That event in the past: what do we make it signify in the present?

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The Franklin Expedition just gets better and better. The present narration, I mean, not the actual expedition in the 19th century. No, that was a wreck in the icy north, costing the lives of all the men! But it’s a splendid example for Theory of Knowledge of the way the past can be reframed by our present interests.

I’ve touched on the Franklin Expedition before – though if you don’t follow my posts on Indigenous Knowledge you’re likely to have missed it. Have a look, in that case, back to “Indigenous Knowledge: not a separable area of knowledge” near the end of July.  At that time, I gave the background on this doomed British Arctic expedition, with a focus on the role of indigenous oral history as a source for historical knowledge. It was Inuit oral history that provided the clues to locating the wreck of the Franklin ships as Inuit historian Louie Kamookak brought together the stories of the elders with European records.

Today, I’m caught by the shifting narrative of the expedition outlined in a recent article from The Canadian Press: “Historical tug of war: The ever-changing narrative of the lost Franklin expedition”.  It outlines a succession of interpretations of the Franklin Expedition:

  1. 19th century version: heroic scientific expedition, with the vanished men being martyrs to science and exploration. Lost in the Arctic in 1846, they were seen as heroes in Britain. Tales of cannibalism were treated as outrageous — impossible for British gentlemen!
  2. A 20th century version: Symbol of British imperialism and arrogance, in going forth for their own ends to find the fabled Northwest Passage through the Arctic, and refusing to take seriously the local knowledge of the people they encountered. They died as a result. (And recent discovery confirms Inuit stories of the men’s cannibalism.)
  3. A 21st century version: an “avatar of Canadian Arctic sovereignty”: finding the wrecked ships was used by the government to bolster Canada’s claims of ownership in the Arctic.
  4. An Inuit version: The wrecks of such expeditions provided resources such as wood and metal to the Inuit. This Inuit perspective shifts away from the personal histories of the European versions and onto the impact of the debris on goods and trade.

As historian Adriana Craciun says, “There is a set of facts. Those men all died. But there’s never just one Franklin disaster.”

Her comment has resonance for all treatments of the past. The Franklin Expedition is a particularly engaging example, in my mind, to illustrate shifting perspectives – but recent news brings us many more. I leave it to others to comment, for example, on the meaning of originally erecting and now pulling down the American statue of the Confederacy General Robert E. Lee, and the riots and political controversy that ensued just last month.

But back to the icy north! I’d like to add, myself, the romanticized version familiar to so many Canadians. Would songs with stories also be considered a form of oral history? I think so. I’ll end, then, with Stan Rogers’ song (1981) “Northwest Passage”. If you choose to treat this historical example in your Theory of Knowledge classroom, the song could add an enjoyable soundtrack.

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The Canadian Press, “Historical tug of war: The ever-changing narrative of the lost Franklin expedition”, CBC News, September 16, 2017.

Stan Rogers, “Northwest Passage” (1981).