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Carry On Sir John!

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

Perhaps because I have known many megalomaniacal people in my time (and been at the beck and call of some of them) and worked for many corrupt, mismanaged, dysfunctional organizations, I have always been fascinated by last stands, losing battles, doomed expeditions, incompetence in the face of disaster, failed leadership and the arrogance of power.

The psychology of failure and losing is far more visceral than the process of winning, especially where the loser sets outs with vainglorious intent or grandiose ambition that is thwarted--or where the loser thinks they have power and glory within their grasp, only to see it slip away. There is no more epic case study of this latter phenomenon than the vortex of where heroic exploration and colonialism intersect.

Carry On Sir John! ...A most decadent "potted meat product."

My book Squabble of the Titans parodies and pays homage to colonial hubris in many forms. One example is through the use of the fictional "Carry On Sir John Potted Meat Product," which at various times is viewed by my characters with fascination, revulsion and for an extended period is the sole food source for Dr. Horace S. Browntrout. It is used both as bait to lure Sasquatch into a trap, and offered as a diplomatic delicacy during the first dinner at Forest Camp Dash Dire shared between Dr. Horace S. Browntrout and Ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, who compares its scent to, "...beef, crossed with an oily fish...with a taste rather like chicken."

Carry On Sir John wasn't just pulled from thin air, but is a shout out to the Lost Franklin Expedition (1845-1848) which began as one of the best technologically equipped and professionally crewed undertakings to find the Northwest Passage of its time. It sadly ended with the disappearance of the expedition and evidence that the last survivors had resorted to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to survive. It's taken 170+ years to locate the whereabouts of the ships, conduct forensic analysis of the remains of the crew, and examine the oral histories of the Netsilik to reconstruct even the haziest outlines of the story of what went wrong.

Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) was supposed to discovered the fabled Northwest Passage threading through the Canadian Arctic. Instead, he discover the bottom of Terror Bay, so-named for his doomed ship The Terror, found in 2016 just off the coast of King William Island some 171 years after it was last sighted. The Terror--flagship of the expedition--and its sister ship, The Erebus, found in 2014) were marvels of modern technology. They were equipped with coal-fire steam powered propellers that could retract into the hulls to avoid damage from ice. The new steam technology also allowed for consistent heating throughout the ships, allowing men to remain comfortable in sub-zero weather.

The design innovation the Franklin Expedition carried with them included not only ships' engineering, but a 3,000-book library, and a modern innovation that would prove--along with the cold--to be the expedition's undoing: canned (U.K. "tinned") food. Before the brain damage causing properties of lead were understood, lead was used to line the cans of preserved food (the expedition boasted enough to last three years). Thanks to to a combination of time pressure and contracts going to the lowest bidder, the contents of the cans included rancid meat in cans which were poorly sealed using lead solder, often leading to spoiled food. Thus, if lead poisoning or scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency) didn't get you, botulism might.

With already weakened immune systems from frostbite and hypothermia once coal stores were running low, the combination of constant, low-level poisoning, prolonged lack of required nutrients and prolonged exposure to the elements may be what ultimately killed most of Franklin's men. It's possible that the lead-lined canned food had other deleterious effects as well. After spending scores of months trapped in ice-locked ships, attempts were made to obtain an over-land rescue by marching south. It is clear from the trail of junk left behind (silver spoons, perfumes, pearl-handled combs) that members of the expedition chose to to waste precious space carrying objects not needed for their immediate survival.

In addition to causing damage to other organ systems, lead poisoning also impairs cognition. Is it possible that members of the Franklin Expedition were making poor decisions due to lead intoxication? It may have been a contributing factor, but the sad truth is that, even after three years in the Arctic they were incompetent and probably just had no idea what they were doing. Their ships were cultural re-creations of England, designed to conquer a landscape they were not prepared to linger in or set foot upon.

At some point, expedition leadership must have entertained grave doubts regarding the wisdom and infallibility of the enterprise, and my guess would be that it was long before they placed their fellow crew members in stew pots. What I want to know is...when? And when was the point of no return? Where was the evet horizon, the singularity, the place where Franklin could have still said, "This is a bad idea," turned the ships around, and saved everyone's lives? More to the point, would he have? Probably not. In my studies of the hubris of the doomed, an inflated sense of honor and saving face are the often coffin nails that seal the fates not only of the arrogant glory hounds of the world, but also those who are damned to be commanded by them in the wilderness, far beyond the reach of aid and assistance.

Carry on, Sir John!


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