Of the many Victorian and Edwardian voyages of discovery, the two that became the most amazing stories of human survival against the cruel elements have to be Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition of 1914, and Sir John Franklin’s attempt to map the Northwest Passage of 1845-48. But no two heroic voyages have ever had such disparate outcomes. Even though both voyages failed their intended missions, all but one of Shackleton’s men survived an island stranding, thanks to careful selection, unparalleled leadership and Shackleton’s own almost otherworldly seamanship. And, perhaps, Divine Providence or a series of unimaginably lucky breaks. On the other hand, Franklin’s expedition sailed off into oblivion. The entire expedition — 129 officers and men on two well-found and well-preparedships — simply vanished for many years. Gradually, discoveries made it clear that the men had all perished in the long nights of the inhospitable Canadian Arctic winter. (A few may have survived into May).
Sir John was a veteran of high latitude operations, and his two sturdy ships had been rebuilt for Antarctic service (and gave their names to two mighty mountains there — HMS Erebus and HMS Terror). They had originally been built as “bomb ships,” vessels which carried a pair of huge mortars for shore bombardment; Terror, the older of the two ships, bombarded Stonington, Connecticut and Fort McHenry at Baltimore in the War of 1812. It was customary for “bomb ships” to be named after fear-inspiring things, including volcanoes and monsters or bad areas from mythology (“Erebus: was a region of Greek Hades). When they were rebuilt for high-latitude exploration, the ships were stripped of their mortars and they sailed first to Antarctica under the command of James Clark Ross of Ross Ice Shelf fame. They were rebuilt again before going to seek the Northwest Passage with Franklin, with steam engines, screw propellers, and iron-reinforced prows fitted for limited ice-breaking. The ships were last reported to have been seen by Inuit natives in early 1847, frozen tight in pack ice.
Beginning with their preparation for Ross’s southern journey, these wooden ships got the best of 19th Century Admiralty high-tech (from Cool Antarctica.com):
In preparation for the voyage, the admiralty dockyards doubled the thickness of the ships decks with a layer of waterproof cloth being sandwiched in between the old and new layers. The interiors of the two ships were braced fore and aft with oak beams to resist and absorb shock from ice. The hulls were scraped clean and double planked and finally the keels were sheathed in extra thick copper plate. Triple strength canvas was fitted for the sails.
They ships had sail power only for the Antarctic expedition, but were fitted out with single screw propellers powered by 20hp engines for the Northwest Passage voyage.
Many expeditions were dispatched in search of Sir John and his men, but they found only scattered artifacts, and not many of those. Some crewmen were found on King William’s Land (seen below in a scan by Philip V. Allingham at Victorian Web) — rather than pull their boats toward the water, freedom, and possible rescue, they’d gone inexplicably inland.
For over 100 years the Arctic kept its secrets. Then, in the 1980s, three crewmen were found, carefully buried six feet deep on Beechey Island. The bodies were perfectly preserved in permafrost, which allowed them to be examined in the interests of science. Discovery: their bones had staggering levels of lead, reinforcing the suspicion that what had killed the explorers was not just the inhospitable conditions in the Far North, but also the use of then-novel canned food — in cans held together with toxic lead solder. A can found intact from one of the attempted rescue operations showed toxic levels of lead in the soup and in the can itself. (More recent research argues that the lead in the deceased’s bodies might have come from pre-expeditionary ingestion, for example from living in a city with lead water pipes, common in the 19th Century).
Meanwhile, the expeditions which hadn’t found Sir John had done something worthwhile that might not have been done for many scores of years — mapped the Canadian Arctic. In the end, the Northwest Passage that Franklin sought proved to be a will-o-the-wisp; while exploring ships can occasionally get through in summer, it will never work as an economical trading route.
This left the final mysteries of the Franklin expedition as the last resting places of its leader, his men, and his ships. With the expedition capturing the imagination of many explorers and playing an important role in the folklore of both the Royal Navy (their worst peacetime disaster) and the nation of Canada, there was no lack of modern explorers.
