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An Heroic Sailor-Soul by Nigel Roth


On April 19, 1865, around twenty-five million Americans attended memorial services for the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, in Washington DC, and all over the vast United States.


On February 16, eight years earlier, a medical officer in the United States Navy died, and his funeral services were attended by even more Americans, from sea to shining sea.


And, you’ve probably never even heard of Elisha Kent Kane.


A year before this forgotten hero was born, a man began traipsing from Hudson Bay, east from the Coppermine riverhead, with mapmaking in mind. During the three years it took him and his expedition party to cover the distance required, he managed to lose more than half of his complement of men, either by way of starvation or murder, with cannibalism thrown in to stave off the hunger. When that didn’t work, they turned to eating their footwear, giving John Franklin the moniker of ‘the man who ate his boots’.


A decade before those men tried to map the north coast of Canada and ended up chewing their orthopedics, a man was born in Spilsby, six miles away from Franklin's own birthplace in Somersby, Lincolnshire, who would claim his own fame by becoming the longest serving poet laureate ever, once he’d completed his education at the King Edward Grammar School in Louth, large parts of which are now my house.


One of Alfred Tennyson’s poems was this one, written about his wife Emily’s uncle, the aforementioned shoe-muncher John Franklin.


Not here! the white North has thy bones; and thou,

Heroic sailor-soul,

Art passing on thine happier voyage now

Toward no earthly pole.


Not a happy ditty, but integral to our essay.


You see this is a story of three men, interconnected, and joined in ways that include, most significantly for me, and thus for you, the drawing room of my house.


Let’s begin with Franklin.


Having returned to England in 1822, thinner and more Canadian, Franklin married the Romantic poet, Eleanor Anne Porden, whose epic poem Cœur de Lion, or The Third Crusade, stretched to sixteen ‘books’, and was written while Franklin explored.


He fairly promptly left again, however, to once more trace the North American coast, this time beginning at the Mackenzie River, and then northeast with Frederick William Beechey from the Bering Strait, and finally down the Mackenzie, becoming the rather mediocre ‘second’ European to reach its mouth.