Sir John Franklin is best known for leading the doomed expedition in search of the Arctic Northwest Passage and where he perished in 1847. Before that, he had an illustrious career that included Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), but this is the story of his early life when, as a humble midshipman, he took part in the coastal circumnavigation of New Holland (Australia) commanded by his cousin, Matthew Flinders.
Beginning with John’s first horrific experience aged only fourteen at the Battle of Copenhagen under Nelson, we follow his adventures in the ship Investigator, during which he learns surveying and navigational skills from Flinders and faces many dangers and fights for survival.
Although promoted as a novel as it contains invented narrative, this is also journalistic history. There is limited insight into what ultimately drove John Franklin to his icy destiny –
understandably difficult because of his youth and inexperience at the time – and so it remains largely a retelling of Flinders’ epic voyage in 1801-1803.
Flinders’ own rigorous training (partly under the infamous Captain Bligh) and generous character are revealed in his scrupulous attention to detail and in his relationships with others, including his English overlords and French rivals; his beloved wife, Ann; his obstinate brother, Samuel; and, not least, his fondness for his cat, Trim. Of Franklin, he wrote, “… apart from a little carelessness … I would not wish to have a son otherwise than he is.” And, uneasily prescient of the impact the Investigator’s discoveries would have on the near-pristine continent’s indigenous people, flora and fauna, he also wrote that “… mankind … [is] the great disturber of everything.”
A relaxed, yet informative, read that is highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about naval explorers in the Age of Sail.