Throughout the first Overland Expedition, Franklin and his fellow officers could be found reading various religious tracts to pass the time and keep their spirits up. These books were donated by Lady Lucy Barry, a wealthy benefactor of Franklin and leading evangelical of the era, as noted by Janice Cavell, professor of History at Carleton University.
This rekindled religious fervour deeply influenced both Franklin and Richardson in the righteousness of their cause. They felt that they owed their survival to divine providence. Hood was also a devotee, and was reading texts like Edward Bickersteth’s A Scripture Help, Designed to Assist in Reading the Bible Profitably avidly right up to the moment of his death.
Despite the books having played a role in sustaining the officers through extreme hardships (although not so much for the Voyageurs who had to carry all their books and equipment), Franklin’s future first wife Eleanor Porden, would have none of it, dismissing Barry as a Calvinist and a fanatic and nearly breaking her engagement with Franklin over his friendship with Barry.
In letters Porden wrote to Franklin, she declared her own feelings about all these additional commentaries and scriptural “aides” that were being produced at the time:
The simpler our Religion is, the better. To love our God and obey his commands with cheer-fulness is almost the only precept we require in our duty toward Heaven, and to do in all as we would be done by, assuredly comprizes all that can be taught of our duties to our fellow creatures… as for books of Moral Instruction, they are generally mere dilutions of the sacred text. I consider my time more profitably employed in drawing my own deductions.Eleanor Porden, as quoted by Cavell from Gell, E.M. 1930. John Franklin’s bride. London: John Murray.
She later implores Franklin to leave this zealotry behind:
For her sake, I deeply deplore the aberration of a mind which has evidently been refined and elegant – but for yours – whether I am ever anything to you or not, I conjure you to fly from her acquaintance and from those whose religious feelings resemble hers.Eleanor Porden, as quoted by Cavell from Gell, E.M. 1930. John Franklin’s bride. London: John Murray.
Barry’s influence finds it outlet in a few other passages of Franklin’s narratives. Franklin’s dim view of trading posts led him to advocate for the posting of priests to the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was particularly offended by what he saw as the licentiousness and coarseness of traders, voyageurs, and company men who he held responsible for debauching Indigenous and Metis communities around them. He expressed that a proper mission would have a salutary effect, while also providing education and moral guidance to the youth.
Foreshadowing the coming of missionaries, Franklin may have played an instrumental role in launching this new and more invasive aspect of colonization. Moreover, any deep reading of Barry’s texts would discover a deeply ingrained sense of religiously-sanctioned racial supremacy and triumphalism that justified all manners of atrocities during the Victoria era of British expansionism.
The Old Skeptic
As the first step towards converting them to Christianity, Franklin took an interest in the religious views of his Indigenous companions as part of his general ethnographic observations. However, his companions proved to be evasive, unwilling to share their beliefs with a white man who may ridicule them. In one crucial exchange with Keskarrah, elder brother of Akaitcho and father of Greenstockings, Franklin was astonished to discover that Keskarrah held no belief in a supreme being at all. Despite Franklin’s prodding, Keskarrah further rejected the idea as absurd, an opinion that Franklin attributed to his conceit, an accusation theists regularly leveled at atheists at the time. Furthermore, in Keskarrah’s creation story, it was the animals themselves who brought light to the world, and not some immaterial creative force above and beyond nature.
Given the fearlessness of his views, it is no wonder that Rudy Wiebe made Keskarrah and his family the focal point of A Discovery of Strangers. Keskarrah is presented as the wisest and most discerning of the Tetsǫ́t’ıné, a keeper of ancestral knowledge, while his daughter Greenstockings is the most skeptical of the hypocritical conduct and aims of the English, offering biting commentary not so different than Porden did of Franklin’s fanatical patrons and friends.
In an interesting inversion of the well-worn chauvinistic take on the relations between the colonizer and colonized, it is the Tetsǫ́t’ıné that demonstrate a rationalism deeply embedded in the material conditions and knowledge of the land, while the English labour under a mystical sense of their own divine destiny, a delusion that ends in catastrophe for the expedition. However, other than Robert Hood, the officers escape the consequences of their actions, leading to greater acts of folly and Franklin’s ultimate fate in the future.