A Frenchman in Search of Franklin: De Bray’s Arctic Journal, 1852-1854.

De Bray was influenced by Joseph-René Bellot’s service on an English expedition as a volunteer for the Franklin Search with Sir Edward Belcher aboard HMS Resolute. He served in the Arctic from 1852 to 1854, commanded a number of sledge expeditions, and left the Resolute shortly before it was abandoned. He was a friend of Jules Verne who used De Bray’s Arctic knowledge in a novel based on the Franklin Search.

p. 79: Winter begins today, and soon bad weather will confine us to the ship. To prevent the men from stagnating in deadly inactivity, all the distractions we can arrange are being put into operation. Every evening the officers will run a school for those who wish to acquire some knowledge of navigation and elementary mathematics. We have already begun classes in reading and writing and there is nothing more comical than to see these rough sailors struggling their best to trace the letters of the alphabet or spelling out words from books which one normally sees only in the hands of children. Preparations for the theatre also occupy a good part of our time. The captain, Dr Domville, and Mr McDougall have unanimously been voted the directors. Mr Hamilton will fill the office of prompter, and the master carpenter is busy with construction of the theatre which will be on the deck between the foremast and the mainmast. I myself am working with silk and lace to produce a full court outfit of the reign of Charles II, at the same time I am giving Mr McDougall a hand at repairing the decorations used on the last expedition, and which we fortunately thought of bringing.

p. 80-81: 23 November 1852. The great day has finally arrived; everyone is astir aboard ship. The theatre poster was displayed this morning [p. 86, from The Melville Island Press] in the orlop deck, announcing that the doors would open at 6.30. Mr Hamilton, the stage-manager, is satisfied with the rehearsals in general and has announced that everyone knows his part perfectly.

At 4 o’clock, after a hurried dinner, everyone got busy dressing; the ladies shaved and put on their wigs and hair pieces. I was not left idle since it was my task to handle the make-up. I was using magnesium successfully as a substitute for white, while a jar of Chinese rouge which was found on board allowed me to give a lily-white or pink tinge to all the more-or-less tanned faces.

Finally everyone was made up, and having drunk several glasses of champagne to give ourselves courage, each actor took up his position, ready at the drop of a hat to dash onto the stage.

The audience, consisting of the officers and men of Resolute and Intrepid, took their places on benches, the officers in the front row since the house had no boxes to offer. Captain Kellett sat at the foot of the mainmast in an armchair surmounted by a canopy formed of flags and decorated with his coat of arms [Plate 15].

At 6.30 precisely the orchestra, consisting of six fifes, an accordion, a drum, and a triangle, attacked the opening number and soon came the obligatory three knocks call for silence and the public’s attention. The curtain rose on a very appropriate scene, representing Assistance beset in the ice; a subterranean rumble was heard and the King of the Hyperborean Lands, bent beneath the weight of his years, appeared. Dr Domville, playing this character, uttered a prologue composed for the occasion by Mr McDougall, then left the stage amidst thunderous applause….

Unfortunately one of the actors was overwhelmed by numerous libations and was incapable of continuing his part, and they were obliged to lower the curtain. The orchestra then played the national anthem, ‘God Save the Queen,’ accompanied by the entire audience, standing with bared heads….

The temperature, which was -9°C outside, was raised to -5°C by means of four stoves placed in the wings. Despite this the ladies suffered from the cold; nothing could be more amusing than to see them sitting astride a chair, their skirts hitched up, smoking long pipes and drinking mugs of grog. As for the audience, their only recourse was to blow on their fingers and to stamp their feet during the intervals. [Further material on theatricals follows throughout the journal—see index].

p. 150, death of Sainsbury and burial, 16 November 1853: The prayers for the dead were read by Captain Kellett aboard Resolute, then we proceeded to a hole which had been chopped in the ice 200 m from the ship. There could be nothing more ominous than that mournful procession of officers and men from both ships, winding slowly across the snow, surrounded by darkness.

p. 151: Dr Domville has had the excellent idea of entertaining the men by giving lectures on popular subjects and the crew seems to have seized on the idea with alacrity. Hence today he began to put this plan into effect by reading a paper on chemistry as applied to the everyday usages of life…. Dr Domville gave this opening lecture amidst the most profound silence from a very attentive, quiet audience.

p. 151ff: 30 November 1853. Since the weather has cleared up again, the [theatrical] performance has not been cancelled and at 6.30 pm. Resolute’s deck was crowded with an audience waiting impatiently for the curtain to rise [see p. 86 for illus. of theatre]. To contain their impatience the orchestra played its best numbers, and one has to give credit to the musicians for the manner in which they handled their instruments; these consisted of six fifes, a violin, and a drum. The fifes had been made from hollow copper curtain rods and the tinsmith has spent many days in making the marvelous violin. With a certain amount of good will one could passably recognize the numbers, and they might have been a lot worse.

As regards construction details, the theatre was the same as last year and our leading carpenter had done marvels with regard to costumes and props.

The evening began with a play by Shakespeare, arranged by Garrick, entitled The Taming of the Shrew, played by the crew, with an extraordinary general effect and dash. The officers then performed The Two Bonnycastles, a comedy very popular in England.

During the intermissions several men sang comic songs and we found some excellent actors among Investigator’s men, among others a Negro who recited a prologue composed for the occasion. Nothing could be more amusing than this Negro coming on in black coat and white waistcoat to recite a piece of verse in his patois, and attempting to imitate the manners of a man of the world.

Finally, the success was crowned and the performance concluded by a chorus of ‘God Save the Queen’ and three cheers for the artists.

p. 171, 28 May 1854—on abandonment of the Resolute.

p. 182-4, an account from the New York Herald of 27 Dec 1855 of the ship’s recovery. See also notes on p. 289-96:

p. 291-92: The appearance of things on board, as represented by Captain Buddington when he had leisure to examine the vessel, was doubtful in the extreme. Everything of a moveable nature seemed to be out of its place, and was in a damaged condition from the immersion in the water. The cabin was strewed with books, clothing, preserved meats, interspersed here and there with lumps of ice…. There was scarcely anything on board the abandoned vessel that was not more or less destroyed…. The lower hold was found to contain the library of one of the officers of the expedition, valued at over a thousand dollars. The books were entirely valueless when discovered by Captain Buddington, and subsequently thrown overboard as worthless rubbish.—taken from the New York Herald account.