Sir John Franklin was the fifth lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land, replacing Sir George Arthur who had administered the Colony for twelve years from 1824 to 1836. Arthur had no doubts about the nature of his responsibilities: first and foremost the colony was a penal establishment, and a convenient dumping ground for secondary convicted men (ie troublemakers) from the main settlement in Sydney. In 1818 arrivals were further boosted by a steady stream of convicts arriving directly from England and in later years by prisoners from other colonies.
Arthur’s attitude towards the free settlers who were arriving from the UK, lured by the prospect of land grants and convict labour, was that they could not expect to have all the rights of Englishmen “at home”. Not surprisingly he made many enemies who bombarded the UK government with complaints and requests for his removal. It is likely those in the Home Office and Colonial Office who were responsible for affairs in Van Diemen’s Land, thought the island population would be flattered to have the famous Arctic explorer take up duties in Government House, and hopefully his appointment would put an end to the voluminous correspondence of the anti-Arthurites pressing their case for the recall of the Arthur.
And indeed Sir John was welcomed throughout the Colony on his arrival in 1837 but political rivalries dogged him almost immediately, finally resulting in his recall in 1843. It is significant that the inscription (penned by Alfred, Lord Tennyson) on his statue in Franklin Square (the only Lieutenant Governor to be so honoured in the colony):
Not here! The white north hath thy bones;
And thou, Heroic sailor soul,
Art passing on thine happier voyage now
Toward no earthly pole
Statue of Sir John Franklin, Franklin Square, Hobart
John Franklin was born in Spilsby in Lincolnshire in 1786 and from early childhood had a passion for the sea. This obsession was not viewed favourably by his father but his son was obviously persistent as he was allowed to join the Royal Navy when he was 14 and a year later saw his first active service in the battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Some three months after this action he was chosen to serve as a midshipman under Matthew Flinders, his uncle by marriage, on the Investigator, during its voyage of discovery in New Holland during the years 1801-04. This experience could be said to be life changing.
In his initial address to the Legislative Council in Hobart Sir John reflects on:
… my own early youth, to the period, when I was an eyewitness of the departure for Van Diemen’s land of the first expedition from the sister colony.
Gentlemen, I have much reason to remember that time. I was then a humble partaker in the labours of the lamented Flinders. It was whilst accompanying him in his surveys of the coasts of this and the sister island, that I imbibed that zeal for discovery, which afterwards conducted me into such different climes, which, in fact, determined the whole character of my future life, and which in its consequences has by the divine blessing led to my now addressing you as your President …
The “different climes” referred to, were the waters round the North Pole including the Bering Straits and land expeditions in northern Canada. Franklin commanded three polar expeditions. The first was in 1819 when the British Admiralty sent him to map the north coast of America, starting on the coast east from the mouth of Coppermine River and travelling overland as far as the North-West corner of Hudson Bay. While the voyage had not been well planned and was poorly executed, Franklin had shown extraordinary courage in the face of adversity, which led to his becoming a British hero. In the popular press at the time he became known as “the man who ate his shoes” after it was reported that when food supplies were running low, he survived on a diet of bits of lichen and shoe leather.
His second expedition was more successful and he and his fellow expeditioner, Sir John Richardson, charted over 1,000 miles of the North American coast, as well as collecting valuable information on geology, weather systems and plant species. His final voyages from 1845 to 1847, shortly after his recall as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, in HMS Erebus and HMS Terror ended in tragedy for him and all his men, becoming the worst disaster in the history of British polar exploration. A full account of Franklin’s voyages can be found on the web page of the Royal Museums Greenwich.
Over the years since the disappearance of the ships and crew, three graves, two skeletons, personal effects, letters and notes, have been recovered and finally in 2014 and 2016 the discovery of the Erebus and Terror perhaps have written the final chapter of an intrepid explorer.
Upon his appointment as the new Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land in April 1836, Sir John’s passion for exploration carried over into his civil responsibilities. A H Markham in his book, The Life of Sir John Franklin published in 1891, relates that one of his first acts was:
… to make a requisition of the Imperial Government for means to enable him to carry out a more perfect survey of the channels leading towards the anchorage of Hobart Town. Lieutenant Thomas Burnett was appointed by the Admiralty to carry out this service under the directions of Sir John Franklin …
Burnett travelled with Sir John aboard the Fairlie, arriving in Hobart Town on 6 January 1837. He was given the use of the colonial cutter Vansittart and surveyed the southern entrance to D’Entrecasteaux Channel and the approaches to the Derwent River before his untimely death by drowning on 21 May 1837. A monument in St David’s Park, Hobart, commemorates the Royal Navy surveyor.
Sir John expands on this event and his plans for more exploration:
… Having been thus led to revert to my earliest professional recollections, let me add, that it was my hope to be enabled to superintend during the first year of my government, the completion of that survey which I had aided in commencing. But you are well aware of the fatal event which for the present has disappointed that anticipation, and which has deprived the Crown of a meritorious officer, and myself of a valued friend. The examination of the coasts, unhappily, must now be deferred, but it is still my wish to cause an exploration to be made at an early period, of those districts in the interior, which are as yet almost unknown. Knowledge of this description is in itself valuable. But the demand for land, and the limited extent and high value of that already discovered, are additional incentives – and powerful ones too – to such an inquiry.
Throughout his tenure as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land Sir John supported the work of scientists like John Gould and Paweł Edmund Strzelecki. He founded the Tasmanian Natural History Society and subsidised the publication of the Tasmanian Journal of Natural History. He continued to be an advocate of exploration in the Island and, along with Lady Franklin, made an expedition through the wild country between Lake St Clair and the West Coast. Favourable reports on his continued interest in, and support for, exploration from the officers of several scientific and surveying expeditions that visited Van Diemen’s Land during his governorship, would have enhanced his standing with the Admiralty and contributed to his appointment, on his return to England, to lead his final voyage in the quest to discover the North West Passage.