It is the central, most eyecatching feature
of the modern Oval Office. But for over a year, abandoned by a captain said to be harsh and venereal, it drifted slowly, its huge frame creaking, locked in ice, in the land of endless night.
In 1845, famed explorer Sir John Franklin
set out in the Terror and Erebus to discover the Northwest Passage
, thought to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by a water route above Canada.
Last seen by a whaling ship in Baffin Bay
, the Franklin expedition disappeared into the Arctic wilderness.
Years passed and, despite the ample stores the expedition had laid in, concern grew. The British Admiralty launched a rescue mission in 1852, led by Captain Belcher
, aboard the Resolute, Pioneer, Assistance, North Star and Intrepid.
Captain Belcher, a scientist
, circumnavigator, war hero
, venereal wife-suer
, and controversially well-loved
explorer, bottled some beer for this cruise which resulted in the biggest and most expensive ebay mistake ever made
But back to the expedition. Belcher spent a year searching in vain for Franklin, but then ran across and rescued the bedraggled crew of the Investigator, another exploration ship which had become precariously locked in ice:
"[Investigator's Captain] McClure was walking on the ice with an officer, close to the ship, "[w]hen within about two hundred yards of us, this strange figure threw up his arms, and made gesticulations ressembling those used by Esquimaux, besides shouting, at the top of his voice, words which, from the wind and intense excitement of the moment, sounded like a wild screech; and this brought us both fairly to a stand-still. The stranger came quietly on, and we saw that his face was black as ebony, and really at the moment we might be pardoned for wondering whether he was a denizen of this or the other world, [...] as it was, we gallantly stood our ground, and had the skies fallen upon us, we could hardly have been more astonished than when the dark faced stranger called out, 'I'm Lieutenant Pim, late of the "Herald", and now in the "Resolute". Captain Kellett is in her at Dealy
The Investigator had left from the Pacific Ocean and been discovered by a ship from the Atlantic Ocean -- as tenuous and untraceable as it was, the Northwest Passage had been proven.
Abandoning the trapped Investigator, Belcher's squadron searched further for Franklin only to get locked into the ice as winter came. The squadron weathered a year in the ice -- a time of unbelievable hardship. The accounts of some Dutch explorers in the same situation during the same time period:
Here [Captain Barentz] became, in spite of his utmost efforts, gradually frozen up, and saw before him no alternative but that of passing the winter in that desolate region. Happily an abundance of driftwood supplied him with the means of building a house, and with the necessary fuel. The task of erecting a shelter was not, however, accomplished without immense labour, aggravated by the loss of the carpenter, who died at this critical moment. The party were attacked by the bears, who actually scaled the ship's side and compelled them to a close fight for their lives. They completed their hut by the middle of October; and then, provisions falling short, had to put themselves on allowance. The cold which soon after set in terrified even more than tortured them -- the ice was two inches thick on the walls and on the sides of their sleeping cots; and their clothes were white with frost as they sat by the fire, burning holes in their stockings without warming their feet. For three whole months they saw no sun; but their courage never flagged, and they made merry on Twelfth-night, as they would have done in their own country. When the spring at length came, and they looked for the means of return, they found their vessel was so jammed in by drift-ice that her escape was hopeless, and they were obliged to attempt a voyage of two thousand miles in the two open boats which offered their only chance. On the fourth day of the voyage the boats were too much injured to proceed, and had to be drawn up on a floating piece of ice for repair. Here, on this ice-raft poor Barentz breathed his last. He died calmly and bravely, with a chart of those perilous seas spread out before him, and his last words were directions as to the course which his companions had to steer. By the end of August the wreck of his party arrived at Kola, where they found their old comrade Ryp, who conveyed them to Amsterdam.
Belcher's situation was equally grave, and it must have been a shocking moment when the Breadalbane, a supply ship sent to provide more stores, arrived at his squadron only to be caught up between two ice sheets, crushed and sunk in the span of less than 15 minutes
-- becoming the farthest-north known shipwreck.
After a tense argument with his captains, none of whom wanted to leave their otherwise-seaworthy vessels locked in the ice, Belcher resolved to abandon the four ice-locked ships and return to England post-haste.
Captain Kellett demanded and received clear written instructions that he was to abandon ship. Later, when Captain Belcher and his command were court-martialed for destroying British property, Kellett was acquitted and returned his sword with congratulations and acclamation
-- but Belcher was returned his sword silently, with the implied censure of the Admiralty for losing valuable British property.
A year after abandoning the ships, an American whaler made a strange discovery.
