Anonymous (HMS Terror Officer), 1845

A letter that was originally published in an Indian newspaper but eventually made its way to the British press. Anonymous, and with any names of family members redacted, the letter was written by an officer on the HMS Terror. Currently, the most common guess is that the letter was written by Lt. George Henry Hodgson, 2nd lieutenant on board the Terror, as Lt. Little and Frederick Hornby (Mate) are ruled out by the letter, while several others rule themselves out by the events the writer was involved in and his opinions.

The version published here is the one that was published in the London Evening Standard on September 26th 1851.

At the present moment, when public attention is more than ordinarily excited by the reports of traces of Sir John Franklin, the following letters, addressed to an Indian paper, will be deemed interesting:—

“Dear Sir,—So deep and melancholy an interest is attached to the expedition Sir John Franklin to the North Pole, that a letter from a young and able officers written from the last starting point in Baffin’s Bay can hardly fall of proving acceptable to many of your readers; for though none in this country, like myself, may be so un-happily situated as to have a beloved brother in the expedition, yet its unknown fate is so universally deplored and sympathised in, that few, it is presumed, can peruse these unpremeditated passages, penned in light-heartedness and in the youthful confidence of success, without contrasting the sanguine feelings of hope that glowed in the bosom of the writer with the dismal uncertainty that now surrounds his fate, and that of his brother officers.

“Seven years have and more have passed since the expedition, full of life and joy, left the shores of England, and all the late energetic efforts of England, and of that noble-minded woman Lady Franklin, have, alas! up to this hour, proved ineffectual in discovering any satisfactory traces of its existence; but hope though desponding does not yet despair. Many persons fully competent to offer an opinion are still confident that the expedition will yet be heard of. It is well known that it was amply supplied with provisions for five years, which, with care and prudence, might easily be doled out to last seven. Fresh search is still being made, and ere hope dies with us we may well permit another season to pass away. The prospect is indeed gloomy, but their advent some day, like a ray of sunshine in a wintry sky, may yet burst upon us, and diffuse in our hearts a joy the more grateful from its being so long deferred.

“The extract here appended is from a letter from the island of Disko, in lat. 69°50 N, and long. 53°30 W, the place from which the transport was discharged. The expedition lay at anchor there for eight days, and left on the 12th of July, 1844, on its almost hopeless enterprise amidst the thick-ribbed ice. Six long years have, indeed, passed without hearing from them, but God’s hand is not shortened; He may yet preserve and restore to their homes and country the grey-headed chief and the noble spirits that accompanied him in this daring expedition.

“Her Majesty’s ship Terror, Davis Straits,
June 28, 1845.

“Our passage across has been a most tedious one, for since we left we have had nothing but a succession of westerly winds. We parted from the steamer on the 4th, and only made the land of Greenland on the 25th, which, considering the distance is only 1400 miles, is a very long time. Owing to the west winds we were obliged to go to the northward, and at one time were only 60 miles from Zealand, and should have made the island had the same wind continued. A fair start, however, came, and we bore away for Cape Farewell.

“On the 22th when about 90 miles from the cape a most furious gale of wind came on, lucky in the right direction, and we were obliged to take in nearly all sail; the sea ran very high, and owing to our being so deeply laden several waves struck us, but did no harm except wetting through all who happened to be on deck. If we had been amongst ice it would have been very dangerous, but luckily we found none.

“This breeze carried us round the cape (which we did not see) into Davis’s Straits, when the water became much smoother, and on the 25th it moderated and became fine. On that day we saw icebergs and the land, and all were running on deck to see so fine, and what was to many a new sight. The bergs, however, were not large, at least in comparison with those we shall see when we get further north. The land, from which we were distant some 50 miles, was very high, and had a most bleak and desolate appearance, not a vestige of vegetation was visible, and the tops of the mountains were covered with perpetual snow. As our fancies, however, had not led us to expect noble forests and flowery fields, this first sight of Greenland did not disappoint us.

“Our occupation during our passage out consisted in keeping our respective watches, taking numerous observations, and making remarks on the different temperatures of the water and air, and as Captain Crozier unfortunately keeps us on three watches, you may imagine that we have not much time for reading. I have, however, managed to get through nearly all the Polar voyages, which I thought necessary to read, with a view of acquainting myself with ice navigation, and to know what hardships and difficulties were in store for us. From all I have read, I feel convinced that our success and getting through depends not so much on our energy and perseverance, as upon our having the good fortune to have one open season during the three or four years we may be up here, for if the ice does not give way in time, the obstacles it presents are so tremendous, that, notwithstanding all our means and resources, I do not think it possible they can be overcome.

“Some on board the Erebus fancy they will slip through this season, but they are too sanguine, and have not well calculated all the difficulties we shall have to encounter. If we get through, and it is just within the bounds of possibility, we should probably touch at an island called St. Peter and St. Paul, a Russian settlement, on the coast of Kamschatka, and from thence go on to Panama; so pray write to me to both these places, sending to the first place through the Russian ambassador, and to the second, care of the consul.

“Since we have been in the Straits we have had most lovely weather—the water beautifully smooth, and the sky without a cloud. We all enjoyed it the more after the rough weather we experienced outside, and though the thermometer has been at 34 to 35 degrees, still we have not found it at all cold. In England, at that temperature, we should all have been huddling round the fire. During the last few days we have had most capital fun in fishing; finding ourselves sailing over a bank, the lines were got out, and in the course of an hour upwards of 50 fine cod were caught; and yesterday and to-day as many more. Tell this to ———, and ask him if he does not call that fair sport. Several times I caught two at once, each fish weighing about 10lb. When we get to Disko’s Island we expect some good reindeer shooting.

