Valuable Lessons From History

Franklin Expedition Painting from
Painting image from

In 1845, Sir John Franklin and 128 men departed England to navigate an uncharted area of the North West Passage.  The motivation was to discover an open sea route for trade through the Arctic thereby connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  A northern route would be much shorter than the currently used southern route around the tip of South America. Besides economics, there was also the drive for discovery, adventure, sailing uncharted territory, and the quest to be first.  Like other expeditions of discovery there was much anticipation and excitement. The trip did serve as one of discovery, but it was not until decades later that those discoveries were made, and we have been able to gain knowledge from this Arctic expedition.

Franklin was no stranger to arctic expeditions – his first of many was in the year 1818. The 1845 expedition was to be his last adventure before retiring from the British Navy. Two ships, the Erebus and the Terror were fitted with the latest technology of the time consisting of reinforced steel hulls, central heat, steam engines, and screw propellers. Each ship also boasted a library of over 1,000 books. Enough food was on board to last three years. The foods listed on ship manifests included: lemon juice, raisins, cranberries, canned meats, vegetables, grains, alcohol for medicinal purposes, and even chocolate. Physically and mentally they believed that they were prepared to live comfortably for a long time.  How could this well-prepared expedition fail? After a stop in Greenland, the two ships sailed away into history. Their story has just begun to be told within the last two decades, and it is a story that we can learn much of safety and survival.

In emergency situations, good health and nutrition are vital. A weak body leads to a weak mind. Even with the best equipment and supplies, death can result without a properly functioning mind and body. This was the fate of Franklin and his men. The especially cold, icy winters and the freezing of the water route led to their demise, but was not the sole cause. The story of Sir Franklin and his men has been pieced together from Inuit (the native people) accounts, body exhumations, a small note, and relics left behind.

From the beginning, ill health plagued the crew. Scurvy, tuberculosis, lead poisoning and pneumonia arose early on and continued throughout the three years slowly killing large numbers of men. What was the source of their ill health? Poor nutrition and heavy metal poisoning, both caused by improper storage. Having supplies was not enough. It is critical that we not only have the right foods, but that we store them properly.

Take a visit to your pantry. Does your storage include good sources of vitamins and minerals? The processes used to preserve food items for long term storage are quite damaging to vitamins, especially water-soluble vitamins. Time, temperature, light, and exposure to air will destroy these nutrients. The sailors of the 1800’s knew about vitamin C and were prepared to ward off the dreaded scurvy resulting from vitamin C deficiency. Scurvy is caused by the breaking down of cells in the body.   Initial symptoms are bleeding gums and eyes, and leads to extreme muscle and joint pain. To ward off scurvy, Sir Francis’ ships were stocked with 9,300 pounds of lemon juice. However, because it was not stored properly, the juice began to ferment. In an effort to reverse the fermentation process, the men boiled their lemon juice, unknowingly destroying the vitamin C.

Mental and physical health are affected by vitamin intake. B vitamin deficiencies are now being looked at as contributing factors in depression. Vitamin D, known for being the sole cause of rickets in children, also is suspected to have a role in depression and osteoporosis. Check nutrition labels and you will find that most canned fruits and vegetables contain very little in the way of vitamins. However, there are some that are enriched with additional vitamins and are good sources of nutrition.

Be mindful that as time passes, the vitamin content drops. Frequent rotation is important. The best-if-used-by date printed on the packaging typically indicates the time when the vitamin content on the label is accurate. Unless cans bulge or rust, or if the food is moldy or has a strong odor, the food may still be good for its caloric content, but not nutrient content.

Most food storage items will not provide an adequate supply of nutrients.  Vitamin supplements are a must and should be stored in a cool, dry place. Like other food storage items they should be rotated frequently. Having a good multi-vitamin, along with additional vitamin C, Calcium, and Vitamin D, is especially critical for adults and children. If bunkered down inside a shelter for a long period of time, vitamin D is a challenge to get because the main sources are from enriched fresh milk and sunlight.

Another lesson to learn from the doomed expedition regards canned foods. The remains of men found and analyzed all showed high levels of lead in their bones and hair. It is believed that the lead came from the solder of the tin cans, or from the water storage. Commercially canned products are typically safe (beware of bulging, rusted or corroded cans). If cans have frozen and thawed, discard immediately. The old rule, If in doubt throw it out, is always good to follow.

When bottling your own food, make sure to follow food safety guidelines available through county extension services or state health departments. The right recipe, temperature, and equipment are vital. Even in properly sealed bottles, the wrong recipe can breed hardy strains of bacteria. The killer bacteria botulism can breed in food without any visible sign. Make sure that the food stored to save life, does not ultimately take it. Remember plastics are semi-permeable, hence, water and foods stored in plastics should be stored away from harmful chemicals such as cleaning agents, pesticides, and fuels.

The Franklin expedition ended in total tragedy. Due to poor nutrition and lead poisoning, disease was rampant among the men. Weakened bodies were susceptible to illness and were unable to fight it. According to accounts from the Inuit population who had some limited contact with the expedition, the men who initially did not die from disease became very paranoid and insane, breaking into factions. It is said that cannibalism took place in groups that left the ship when food was still available on the ship.

One group of men decided to hike out of the frozen land on foot. They loaded a long boat full of supplies, but never reached their destination.  Their remains along with the boat have been recovered. They traveled only about a mile each day. The boat they loaded with supplies contained over 1,000 pounds of items not essential for survival. The sextant and medicine chest were abandoned for books, carpet slippers, tea, silverware, button polishers, and other trivial items. Imagine a small group men with muscle and joint pain, weak from scurvy and lead poisoning, trying to pull a very poor sled loaded, not with survival gear, but trinkets across the brutal arctic terrain. Mentally and physically, they were not up to the task.

History serves as one of our greatest teachers. In this case the lesson is to prepare well. Make sure that in a crisis, both mind and body receive critical nutrients and other things needed to cope with the stresses of the day. All of the top survival equipment and food stores in the world will do no good if we do not have the physical and mental capacity to use them.

This is an article written by our friend, Rebekah Strain. We appreciate her willingness to let us share it with you. History can be a great teacher. What will you do differently because of what you just learned?

The image of the Franklin Expedition painting can be found at Discovery News.

Amazon ImageAmazon ImageAmazon ImageAmazon ImageAmazon ImageAmazon ImageAmazon Image