The whaler, George Henry, Captain Buddington, hailing from New London, Connecticut, was beset by ice in Baffin Bay. On looking through his glass one morning, Captain Buddington saw a large ship fifteen or twenty miles away, working her way slowly toward him. For several days he watched her gradually approach, and on the seventh day, the mate, Mr. Quail, and three men were sent out to find out what she was.
After a hard day's journey over the ice, -- jumping from piece to piece, and pushing themselves along on isolated cakes, they were near enough to see that she was lying on her larboard side, firmly imbedded in the ice. They shouted lustily as soon as they got within hailing distance; but there was no answer. Not a soul was to be seen. For one moment, as they came alongside, the men faltered, with a superstitious feeling, and hesitated to go on board. A moment after, they had climbed over the broken ice, and stood on deck. Everything was stowed away in order -- spars hauled up and lashed to one side, boats piled together, hatches calked down. Over the helm, in letters of brass, was inscribed the motto, 'England expects every man to do his duty.' But there was no man to heed the warning.
The whalemen broke open the companionway, and descended into the cabin. All was silence and darkness. Groping their way to the table, they found matches and candles, and struck a light. There were decanters and glasses on the table, chairs and lounges standing around, books scattered about -- everything just as it had been last used. Looking curiously from one thing to another, wondering what this deserted ship might be, at last they came upon the log-book. It was indorsed, "Bark Resolute, 1st September 1853, to April, 1854."
Among other items they found -- tin playing cards, fashioned from cans, waiting for someone to finish the game.
The whalers repaired the still-seaworthy boat and a few arduous months later brought it back to Connecticut.
At this time America and Britain -- still licking their wounds from the wars -- had an uneasy peace. The British public was outraged that an American whaler could accomplish what their own captain couldn't, and the American public was overjoyed to take a British prize. In order to quell the popular feeling, Queen Victoria released all claim to the Resolute; and in turn, the American Congress purchased it from the whaler, had it refit it to perfection, and returned it to
the Queen as a token of goodwill.
The HMS Resolute never served again, and was broken up in 1878. But that wasn't the end of it.
Queen Victoria had the best timbers of the ship saved, and worked by master naval craftsman William Evenden into three desks -- one for the widow Franklin, one for Captain Buddington, and the largest -- and most famous -- for President Rutherford B. Hayes.
The Resolute Desk, intricately carved, was discovered by Jackie Kennedy in the Treaty Room of the White House and moved into the Oval Office. Various presidents had it slightly modified -- FDR had the desk raised to accommodate his wheelchair and a panel built in the front, and Reagan had it raised slightly.
A picture, famous at the time, shows JFK Jr. peeking out through the panel while his father works.
And, at least today, President Obama uses the desk as well. In this now-famous picture
you can just barely see the commemorative plaque built into the front of the desk, which reads:
H.M.S. "RESOLUTE" Forming part of the expedition sent in search of SIR JOHN FRANKLIN IN 1852, was abandoned in latitude 75 41' N. Longitude 101"22' W. on 15th May 1854. She was discovered and extricated in September 1855, in latitude 67 N. by Captain Buddington of the United States whaler "George Henry." The ship was purchased, fitted out and sent to England, as a gift to her Majesty Queen Victoria by the President and People of the United States, as a token of goodwill & friendship. This table was made from her timbers when she was broken up, and is presented by the QUEEN of GREAT BRITAIN & IRELAND TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, as a memorial of the courtesy and loving Kindness which dictated the offer of the gift of the "RESOLUTE."
As for Sir John Franklin, the explorer for whom the Belcher expedition had been searching? John Rae, an Arctic explorer with beautiful handwriting
, ran across some Inuit hunters who spoke of trading with a crew of shipwrecked white men, showing artifacts of the expedition
, and concluded:
From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative resource — cannibalism — as means of prolonging existence.
Lady Franklin went to her grave angrily fighting that notion; she is still famous today as the subject of 'Lady Franklin's Lament', a popular tune covered by artists including Sinead O'Connor.
Ironically, at the height of the Cold War in 1953, in order to help assert territorial claims, the Canadian government forcibly relocated many Inuit families from Northern Quebec to an airfield that had been established in 1947
...named Resolute, Nunavut
after HMS Resolute. The Inuit were very much out of their element, not being used to the wildlife, having no shelter, and having to deal with weeks of endless night and endless day. Nevertheless, like so many people over history warring with the elements in the most inhospitable of places, they perservered
. Resolutely, one might say.