“During our passage we have paid several visits to the Erebus, and they to us, for the sake of a little change of society. They are very comfortable, and say Sir John is the kindest and most delightful person they ever sailed with. He joins in all their amusements and occupations, and every day two or three dine with him—Fitzjames always. Sir John is full of activity and vigour, and looks a great deal better than when we started. In the Terror, I am sorry to say, it is very different; for Captain Crozier is the most unsociable; he hardly ever speaks to us, none of us ever go into his cabin, and he likes solitude so much that he even thinks going on board to dine with Sir John Franklin a great bore. It is very unfortunate that he is so unsociable; for if otherwise it would be far more agreeable, and we should all feel so much more interest in our duties if he entered into them with us, or even seemed pleased with what we did.

“He has, however, many good qualities, and has great experience in navigation of these seas; and though it would be more agreeable if he mixed with us more, we all respect him, and make every allowance for his peculiarities. Luckily we are very happy amongst ourselves: Little is a capital fellow; Hornby is most light-hearted, and singing all the day. As yet we have lived like fighting-cocks, which always keeps people in good humour.

“Having now crossed the Arctic circle, we have daylight during the 24 hours, which to us, who have never been in these high latitudes before, appears strange. It is with difficulty that we can remember when bedtime comes; for while the sun is shining brightly in the heavens, bed is the last thing thought of. And last night I found myself walking the deck at half-past eleven, with the sun staring me hard in the face. In a short time we shall, I suppose, get used to this new state of things, and then we shall go to our cabins at the regular time, and make it night by closing our shutters and lighting the lamps. We ought to be and are very thankful for this continual day, for without it these seas would be unnavigable, and we ought to make the most of it while we can; for in a few short months the reverse will be the case, and we shall have no day, but one dreary night. You cannot think how much our appetites have increased since we have been up here; what was ample for us some time ago is not now sufficient, and when the cold weather sets in we shall be still more ravenous. I hope there will be grub sufficient, for I do not think this great increase of appetite was duly taken into consideration.

“July 5.—We anchored at the Whale Fish Islands (a small cluster of rocks near the large island of Disko) yesterday, and most heartily glad were to find ourselves snugly moored here, after all the knocking about at sea. The great business of clearing the transports has now commenced, and this quiet nook is become a scene of bustle and excitement. In one of the islands there are about ten families of Esquimaux, and the whole population turned out on our account. They are without exception the ugliest, dirtiest set of beings I ever beheld, and smelling so strong of seal oil that it is disagreeable to come within five yards of them. We allowed several to come on board, and each brought up a bag with him, containing the things he had to barter. These people are very poor and wretched, and had nothing worth having. Each man comes off in a separate canoe, it being only made to contain one. It is the only neat thing they seem to possess. It is very light, made of sealskin stretched over a frame, and in the middle is a hole into which the man’s legs go and where he stores all his provisions and utensils for fishing, &c. If we were on our way home I would certainly get one for the water at B———, though I do not think O——— would keep it very long, as it capsizes with the least motion. Several of us have had a ducking; but these fellows fish, throw their spears, and do everything, without causing a roll.

“Their huts are more dirty and disgusting than their inhabitants. In one that we went into there was a man very ill with rheumatism and affection of the lungs, yet the grass was growing close under his bed, and the floor of this pigsty was several inches deep in the mud. It really made me feel very small when I remembered I was of the same species as these creatures, and I thanked God that I was not born an Esquimaux.

“These are, however, a very bad sample of the race, for they have Danish blood in them, which has not improved the breed. At present they are in great distress for want of fuel and provisions. When we arrived they had been two days without anything to eat, the seals, upon which they nearly depend for subsistence, being very scarce.

“I have given you a long account of these people, but as they are the only human beings that we shall see, I thought you would like to know something about them.

“From the information we have been able to collect, it seems that we are likely to make a good passage across the Bay, as the ice this year is very clear, and the summer very early. Upon our getting quickly across Baffin’s Bay our progress this year chiefly depends.

“July 11.—From the day I last wrote up to this I have been constantly employed with Fitzjames and Captain Crozier in making observations. Some here are impressed with the idea that I am a very scientific sort of fellow, but nothing is more purely mechanical than the use of these instruments, and it does not at all follow that because a man observes well he must be clever. I, for one, certainly am not; and though I understand the practice, I know very little of the theory. This is, however, a most capital opportunity of studying, of which I hope I shall take advantage.

“The transport is now clear, much to our satisfaction, for the men have had a very hard week’s work in discharging her cargo, and now we are all anxious to be off. Tomorrow we shall swing the ship for the magnetic attraction, and the same evening, or Sunday morning, we shall sail.

“I have told you almost all that has happened since we sailed; but as yet our voyage has been so much like any other one, that no incident of interest has occurred. We are all longing to reach some unknown ground, and are determined, if we do not get through this year, to winter to the westward of Parry’s Land.

“The lovely weather we have had has put me to rights, and I feel better now than I have done since leaving England. There is something invigorating and delightful in the feeling of the air here, and though the thermometer has been as high as 65 degrees, we still all wear warm clothing, for there is a sharpness in the air which we should feel much, were we not to do so. I have been drawing a good deal, and send to L——— a sketch of the anchorage but the effect of the icebergs and snow is lost on the white paper. I also enclose a track chart of the course we have made already, and our probable line after leaving this, but everything depends on the movement of the ice.

“The next letter you receive will, I hope, be dated from some spot in the Pacific, when we shall be recruiting our strength after our Polar winter. If we do not touch at the places I have mentioned, we shall go to the Sandwich Islands, but an officer will be sent home via Panama, and he will forward all letters for the expedition, so fail not to write. February will be the best time to write to St. Peter and St. Paul, and June to Panama.”