captains, Crozier and Franklin. While Crozier was a conventional Anglican, Franklin had a real sense of Christian mission. John Torrington died aboard HMS Terror so Captain Crozier would have taken his funeral service and presumably chose not to put a text on the grave. The other two men were from HMS Erebus where Sir John Franklin was Captain. Franklin took his duties as spiritual leader very seriously. We know he held a Church service every Sunday and we even know what some of these services were like. Franklin took the first service of the Expedition on Sunday 18th May, 1845. After it Lieutenant Couch described him as ‘quite a Bishop. … Gives sermons out of his sermon books, and I can assure you add a great deal himself. They say they would sooner hear him than half the parsons of England’. Fitzjames wrote of the same service: ‘I like a man who is in earnest… Every one was struck with his extreme earnestness of manner, evidently proceeding from real conviction’. Fairholme said that Franklin had ‘the most beautiful and impressive manner I ever heard, even in a clergyman’ adding that ‘the service here is very different from in most ships’. On Sunday, 25thMay, 1845, when Franklin took the second service of the Expedition, he preached his sermon on 1 Kings xvii 16th verse: ‘and the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord’. He drew a straightforward message for the crew from the Old Testament text he selected – that the Expedition was well supplied with provisions and, provided they retained their faith, they would achieve their goal and come to no harm. Sergeant Daniel Bryant, Royal Marines, said that ‘Sir John called the ship’s company’s attention to that part of the sermon: and the whole of the ship’s company were very much pleased with Sir John’s appropriate text, and united in this point of view with Sir John, to accomplish our object which we have in view’. Franklin also held a second, more informal, service in his cabin every Sunday evening and Sergeant Bryant was so impressed with the ‘cruse of oil’ sermon that he said he would attend the evening sermon too, writing that ‘I shall always go as long as I am able. I could remain for hours to hear him.’ Both ships were fitted with barrel organs which could play ten psalm or hymn tunes, so these services had a musical accompaniment.

The Funerals of these men would have been important occasions and Franklin would have put in a lot of thought into the address he would preach at each. The text on the headboards must surely reflect his address. It would be strange to preach a sermon on one text and then inscribe a completely different one, and an obscure one, on the headboard. Can we draw any inferences from these texts which might inform us about what Franklin was trying to tell his men in these funeral addresses?

Hartnell’s text comes from the Book of Haggai. This was an exhortation by the prophet Haggai to the people of Israel to rebuild the second Temple at Jerusalem after the end of the Babylonian Captivity. Analysis of it enables us to suggest how Franklin might have seen Hartnell’s death and the lessons he might draw for the Expedition. Haggai is one of the shortest Books in the Bible and only a Biblical expert like Franklin could preach from it. In the Book the Prophet Haggai speaks three times to the Jews. Haggai’s first prophecy was made because the Jews had not rebuilt build the Temple in Jerusalem, concentrating instead on rebuilding their houses. God was angry and as a consequence the Jews were suffering from bad weather (Haggai 1:10), not enough to eat or drink and, apparently, inflation. God spoke through Haggai and asked the Jews to reconsider their priorities. This was the passage Franklin selected for John Hartnell’s grave: “Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Consider your ways”. The second prophecy of Haggai was prompted because the Jews responded that the Temple they would rebuild would not be as magnificent as the first Temple which had been built by King Solomon. God explained through the Prophet that if they did their best, He would ensure that whatever they did would become better than the old Temple, even if they could not understand why. This was taken to relate to the fact that Jesus would in time come to the new Temple and in this sense it would be more magnificent than King Solomon’s Temple. Hartnell was a junior member of the Expedition, so this choice of text could be used to show that his contribution should be valued as much as any other member of the Expedition. To the Expedition Franklin was saying that his crews were working hard and were well provided for in material ways and that if they ‘built the Temple’ with him, God would approve of them and grant them further help, but in ways which they could not necessarily understand. This message would have appealed especially to Franklin since, as a Freemason, he may well have taken the Masonic understanding of and relationship with the Temple very seriously. We can well imagine that a preacher with Franklin’s powers of oratory would deliver a surprising, challenging, moving and ultimately uplifting sermon on this text.

William Braine died three months later. He was a Royal Marine Private on HMS Erebus. Like John Hartnell, he received a carefully selected Biblical quotation on his tombstone. Again, it has been seen as forbidding. This is misconceived. In fact the quotation has an optimistic and even triumphalist message for the crew. But it also suggests that there had been a massive change in Franklin’s view of his own future on the Expedition. Chapter 24 is the last chapter of the Book of Joshua in which, with God’s help, the people of Israel triumph. It starts with Joshua calling together the warriors from the two tribes of Reuben and Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh, who had come over the Jordan with him to help fight the Canaanites. Joshua commends them for their obedience to Moses, to him and to God. It may be significant that Joshua is addressing the fighting men of the Israelites and that William Braine was a soldier too, a Royal Marine.

Joshua then sends the people on their way, having recapitulated to them all the great things God has done for them since they chose to follow Him alone. It is difficult to see how Franklin could have resisted referring to God’s promise in Chapter 23, verse 4 that “I have allotted to you these nations that remain… even unto the Great Sea westward (toward the going down of the Sun).” Surely Franklin would have referred to this passage, identifying the ‘great sea westward’ with the Pacific Ocean? (Joshua of course was referring to the Mediterranean.) Joshua tells the people that they should stick to the Laws of Moses and the covenant with God, and that if they did they would be sacrosanct as God’s people, but that they must show this covenant with their lives. This is an optimistic message.

What is quite extraordinary is that Joshua was speaking to the people of Israel in the knowledge that his own death was close and that they would have to continue without him. In 23.14 Joshua says “this day I am going the way of all the earth, and you know in all your hearts, and in all your souls, that not one thing has failed of all the good things which Yahweh your God has spoken concerning you. All have come about for you. Not one thing has failed of them.” Franklin must have understand that Joshua, the original preacher of this text, was dying and knew he was; and nor could his congregation have missed this implication. We know that in fact Franklin actually died a little over a year later, on 11th June 1847. Joshua was giving the people precise instructions to keep to the right ways and the rightful worship of God, and challenging them to affirm that they would, after he died. It was from precisely this passage that Franklin took the text inscribed on Braine’s grave:

“And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”.

Was Franklin asking the same thing of his men in this address?

In the Book of Joshua, the people chose the side of righteousness and rejected the false Gods, so Joshua finalised a covenant with them to confirm that. The Book closes with an account of the great covenant ceremony at Shechem, where Joshua had already written the words of the covenant on stones (8.32). Shechem was the place Moses had declared a covenant ceremony should take place on entering the land (Deuteronomy 27.2-8). It was there that Joshua finalised the covenant with the people that they will do their duty, at which point he died. Did Franklin draw a parallel between Beechey Island, where the Expedition had ‘entered the land’, and the Biblical Shechem, especially if Franklin knew that he was not going to survive much longer? Were these two graves – three including John Torrington’s –Franklin’s “altar in accordance with Exodus” 20.24-25 and “sanctuary there in response to God’s revelation” (Deuteronomy 27.5)?

The difference between the two texts is striking: the first is optimistic but the second may imply that Sir John Franklin’s health had broken during the hard winter of 1845-6. The address might be an acknowledgment that he was dying but a message that his men could still succeed after his death if they stuck to their ‘Covenant’? Of course this is speculation, and without more evidence we will never know whether this is the meaning Franklin attributed to these texts. But the analysis is intriguing and does at least suggest that the view that they imply any dissent on the Expedition at this stage is wide of the mark.