Canadian PM Steven Harper wanted any discoveries to come from a Canadian expedition as a matter of Canadian pride, and his government has sponsored several attempts to find Franklin or his ships. This week they announced proudly that one of the ships — which one is still unknown — was found, resting in shallow water. Here’s a sonar image:
A remote operated vehicle (ROV) returned images and video of the vessel in close-up, showing that the hull has been ravaged by marine life and a brisk tide or current. A few artifacts, including two small signal cannon, are visible in the imagery.
As the ships were abandoned by the crews, the issues that come with respecting sea graves probably don’t enter into the exploration plans here — and exploration plans are definitely being made. For one thing, while the wreck appears certain to have been one of the expedition’s ships, the specific identity of the wreck (Erebus or Terror) is not confirmed; for another, the second ship remains unlocated. And finally, the ships are likely to contain a great deal of information about the expedition and about the vessels themselves. (For example, no clear plan of Erebus or Terror survives, although supposedly enough is known of their differing steam installations to make it clear which one is which, under examination).
Harper, whose government has supported the Franklin search, is well pleased, and scientists are excited about a return to the site — possibly in force next year, but some divers will go down before this season ends.
As early as Saturday, Parks Canada’s underwater archaeologists will descend to the wreck, which lies in 11 metres of water, bringing high-definition video equipment to document their exploration.
The search team is prepared for the possibility it may find human remains, a development that would change how it explores the centuries-old vessel. Inuit accounts from the 19th century mention spotting the body of a white man in a ship adrift near O’Reilly Island.
“We are going to approach it as a site that may be a burial,” Marc-Andre Bernier, chief of the underwater archeology team at Parks Canada, told reporters Wednesday.
Canada has promised the UK that, if remains are found, they won’t be disturbed except inasmuch as necessary. Britain has given up any claim to artifacts from the expedition, except for a reputed stash of gold, and any “artifacts deemed important to the RN.” Hey, at the rate they’re going, they may need those cannon.
In a touch of irony, the ship was only found because the intended search area was closed to the searchers — by pack ice, the very killer of Franklin and his men.
Antarctica Fact File. Erebus and Terror, the Antarctic Expedition 1839-1843, James Clark Ross. Cool Antarctica, n.d. Note that this contains at least two glaring errors, “Terror saw service in 1812 in the Crimea,” Right year, wrong war. And “20 hp engines” when Bourne, a more credible source, says 30. Despite that, some good technical data on the ships on their previous voyage of exploration.
Antarctica Fact File. Erebus and Terror, Ships of the Antarctic Explorers. John Franklin, Northwest Passage. Cool Antarctica, n.d.
Bourne, John. A treatise on the screw propeller: with various suggestions of improvement. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1852. (This is the source of the ship-engine table above).
Cassidy, Kathryn. The Franklin Expedition: 1845-1849. Victorian Web: 27 March 2002. A general overview.
Chase, Steven. Long-lost Franklin ship found in Arctic, solving 169-year-old mystery. The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 9 Sep 2014. Reveals and discusses the find.
Chase, Steven. Fate of Franklin’s ship and gold will be decided by 1997 Canada-U.K. deal. The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 10 Sep 2014. Exploration plans.
McGoohan, Ken. The Franklin discovery’s not about what, but where. The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 10 Sep 2014. Author of books on polar exploration discusses what the location of the find means, in terms of revising the known history of the expedition (which he considers long-settled, in its fundamentals).
Spears, Tom. Franklin expedition discovery solves one of Canada’s great mysteries. Sasakatoon, Sask.: The Star-Phoenix, 11 Sep 2014. (This story was used in writing the post. It was inadvertently left off the original Sources list).
Uncredited. The 2014 Search for the Lost Franklin Expedition. Parks Canada, 2014. This is the source of the sidescan sonar images.