The Franklin's Expedition

Sir John Franklin set off in charge of a British Navy expedition in 1845 to chart the North American Arctic and the route of the fabled Northwest Passage. In July of that year the two ships of the expedition were seen by whalers in Baffin Bay, at the gateway to the Northwest Passage. After that they were never seen by Europeans again. In the years that followed, the fate of Franklin’s expedition became one of the great mass-media stories of its day, with a rapt public breathlessly following every new development and a stream of search expeditions flooding the Arctic in search of the missing men and ships. At least 40 expeditions have been launched over the 160 years since Franklin disappeared.

Sir John Franklin
Franklin’s expedition was conceived as part of a programme of journeys of exploration undertaken by the Royal Navy, partly as a means of occupying their men and officers during peacetime and partly as a reflection of Victorian hubris, which saw the British Empire attempting to project the might of its technology, derring-do and pure British spunk to the farthest recesses of the globe. In particular, Franklin’s expedition was part of an ongoing quest to open up the Northwest Passage, the fabled route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across the top of the North American continent, which, it was hoped, would dramatically reduce transit times between Europe and the Far East by obviating the need to navigate the Cape of Good Hope (at the southern tip of Africa) or Cape Horn (at the southern tip of South America). Even today, with the Suez and Panama canals, the Northwest Passage would be the preferred route for much of the world’s maritime traffic.

The two ships were named Erebus and Terror, and, with a combined crew of 129, they sailed on 19 May 1845. The hulls of the ships were strengthened and armoured and they were fitted with central heating, screw propulsion and other cutting edge technology. In preparation for a long trip, the ships were supplied with everything from an extensive library and personalised tableware for the officers to three years of supplies, including quantities of tinned food (at this time still something of an untried novelty).

On July 26 they encountered the two whalers in Baffin Bay, and then sailed into the channels and straits of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It was later discovered that they spent the winter of 1845–46 camped on Beechey Island, and were then able to make it as far as the north-western tip of King William Island, which is just off the Canadian mainland in what is now the Nunavut Territory. But the weather was against them and by September 1846 they were again trapped by sea ice in a gelid grip that would not relent for almost two years. What followed was only pieced together from the clues and rumours brought back by the search expeditions.

The first search party set off in 1848 and searches involving teams from Canada, the UK, and the US have continued ever since. When two years had gone by without word from the Franklin expedition, the Navy and the government launched the first of a series of what were, initially, rescue missions, but later were sent simply to solve the mystery of the utter disappearance of the two ships and 129 men. Despite mapping much of the convoluted coastline of the region, the first 14 expeditions discovered only one trace of the Franklin party – their overwinter camp on Beechey Island, about a third of the way into the Northwest Passage, together with the graves of three crew members who had died of tuberculosis.

Not until 1854 did the first clues to the expedition’s fate become clear. Dr John Rae, a surveyor for the Hudson’s Bay Company, spoke to the Inuit, who reported encounters near King William Island four years previously, between Inuit and a party of 40 white men who were in a desperate state. There was no translator and the white men could only signal their intention to head south. Suffering a time of famine themselves, the Inuit were not able to offer any help and the two groups went their separate ways. Later the bodies of another group of white men were found by the Inuit near the mouth of a large river,with signs that they had been reduced to cannibalism.When Rae let it be known he was offering a reward for any material evidence to back up these tales he was able to obtain many artifacts that were obviously from the ships and crew, which the Inuit had salvaged.

Lady Jane Franklin (Franklin's wife), raised enough money to finance a new expedition to follow up this new information from Rae and in 1859, Leopold McClintock in command of the Fox had managed to reach King William Island. The McClintock expedition uncovered the evidence that, for the Victorian public, appeared to solve the mystery. On King William Island they found a cairn containing a brief note. Scribbled on a standard-issue Navy form, it had two parts:

  • The first, dated 28 May 1847, recorded the ships’ movements from 1845, including the winter camp at Beechey Island, their current location and some subsequent land explorations, and insisted, ‘ALL WELL’.
  • The second part, dated 25 April 1848, was far grimmer. It recorded that the two ships had been abandoned after again ‘having been beset’ with ice, that nine officers and 15 other men had died, including Franklin himself, who had passed away on 11 June 1847, and that the surviving men were now striking out for Back’s Fish River to the south (presumably with the intention of making their way up the river to outposts of the Hudson’s Bay Company).

Investigating further, McClintock came across a trail of death – corpses, scattered equipment and one of the ship’s boats, converted into a sled but then abandoned. It was laden with a bizarre range of equipment, including silver teaspoons, carpet slippers, a copy of the novel The Vicar of Wakefield, and unopened tins of meat.

In 1981, a team of scientists led by Owen Beattie, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, began a series of scientific studies of the graves, bodies, and other physical evidence left by Franklin crew members on Beechey Island and King William Island. They concluded that the crew members whose graves had been found on Beechey Island most likely died of pneumonia and perhaps tuberculosis and that lead poisoning may have worsened their health, owing to badly soldered cans held in the ships' food stores.

However, it was later suggested that the source of this lead may not have been tinned food, but the distilled water systems fitted to the expedition’s ships. Cut marks on human bones found on King William Island were seen as signs of cannibalism. The combined evidence of all studies suggested that hypothermia, starvation, lead poisoning and disease including scurvy, along with general exposure to a hostile environment whilst lacking adequate clothing and nutrition, killed everyone on the expedition in the years following its last sighting by Europeans in 1845.

The expedition to the Utjulik area, in 2004, concluded that only direct sonar scanning of the seabed could identify the possible wreck, and only a small percentage of the target areas identified from the Inuit accounts has yet been imaged in this time-consuming and labour-intensive fashion.

Last week (BBC, September 2011), representatives from Parks Canada announced the results from their search this summer, which proved unsuccessful. "The extraordinary thing is that despite all this effort, after 160 years and by thousands of people, we still don't know where the ships are, and what happened on the expedition, or what happened to most of the men," says William Battersby, who wrote the biography of James Fitzjames, the captain of the Erebus.

The expedition has become one of the most important episodes in Canadian and Arctic history, with the allure of a historical mystery and the drama of personal tragedy. The ships themselves would have genuine archaeological significance, as there are no extant bomb ships, let alone ones with special adaptations representing the height of mid-19th-century technology. As for the missing records, they are the Holy Grail of Franklin enthusiasts. Indeed, according to Franklin-scholar Russell Potter, ‘Of all the dreamed-for documents in all the unsolved mysteries of modern times, none matches the drawing power of these elusive Franklin papers.’ It is hoped that they may be aboard the sunken ships, so that finding one will lead to the other.

To the Victorians the story now seemed relatively clear and solved. Trapped by unrelenting ice and with provisions running low and men dying, the crew had bravely decided to try their chances on land. However, many mysteries remained. Why had the men abandoned their ships to attempt the suicidal overland trip via Back’s Fish River, which would have meant a 1,200-kilometre (746-mile) trek over falls and rapids? Why had they filled their makeshift sled with useless and heavy equipment?

The community of Franklin scholars continues to hope that the wreck of the Erebus or Terror will be located and explored, perhaps to reveal one of the expedition logs that could finally explain the full story of the various abandonments, reoccupations, desperate land treks and tragic deaths. Perhaps it would even reveal where Franklin himself was buried. But finding it will not be easy.

Lost Histories: “Exploring the World’s Most Famous Mysteries” by Joel Levy;;

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1 comment

Rational νεόφυτος said...

You know, from the onset, when I read that this was about exploring the Arctic, I knew the story wouldn't turn out well. Brrrr....

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