In a wide-ranging interview in the December 2014 issue of Canadian Geographic, Owen Beattie, a retired University of Alberta anthropologist, reminisced about and discussed his role in the search to discover what happened to Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition, touching on topics such cannibalism, lead poisoning and exhuming graves. Here is the rest of that interview.
On why finding the ships is important
Other circumstances that we’ve been able to document may have dominated the expedition’s eventual failure, but the ships are always there in the background — they’re the 800-pound gorillas in the room, sitting and waiting to be discovered. If they hadn’t failed, or if the conditions had been more favourable, Franklin and his men may not have perished.
On his interest in the historical importance of the lost Franklin expedition
For me it was a mass disaster problem, and it always has been. I have some knowledge of the history and prehistory of the North, but it’s really beyond my area of expertise. My interest in it was as a focal event, and whether anything we could find would be able to add to the ability to explain what caused the disaster. I sort of had a beginning and an end not to my interest in the Franklin expedition, but to any contribution that my colleagues and I could make. When our research was over, we moved on, and we didn’t dwell on continuing it; it was time to pass it on, and other people are still doing work on it today.
On feeling connected to his Franklin expedition work
I went along for a long period of time without being too involved or involved at all with what we had done in the 1980s. But I’ll get requests today for photographs on a regular basis. That shows me that people still recognize what we did 30 years ago, in one way or another.
On how he feels about what he and his team accomplished
You feel proud because with the technology that we had and the resources that we had, we did the right things. We brought a healthy skepticism to traditional views of the expedition, and people should have a healthy skepticism of what we found. That’s how you eventually get down to the facts.
On whether he ever gets tired of Franklin
To be honest, no. I might say that because I don’t want to talk about it at a particular time, but I can’t say I’m not enjoying talking about it right now, because I really am. But at the same time, I keep coming back to it and saying, ‘That’s what I did.’ But I’ve always thought the most important things that I’ve done are the things I did after the Franklin work. Franklin was important and rewarding, and it’s a treat to think and talk about it now, but I try not to define myself by it.