A Frenchman in Search of Franklin:
De Bray's Arctic Journal, 1852-54

by Emile F. De Bray, William Barr, William Barr,
400 pages,
ISBN: 0802028136

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Lost in the Ice
by Allan Levine

ON MAY 19,1845 two ships with 134 men under the command of the famed British explorer Sir John Franklin sailed from England on an expedition through the newly discovered Northwest Passage in the icy waters of the Arctic. The ships and the men were never seen again.

In an age when the exploration of the new world was still held in awe - much as space travel was regarded in the 1960s - the mystery of Franklin's fate captured the imagination of European society. In the decade following the disappearance of the explorer and his crew, several large-scale rescue missions were organized. Among those who volunteered to search for Franklin and his men was Emile Frederic de Bray, a 23-year-old French naval officer. In 1852, de Bray joined an Arctic squadron led by the Royal Navy's Sir Edward Belcher.

Like many a seaman, de Bray kept a diary of his voyage. Some years later, he reworked his journal with the intention of publishing it, but his manuscript remained on an archives shelf for many years. Thanks to the diligence of William Barr, a geographer at the University of Saskatchewan, de Bray's Arctic tale has now been edited and translated into English.

Though Barr puts forward a strong case that de Bray made significant contributions to the 1852 expedition through his excursions inland and his surveying and mapping, the diary is noticeably routine and pedestrian. This may have been due, as Barr points out, to the fact that de Bray's superior officers could have inspected his journal at any time during the voyage. Hence there is much about the weather, the food, and the land, but few personal insights about the men

de Bray worked and lived with for more than two years.

A typical entry reads as follows:

11 February 1853 ... The weather was so thick that at 100 paces one could not see the ships; the thermometer was reading -39'C and we began to be anxious about the two officers who had not returned....

His first impressions of the Inuit he encountered, "Eskimo" as de Bray called them, reflected the typical European superiority complex of the times:

30 May 1852. This evening I went to visit the huts of the Eskimo, and it is impossible to think without shuddering that human beings could live in such hovels .... When one enters one of these huts one is seized by an insurmountable repugnance and stench grips one's throat since the outer air never penetrates here, except by a very small hole in the roof, up which the stove-pipe runs.

Nonetheless, de Bray, like many other Arctic travellers, eventually came to admire and respect the Inuit's ability to survive in such a harsh climate.

De Bray returned to England in October, 1854. Though four of the five ships under Sir Edward Belcher were abandoned, and their two-and-a-half-year search turned up no evidence of the Franklin expedition, de Bray and the rest of his crew were hailed as heroes. (Three years later, it was confirmed by John Rae that Franklin had died on board his icebound ship in 1847 and that his men perished some time later while trying to escape. But the search for the remains of the Franklin expedition carried on well into the 20th century.)

De Bray himself received - among other awards - the Arctic Medal from Queen Victoria, and forever earned the nickname "De Bray Pole Nord." While his journal sheds some light on Arctic life and the valiant struggles of the Europeans who explored the region, A Frenchman in Search of Franklin is not a particularly fascinating or exceptional historical document.


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