Your Saturday Listen: They mapped our North by sea and they died doing it

This week’s Saturday Listen steps back in time with a salute to crew of the vessels that powered the world’s early exploration and expansion and commerce – the vessels with the famous names on the famous voyages that went down in history, and the ones that worked quietly, year after year, mapping coastlines and hauling cargo.

The history of working people isn’t something we hear much about in school. Or any other time. That’s a shame, especially for the history of people who have worked the world’s oceans. Maritime commerce has been a brutal industry at the best of times. We can only imagine how more challenging the enterprise of sailing into uncharted waters was – and how incredibly grueling it was to crew the ships through strange lands and unfamiliar climates. There’s a direct line that runs from our earliest history right through to the crews that our ITF inspectors represent every day, in ports across Canada.

Today, we salute them with The Northwest Passage, a song by the late great Canadian folksinger Stan Rogers. It’s about the men who sailed Canada’s northern coast aboard the two Franklin Expedition ships, working sometimes blindly across the last unnavigated sections of the sea, feeling for the legendary passage that would ferry them from the Atlantic to the Orient:

“Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered, broken bones/
And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones.”

The story of the lost expedition is long and much debated – but it’s as good as any in our history to underline the debt that our maritime nation owes to those who mapped its frontiers.

The expedition left England in 1845, led by Capt. John Franklin. It was his fourth voyage, and the aim was to cross the last mysterious section of the Northwest Passage. Both of his ships got stuck in the ice near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic and the entire expedition, 129 men including Franklin, was lost. In 1981, a study of the graves, bodies and other items left behind by the men on the islands they tried to escape across said much about the conditions they faced. Most appeared to have died of pneumonia, tuberculosis, from disease related to lead poisoning from the badly soldered cans from the ships’ stores (the tins were poorly made during a rush to produce supplies) and from lead in their water pipes. There was evidence of hypothermia, starvation and scurvy. Their clothing was inadequate as well.

The story paints a brutal picture of how the voyage looked for crew, and what harsh conditions they faced when the ships were locked in by ice and they had to escape on foot. Franklin was later celebrated as a hero. His crew — the men who threw opened the boundaries of the world a little wider, much like the men who crewed the ships that searched for the missing Franklin expedition, and mapped more of the Passage even as they searched — well, they never got the attention that Franklin did. And that’s wrong.

Rogers wrote a great song about the adventure. We leave you with a rousing live performance of his Northwest Passage, sung by the Longest Johns, a British a cappella folk band that performs beautiful traditional music, including a lot of shanties. Their work is worth a good listen too.

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