Taissumani, May 5
Jacko – Sir John Franklin’s monkey
The fate of the lost Franklin expedition is a perennial winner among subjects that succeed in rousing an interest in the Arctic among average citizens of more southerly lands.
Thus, a current exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History, Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition, curated by Karen Ryan, draws impressive crowds, as did a similar exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England last fall and winter.
At the same time, The Terror, an AMC cable television series on the expedition, presents a fictional version of the story and is based on Dan Simmons’s 2007 novel of the same name.
The loss of the vessels Erebus and Terror and the lives of all the officers and crew is a tragic story, out there for over a century and a half, and slowly becoming more well-known. I don’t intend to revisit their stories in this article.
Rather, I want to go down a seldom-trod byway—peripheral to the main story and tangentially touched-upon in the exhibition and the film—and talk about a monkey.
Before the ships left England to meet their destiny in the ice-choked Northwest Passage, Lady Franklin, whose husband was in command of the expedition, gave her husband a few gifts, among them a dog Neptune, and a monkey named Jacko. An unnamed cat may also have been her gift.
It was not unusual for expedition ships to carry pets—cats seem to have been the most common— and monkeys were often carried. Indeed, they were often named Jacko, perhaps because Queen Victoria had a pet monkey with that name.
Little is known about Franklin’s Jacko, but she—for we do know that the monkey was female—does show up briefly in a few accounts, although many of them refer to her erroneously as “he.”
One reference comes from a letter sent back to England from Disko Bay in Greenland, before the vessels continued north. It was written by Capt. James Fitzjames on June 24, 1845.
In it we learn that the sailors made Jacko a pair of pants and a dress. Fitzjames wrote, from the waters of Davis Strait: “The monkey has, however, just put on a blanket, frock, and trowsers, which the sailors have made him (or rather her), so I suppose it is getting cold.”
One week later, Lt. James Fairholme wrote a letter to his father, which he also sent home from Disko Bay. He tells, “The Monkey continues to be the annoyance and pest of the whole ship, and yet not a person here would hurt her for the whole world.”
Fairholme also wrote that the doctor joked that “Jacko is in a rapid consumption.” Ships’ doctors always worried about tuberculosis, then known as consumption, on board, but this reference was, truly, a play on words, for Fairholme followed it with: “he certainly has a very bad cough, but the only other symptom I see of it, is the rapid consumption of everything eatable he can lay his paws on.”
That’s pretty much all we know about Jacko. Other than speculation.
In 2017, Andrés Paredes, an avid Franklin researcher and blogger, posted a bizarre item, Jacko Killed Them All; in it he speculated that Jacko could have been the unwitting host of a “mortal disease” which caused some of the casualties the expedition suffered.
If Jacko were a green monkey from Senegal, he speculated, she could have carried Marburg disease, a disease related to Ebola; it is easily transmitted to humans and can cause fever, rash, diarrhea, vomiting and gastrointestinal bleeding. It often results in death.
We will never know if Jacko ultimately ended up in the stew-pot, but it is certainly possible—if she survived long enough, she would have been travelling with starving men.
Andrés concluded, “Surely we will never know if poor Jacko had something to do with the tragedy, or if on the contrary he cheered up the survivors in their camps … during the long and boring nights of winter, or if he ended … as the main course at a special dinner for Christmas.”
The fate of Jacko remains unknown, as do the final days of many of the men who perished. But perhaps modern-day archaeologists, searching King William Island and neighbouring lands, should be on the lookout for an undersized skeleton or a collection of unusual small bones.
Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik, the New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.